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Missed Opportunity in Belarus
Friday, September 14, 2001

By Orest S. Deychakiwsky, Staff Advisor and Ron McNamara, Chief of Staff

Commission staff observed the September 9 presidential election in Belarus, in which Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenka prevailed in a fundamentally unfair election marred by harassment of the opposition and independent media. Unprecedented obstacles erected by the authorities impeded normal long-term observation of the election while Lukashenka lashed out with vitriolic threats against OSCE mission head Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck and U.S. Ambassador Mike Kozak in the closing days of the campaign. Hopes that the election would bring an end to the country’s self-imposed isolation were dashed by wide-scale rights violations by the regime in the weeks leading up to election day and serious irregularities in the balloting.

The International Limited Election Observation Mission, which consisted of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Troika composed of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE/PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, concluded that there were fundamental flaws in the election process and that the elections failed to meet OSCE standards for democratic elections. Commission staff participated in the OSCE/PA delegation, on election day observing the vote in Miensk and in towns and villages in the Miensk,Vitsyebsk and Mahilyow regions, including in the village in which Lukashenka was born.

The problematic pre-election campaign period determined the election’s outcome. The election took place against a backdrop of recent credible revelations of involvement by close associates of Lukashenka in the disappearances and presumed murders of leading opposition members. Criteria established by the OSCE in 2000 as benchmarks for democratic elections – transparency of the elections process, access of opponents to the state-run media, and a climate free of fear – were not met. There was a profound lack of a level playing field for the candidates.

The weeks leading up to the presidential contest were characterized by harassment of the opposition, raids on non-governmental organizations and independent newspapers, with the confiscation of campaign materials, newspapers, printing presses and computer equipment. The dominant state-owned media outlets were overwhelmingly biased in favor of Lukashenka. The Belarusian authorities did everything they could to thwart the opposition, including ruling by decree, failing to guarantee the independence of the election administration, and allowing abuses in “early voting.”

The authorities’ treatment of the OSCE observation mission, including delays in issuing an invitation which forced the mission to limit its observation to a mere three weeks before the election and denials of visas, was described by one OSCE election official as “unprecedented” -- worse than in any other of the more than two dozen countries in which the OSCE has observed elections.

The regime maintained firm control over virtually every aspect of the election process, from the makeup of the election commissions with their visible lack of representatives of the opposition, to keeping independent observers from scrutinizing the vote tabulation.

One of the few positive outcomes of the Belarusian presidential race was the development of the democratic opposition and civil society, despite the intense pressures it faced from the Lukashenka regime.

Regrettably, Lukashenka and his inner circle squandered the opportunity presented by the election to restore some degree of normalcy to relations between Belarus and most OSCE participating States, including the United States.

Desperate for a modicum of international recognition, members of Belarus’ “National Assembly” were out in force making overtures to OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observers in hopes of ending their isolation following last year’s flawed parliamentary elections.

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Please ask these uncomfortable questions.” Joining forces with other defenders of media freedom and human rights and calling attention in public spaces to the failings of countries is one way to effectively combat impunity and protect journalists. On International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, supporters of media freedom should affirm their commitment to protecting the media and fighting against impunity crimes against journalists. To ensure that the work done by journalists around the world – the work done by Natalya Estemirova and others like her – will not be silenced, governments must lend their support and protection.

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  • 30th Anniversary of OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

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ODIHR actively partners with OSCE’s 57 participating states, civil society, and international organizations to support human rights defenders, enhance the independence of judiciaries, and promote human-rights-based policing. It offers legislative reviews and develops tools to support local government officials, including the Words into Action project, which enhances social inclusion within local communities and for which I proudly help secure funding. The most visible demonstration of ODIHR’s collaboration with the United States is perhaps in the field of election observation, where its methodology is rightly seen as the gold standard in international election observation. Since its founding, ODIHR, the Department of State, and the U.S. Congress, through the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, have deployed thousands of American citizens and legislators to observe the conduct of elections across the OSCE area, including in the United States. Since OSCE states pledged in 1990 to hold free and fair elections, elections observation has been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage states’ commitment to democratic standards and is a hallmark of ODIHR’s work. For nearly 30 years, ODIHR has organized Europe’s largest human rights review conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting—HDIM—gathering thousands of representatives of governments, parliaments, and civil society for 2 weeks around the same table to review progress on human rights commitments. Unfortunately, the HDIM did not take place this September. Russia blocked consensus to hold the meeting, thereby denying the OSCE region’s nearly 1 billion citizens of a meaningful and sustained opportunity to hold their governments to account. In September, Russia also prevented ODIHR from deploying a full and independent election observation mission to observe its Duma elections. Likewise, Russia was responsible for the closure of OSCE’s border observation mission, which provided valuable insight into the personnel and materiel flowing across Russia’s border into the temporarily occupied areas of eastern Ukraine. ODIHR’s work is more important and relevant than at any time since its founding at the end of the Cold War. I would like to take a moment to extend my heartfelt appreciation to ODIHR’s 180 staff from 35 countries, upon whose dedication and professionalism we rely as we strive to realize an equitable and just future for all. ODIHR is not only the human rights arm of the world’s largest regional security organization; it is also the independent body endowed to assist us as we pursue this important goal. The phrase ‘‘Vancouver to Vladivostok’’ is routinely invoked to describe the organization’s broad geographical reach. However, it is perhaps ODIHR—and OSCE’s—revolutionary and comprehensive concept of ‘‘security,’’ which includes military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights, that is its defining characteristic and most important contribution to world peace and the reason why we should all be celebrating ODIHR’s 30th anniversary this year and take steps to ensure its success for years to come.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

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  • In Pursuit of Truth

    A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro assessed the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses discussed recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by stating that media freedom is the bedrock of the democratic process, making it possible for citizens to make informed decisions on their political reality. He also addressed COVID-19 and disinformation, citing the need to safeguard fundamental freedom of expression while performing the vital task of reporting the truth. Chairman Cardin cited a Freedom House report showing a decline in democracy in some countries, often overlapping with a decline in media freedom, and expressed a concern over the silencing of media in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to name a few. As a co-sponsor of the Global Press Freedom Act, Senator Cardin expressed his wish for the U.S. to become more involved in press freedom across the globe. The OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media (RFOM), Teresa Ribeiro, thanked the Helsinki Commission for the strong support for the RFOM as an institution and media freedom and expression. Ribeiro seconded Chairman Cardin’s statement that free and independent media is a core pillar of democracy, adding that media is more than just a provider of daily news. Ribeiro addressed the steady decline of media freedom all over the OSCE region and decline in trust in the media. “We live in a time where accusing media outlets and individual journalists of false news has become the norm,” she said. Key issues, according to Ribeiro, include rising violence against journalists, abuse of the legal system to silence their work, restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments on the media, declining trust in the media, as well as the power of social media companies and their ability to shape the media landscape. Ribeiro argued that governments have a positive obligation to protect both the freedom of expression and a free press that delivers truthful information to citizens. In her opinion, the best way to fight disinformation is not through restrictive laws, but rather by promoting independent journalists. Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reported on his organizations efforts to track media freedom across the OSCE region. He stated that journalists and media have come under attack in almost all OSCE countries. Some of these attacks are by private citizens, but most attacks on press freedom are carried out by governments such as those in Hungry, Poland, Tajikistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, or Russia. Specifically, Mahoney mentioned the number of journalists behind bars in Turkey and the use of foreign agent laws in Russia to sideline media. He also expressed concern over the targeted murders of journalists in the OSCE in countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, and Malta. Mahoney recommended fully implementing the 2018 OSCE ministerial council agreement on the freedom of the media, supporting the RFOM mandate and urging the mandate holder to challenge those countries with the worst press freedom records, implement the policies outlined in the 2020 resource guide by the RFOM on the safety of female journalists online, and considering the use of targeted sanctions to gold governments within the OSCE region accountable for their violations of press freedoms. Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, gave an update on his organizations efforts to provide news and media to 27 countries across Eurasia. Much of his testimony was focused on Russia and Belarus, where the gravest violations of press freedom occur. In Russia, foreign agent laws are increasingly being used to violate the freedom of the press and fines connected to these laws (such as $4.4 million owed by RFE/RL to Russia) are used to pressure news outlets financially. Fly believes the Kremlin is seeking absolute control over the information space in advance of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s current term in 2024. In Belarus, RFE/RL officers were raided, and equipment was confiscated. Meanwhile, many journalists threatened by the new government in Afghanistan are still hoping to evacuate and require outside support. Fly called for more advocacy for journalists in critical regions, funding for unbiased media to counter the large sums of money authoritarian governments spend on their biased media outlets, as well as pressure on those governments which jail journalists. Peter Pomerantsev, Director of the Arena Program and Senior Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, testified that the principles we use to defend journalists are being weaponized to attack journalists in other countries. He argued that the crushing of media voices happens not only through censorship, but also through the flood of disinformation. These mass inauthentic campaigns take away the fundamental right to receive information and know its origins, Pomerantsev said, and argued that the best way to counter such disinformation is through better transparency on the origins of content encountered online. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) asked the witnesses about steps the United States could take to counter disinformation and misinformation, especially strategies that have been found to be successful in Europe. Ribeiro answered that media literacy and better training for journalists to become fact checkers are key. Additionally, building back trust between the media and the public is vital, and the local level is the best way to do so. Mahoney agreed, stating that local news is generally trusted more than the news at a national level, but the decline in local news outlets in the U.S. has pushed people towards getting news from social media. Acknowledging various levels of media freedom across the OSCE, Chairman Cardin asked what best practices are to protect the freedom of the media. Ribeiro replied that different tools need to be used in different countries. Some countries have strong rule of law, yet still have issues with media freedom. In her capacity as RFOM, her tools include voice, advocacy, and assisting participating states to improve media freedom. Chairman Cardin also asked what should be done to protect journalists against indiscriminate arrests, detentions, and physical violence. Mahoney answered that the number one focus must be on bringing those who murder journalists to justice. Too often the murderers go free, sending the signal to others that journalists can be silenced this way. Next, to pressure governments that imprison journalists, including calling them out at conferences on the international stage. Lastly, the OSCE and EU must lift their standards and prevent capture of the media by the state. Chairman Cardin thanked Mahoney for his comments and added that the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress is happy to help, but needs specifics like names and stories, not numbers, to advocate for journalists across the world. Asked about where the United States needs to concentrate its priorities regarding RFE/RL in the OSCE region, Jamie Fly noted the importance of social media in reaching audiences, and therefore the power social media companies have over RFE/RL. Social media algorithms dictate which content users see, and often authoritarian regimes intervene and pressure social media companies to remove content critical of them because of supposed terms-of-service violations, as was the case with Navalny’s election app in Russia. Fly affirmed the need for pressure and targeted sanctions on regimes violating press freedom, as well as support for journalist who cannot work safely in their home countries. Pomerantsev expanded on the issues of social media algorithms, explaining that understanding why an algorithm promotes some content over another is key to slowing disinformation. He emphasized that transparency, not regulation of content, is the best way to do so. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) addressed the rising violence against journalists worldwide, including 29 killings in 2021, and increased imprisonment of journalists. Calling out Turkey, a NATO ally, for severe transgressions, Sen. Wicker asked if there is hope for improvement. Mahoney responded by saying the decline of press freedoms in Turkey has been happening for 20 years, but the coup attempt in 2016 worsened it. In his opinion, the OSCE and EU have been unsuccessful in attempting to bring change to media conditions in Turkey and must be more forceful in their critique of Erdogan and his regime. Chair Cardin closed the hearing by stating, “This commission stands ready to work with you to protect individual journalists as well as to put a spotlight on counties which are violating the freedom of the media.” Related Information Witness Biographies  

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Colin Powell

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We mourn the loss of a thoughtful leader, respected diplomat, and dedicated public servant. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell actively supported the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its comprehensive definition of security, which includes respect for human rights. In 1990, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his leadership of the U.S. delegation to a seminar in Vienna on military doctrine demonstrated that when Moscow was serious about overcoming differences through the Helsinki Process, the United States was ready to collaborate, as is true today. “Secretary Powell’s subsequent work in the OSCE on fighting anti-Semitism and championing election observation proved that he was not only a warrior and a diplomat, but also a steadfast advocate for human rights and a defender of the most vulnerable.” Secretary Powell was one of the most active U.S. Secretaries of State in OSCE history, personally attending Ministerial Council meetings in 2001, 2003, and 2004. In 2001, he said: “We see our membership in the OSCE as complementing and reinforcing our strong bilateral ties with European and Eurasian countries, our membership in NATO, and our relationship with the European Union. This organization embraces a wide-range of ethnicities, traditions and histories. More importantly, it reflects our common embrace of democratic and market principals and our common commitment to peace and stability. In short, the OSCE encompasses the hopes that all of us share for a Europe that is fully whole and free.”

  • Media Freedom Across the OSCE Region to Be Assessed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH Media Freedom in the OSCE Region Wednesday, October 20, 2021 2:30pm Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro will assess the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses will discuss recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Teresa Ribeiro, Representative on Freedom of the Media, OSCE Jamie Fly, President & CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Robert Mahoney, Deputy Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists Peter Pomerantsev, Director of Arena Program and Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins University; Author and Journalist

  • Cardin and Cohen Laud 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Award to Investigative Reporters

    WASHINGTON—Following the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following joint statement: “We congratulate the winners of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, and applaud the Nobel Committee for recognizing the courage of these journalists and their contributions to democracy and peace. Maria, Dmitry, and their colleagues are beacons of truth—without a free press, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. “That this award comes just after the 15-year anniversary of the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and three years after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi solemnly reminds us of the dangers journalists face, particularly in authoritarian states.” Later this month, the Helsinki Commission will hold a hearing to call attention to the growing attacks on free media and underscore the importance of investigative journalism. Muratov is the longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper widely respected for its hard-hitting investigative journalism. Novaya Gazeta journalists routinely have been targeted by the authorities for their work and even murdered with impunity. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova.  In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.” Ressa is a Filipino-American journalist and co-founder and CEO of Rappler, a Philippine news website. Ressa was included in Time Magazine's 2018 Person of the Year as one of a collection of journalists from around the world, collectively branded “Guardians of Truth.” In 2019, she was awarded the Sergei Magnitsky Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalist, presented by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. In 2020, she was convicted of trumped-up “cyberlibel” charges by the Philippine government.

  • A Tribute to Ambassador George S. Vest, III

    Mr. CARDIN.  Mr. President, I would like to bring to the attention of colleagues the recent passing of long-time U.S. diplomat George Southall Vest, III, a long-time resident of Bethesda, Maryland.  He was 102 years old.  His career with the State Department spanned the Cold War era, from 1947 to 1989.  As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I want to draw particular attention to Ambassador Vest’s representation of the United States at the initial multilateral discussions of 35 countries that led to an historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, from July 30 to August 1, 1975, where the Helsinki Final Act was signed. An all-European summit was not a priority for the United States in the early 1970s.   Indeed, it was a long-standing Soviet proposal, and Washington was wary of its use to confirm the division of Europe, give added legitimacy to communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and provide an opportunity for Moscow to divide the United States from its European allies.  Washington agreed to engage but saw little value in the effort.   As Ambassador Vest himself was quoted as saying, “This was the first time after World War II where all the Eastern European countries, all the Western European countries, together with Canada and the United States, sat down to talk about security and cooperation…   I had very, very few instructions.  I was left pretty much to feel my own way.” The early work of Ambassador Vest and his team, and that of his immediate successors, led to the Helsinki Final Act, which included 10 principles guiding relations between states that serve as a basis, to this day, of our response to events in Europe, including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and other neighbors.  The Final Act provided a comprehensive definition of security that includes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the basis for us to address today’s brutal crackdown on dissent in Belarus and authoritarianism elsewhere.  It also provided for a follow-up to the Final Act with regular reviews of implementation and development of new norms, a multilateral effort now represented by today’s 57-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its important institutions and field missions. Ambassador Vest, left pretty much to feel his own way, may not have intended to make such an impact on European security.  Keep in mind that he represented the United States in these negotiations during the tumultuous time of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, an oil crisis on the horizon, the growing Watergate scandal at home, and a rising Soviet threat across the globe.  Nevertheless, his initial efforts contributed to an end of the Cold War division of Europe rather than a confirmation of it.  That is quite a turnaround.  I should add that the Congress later played a major role in shaping the U.S. contribution to this result when it created the Helsinki Commission in 1976.  While things have changed since then, the Commission does now what it did in the late 1970s: ensure that human rights considerations are central to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with other countries. Given the challenges we face today, I hope it is useful to remind my colleagues of Ambassador Vest’s legacy as a diplomat.   Both before and after the negotiations, he served in positions in which he worked to strengthen ties with Europe, including through the NATO alliance and dialogue with a growing European Union.  He was also a mentor to new generations of American diplomats.   All of this followed his combat service as a forward artillery observer in Europe during World War II. George Vest joined the Foreign Service in 1947, after using the G.I. Bill to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Virginia (U-Va), where he had received his B.A. in 1941.  He served as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs under President Carter and as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union from 1981 to 1985.  His last assignment at the State Department was as Director General of the Foreign Service.  He retired in 1989 as a “career ambassador,” a rank requiring a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. George Vest’s father was an Episcopal priest and Vest graduated from the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, before attending U-Va.  He was as dedicated to his church as he was to our Nation.  He served on the vestry at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and volunteered in its Opportunity (thrift) Shop, both located on the Close of Washington National Cathedral.  He also tutored students in D.C. public schools.  Two sons, George S. Vest, IV of Fairfax, Virginia, and Henry Vest of Broomfield, Colorado, and two granddaughters survive him.  I send my condolences to his family and thank them for his life of service.  Let us be inspired by Ambassador George Vest and plant our own seeds for a better world tomorrow.

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Russian Obstruction of OSCE Human Rights Work

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian intransigence blocking the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed that the HDIM failed to start this week as planned, due solely to Russian intransigence blocking the meeting. The Kremlin has reached a new low in its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s work to promote human rights and democracy. “Russia clearly fears criticism of its worsening human rights record and fraudulent elections from the OSCE, other OSCE participating States, and civil society. The HDIM, through its thorough review of states’ human rights records and its inclusion of civil society, is a crown jewel of the OSCE’s human rights work. “We urge Russia to change its position and we expect the HDIM to be held in accordance with the agreement adopted in Helsinki in 1992 by the heads of state of all OSCE participating States—including Russia—that established the HDIM. For our part, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations, including in the Russian Federation.” The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy-related commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes New Senior State Department Advisor, Senior Policy Advisors

    WASHINGTON—The leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is pleased to welcome Edward A. White, Michael Hikari Cecire, and Bakhti Nishanov to the Helsinki Commission staff. White has been appointed as the commission’s senior State Department advisor, and Cecire and Nishanov join the commission as senior policy advisors. “On behalf of the entire bipartisan, bicameral commission, I am delighted to welcome Ed, Michael, and Bakhti to the Helsinki Commission team,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD). “They each bring extensive experience and expertise to their assignments at the commission. I am confident that their contributions will be invaluable to the commission as we work to promote human rights, justice, and security across the OSCE region.” Edward A. White, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor, serves as the Helsinki Commission’s senior State Department advisor. From 2019 to 2021, he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau. Immediately prior to his Pentagon assignment, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Beirut. Earlier assignments included the State Department’s Office of Levant Affairs; the United States Mission to NATO in Brussels; and U.S. Embassies in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, and Caracas. Since the Helsinki Commission was founded in 1976, career foreign service officers have been assigned to the agency to help foster contact between Congress and the State Department, and to provide political and diplomatic counsel in areas related to the monitoring and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. Michael Hikari Cecire most recently served as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Previously he was a policy advisor, strategic researcher, and Eurasia regional analyst supporting the Department of Defense and other U.S. Government agencies. Cecire also has served as an international security fellow at New America, a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and as a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. At the Helsinki Commission, Cecire is the senior policy advisor specializing in the Caucasus, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and the conflict in Ukraine. Bakhti Nishanov joins the Helsinki Commission from the International Republican Institute where, as Deputy Director for Eurasia, he helped oversee a portfolio of democracy and governance programs. His previous experience includes roles with Freedom House, the World Bank, and USAID. At the Helsinki Commission, he is the senior policy advisor covering Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and the OSCE’s Mediterranean Partners.

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Remembering Diplomat George S. Vest

    Mr. COHEN. Madam Speaker, I rise today to remember and praise the contributions George S. Vest made to U.S. foreign policy. Vest had a long career as a U.S. diplomat during the Cold War. He died on August 24 at the age of 102. Among Ambassador Vest's accomplishments was representing the United States while initiating the 35-country multilateral diplomatic process that led to the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975. This process continues to this day as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based largely in Vienna with 57 participating countries. History records the U.S. approach to those negotiations, a Soviet initiative, in late 1972 and 1973, as one of damage control, but Vest, his team and his successors did better than that. Working with our friends and allies in Europe, and engaging our Soviet and Warsaw Pact adversaries directly, they laid the groundwork for overcoming the East-West divide with a direct and frank dialogue based on a comprehensive definition of security that included respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the time, addressing human rights issues in other countries was something diplomats hoped to avoid; over time it became recognized as essential to their security and developing relations. The negotiations also produced confidence- building measures designed to lessen the risk of accidental war during a time of heightened tensions. Although neither Vest nor most of his fellow diplomats may have foreseen its potential value, their work eventually helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end 30 years ago, and the OSCE continues to serve as a forum for addressing tension and instability in Europe to this day. Even in the darker days of the Cold War, this diplomatic process showed many courageous human rights advocates--private citizens--that they were not alone. It gave them the hope to keep fighting for a better world. As long as it remains true to its original Helsinki principles, it still does, and always will. As the Co-Chairman of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), better known as the Helsinki Commission, I believe it is important that we recognize George Vest's early efforts. The U.S. Helsinki Commission was founded in 1976 and has since helped to ensure that the multilateral diplomatic process Vest started reflects not only U.S. interests but those of any country--indeed any person--who values freedom and democracy. As the elections just held in Russia demonstrate, work still remains. George Vest was a combat veteran of World War II and later served in various diplomatic positions beyond those related to Helsinki, including as advisor to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the State Department's liaison to the Defense Department, spokesman for the State Department Under Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Vest ended his career at the State Department as director general of the Foreign Service, recruiting and selecting future American diplomats. Our debt to this fine public servant, and his legacy of promoting peace over decades, is boundless. I thank his living sons, George S. Vest IV and Henry Vest, for their father's historic service to our country.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

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