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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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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.

  • Finnish OSCE Chairman-in-Office Outlines Priorities, Challenges for 2008

    By Ronald McNamara, International Policy Director Making an appearance on February 13th before the Helsinki Commission, early in Finland’s 2008 chairmanship of the OSCE, Minister for Foreign Affairs Ilkka Kanerva addressed a wide range of issues facing the Vienna-based organization and its 56 participating States. Kanerva, having served in parliament since 1975, the year in which the Helsinki Final Act was signed in the Finnish capital, stressed the unique contribution of parliamentarians in their role embodying “the aspirations of our peoples and to voice their concerns in all OSCE countries.” Chairman Alcee L. Hastings, President Emeritus of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, expressed appreciation for recognition of the parliamentary dimension of the Helsinki Process. Minister Kanerva noted, “The starting point of the Finnish Chairmanship is that the OSCE is a value-based organization that actively promotes our common values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We stress the full implementation of the human rights commitments by the participating States.” Chairman Hastings welcomed the emphasis on implementation especially given the mandate of the Helsinki Commission to monitor compliance with the common commitments accepted by all participating States regardless of when they joined the Helsinki Process. “We fully support and welcome Finland’s calls for greater effort by participating States to implement our common political commitments. Implementation is key, as the late President Gerald Ford underscored in his remarks in Finlandia Hall when he signed the Helsinki Accords on behalf of the United States. I am also mindful that all participating States, including this country, are obligated to translate words on paper into action and I welcome the scrutiny of others when our own policies and practices come up short,” said Hastings. Hastings and Kanerva had a lengthy exchange regarding developments in Kosovo and their implications for Balkans as well as the possibility of sustained OSCE engagement in the region. Kanerva, who had just returned from a visit to Belgrade and Priština, observed that the OSCE has played an important role in Kosovo -- in establishing and consolidating local institutions, in promoting democratization, the rule of law, as well as human and minority rights. “Because the OSCE has remained “status-neutral,” it has retained a unique ability to work with all ethnic communities in promoting stability and democratic development. It is my firm belief that the OSCE work in Kosovo is and will be beneficial to all Kosovars,” concluded the Minister. He continued, “The outcome of the status process could have a negative impact on the OSCE's engagement in Kosovo. You are well aware that the OSCE participating States remain deeply divided over the issue. This disagreement could lead to the current Mission’s termination. It would be a grave mistake for the OSCE and the entire international community if we were to leave it at that.” Chairman Hastings, who visited both Priština and the northern area around Mitrovitsa last June, remarked, “My overall concern comes again from personal experience. The OSCE mission in Kosovo complemented by the tremendous activities that the KFOR forces deployed to keep the peace there is one of, in my judgment, the most successful OSCE missions, capable of working with the various factions in that area. I always ask the question: if there was no OSCE mission or had not been there in recent years, what would be the situation on the ground there today? And how much closer would the parties be to arriving at a resolution of what is, by anybody's standards, a substantial conflict? Minister Kanerva stressed, “I am determined to ensure continued OSCE engagement in Kosovo regardless of the status process. I am aware of the fact that any participating State has the possibility to use a veto and to end the mandate of the present mission - the mission which at the moment comprises 800 people and which has an immense effect on the viability of the civil society. Should this happen, I am prepared to immediately start the negotiations on a revised mandate for the OSCE mission. I am convinced that all participating States agree on the need for continued OSCE engagement in Kosovo.” Regarding conflicts elsewhere in the OSCE region, Kanerva remarked, “The Finnish chairmanship has put the so-called frozen or protracted conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh at the top of our agenda. I will personally visit all of these regions. I have already nominated also a special envoy to survey the progress in the process. One of the first things I have already done was to visit Ukraine and Moldova, to examine possibilities to kick start the stalled negotiation on the Transdnistria conflict. The Government of Moldova and the leadership for Transdnistria indicate their willingness to reengage and I have tasked my special envoy to see what can be done to take the process forward. We have knowledge of the difficulties in front of us. But we can't give up.” Minister Kanerva announced his intention to visit the South Caucasus nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Chairman Hastings asked Kanerva to raise concerns relating to media freedom in Azerbaijan, the subject of a Commission hearing late last year, and provided a list of specific cases. Numerous other human rights concerns were also discussed from combating anti-Semitism and trafficking in humans as well as promoting democracy. In prepared remarks, Co-Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin stressed the importance of sustained OSCE engagement in efforts to fight anti-Semitism. “In recent weeks we have convened a series of hearings to assess the ongoing work of the OSCE in this regard and have heard from experts. These sessions have confirmed the importance of maintaining a distinct focus on anti-Semitism, and resisting attempts by some to reduce the attention under some kinds of generic tolerance rubric. It has also become clear that the personal representatives need some form of meaningful support mechanism. Perhaps some arrangement could be put in place by the troika of past, present, and future OSCE chairs, to ensure continuity,” remarked Cardin. Similar concerns were echoed in a statement by Ranking Minority Member Christopher H. Smith, “I appeal to you, in your term as Chairman-in-Office, not to allow the OSCE to give in to this fatigue and indifference! Anti-Semitism remains what it has always been, a unique evil, a distinct form of intolerance, the oldest form of religious bigotry, and a malignant disease of the heart that has often led to murder. It continues to threaten our Jewish brothers and sisters, and so the OSCE must redouble its efforts in the fight against the scourge of anti-Semitism. Smith, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking welcomed the commitment of the Finnish chairmanship to give priority attention to OSCE efforts to prevent human trafficking, with particular attention to child victims. Russia’s troubling attempts to restrict the scope and size of OSCE election observations missions was also raised. Minister Kanerva expressed disappointment that, despite a concerted effort by OSCE, an acceptable solution could not be worked out to enable the deployment of an observation mission to Russia for the March 2nd presidential elections. He outlined his views regarding observation of the entire election process. “It means candidate and voter registration, electoral campaign, media coverage, complaints and appeals. The ODIHR must continue to be in a position to determine the length and size of observation missions on professional grounds in order to produce meaningful assessments and recommendations benefiting the observed country.” Having headed monitoring missions to Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, and most recently Georgia, Chairman Hastings called for a timely invitation for OSCE to observe the upcoming November U.S. elections. Kanerva thanked Hastings for his leadership of the mission to Georgia in early January and underscored the importance of close cooperation between ODIHR and the OSCE PA. Turning to Afghanistan, an OSCE Partner for Cooperation country, the Chairman welcomed the role played by Finnish forces in the northern part of that country. Minister Kanerva reported that active discussions were underway among OSCE countries regarding the kinds of initiatives that might be undertaken to assist Afghanistan pursuant to a general decision agreed to by the Madrid OSCE Ministerial Council last November. Priority attention is being given to strengthening border security and management, including along the 750 mile border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. “At the same time we are discussing whether the OSCE might eventually become active on Afghan territory,” said Kanerva. Before concluding the hearing, the Chairman-in-Office and Chairman Hastings touched on ways to enhance cooperation among the OSCE participating States and strengthen the organization. Hastings acknowledged the complex task of managing the OSCE given the diversity of countries and diverging views among some on fundamental aspects of the organization and its mission. The two agreed on the importance of engagement with Russia. One possibility raised by Chairman Hastings was the assembling of a “Council of Elder Statesmen” along the lines proposed by the Hamburg-based Centre for OSCE Research in its working paper, “Identifying the Cutting Edge: The Future Impact of the OSCE.” In an innovative move, the Finnish chairmanship has expanded the Troika – past, present, and future chairs – to include others slated to assume leadership of OSCE in future years. At the Madrid OSCE Ministerial Council agreement was reached on chairmanships for Greece in 2009, Kazakhstan in 2010 and Lithuania in 2011. “I have invited my colleagues from the future chairmanships of Kazakhstan and Lithuania,” Kanerva reported, “to meet with the current Troika countries Spain, Finland and Greece to develop ideas for longer-term priorities. I am convinced there are many issues where the "Quintet" can add value and lead to more coherent OSCE action in the next few years.” Minister Kanerva concluded, “The Helsinki Commission embodies the longstanding engagement of the United States with the OSCE and the values that underpin it. The OSCE can only work with the full engagement of its participating States. The United States has always played a key role, and must continue to do so, if we are to achieve the ambitious goals we have set for our Organization.”

  • Finland’s Leadership in the OSCE

    The hearing focused on Finland’s plans and priorities as well as challenges confronting the OSCE in 2008 and beyond. Additionally, the hearing addressed election observation activities by the OSCE; prospects for OSCE continued engagement in Kosovo; ongoing initiatives to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and the CFE Treaty.

  • Georgia in 2008: Elections or Street Politics?

    This hearing, presided over by the Hon. Alcee Hastings, Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, and attended by Commissioners Cardin, Smith, and Brownback, focussed on Georgia and the recent violence within the country. Over the last few months, Georgia has experienced considerable turmoil, with the violent confrontation between riot police and protesters in November, the imposition of a state of emergency, the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili and the holding of a snap presidential election in early January. Although President Saakashvili narrowly won re-election in the first-round, opposition leaders refuse to recognize the outcome and have pledged to launch another round of protests beginning on February 15 unless their extensive list of demands are met. The hearing will examine the ramifications of these developments for Georgia, the United States and NATO, which Georgia is hoping to join.

  • Georgia’s Extraordinary Presidential Elections, a Competitive First

    By Ronald J. McNamara International Policy Director Georgians rang in 2008 amid a rough and tumble political campaign filled with intrigue and capped off by extraordinary presidential elections on January 5. Large street demonstrations had broken out in the capital, Tbilisi, in early November, with protesters demanding early parliamentary elections, a restructuring of the political system and the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after leading Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. After several days of peaceful rallies, the authorities moved against the protesters, violently dispersing the crowds and moving against selected media outlets. Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency on November 7, but in the face of mounting international criticism, called the following day for early presidential elections, cutting short his tenure by nearly a year and a half. In accordance with Georgian law, he relinquished the presidency later that month in order to run for a second five-year term. Parliament endorsed the holding of pre-term presidential elections and Speaker Nino Burjanadze became Acting President. Besides the presidential contest, two non-binding questions were also put to voters: moving up parliamentary elections originally scheduled for late 2008 (a demand of opposition demonstrators in November) and the desirability of eventual NATO membership for Georgia. Of the 13 candidates who submitted signature lists to the Central Election Commission, seven candidates were ultimately registered and appeared on the ballot: Levan Gachechiladze (United Public Movement); David Gamkrelidze (New Rights Party); Giorgi Maisashvili (Party of the Future); Shalva Natelashvili (Georgian Labor Party); independent candidate Arkadi (Badri) Patarkatsishvili; incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili (United National Movement); and Irina Sarishvili (Hope Party). Helsinki Commission Chairman, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings from Florida was jointly appointed by Foreign Ministers Miguel Ángel Moratinos (Spain) and Ilkka Kanerva (Finland) to head the OSCE International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), comprising the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Hastings, OSCE PA President Emeritus, had previously led similar missions to Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine. Congressman Lloyd Doggett from Texas served as an international observer under the OSCE PA. Congressional and Commission staff were also deployed as part of the mission, which included 495 short-term observers. The CEC accredited over 100 domestic and foreign media outlets. Several dozen domestic non-party NGOs, in addition to party observers, were also registered to observe the elections. 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.

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