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Missed Opportunity in Kazakhstan: Fraud and Intimidation Spoil Election Promised to be “Free and Fair”
Thursday, December 15, 2005

By H. Knox Thames, Counsel

On December 4, the Republic of Kazakhstan held its third presidential election. The results released by the Central Election Commission showed President Nursultan Nazarbayev winning 91.15% of the vote, with his most serious competitor, Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, a former Speaker of Parliament and now leader of the opposition alliance For a Fair Kazakhstan, receiving just 6.61%.  Despite promises from President Nazarbayev that the election would be free and fair, the observation mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the election “did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.”

Dynamic Culture – Stagnant Politics

Over the past decade and a half, Kazakhstan’s political climate has stagnated, as President Nazarbayev has gradually consolidated power.  If he finishes his third term, he will have ruled Kazakhstan for almost a quarter of a century.

President Nazarbayev oversees a vast country, the ninth largest in the world, stretching from the steppes of Siberia to the Altai Mountains to the Caspian Sea.  Kazakhstan is also where the Muslim and Slavic Christian worlds meet – its 15 million citizens are reportedly 47% Muslim and 44% Russian Orthodox.  The country is incredibly diverse; according to the 1999 census, 53% of the country is ethnic Kazakh and 30% ethnic Russians, with Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans, Tatars, Uygurs, and others composing the rest of the population.

Mr. Nazarbayev was first elected chairman of the Kazakh Supreme Soviet (Supreme Kenges) in February 1990. In December 1991, just a few weeks after Kazakhstan declared its sovereignty from the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev ran unopposed in Kazakhstan’s first direct presidential elections, winning a reported 98% of the vote.  For the second presidential election in 1999, the OSCE declined to send a full observation mission to protest the exclusion of opposition candidates and pre-election conditions that “clearly and substantially” did not meet OSCE commitments.  Nazarbayev won a reported 80% of the vote in an election the OSCE assessment mission said “fell far short” of OSCE standards.

Other elections have also received failing grades from international observers, including the most recent election in September 2004 for the lower house of parliament.  The OSCE observation mission concluded “the election process fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in many respects.”  While opposition parties in previous Kazakh parliaments had held multiple seats, the September 2004 election resulted in only one seat going to a party not affiliated with the government (which the party refused to take in a show of protest).

Also of note is the 1995 constitutional referendum arranged by President Nazarbayev, which drastically increased the powers of the president and continued Nazarbayev’s domination of the Kazakh political scene.  The referendum removed most checks and balances from the Kazakh system of government, as now only the president can appoint heads of regions and cities (as opposed to direct elections), initiate constitutional amendments, dismiss the government, and dissolve parliament.

Pre-election Climate

Considering the failure of past Kazakh elections to meet international standards, the December 4 vote presented President Nazarbayev and his government with a prime opportunity to show Kazakhstan could live up to its freely undertaken international commitments. With Kazakhstan publicly expressing interest in the 2009 Chairmanship of the OSCE and positive pre-election statements by President Nazarbayev, expectations were high that the election would be free and fair.

There were some improvements from past elections, and the OSCE worked closely with the Government of Kazakhstan to improve the election law.  Election lists were published, multiple candidates were allowed to run for office, and all five candidates were given time on state television and space in newspapers.  Amendments to the election code were made in 2004 after consultations under the OSCE Round Table Process.  However, the OSCE continued to maintain that the election law required “further improvement to fully meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections.”  Additional amendments were passed in April 2005, but instead of bringing the law into harmony with OSCE standards, the amendments were described by the OSCE as having the “opposite effect.”  Most striking was Article 44.6 of the Election Code that prohibited protesting by voters and political parties from the conclusion of the election campaign until the official publication of the results.

Other problems persisted in the election run up, with candidates and their party members being assaulted during campaign stops, campaign literature being seized and destroyed, opposition parties being repeatedly denied permission to hold campaign events in central locations, and the government refusing to allow the OSCE to review the programming codes for electronic voting.  NGOs reported on the politically motivated use of Article 318 of the Criminal Code, which penalizes a person who “insults the honor and dignity of the president.”  On May 5, 2005, the Ministry of Culture, Information and Sport closed the independent newspaper Respublika (“Republic”) under questionable circumstances, and later that month ordered the seizure of 1,000 copies of its successor newspaper, Set’Kz (“Kz Network”).  Soz (“Voice”) and Zhuma Tayms Data Nedeli (“Friday Times – Week’s Data”) have also faced government efforts to close them down.

Violations on Election Day

The author was one of 460 observers from 43 countries participating in the joint observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament.  The author observed polling stations in the rural Ilysky District north of Almaty, the largest city and former capital of Kazakhstan.

Significant problems occurred on the day of the election, with the author witnessing violations in half of the polling stations visited. Contraventions included voter fraud with individuals permitted to cast multiple ballots; intimidation by uniformed police or persons believed to be connected with security agencies; irregularities in the opening of a polling station preventing monitors from ascertaining the number of blank ballots apportioned, as they were counted offsite the day before; invalid ballots issued to voters without required polling station member signatures; and unfair campaign materials of the incumbent inside some polling areas.

These were not isolated events, as the OSCE found similar problems, including unauthorized persons interfering in polling stations; cases of multiple voting; ballot box stuffing; pressure on students to vote; tampering with result protocols.  The OSCE preliminary report stated, “While candidate registration was mostly inclusive and gave voters a choice, undue restrictions on campaigning, harassment of campaign staff and persistent and numerous cases of intimidation by the authorities, limited the possibility for a meaningful competition.”  The vote count was also marred, with the OSCE giving negative assessments in 27% of stations monitored.

The head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term observer mission, Ambassador Audrey Glover, expressed regret that the Kazakh authorities did not provide “a level playing field for a democratic election, whereby the candidates enjoyed equal treatment and opportunities to campaign so that voters could make an informed choice. This is despite assurances from the president that the election would be free and fair.”

U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) drew a similar conclusion: “President Nazarbayev has once again made it obvious that he is not concerned about meeting Kazakhstan’s obligations under the Helsinki Process.  It is quite clear that the promises of the Kazakh Government to hold free and fair elections that meet internationally recognized standards remain empty.”

U.S. Policy in Response

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Astana in October, she spoke of the importance of the upcoming election: “Kazakhstan has an unprecedented opportunity to lead Central Asia toward a future of democracy and to elevate U.S.-Kazakhstani relations to a new level.”  Since 1995, Kazakhstan has experienced a steady deterioration of civil and political rights, in direct contrast to the significant economic reforms taken on by the government.  The limitations have come legislatively – the 1995 constitutional referendum, the 2005 election law amendments; the 2005 law on extremism; the 2005 amendments to the media law; the other 2005 “national security” amendments – and through government actions.  The election could have reversed this negative trend, but instead only continued it.

The ramifications of the flawed election vote will be varied, but will certainly impact Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chairmanship.  As U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS) concluded, “Kazakhstan’s desire to lead the OSCE in 2009 has been undermined by the conduct of these elections.”  Co-Chairman Smith added, “The massive fraud, intimidation and outright abuse of power are blatantly inconsistent with a government seeking to lead the premier human rights organization in Europe.”  The election also raises the question of whether Kazakhstan’s desire to host an OSCE meeting on tolerance in 2006 should be considered.

At the bilateral level, the U.S./Kazakh relationship will not necessarily change, but there is nothing in which to justify the elevation Secretary Rice spoke of.  U.S. officials identified the three strategic interests in Kazakhstan – energy, security and expanding freedom through reform – with a clean election being key, if Kazakhstan wanted to pull closer to America.  Unfortunately, the government flouted this simple and straightforward indicator, signaling that Astana is not interested.  The United States should recognize this and hold firm, while continuing to push for democratization and human rights.

The other U.S. strategic interests of energy access and security can also be met, even if the status quo holds and the bilateral relationship remains more terrestrial.  It is in Kazakhstan’s national interest to continue its expansion of access to hydrocarbons – oil and gas are the foundations for its Asian Tiger-like economic success.  In addition, roughly one-third of foreign investment in Kazakhstan reportedly comes from U.S. companies.  Considering Kazakhstan’s WTO ambitions, Kazakhstan must continue to positively engage the U.S. economically.  Lastly, concerning security, President Nazarbayev will continue to be a partner in the war on terror, at least in Central Asia, as in the past extremist cells have operated in the more lawless regions of his country and probably continue to do so.

Conclusion

The unquestioned popularity of Mr. Nazarbayev does not excuse the conduct of the election – in fact, it begs the question of why his government allowed these blatant and unnecessary violations.  President Nazarbayev has demonstrated the ability to implement difficult policies when he has the political will to do so.  Kazakhstan, for instance, has made tough reforms in the economic sphere, which are often more painful than democratic reforms, especially in former communist countries making the transition from command economies to capitalism. If the president were serious about wanting to elevate Kazakhstan’s relations with the United States, he could have ensured a proper vote.

Kazakhstan was positioned to anchor a new “corridor of reform,” but the recent election unfortunately demonstrates that President Nazarbayev has no desire to grow democracy in his country.  The negative trend for respect of civil and political rights and the consolidation of state power will most likely continue.  As Secretary Rice said during her Astana trip, “History also teaches us that true stability and true security are only found in democratic regimes.  And no calculation of short-term interest should tempt us to undermine this basic conviction.”  Therefore, for the United States to maintain its credibility in the region, it must not ignore the conduct of the election and the events of the past year.  The United States should stand ready to expand its relationship, but only when Kazakhstan shows real interest in expanding domestic rights at home.

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    An independent U.S. commission heard vivid descriptions on Wednesday about what it's like to be on the ground in Ukraine for journalists who are responsible for keeping the world updated on Russia's bloody war. In testimony before the independent Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, multiple Ukraine-based journalists communicated how Moscow is indiscriminately attacking troops and civilians there and destroying cities. Ukraine is one of the most dangerous assignments in the world for reporters and several have already been killed there since Russia invaded the former Soviet republic on Feb. 24. The CSCE, also known as the Helsinki Commission, heard about the journalists' personal experiences and stories they have encountered in the battle-scarred country for the past eight weeks. Independent Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk said she fled to western Ukraine just days after the fighting began and that she fears what Russia's war could mean for the future of the country, which declared its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. "If Russia is not stopped -- if Russia is allowed to take more Ukrainian territory, this will happen everywhere," she told the commission. "Russia will perpetuate genocide on a massive scale. "No one in Ukraine can be safe unless Russia is defeated." Tokariuk added that most of the journalists she knows in Ukraine may have underestimated the danger initially. "Ukrainians had freedom of speech, freedom of press," she said. "We had the feeling that we were part of the free world." Tokariuk described grisly human rights violations in parts of Ukraine, particularly in the east -- including kidnappings, disappearances and forced deportations to Russia. The CSCE -- an independent government agency formed in 1975 to monitor security conditions in Europe -- says that at least seven journalists have been killed so far in Ukraine since the war began. The commission is comprised of several lawmakers from the House and Senate and normally includes three executive members from the departments of Defense, Commerce and State. Those seats are presently vacant. Asami Terajima, a Kyiv Independent journalist, told the lawmakers that she moved to Ukraine when she was 10. "Every single day as the war continues, more Ukrainian civilians are dying and more cities are being destroyed," she said, emphasizing that Russia is not targeting only Ukrainian troops. Freelance conflict reporter Oz Katerji told the commission that although Ukrainian fighters have been successful repelling Russian advances, they need weapons and equipment that will "strike fear in the hearts" of Russian troops. "This is democracy versus totalitarianism," he said. "It's light versus darkness." Evgeny Sakun, a Ukrainian cameraman working for Kyiv Live TV, was the first journalist to be killed after the invasion when Russian missiles struck the television tower in Kyiv on March 1. Award-winning video journalist and documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud was killed in Irpin on March 13 and an attack on a Fox News camera crew near Kyiv killed Irish reporter Pierre Zakrzewski, a cameraman and Ukrainian reporter-producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova a day later. Late last month, journalist Oksana Baulina was killed in Kyiv by a "kamikaze drone" while working for Latvia-based Russian online investigative media outlet The Insider. Jeanne Cavelier, head of Reporters Without Borders' Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said a few weeks ago that a quarter of all journalists who have died worldwide in 2022 were killed in Ukraine within the first month of fighting. "As their reporting is essential in order to understand the war in Ukraine and attacking journalists is a war crime under international law, we call on the Russian and Ukrainian authorities to guarantee their safety on the ground," Cavelier said in a statement. Ukraine is ranked 97th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Russia is ranked 150th. "Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war," the CSCE said in a statement before Wednesday's hearing. "Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions."

  • Biden administration urged to ban UK lawyers who ‘enabled’ oligarchs

    A member of Congress has urged the Biden administration to place travel bans on senior British lawyers that acted for wealthy Russian clients against investigative journalists. Steve Cohen, a Democratic representative from Tennessee, has written to Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, urging him to sanction the lawyers for having “enabled malign activities of Russian oligarchs”. His letter comes as the Biden administration looks to increase its support for Ukraine in its war against Russia and tighten sanctions against those who have supported the Russian regime. Cohen wrote: “Oligarchs who hire lawyers to engage in abusive cases against journalists to silence them cannot exert malign influence in our system . . . the United States must establish deterrents for foreign enablers serving individuals who are undermining democracy.” The state department did not respond to a request for comment. Cohen singled out several lawyers he believed should be subject to bans on visas for travel to the US: Nigel Tait of Carter-Ruck; John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis; barrister Hugh Tomlinson; Geraldine Proudler of CMS; Keith Schilling of Schillings; and Shlomo Rechtschaffen of SR law. Each of the lawyers is well known in London legal circles, with firms like Carter-Ruck and Schillings having established strong reputations in defamation law and reputation management. Tait, Kelly, Tomlinson and Proudler all worked on recent cases against the former Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton or her publisher HarperCollins, or both. Belton and HarperCollins were sued last year by several Russian oligarchs including Roman Abramovich over her book Putin’s People, which details the rise to power of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. The lawsuits were later settled or withdrawn. Cohen cited Schillings’ work for Malaysian businessman and fugitive Jho Low. British ministers have expressed concern over the way in which UK courts are used by wealthy foreigners to launch libel cases. Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, last month set out proposals to limit any so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Also in March Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, used parliamentary privilege to claim “amoral” City lawyers were teaming up with “Putin’s henchmen” to offer “legalised intimidation”. A spokesperson for Tomlinson said: “Regulatory rules for lawyers are very strict and work to ensure equal entitlement to independent legal advice. Mr Tomlinson acted properly and in accordance with those rules throughout and has never acted as Mr Cohen suggests.” Tait’s firm Carter-Ruck said: “The claims made against Carter-Ruck are misconceived and are rejected entirely. In addition to other matters, we are not working for any Russian individuals, companies or entities seeking to challenge, overturn, frustrate or minimise sanctions.” It added: “We are not acting for, and will not be acting for, any individual, company or entity associated with the Putin regime in any matter or context, whether sanctions-related or otherwise, and will continue to conduct all ‘know your client’ checks in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, as we have always done.” Cohen cited Rechtschaffen for his representation of Israeli-British businessman Walter Soriano, who he alleged was an “enabler” of certain oligarchs including Abramovich. Rechtschaffen said: “Walter Soriano is not an enabler of any oligarch . . . The English courts have said that the claim against Mr Stedman is not abusive.” Harbottle & Lewis said the firm had “acted at all time in accordance with its professional and legal obligations, and takes these matters very seriously”. Schillings said the firm did not act for any sanctioned entities and could not comment on client matters. It added that Cohen’s allegations were “wholly misplaced” and “misinformed”. It said the firm had upheld “the highest traditions of the legal profession”. Proudler’s firm CMS said it rejected Cohen’s allegations, adding that Proudler and the firm had been “compliant with all professional regulations”. “As we have said since the invasion of Ukraine, CMS is no longer accepting new instructions from Russian based entities or from any individuals with connections to the Russian government.”

  • Journalists Reporting from Ukraine to Speak at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online staff briefing: DIVERSE VOICES REPORTING FROM UKRAINE Wednesday, April 20, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3E89IZX Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. This briefing will convene journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion will center on their personal experiences and those of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oz Katerji, Freelance conflict journalist Asami Terajima, Journalist, Kyiv Independent Olga Tokariuk, Independent journalist based in Ukraine; Non-Resident Fellow, CEPA  

  • Outrage and Worry: Kremlin Critic's Arrest Heightens Concerns Of Putin's Crackdown

    Russian opposition politician and Washington Post contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained by Russian authorities in Moscow on Monday, hours after calling the Kremlin “not just corrupt” or “authoritarian” but a “regime of murderers” in a CNN+ interview—a development that has only heightened concerns about the threat of speaking out against Vladimir Putin. “I think a lot of people are very worried about what's going to happen next,” CNN+ anchor Sara Sidner, who conducted the interview, told CNN’s John Berman on Tuesday. On Wednesday, CNN’s Brian Stelter asked Sidner whether she feels any guilt. “Sure. A little bit," she replied. "I think it’s more nervousness because I know that he was the one that disclosed where he was." In his interview with CNN+, Kara-Murza acknowledged the risk he was taking, and is personally familiar with Putin's brutal tactics. His close friend and associate Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister turned fierce Putin critic, was shot dead in 2015, and Kara-Murza himself has survived two poisonings, both of which left him in a coma, that he has blamed on the Kremlin. While many dissidents have fled Russia amid Putin’s latest crackdown on independent media, Kara-Murza is among few who have stayed. And he has continued to criticize Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine despite facing up to 15 years in prison for doing so under the Kremlin’s draconian new law. “This is where I have to be,” Kara-Murza told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in an interview Sunday. “We all know the price.” Asked what kinds of considerations CNN made before airing Kara-Murza’s interview, a CNN spokesperson pointed Vanity Fair to Sidner's comments on Tuesday and Wednesday. MSNBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Tuesday, a day after he was reportedly arrested outside his home on charges of disobeying the police, the political activist and journalist was sentenced to 15 days in jail. The same day, the Post published an editorial commending Kara-Murza’s willingness to publicly speak out against the Kremlin in columns for the Post and elsewhere, and called for his release. “What is abundantly clear is that Mr. Putin has once again put a critic in his crosshairs, every day sinking Russia deeper into totalitarianism, intolerant of free thought or dissent,” the Editorial Board wrote. Post publisher Fred Ryan also demanded Kara-Murza’s immediate release in a statement that called his detention the latest in Putin’s ongoing effort to “hide the truth about the atrocities Putin is committing in the Russian people’s name.” Kara-Murza’s detention is also prompting outrage in Washington. Leaders of the Helsinki Commission, an agency that heard from Kara-Murza last month at its hearing about Putin’s “war on truth,” were “alarmed” by Kara-Murza’s detention, according to a joint statement issued by Sen. Ben Cardin, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson. “Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people,” they wrote, demanding he “be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately.” Authorities have denied Kara-Murza access to legal counsel in violation of his constitutional rights, the Commission's press release said. The poisonings that Kara-Murza endured in 2015 and 2017, he said, were reprisals by the Kremlin for his advocacy of Western sanctions against the Russian government—accusations the Kremlin has denied, but that the Post notes are bolstered by “investigations by independent organizations [which] found that he had been followed by members of the same federal agency that allegedly poisoned jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and at least three other opposition figures.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Welcomes Conclusion of First Round of French Presidential Elections

    WASHINGTON—Following the first round of presidential elections in France on April 10, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “As co-chairman of the bipartisan U.S. Helsinki Commission, I congratulate the French people for making their voices heard on Sunday during the first round of their presidential elections. France is among the world’s most long-standing democracies, America’s oldest ally, and a vital voice in Europe and around the world for our common liberal values. “Those same values are under unprecedented and brutal assault by Russia in Ukraine. As we look ahead to the second round of elections later this month, I am confident that the French people will choose their leaders based on the strength of their principles, and reject apologia and disinformation on behalf of dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “Putin has no principles beyond conquest and banditry, as Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine and its uncivilized campaign of atrocity there attest. The Kremlin’s imperial war in Ukraine is inseparable from the totalitarian regime it has erected at home, along with the destruction of the last vestiges of civil society and press freedom, and its efforts to undermine trust in Western governments—including in great democracies like France. “I have faith in France’s powerful democracy, and offer my warmest wishes to the French people as we continue our rich friendship based on common values and in defiance of tyrants and demagogues.”

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for the Immediate Release of a Vocal Kremlin Critic Detained in Moscow

    Western officials are calling for Russian authorities to release a prominent opposition activist and critic of the invasion of Ukraine after reports of his arrest emerged Monday. The activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, has since been sentenced to 15 days in jail on the charge of disobeying a police order. The police detained Kara-Murza on the street near his Moscow home, according to the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency focused on security and human rights. His lawyer told the independent news outlet Sota that he had been detained, and activist Ilya Yashin also confirmed news of Kara-Murza's arrest on Twitter. Kara-Murza's lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, said his client was arrested on charges of disobeying police orders and faced up to 15 days in jail or a small fine, The Guardian reports. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted Monday that the U.S. is "troubled" by Kara-Murza's detention. "We are monitoring this situation closely and urge his immediate release," he added. His lawyer promises to appeal the sentence The Khamovniki district court in Moscow sentenced Kara-Murza to 15 days in jail at a hearing on Tuesday, according to Prokhorov. Prokhorov wrote on Facebook that police say Kara-Murza "behaved erratically after seeing police officers, changed the trajectory of his movement, quickened his pace and responded to the demand to stop by trying to flee," according to an English translation. He rejects this claim, saying instead that police were waiting for Kara-Murza at the entrance to his home and detained him as soon as he got out of his car. Prokhorov vowed to appeal the sentence. Both the Free Russia Foundation and Helsinki Commission allege that authorities denied Kara-Murza access to legal counsel — in violation of his rights — while he was being held in a Moscow police station ahead of his hearing. They are among those calling for his immediate release. "Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people. He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately," reads a joint statement by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, co-chairman Rep. Steve Cohen and ranking members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson. The longtime Kremlin critic has been speaking out against censorship and the war Kara-Murza is a vocal critic of the Kremlin who held leadership roles in Open Russia and the Free Russia Foundation, organizations that the Russian government has deemed "undesirable." Kara-Murza also hosted a weekly program on the since-shuttered Echo of Moscow radio station and writes columns for The Washington Post. Notably, he fell seriously ill in Moscow in 2015 and 2017 in incidents of suspected poisoning that he blames on the Russian authorities. "Given the sophisticated type of poison, I think it's people who have been or are connected with the Russian special services," he told NPR in 2017. Kara-Murza was also close friends with Boris Nemtsov — a former Russian deputy prime minister-turned-vocal Kremlin critic who was shot dead in Moscow in 2015 — and the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, at whose funeral he served as a pallbearer. Kara-Murza has spoken out against Russia's war in Ukraine in recent weeks. He testified at a March 29 Helsinki Commission hearing and, in his opening remarks, described what he called two parallel wars launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin the previous month. "One, which continues to this day, was his unprovoked and unlawful aggression against Ukraine," he said. "The other, which was concluded effectively and swiftly, was his blitzkrieg against what remained of independent media in Russia." As Kara-Murza noted, Russians who speak out against the war — and even use that term to describe it — can face up to 15 years in prison, under a restrictive new law that has prompted an exodus of independent journalists and foreign media from the country for fear of prosecution. Kara-Murza has continued doing interviews with Western outlets and spoke to CNN just hours before his arrest. In that conversation, he referred to the Russian government as "a regime of murderers" and explained why he was staying in Moscow despite the risks. "Look, I'm a Russian politician — I have to be in Russia, it's my home country," he said. "I think the biggest gift ... those of us who are in opposition to Putin's regime could give to the Kremlin would be just to give up and run. And that's all they want from us."

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Alarmed by Detention of Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Following Monday’s arrest of prominent pro-democracy Russian statesman and outspoken Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, 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 joint statement: “We are alarmed to learn that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Moscow. Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people. He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately.” On April 11, Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained on the street near his Moscow home. He currently is being held in the Khamovniki police station in the Central Administrative District of Moscow, where authorities have denied him access to his legal counsel in violation of his constitutional rights. Reports indicate that he has been charged with an administrative offense. It remains unclear if he is undergoing interrogation while in custody. His trial is scheduled for April 12. Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned twice by the Kremlin in 2015 and 2017. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls on Russia to Release 'True Patriot' Kara-Murza

    A U.S. human rights monitor is calling for the release of journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition figure who has spoken out against what he has called his government's crackdown on dissent. The U.S. Helsinki Commission on Monday raised alarm over the detention of Kara-Murza in Moscow a month after he outlined the Kremlin's increased use of propaganda and censorship. His arrest is the latest report of authorities attempting to silence critics since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February. "We are alarmed to learn that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Moscow. Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people," the commission said in a statement. "He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately." The commission, a U.S. government agency comprised of members of Congress and representatives from federal agencies, heard testimony from Kara-Murza who described how the Russian government has used disinformation and the growing struggles of independent media outlets. The Russian government in March enacted new restrictions, criminalizing media from using the word "invasion" to describe the conflict in Ukraine. Those who violate them could face up to 15 years in prison. Speaking before the commission, Kara-Murza said that following the invasion, Putin moved swiftly against "what remained of independent media in Russia." Kara-Murza said that within days, authorities shuttered independent outlets, including Echo of Moscow, a radio station where he hosted a weekly program. He also pointed to how the Russian government has blocked access to social media networks. Other news outlets, such as highly respected Novaya Gazeta, ceased publication because of censorship, he said. Calling many Russians "brainwashed," he said many are not even aware of potential war crimes their government is alleged to have committed in Ukraine. "Today, most Russians are in an Orwellian parallel reality created by the Kremlin propaganda machine," Kara-Murza told the commission. "And I mean, Orwellian in the literal sense, what's being said on Russian state television might as well have come out of George Orwell's 1984: 'War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.'" Since Russia's new censorship laws have gone into effect, reports have emerged of students or parents turning in teachers who spoke disapprovingly of the war. Nobel Prize laureate and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, was attacked on a train. Russian authorities have also threatened Wikipedia with a nearly $50,000 fine for refusing to delete "illegal information." Kara-Murza, an author and politician who was repeatedly poisoned, has continued speaking out despite his arrest, making an appearance on MSNBC on Sunday.

  • Russia Critics Press Congress for Curbing Moscow's Role in International Groups

    Critics of Moscow pressed lawmakers to sever remaining international connections with Moscow and punish what they called enablers of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government—including Russian tycoons. “We recognize that the oligarchs are the appendages of Mr. Putin’s mafia state,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), the co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, which held a hearing Wednesday on Russia's financial ties abroad. “I can’t wait to see police tape around mansions in Miami," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.). Witnesses before the commission, a U.S. agency that has frequently scrutinized Moscow, sought to portray Russian billionaires and their network of lawyers and agents in the West as little different from Russian government employees and its lawyers abroad. Bill Browder, a prominent critic of the Kremlin’s human-rights record, called on the U.S. to withdraw from the mutual legal-assistance treaty that allows U.S. and Russian law enforcement to cooperate on investigations and secure witness testimony. Western countries should ban lawyers paid by the Russian government in one country from traveling to their countries, he said. The Kremlin used the Interpol international law-enforcement network in an effort to arrest Mr. Browder after his lawyer died in a Russian prison in 2009. Mr. Browder, who founded investment fund Hermitage Capital, said the U.S. and partner countries should seek to remove Moscow from Interpol or “basically threaten the funding of Interpol if Russia is not expelled.” Mr. Browder was the largest private investor in Russia until his expulsion from that country in 2005. Moscow should also lose its membership and face blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based intergovernmental body that audits the ability of nations to detect and disrupt illicit finance, said Daria Kaleniuk, co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine. Mr. Browder and Ms. Kaleniuk were among five witnesses at the hearing.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest March 2022

  • Putin's War on Truth

    Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine began on February 24, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has cracked down severely on Russia’s information landscape. In addition to blocking access to almost all social media outlets and international news sites and criminalizing speech that does not conform to the Kremlin narrative, Putin has deliberately and forcefully spread propaganda about the war and the Ukrainian state and people.  By depriving the Russian people of access to credible information and controlling state-run media, Putin aims to drum up domestic support for his war of pure aggression on the peaceful, democratic citizens of Ukraine. At a hearing on March 29, 2022, the U.S. Helsinki Commission heard from three expert witnesses who discussed Putin’s propaganda tools and narratives and offered recommendations for the United States to help ensure that the people of Russia are not cut off from the truth. Parliamentarians from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) also attended, including President of the OSCE PA Margareta Cederfelt (Sweden), and OSCE PA Vice Presidents Pascal Allizard (France) and Irene Charalambides (Cyprus). Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), who presided over the hearing, compared Putin’s current propaganda and censorship campaigns and practices to the Stalin era and called out claims that Russia is trying to “denazify” Ukraine. “Putin is building a new iron curtain and attempts to justify his indefensible war and continued attacks against the Ukrainian people,” he said. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) described recent and upcoming hearings, emphasizing the Helsinki Commission’s focus on the war in Ukraine. He stated, “There’s no higher priority that we have right now than to deal with what Russia has done in violating every single principle of the Helsinki Final Act – every single principle.” Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) praised the unified bipartisan stance that Republicans and Democrats have taken in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and highlighted the dire consequences ordinary Russians have faced in speaking out against Putin or the war. “I am particularly grateful to the brave Russians… armed only with truth who have spoken out at great risk to their personal safety,” he said. Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT) remarked on the intrinsic connection between the war in Ukraine and the war on truth in Russia, emphasizing that as the West fortifies Ukrainian freedom-fighters with arms and equipment, we must also fortify the efforts of truth-tellers. Fatima Tlis, a journalist with Voice of America, described contemporary Russian propaganda as a combination of old techniques and new technology, comparing disinformation deployed by the Kremlin to a soap opera—intriguing and engaging to the audience. Tlis emphasized that full force propaganda has been deployed against the Russian people for decades and it will require an intelligent strategy to counteract it. She recommended utilizing humor, referencing a satirical TV show that Putin shut down shortly after coming to power. “He’s afraid of being laughed at because, you know, the great czar cannot be laughed at,” she observed. “He loses his power. People are not afraid of him anymore if they can laugh at him.” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, described the need for a coordinated, three-pronged response to Russian propaganda by government entities, tech companies, and media. While Russia is the most pressing challenge, Pomerantsev pointed out that China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries are also engaging in these practices. He called for comprehensive action to combat the Russian disinformation complex and said, “Where they have troll farms, we will have online town halls.  Where they use disinformation to manipulate people, we will use communication to engage with them as citizens.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian journalist, author, and former host at Echo of Moscow Radio, spoke to the comprehensive program of disinformation that Putin has installed in Russia from his first days in office, and highlighted the difficulties independent media outlets in Russia face, including being forced to cease operations. He also recalled the Soviet-era example of using radio broadcasts to combat a new information Iron Curtain. “Nothing beats totalitarian propaganda better than the truth,” he said. Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how to support Russian dissidents, to which techniques would be the most effective in distributing accurate information to Russian citizens. Related Information Witness Biographies Vladimir Kara-Murza: "Why the West should help Russians learn the truth about Putin’s war in Ukraine"

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Russian Propaganda and Censorship

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUTIN'S WAR ON TRUTH Propaganda and Censorship in Russia Tuesday, March 29, 2022 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2172 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine began on February 24, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has cracked down severely on Russia’s information landscape. In addition to blocking access to almost all social media outlets and international news sites and criminalizing speech that does not conform to the Kremlin narrative, Putin has deliberately and forcefully spread propaganda about the war and the Ukrainian state and people.  By depriving the Russian people of access to credible information and controlling state-run media, Putin aims to drum up domestic support for his war of pure aggression on the peaceful, democratic citizens of Ukraine. Witnesses will examine Putin’s propaganda tools and narratives as well as the rapidly shrinking options for Russians to access credible information, and will recommend options for the United States to help ensure that the people of Russia are not cut off from the truth. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Fatima Tlis, Journalist, Voice of America Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow, Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian journalist and author, former host at Echo of Moscow radio  

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Disturbed by Suspension of RFE/RL Operations in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the suspension of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) operations in Russia after a years-long pressure campaign on the outlet by Russian authorities and an escalating crackdown on all forms of independent media, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I am disturbed by the suspension of RFE/RL’s operations in Russia, which has had a physical presence there since 1991 and has been a trusted news source for the Russian people since 1953. The Kremlin’s outrageous financial and legal attacks on RFE/RL are simply tactics to silence reporting that does not conform to Vladimir Putin’s narrative, and I applaud RFE/RL’s refusal to label its content as coming from a ‘foreign agent.’ “Putin’s absolute destruction of independent media in Russia is rooted in the repression of the Soviet era. The recent legislation that subjects journalists to a 15-year prison sentence for deviating from Kremlin lies about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is part of Putin’s effort to create a totalitarian state. He does not want the Russian people to see the truth about the war on the people of Ukraine, a war of his own choice that is inflicting terror on a peaceful neighbor.” RFE/RL has been the target of financial and legal attacks in Russia, including fines resulting in more than $13.4 million for its refusal to submit to labeling its content. In addition, 18 RFE/RL journalists have been individually designated as “foreign agents.” Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine, which began on February 24, Putin has escalated his attacks on independent media, including passing harmful legislation criminalizing content about the war on Ukraine; blocking international news sites such as Meduza, BBC, and Deutsche Welle; and forcing the shutdown of independent Russian media outlets such as TV Rain and Echo of Moscow.

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