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Parliamentary Elections in Kyrgyzstan Set the Stage for a New Political System; Ethnic Tensions Remain a Key Obstacle to Stability
Monday, December 20, 2010

By Janice Helwig and Shelly Han

The OSCE concluded that although the October 10, 2010 elections in Kyrgyzstan were conducted peacefully – no small feat following the April 2010 revolution – and demonstrated a significant increase in pluralism as compared to previous elections, there remains an “urgent need for profound electoral legal reform.” Two Helsinki Commission staff members traveled to Kyrgyzstan to observe the election as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation and were deployed in the Osh and Kara-suu region. Although the staff experience was not inconsistent with the overall OSCE conclusion, Osh and the surrounding region appear to have had more problems during the election than other areas of the country.

In June, the constitution had been changed through a referendum to give the parliament a stronger role than the President. The improvement in the conduct of the election may have been partly a result of that change in that, because of the new parliamentary system and the relatively large number of parties competing, no one party or group could manipulate the election nationwide (which appeared to have been the case in the 2009 presidential elections). In fact, the close result which divided parliamentary seats among several main parties was a good indicator of an open competition. Nevertheless, there were some problems at the local level, where there may have been attempts to influence the outcome. In the Osh and Kara-suu region, there appeared to be problems particularly with the voters list, the inking process, and the counting process.

For example, in almost all the polling visited by Commission staff, about a third of those who had voted had added themselves to the additional list with just their ID. Other international observers reported similar findings. This would indicate that either the main voters list was extremely inaccurate, or something more problematic may have been going on. In one polling station, a man tried to add himself to the additional list but was turned down while the staff was present; he clearly was not satisfied and went back in to try again as they left. Another international observer in the neighboring Uzgen area reported the same pattern, but, suspiciously, only in polling stations easily accessible from the main road. According to the election law, the registration of any voter on the additional list should have been counterchecked and signed by an adviser or observer in the polling station, but that did not happen during the day. At the closing in one polling station, the Chairwoman had a colleague counter sign all 225 additions to the list.

The inking procedure also appeared to be a problem. In theory, anyone adding themselves to the additional list should not have been able to vote anywhere else because of the use of invisible ink sprayed on each voter’s thumb. However, spraying and checking for ink in the polling stations appeared to be haphazardly conducted. Domestic observers had to stay in their chairs across the room and could not see whether the ink checker was effective. Moreover, when Commission staff asked people who had been inked earlier it the day to put their thumb under the light, little or no ink was visible. The ink seemed not to work all of the time, or perhaps to have washed off easily.

There also were significant problems in processing protocols during the counting process in the Kara-suu district. At the district counting station, the halls and stairways were lined with polling station chairpersons busily erasing and refilling in their protocols. Protocols and stamps were strewn around everywhere. It may have been that the chairpersons were simply trying to get their numbers to add up properly so they would be accepted by Shailoo, the computerized vote-counting system. On the other hand, the numbers also could have been in the process of being changed to influence the outcome. Regardless of intent, last minute changes to protocols made unilaterally by chairpersons should not have been allowed as no observers were present and there were no controls in place to prevent fraud.

Official turnout figures said that Osh had the highest voter turnout in the country, at about sixty-six percent. However, Commission staff did not see polling stations with a turnout higher than forty-five percent, nor did other international observers in the area. Interestingly, the turnout in ethnic Uzbek areas appeared to be about the same as in ethnic Kyrgyz areas. Many ethnic Uzbeks said they were “voting for peace,” although it was not clear whether that meant that moving forward with any new parliament would be positive, or if it meant that voting for a certain party would benefit ethnic Uzbeks. Some ethnic Uzbek community leaders had said prior to election day that most political parties had offered their communities money and/or infrastructure improvements in exchange for their votes.

Ethnic tensions remain a concern

Prior to election day, Commission staff were able to visit several of the Osh neighborhoods destroyed in the June violence, as well as one tent camp. The scale and scope of the destruction in ethnic Uzbek areas was enormous. And in mixed neighborhoods – for example near Shark – the house-by-house, business-by-business singling out of Uzbek-owned structures for destruction was clear. All of the victims staff spoke with appeared to be still afraid and did not see any future in Kyrgyzstan. All wanted to leave but did not have the means to do so. None wanted to go to Uzbekistan; rather they wanted to go to Russia or anywhere else where they might find economic opportunities. While rebuilding of homes was clearly progressing, the question of earning a living in the long term was an overwhelming concern.

The divide between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz is wide and seems to be growing. Many ethnic Kyrgyz seem to genuinely believe that ethnic Uzbeks were responsible for the violence, and even burned down their own houses in an effort to get international attention. Kyrgyz media and the government seem to be reinforcing this message. If the region is to move forward and avoid future violence, there needs to be some mechanism for accountability and reconciliation. However, so far only ethnic Uzbeks have been arrested and put on trial, and the trials appear to have been unfairly conducted. Ethnic Uzbek defendants have been routinely attacked by ethnic Kyrgyz mobs during the trials, as have media representatives trying to report on the proceedings. In general, journalists and human rights defenders fear retaliation if they report on abuses against ethnic Uzbeks; as a result, there have been few voices speaking out. Standing in the ruins of his home, a man shows Commission staff the photo of his sister, who was killed during the violence in June.

This ethnic divide is likely to fester unless something is done to build confidence between the main ethnic groups and provide economic opportunities for all. Moreover, disenfranchised youth could be vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations. The new government will face many challenges, not least addressing continuing ethnic tension in the south. 

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  • Finland’s Leadership in the OSCE

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So were 50 international NGOs, including the U.S.-based International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute. An extensive series of briefings for international observers included presentations by officials administering the elections, political analysts, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and the media, as well as the candidates. Opposition candidates generally complained about an uneven playing field. They claimed abuse of state resources by the incumbent and bias on the part of the CEC, as well as decrying the high costs for placement of televised political commercials, inaccuracies in the consolidated voter list, and acts of intimidation. Several candidates made clear that, under such circumstances, they would not accept the results of the elections. Most voiced a lack of confidence in the system, pointing to the lack of an independent judiciary. One candidate labeled Saakashvili the “Robert Mugabe” of Georgia, after the dictatorial leader of Zimbabwe, for his authoritarianism. Another equated the situation in Georgia with the volatility of Pakistan. Saakashvili, for his part, used the appearance to outline the benefits of his reform agenda, report on his extensive campaigning throughout the country and justify the use of force surrounding the November events. He also bemoaned “the Shakespearean drama” of the campaign, in referring to a reported coup plot allegedly masterminded by candidate Arkadi (Badri) Patarkatsishvili, reportedly Georgia’s wealthiest tycoon, and his close associates. Saakashvili confidently suggested that he could win in the first round, concluding, “it will be unfortunate for the country if I don’t win.” Political upheaval is nothing new in this mountainous Caucasus nation with a population of 4.6 million and an area slightly smaller than South Carolina. Since gaining independence in 1991, Saakashvili’s two predecessors, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze were each forced from office, the former in a bloody coup and the latter following flawed elections that spawned the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili garnered a stunning 96.3% of the vote in the January 2004 presidential elections, with a voter turn out nearing 90%. Walking down Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue and Freedom Square, brilliantly lighted for the Christmas season, one was struck by the images of Saakashvili plastered on city buses and huge posters, as well as passersby sporting scarves and matching knitted hats with his party’s signature number “5.” At the same time, there was a certain unease lingering in the air of the capital, perhaps left over from the violent November crackdown, or anxiety over threats of a coup or prospects for renewed mass demonstrations following the elections. While public opinion was fairly evenly split on the imposition of the state of emergency, most people were strongly opposed to the use of riot police and tear gas, as well as the forced closure of the popular Imedi TV channel. Adding to the uncertainty, Patarkatsishvili had reportedly decided to withdraw from the elections within days of the elections only to reverse himself two days before the actual balloting. There were also rumors of possible violence at polling stations on election day. On election day Chairman Hastings and his colleagues observed no significant infractions of the electoral code in the nearly three dozen polling stations they visited. Election precincts visited by their teams were spread out across Tbilisi, as well as in the more rural Gori and Mtskheta Election Districts. We also had an opportunity to observe mobile voting, during which election officials bring a clear plastic voting box and ballot to the home of a voter unable to physically make it to the polling station. Precinct election commissions, composed of representatives from various parties, seemed to work cooperatively, with large numbers of domestic non-partisan and party observers present from opening through the sometimes arduous counting process. Voter list errors were commonplace; some names were missing while those of the deceased sometimes appeared. Procedures allowed for the casting of provisional ballots by those whose names were not listed. In at least two of the polling stations visited, officials and observers alike were on edge amid rumors of possible disruption by outside gangs, though none materialized. The sometimes painstaking vote count often stretched into the wee hours of the morning. Speaking on behalf of the International Election Observation Mission before a crowded press conference the day after the election, Chairman Hastings praised the competitive nature of the presidential contest, a first in Georgian history. He remarked, “I perceive this election as a viable expression of the free choice of the Georgian people,” while acknowledging, “the future holds immense challenges.” The IEOM concluded that the January 5th election “was in essence consistent with most international standards for democratic elections.” The January 6th statement [Click here to view the statement] of preliminary findings and conclusions outlines a series of shortcomings, urging prompt corrective steps by the authorities. Chairman Hastings traveled from Tbilisi to Helsinki to brief Finnish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office Ilkka Kanerva on the first elections of Finland’s 2008 chairmanship.  [Click here to view the press release]  The IEOM is expected to issue a final report on the Georgian elections in early February. A short distance from the hotel press conference, a crowd of opposition supporters gathered to protest the preliminary results being announced by the CEC suggesting a first-round victory for Saakashvili, narrowly avoiding a run-off. Peaceful protests took place in the days following as several candidates and their supporters remained true to their pledges not to accept the results of the January 5th vote. In a televised address to the nation, Saakashvili remarked, “No one can ignore the opinion of people who did not vote for us,” concluding, “We have to find a consensus.” Still, finding such a consensus will likely prove a daunting task in a country where confrontation has more often than not trumped compromise, sometimes ending in violence. So far, there has been no recurrence of the confrontations of November but opposition parties have largely refused to recognize Saakashvili’s victory. Saakashvili was sworn into office for a second term on January 20, 2008. Some members of the opposition have been engaged in discussions with former Acting President Burjanadze about, for example, means of ensuring pluralism of views in Georgia’s media. But all sides are now focused on the critical parliamentary elections this spring; should opposition parties do well in the balloting, relations between the executive and legislative branches could change substantially in Georgia. Of the nearly 2 million ballots cast (56.9% of the electorate), the CEC announced Saakashvili the winner with 53.47% of the vote and his closest competitor Gachechiladze, at 25.69%. None of the remaining candidates exceeded single digits, according to the official tally. The plebiscites on spring parliamentary elections and NATO membership were overwhelmingly approved, with 69.8% and 72.5% respectively.

  • Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region Part 2

    Freedom of media is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and recognized as such under international human rights law and in numerous OSCE commitments.  Moreover, a free and independent media is not only an essential tool for holding governments accountable; the media can serve as an agent of change when it shines a light into the darkest crevices of the world (examining environmental degradation, corporate or government corruption, trafficking in children, and healthcare crises in the world's most vulnerable countries, etc.) Freedom of the media is closely connected to the broader right to freedom of speech and expression and other issues including public access to information and the conditions necessary for free and fair elections.  The hearing will attempt to illustrate the degree in which freedom of the media is obstructed in the greater OSCE region.

  • OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Continues to Play a Constructive Role

    By Janice Helwig, Staff Advisor Helsinki Commission staff recently visited the OSCE Mission Bosnia and Herzegovina to see how its work has adjusted to the evolving situation in the country. Mission Mandate: Activities and Priorities The mandate of the Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina was established by the December 1995 OSCE Ministerial Council in Budapest in response to taskings given to the OSCE by the Dayton Peace Agreement. It focused on elections, human rights monitoring, and facilitating the monitoring of arms control and confidence- and security-building arrangements. In 1996, the Permanent Council expanded the mandate to include democracy building. Although the mandate has not formally changed since 1996, the focus and work of the OSCE Mission has adapted with the changing situation in the country, and the Mission continues to play an active and effective role in the post-conflict rehabilitation of the country. The Mission’s work on elections, security and confidence building measures, and sub-regional arms control is largely finished. The conduct of elections has been turned over to Bosnian authorities, and most of the work under Dayton Annex 1b, Articles II and IV, has been completed. While some activities have decreased, work on human rights monitoring and education has increased. As refugees have returned and as war crimes trials have begun throughout the country, the Mission has established programs to monitor potential discrimination against returnees in economic and social rights, and is monitoring war crimes trials at all levels. The Mission’s work to promote desegregated education and to foster good governance at the local level is bearing fruit. Some schools have been unified; others now hold joint activities and classes. Many municipal governments are working on a five-module good governance training program. One of the OSCE Mission’s advantages continues to be its presence throughout the country. The mission currently consists of the headquarters office in Sarajevo, three regional centers (RC), and 20 field offices (FO). The Mission’s field offices are one of its key advantages over others organizations. The relationships built with local authorities and communities are the basis for OSCE’s effectiveness and often used by other organizations and Embassies not resident throughout the country. The Mission currently focuses its work through four Departments: Democratization, Education, Human Rights, and Security Cooperation. Each Department conducts several programs, which are standardized and implemented throughout the country by staff of the field offices. Democratization Programs The work of the Democratization Department focuses on developing efficient and transparent government institutions, building parliamentary capacity, and supporting civil society. A major component is UGOVOR, a country-wide local government project launched in March 2005. As other international organizations are becoming more involved with public administration reform, the Mission is shifting to building ties among municipal governments and developing civil society. In addition, the Mission works in small municipalities where other international organizations are not. OGOVOR is a five-module training program to improve regulatory elements of municipal governance and promote greater transparency and accountability. The five modules are: access to information; ethics for elected officials; participatory strategic planning; harmonization of municipal statutes; and partnership between civil society and municipal governments. Education Programs In July 2002, at the request of the Office of the High Representative and with the concurrence of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the OSCE Mission assumed responsibility for coordination of the work of the international community on education. The first aim was to ensure that textbooks and classes were non-political, non-divisive, and free from derogatory propaganda concerning other ethnic and religious groups. New textbooks are being distributed this year, and most lessons are now free from intolerant bias. Nevertheless, most schools in Bosnia remain divided – they are either two schools under one roof, divided by ethnicity, or one-ethnicity schools. Parents, particularly returnees, generally support segregation, and authorities argue that classes must be separated into the three languages of the country, each of which also has its own curriculum for history and geography. Such segregation fosters children’s perception that they should not mix with individuals from the other groups and does little to promote reconciliation. Moreover, politicians – particularly at the local level – sometimes use education to build nationalist credentials in the hopes of gaining votes. The Mission is working to desegregate schools as much as possible. Some schools have been integrated – such as the Mostar Gymnasium which began unified classes in the fall of 2006 – and others have begun holding joint classes on certain subjects such as computer technology. One focus is building civil society input to school reform through the creation of and support for parent and student councils, as well as teachers’ forums. The Mission recently published a manual for student councils in secondary schools. The OSCE also works with municipal, entity, and State authorities on education reform, including legislative and curriculum reform. Human Rights Programs Until recently, the Mission’s human rights work had focused on property rights and restitution, in line with the need at that time to follow cases as refugees and IDPs return to reclaim their property. As returnees have settled in, the Mission has turned to monitoring potential discrimination against returnees and other vulnerable groups by local authorities. The Mission has also been monitoring trials since the introduction of a new legal system three years ago; this work is increasing as the number of war crimes trials increases in Bosnian courts. The Mission monitors how local authorities provide basic economic and social support – such as health care, housing, and pensions - to vulnerable groups, including returnees, Roma, and disabled persons, in order to address any patterns of discrimination that emerge. Trial monitoring is aimed at ensuring fair trials, particularly war crimes trials, and at identifying shortcomings in the Bosnian judicial system and resolving them. There is a special unit which monitors 11bis trials transferred by the ICTY to Bosnian courts. The Mission also does significant work with Roma communities. For example, in one municipality alone, the OSCE has raised the number of Roma children in school from 8 to almost 90. Security Cooperation Programs Programs under the Security Cooperation Department originally focused on implementation of Dayton Peace Agreement Annex 1b, Articles II and IV. Work on Article II was completed in 2004 with the signing of the Agreement on the Termination of Article II on 28 September. Although some work continues under Article IV, military reform and troop reductions have resulted in significantly fewer inspections. UNDP has taken the lead in reducing small arms and light weapons (SALW. Currently, the work of the Department focuses on institution building and parliamentary capacity-building. The Department recently completed a pilot training course for various levels of government officials on the government’s new security policy concept. The Department also conducts training on the OSCE Code of Conduct on Political-Military Aspects of Security. The parliamentary capacity building program began in 2002 and works with defense and intelligence committees. It organizes trainings, visits to other countries, and strengthening of oversight capabilities.

  • Ukraine’s Pre-Term Parliamentary Elections and Demonstrable Commitment to Democratic Standards Focus of Commission Initiatives

    By Orest Deychakiwsky and Ronald McNamara The Helsinki Commission undertook several initiatives this fall in connection with Ukraine’s September 30th pre-term parliamentary elections, including deploying staff to observe the elections, sponsoring a Congressional resolution on the elections, and convening a public briefing on their implications. The elections – the fifth national balloting in less than three years -- came on the heels of a political crisis that had engulfed Ukraine’s president, government and parliament for much of 2007. The elections to the 450-seat parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, were judged by the OSCE-led International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) to have been conducted “mostly in line with OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and in an open and competitive environment.” The September elections were monitored by some 800 international observers under OSCE auspices, including Helsinki Commission staff members who observed the balloting in western Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk oblast and Kyiv’s Polilskiy District. Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgård, the Special Coordinator of the short-term election observers for the IEOM and Vice-President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, stated that these elections were conducted “in a positive and professional manner.” While there were shortcomings, notably with respect to the quality of voter lists and delays in processing vote counts in a few districts, OSCE observers assessed the voting as good or very good in 98 percent of the nearly 3,000 polling stations visited, and the vote count was assessed as good or very good in 94 percent of the IEOM reports. Commission staff observations were consistent with other international observer assessments. The voting process was calm, orderly, and, with very few exceptions, conducted in an efficient, professional and transparent manner. Members of precinct commissions representing various political parties and blocs, as well as the presence of party observers, helped to ensure the integrity of the voting process. The most significant shortcomings witnessed by staff stemmed from inaccuracies in the voters lists which led to inconsistencies regarding the treatment of voters, including the disenfranchisement of some at polling stations visited on election day. The elections – with 60% voter turnout -- saw Prime Minister Viktory Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions come in first with 34.3% of the votes. The most substantial gains over previous elections, however, were garnered by the electoral bloc of former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko (YTB), with 30.7%. President Victor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) placed third with 14.15%. Two other parties passed the 3 percent threshold required to enter the new parliament – the Communist Party with 5.4% and Bloc of former Rada Chairman Volodymyr Lytvyn with 3.9 percent. The two electoral blocs associated with Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution -- YTB and NUNS -- have created a razor-thin majority coalition in the new Rada and on December 4, elected Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk as the new Chairman with a single vote to spare. On October 5, Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings, together with 12 other House Members, including Commissioners Slaughter, Solis, Butterfield, Smith, Aderholt and Pitts, sponsored a resolution congratulating the Ukrainian people for the holding of free, fair, open and transparent parliamentary elections in a peaceful manner consistent with Ukraine’s democratic values and national interest and expressing continuing Congressional interest and support for Ukraine. The resolution, which has garnered bipartisan backing, expresses strong support for the efforts of the Ukrainian people to build upon the democratic gains of the Orange Revolution. The resolution recognizes the link between the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law and the strengthening of Ukraine’s independence and integration with the West, and, importantly, serving as a positive role model for all too many post-Soviet countries caught in the vice of authoritarianism. In introducing the resolution, Chairman Hastings expressed the hope “that Ukraine’s political leaders will form a government reflecting the will of the Ukrainian people as expressed by the results of the elections” and “that the new parliament and government will focus on the constitutional framework, especially the question of separation of powers, in order to avoid the political uncertainty that we witnessed earlier this year.” On October 25, the Commission convened a public briefing: “The Ukrainian Elections: Implications for Ukraine’s Future Direction” with Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States Oleh Shamshur, as well as former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Miller, and Stephen Nix of the International Republican Institute, who had both been present at the elections as international observers. In his assessment of the elections, Ambassador Shamshur noted that “for the second time in a row, Ukraine succeeded in avoiding most of the electoral pitfalls. Aside from minor deficiencies, there was no harassment of political opponents, no media oppression, no so-called creative counting or use of forged absentee ballots…Ukraine has once again confirmed its democratic credentials. That’s the irreversibility of the democratic change spurred by the Orange Revolution.” Ambassador Miller, who observed in Ukraine as a member of the National Democratic Institute’s international observation delegation, called the elections “relatively free and fair.” He expressed the “hopeful possibility” that the two democratic (Orange) coalition partners, Yuliya Tymoshenko and Victor Yushchenko, “will fulfill finally the promises they made with their hands on their hearts” during the 2004 Orange Revolution. Mr. Nix, while noting that IRI’s election observation mission found that the elections “broadly met international standards,” nevertheless urged the Ukrainian parliament and election officials “to address the quality of the voter lists to ensure their accuracy for the next national election.” He also called upon Ukraine’s leadership to take steps “to resolve the constitutional issues that were the very reason these elections were called.”

  • The Duma Elections, Politics, and Putin: Where is Russia Going?

    According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe, the 2007 Russian Duma elections were not fair and failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe standards. As a result, President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party shares the Duma with a small coterie of Communist radical nationalists, who have loyally supported the President in the past, and a so-called opposition party that supports President Putin as well. Based on credible reports from numerous sources, including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, there can be little doubt that Russian authorities used a full range of so-called administrative resources—intimidation, confiscation of campaign literature and, at times, even physical abuse—to overwhelm the already weak and divided opposition. Helsinki Commissioners and witnesses of the briefing agreed that as a signatory to the Helsinki Final Act, Russia is obliged to bring its electoral policies and practices into conformity with it’s OSCE commitments. 

  • Post Analysis of the Russia Duma Elections

    This briefing focused on the December 2nd parliamentary elections, which saw President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party win an absolute majority of votes.  The lead up to the elections were fraught with many problems that led to significantly less election monitors, as well as authorities intimidating the opposition, and pressuring voters to support the de facto ruling party – United Russia. The range of so-called administrative resources—intimidation, confiscation of campaign literature and, at times, even physical abuse—to overwhelm the already weak and divided opposition was evaluated. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Sarah Mendelson, Director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Editor of the National Interest and a Senior Fellow of Strategic Studies at the Nixon Center; and Paul Goble, Longtime Specialist on the Former Soviet Union and Post-Soviet States for Various Government Agencies – addressed the political status of Russia, Putin’s ideological platform, and the policy dilemmas faced by the U.S. and European policymakers in light of this platform.

  • The Future Belarus: Democracy or Dictatorship?

    This briefing, on the prospects for democratic change in Belarus, a country located in the heart of Europe, but which had the unfortunate distinction of having one of the worst human rights and democracy records in the European part of the OSCE region, was held by Hon. Alcee L. Hastings, Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was join by a delgation of courageous leaders of Belarus' democratic opposition and leading human rights and democracy activists: Aliaksandr Milinkevich, Anatoliy Lebedko, Sergey Kalyakin, Anatoliy Levkovich, and Dmitriy Fedaruk. The witnesses were commended for their courage to testify at the briefing and applauded for their commitment to the struggle for democracy, freedom, and human rights, even under very trying circumstances.

  • Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE

    Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Chairman of the CSCE, held a briefing on hate crimes and discrimination in the OSCE region.  Joining Chairman Hastings at the dais were Helsinki Commissioners Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA).  The briefing focused on intolerance and discrimination within the 56 countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  Congressman Hastings emphasized the discrimination against the Roma and other minorities of Turkish, African, and south Asian descent when they attempt to apply for jobs, find housing, and get an education The panel of speakers – Dr. Dou Dou Diene, United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance; Dr. Tiffany Lightbourn, Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate; and Mr. Micah H. Naftalin and Mr. Nickolai Butkevich, UCSJ: Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke of the rising popularity of right-wing extremist party, who espouse vicious anti-Semitic slogans and appeal to a 19th century form of European ethnic identity.  In addition, Urs Ziswiler, the Ambassador of Switzerland, attended the briefing and commented on the rise in xenophobic views in Switzerland.  

  • OSCE Chairman Addresses Helsinki Commission in Advance of Madrid Ministerial

    By Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, appeared before the Helsinki Commission on October 29, in his capacity as Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to discuss developments in the 56-nation OSCE before ministers meet in Madrid in late November. Similar hearings with the top political leader of the Vienna-based organization have been convened annually since 2001. Finland will assume the year-long chairmanship beginning in January. In prepared remarks, Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings noted, “While the participating States may share a common view of Europe on paper, translating that vision into reality is another matter altogether. While all OSCE commitments have been agreed to by all of the countries, the fact is that there are human rights commitments that have been on the books for many years that would not be agreed to by some today. Indeed, the OSCE, and its precursor, the CSCE, have served as barometers for relations among the participating States. Frankly, the current barometric pressure is low, signaling a likely impending storm.” Commission Co-Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, also in a prepared statement, commended the Government of Spain for organizing the 2005 Córdoba Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance. He noted that the Helsinki Commission has been particularly active in the face of the spike of anti-Semitism and related violence in the OSCE region. “We appreciate your efforts to keep this important issue on the OSCE agenda with the reappointment of the personal representative on different aspects of tolerance as well as the related conferences convened this year in Bucharest and Córdoba,” said Cardin. The October 2007 Córdoba Conference focused on intolerance and discrimination against Muslims, a priority concern of the Spanish chairmanship. Commissioner Louise McIntosh Slaughter, who chaired the hearing, expressed particular appreciation for the Minister’s recognition of the distinctive contributions of parliamentarians to the Helsinki process. Slaughter has been a long-time active participant in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. She welcomed the timeliness of the hearing and recognized the complicated dynamics evident in the lead up to the Madrid Ministerial. “I know you have an ambitious agenda for the Madrid meeting and the Russians and others may complicate your work given the OSCE rule requiring consensus,” she said, continuing, “over the years, I have appreciated the opportunity to work closely with fellow parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region, from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE PA has provided important leadership on issues from combating anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance to promoting projects aimed at protecting the environment, to combating the scourge of human trafficking and advancing security among the participating States.” As one of Congress’ leading voices on equal rights for women, Commissioner Slaughter also commented on the OSCE PA’s trailblazing work in this area, as well. Moratinos’ testimony covered a wide range of accomplishments during the Spanish chairmanship as well as the numerous outstanding and potentially contentious issues on the OSCE’s agenda. On Kosovo, the Minister stressed, “We have managed over the years to maintain a neutral and unbiased position in regard to the status of Kosovo and the communities recognize this effort of OSCE. While the OSCE is not directly involved in the status negotiation, we are, as OSCE, contributing to the process of creating the necessary conditions on the ground for the implementation of the status settlement.” In response to a query from Slaughter about a possible unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo and the prospects for renewal of OSCE’s current mandate covering operations in Kosovo which expires at year’s end, Moratinos stressed that “it's very important that OSCE maintain its engagement in Kosovo, whatever is going to be the future status. We are ready to stay in Kosovo in order to focus on monitoring protection of the rights of communities, particularly regarding the centralization and the protection of cultural and religious sites.” With regard to longstanding conflicts in the OSCE region, the OSCE Chairman-in-Office pointed to the Organization’s continuing work to facilitate a settlement on the Transnistrian issue in Moldova, through participation in the "five-plus-two" negotiations. Regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, he reported that while ongoing mediation efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group have not resulted in a breakthrough in the settlement process, the parties nevertheless remain committed to continuing the negotiations. Moratinos cited concern over serious incidents both in Abkhazia and the zone of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. He discussed the chairmanship’s efforts in the aftermath of the August 6th missile incident between Russian and Georgia, stressing the need for forward-looking measures to build confidence between the two OSCE countries and avoid similar incidents in the future. Turning to Afghanistan, the OSCE's newest Partner for Cooperation, Slaughter remarked, “When I first flagged the concerns regarding the problems in Afghanistan in the OSCE context, some people said ‘that isn't our concern, it's outside the OSCE region.’ Well, one of the lessons of September 11 is that events in seemingly faraway lands do matter for the people there and ultimately for our own security.” Moratinos, in response, said “The situation in Afghanistan continues to have a substantial impact on security in Central Asia. In this respect, the OSCE is considering a serious border management project, particularly in Tajikistan. We hope to encourage counterparts in Afghanistan in these border related activities.” Spain is proposing an informal discussion on the margins of the Madrid Ministerial on the OSCE’s role in promoting the stability and future of Afghanistan. Slaughter referred to a recent meeting she had with Afghanistan’s President Karzai in which she underscored the importance of the movement of women in that country and the benefits of educating his young Afghan girls. An outspoken supporter of Kazakhstan’s longstanding bid to chair the OSCE, Moratinos remarked, “this bid has been welcomed by all members of the Organization and we hope and we are sure that this is an excellent opportunity for Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and the OSCE as a whole. For now, there is not a final consensus regarding the date of the chairmanship by Kazakhstan, but as Chairman-in-Office, Spain is actively seeking to build a consensus amongst all OSCE states on this important decision for the Organization.” Broaching concerns over observation of upcoming parliamentary elections in the Russian Federation scheduled for December 2, Commissioner Slaughter cited remarks by a senior Russian elections official suggesting that there would be a numerical limit to the number of international observers, including OSCE observers to 400 in total. Slaughter pointed out that the OSCE alone deployed over 450 in 2003 for the last election to the State Duma, Russia’s parliament. In response, Moratinos stated, “If there is a danger in the debate of election observation, it is that some participating States, to a certain extent, would like to shift the discourse away from commitments and the fulfillment, or lack of fulfillment. We find it unhelpful to call into question the well established OSCE practice on election observation, which so far has proved most fruitful. In this respect, it is our concern that the announcement made by the Russian representative in Vienna indicating that the invitation to observe the Duma election would be ‘ala carte.’” On the thorny issue of Russian intransigence in the OSCE, Ranking Minority Member Christopher H. Smith, in a prepared statement, underscored that the power of ideas remains a meaningful force today as witnessed by the drama being played out in the arena of the OSCE between those committed to pluralistic democracy and those pursuing authoritarianism, euphemistically termed “managed democracy, and dictatorship, as in Belarus and others. “Compromising on core values or watering down longstanding commitments is not the solution to the current impasse. Rather, our responsibility is to remain steadfast to these values and principles to which all participating States – including those now recalcitrant – have promised to uphold in word and deed,” warned Smith. Moratinos concluded by focusing on the future of the OSCE against the backdrop of discontent among some participating States, notably Russia, Belarus and like-minded countries with some of the activities of the Organization and its direction as well as uncertainty over sustained funding of OSCE, including potential gaps between U.S. rhetorical support and actual commitment of resources. On the former, the Minister suggested that perhaps the time was ripe for the convening of an OSCE summit meeting of Heads of State or Government from the participating States. The last OSCE summit was held in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1999. Skeptics might question the prudence of organizing a summit now, given the acrimony over fundamental aspects of the OSCE standing in stark contrast to the 1990 Paris Summit which opened a new chapter in the Helsinki process firmly rooted in a commitment to pluralistic democracy and free and fair elections. On the question of U.S. funding of OSCE, Moratinos voiced concern over “some rumors” regarding possible cuts in support and enlisted the support of members of the Helsinki Commission in addressing the matter. “I know that the Helsinki Commission plays a unique role as a forum for debate on the burning issues of the day facing the OSCE and the region. In so doing, this Commission pays unique tribute to the longstanding and continued engagement by the United States with the OSCE and the values that underpin it,” said Moratinos.

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