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Democracy in the CIS
The Washington Times
Rep. Christopher H. Smith
Wednesday, January 12, 2005

In the last year, a political earthquake has struck the countries of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and the ongoing Orange Revolution in Ukraine are a direct challenge to ruling elites in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. They also threaten to derail Russian President Vladimir Putin's policy of retaining as much control as possible over the former Soviet empire.

Throughout this region, ex-communist rulers allied with oligarchic groups have, to varying degrees, seized control of their countries' economies and political arenas. While claiming to observe the democracy commitments voluntarily accepted when their countries joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1992, these leaders have remained in power by rigging elections and excluding potential rivals, sometimes using any means necessary. Executive control of the legislative and judicial branches of power, as well as the state's coercive apparatus, has made it possible to largely intimidate the public out of politics, which has remained an "insider's-only" game.

This arrangement has served the Kremlin well. Building alliances with leaders of dubious legitimacy seemed an ideal way to stem the "invasion of Western influence" and its annoying imperative of free and fair elections. Since the late 1990s, Russian-led observer delegations from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) routinely approved of elections in CIS countries which OSCE monitors criticized or damned with faint praise. In this way and others, Moscow showed other CIS capitals that, unlike the United States, Russia would not question their right to rule by hook or by crook and was a reliable bulwark, unlike the preachy West.

Consequently, the democratic revolution which swept Georgia last year horrified the leaders of other former Soviet republics. For the first time in ex-Soviet space, opposition leaders united to mobilize a broad-based protest movement that overturned the results of a rigged election. The emergence of Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia's Rose Revolution and was subsequently elected president in a landslide, signaled more than the end of Eduard Shevardnadze's corrupt, moribund regime: Mr. Saakashvili symbolized the first popular revolt against the system of pseudo-democracy prevalent on post-Soviet soil. What is now transpiring in Ukraine is the logical continuation of what began last year in the Caucasus. And every successful precedent emboldens opposition movements in other CIS countries and gives hope to impoverished, frustrated and seemingly apathetic publics, proving that real change is possible.

The picture of a victorious Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili ushering in a New Year in Kiev's Independence Square no doubt causes angst in other CIS leaders, even as it inspires those living under repressive regimes elsewhere in the region. In a telling twist, CIS election observers for the first time criticized an election held in the former Soviet Union, decrying the conduct of Ukraine's Dec. 26 repeat runoff and questioning the legitimacy of the poll.

For the Kremlin, Georgia's Rose Revolution was bad enough; the Orange Revolution in Ukraine is a nightmare. Apart from the stunning loss of face suffered by Mr. Putin, who openly campaigned for pro-Russian candidateViktor Yanukovich, "People power" can no longer be dismissed as an anomaly or a deviation possible only in small, unstable, atypical Georgia in the wild Caucasus. Now, "fraternal" Slavs in large, European Ukraine also insisted that elections be fair and reflect the voters' will. The handwriting on the Kremlin wall is clear: Peaceful popular protests backed by OSCE standards on elections can bring down entrenched corrupt regimes that rely on vote fraud to remain in power.

Where will this contagion stop? A worried Moscow has responded by attacking the OSCE. Russia, the other former Soviet states and all OSCE countries have formally agreed that democracy, based on the will of the people expressed regularly through free and fair elections, is the only acceptable form of government for our nations. But with its alliance system in jeopardy, Russia last July orchestrated a CIS assault on OSCE's "imbalanced" stress on democracy and human rights, followed by a broadside in September against, among other things, allegedly skewed OSCE standards on elections. (In response, 106 human-rights advocates, mostly from CIS countries, issued a sharp rebuttal to these attacks at the OSCE's main human- rights meeting of the year held in October.) Moscow is now threatening to paralyze the consensus-based OSCE if the organization does not effectively revisit and dilute longstanding election commitments, under the pretext of setting "minimum standards" by which to judge whether elections are indeed free and fair. The Russians are also pushing to de-emphasize human rights and democracy in the work of OSCE's field missions in CIS states. Recognizing the power of the ideals behind OSCE commitments that it signed up to, Russia appears determined to dilute the democracy commitments that are at the very heart of the OSCE.

It is essential that the United States respond resolutely to this challenge, insisting that there be no retreat from OSCE commitments and principles to placate Mr. Putin, the patron saint of post-Soviet "managed" democracy. Moscow may be intent on precipitating a crisis in the OSCE, or even threatening its very existence. Nevertheless, having stood firm against rigged elections in Ukraine, the United States and its democratic OSCE partners should not be bullied into concessions. Watering down the democracy content of the OSCE would not only undermine the organization's raison d'etre, but undercut the very people struggling to be free.

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Despite opposition complaints that August was not an appropriate time for elections, President Tudjman scheduled them with the likely calculation that his party stood its best chances in a quick election before growing economic hardship and pressure for genuine democratization replaced the joys of independence and renewed peace. During the campaign period, 29 political parties fielded candidates. They faced no major difficulties in organizing rallies and distributing their literature to the public. At the same time, the Croatian media was only moderately free, with television and radio broadcasts much less so than newspapers and journals. Only toward the end of the campaign did the media seem to open up fully The stated objective in organizing the elections was to be fair and impartial to all contending parties. At the same time, the electoral procedures were not as fully satisfactory as they easily could have been, raising suspicions of an intent to manipulate the results. However, opposition political parties considered the process sufficiently fair for them to compete. They also had the opportunity to have observers present at polling stations and election commissions on election day. According to a constitutional law on the matter, Croatia's national minorities enjoy certain rights regarding their representation in governmental bodies. Ethnic Serbs, the only large minority with some 12 percent of the population, were guaranteed a greater number of seats in the new Sabor than all other minorities combined, but, unlike the smaller minorities, no elections were held in which ethnic Serbs alone could chose their representatives. This was viewed as discriminatory treatment of the Serbian minority, despite apparently small Serbian participation in the elections. Balloting on election day was orderly, despite the enormous complications caused by the conflict and questions of citizenship and voter eligibility in a newly independent country. There were few complaints in regard to the way in which the voting and counting were carried out, although several isolated problems were reported and the security of ballots cast by voters abroad was a constant concern. Despite these faults, holding elections might well have been a watershed for Croatia. Problems in that country's democratic development were given closer scrutiny, and public concerns can now shift from the recent past to future prospects. The winners could view their easy win as a mandate for continuing current policies, largely viewed as nationalistic and insufficiently democratic. However, the far right's poor performance could lessen pressure on the HDZ to show its nationalist colors and permit greater democratic development. The behavior of HDZ leaders to date favors the status quo in the short run, but domestic and international pressure could both encourage more significant democratic reform than has been seen thus far.

  • The Helsinki Follow-Up Meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation on Europe

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  • PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS AND INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUMS IN THE BALTIC STATES, THE SOVIET UNION AND SUCCESSOR STATES

    1991 was the year of independence referendums and presidential elections in the republics of the Soviet Union. Not coincidentally, it was also the year the Soviet Union fell apart. Its Communist Party elite and institutions proved unable to continue ruling through intimidation or to overcome the powerful sweep of nationalism, stoked by the personal ambition of politicians and mediated through electoral politics. With varying defrees of satisfaction and eagerness, the Baltic States and the constituent republics struck out on their own. The following is a compilation of reports by the Helsinki Commission on presidential elections and independence referendums in the Baltic States, the Soviet Union, and successor states in 1991 and 1992.

  • Staff Delegation to Moscow, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus

    Each country visited by the delegation has its own particular problems, as they all cope with their newly acquired independence. Their implementation of CSCE commitments naturally reflects the political circumstances obtaining in the country at large. Belarus exhibits little evidence of ethnic conflict (the situation of the Polish minority, while worrisome, is unlikely to become a state-threatening crisis) and Belarus has historic and ethnic reasons to cleave to Russia, despite the breakup of the USSR. As in Turkmenistan, Belarus's post-Soviet "stability" appears to mean relatively little organized political activity and the survival in power of the renamed Communist Party elite. On the other hand, such "stability" retards growth away from Soviet reality. By contrast, Georgia and Moldova are far more unstable. They share the unhappy reality of ethnic war, exacerbated in Georgia by a bitter rift between supporters of the current and former authorities. As states without Slavic majorities and with historic reasons to fear Russian domination, their efforts to create a non-Soviet personality and structure have been accompanied by major disruptions and bloodshed, while their relations with Russia -- an important factor in their hopes to achieve stability -- have been stormy. Georgia is engulfed in bloody ethnic disputes (particularly in South Ossetia, where a multilateral peacekeeping force has restrained the violence, and Abkhazia) and a political conflict (between backers of ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze). Gamsakhurdia's removal by force last January is the key to Georgian politics today, as it determines the legitimacy -- or lack of legitimacy -- of the current government and the battle between adherents of the opposing sides. Whether stability can be attained under such circumstances, even after the scheduled October parliamentary election, is unclear. Consequently, prospects are uncertain in Georgia for resolving ethnic tensions and establishing a law-based state which observes human rights and protects national minorities. The chief concern in Moldova is the carnage of the civil war in Transdniestria. President Snegur and other officials emphasized their wish to find a just solution to the issue but were clearly concerned about the aggressive position of Russia, while two major political groups charged that the Snegur administration had gravely mishandled the crisis. Parliamentarians and government representatives outlined other areas in which Chisinau was attempting to reconcile various claims and interests of the ethnic Moldovan Romanophone majority with those of the many other ethnic groups in the country. The editor of the major Jewish newspaper in Chisinau reported a significant rise in Jewish cultural activities, but also detected signs of an increase in "day-to-day anti-Semitism." Evangelical Christian leaders reported that their churches were carrying on an extensive program of evangelization, despite what they considered a noticeable tilt in Moldovan "freedom of conscience" legislation toward the "national" Orthodox church. In Belarus, democratization has made relatively little progress. The Belarusian Popular Front and its allies have secured enough petition signatures to force a referendum on establishing a new parliament, but the Front fears that the old-line majority in the parliament will delay holding the referendum until it can reinforce its grip on power. The press is entirely subsidized by the government, limiting the opposition's ability to get its message out. There are at least four "secrecy" refuseniks in Belarus, and although a new "exit and entry" law is being drafted, OVIR officials defended the present practice of detaining emigration applicants for up to five years on the basis of their access to "secrets." The leader of the Belarus Baptist community was enthusiastic about the new freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by the church, and praised Supreme Soviet Chairman Shushkevich for his positive attitude toward believers in Belarus. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk and Mogilev charged that Minsk was delaying the return of churches and church property to the church, apparently out of fear that the predominantly Polish-language church was part of a Polish irredentist movement in Western Belarus.

  • Helsinki Commission Visit to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine

    This Helsinki Commission delegation was the first to visit the "former Soviet Union" since its breakup in December 1991. It was also the first Commission delegation visit to any of the former republics in their new status as independent countries, and the first ever to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Of particular significance was the fact that all the former republics are now full­ fledged members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), having been admitted during the meeting of the CSCE Council of Ministers in Prague in late January 1992. Their entry into the CSCE means that all the governments of these newly independent countries have obligated themselves to implement Helsinki commitments, providing a standard by which their progress towards democratization, observance of human rights and free market economic systems can be measured. Moreover, since at least two of these countries -- Armenia and Azerbaijan -- are, essentially, engaged in hostilities, if not actually a state of war, the CSCE's mechanisms for conflict mediation and resolution can be brought into play: a test both for the republics, and the CSCE, especially in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia crisis. The fact that the delegation's visit took place during the CSCE Follow-up Meeting in Helsinki (March-June 1992) offered an appropriate backdrop to this Commission fact-finding mission. This mission had particular resonance in the Central Asian republics, which have long been neglected in the West. In fact, there had been much debate among CSCE participating States as to whether these republics should be admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, as they were manifestly not in Europe geographically, or, in many ways, culturally. Nevertheless, the CSCE's Council of Ministers was persuaded by the argument that the best way to bring Western democratic and free market ideas to the region was to include them in the process. The visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan was motivated by obvious considerations: the increasingly bloody and alarming conflict between them over Nagorno-Karabakh. From an ethnic dispute that threatened to complicate Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program, the conflict has ballooned, with the dissolution of the USSR, into a larger regional conflict with international significance that threatens to involve neighboring states, one of which -­ Turkey -- is a NATO member. From the CSCE perspective, this conflict brings to the fore the inherent contradiction between two equally valid principles of the CSCE: the right of peoples to self-determination, on the one hand; and territorial integrity, with only peaceful change of borders, on the other. Yugoslavia in 1991 had already presented the CSCE with the difficult problem of reconciling these principles; Armenia and Azerbaijan are offering the latest challenge. There is reason to believe -- or fear -- that this issue will resurface elsewhere on the territory of the former USSR, and the unhappy experience of these two Transcaucasian countries may prove an object lesson that has applicability to other situations. Reflecting the concern of the CSCE member States about the situation, and in an attempt to resolve the crisis, a decision was taken at the March 1992 opening of the Helsinki Follow-up Meeting to organize a "Conference on Nagorno-Karabakh" which will meet soon in Minsk under CSCE auspices. Ukraine, meanwhile, is embroiled in its own disputes as it develops its institutions as a newly independent country and CSCE state. Unlike its quarrel with Russia over division of the USSR's assets, especially the disposition of the Black Sea fleet, some issues have direct relevance to the CSCE. The Crimea, for example, may hold a referendum on its future status (remaining within Ukraine, autonomy, joining Russia, or opting for independence), which reflects the emphasis placed in the CSCE on democratic expression and fair balloting practices. Another area of critical importance is military security and arms control: the disposition of Ukraine's nuclear arsenal and compliance with the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) agreement, when Kiev has not yet reached agreement with Moscow and other capitals of former republics over a unified military that could implement the agreement. Finally, Ukraine's efforts to build a law-based state and overcome the legacy of 70 years of communism must overcome difficulties of personnel, "old thinking" (a term popular among Moscow's elite a few years ago), and bureaucratic resistance to change. The United States recognized all the former Soviet republics as independent countries on December 25, 1991, but established diplomatic relations only with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the others was put off, pending satisfactory assurances of commitment to human rights, democracy, responsible arms control policies, and a free market economic system. This "two-tiered" approach drew criticism, however, for risking the alienation of the "second-tier" states and the potential loss of American influence, I especially with the January 1992 decision by the CSCE to admit the former Soviet republics as full members. In February, the Bush administration signalled its intention to establish diplomatic relations with all the former Soviet republics. The result was the speedy opening of U.S. Embassies in the newly independent countries, which was enthusiastically greeted by the leaderships and opposition forces. Effectively, therefore, the United States is the only Western country with fully-functioning Embassies in all the new countries visited by the Helsinki Commission.

  • The New Commonwealth of Independent States: Problems, Perspectives, and U.S. Policy Implications

    This hearing discussed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a series of succeeding states. The hearing covered the theme of regional and ethnic divisions as key elements in the unpredicted dissolution of the Soviet Union. The witnesses covered the particular challenges of securing peaceful independence from the “commonwealth of former Soviet Republics” and the democratization process. The conversation centered on the human rights dimension and the process of newly created states signing on to several international treaties and obtaining memberships in international organizations.

  • Report: the Referendum on Indipendence and Presidential Election in Uzbekistan

    Uzbekistan held a referendum on independence and its first direct, contested presidential election on December 29,1991. According to the republic's Central Election Commission, over 98 percent of voters cast ballots for independence, and more - important - 86 percent voted for Islam Karimov as president. Karimov, former head of Uzbekistan's Communist Party (now renamed Party deputy to the republic's Supreme Soviet and chairman of the opposition party Erk). Uzbekistan's referendum on independence was a mere formality, given the dissolution of the URSS. Karimov's victory in a direct, two-candidate election signaled significant progress compared to the republic's previous practices and relative to other Central Asia republics, most of which did not hold contested presidential elections. But Karimov's advantages over Salih in the campaign, the exclusion of Pulatov, and the prevalence of old voting habits, both among voters and polling station officials, indicate that much remains to be done before Uzbekistan attains Western and CSCE notions of political pluralism and electoral probity. Two Helsinki Commission staffers observed Uzbekistan's referendum and presidential election, at the invitation of the republic's Supreme Soviet. They spent four days in Tashkent, the capital, and also traveled to Samarkand, to interview spokesmen of unofficial movements about the election and the general political situation in Uzbekistan.

  • Ukraine's Referendum on Independence and Presidential Election

    In an historic referendum/presidential election on December 1, 1991, residents of Ukraine overwhelmingly voted for independence and chose Leonid Kravchuk, the chairman of the republic's Supreme Soviet, as president. Hundreds of foreign observers and correspondents watched as 84 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Over 90 percent of participants, including many non-Ukrainians, cast ballots for independence. Former Communist Party apparatchik Kravchuk handily won the presidency on the first round, garnering about 60 percent of the votes. Among the candidates he defeated were two widely admired former dissidents and political prisoners who had served many years in Soviet prisons for advocating Ukrainian independence. The outcome of the referendum, while expected, was nevertheless momentous. Ukraine's emergence as an independent state ended any prospects of salvaging a federated or even confederated USSR. The results of the voting provided the direct impetus for the December 8 agreement among the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to create the Commonwealth of Independent States as the successor entity to the Soviet Union, which they formally declared dead. The rise of Ukraine -- a large state with 52 million people, a highly developed industrial base, rich agricultural capabilities, and, not least, nuclear weapons on its territory -- also altered the geo-political map of Europe. Western capitals, observing the quickly unfolding events and grasping their ramifications, made determined efforts to stop referring to the new republic in their midst as "the" Ukraine, while pondering how its military plans and potential affect security arrangements in the post Cold War world. Given the importance of Ukraine's referendum and presidential election, as well as the republic's size and regional differences, the Helsinki Commission sent three staffers to observe the voting. Ukraine's parliament had previously conveyed formal invitations to the Commission, which selected three distinct cities as representative sites to monitor the voting, gauge the popular mood and gain different perspectives on the political implications: Kiev, the capital, in central Ukraine; Lviv, the regional capital of Western Ukraine, reputedly the most highly nationalist area of the republic; and Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, where the population is heavily Russian or Russified. Unfortunately, logistical and transportation breakdowns in the decaying Soviet Union foiled plans to reach Donetsk, and Commission staff instead traveled to the city of Kaniv (a small city on the Dnipro river). The following report is based on staff observations over several days, and is supplemented by many conversations with voters and officials, as well as Ukrainian and central Soviet newspaper and television coverage.

  • Report: Ukraine's Referendum on Independence and Presidential Election

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  • Turkmenistan's Referendum on Independence

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  • Trip Report on South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and Nigeria, August 4-19

    The dramatic realignment of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States has impacted significantly on developments in African states. A fundamental restructuring of internal and external political and economic systems has started to take shape and aspirations for more open and just societies based upon democratic principles are evident across the continent. While some changes have been made possible by the dramatic relaxation of superpower tensions, indigenous democratic movements toward democracy still face enormous barriers. African nations, with few exceptions, are in the midst of a very profound and prolonged economic depression. Other problems confronting Africa are of equally catastrophic proportions: exploding population growth; civil wars sometimes involving ethnic genocide; large displaced populations fleeing violence, persecution and starvation; a burgeoning debt crisis; ravaging famine and spreading diseases. Senator DeConcini visited Africa to study recent developments and examine how Africans are dealing with present demands, aspirations and problems. A corresponding objective of Codel DeConcini's visit to Africa was to examine the present economic, political and human rights developments and how the newly emerging political process known as the Conference on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa (CSSDCA) intends to address and meet the unique challenges confronting Africa today.

  • The Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE

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  • Geneva Meeting on National Minorities and Moscow Meeting on the Human Dimension

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  • CONFERENCE ON SECURITY, STABILITY, DEVELOPMENT, AND COOPERATION IN AFRICA

    This hearing focused on successes of the Helsinki process in guiding Eastern Europe towards democratic governance and how a similar framework could work in Africa. The joint hearing emphasized the need for expedient action for the continent or risk unmanageable stagnating crises. Many former oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe draw parallels to similar governing system in the African continent, such systems lack rule based institutions, political enfranchisement, and civil protections. The Commissioners and the distinguished panelists discuss what measures African countries are taking in their democratization process and what the additional actions should be.

  • Democratic Developments in Albania

    Beginning at the Copenhagen Human Dimension Meeting in June 1990, Albania has been granted observer status at CSCE meetings. Albania would like to move beyond its current observer status and become a full participant in the process. The Commission delegation had stated when it left after its first visit that it needed to see significant improvements in Albania s human rights performance before we could support Albania’s membership in the CSCE. There is no question that the situation has remarkably improved as of last year, a fact which we on the Helsinki Commission have welcomed and have even complimented the existing government for moving in what we consider the right direction. A key question now, in addition to that of CSCE membership, is how the United States can best develop these bilateral relations to the benefit of democracy in Albania.

  • Chernobyl: Five Years Later

    Held as a fifth anniversary commemoration of the disaster at Chernobyl, the briefing featured a short film that was produced by an Australian film company on Chernobyl’s progress in the five years after the crisis. Afterward, Samuel Wise, staff director at the Commission, led the discussion on the damage Chernobyl continued to have on surrounding regions in 1991. Witnesses Dr. David Marples and Dr. Natalia Preobrazhensk addressed the environmental concerns and political authority over Chernobyl, along with how Ukraine’s judicial system had dealt with the situation. They also acknowledged the situation of Soviet nuclear power at the time.

  • Report: The Elections in Albania

    Taken as a whole, the Albanian elections cannot be considered free and fair. This does not mean, however, that the irregularities, intimidation and other problems encountered were necessarily sufficient to invalidate the results. The Party of Labor may well have won a majority of seats even if the election environment had been more free and fair, although it is questionable whether it would have still achieved the two-thirds benchmark critical for passing constitutional changes. Nevertheless, the very holding of these multi-party elections was a definite step forward. In the post-election period, the Democratic Party has refused to join the Party of Labor in any government coalition and has boycotted the Assembly until the perpetrators of a post-election crackdown on demonstrators which left several dead are identified. One of the most important and unanswered questions at present is the situation within the Party of Labor. Marty hard line leaders won election to the Assembly, but the current· President and Party First Secretary, Ramiz Alia, lost his seat, raising questions as to whether he can still lead the party and, if elected the new President as expected, will remain a powerful head of state. With or without further reform efforts, additional unrest can be expected in Albania. The country is now open to contact with the rest of the world and in dire need of foreign economic assistance. However, a slowdown in the pace of change -- let alone any rollback in the reforms undertaken to date -- will certainly be resisted by the population, the youth in particular, lead tonew waves of people seeking to leave the country and discourage foreign governments from extending any economic assistance other than purely humanitarian aid.

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