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Inside the Turkish Election
A Firsthand Account of the OSCE’s Election Observation Mission
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

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.

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    Madam Speaker, I rise today to emphasize the urgency of global press freedom, particularly across the 57-nation region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Earlier this week, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day, a day originally proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 to celebrate the fundamental principle of a free and independent press. On this day and beyond, we honor journalists and media professionals for their tireless service in reporting the truth, sometimes at the risk of their own personal safety. World Press Freedom Day serves as an important reminder to governments around the world to respect their country’s commitment to press freedom. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I am Chairman, is charged with monitoring compliance with human rights and security commitments in the OSCE region. Freedom of the press is a foundational commitment to human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, however, some leaders view the media as a threat and seek to silence individuals and outlets through financial, legal, and physical means. What these leaders truly fear is that journalists will expose corruption, human rights violations, abuses of power, and other undemocratic behavior. According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Madam Speaker, I also rise to applaud the undaunted service of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir. His leadership as an independent monitor for these issues among OSCE participating States has offered candid review of our collective challenges, while demonstrating the importance of OSCE institutions.  Mr. Désir’s team has provided impeccable service to help nations implement their international commitments to this end through country visits and legislative review, as well as hosting expert conferences.  I encourage my colleagues to closely follow his work and to learn more about his mandate by reviewing the proceedings of the U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing I chaired with Mr. Désir on July 25, 2019 addressing “State of Media Freedom in the OSCE Region.” Madam Speaker, amid this global pandemic, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution. Unfortunately, too many journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly false, misleading, or unofficial information. This is unacceptable. Earlier in April, I released statements expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia and the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán amid the coronavirus pandemic. During these trying times, strong journalism and access to accurate, unbiased information are essential tools for countering the spread of the disease. I ask my colleagues to join me in urging states to recognize the indispensable role of the media during this time and to reverse policies that in any way discourage freedom of expression.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Hastings and Wicker Troubled By Mounting Harassment of Opposition Members, Activists, and Journalists by Government of Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the Government of Azerbaijan’s mounting harassment of Azerbaijani opposition members, activists, and journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “During this pandemic, public health precautions do not excuse politically-motivated repression. We are deeply troubled by reports that the Government of Azerbaijan is further squeezing its people’s access to free expression, media, and information through arrests, fines, harassment, and possibly torture. Authorities should cease exploiting this global crisis to limit the speech of members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and other activists and reporters.” In recent weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have detained, questioned, jailed, fined, and, in one case possibly tortured opposition members and journalists affiliated with the country’s main opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and opposition-aligned media outlet Azadliq. Since the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the Azerbaijani Government has intermittently cut off internet and phone access to PFPA Chair Ali Karimli, preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including conducting interviews with media. Last week, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of torturing PFPA activist Niyameddin Ahmedov while in custody. Other PFPA affiliated activists and writers, including Aqil Humbatov, Faiq Amirli, and Saadat Jahangir, have been detained for allegedly violating quarantine rules after speaking or reporting critically about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Wicker and Cardin Urge Pompeo to Work with EU High Representative to Advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—In a letter released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. The letter reads in part: “In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality... “It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation... “It was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world.” The U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the President to impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person he identifies as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption, has been an important asset in the U.S. diplomatic toolkit. In December 2019, High Representative Borrell announced that all Member States unanimously agreed to start preparatory work for an equivalent of Global Magnitsky, adding that such a framework would be “a tangible step reaffirming the European Union’s global lead on human rights.” The Baltic States, Canada, and the UK already have adopted similar legislation. However, the current proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption, nor does it include any reference to Sergei Magnitsky by name. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, As the original sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, we aim to increase the impact of the legislation worldwide by encouraging our allies to join us in sanctioning bad actors. At the moment, the European Union (EU) has agreed in principle to adopt their own sanctions similar to those provided by the Global Magnitsky Act, but certain issues remain. Therefore, we ask that you work with Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to ensure the EU adopts and implements the most thorough and effective sanctions package possible. Our first concern is that the EU seems to have stalled in putting together the details of their Magnitsky sanctions regime because of the global health crisis. In December, High Representative Borrell announced that there was political agreement to move forward on a Magnitsky-like piece of legislation, which his team would begin drafting. Since then, we fear this work has been sidelined. In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality. Our second concern is that the proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption. It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation. Finally, we are concerned that the EU is not planning to include Magnitsky’s name on the sanctions regime. It was Sergei Magnitsky who stood up to a ruthless, violent, and corrupt state and demanded fairness and accountability for his fellow citizens. And it was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world. Therefore, we request that you ask the High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of their sanctions, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. It is important that we do not let our guard down and continue our global leadership in this important area. Sincerely, Benjamin L. Cardin                                                       Roger F. Wicker Ranking Member                                                          Co-Chairman

  • Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning COVID-19 Emergency Responses

    OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue.  Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid.  Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need.  And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news.  A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience.  Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time.  I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE.  As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders.  Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency.  I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.”  “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.”  We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections.  But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments.  Thank you.

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appalled by Latest Attacks on Press Freedom in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following recent threats to the life of Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the forced removal of her Novaya Gazeta article on the coronavirus response in Chechnya by Russia’s media regulatory agency, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “I am appalled—though not surprised—that the Government of Russia is using a global pandemic to restrict media freedom at a time when access to accurate information is vital,” Chairman Hastings said. “Yelena Milashina does not deserve death threats for simply doing her job. I condemn these attacks; Novaya Gazeta must be able to operate freely to provide truthful and timely information to the Russian people.” “Independent journalists need to be protected so they can continue to do the important work of keeping the public informed, especially in times of crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Chechen strongman Kadyrov has a history of support for lawlessness and extrajudicial killings, and his threats should be taken seriously. A government that fails to protect journalists like Yelena Milashina will also contribute to a culture where other citizens are afraid to speak out.” After the passage of an April 1 law criminalizing “misinformation” regarding the coronavirus, the Government of Russia has begun to target news agencies and individuals who have criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. RFE/RL’s reporting on Russia’s handling of the coronavirus has been targeted for review in the State Duma, and the apartment of an activist in St. Petersburg was searched and her electronics seized for calling attention to insufficient local quarantine conditions on social media. Journalist Yelena Milashina has received previous death threats from Ramzan Kadyrov for her reporting on Chechnya. In February 2020 she was attacked by unknown assailants in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. She received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2013 and appeared at Helsinki Commission events on Russia’s North Caucasus in 2009 and 2010.  

  • Chairman Hastings Denounces Unchecked Power Granted To Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Following the Hungarian Parliament’s decision on Monday to accept Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s request for unlimited power to rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Prime Minister Orban has taken gross advantage of the fear and uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic to secure the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Instead of focusing on the well-being of Hungarian citizens likely to suffer from the coronavirus, he has chosen to prioritize preserving his parliamentary majority and permanently consolidating his control of the Hungarian Government.  “At both the global and national levels, defeating the coronavirus will require extraordinary social solidarity, not unchecked executive power.  The further concentration of powers in Hungary will only pave the way for the further concentration of corruption.” Among other provisions, the new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for spreading false or distorted information regarding the fight against the coronavirus, which could be used against journalists reporting on the state of Hungary’s hospitals or health care delivery.  The law also suspends elections.  Hungary has recently completed a cycle of elections (parliamentary, European Parliament, and municipal) with no other major elections scheduled until 2022. In the meantime, by-elections and referenda are prohibited.  The law, which lacks a sunset clause, may only be repealed by a two-thirds vote of parliament, or terminated by the Prime Minister himself. In 1991, Hungary—along with all other OSCE participating States—adopted the Moscow Document in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Russia. The agreement includes specific provisions on states of emergency.  In particular, the OSCE participating States agreed to “in conformity with international standards regarding the freedom of expression, take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession other than those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”   On March 30, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir warned that emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region, including Hungary, must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight. Since 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing to explore developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.  

  • E.U. Tries Gentle Diplomacy to Counter Hungary’s Crackdown on Democracy

    European leaders were reluctant to pick a fight with Prime Minister Viktor Orban a day after he secured powers to rule by decree indefinitely. BRUSSELS — The European Union’s written response to Hungary’s effective suspension of democracy omitted one important word: Hungary. A day after the Hungarian Parliament passed sweeping emergency measures allowing the far-right populist leader Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus, the European Commission on Tuesday reminded its members to respect rights. But it was a muted first response from the one institution that can take on Mr. Orban, and it appeared aimed at balancing the political imperative of cooperation in the era of the coronavirus with the risk of emboldening him. “It’s of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Orban or Hungary. The European Commission is the European Union’s executive branch, and it often describes itself as “the guardian of the treaty” that created the bloc of 27 democracies. But Mr. Orban has long been in an open struggle with parts of that treaty. He has said frankly that he does not believe in liberal democracy — which the European Commission says is fundamental to the European Union’s values. The severe measures adopted Monday in Budapest may dramatically ratchet up the confrontation between the Orban government and European Union institutions in Brussels. Hungary’s new legislation suspends elections and also allows the prime minister to suspend existing laws and rule by decree. One vaguely worded section also says that people found to be spreading “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” that obstruct the authorities from protecting the public may be punished with prison sentences of up to five years. That new tool that may allow Mr. Orban to further curb the press freedoms long in his cross hairs. To be sure, in the face of the epidemic, European countries have all to lesser or greater extent adopted emergency measures curbing liberties, including measures that require citizens to register any movement and observe curfews. But Hungary’s new rules are the most far reaching. And rights experts, political analysts and academics say that, given Mr. Orban’s track record and espousal of “illiberal democracy,” the measures he says he is taking to fight the virus could become fixtures in Hungarian public life, used to crack down on opposition well after the threat of the virus passes. European Union officials believe that the statement issued Tuesday, which came from Ms. von der Leyen personally, sent a clear message to Mr. Orban — even without naming him. European Commission lawyers are now closely watching how he enforces Hungary’s new measures, the officials said. But they said that now — as Europe battles to stem the spread of the virus and mitigate its catastrophic economic damage, and with many nations suspending some liberties — was not the moment to pick a fight with just one member. That measured approach surprised some observers, despite the fact that the commission often takes a conciliatory stance toward wayward members in a bid to entice them to reform voluntarily. (That has never worked with Hungary.) “It is bizarre,” Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who belongs to the German Greens political party, said of Ms. von der Leyen’s statement. “The decision that the Hungarian Parliament took yesterday is a watershed moment,” Mr. Freund said. “Now you have to do something, or we really lose democracies.” Mr. Freund and other members of the European Parliament believe that even before the European Commission opens a formal investigation into Hungary’s new law, which would take months, it should use existing rules to put pressure on Mr. Orban. “If we end up after the crisis with a virus well fought but democracy lost in several member states, that’s an unacceptable situation,” Mr. Freund said. Daniel Kelemen, a professor European Union politics and law at Rutgers University, said the epidemic could prove an opportunity for the Hungarian leader. “Throughout his consolidation of power, Orban has counted on the European Union to be distracted with other crises,” he said. “But now,” Mr. Kelemen said, “the scale of this crisis does call for consolidation of power for the executive, so it gives him more effective cover for this next stage of escalation.” Mr. Orban’s hold on power was unparalleled by European Union standards well before Monday’s vote authorizing him to rule by decree. In practical terms, Mr. Orban and his allies already controlled the legislative and executives branches of government, and had stacked the Constitutional Court. With Mr. Orban’s parliamentary opposition unable to slow his political machine, the European Union has shown itself to be the only entity capable of curbing his power, but the results have been mixed. Lengthy and cumbersome European Union legal proceedings could not stop Mr. Orban and his allies from taking over the Hungarian media landscape, weakening the independence of the judiciary, levying a special tax on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding, or ejecting the Central European University from the country. In the end it may be Mr. Orban’s love for European financial aid, not freedoms, that acts as a brake on his government. “Aware that the European Union is watching, Orban is likely to tread modestly at first,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe at Eurasia Group consultancy. “He will not wish to put at risk the €5.6 billion windfall granted to Hungary by the European Parliament last week as its portion in the union’s efforts to battle the coronavirus." President Trump has warmly embraced Mr. Orban. Mr. Trump’s ambassador in Hungary has spoken glowingly about Mr. Orban’s grip on power and said that Mr. Trump would love to have the powers of his Hungarian counterpart. But Mr. Orban’s autocratic tendencies have long alarmed others in Washington, particularly lawmakers who serve on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. A congressional delegation visited Hungary last year to investigate democratic backsliding.

  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commend Political Compromise in Georgia

    WASHINGTON—After a March 8 announcement that Georgia’s political leadership reached a deal paving the way for the adoption of compromise electoral reforms ahead of the October 2020 parliamentary election, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “Debate and compromise, two hallmarks of democracy, have rebuilt hope that Georgia’s leaders can bridge divisions and meet the demands of the people for accountability in electoral processes and outcomes,” Chairman Hastings said. “Having led an international election observation mission to Georgia, I commend the hard work it took to reach this agreement and the role of international ambassadors, particularly U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan, in facilitating it. As the agreement’s implementation proceeds, I hope to see prioritization of the parties’ joint commitment to address perceptions of politically-motivated criminal charges in recent months.” During the January 2008 presidential election in Georgia, Chairman Hastings served as head of the OSCE PA election observation mission and was appointed by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office as the Special Coordinator leading all OSCE short-term observers. “As a longtime champion of the United States’ strategic partnership with Georgia, I am glad to see Georgia’s political leaders take the path of dialogue to resolve this months-long crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The coming months should serve as an opportunity for the Georgian people to regain confidence in the ability of their democratic institutions to represent their voices and render independent justice.” In December 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker sent a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia urging the ruling Georgian Dream party to address growing public discontent with preparations for the 2020 national election and a string of decisions that undermined public confidence in the rule of law. Since November, Georgia has been embroiled in a political crisis sparked by the surprise defeat in parliament of constitutional amendments that would have transitioned the country to a fully proportional electoral system for 2020 parliamentary elections. In response to a political crisis last summer, Georgian Dream Party Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili pledged his party would pass the amendments, which enjoyed broad support from Georgian political factions and international democracy advocates. Despite this pledge, a group of Georgian Dream parliamentarians voted last month to scuttle the proposal, prompting angry reactions across the Georgian political spectrum. This political controversy coincided with criminal prosecutions against several prominent opposition figures that created the appearance of selective enforcement of the law. Georgian Dream parliamentarians also disregarded an opposition boycott last week to approve 14 justices to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court despite serious questions about some of their legal qualifications. 

  • Moldova

    Presidential elections in Moldova are quickly approaching. However, the country’s self-proclaimed “technocratic” government has yet to demonstrate a departure from the country’s post-Soviet history of grand kleptocracy and political strife. Moldovans have demanded greater access to the global economy through European integration, yet some political leaders are pivoting East with substantial security implications for the enduring frozen conflict in the breakaway territory of Transnistria. To this day, Moldovans demand accountability for the more than $1 billion siphoned from Moldova’s biggest banks between 2012 and 2014. However, key former political leaders implicated in this and other crimes are alleged to have escaped international sanctions, notably, ousted oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is allegedly at large in the United States. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore the societal fissures, security implications, and governance challenges at stake in the Republic of Moldova. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), a member of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed the existing conditions in Moldova under pro-Russian president Igor Dodon and affirmed U.S. support for stability and democracy in Moldova. “We hope to see Moldova reach its potential as a European nation of prosperity and the rule of law, rather than just another post-Soviet country under the thumb of Moscow,” he stated. The hearing exposed Moldova’s existing struggles with corruption and Russian influence and highlighted opportunities for the United States to support Moldova’s democratic aspirations. Ambassador William H. Hill, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies and former Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, emphasized continuing problems of corruption in Moldovan institutions, security issues regarding Russia and Transdniestria, and the role of the U.S. and the EU in supporting Moldova. Although he explained that Moldova has “strayed into a familiar pattern of cronyism, political reprisals, and geopolitical posturing,” Ambassador Hill expressed hope for progress. Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director of the Eurasia Program at Open Society Foundations,  highlighted the resilience of Moldova’s civil society and the lack of public trust in the government. She also called for free and fair elections, for criminal justice reform, and on the U.S. to find Plahotniuc and bring him to justice. Valeriu Pașa, Program Manager at WatchDog.MD,  testified to the problems of corruption and the absence of justice in Dodon’s administration. “Judges, prosecutors, as well as other officials are easily drawn into supporting illegalities,” leading the government to be highly incompetent, he explained. Pașa voiced his support existing U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act and asked that the U.S. impose tougher sanctions on corrupt low-profile Moldovan officials.

  • Moldovan Governance and Accountability to be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: MOLDOVA Access and Accountability Tuesday, March 10, 2020 12:30 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Presidential elections in Moldova are quickly approaching. However, the country’s self-proclaimed “technocratic” government has yet to demonstrate a departure from the country’s post-Soviet history of grand kleptocracy and political strife. Moldovans have demanded greater access to the global economy through European integration, yet some political leaders are pivoting East with substantial security implications for the enduring frozen conflict in the breakaway territory of Transnistria. To this day, Moldovans demand accountability for the more than $1 billion siphoned from Moldova’s biggest banks between 2012 and 2014. However, key former political leaders implicated in this and other crimes are alleged to have escaped international sanctions. Witnesses at the hearing will explore the societal fissures, security implications, and  governance challenges at stake in the Republic of Moldova.  Can a country marred by deep corruption reverse its trajectory, and is there even any will to do so in this government?  What role will civil society play in Moldova’s reconstruction?  Will Socialist president Igor Dodon prioritize relations with Russia over the West, or manage to navigate between the two?  This hearing will explore these questions and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Ambassador William H. Hill, Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies & former Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director – Eurasia Program, Open Society Foundations Valeriu Pașa, Program Manager, WatchDog.MD   

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Russian-backed Syrian Government Offensive in Idlib

    WASHINGTON—In response to mounting casualties from clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in northwestern Syria and the Turkish government’s decision to open its borders to refugee flows toward mainland Europe, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “A vicious Russian and Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is responsible for the unacceptable military escalation, civilian suffering, and displacement crisis we have witnessed in recent days and weeks,” said Chairman Hastings. “Presidents Putin and Assad must stop this assault immediately and comply with international humanitarian law requiring them to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. I further urge the Trump administration to deploy appropriate resources to address these pressing security and humanitarian challenges, which will undoubtedly impact the OSCE region. We must sustainably meet the needs of the most vulnerable and the countless refugees resulting from Russian and Syrian aggression.” On February 27, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced the opening of Turkey’s borders for refugees and migrants to go westward to European Union member countries, despite the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement “to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” That agreement is founded on the multi-billion euro EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey established in 2015. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a March 2 statement, the daily rate of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey has increased in March.     Since early December, fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced more than 948,000 people, including 569,000 children and 195,000 women, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Along with the United States, Tukey is a NATO ally. The United States, Russian Federation and Turkey, are  participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

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