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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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Two side events held during the HDIM also put a spotlight on the United States. The first event was organized by Freedom House and entitled, “Today’s American: How Free?” At this event, Freedom House released a book by the same title which examined “the state of freedom and justice in post-9/11 America.” The second event was a panel discussion on “War on Terror or War on Human Rights?” organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Speakers from the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Polish Human Rights Foundation largely focused on issues relating to the United States, including the military commission trials at Guantanamo, and official Polish investigations into allegations that Poland (working with the United States) was involved in providing secret prisons for the detention and torture of “high-value” detainees.(3) In a somewhat novel development, Russian Government views were echoed by several like-minded NGOs which raised issues ranging from claims of “genocide” by Georgia in South Ossetia to grievances by ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia. Ironically, the Russian delegation, in its closing statement, asserted that this year’s HDIM had an “improved atmosphere” due (it was asserted) to the efforts by both governments and NGOs to find solutions to problems rather than casting blame. As at past HDIMs, some sessions generated such strong interest that the time allotted was insufficient to accommodate all those who wished to contribute to the discussion. For example, the session on freedom of the media was severely constrained, with more than 20 individuals unable to take the floor in the time allotted, and several countries unable to exercise rights of reply. Conversely, some sessions – for example, the session on equal opportunity for men and women, and the session on human dimension activities and projects – had, in terms of unused time available, an embarrassment of riches. Following a general pattern, Turkmenistan was again not present at the HDIM sessions this year.(4) In all, 53 participating States were represented at the meeting. At the closing session, the United States raised issues of particular concern relating to Turkmenistan under the “any other business” agenda item. (This is the sixth year in a row that the United States has made a special statement about the situation in Turkmenistan, a country that some view as having the worst human rights record in the OSCE.) For the past two years, there has been a new government in Turkmenistan. The U.S. statement this year noted some positive changes, but urged the new government to continue the momentum on reform by fully implementing steps it already has begun. In addition, the United States called for information on and access to Turkmenistan’s former representative to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. Berdiev, once Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the OSCE, was reportedly among the large number of people arrested following an attack on then-President Niyazov’s motorcade in 2002. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown. OSCE PA President João Soares addressed the closing plenary, the most senior Assembly official to participate in an HDIM meeting. The Russian-Georgian Conflict With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting. The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict. During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary. As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis. Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. Beyond Warsaw The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009. The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet. Looking Ahead The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise. Notes (1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension). (2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16). (3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers. (4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments. (5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.

  • Belarus’ Parliamentary Elections Fail to Meet OSCE Democratic Election Commitments

    By Orest Deychakiwsky and Winsome Packer Policy Advisors The conduct of the September 28 parliamentary elections in Belarus fell significantly short of international standards, despite some hopes that there would be improvements following the August release of political prisoners, Belarus’ reluctance to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia and statements by senior Belarusian officials raising expectations. The Commission followed the run-up to the elections closely, holding a hearing on September 16 titled “Business as Usual? Belarus on the Eve of the Elections,” and issuing a press release expressing concern about the pre-election climate and encouraging last minute steps, including transparency in the vote count and full access for OSCE observers. [Both the hearing and the press release are available on the Commission’s website.] Two members of the Commission staff traveled to Belarus as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation of the overall OSCE Election Observation Mission, observing in Minsk and Smolevichi. In its statement, issued the day after the election, the OSCE election observation mission concluded that despite minor improvements, the conduct of the parliamentary elections in Belarus “ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” On election day, voting itself was generally well conducted, though the vote count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 percent of OSCE observations. The experiences of Commission staff on voting day were consistent with those of other OSCE observers. For the most part, the voting itself in the precincts staff visited went smoothly. However, the vote counting process was particularly problematic, given the lack of transparency. All 110 elected members of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly (lower chamber of parliament) are pro-government. No opposition activists from out of 70 nominated by the democratic opposition were elected. The vote count in one Minsk precinct in which Commission staff observed jointly with a Swedish member of parliament was dramatically lacking in transparency. There were three candidates on the ballot in this precinct, including one opposition member. Both the OSCE and domestic observers were hindered from having a full view of the vote counting proceedings. The precinct electoral commission set tables up as barriers about three meters from the tables on which the ballots were being counted. Further obstructing the observers’ view of the ballot count were the electoral commission workers themselves, who were positioned in such a way as to make viewing difficult. Attempts by observers and a proxy of the opposition candidate to clarify which provisions of the electoral code permitted this behavior by the electoral commission went nowhere. All of the ballots – from the early voting, mobile voting, and regular voting were mixed in together. When an OSCE observer took a picture of the vote count, or, more accurately, of the election commission members blocking the vote count, the chairwoman interrupted the count to write a complaint against the observer. After about 20 minutes, the opposition candidate’s proxy notified her that according to Article 55 of the electoral code, “the count must be performed without a break until the results of the voting have been obtained.” Only at that point did the Chairwoman cease writing and resume the count. In the North-East Minsk district that other Commission staff monitored with an Irish senator, the experience was similar. The voting process at the eight polling stations that they monitored was orderly and transparent. The problems came in the counting process. Similar to the reports from other observers, Commission staff and the Irish observer were prevented from standing close enough to watch the vote counting in a manner that allowed them to see the names and other distinguishing information on the ballots, even though the importance of this facet of observation was stressed to the government by the OSCE and the Interior Minister assured observers in a briefing on September 25 that election monitors would be able to watch the counting from a close vantage point. In a far departure from this promise, the precinct officials refused to announce what boxes they were opening during the process. They would lift a box, dump its contents on a table on the other side of the room from where the observers were seated, and ten or so people would crowd around the table to separate the ballots and "count" the votes. Observers could not distinguish which ballots came from early voting versus the ballots cast on election day, or spoiled ballots. They refused to announce the results of the count or record them in the protocol as was delineated in the procedural manual provided by ODIHR. They then huddled with a calculator to tabulate numbers, write them on a piece of paper in complete silence. Afterward, the precinct chair posted all of their numbers on a bulletin board. They then gathered up the ballots and left the building without a word. It is apparent that further legal and cultural changes are required for truly democratic elections to occur in Belarus. Several problems that manifested themselves during the actual voting were that the material used to seal the ballot boxes was easily manipulable and could be removed and put back on (clay dough and a string). In a number of precincts, the early voting ballot boxes were not in plain view, as required by law. Early voting was significant in several precincts, up to 39 percent in one case. Before voting day, there appeared to be a certain willingness on the part of some in the West to give the benefit of the doubt to the authorities, in part due to the minor improvements that had taken place in the election campaign, such as slightly increased access of opposition representatives to district election commissions, and the decision to repeat the airing of the candidates’ five-minute campaign spots on state TV and radio stations. This, together with the release of political prisoners Aleksandr Kozulin, Syarhei Parsyukevich and Andrei Kim (which led to the temporary lifting of U.S. sanctions on two subsidiaries of Belarus’s giant petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim), and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenka’s unenthusiastic response to Russia’s occupation of Georgia and refusal to date to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia created an atmosphere of optimism that Lukashenka would be willing to take steps towards democratic reform and engage in a dialogue with Europe and the United States. The stark lack of transparency in the vote count was also surprising to many because it flew in the face of Belarusian authorities’ pledges prior to the vote, and it was probably unnecessary. Given the overall election campaign climate, which did not allow for genuine political competition and where the opposition had extremely minimal representation on precinct election commissions, the vast majority of pro-governmental candidates would have won in any event. This is within the context of the wider extremely inhospitable environment for the democratic opposition, in which for almost 15 years the Lukashenka regime has tightly controlled the media; vilified the opposition; repressed the independent media; disappeared, detained, imprisoned, and beaten opposition members and democracy activists; harassed and suppressed non-governmental organizations and, in short, done its best to stifle independent thought. Notwithstanding the EU’s temporary lifting of some visa sanctions against senior Belarusian officials, Mr. Lukashenka may have yet again missed an opportunity to move Belarus towards democratic Europe, which would enhance Belarus’ independence, at a time when it especially needs to be strengthened, given intensifying Russian pressure on Belarus. Notwithstanding the flawed elections, both the United States and Europe have displayed a willingness to continue to engage in dialogue with Minsk and to encourage Belarus to move forward along the path of compliance with freely undertaken OSCE human rights and democracy commitments. The poor quality of the September 28 elections did not facilitate this process, as had been hoped by the West. Nevertheless, if the Belarusian authorities take steps to increase political freedom and respect for human rights, the real possibility exists for a gradual opening in U.S.-Belarusian relations – for Belarus to begin the process of reducing its self-imposed isolation and eventually taking its rightful place among the community of European nations.

  • The Role of OSCE Institutions in Advancing Human Rights and Democracy

    This hearing discussed the role of OSCE institutions in advancing human rights and democracy, highlighting the role of the United States. The United States was mentioned as a leading force of democracy promotion and protection of human rights. However, the witnesses mentioned certain issues like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition flights, and detention centers that suggest double-standards. The discussion centered on the importance of inclusive voice in government and the need to find a way to build pluralism into single-party developing democracies by establishing political parties that can be competitive, that can be critical of governments and that can bring new ideas and fresh faces into their government.

  • Georgians Return to Polls to Elect New Parliament as Political Polarization Persists

    By Ronald J. McNamara and Orest Deychakiwsky For the second time this year, Georgians went to the polls in national elections, casting ballots on May 21, 2008, for a new slimmed down 150–seat unicameral parliament, known as the Supreme Council, with half filled through proportional party lists and the other by single-mandate districts. Previous parliaments comprised 235 members. Timing of the parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for fall 2008, became a contentious issue late last year as violence erupted on the streets of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, leading to early presidential elections and a plebiscite on when to hold the parliamentary contest. Incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili was reelected president in the January 5 election, narrowly escaping a second round. According to final results reported by the Central Election Commission, Saakashvili won 53.47 percent of the vote, with 70 percent of those casting ballots supporting the holding of early parliamentary elections. On March 21, the president called for the elections to be held in two months time. Mr. João Soares of Portugal, a Vice-President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at the time, was appointed as Special Coordinator of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office to lead short-term observers of the OSCE’s International Election Observation Mission (IEOM). In all, the OSCE fielded over 550 observers from 48 countries, including a parliamentary component of over 100 drawn from the OSCE PA, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the NATO PA. International observers, including two members of the Helsinki Commission staff, participated in an extensive program of briefings in Tbilisi prior to election day, including presentations by the ODIHR Core Team and the Central Elections Commission as well as a wide range of international and domestic NGO experts. Observers also heard from representatives of most of the political parties and blocs fielding candidates: Georgian Politics, the Republic Party, the Rights Alliance, the Labor Party, the United National Movement – for Victorious Georgia, the Georgian Union of Sportsmen, the United Opposition bloc, the All Georgian National Party of Radical Democrats, the Christian-Democratic Movement, and Our Country. In all, nine political parties and three blocs were registered for the parliamentary contest, including the newly formed Christian-Democratic Movement. In all, IEOM observer teams visited nearly 1,500 of the country’s 3,641 polling stations on election day. Helsinki Commission staff observed in the Marneuli Rayon, south of Tbilisi, a predominately Azeri region bordering on neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to the 2002 national census, the Azeri minority constituted 6.5 percent of Georgia’s population. This rural agricultural region comprises the District Election Commission 22, with 84 individual polling stations for slightly over 90,000 registered voters. Interest in observing in the Marneuli region was based in part on irregularities observed during the January 2008 presidential election. Several polling stations, at that time, registered voter turnouts in excess of 100 percent, with over 88 percent of the vote going to Saakashvili, exceptionally high when compared with other districts in that part of the country. Commission staff observed an opening and the voting in nearly a dozen individual polling stations throughout the rayon, or county. Among those sites visited was the area’s largest military installation, where soldiers lined up to cast their votes as senior officers chatted outside of the station. With a few exceptions, the balloting was conducted in an orderly manner and in line with CEC procedures. An exception was a polling station close to the Armenian border in which pandemonium prevailed and a number of serious irregularities were observed by the team. Conspicuously, ballots at the station and other voting materials lacked the required serial numbers. Domestic party observers were vocally protesting procedural problems at the station as one from their ranks was repeatedly rebuffed by the precinct chairman when the observer sought to lodge a formal written complaint in the official journal. Local police were called to the scene, though they stayed at a distance as long as the Helsinki Commission team was present. The closing and tabulation observed at another station proceeded smoothly, with good cooperation among the poll workers. The following day, on May 22, Soares held a press conference in Tbilisi to issue a statement of preliminary conclusions on behalf of the IEOM: “Overall, these elections clearly offered an opportunity for the Georgian people to choose their representatives from amongst a wide array of choices. The authorities and other political stakeholders made efforts to conduct these elections in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments. The International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) identified a number of problems which made this implementation uneven and incomplete.” Addressing a protest rally on May 26, Levan Gachechiladze, the leader of the United Opposition called for annulment of the election results. “We will not let a handful of criminals run the country,” he told supporters. Fellow opposition leader Davit Gamkrelidze told the crowd, “I have no right to enter a parliament that is the product of illegality, terror, and an illicit government. I cannot become a member of a parliament that is illegitimate, unlawful, and which is a product of Soviet-style elections.” On June 5, the Central Election Commission issued a release summarizing the elections results. According to the CEC, four political parties passed the 5 percent threshold based on the proportional system: United National Movement (59.18%), or 48 seats, the United Opposition (17.73%), 15 seats, Christian-Democrat (8.66%) and the Labor Party (7.44%), 6 seats each. The results of single-mandate contests were: 71 seats for the United National Movement, 2 seats for the United Opposition, and 2 for the Republican Party. In total, the United National Movement won 119 seats, a constitutional majority. The United Opposition leadership moved quickly to request the cancellation of the mandates for seats won by the party, precluding individuals lower on their list from occupying the seats. Four of those elected, however, broke ranks with their leaders, refusing to relinquish their seats. The Labor party chose to neither cancel nor occupy their seats in parliament. Meanwhile, the Christian-Democratic party positioned itself to foster unity among the small group of non-UNM members. Results for Marneuli showed overwhelming support for the ruling UNM, with 84.49%, far exceeding the level for the country as a whole. The only other party to pass the threshold in the region was the United Opposition, with 6.79%. Similar lopsided tallies favoring the UNM were recorded in six other regions, notably the predominately Armenian Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, where support for the ruling party surpassed 90 percent. Traditionally, areas of Georgia with high concentrations of ethnic minorities, such as these, have turned out in large numbers, voting overwhelmingly for whatever the ruling party was at the time. The newly-elected parliament held its inaugural session on June 7. In remarks before the new parliament, President Saakashvili acknowledged the challenges facing the country’s elected leadership, “The entire world is looking at Georgia today. The Georgian people have overcome the most difficult political crisis last autumn at the expense of democratic consolidation. We have managed to overcome the political crisis with the help of democratic institutions, to solve all problems through peaceful democratic methods.” He continued, “our obligation is to make our compatriots feel that they are represented in the country’s governance; even the smallest group should feel that it has the right to be represented in the country’s governance, in making decisions about the future of our country.” Saakashvili concluded by stressing the importance of undertaking further reforms and fostering unity. In testimony before Congress several weeks after the elections, Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, remarked, “Georgian democracy continues to lack a necessary element – a credible and viable opposition – and the United National Movement and the United Opposition share the blame for this shortcoming. Without a viable opposition, an empowered, independent parliament and strong, credible judiciary, and a reform process that respects dissenting voices, democracy will not be consolidated.” While political polarization persists in the country, it was less palpable at the time of the parliamentary elections than in January, when there were widespread concerns that the violent street clashes of November could be reignited. Heightened tensions over the breakaway region of Abkhazia and the possibility of war erupting with Russia following the April 20 shoot down of an unmanned aerial vehicle by a Russian fighter over Georgian airspace seemed to trump domestic political squabbling in the lead up to the parliamentary elections. Overcoming political turmoil and polarization in the country takes on even greater importance in the face of ever-growing Russian threats and provocative actions undermining Georgia’s territorial integrity. The Georgian authorities should build upon the reforms instituted in electoral laws and procedures prior to the parliamentary elections. A lingering concern that deserves attention is the low confidence among voters regarding the electoral process and skepticism regarding the role of the international community. Similarly, allegations of campaign irregularities from recent elections, including use of administrative resources by the ruling party; campaigning by state officials; intimidation of state workers, especially teachers; pressure on businesses to make campaign “donations”; unbalanced television coverage on private stations; ruling party dominance of elections commissions; and lingering errors on voters lists should be taken seriously and dealt with by the authorities. These and other concerns are discussed in greater detail in the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued by the IEOM on May 22, 2008. A final report on the May 21 parliamentary elections is expected to be released by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights shortly.

  • Combating Sexual Exploitation of Children: Strengthening International Law Enforcement Cooperation

    The hearing examined current practices for sharing information among law enforcement authorities internationally and what concrete steps can be taken to strengthen that cooperation to more effectively investigate cases of sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography on the Internet. Despite current efforts, sexual exploitation of children is increasing globally. The use of the Internet has made it easier for pedophiles and sexual predators to have access to child pornography and potential victims. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Combating Child Exploitation Act of 2008 (S.1738), which will allocate over one billion dollars over the next eight years to provide Federal, state, and local law enforcement with the resources and structure to find, arrest, and prosecute those who prey on our children.

  • Hate in the Information Age

    The briefing provided an overview of hate crimes and hate propaganda in the OSCE region, focusing on the new challenges posed by the internet and other technology. Mischa Thompson led the panelists in a discussion of the nature and frequency of hate crimes in the OSCE region, including the role of the internet and other technologies in the training, recruiting, and funding of hate groups. Panelists - Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Mark A. Potok, Christopher Wolf, Tad Stahnke – discussed how best to combat hate crimes and hate propaganda and highlighted internet governance issues in the United States and Europe and how the internet extensively contributes to hate propaganda. Issues such as free speech and content control were at the center of the discussion.

  • Clearing the Air, Feeding the Fuel Tank: Understanding the Link Between Energy and Environmental Security

    Congress has an obligation to work to ensure a healthy and safe environment for the benefit of current and future generations.  To reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve a healthier environment, we need a multi-faceted approach that addresses the tangled web of issues involved.  We need to foster both energy independence and clean energy. Given rising sea levels, the increasing severity of storm surges, and higher temperatures the world over, the impact of global climate change is undeniable.  Unless we act now, we will see greater and greater threats to our way of life on this planet.

  • Crossing Boarders, Keeping Connected: Women, Migration and Development in the OSCE Region

    The hearing will focus on the impact of migration on family and society, the special concerns of migrant women of color, and the economic contributions of women migrants to their home country through remittances. According to the United Nations, women are increasingly migrating on their own as main economic providers and heads of households. While the number of women migrants is on the rise, little is known about the economic and social impact of this migration on their home country.

  • Armenia after the Election

    Since the February 19 presidential election, Armenia has experienced its most serious political crisis in over a decade. The March 1 confrontation between the authorities and supporters of the opposition resulted in at least eight fatalities and the imposition of a state of emergency, causing serious damage to Armenia’s reputation. Although Prime Minister Serzh Sarkissian has been elected President, some opposition leaders refuse to recognize the outcome and government opposition relations remain tense.  The state of emergency has been lifted but restrictions on freedom of assembly continue in effect.  The hearing will focus on the ramifications of these developments for Armenia and the United States, especially the ongoing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia s qualifications for assistance from the Millennium Challenge Account.

  • The Future of Democracy in Serbia

    The briefing looked at the political situation in Serbia at this critical time in the country’s history as well as the long-term prospects for the country’s democratic institutions, including civic society. Concern was expressed about the direction Serbia is taking, especially since Kosovo's February 17 declaration of independence that was recognized by the United States and many other countries. The upcoming elections in May were identified as pivotal, as they would give the people of Serbia a choice between those political leaders advocating nationalism and isolation and those advocating democracy and integration. Panelists at the briefing reported on their recent visits to the region and the results of recently conducted public opinion polls indicating attitudes in Serbia regarding their political leaders and their country's future direction.  Various scenarios for the aftermath of the May elections were presented, ranging from the retention of the same government to the election of a new, democratic government.

  • The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West

    This briefing featured Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern Europe correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for The Economist. During this briefing, Lucas shared his thoughts on current political events in Russia including the upcoming Presidential elections and Moscow’s relations with the international community during President Putin’s era and beyond. Several developments in Russia were highlighted, including the increasing tensions between Russia and the West in light of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia. The perspective provided by Lucas during this hearing emphasized the both positives and negatives of these developments, and of Russia’s relationship with other countries like the United States.

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