Cardin Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Legislation Approved by Senate Foreign Relations CommitteeWednesday, June 23, 2021
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) lauded approval today by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of two bills he authored to strengthen U.S. human rights and anti-corruption efforts. Both pieces of legislation, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93), cosponsored by Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and the Combating Global Corruption Act (S. 14), cosponsored by Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.), bolster the tools available to hold corrupt officials accountable for their actions and abuses. “The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act has changed the way America protects human rights and responds to blatant corruption,” said Senator Cardin. “I thank Senator Wicker and fellow committee members for working with me to strengthen the law as a message to abusers and kleptocrats who think they can act with impunity. We will seek justice for victims especially when home countries fail to act.” Senator Cardin serves as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Senator Wicker serves as co-Chair. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93) would harmonize the original Act (Title XII, Subtitle F of P.L. 114-328; 22 U.S.C. §2656 note) with Executive Order 13818 by: Removing the sunset provisions of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to make the sanctions program permanent Removing the victim status requirement to ensure no victim is excluded; Simplifying the standard for corruption offenses; Supplementing the activity-based targeting standard with a status-based standard; and Allowing for the sanctioning of immediate family members. S. 93 calls for a report on the steps taken through diplomacy and assistance to foreign or security sectors to address persistent underlying causes of serious human rights abuses, violations of internationally recognized human rights, and corruption in each country in which foreign persons have been subject to sanctions. The Combating Global Corruption Act (S. 14) would require the State Department to identify corruption in countries and rank them in a public, tiered system with respect to levels of corruption in their governments, similar to the Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The bill would also establish minimum standards for combating corruption; evaluate foreign persons engaged in grand corruption in the lowest-tiered countries for consideration under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act; and designate an anti-corruption point of contact at U.S. diplomatic posts in the lowest-tiered countries. “Earlier this month, when President Biden officially designated the fight against corruption as a ‘core U.S. national security interest,’ he took an important step toward enhancing American anti-corruption abilities. The Combating Global Corruption Act is a bipartisan effort to raise the profile of such efforts through a proven system of public accountability,” said Senator Cardin. “Around the world, corruption endangers national and international security by fostering the conditions for violent extremism, hampering the ability of the United States to combat terrorism, entrenching high poverty, and by weakening institutions associated with governance and accountability. Corruption is a fundamental obstacle to peace, prosperity, and human rights. I thank Senator Young and my colleagues for moving forward this important legislation to combat such illicit activity.”
45th Anniversary of the U.S. Helsinki CommissionMonday, June 21, 2021
I take this time as the Chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, as we celebrate our 45th anniversary. The Helsinki Commission is the vehicle for U.S. participation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), representing 57 states that have come together under the OSCE, all the countries of Europe, all the countries of the former Soviet Union, including those located in Central Asia, the United States, and Canada. Mr. President, this is a unique body in that it represents both the executive and legislative branches of government. The executive branch has representatives on the Helsinki Commission, and both the House and Senate have Senators and Representatives that serve on the Helsinki Commission. I am very pleased to have as my co-leader Senator Wicker from Mississippi as the Republican leader in the Senate on the Helsinki Commission. The Helsinki Commission has been responsible for elevating our moral dimension to U.S. foreign policy. Its principles point out very clearly that you cannot have security without dealing with good governance and human rights; you cannot have economic progress unless you have governance that respects the rights of all its citizens. That is why I was so pleased when President Biden announced that his foreign policy would be value-based, that as we participate in our foreign policy challenges, it will always be wrapped in our values, and his recent trip to Europe underscored that important lesson. And then he issued, not two weeks ago, the statement that corruption is a core national security threat and that we have a responsibility to fight corruption in order to protect our national security. I am so pleased of the accomplishments of the Helsinki Commission, particularly from the human rights and human dimension. I go back to my early days in the House of Representatives, when the Soviet Union still existed and the challenges of Soviet Jews trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union. It was the Helsinki Commission that was one of the leading voices to help deal with Soviet Jews. I think about trafficking-in-persons, modern-day slavery, and the efforts that the United States did in leading that effort, including passing landmark legislation in trafficking in persons and establishing a rating system where every country in the world is rated on how well they are dealing with fighting trafficking. Now this has become the model, and so many countries have acted. It was the U.S. Helsinki Commission that led the effort for what Congress was able to pass and the international effort in order to fight trafficking-in-persons. I think about the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide, and recognize that it was the Helsinki Commission that pushed to hold those who were responsible for these atrocities accountable, particularly as it related to the Balkan conflict. Then I think about the landmark legislation that was passed in the Congress that deals with sanctions against human rights violators, first the Magnitsky sanctions and then the Global Magnitsky sanctions. It came out of hearings from the Helsinki Commission and legislation that we authored. It is not only the standard here in the United States. It has been adopted as the standard in Europe, in Canada, and in other countries, to make it clear that human rights violators will not be able to hide their illicit funds in our banking system or visit our country. Perhaps our strongest contribution is the oversight hearings that we hold. We also passed the Elie Wiesel Atrocities Prevention Act. But just last week we had a hearing in the Helsinki Commission on how we can prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place. So I am very proud of the accomplishments of the commission. Part of the responsibilities of every member state of the OSCE is that we have the right to challenge any State’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act Accords. So it is our responsibility to challenge when Russia violates those provisions or when we see violations in Turkey—any member State, we can challenge. But we also have to do our own self-evaluation. As Chairman of the commission, I have been using that opportunity to question conduct in our own country when it does not match the responsibilities that we should have. We saw that in the past in regard to the torture issues in Guantanamo Bay. My participation in the Helsinki Commission goes back to my early days in the House of Representatives and some of my proudest moments of representing our country on the international stage. Let me just give you a few examples. In February 1991, I joined a fact-finding mission to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. That is when the Soviet tanks were in Vilnius. That is when the Soviet Union was demonstrating oppression against the people of the Baltic States. It was a very sad moment of oppression, and we went there to stand up for the people of the region, to let them know that the United States never recognized the Soviet’s occupation of the Baltic States, and that we stood with the people and their independence. It was very interesting. We went from there to Moscow, and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t want to have anything to do with us. He wouldn’t have a meeting with us, and he wouldn’t acknowledge that we were there. But we had a meeting with Boris Yeltsin, who at that time was the chair of the parliament, and we got great visibility. And Yeltsin supported our efforts to condemn the Russian use of force. I have been to Germany several times. My first trip on behalf of the Helsinki Commission was when it was a divided country, and we went to East Berlin. We were the voices for those oppressed people whose voices could not otherwise be heard, and we gave them hope that one day they would see freedom. I then returned when we were literally taking down the Berlin Wall, and I joined in taking down part of the Berlin Wall. I have part of that as a prized possession in my home. I have returned to Germany as a united country and see what a democratic Germany means and the work of our commission to bring down the Iron Curtain. Germany is now a leading democratic state and a great ally of the United States. I have been to Kyiv, Ukraine, on several occasions. I was there during the Maidan protests, where the people demanded democracy. And then I had a chance to return and monitor the elections in Ukraine with Senator Portman—again, a country that has been able to rid itself of the oppression of the Soviet Union. I have been very active in the Helsinki Commission in regards to the Parliamentary Assembly. I chaired one of their three standing committees. I had a chance to become Vice-President at the Parliamentary Assembly. Today, I acknowledge Senator Wicker, who is Vice-President. It points out the bipartisan nature of the Helsinki Commission and our work on the international platform.
Sweden's Leadership of the OSCEFriday, June 11, 2021
In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde discussed Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and addressed current developments in the OSCE region. Related Information Witness Biography
Putting Kleptocracy in the CrosshairsThursday, June 10, 2021
At a virtual event on Thursday June 10, Congress launched the bipartisan Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. Helsinki Commission leadership, caucus founders, and a panel of civil society experts in anti-corruption and kleptocracy joined the launch event. The new caucus will focus on fighting kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit rule of law jurisdictions to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. In his opening remarks, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) congratulated the caucus founders in the U.S. House of Representatives for their leadership and expressed an intention to establish a comparable caucus in the Senate. “We can act as an independent branch in fighting corruption … giving the executive branch powers that it otherwise could not exercise on its own because of the challenges of diplomacy,” Cardin said. “We need to take advantage of that. This caucus will be the focal point for us in our strategies on how the legislative branch of government can continue to strengthen the tools that are available.” Caucus Co-Chair and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) emphasized the importance of advancing anti-corruption legislation and prioritizing it in U.S. foreign policy through the caucus. “The fight against corruption really offers the first opportunity in a generation to harmonize our domestic and foreign policy in service of American values,” Fitzpatrick said. “Congress has the ability and the obligation to inspire what they call ‘whole-of-government’ strategies to counter corruption abroad.” Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) praised President Biden’s recent designation of international corruption as a national security priority and announced that the caucus plans to introduce one anti-corruption bill a week over the month of June. Rep. Malinowski also condemned recent Kremlin activities against anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, including his January arrest and the designation of Navalny’s groups as extremist. Rep. Malinowski vowed to work toward sanctioning all 35 members of a Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation list that designates the most corrupt officials and oligarchs in Russia. Caucus Co-Chair Rep. John Curtis (UT-03) stressed the impact of corruption on climate change and noted that recent U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions have been undermined by foreign corruption, particularly related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Bill Keating (MA-09) discussed how the flow of dark money and the restriction of information are foundational to kleptocrats. He emphasized that the United States needs to leverage partnerships and alliances with other democratic nations to fight corruption. Panelists at the event included Frederik Obermaier, investigative journalist with Süddeutsche Zeitung and co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Data Collective; Nate Sibley, Kleptocracy Initiative research fellow at the Hudson Institute; Elaine Dezenski, senior advisor at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; and Gary Kalman, director of Transparency International United States. Obermaier praised the recent passage of the Corporate Transparency Act and called for further efforts to promote transparency, such as opening beneficial ownership registries to the public. “There are countless other Mossack Fonsecas [subject of the Panama Papers investigation] still out there,” Obermaier said. “It is financial service providers, consultancy firms, and law firms helping crooks and criminals, autocrats, and dictators to hide their money.” Sibley highlighted how Congress has acted historically to call out authoritarian abuses through anti-corruption efforts including the Corporate Transparency Act and the Magnitsky Act, along with upcoming legislation from the caucus. “I hope that parliamentarians in other countries are listening. But there is only one country that can lead the fight against rising authoritarian kleptocracy,” Sibley said. “This caucus will transform dangerous vulnerabilities into powerful leverage over authoritarian adversaries, create a more level playing field for American businesses operating overseas, and re-engage populations worldwide whose impoverishment at the hands of kleptocrats has made them disillusioned with America's promise of democracy.” Dezenski encouraged the caucus to strengthen commitments with allies to combat global corruption together. She also explained the impact of corruption on ordinary Americans—particularly on the middle class—and called for stronger, more creative structures for enforcing anti-corruption national laws and international frameworks. Kalman discussed future legislative efforts by the caucus, including the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, which would create an anti-corruption action fund; the Foreign Extortion Corruption Act, which would criminalize the demand side of bribery; and the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act (JVOK), which would shine a light on assets stolen from citizens by corrupt foreign officials seized by the United States. Related Information Witness Biographies Op-Ed: Corruption Is a National Security Threat. The CROOK Act Is a Smart Way to Fight It Press Release: Cardin, Wicker Introduce Bill to Counter Corruption and Promote Good Governance
Commissioners Blumenthal and Rubio Introduce Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act in SenateThursday, June 10, 2021
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), along with Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), yesterday introduced the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act of 2021. The legislation directs the Department of Justice to clearly list on a website the amount of money that has been stolen from citizens of kleptocratic regimes and recovered by U.S. law enforcement. This straightforward, low-cost measure would demonstrate America’s clear, bipartisan commitment to the rule of law around the world and send a powerful message to those suffering under kleptocracies that the United States stands on their side. The bill is the first in a series of legislation being introduced as part of Counter-Kleptocracy Month, an initiative of the new Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, and follows a memorandum by the Biden administration declaring corruption a core national security interest. The launch of the Counter-Kleptocracy Caucus will take place today at 4:00 p.m. "This bill is a step towards accountability and justice against corrupt authoritarian regimes,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “Around the world, oppressed citizens have been silenced as they live under the reign of brutal leaders, threatening their livelihood and survival. In giving a voice to the voiceless and exposing thievery from foreign corruption, the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act will reaffirm the United States as a champion for democracy and the rule of law." “I’m proud to join Senator Blumenthal in introducing this bipartisan and bicameral bill which will shine a light on the money stolen by corrupt regimes worldwide,” Sen. Rubio said. “From Maduro and Castro to Xi Jinping and Putin, this bill will facilitate accountability by exposing the illegal assets of foreign corrupt officials recovered by U.S. law enforcement.” “We must remember that the number one victims of the Putin regime are the Russian people. Corrupt officials raid pension funds and state coffers and then live the high life on their tax dollars. We see this pattern in every dictatorship,” said Rep. Malinowski. “In support of President Biden’s new anti-corruption plan, this bill will hold corrupt leaders like Putin accountable by making public exactly how much of their stolen money has been recovered by the United States and from whom it was stolen.” “The illegitimate ruler Nicolás Maduro violates the human rights and dignity of Venezuela’s citizens while enriching himself at the expense of his people, all while driving his nation into economic ruin with his disastrous policies. Similarly, Vladimir Putin suppresses those fighting for democracy while those in his inner circle are financially prospering by stealing from the Russian people,” said Rep. Curtis. “The Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act would shine a light on the extent of corruption against the people of Venezuela, Russia, and all those oppressed by corrupt authoritarians.” “Autocrats in Russia, North Korea, and across the globe cling to power through brute force and blatant theft,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03), an original cosponsor of the legislation. “It’s time that we shine a light on their shameless corruption and signal to dictators—and the world—that America is watching, and kleptocracy will not be tolerated. As a founding member of the Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, I am proud to support this important legislation, and I am confident it is only the first of many bipartisan initiatives to confront global corruption and combat authoritarianism in all of its forms.” “Whether it’s Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, or the Castro family in Cuba, brutal dictators across our hemisphere are lining their pockets while ruthlessly oppressing their people,” said Rep. Maria Salazar (FL-27), also a founding member of the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy and original cosponsor of the legislation. “I’m proud to join my colleagues in co-sponsoring the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act which will expose these regimes for the thieves that they really are.” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) is an original cosponsor of the Senate legislation. Other original cosponsors in the House include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Dan Crenshaw (TX-02), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-09), Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45), and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07).
Cardin, Wicker Slam Moscow Ruling That Designates Navalny Organizations as “Extremist”Thursday, June 10, 2021
WASHINGTON—In response to the recent ruling by a Moscow court designating organizations founded by Alexei Navalny as “extremist,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “We are disturbed by this blow against one of the last vestiges of Russian civil society. Alexei Navalny and his supporters—and seemingly any Russian who puts themselves at risk to expose the corruption of the Putin regime and oppose its cruel repressions—are not ‘extremists.’ They are true Russians who love their country and desire freedom and opportunity for their fellow citizens. No law can extinguish the bright hope of these people for a better future. “Even so, anyone who has had a close—or even tangential—relationship to Alexei Navalny, his now-disbanded organizations, or his initiatives is now in greater danger than ever. By taking these additional steps to eliminate his last remaining opposition, Vladimir Putin continues to distance his country from the rule of law and anything that might resemble a free and fair election process.” On June 9, the Moscow City Court ruled that Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional networks would henceforth be considered “extremist” organizations. Activists involved with the organizations could face significant prison terms, but penalties could apply to anyone who donated to them or even shared the groups’ materials on social media. Russian-language news outlets reporting on the subject are now required to mention this designation. On June 4, Vladimir Putin signed a law preventing members of organizations declared “extremist” or “terrorist” by Russian courts from running for office for up to five years. Russia’s parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in September 2021; presidential elections will follow in 2024. Alexei Navalny has been in prison since January 2021, when he returned from medical care in Germany where he was recuperating from being poisoned by a military-grade toxin administered to him in Russia. In December, 44 signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention, including the United States, Britain and every country of the European Union issued a joint statement calling on Russia to investigate the poisoning and cooperate with technical experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Helsinki Commission Leadership Joins Inter-Parliamentary Discussion on Human RightsMonday, June 07, 2021
On May 25, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee and European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights at the launch event for the EU - US Strategic Inter-Parliamentary Consultation on Human Rights. The inter-parliamentary discussion focused on global human rights sanctions regimes, values-based foreign policy, and opportunities for transatlantic cooperation. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) emphasized the impact of the Global Magnitsky Act in facilitating accountability by sanctioning the world’s worst human rights abusers, preventing them from entering the United States, and freezing their U.S. assets. Sen. Cardin congratulated the European Union for passing a global human rights sanctions regime and suggested two modifications: first, that sanctions target corruption, which tends to fuel human rights abuses; and second, that the European Union pursues individuals that materially assist human rights abusers, including lawyers, accountants, money launderers, and reputation launderers. Sen. Cardin also identified the need to consider diplomatic measures outside of sanctions, such as a mechanism to evaluate countries’ progress in combatting corruption, similar to the U.S. Trafficking in Persons regime. U.S. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09)—who also serves as chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties—advised that U.S.-EU cooperation will further strengthen the Magnitsky Act and the effectiveness of human rights sanction regimes. Cohen also emphasized the bipartisan support for human rights in the United States. Members of the European Parliament expressed optimism that increasing U.S.-EU coordination on human rights protections will strengthen overall impact. Rep. Bill Keating (MA-09) recognized that the democratic values shared between the United States and European Union can help fight rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding. Greens Member of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs and of the EP Subcommittee on Human Rights Jordi Solé (Spain) emphasized the importance of consistency in the U.S. and EU approach to promoting human rights in order to ensure the sanctions mechanism is credible and useful. He also raised the importance of examining the role of the private sector in supporting human rights. U.S. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) affirmed the importance of supporting emerging democracies and addressing corruption in private industry. Moore acknowledged the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and noted that the United States should not raise human rights concerns abroad in foreign policy without examining its own adherence to those principles. Rep. Gerry Connolly (VA-11), President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, suggested that NATO should actively prioritize democracy promotion, democratic values, and human rights. To close the discussion, Chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights Maria Arena (Belgium) and Rep. Moore highlighted possible initiatives for future U.S.-EU cooperation: coordinated response to human rights abuses in Belarus; cooperation with private industry to protect human rights; cooperation with Afghan NGOs and women’s associations as the U.S. military withdraws from the country; determination of parliamentary diplomacy’s role in addressing human rights abuses; and implementation of measures within the participating States to mitigate democratic backsliding in the West, which would include addressing systemic racism.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to Appear at Helsinki Commission Online HearingThursday, June 03, 2021
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: SWEDEN’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities for 2021 Friday, June 11, 2021 9:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Watch Live: https://www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde will discuss Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and address current developments in the OSCE region.
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The U.S. Midwest Is Foreign Oligarchs’ New PlaygroundThursday, June 03, 2021
Forget Manhattan or Monaco; it’s cities like Cleveland that are now attracting ill-gotten money from abroad. For many in the West, the notion of kleptocracy—of transnational money laundering tied to oligarchs and authoritarians bent on washing billions of dollars in dirty money—remains a foreign concept. It conjures images of oligarchs purchasing penthouses in Manhattan or regime insiders floating aboard yachts along the French Riviera or maybe even the children of despots racing luxury cars down the streets of Paris. With pockets bulging with billions of dollars in illicit wealth, it makes a certain sense why these kleptocrats would gravitate toward other deep-pocketed areas. But these kleptocrats are no longer just laundering and parking their dirty money in places like Miami, Malibu, and Monaco. Instead, they’ve begun targeting new areas for their laundering sprees, places few would suspect: from declining, second-tier cities like Cleveland, Ohio, to small factory and steel towns across the American Midwest. In so doing, these kleptocratic figures are no longer simply keeping luxury condos on standby or collecting fleets of private jets and high-end automobiles. Instead, they’re increasingly leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, demolishing the economies of working-class towns and leaving behind empty, sagging downtowns as relics of better times. Take, for instance, the ongoing story of Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky. Recently sanctioned by the United States for his rank corruption, Kolomoisky stands accused by Ukrainian and U.S. authorities of overseeing one of the greatest Ponzi schemes the world has ever seen. Running PrivatBank, one of Ukraine’s leading retail banks, for years, Kolomoisky crafted an image of a successful entrepreneur devoted to Ukraine’s growing middle class. However, not long after Ukraine’s successful anti-authoritarian revolution in 2014, Ukrainian authorities began poking around the ledgers of Kolomoisky’s bank. Their findings were staggering. Ukrainian investigators—led by Valeria Gontareva, then-reformist head of Ukraine’s banking governing body—discovered a $5.5-billion hole in the middle of PrivatBank’s books. The hole forced Kyiv to nationalize the bank, plugging an institution that was too big to fail and sending Kolomoisky on the run. When it came to Ukrainian banks transforming into money laundering machines, “PrivatBank wasn’t an exception,” Gontareva told Foreign Policy. “The problem was that it was the biggest one.” The immediate question was an obvious one: Where had the money gone? As journalists discovered, and as the U.S. Justice Department has alleged in a series of filings in recent months, Kolomoisky didn’t direct the missing billions of dollars into London flats or mansions on the Italian coastline. Instead, as U.S. and Ukrainian investigators discovered, Kolomoisky and a network of enablers plowed much of the money into commercial real estate in places like Cleveland and Louisville, Kentucky—and into small towns reliant on manufacturing plants and steel factories in Illinois, West Virginia, and Michigan. Rather than use the illicit money to play alongside the world’s elite, Kolomoisky and his network allegedly buried their money in the heart of Middle America, using a series of shell companies and cash purchases to obscure their trail. Why would a foreign oligarch decide to hide hundreds of millions of dollars (and potentially more) across overlooked pockets of the United States? Kolomoisky’s example offers three possible motivations. The first reason lies in the obscurity of smalls town like Warren, Ohio, and Harvard, Illinois. Few investigators, journalists, and authorities would have paid any attention to these purchases, let alone asked questions about the source of funds. Unlike places like Seattle, Dallas, or New York City, where the United States now effectively bars anonymous real estate purchases, much of the rest of the country remains perfectly open for the kinds of anonymous real estate purchases at the heart of kleptocratic networks. The second reason appears directly linked to the economic decline of many of these overlooked regions, especially following the Great Recession. For many of these assets, the only buyers are often kleptocrats with deep pockets. In Cleveland, for instance, Kolomoisky’s network of enablers swooped into town when no one else appeared interested, snapping up numerous massive downtown buildings in the post-2008 world. According to a local Cleveland journalist who requested to speak on background, Kolomoisky’s network simply “showed up in Cleveland and started buying when no one else was buying.” Eventually, the oligarch and his team became the biggest commercial real estate holders in the entire city. And that dynamic—with kleptocratic money the only game in town—meant those on the receiving end had no incentive to look this foreign gift horse in the mouth, even when the signs of money laundering were clear. And the ease of entering these markets meant Kolomoisky and his network could do whatever they wanted with these assets—even running them into the ground as they did time and again. Indeed, Kolomoisky never appeared interested in turning a profit for any of these U.S. assets but instead using them simply as something of a kleptocratic nest egg, far away from Ukrainian authorities. According to court documents, Kolomoisky used his U.S. investments simply as nodes in his laundering network, allowing them to slowly fall apart—but not before, in some cases, these assets’ slow-motion collapse sent Americans to the hospital with debilitating injuries. This happened time and again across the American Rust Belt and Midwest. The steel plant in Warren, now shuttered, looks like something out of a dystopian landscape, with cavernous holes gouged in the siding and walls covered in rust—and with all of its former employees now without jobs. A hulking manufacturing plant in the town of Harvard, Illinois—a plant that should have been the economic lifeblood for the town—has been left to rot, with the cash-strapped city left to pick up the tab. (“The building is f—ing cursed,” Michael Kelly, the town’s mayor, told us.) And rather than investments and the dreamed-of revitalization, Cleveland has been left with, as one local paper said, a “gaping hole” in its downtown, courtesy of the investments Kolomoisky and his network let effectively implode. As the local journalist familiar with the Kolomoisky-linked purchases added, “They pretty much ruined everything they touched.” Over and over again, Kolomoisky and his network allegedly turned to Middle America—overlooked towns, forgotten areas, regions that needed an economic lifeline, whatever the source—for their massive laundering needs. And in so doing, they revealed kleptocrats no longer simply turn to the coasts or the cultural capitals and beach-front areas traditionally associated with modern kleptocracy. Main Street America is now a target for this corrosive, kleptocratic capital, draining these areas of whatever hope or promise remained. “I like to use the analogy of—if you’ve ever lived out in the far West—a dry streambed,” said former FBI agent Karen Greenaway, who’d been involved in tracking transnational money laundering for years, in 2019 congressional testimony at the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. federal agency focusing on human rights and pro-democracy policies. “Dirty money is like a rainstorm coming into a dry streambed. It comes very quickly, and a lot of it comes very fast, and the stream fills up, and then it gets dry again.” Yet the sources of illicit wealth—those behind the dirty money flood—aren’t interested in turning their investments into productive, job-creating engines. “What we have is people who don’t live in the United States, who don’t have any intention of really investing in the United States, but they needed a place to put their money,” Greenaway continued. “I think it’s hurting small-town America. I just don’t think that we’ve come to that realization yet.” Thankfully, U.S. legislators are finally starting to propose solutions and beginning to center the kind of kleptocracy embodied by Kolomoisky at the heart of proposed reforms. Although the polarization of Congress is taken for granted these days, counter-kleptocracy efforts remain an important space where Democrats and Republicans continue to agree. As such, a bipartisan slate of legislators will be launching a “Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy” on June 10, seeking to advance solutions and educate other members on the corrosive effects of kleptocracy, especially as it pertains to its effects on mainstream Americans. The proposed solutions address three primary prongs of counter-kleptocracy efforts. The first of these proposals entails enhancing resiliency at home by building legal and financial systems more resistant to the taint of corruption. Congress took a significant step forward last year by banning anonymous shell company formations, long a favorite tool of kleptocrats moving their money around the West. But it hasn’t stopped there. Congress will soon be debating the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, a critical piece of legislation to counter authoritarian regimes increasingly reaching into democratic countries to target dissidents and journalists (such as what we recently saw out of Belarus). Kleptocratic regimes do this via things like Interpol, which is itself regularly abused by these governments and figures to harass and silence dissidents and critics, ensuring their stolen money remains hidden elsewhere. Among other things, this bill would effectively protect the U.S. judicial system from abuse by kleptocrats and would aid U.S. efforts to reform rule-of-law governance mechanisms within Interpol. The second prong of proposed reforms targets kleptocrats directly, including the use of sanctions, visa bans, intelligence networks, and law enforcement authorities to disable individual kleptocrats and ensure they cannot corrode democratic institutions. Congress took another step forward last year with the passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, a rare extraterritorial criminal statute that enables U.S. law enforcement to indict and pursue “doping fraud,” the use of doping regimes to defraud athletes, businesses, and states—a common tactic of authoritarian kleptocracies at international games. Congress is also now set to debate the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA). If passed, this bill would serve as a long-awaited complement to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Where the FCPA makes it illegal for a company to pay a bribe abroad, FEPA will make it a crime for a foreign official to demand a bribe. This creates liability for the kleptocrats who extort law-abiding companies. These kleptocrats can then be arrested and tried when they travel to the West to spend and launder their ill-gotten gains. Finally, the third prong centers on building the rule of law abroad, including emphasizing more targeted uses of foreign aid to fight corruption as well as working closely with allies to dismantle the broader offshore economy. For instance, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, recently introduced in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, would create an “anti-corruption action fund” that accumulates money via a surcharge on fines from the FCPA. These resources can then be surged into countries undergoing significant democratization movements and reforms (such as Ukraine following its successful 2014 revolution), providing increasing resources for investigators in recipient countries to track how these kleptocrats loot, launder, and stash their ill-gotten gains abroad—including in places like small-town America. A whole host of other ideas are under discussion in Congress, many of which will be spearheaded by the forthcoming “Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy.” And the ideas can’t come a moment too soon. As the case of Kolomoisky clearly illustrates, kleptocracy and the regimes that benefit are no longer things that simply happen abroad or in elite, coastal enclaves. Until these bills are passed and currently floated ideas are implemented, these kleptocrats will continue to assume they can target any U.S. state, city, or town they’d like—and that they can upend the lives of Americans regardless of profession or political leaning.
Helsinki Commission Commemorates 45 Years of Advancing Comprehensive Security in the OSCE RegionThursday, June 03, 2021
WASHINGTON—To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on June 3, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The Helsinki Commission has played a vital role in elevating the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy and prioritizing the protection of fundamental freedoms in our dealings with other nations,” said Chairman Cardin. “From fighting for fair treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, to developing landmark legislation to address human trafficking, to demanding sanctions on human rights violators and kleptocrats, and so much more, the commission consistently has broken new ground.” “For 45 years, the commission has flourished as a bipartisan and bicameral platform for collaboration within the federal government. Its purpose is not to support a specific party or administration, but instead to advance transatlantic cooperation, promote regional security and stability, and hold OSCE participating States accountable to their promises,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our commissioners’ united front against threats to democracy and human rights worldwide has become a pillar of U.S. international engagement.” “I am grateful to have experienced the crucial role played by U.S. engagement in the Helsinki Process, both as an election observer in Bulgaria in 1990, and later as a lawmaker and commissioner,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Helsinki Commission is unique in its ability to adapt to evolving global challenges. The defense of human rights and democracy looks different now than it did during the Cold War, but we continue to unite over the same resilient principles and commitment to fundamental freedoms.” On June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Commission into existence through Public Law 94-304 to encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—the founding document that lays out the ten principles guiding the inter-state relations among today’s OSCE participating States. The agreement created new opportunities to engage with European partners on human rights, cooperative security, economic opportunities, and territorial disputes, and the commission played an integral role in ensuring that human rights became a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Forty-five years after its founding, the Helsinki Commission continues to engage with participating States to confront severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms. Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has convened more than 500 public hearings and briefings. It regularly works with U.S. officials in the executive branch and Congress to draw attention to human rights and security challenges in participating States, including racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; corruption; human trafficking; and Russia’s persistent violations of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with Ukraine and other OSCE countries.
Congress to Launch Counter-Kleptocracy Caucus at June 10 EventWednesday, June 02, 2021
WASHINGTON—At a virtual kickoff event on June 10, Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Bill Keating (MA-09), and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) will launch the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) will welcome the formation of the caucus at the event. PUTTING KLEPTOCRACY IN THE CROSSHAIRS Launch of the Congressional Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy Thursday, June 10, 2021 4:00 p.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3uLlvXA The Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy will educate and mobilize Members of Congress on the cross-jurisdictional nature of foreign corruption and identify bipartisan opportunities to work together to curb kleptocracy. Opening remarks by members of Congress will be followed by a civil society panel. Participants include: Gary Kalman, Director of the U.S. Office, Transparency International USA Nate Sibley, Research Fellow, Kleptocracy Initiative, Hudson Institute Frederik Obermaier, Investigative Journalist, Süddeutsche Zeitung; Co-Founder, Anti-Corruption Data Collective Elaine Dezenski, Senior Advisor, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies “The fight against corruption needs to be seen as a national security priority of the highest order. The Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy will be the first institutionalized congressional body dedicated to information-sharing and to finding solutions to the problem of global corruption,” said Chairman Cardin, who, along with Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), recently introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act to upgrade America’s anti-corruption efforts. “This new caucus will elevate the problem of corruption so it can receive the high-level attention required to deter such corrosive activity.” “From Russia to China to Egypt and Venezuela, corruption is the essence of modern dictatorship, but also its biggest vulnerability,” said Rep. Malinowski. “The best way for the democratic world to win our struggle with authoritarianism is to deny these thieves who are looting their countries access to our financial systems and to stand with the victims of kleptocracy everywhere.” “Capitalism backed by the rule of law has been a key to the liberty and success of the United States and many of our allies. Global corruption—particularly that driven by the Chinese Communist Party—eats away at that rule of law and severely threatens liberty across the world,” said Rep. Curtis. “I look forward to working with colleagues on this caucus to explore and promote bipartisan efforts to combat authoritarian corruption across the globe.” “Russia and China seek to export strategic corruption and their brand of digital authoritarianism in an attempt to undermine the foundation of our democracy and that of our allies. Together my colleagues and I have recognized their malign tactics and are compelled to respond. For this reason, I am standing with my colleagues to launch this Caucus as an extension of the vital work I lead as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber to counter foreign corruption and kleptocracy,” said Rep. Keating. “The fight against corruption offers the first opportunity in a generation to harmonize our domestic and foreign policy in service of American values,” said Rep. Fitzpatrick. “I spent my career as an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation fighting corruption at home and overseas and now am honored to work on a bipartisan basis with my colleagues to do the same.” The new caucus will focus on fighting kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit rule of law jurisdictions to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Because the fight against foreign corruption spans several of committees of jurisdiction, the caucus will allow members and staff to share perspectives and coordinate efforts to confront the growing threat of foreign corruption. The caucus will hold periodic hearings, sponsor informal roundtables and staff briefings with leading experts, coordinate oversight letters and legislative initiatives, and facilitate information-sharing across committees. Other founding members of the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy include Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Sara Jacobs (CA-53), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03), Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45), Rep. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), Rep. Jack Bergman (MI-01), Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-03), Rep. Maria Salazar (FL-27), and Rep. Mike Waltz (FL-06).
Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman PratasevichMonday, May 24, 2021
WASHINGTON—Following Alexander Lukashenko’s order to divert and forcibly land a commercial plane in Minsk in order to arrest Belarusian activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and civil society activist Sofia Sapega, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioner Richard Hudson (NC-08) issued the following statements: “Dictators like Alexander Lukashenko increasingly seek to use extraterritorial surveillance, intimidation, harassment and even assassination against their political opponents,” said Chairman Cardin. “The kidnappings of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega from a commercial aircraft illegally forced by military aircraft to land in Minsk creates a precedent of terror that, if unchecked, could limit dissidents’ ability to travel freely. An international crime of this magnitude, engineered by the self-styled leader of Belarus, requires a strong international response, starting with Magnitsky sanctions on those involved.” “Lukashenko has already rigged elections, restricted freedoms, and repressed thousands of Belarusians. He has stooped to a new and alarming low by using military aircraft to force down a civilian airliner,” said Sen. Wicker. “He will only continue escalating his attempts to retain power unless he faces real consequences for his actions. We should develop a full-spectrum strategy against transnational repression to deter such brazen actions by dictators.” “The shocking abduction of Raman Pratasevich demonstrates that Alexander Lukashenko will do almost anything to silence perceived opposition,” said Rep. Wilson. “We demand that Lukashenko release all political prisoners without exception, and end his attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” “Holding civilian passengers hostage by creating a false threat and forcing a plane to land is an act of state terrorism,” said Rep. Hudson. “Unfortunately, we now have proof that Lukashenko’s dictatorship is a grave threat not only to Belarusians, but to the rest of the world. His regime should be treated as the rogue state that it is.” On May 23, a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius carrying over 120 passengers was notified of a bomb threat, met by a Belarusian military jet, and forced to land in Minsk. The bomb threat was false, and upon landing, Belarusian authorities detained journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying in law at the European Humanities University, which was forced out of Belarus in 2004 and has relocated to Vilnius. Each could face up to 15 years in prison. Pratasevich, who had been living abroad for his safety since 2019, is a co-founder of the NEXTA Live Telegram channel, which has extensively covered this past year’s protests in Belarus and serves as a coordination hub for opposition activity. Belarusian authorities declared NEXTA an “extremist” outlet in October 2020. On May 24, video footage of Pratasevich appeared on Telegram, in which he states that his health is fine, the authorities have treated him lawfully, and that he is cooperating with them in their investigation. The Belarusian KGB is known for producing such videos of forced confessions. Lukashenko has crushed independent media and jailed journalists, activists, and political opponents in unprecedented numbers since Belarus’ falsified presidential elections in August 2020.
Helsinki Commissioners Welcome Report on Governance of World Anti-Doping AgencyWednesday, May 19, 2021
WASHINGTON—Following the May 17 report of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) on World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) governance reforms, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) issued the following statements: “We must fight the influence of Russian corruption wherever we find it. The Russian doping scandal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics severely tainted international sport; seven years later, the Kremlin has paid no price,” said Chairman Cardin. “I welcome the Biden administration’s constructive approach to reforming international sport institutions and hope that the World Anti-Doping Agency will engage positively to eliminate conflicts of interest and protect itself from corruption. International sport should showcase the best of humanity’s accomplishments, not the worst of its faults.” “I commend the Biden administration for maintaining a bipartisan commitment to reform the World Anti-Doping Agency,” said Sen. Wicker. “Thanks to the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, the criminal networks behind doping finally will be held accountable, and whistleblowers who expose doping fraud will be protected. WADA should now follow suit. Athletes should have a real voice in the organization and help to bring an end to the deep-set conflicts of interest among those who run WADA.” “From state-sponsored doping programs like Putin’s to driven individual cheaters, there’s always someone trying to game the system. We need a powerful cop to enforce doping rules and safeguard the integrity of international sport, and this report shows how far WADA is from being that cop,” said Sen. Whitehouse. “The Department of Justice must be prepared to enforce the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, including levying stiff penalties on those engaging in doping fraud conspiracies. This is another battle in the war between scammers and kleptocrats and the rule of law; we cannot let those dark forces win.” The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act became law on December 4, 2020. It establishes criminal penalties for participating in a scheme in commerce to influence a major international sport competition through prohibited substances or methods; provides restitution to victims of such conspiracies; protects whistleblowers from retaliation; and establishes requirements to coordinate and share information with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The bill advanced through the legislative process entirely on consensus-based procedures, demonstrating the wide bipartisan support for the measure. The legislation also received overwhelming support from amateur and professional sport organizations, including the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council, the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and PGA TOUR. In April 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission released a podcast episode interviewing Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who exposed the 2014 Russian state-sponsored doping scandal, on the passage of the legislation that bears his name and his expectations for enforcement of the new extraterritorial criminal law.
in the news
The Fight Against Corruption Needs EconomistsMonday, May 17, 2021
Combating corruption and kleptocracy has traditionally been an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy: a goal that most policymakers considered laudable but hardly a priority. That attitude is no longer acceptable. In recent years, countries such as China and Russia have “weaponized” corruption, as Philip Zelikow, Eric Edelman, Kristofer Harrison, and Celeste Ward Gventer argued in these pages last year. For the ruling regimes in those countries, they wrote, bribery and graft have “become core instruments of national strategy” through which authoritarian rulers seek to exploit “the relative openness and freedom of democratic countries [that] make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of malign influence.” Strikingly, one particular form of financial aggression—covert foreign money funneled directly into the political processes of democracies—has increased by a factor of ten since 2014. Over roughly the same period of time, American voters have become highly receptive to narratives about corruption, and politicians across the ideological spectrum now routinely allege that the economy is rigged and deride their opponents as crooked and corrupt. Thus, the needs of U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics have neatly aligned to offer a historic opportunity for a sweeping anticorruption campaign that would institutionalize transparency, resilience, and accountability throughout the United States and in the international financial, diplomatic, and legal systems. President Joe Biden, his closest foreign policy advisers, and an increasingly active cohort of lawmakers are intent on carrying out precisely that kind of effort. But there is one big problem: leaders in the Treasury Department and some of the officials running international economic policy in the Biden administration are not fully on board. Their reluctance to focus on corruption could severely hinder the mission, because they control the most powerful tools that Washington can bring to the fight. Follow the Money No American political figure has done more to frame corruption as a national security issue than Biden. As vice president, he led the U.S. fight against graft abroad and publicly warned in 2015 that, for authoritarian states, “corruption is the new tool of foreign policy.” Writing as a presidential candidate in these pages, Biden promised to issue a policy directive enshrining anticorruption as a core national security interest and pledged to “lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system” and to “go after illicit tax havens.” Fighting corruption will be a major focus of the Summit for Democracy that Biden pledged to host in his first year in office. The foreign policy specialists who have spent years working with Biden are all in sync on this issue. In his first major speech as secretary of state, Antony Blinken prioritized fighting corruption in the contexts of both economic inclusivity and democratic renewal. Blinken has already bestowed honorary awards on anticorruption activists and banned the most powerful oligarch in Ukraine from entering the United States due to corruption; he is now considering naming an anticorruption special envoy. Samantha Power, who heads the United States Agency for International Development, recently wrote that fighting corruption is crucial to restoring U.S. leadership and pledged that doing so would be “a huge priority” at the agency under her leadership. In his first interview after being named the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan said that combating corruption and kleptocracy is one of his highest goals, and the administration’s interim national security strategic guidance mentions corruption half a dozen times. The leadership at the Treasury Department, however, does not seem nearly as focused on the issue, taking few specific steps to start fighting corruption in the first 100 days of the administration. Until recently, the word “corruption” never appeared in any Treasury speeches, tweets, readouts of calls with foreign officials, or press releases (except for mostly stock language in a few sanctions announcements). In late April, Treasury did release an expression of support for a British anticorruption initiative. But according to one administration official, the White House instructed Treasury to make that statement. When Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen separately addressed international standards against dirty money, rather than calling for a focus on corruption, she emphasized two other priorities: the role of virtual assets such as cryptocurrencies and the financing that enables the proliferation of weapons. At first, Yellen’s inattention to corruption seemed entirely understandable, because she was focused on the public health and economic crises caused by the pandemic. But when she laid out her international agenda in a February letter to the G-20 and in a major speech in April, she did not describe combating corruption and kleptocracy as a priority. Correcting these omissions in a clear and public way should be a top priority for Treasury’s second 100 days. Dirty Money, Dismal Science Mobilizing financial regulations and international diplomacy to wage war on corruption and kleptocracy might not come naturally to economists, even accomplished ones such as Yellen and her staffers, because economics has come to be seen as an academic discipline independent of the realities of state power. That is partly because, during the Cold War, Washington’s strategic goals and its economic interests generally converged: in an ideological competition against communism, the spread of free trade and free markets also naturally advanced the geopolitical campaign to win support for liberal democratic capitalism. Hence there was little need for American economists to pay close attention to strategic considerations, because there was not much tension between purely economic interests and U.S. grand strategy. Since then, however, the nature of authoritarian regimes has evolved, with strategic implications for U.S. policy. Instead of trying to win over the hearts and minds of the masses with communist ideology, the countries that threaten U.S. power today are organized as kleptocracies, stealing from their own people to buy the loyalty of cronies. They hide their ill-gotten gains in Western markets, which presents an Achilles’ heel if financial authorities can manage to find their dirty money. Unfortunately, this new reality has not yet been taken on board by most economists. In many cases, their views have been shaped by a neoliberal consensus that fails to account for the ways in which deregulation and globalization opened pathways to subvert American democracy and reinforce the power of kleptocracies. Meanwhile, policymakers hoping to shift away from neoliberal dogma have generally not included anticorruption as an element of economic policy. The Biden administration’s vision of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” for example, leaves out fighting corruption. Elsewhere, the administration has cast anticorruption efforts as part of its campaign to revitalize democracy rather than as part of its agenda to set international economic policies that can serve all Americans. And when Yellen has described the costs of corruption, she has focused on its negative effects on growth and poverty in other countries rather than the threat it poses to U.S. national security. All Aboard If Biden wants to make progress against corruption, he needs to push his Treasury Department to get with the program. A good first step would be to start preparing a National Corruption Risk Assessment that would expose the financial networks used by oligarchs and kleptocrats. Next month, the department will publish guidance for banks regarding anti–money laundering priorities, and it should use that occasion to emphasize the risks of corruption. And for a broader public audience, a top Treasury official should give a major speech launching a war on corruption, perhaps at the first-ever United Nations session dedicated to corruption, which is scheduled for early June. Treasury should also develop strong regulations for implementing a law that Congress enacted in January that outlaws anonymous shell companies. According to a number of anticorruption experts who maintain contacts in the administration and who have been imploring senior Treasury officials to prioritize this issue, the department was initially reluctant to designate a senior official to serve as a point person for these regulations. Eventually, public pressure from outside critics and private urging from security and economic officials in the White House led to an appointment. Citing funding constraints, however, Treasury has still not hired outside experts to advise it on enforcing the new law, such as civil society advocates who know which regulations to prioritize, what lobbying pushback to expect, and how to close loopholes through seemingly mundane steps such as updating standard forms. Fortunately, lawmakers are ramping up pressure on Treasury to get serious about prioritizing anticorruption. On May 3, Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat from New Jersey, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat from Rhode Island, wrote a letter to Yellen to “underscore the crucial role of Treasury in combatting international corruption and kleptocracy and to urge you to take early steps to confront this key national security threat.” Malinowski and Whitehouse argued that “the top policy priority in the fight against dirty money should now become the expansion of [anti–money laundering] obligations to cover financial facilitators and professional service providers that can enable corruption.” They recommended first regulating private equity firms and hedge funds before moving on to real estate companies, lawyers, accountants, and others who sometimes enable bribery and graft. They also suggested that Treasury should “lead a landmark international agreement to end offshore financial secrecy and illicit tax havens once and for all . . . backed up by concrete commitments around an array of reporting mechanisms.” Malinowski and Whitehouse also called on Yellen to develop a medium-term anti-kleptocracy plan and appoint anticorruption specialists at Treasury. Meanwhile, the Helsinki Commission—an interagency body created by Congress in 1975 to coordinate security policy with Europe—plans to launch a new “counter-kleptocracy caucus” in June to share perspectives and coordinate efforts across political parties and congressional committees. Congressional attention to this issue is good news. But to live up to Biden’s ambitious vision for fighting corruption, his entire administration needs to match Capitol Hill’s energy. And that means making sure that every department—including Treasury—devotes itself to the effort.
Wicker, Cardin Reintroduce Bill to Fight INTERPOL AbuseWednesday, May 12, 2021
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today reintroduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to counter the politically-motivated abuse of INTERPOL by authoritarian regimes. The bill would establish U.S. priorities for responding to INTERPOL abuse and promoting reform within INTERPOL, improve the U.S. response to fraudulent use of INTERPOL mechanisms, and protect the U.S. justice system from INTERPOL abuse. “Autocratic states like Russia and China for years have abused Red Notices from INTERPOL to punish their political enemies,” Sen. Wicker said. “The United States and other democracies should not have to remain complicit in this global assault on the rule of law. The TRAP Act would push for due process at INTERPOL and codify regulations that prevent American law enforcement from doing the dirty work of repressive autocrats.” “Autocrats increasingly seek to silence opposition beyond their borders—and INTERPOL has become one of their primary tools to harass and silence independent voices,” said Chairman Cardin. “The United States must ensure that dissidents and whistleblowers seeking refuge in the U.S. are beyond the reach of the authoritarian regimes that seek to punish them, even within the United States. The TRAP Act would be a major step forward in countering such authoritarian transnational repression.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. Original cosponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commission members Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL). Sen. Ed Markey (MA), Sen. Mike Rounds (ND), and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD) also are original cosponsors.
Cardin, Hudson Pledge Support to Ukraine in Bilateral Call Between OSCE PA DelegationsMonday, May 03, 2021
WASHINGTON—In response to increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) initiated an exceptional bilateral meeting with members of the Ukrainian Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) on April 30. Chairman Cardin, who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Assembly, and Rep. Hudson, who is a member of the delegation and chairs the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, sought the meeting to express the support of the United States for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to solicit the Ukrainian lawmakers’ perspectives on the ongoing crisis. Ukrainian participants included parliamentarians Mykyta Poturaiev (Head of Delegation) and Artur Gerasymov (Deputy Head of Delegation). The exchange, which focused on the recent massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea, and the closure by Russia of parts of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, also covered topics including: The militarization of occupied Crimea and widespread violations of fundamental freedoms there, with particular persecution directed toward Crimean Tatars The Crimean Platform, a Ukrainian diplomatic initiative to mobilize world leaders to raise the cost of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, with the ultimate goal of de-occupation The effects of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on Russian influence in Europe The importance of continued reform processes in Ukraine, including in ensuring the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies Chairman Cardin and Rep. Hudson reiterated Congress’ strong and bipartisan support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Chairman Cardin underscored that the United States stood with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, which “violated every principle of the Helsinki Final Act,” he stated. He added that the Ukraine Security Partnership Act unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21 codified the U.S. security commitment to Ukraine and support for the Crimean Platform initiative, among other measures designed to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The United States remained “strongly and firmly united in our support for Ukraine,” Rep. Hudson said, pledging continued resolve in ensuring this message was clear to Russian authorities. Hudson, recalling a statement issued in his capacity as OSCE PA committee chair on April 7, also expressed readiness to engage fully in the parliamentary dimension of the Crimean Platform. In addition, the U.S. and Ukrainian delegates discussed plans for the 2021 Annual Session to be held remotely in late June and early July.
Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark World Press Freedom DayMonday, May 03, 2021
WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “Press freedom is at the core of a healthy democracy,” said Chairman Cardin. “Over the last year, we have witnessed a sharp decline in access to information globally, and a rise in cases of violence against journalists. Some OSCE participating States have even used the COVID-19 pandemic as grounds to justify unnecessary restrictions on the press. Independent, professional journalism grounded in truth and transparency is the best antidote to the poison of disinformation and misinformation that plagues the OSCE region, during this global emergency and at all times.” “Strong democracies encourage a free press—one that informs the public, welcomes diverse voices, and holds leaders accountable,” said Sen. Wicker. “Unfortunately, in many nations autocrats abuse political, economic, and legal measures to intimidate, jail, and bankrupt members of the media who oppose them. On World Press Freedom Day, I commend the courageous journalists who work despite these threats.” “In the absence of press freedom, citizens are denied access to information and prevented from meaningful engagement in their communities,” said Rep. Wilson. “In some participating States, we continue to see violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, legal harassment, and other attacks against the legitimate work of journalists. These attempts to close off the information pipeline only highlight the weakness of such regimes, not their strength.” In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders found that journalism is totally blocked, seriously impeded, or constrained in 73 percent of the countries evaluated. The data also reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. According to the study, Turkmenistan (at 178 of 180), Azerbaijan (at 167), Tajikistan (at 162), Belarus (at 158), Uzbekistan (at 157), Kazakhstan (at 155), Turkey (at 153), and Russia (at 150), rank the lowest in press freedom in the OSCE region. On April 30, Chairman Cardin and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) reintroduced the World Press Freedom Protection and Reciprocity Act, which seeks to protect and promote worldwide press freedom and enhance reciprocity for U.S. news and media outlets. Earlier in April, Helsinki Commission leaders called on Belarusian authorities to release journalists and political prisoners. In 2020, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing to examine the troubling trend of violence against journalists, and review implementation of international press freedom commitments undertaken by the United States. In 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media testified before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on the state of media freedom in the OSCE region.
Cardin and Wicker Welcome UK Magnitsky Corruption SanctionsMonday, April 26, 2021
WASHINGTON—Following today's announcement that the United Kingdom will sanction 22 individuals for corruption under the UK's Magnitsky legislation, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “I applaud the UK for moving forward with the establishment of a new Global Anti-Corruption sanctions regime. Our Magnitsky sanctions can now be harmonized one-for-one—denying corrupt officials access to the two biggest financial hubs in the world,” said Chairman Cardin. “I urge the EU to adopt Magnitsky corruption sanctions, as well. Together, we can deny human rights abusers and kleptocrats safe haven and protect our own political systems from the taint of authoritarian corruption. Otherwise, this corruption will always flee to those democratic allies without sanctions laws.” “It is hard to overstate just how important it is that the UK has adopted Magnitsky corruption sanctions,” said Sen. Wicker. “London is a well-known hub of Russian and Chinese Communist Party corruption, which now faces the threat of sanctions. These sanctions will protect political systems while providing a measure of justice to those all over the world who have been denied it. Democratic allies must close ranks against the corruption of dictatorships.” Chairman Cardin was the lead author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in the United States. This law authorizes sanctions against human rights abusers and kleptocrats anywhere in the world. Sen. Wicker was an original cosponsor and partner in this effort. Magnitsky human rights and corruption sanctions have now been adopted by the United States, Canada, and the UK. The EU has adopted only Magnitsky human rights sanctions. Australia, Japan, and Taiwan are currently considering adoption of Magnitsky sanctions.
Helsinki Commission Leaders Call for Action to Support NavalnyFriday, April 23, 2021
WASHINGTON—In response to the precarious health of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison, threats to the future operation of his organization, and recent detentions of protestors calling for his release, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The world is watching in horror as Alexei Navalny wastes away in a Russian prison cell, while being inspired by the bravery of Russians who came out to the streets to support him,” said Chairman Cardin. “The Biden administration should continue to raise the cost on Vladimir Putin and his remaining allies for this most recent attempt to intimidate those who would take up Navalny’s call to action by challenging the Kremlin’s corruption and standing up for their own freedom.” “Alexei Navalny was lucky to survive one assassination attempt, but he returned to his homeland in a powerful example of civic courage,” said Sen. Wicker. “Now as he suffers once again in a Russian prison, we should consider Mr. Navalny’s suggestion of sanctioning those closest to Vladimir Putin—including notorious oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov, Igor Shuvalov, and Nikolay Tokarev. We will be monitoring his condition carefully.” “By jailing Alexei Navalny, branding his anti-corruption organization as ‘extremist,’ and targeting supporters of a free Russia, the Kremlin reveals its contempt for the fundamental rights of the Russian people,” said Rep. Wilson. “This is simply the latest attempt by Vladimir Putin to cling to power and it will ultimately fail.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and immediately was arrested. Navalny is serving two years and eight months at one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies, about three hours east of Moscow. He is accused of violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. He has severe back pain and numbness in his extremities. Prison authorities have prohibited him from seeing his own doctors, but recently allowed him to be examined outside the prison by independent physicians. Navalny spent three weeks on a hunger strike to protest his lack of access to an outside doctor and remains in critical condition. On April 16, the Moscow prosecutor’s office asked the Moscow City Court to label Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional headquarters, as well as his Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation, as “extremist” organizations. If approved as expected, it will essentially outlaw these groups and criminalize their activity. On April 21, thousands of protestors came out across Russia in support of Navalny. More than 1,000 people were detained, including members of the press.
By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor
With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor
On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions.
In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.)
Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions.
In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional.
Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges.
Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president.
One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp.
Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP.
Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara.
The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process.
Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage.
All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.
Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side.
The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country.
It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation.
We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day.
Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls.
We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for.
The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.)
Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day.
Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process.
With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station.
An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow.
Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC.
Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote.
This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials.
Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities.
Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters.
In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds.
At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after.
As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through.
Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room.
After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time.
Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.
The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.
Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.
Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.
Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots. In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).
U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members.
Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour.
The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process.
Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary.
Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.
A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.
After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.
Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square.
It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level.
The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.
Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote.
Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”
The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance.
During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system.
In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.
The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.