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Parliamentary Elections in Serbia Reveal Progress in Democratic Development but also Support for Nationalist Causes
Monday, March 19, 2007

By Clifford Bond and Robert Hand

On January 21, Serbia held elections for the 250-seat parliament, the National Assembly. Monitored by more than 300 international observers under OSCE auspices, including two members of the Helsinki Commission staff, the elections were overwhelmingly viewed as being conducted in a free and fair manner. The outcome and related institutional questions, on the other hand, indicate that Serbia’s political development remains burdened by the legacy of the Milosevic regime that ruled for over a decade before being ousted in 2000, even as the country moves in an increasingly democratic direction.

These elections were held in the aftermath of the dissolution of the state-union between Serbia and Montenegro following the latter’s declaration of independence in June 2006. Serbia subsequently adopted a new constitution in October 2006. Looming over these formal developments and new elections, however, is the larger question of Kosovo’s future status. The actual timing of the elections was used as a pretext for delaying a UN recommendation on Kosovo, which is expected shortly.

Based on the conduct of previous elections in Serbia, there was little concern that these elections would fall short of international standards. However, some concerns were raised regarding the conduct of the earlier constitutional referendum, which witnessed a strong, last-minute push of voting in some regions with the apparent purpose of ensuring a positive outcome. The constitution itself is controversial, particularly in its numerous references to Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia, which may have led some segments of Serbian society to boycott the referendum. Undoubtedly, more important international concerns include the uncertain direction of Serbia’s political development and a desire to strengthen Serbia’s democratic institutions.

OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Goran Lennmarker, a Swedish parliamentarian, was designated by the OSCE Chair-in-Office to lead the short-term election observation mission as Special Coordinator. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) conducted a long-term observation effort headed by retired German Ambassador Geert Ahrens.

Perhaps the chief criticism of the election process was the obvious gap between the voter’s choice and the actual selection of the person who ultimately takes a parliamentary seat. The Serbian voter chooses a political party or coalition on the election list, but, once it is determined how many seats a particular party/coalition gets, the party leadership then has ten days in which to select which of the 250 persons on its submitted party list actually take a seat. This method of selecting parliamentarians has been criticized for lacking transparency and effectively concentrating attention not on specific candidates and their views or abilities but on the political party leaders who retain control over their members. This leadership control may be further strengthened by requiring deputies to sign undated letters of resignation which can be used to remove them if they fail to observe party discipline.

On the other hand, efforts were undertaken – albeit not without some opposition -- to modify existing law and encourage minority representation, including lowering the number of signatures for parties representing ethnic minorities from the normal 10,000 to only 3,000 and dropping the threshold needed to enter the parliament from 5 percent of the votes case to 0.4 percent (1/250) of those cast. Two Hungarian and two Romani political parties joined a Bosniak coalition from the Sandzak region and an Albanian coalition from southern Serbia on the election ballot. Albanian participation was the first since 1997, although two Albanian-based political parties which originally joined the coalition subsequently withdrew and supported a boycott of the elections.

The election campaign was long by Serbian standards and quite intense. In contrast to the constitutional referendum campaign, the issue of Kosovo’s status did not dominate campaign rhetoric. Instead, there was considerable and perhaps refreshing discussion of economic issues, for example, reflecting the fact that despite significant economic growth, unemployment remains high. EU enlargement may also increasingly isolate Serbia and its people within the region. Some parties focused more heavily on corruption, property restitution and other economic issues. The democratic and nationalistic range of the dominant Serbian political parties differed on integration mostly in their degree of enthusiasm and differentiation between support for joining the European Union on the one hand and joining NATO on the other. They likewise differed on Kosovo mostly to the degree to which its loss to Serbia was an acknowledged inevitability. Comments by politicians and diplomats from other countries supporting reformist parties late in the campaign prompted cries of interference from more nationalist parties.

Observers monitoring media coverage of the campaign reported a very balanced approach, particularly among the broadcast media, as well as a positive tone indicating almost too much official instruction about how to remain neutral. The print media’s performance was more uneven in its campaign coverage, but low reliance on print media in Serbia made such differentiation of questionable significance.

Election day was largely dry and unseasonably mild, and this contributed to high voter turnout of above 60 percent. This reversed trends toward voter apathy in previous elections. Out-of-country voting also took place for Serbian citizens in 34 other countries. Upon visiting their designated polling station, over 8,500 in all, voters typically encountered a polling board enlarged by political party representation to often as many as 20 to 30 or more members. Nevertheless, with few exceptions the polling was conducted in a professional manner that respected the secrecy of the ballot and made election-day manipulation, if any was intended, difficult to accomplish. The ballot presented the same list of 20 political parties or coalitions to voters across the country, albeit in different languages depending on concentrations of ethnic minorities residing in the area.

Unlike the referendum in which the constitution would either pass or fail, polling board members represented political parties that had no real expectation of an outright victory and merely hoped to achieve or maybe exceed the high end of predictions based on public opinion polls. This likely reduced tension on election day, including during the critical counting of ballots once polls closed, despite significant political differences within polling boards. The Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID), a civic non-governmental organization, helped reduce tension by peppering Serbia with close to 4,000 domestic observers to discourage irregularities.

The day after the election, before final results were announced, the International Election Observation Mission held a press conference to announce its preliminary conclusions. As Special Coordinator, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Goran Lennmarker released the joint statement which began with the clear statement that the “parliamentary elections in Serbia were free and fair. They provided a genuine opportunity for the citizens of Serbia to freely choose from a range of political platforms. The 20 lists of political parties and coalitions vigorously competed in an open campaign environment. The election campaign was calm, and checks and balances ensured that the election reflects the will of the people, in line with the OSCE’s Commitments as well as with the Council of Europe standards.” The OSCE’s ODIHR released an additional report of its preliminary findings based on the month-long observation of its 28-member team. Despite the overwhelmingly positive assessment, the Republican Election Commission did cancel results in 14 polling stations due to irregularities.

World reaction to the results focused heavily on the continued support among the Serbian electorate for the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) led by indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, which garnered 28.7 percent of the vote, up from 27.6 percent in the last elections in 2003. That, of course, rightly leads to concern about Serbia’s inability to reject the extreme nationalism fostered by the Milosevic regime throughout the 1990s. On the other hand, the Democratic Party (DS) of President Boris Tadic came in second with 22.9 percent of the vote, an increase from 12.6 percent in 2003 and an indication that entrenched nationalist sentiments have not negated strong support for democratic development and integration.

The coalition led by the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of the current Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, gained only 16.7 percent of the vote, compared to 17.7 percent in 2003. The DSS, which bridges the nationalist/democratic divide in Serbian politics, appears to be replaced by the DS as the leading reform-oriented party in Serbia. G17-Plus, which has focused heavily on economic reform, saw its percentage of support drop but retained enough for parliamentary representation, as did the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), once led by Slobodan Milosevic. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a newer party led by Cedomir Jovanovic which more completely than any other rejects the Milosevic legacy, crossed the 5 percent threshold by leading a coalitions of like-minded parties. The Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) of Vuk Draskovic, which traditionally featured prominently in Serbia’s multi-party political history, did not. One Hungarian and two Romani parties, along with the Bosniak and the Albanian coalition, won one or more seats in the National Assembly.

The odds that the SRS will be part of a coalition government appear to be slimmer than one year ago, when that was a major concern. Instead, the hope is for the DS and the DSS to overcome differences to form a new government with the support of other democratic forces, such as the G-17 Plus. Such a coalition could advance Serbia’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. Prime Minister Kostunica’s past government relied on SPS support to stay in power, and he has indicated an unwillingness to enter a coalition with the Radicals. Personality conflicts, as well as differences over important issues such as cooperation with the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the appropriate response to an expected UN proposal on the status of Kosovo could complicate coalition formation. Most leading Serbian parties have counted on international concern over Serbia’s political direction to delay an expected UN recommendation, but that appears increasingly unlikely.

A proposal on a new status for Kosovo will jolt the Serbian political scene. Many in Serbia feel victimized by the Milosevic regime. They fail to fully appreciate, however, the tremendous damage and suffering inflicted on the neighboring peoples of the former Yugoslavia during the Milosevic era through the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and a deep distrust resulting from Serbia’s inability to acknowledge that reality. Serbia will not fulfill its democratic promise until it fully comes to terms with this recent history. For that reason full cooperation with The Hague Tribunal remains essential. Over the longer term, democratic forces inside the country should prevail and advance Serbia’s reconciliation with its neighbors and its full integration into Europe, but without a mental break with its past this task will take longer and be more difficult to accomplish.

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  • Chairman Hastings on Anniversaries of Sumgait Pogrom and Khojaly Massacre

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday issued a floor statement on the anniversaries of the Sumgait Pogrom and the Khojaly Massacre, two pivotal tragedies in the in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The statement reads in part: “Although separated by four years and 200 miles, the Sumgait Pogrom in 1988 and Khojaly Massacre in 1992 both demonstrated the heinous potential of interethnic hatreds to tear apart communities and trample human dignity. The commemoration of these horrific events is an opportunity to reflect on the innocent lives lost in this ongoing conflict as well as a chance to affirm the need for urgent steps to heal these wounds and sue for peace once and for all… “I strongly encourage the political leadership in Yerevan and Baku to use these solemn commemorations of Sumgait and Khojaly this week to turn a new page in this terrible conflict. The most fitting way to honor the lives of those lost would be through words of reconciliation and steps toward peace. Together, the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan can ensure such atrocities are never be repeated and that future generations will know a life of secure and prosperous coexistence.” Download the full statement.  

  • Congressional Delegation Led by Chairman Hastings Champions U.S. Leadership in Transatlantic Security, Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) last week led a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) 19th Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria. At the meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation engaged with OSCE officials, delegations from other OSCE participating States, and diplomats to advance U.S. interests while assuring friends, allies, and potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to security and cooperation in Europe.   The 11-member delegation was among the largest U.S. delegations ever to attend the annual gathering, which attracted more than 300 parliamentarians from 53 OSCE participating States. Chairman Hastings, a former president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) also joined the delegation, which benefited from the active support of Ambassador James Gilmore, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE.  In the Standing Committee, which oversees the OSCE PA’s work, Chairman Hastings highlighted recommendations resulting from a seminar for young parliamentarians on “Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region,” hosted in Washington in early February by the Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA. “We brought together some 35 young parliamentarians from 19 OSCE participating States and three partner States to learn from each other and incubate the solutions of the future,” Chairman Hastings said. “As I called on all of you at our last meeting in Marrakech, we must counter the economic and social despair afflicting our youth and we all have a role.”  At the same committee, Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice president of the assembly, shared his recent experience at the Munich Security Conference.  The committee also reviewed a written report submitted by former Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. In the committee focused on security issues, Rep. Hudson condemned Russia’s violations of Helsinki principles related to its aggression against Ukraine, while in the committee focusing on economic issues Rep. Harris cautioned Europe regarding the growing Chinese presence in the region.   During a special debate on confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE region, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered introductory remarks by video. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracies by speaking out and using our tools and voices as legislators against those who would divide our societies,” Sen. Cardin said. Later in the debate, Rep. Cohen urged participating States “to teach Holocaust history, which a fourth of the people in Europe or more don't understand or remember, and teach it so that the most horrific crime against humanity will be remembered so that it will not be repeated.” Rep. Cleaver linked anti-Semitism to broader trends of intolerance in society, and called OSCE participating States to action, stating, “There are many scary things in our world, but there is nothing quite able to generate fright like prejudice inspired by ignorance and nationalism manufactured by fear.” Rep. Hudson chaired a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Rep. Moore participated in a similar meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration. On the margins of the Winter Meeting’s official sessions, members of Congress met with the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE PA to discuss U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of unrelenting Russian aggression. Delegation members also met with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings Valiant Richey, and High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.

  • Transatlantic Network of Young Legislators Releases Joint Declaration on Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—Following a two-day seminar hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in early February, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States today issued the Joint Declaration on Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region. The declaration builds upon discussions among seminar participants—all national legislators from OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation—about the important role young people can and must play in addressing emerging human rights and security challenges worldwide. Each signatory resolves that the respective legislative bodies included in the declaration will empower young leadership and pursue goals including enhancing parliamentary diplomacy, promoting a declaration of a climate emergency in every OSCE participating State, and ensuring common security. The declaration reads in part: “Whereas, the role of young people in promoting human rights, peace, and security efforts in both national and international fora must not be underestimated or diminished at this critical juncture for democracies around the globe; “Whereas, comprehensive security, be it politico-military security, economic and environmental security, or human rights, faces more hybrid, malicious, and multiplying threats than we realize; “Whereas, multilateral institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the respective parliamentary assemblies, must maintain their stature and utilize its greatest asset for building a brighter future, the youth…” “Youth leadership driven by political inclusion is vital to combating the challenges of both today and tomorrow, including environmental degradation and democratic backsliding,” said U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), who chairs the Helsinki Commission. “This declaration is simply the first, welcome step toward developing a robust transatlantic network of young legislators who will work toward a secure, sustainable future for us all.” “This was an excellent opportunity to follow up on a call made by our Assembly during our Berlin Annual Session to establish a forum of young parliamentarians to foster greater mutual trust between OSCE participating States,” said OSCE PA President George Tsereteli. “Young people can play a crucial role in fostering a culture of peace, in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, in tackling current urgent issues such as climate change, the fight against terrorism and migration.” The declaration has been signed by 17 legislators from the OSCE region, including U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) and US. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Both representatives serve as commissioners on the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Download the declaration.

  • The Power and Purpose of Parliamentary Diplomacy

    While diplomats largely drive a nation’s foreign policy, elected members of national parliaments, including the U.S. Congress, also play a crucial role in influencing policy priorities, holding governments accountable, and providing a firmer democratic foundation to the advancement of peace, cooperation, and human rights across the globe. Through the parliamentary assemblies of organizations that play a critical role in international peace and security—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—parliamentarians can advance national interests on the international stage. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to encourage inter-parliamentary dialogue and examine the role parliamentary diplomacy can play in responding to current challenges facing the OSCE and NATO. The hearing also demonstrated bipartisan U.S. support for multilateral engagement based on shared principles and common goals.  Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commissioner Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Rep. Filemon Vela (TX-34), a member of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Chairman Hastings’ opening statement highlighted the value of effective parliamentary forums in contributing to security cooperation in Europe and around the world. Co-Chairman Wicker’s opening remarks emphasized that transatlantic dialogue has become even more important given continued Russian aggression.  “If diplomacy is war by other means, we should no more abandon the plenary hall than the battlefield,” he stated.”  George Tsereteli, a member of the parliament of the Republic of Georgia and President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and Attila Mesterhazy, a member of the parliament of Hungary and the Acting President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, both testified at the hearing Tsereteli discussed the necessity of active and visible international cooperation. He specifically acknowledged the advantages of parliamentary diplomacy in facilitating “public discussions,” “additional communication channels between conflict parties,” and “fact-finding missions.” Tsereteli also addressed Russia’s rogue actions in Russian-occupied territories. While he voiced support for maintaining pressure on the Putin regime, he upheld the importance of continued dialogue and compromise. Mesterhazy’s testimony focused on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s recent achievements and its role in shaping the future of NATO. He contended that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is a powerful complement to NATO because of the Assembly’s broad mandate, diverse membership, and utilization of majority voting. Mesterhazy also discussed Russian aggression in the region, asserting that “[the Ukraine War] is not a frozen conflict, it’s boiling” and commending the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for expelling the Russian delegation in 2014, following the illegal annexation of Crimea. The hearing provided insight on the parallels of multilateral engagement within the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Commissioners and panelists were able to address various issues facing transatlantic security and remain hopeful for the future of parliamentary diplomacy and cooperation.

  • Media Advisory: Chairman Hastings, OSCE PA President Tsereteli, and Commissioner Moore to Address International Gathering of Young Legislators on Capitol Hill

    WASHINGTON—To empower future leaders in the North America, Europe, Central Asia, and beyond, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and other partners will convene a seminar for young legislators on Capitol Hill on Monday, February 3 and Tuesday, February 4, 2020. During the two-day program, leading young legislators from OSCE participating States, along with members of Congress and select guests, will discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts in both national and international fora. Attendees also will engage with other political leaders to forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges. Members of the media are invited to attend the opening and closing sessions of the event. WHO:                      Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (opening and closing sessions)                                    Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (opening session)                                    OSCE PA President George Tsereteli (closing session)                                    Other Members of Congress to be confirmed                                    Nearly 50 young legislators from 25 countries   WHERE:                  U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-210 (opening session)                                    U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room SVC-200/201 (closing session)   WHEN:                    Monday, February 3, 2020 (opening session)                                    12:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.                                    Tuesday, February 4, 2020 (closing session)                                    1:15 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Members of the media must register in advance to attend the public sessions of the seminar by emailing csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov.

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Power of Parliamentary Diplomacy to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE POWER AND PURPOSE OF PARLIAMENTARY DIPLOMACY Inter-Parliamentary Initiatives and the U.S. Contribution Wednesday, February 5, 2020 9:30 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission While diplomats largely drive a nation’s foreign policy, elected members of national parliaments, including the U.S. Congress, also play a crucial role in influencing policy priorities, holding governments accountable, and providing a firmer democratic foundation to the advancement of peace, cooperation, and human rights across the globe. Through the parliamentary assemblies of organizations that play a critical role in international peace and security—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—parliamentarians can advance national interests on the international stage. This hearing will examine the concept of parliamentary diplomacy, review the activities of both the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and assess the ways in which they parallel and support the multilateral diplomatic efforts of governments to follow shared principles and reach common goals. Witnesses also will discuss the many current challenges facing the NATO alliance and the OSCE region, the role played by the United States Congress, and possibilities for similar parliamentary initiatives elsewhere. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: George Tsereteli, a member of the parliament of the Republic of Georgia and President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Attila Mesterhazy, a member of the parliament of Hungary and President (Acting) of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly

  • Election Observation 101

    On January 22, 2020, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Mark Veasey (TX-33) moderated a roundtable at the Texas A&M School of Law titled “Election Observation 101: Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century.”  Rep. Veasey—who also is a co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a former member of the Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives—and expert panelists discussed the importance of election observation missions across the OSCE region. Rep. Veasey was joined at the roundtable by veteran election observer Lindsay Lloyd, director of the human freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute; Amanda Schnetzer, chief operating officer of Pointe Bello; and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson.  Law school dean Robert Ahdieh offered a warm welcome and reflected on his fondest memories of the Helsinki Commission as a young man living in Moscow, Russia. Rep. Veasey then set the stage with the 30-year celebration of the 1990 Copenhagen Document which established the international standards for “free and fair elections”, while Mr. Lloyd explained the dynamics of how teams are assembled. Mr. Johnson further clarified the role of observers as strict watchers or objective examiners, and never interventionists, and Ms. Schnetzer shared how her experience observing elections in Tunisia forever shaped her passion for civic engagement and democratic values.  “[In 2011], the people of Tunisia were voting... To see the looks on the faces of women, grandparents coming to poles for the first time, casting a vote, and bringing a grandchild in tow, to say ‘I have waited all my life to do this’ was simply inspirational,” Ms. Schnetzer said. “I saw the stark comparison in the United States because few get excited on the first day they get to vote… I wish that we could find a way to positively spark that enthusiasm here [in the U.S.].” Looking ahead to the U.S. elections in November 2020, all panelists agreed that more could be done to inform the American public about foreign observers and the benefits of international election observation. Election observers from both the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are expected to be invited by the United States Government to observe the 2020 elections. The OSCE was first invited to observe U.S. elections by the Bush Administration in 2002 and has been invited to observe every midterm and general election since (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) by the administration in office. However, the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system means some states prohibit or greatly restrict foreign observers. A few states explicitly permit foreign observation, or at least a sufficiently public observation to include those from other countries.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

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