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Has Interpol become the long arm of oppressive regimes?
The Guardian
Josh Jacobs
Sunday, October 17, 2021

Flicking through the news one day in early 2015, Alexey Kharis, a California-based businessman and father of two, came across a startling announcement: Russia would request a global call for his arrest through the International Criminal Police Organization, known as Interpol.

“Oh, wow,” Kharis thought, shocked. All the 46-year-old knew about Interpol and its pursuit of the world’s most-wanted criminals was from novels and films. He tried to reassure himself that things would be OK and it was just an intimidatory tactic of the Russian authorities. Surely, he reasoned, the world’s largest police organisation had no reason to launch a hunt for him.

In the months that followed, Kharis kept checking Interpol’s gallery of thousands of international fugitives. He finally came across his mugshot, glaring back at him like a hardened criminal. “My God,” he exclaimed, now terrified.

“This guy is a terrorist; that guy is a murderer; this guy abducted children – and there’s me,” he remembers thinking as he looked through the Interpol register.

It was while running a large construction company in Russia that Kharis first found himself on the wrong side of the authorities. His firm, ZAO Rosdorsnabzhenie, had a government contract in 2010 to renovate shipyards near the far eastern city of Vladivostok. He says his business partner, Igor Borbot, told him about high-level officials embezzling money from the project.

Kharis says he was targeted after he threatened to speak publicly about the ministerial corruption and refused to give false testimony against Borbot. Kharis says agents from Russia’s Federal Security Bureau told him during interrogation in 2013: “Your partner is going down – you can help us or you can go down with him.”

He had hoped – naively, he says now – that investigations in Russia would clear his name. The Interpol notice confirmed he was wrong. It outlined major fraud charges carrying a 10-year prison sentence, alleging that Kharis was part of a “criminal group” that had stolen tens of millions of pounds from his own company.

Ted Bromund, who testified in Kharis’s case in the US as an expert witness, spent days scrutinising the case files and came to believe that the charges were baseless. “They don’t seem to have any substance whatsoever,” he says.

Bromund, an international affairs specialist with a rightwing US thinktank, the Heritage Foundation, concluded that this was the latest in a pattern of Russian attempts to weaponise Interpol with trumped-up requests to arrest its nationals. According to the US rights organisation Freedom House, Russia is responsible for 38% of all public red notices.

Far from indicating that Kharis had committed a crime, Bromund wrote later in his testimony, the notice “proves only that the Russian Federation filled out the appropriate Interpol form”. Interpol declined to comment on Kharis’s case, beyond confirming the status of his red notice.

US immigration authorities did not share this view of Interpol’s request, however. The Department of Homeland Security used it to argue that Kharis was a “flight risk” and he was detained in San Francisco in 2017. Kharis spent the next 15 months in California prisons.

His wife, Anna, published a blog during this time. “Many tears and sleepless nights followed,” she wrote of his detention, telling the children their father was away on a business trip. She describes Kharis as “a caring father” who would “spend the night rocking the cradle and then head off for his business early in the morning”. He called every night to tell their two young children everything was OK. But with no release date, prison took its toll.

First mooted in 1914, Interpol was established in 1923, in large part to stop people from committing crimes in one country and fleeing elsewhere with impunity. The organisation has been misused by oppressive regimes before – in 1938, the Nazis ousted Interpol’s president and later relocated the organisation to Berlin. Most countries withdrew and it ceased to exist as an international organisation until after the second world war.

The 194 member states support searches for war criminals, drug kingpins and people who have evaded justice for decades. Its red notices are seen as a vital tool and the closest thing to an international arrest warrant, leading to the location of thousands of fugitives each year.

Red-notice subjects have included Osama bin Laden and Saadi Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s former dictator. As criminals move around an increasingly interconnected world and terrorist incidents increased, the use of Interpol’s system has mushroomed. In the past two decades, red notices increased tenfold, from about 1,200 in 2000 to almost 12,000 last year. (There are also other forms of Interpol notices, such as yellow for missing children, black for unidentified dead bodies.)

Alongside the growth of the most-wanted list, international legal experts say there has also been an alarming phenomenon of countries using Interpol for political gain or revenge – targeting nationals abroad such as political rivals, critics, activists and refugees. It is not known how many of roughly 66,000 active red notices could be based on politically motivated charges; Interpol does not release data on how many red notices it rejects. But a number of reports, including from the US Congress, the European parliament and academics have documented the misuse of Interpol in recent years. Bromund says: “I don’t think there’s any dispute that […] the number of abusive red notices is growing.”

Seeking to manipulate Interpol is a feature of transnational repression, in which countries extend their reach overseas to silence or target adversaries. Tactics range from assassinations, poisonings and dismemberments to blackmail, spying on citizens’ phones abroad and threatening families left behind. The methods may differ, but they are intended to send a similarly menacing message in an era of global movement: you may leave your country but you can still be punished.

Interpol’s move earlier this month to reinstate Syria’s access to the organisation’s databases and allow it to communicate with other member states was strongly criticised by opposition activists. Anas al-Abdah, head of the Syrian opposition’s negotiating body, said Interpol’s decision had given Bashar al-Assad’s regime the data-based means to wage another war against the Syrian people.

Toby Cadman, a British barrister working on Syria-related war crimes prosecutions, said in response to the decision: “Interpol’s systems are opaque, with no real oversight or accountability, and routinely abused by states like Syria.

“It’s quite straightforward to get a red notice issued – you don’t need to provide that much information, and Interpol is underfunded and understaffed,” he said, but added: “Getting a red notice removed, even in European countries such as the UK or the Netherlands, can be slow and difficult.”

A red-notice subject’s fate can vary wildly. Some countries see red notices as an alert system while others treat them as arrest warrants, incarcerating people or co-operating with extradition proceedings against them. People may have their assets frozen, their passports confiscated and their movements restricted – as well as the reputational damage from being designated as an international criminal.

Some first learn of their Interpol wanted status when they cross a border. For Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini footballer living as a political refugee in Australia, it was on his honeymoon in Thailand in 2018. He was arrested with his wife after Bahrain issued an Interpol notice accusing him of vandalism. (Al-Araibi fled Bahrain after athletes who took part in pro-democracy protests were arrested, beaten and allegedly tortured while detained.) Interpol revoked the notice when Australia notified it of al-Araibi’s refugee status, but that did not prevent al-Araibi from spending 76 days in Thai prisons. Al-Araibi’s case is one of several to have sparked a public outcry in recent years.

Another political activist pursued abroad through Interpol’s red notices was Petr Silaev, a Russian environmentalist and anti-fascist who was charged with “hooliganism” after demonstrating in 2010 against plans for a motorway to be built through the Khimki forest outside Moscow. He fled the country as the Russian authorities rounded up fellow protesters and was granted political asylum in Finland. In 2012, however, he was arrested in Spain after an Interpol alert and detained in a high-security prison. He spent months fighting extradition to Russia.

The human rights organisation Fair Trials said Interpol’s decision had left Silaev under threat of arrest whenever he crossed a border and called on the organisation to justify its decision and “explain whether it is helping Russia to pursue anyone else across the globe on hooliganism charges”.

In the UK, Benny Wenda, a separatist leader from West Papua who escaped from prison in Indonesia and was granted asylum as a political refugee, had a politically motivated red notice issued against him by Indonesia. It was later deleted.

“We must not misuse international organisations like Interpol for such purposes,” said the then German chancellor Angela Merkel, after a Turkish-born German writer, Doğan Akhanlı, was arrested in 2017 on the back of a Turkish Interpol notice while on holiday in Spain.

However, only three months ago, Moroccan authorities arrested Yidiresi Aishan, an Uyghur activist, after China sought his extradition; Interpol later cancelled Aishan’s red notice after a review but he still faces the threat of deportation to China. Last month Makary Malachowski, a Belarusian opposition activist who had fled to Poland, was detained in Warsaw after Alexander Lukashenko’s government issued a red notice.

“People expect you’re not going to believe them because what has happened to them is so crazy,” says Michelle Estlund, a Florida lawyer representing wrongfully accused clients wanted through Interpol.

Estlund began helping Interpol-targeted clients 12 years ago, when a Venezuelan woman facing a red notice accusing her of fraud sought the criminal lawyer’s help. Estlund initially refused but has since worked with red-notice subjects from Russia to Ecuador, and remains shocked by how the law can be misused.

The rise of online platforms for dissidents to criticise governments is fuelling a desire to shut down opposition voices, she says. “It’s just so against what we expect to see in any justice system, even abusive ones. The things the client goes through before they get to me are mind-boggling.”

Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation’s use for political matters and it announced in 2015 that it would remove a red notice if that person had been recognised as a refugee. Its work must also fall within the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which demands fair trials and free speech, and prohibits arbitrary arrests. Interpol says it screens every wanted-person request. In an organisation with such seemingly clear safeguards, what is going on?

Weeding out questionable requests for international arrests falls to a specialist squad at Interpol’s Lyon headquarters, created in 2016. Turkey says Interpol has rejected 773 requests to detain people over suspected links with the popular movement Hizmet, led by the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Interpol confirmed the figure was more than 700). Turkey’s government regards members of the Gülen movement as a terrorist group responsible for plotting the failed 2016 coup and has criticised Interpol for hindering its prosecution efforts. There have been reports that Ankara attempted to upload as many as 60,000 names to Interpol, including via its stolen-passport database, but the organisation denied that figure.

Interpol’s interventions against Turkey are among a number of publicly known examples of the organisation’s efforts to stop politically motivated notices in recent years. Yet some fear Interpol too often believes its members are working in good faith and providing it with accurate information. “Interpol is there to help the police do its work under the assumption that the police does its work honestly,” says Rutsel Martha, Interpol’s Dutch former legal chief and author of a study of the organisation. “That’s the system, so the first reaction is to do with the immediate situation, then legal controls kick in later in the process.”

Among the easiest ways to craft misleading arrest requests is to accuse people of financial crimes such as money laundering, whereas a murder charge requires evidence of a dead body and political charges may break Interpol’s rules. “It’s very easy to either fabricate or manipulate information to create a charge of embezzlement or misappropriation or gaining unjust profit,” says Estlund. When she looks into red notices, she often finds charges to be unsubstantiated.

What critics regard as a low level of proof required for a red notice can be seen in the case of a Turkmen human rights activist, Annadurdy Khadzhiev, who was detained in Bulgaria in 2002 over an Interpol notice accusing him of embezzling $40m (£30m) from Turkmenistan’s central bank. The alleged theft, however, took place four years after Khadzhiev had stopped working there. “It was objectively impossible for him to have committed the said crime,” according to the findings of a Bulgarian prosecutor cited in a 2014 European court of human rights judgment.

A less-formal Interpol option for hunting fugitives, called “diffusions”, are often regarded as more vulnerable to misuse. Through these alerts, Interpol members can send arrest requests directly to each other. That is how Nikita Kulachenkov, a Russian-born Lithuanian refugee, spent several weeks imprisoned in Cyprus, after he was detained at the airport in 2016 en route to visit his mother.

Kulachenkov faced a five-year prison term in Russia for allegedly stealing a street artist’s drawing. His Interpol alert was issued after he began working on investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Russia, founded by the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok last year and is now imprisoned in Russia.

Kulachenkov claims he found the poster on a street and is adamant that the poster’s value was invented to create a politically motivated charge. He was investigated by Russia’s top prosecutors, who raided his Moscow flat. More than a year before his detention in Cyprus, Kulachenkov had pre-emptively written to Interpol asking it to reject calls for his arrest as he was being targeted for his anti-corruption work. Interpol acknowledged his concerns, and a spokeswoman said later that it checks all diffusions.

Now living in Berlin, Kulachenkov still fears being stopped if he crosses certain borders – Interpol data on wanted individuals can remain on national police computer systems even after it has been revoked. Kulachenkov recalls incredulous Cypriot authorities laughing at the charges against him, saying: “Russia really wants you through Interpol for €60 of theft?”

Interpol’s secretary general for the last seven years, Jürgen Stock, is unexpectedly open about the threat to Interpol’s credibility from problematic notices. He finds it frustrating that he sometimes finds out from newspapers, rather than his organisation, about wrongful arrest requests, such as those involving refugees. He says countries do not always notify Interpol about a person’s refugee status, which he regards as a “shared responsibility”.

The 62-year-old has faced a “parallel pandemic” of Covid-related crimes including fake vaccines and other substandard medical products as well as fighting a wave of cyber-attacks and telecom scams. Stock describes Interpol’s “bread and butter job” as targeting “child abusers, murderers, fraudsters”.

Stock does not give figures about Interpol’s tools being misused against political opponents and refugees but he insists that these notices are a “small number of cases” compared with the “overwhelming majority” of legitimate ones. However, even his rough estimate of no more than 5% of notices being improperly applied each year could mean hundreds of potentially wrongful arrest requests.

Under Stock, Interpol has strengthened its oversight body – the commission for the control of Interpol’s files (CCF), which reviews appeals and can delete red notices – and publishes more information about decisions on complaints. He has also bolstered the specialist squad that reviews notices before they are published. Critics have welcomed the changes, but some say the system is still not robust enough. Stock acknowledges that there is more work to be done. “I don’t have the silver bullet at [this] stage for what else we can do,” he says, but stresses that he is committed to further strengthening safeguards, where possible, during his final three years in the post.

A key challenge, lawyers say, is how long it can take to get non-compliant notices removed – and the damage that can happen in the meantime. This was the case for Selahaddin Gülen, a US permanent resident and nephew of Fethullah Gülen who was detained in Kenya last October, after an Interpol notice accused him of sex crimes involving a minor. (He denies the charges, which his lawyer called a “false dossier”.)

Seven months later, after he reported to Kenyan police in May as part of his bail requirements, Gülen was detained again and deported to Turkey. “He had been completely illegally transferred without even a Kenyan court ruling,” says Nate Schenkkan, research director at Freedom House. “That’s a pretty obvious case of Interpol abuse.”

Gülen’s lawyers asked Interpol to remove the red notice in December, arguing it violated rules on political motivated notices. An expert witness argued that after the 2016 attempted coup Turkey had reopened charges that had been dropped in 2008. In July, Interpol stated that Gülen’s red notice had been removed. But it was too late for Gülen: he was already in Turkish custody and now faces multiple charges including for terrorism offences, according to local media. Gülen’s wife has called her husband’s detention and deportation from Kenya a kidnapping. “I have not heard from him since that day,” she said in a video.

The CCF is composed of eight specialists who usually meet every few months. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, it ruled that 48% of the 346 complaints it took forward had broken Interpol’s rules.

Interpol’s penalties for members flouting its rules include blocking countries from accessing its databases and supervising use of its systems for up to three months. It says these are “corrective measures”, not punishments, and have been in place since at least 2011.

Some countries are taking matters into their own hands to curtail abuse of Interpol’s processes. In the US, a bipartisan group in Congress based around the Helsinki Commission is seeking to pass the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (Trap) Act, which was proposed in 2019 to restrict arrests based on Interpol red notices and prevent foreign governments from persecuting citizens abroad.

Interpol is ultimately governed by its members, which include countries that may seek to game the system. Next month, member states’ representatives will gather in Istanbul to elect the organisation’s next president. Among those vying for the position, and reportedly a frontrunner, is a controversial candidate: Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, a senior security official from the United Arab Emirates who is on Interpol’s executive committee. Human rights organisations and lawyers accuse Raisi of overseeing a “notoriously abusive” state security apparatus that has imprisoned dissidents and misused Interpol’s red notices. A report earlier this year for International Human Rights Advisors by David Calvert-Smith, a former British judge and director of public prosecutions, concluded: “Not only would an Emirati president of Interpol serve to validate and endorse the [UAE’s] record on human rights and criminal justice but, in addition, Maj Gen al-Raisi is unsuitable for the role. He sits at the very top of the Emirati criminal justice system [and] has overseen an increased crackdown on dissent, continued torture, and abuses in its criminal justice system.”

Kharis left prison in late 2018, after a US federal judge invoked evidence of Russia abusing Interpol procedures and of “serious flaws” in its wanted-persons system. Supporters in court cheered and hugged Kharis’s wife, Anna, who was in tears.

His release has not ended the judicial struggle, which one US congressman called a “harrowing tale of mistreatment”. Kharis was tracked with an electronic ankle monitor until this summer, an experience he called a constant walk of shame. His movements are restricted and monitored by GPS, while he awaits a decision on his asylum request, which was initially rejected.

Now based in Palo Alto, California, Kharis is trying to rebuild his life. He has set up a virtual restaurant company and works as an accountant. This summer he took his family on holiday in California. His judicial process rolls on, marbled with wins and losses. Last summer, nine months after Kharis’s appeal to Interpol and four years after his red notice was issued, Interpol told him his wanted status had been revoked. “I still think that Interpol does good,” he says. “But it’s too easy to abuse the system. We’re talking about people’s lives.”

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  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Convenes Historic Black Sea Security Summit, Demonstrates Bipartisan Support for European Security

    WASHINGTON—From June 29 – July 9, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led a bipartisan, bicameral congressional delegation to Romania, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden to consult with senior officials across Europe about Russia’s war on Ukraine, security in the Black Sea region, and Finland and Sweden’s plans to join NATO. On the shores of the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania, Sen. Wicker and Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu co-chaired the first-ever congressionally-organized Black Sea Security Summit to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. “Given Russia’s monstrous war on Ukraine and its wider aggression in the region, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Black Sea is currently the epicenter of Euro-Atlantic security and global peace,” said Sen. Wicker. “Ukraine must be successful in this war…Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against a neighbor cannot stand.” “Over the last 25 years, a key objective of our bilateral strategic partnership has been to act as partners in enhancing our joint security and promoting the democratic and economic development of the Black Sea region.  The continuation of common decisive action in this regard at the bilateral and multilateral level is more relevant than ever,” said Minister Aurescu. “All along the Black Sea coast lies the first line of defense for the Euro-Atlantic community and the first line of support for our partners in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia.” Prior to the summit, members of the Congressional delegation visited Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, where they received briefings from U.S., Romanian, and other NATO personnel and met with American troops. Delegation members then traveled to Birmingham, UK, for the Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) was Head of the U.S. Delegation to the PA and spearheaded U.S. efforts to forge a strong, unified response from international legislators to Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and its people. “All OSCE parliamentarians must stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues as they battle the Kremlin’s vicious, intolerable war on Ukraine,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “We must do all in our power—through this forum and all others—to ensure that Ukraine is victorious against Russian aggression.” During the Annual Session, parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved a resolution introduced jointly by Sen. Wicker and the heads of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian delegations, responding to Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people and the greater Russian threat to European security. The document “condemns resolutely and unequivocally the ongoing, intensified, clear, gross and still uncorrected violations of Helsinki Principles as well as of fundamental principles of international law by the Government of the Russian Federation in its war of aggression against Ukraine, as well as the complicity of Belarus in this war of aggression, and calls on the governments of OSCE participating States to do the same.” Several members of the U.S. Delegation successfully introduced more than two dozen amendments, designed to keep the focus on Russia’s current aggression, to an array of other resolutions. In Birmingham, the delegation also co-hosted an event highlighting the growing problem of political repression in Russia and Belarus, especially in the context of protesting the war on Ukraine; met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky to discuss his organization’s work to support political prisoners and democracy in Russia; and held bilateral meetings with the UK’s parliamentary leadership, OSCE officials, parliamentarians from other OSCE countries. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) was re-elected to his post as chair of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Following the Annual Session, the congressional delegation stopped in Finland and Sweden to welcome the historic decision of both countries to join the NATO Alliance. In Finland, members met with President Sauli Niinistö, and Finnish parliamentarians including First Deputy Speaker Antti Rinne and OSCE PA Vice President Pia Kauma. In Sweden, they met with Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Deputy Defense Minister Jan Olof-Lin, and a group of members of the Swedish parliament, led by Speaker Andreas Norlén and OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt. In addition to Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Hudson, the Congressional delegation included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. John Garamendi (CA-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. August Pfluger (TX-11) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).

  • Switzerland, Playground of Russian Oligarchs, Emerges as Sanctions Weak Link

    ZUG, Switzerland—After Switzerland said in February it was joining European Union sanctions against Russian oligarchs, this quiet Alpine getaway seemed like an obvious place to hunt for targets. The streets are clustered with the offices of companies founded by Russia’s wealthiest men, along with the headquarters for landmark natural-gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 and the energy-trading department of Gazprom PJSC. So many Russian billionaires have homes or businesses here that the local opposition party had begun taking sightseers on an Oligarch’s Tour. Swiss newspapers nicknamed Zug “Little Moscow” and joked that local leaders wanted to build a Kremlin wall around the town. It didn’t seem so easy to the six local officials charged with helping implement sanctions. Working from a fifth-floor conference room, the team had a hard time identifying homes or local businesses officially owned by any of the hundreds of Russian oligarchs on the Swiss government’s list of sanctioned people. They struggled with Cyrillic names and often couldn’t make sense of the 300-page list, said Heinz Tännler, the financial director for the Canton, or state, of Zug. They also struggled with the implications for the local economy, added Mr. Tännler, who worries that sanctions have jeopardized his canton’s reputation as a safe place for foreign investment. “This is a very difficult time, especially for the Canton of Zug,” he said. In the end, the officials found exactly one company out of the roughly 30,000 registered in Zug that they believed was owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. Zug’s slow start is emblematic of the country as a whole. Switzerland has pledged to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. So far, that promise hasn’t triggered much action against Russian companies doing business there, bolstering concerns in world capitals that the Alpine financial hub isn’t doing enough to forestall the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies. Eighty percent of Russia’s commodities are traded through Switzerland, mostly through Zug and the lakeside city of Geneva. Swiss banks manage an estimated $150 billion for Russian clients, according to the country’s banking association. Thirty-two of the oligarchs closest to Mr. Putin have property, bank accounts or businesses in Switzerland, according to Zurich-based transparency group Public Eye. In the four months since Swiss authorities began sanctions, $6.8 billion in Russian financial assets have been frozen, alongside 15 homes and properties, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, or SECO. By contrast, EU countries have collectively frozen $14 billion in alleged oligarch assets spanning funds, boats, helicopters and real estate, in addition to over $20 billion in Russian central-bank reserves. EU countries have also blocked around $200 billion in financial transactions. Authorities on the U.K. island of Jersey alone froze over $7 billion in assets they said are linked to oligarch Roman Abramovich, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. U.S. senators have privately petitioned Swiss officials to do more to locate Russian money and property. “Instead of enabling Russia’s abuse of the global financial system, they should stand against it,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation, which promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation. Switzerland’s government has rejected that kind of criticism, stressing that its adoption of EU sanctions marks a historic shift and that it is doing everything possible to hunt down blacklisted assets. “It is clear that the sheer volume of the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, as well as the speed with which they were adopted, creates certain challenges for implementing authorities, in Switzerland and elsewhere,” said a SECO spokeswoman. Western sanctions have increasingly been used to squeeze Russia since 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Since then, Mr. Putin and a tight circle of allies have been exploiting gaps in the global financial system to evade blacklists and hide wealth overseas. Despite Switzerland’s status as a global financial hub, the country’s regulators are hamstrung by limited resources—SECO had just 10 officials fully dedicated to sanctions until recently, when the government hired five more. Their work is also frustrated by an old structural problem: The business of registering companies remains a hive of secrecy, making it difficult to identify ultimate ownership of assets, according to Western diplomats. Swiss bankers and transparency campaigners say billions of dollars of Russian clients’ assets have been transferred to the names of spouses and children in recent years—a phenomenon that accelerated in the run-up to the war, they say. The Gateway The Putin regime’s presence in Zug can be traced to the early days of his presidency, and a ceremony in the canton’s sprawling art nouveau palace, Theatre Casino. While Russia’s military was bombing the restive republic of Chechnya, Mr. Putin was awarded the 2002 “Zug Peace Prize” by the Nuclear Disarmament Forum, an organization of influential local businessmen that has since disbanded. The meeting, attended by business and political leaders close to the Kremlin and serenaded by the Russian National Orchestra, heralded the flourishing of Russian commodity trading in the town, according to local politicians. Many oligarchs have businesses in Zug that remain untouched by sanctions. They include Mr. Abramovich, the largest shareholder of Evraz PLC, a Russian steelmaker and mining company that has a trading arm in the canton. Evraz was sanctioned in the U.K., where it traded on the London Stock Exchange, but hasn’t been sanctioned in Switzerland or the EU, even though Mr. Abramovich has. Not far from Zug, in Winterthur, is the headquarters of Sulzer AG , an engineering company that is 48.8%-owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who is sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.K. When Poland sanctioned Sulzer’s operations, the Swiss embassy in Warsaw unsuccessfully lobbied the Polish government to reverse the move, according to a Polish government official and the Swiss department of foreign affairs. Sulzer said Poland’s decision was wrong given that Mr. Vekselberg is just a minority shareholder and neither owns nor controls the company. Sulzer isn’t sanctioned anywhere else, a spokesman said. Representatives for Mr. Abramovich and Evraz didn’t reply to requests for comment. The SECO spokeswoman said the agency is in close contact with the U.K. authorities about sanctions, but “is not bound by their assessment.” A spokesman for the department of foreign affairs said that under Swiss law the government can assist Swiss companies abroad, and that sanctioning Sulzer’s Polish subsidiaries threatened jobs and hurt Sulzer clients. U.S. and European officials say they are counting on the Swiss government to find which companies and homes in Switzerland belong to sanctioned Russian oligarchs and freeze them. Switzerland’s history of financial secrecy, enshrined in its law, can make it exceedingly difficult to identify who owns what. Under Swiss legal precedent, lawyers can still open a company on behalf of a client and claim attorney-client privilege to block authorities from uncovering that person’s identity. That, officials say, hinders them from finding more companies whose accounts should be frozen under sanctions. It is also an obstacle for banks with small compliance teams. Swiss business registries don’t require firms to list true owners, which are often hidden by opaque companies in Switzerland held by trusts in financial havens, a loophole exploited by businessmen from Russia and elsewhere eager to mask the true ownership of their assets, according to Swiss opposition politicians and advocates for financial reform. “A Swiss lawyer hides the name of the beneficial owner in his vault, and there’s no way the Swiss authorities can get to the name,” said Mark Pieth, a former head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s bribery division now at the Basel Institute on Governance. “The government has deliberately tied its own hands behind its back.” EuroChem Trusts came into play earlier this year when Switzerland, following the EU’s lead, sanctioned Andrey Melnichenko, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and a longtime Swiss resident. On March 9, the EU added Mr. Melnichenko’s name—No. 721—to its blacklist, describing him as part of the “closest circle of Vladimir Putin ” and involved in businesses vital to the government. It mentioned a meeting he attended in Moscow with Mr. Putin in the first hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with 35 other oligarchs. In Italy, police seized his sailing yacht, the world’s largest. Left untouched was EuroChem AG, a company founded by Mr. Melnichenko in 2001 that grew into one of the world’s top producers of fertilizer, with revenue last year of $10.2 billion. Based in a small glass tower in Zug nicknamed the Dallas Building, the company is deeply entwined in the supply chains of Europe’s largest chemical giants. The day before the sanctions were announced, the tycoon disclaimed his interest in a Cyprus trust that held the company, according to a document signed by EuroChem’s chief financial officer. That left Mr. Melnichenko’s wife, Aleksandra, a former Serbian pop star, as the trust’s sole beneficiary. “Given that Mr. Melnichenko no longer owns, holds or controls any funds and economic resources of EuroChem Group…neither EuroChem Group nor any member of EuroChem Group are subject to EU asset freeze measures,” stated a document viewed by The Wall Street Journal. EuroChem lawyers also wrote to SECO that the company wouldn’t provide economic resources to Mr. Melnichenko or pay dividends to his wife. On March 28, SECO rendered its judgment: EuroChem didn’t need to have its assets or bank accounts frozen. Officials in Zug followed suit. Mr. Tännler, the canton’s financial director, bridled at criticism that local officials aren’t looking hard enough. “I think people know that we did a good job, that we did what we can do,” he said. He washed his hands of the EuroChem decision. “SECO made a determination that EuroChem is clean,” Mr. Tännler said. The European Commission in June countered that decision, ruling that Ms. Melnichenko was unduly benefitting from her husband and should be sanctioned. Switzerland then followed suit, blacklisting her but leaving EuroChem untouched. Credit Suisse, which needs to answer to tougher U.S. regulators because of its U.S. dollar business, has frozen the accounts EuroChem held at the bank. A spokesman for the couple said Mr. Melnichenko considers the sanctions against him unjust. “The formal justifications are nonsense,” said the spokesman, who denied that Mr. Melnichenko is a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle or provides substantial revenue to the Russian government. Ms. Melnichenko has appealed to the Council of the European Union, saying the sanctions against her have complicated EuroChem’s ability to sell fertilizer, “leading to the famine and death of millions of people.”

  • Black Sea Security Summit

    On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, convened its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners came together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation.   Co-chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, the summit featured a timely and collaborative exchange exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: confronting Russian aggression and the relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security. The co-chairs were joined by senior-level regional government officials and a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, including Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Joe Wilson, Rep. Richard Hudson, Rep. Ruben Gallego, Rep. John Garamendi, Rep. Robert Aderholt, and Rep. August Pfluger. Other participants included: Romania Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania MP Pavel Popsescu, Member of the Romanian Parliament; Chair, Defense Committee MP Ana Cătăuță, Member of the Romanian Parliament Ukraine Deputy Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Bulgaria Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Georgia First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Ambassador Nikoloz Nikolozishvili, Ambassador of Georgia to Romania Turkey Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO U.S. European Command Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security During the summit, participants underscored the importance of security in the Black Sea littoral in the face of Russian aggression. Deputy Secretary General of NATO, General Mircea Geoanӑ, emphasized the importance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security, stating that the region reflects “broader competition between revisionist and brutal and aggressive Russia and our democratic world.” According to General Geoanӑ, NATO is committed to supporting Ukraine through military, financial, and humanitarian means and providing security in the Black Sea littoral that reestablishes freedom of movement, shipping, and navigation. Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Defense, Yordan Bozhilov noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “has far-reaching destabilization implications at the regional level and beyond,” including the resulting energy and food crises. Georgian First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lasha Darsalia, emphasized the political, economic, and security importance of the Black Sea region to Georgia and highlighted increased security in the region as an opportunity to increase “international cooperation and connectivity.”  He recalled Georgia’s support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, characterizing the invasion of Ukraine as another step in Russia’s malign attempt to control the Black Sea region. U.S. Representative August Pfluger stressed the importance of the Black Sea region to energy security in the pursuit of decreasing dependence on Russian energy. Confronting Russian Aggression Throughout the summit, participants called for increased unity to confront Russian aggression. Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Alexander Goncharenko, requested a stronger NATO and US presence in Ukraine, after powerfully highlighting Ukrainian bravery in the face of Russian hostility. In reference to Russia’s weaponization of Ukrainian grain supply and the expansion of NATO, Gonchareko stated, “It is very good that the free world is finally uniting, but we must show strength. The first place we must show strength is in the Black Sea, as a humanitarian mission, to save millions of people. Thousands are killed in Ukraine, but millions will die from starvation.” Turkish Ambassador to Romania Füsun Aramaz underscored her country’s support of Ukrainian sovereignty. She acknowledged the common security goals of all participants at the summit and desires close alignment with NATO, but warned against over-militarization of the region, citing a potential to violate the Montreux Convention. “More vessels at sea or more fighter aircraft in the air alone do not mean more deterrence or stronger defense,” she stated. U.S. Major General Jessica Meyeraan of the United States European Command explained that the United States is supporting Ukraine by increasing understanding of Ukrainian security assistance requirements and “collaborating across over 40 nations to understand how we can quickly and effectively satisfy those security cooperation requirements.” Minister Aurescu explained that the projects that maintain regional security structures are the result of bilateral relationships between the United States and various littoral states and are essential in the face of Russian aggression and illiberalism that has resulted in regional and global crises. He also called to “increase the scale and visibility of the U.S. presence in the region,” beyond just a military presence through the creation of a multifaceted strategy based on strategic resilience. Rep. Hudson noted that “NATO stands ready” in the face of increasing threats in the region. In addition, Rep. Gallego emphasized the importance of deterrence by denial, clarifying that this sort of offensive is only possible through a completely integrated defensive approach.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • Helsinki Commission to Convene Black Sea Security Summit in Constanta, Romania

    WASHINGTON—On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, will convene its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners will come together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. BLACK SEA SECURITY SUMMIT A Roundtable Dialogue Hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Friday, July 1, 2022 1:00 p.m. (UTC+3) Constanța Art Museum Constanța, Romania Watch Live: https://youtu.be/DZskl6-k6No The Black Sea Security Summit plenary will feature a timely and collaborative exchange across two sessions exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: Session 1: Confronting Russian Aggression Session 2: Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security The Black Sea Security Summit will be chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), who will be joined by a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Regional participants include: Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defense of Ukraine First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Members of the media must email stuparsa@state.gov in advance to attend this event. Preregistration closes Thursday, June 30, at 12:00 p.m. (UTC+3).

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Helsinki Commission Applauds European Commission Recommendation to Grant Ukraine and Moldova Candidate Status

    WASHINGTON—Following the European Commission’s recommendation that Ukraine and Moldova be granted EU candidate status, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We applaud the historic decision of the European Commission to recommend EU candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova. All countries have the sovereign right to choose their own alliances and determine their own foreign policies. The people of Ukraine and Moldova have long cherished the dream of integration with the Euro-Atlantic West. The European Commission’s recommendation rewards their persistent efforts to pursue these aspirations, even in the face of relentless Russian aggression.  “The people of Georgia also have sacrificed much for their European identity over several decades, despite Russian warmongering and the challenges of painful reforms. They have demonstrated that they can rise to the challenge if and when the path is clear.  We believe they too should be offered an equally concrete roadmap to EU membership.  “Ahead of this week’s European Council meeting, we encourage our European friends to grant all three countries candidate status. The path to liberal democracy is never without occasional setbacks and detours, and always in need of vigilance, careful effort, and compromise. We believe candidate status will give all three countries a fighting chance in their common European dream.” On June 17, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia be provided pathways to EU membership and that Ukraine and Moldova be conferred candidate status with conditions. On June 23 – 24, the European Council will make its final decision regarding the three countries’ pending applications for EU membership.

  • Long Shadow of Russian Money Raises Tricky Questions for Swiss Bankers

    January used to be a big month for Swiss bankers and their Russian clients. Many of the Moscow elite had made a tradition of coming to the Alps for the orthodox new year, skiing with their families, then catching up with their financial consiglieri. In St Moritz, one banker recalls how he would book blocks of rooms for his clients. He would entertain them with snow polo, rolling out the charm as they clinked champagne glasses and watched horses charge across a frozen lake. This year he couldn’t tempt a single one. For the best part of a decade, Russian money has coursed through the Swiss banking world. But, as Russia’s relationship with the west has soured in recent years, what was once a source of bumper new profits for Switzerland’s banks has become a financial and reputational risk. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many wealthy Russians were moving to better safeguard their money from political interference, putting assets in the names of relatives or shifting them to less closely scrutinised jurisdictions, such as Dubai. In its wake, a vast sanitisation operation is under way at Swiss banks, to try and wind down relationships with sanctioned individuals. Neutral Switzerland has matched all of the EU’s punitive financial measures against Russia. More than 1,100 of the Russian elite — including figures such as coal and fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and banker Petr Aven, both regular visitors to Switzerland — have become financial personae non gratae in a country many had assumed would keep their fortunes safe. The biggest banks, such as the publicly listed trio of UBS, Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have declared they will cease all new business in Russia. For critics, though these are weasel words. It is their existing Russian clients that are the problem. No one is expecting many new fortunes to be minted in Russia any time soon. “Switzerland has a terrible history when it comes to Russian dirty money,” says Bill Browder, a longstanding Kremlin critic and a former Russian investor. He is sceptical of how much commitment there is among Swiss bankers to enforcing sanctions. “The Swiss want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t actually want to do anything,” he says. The US Helsinki Commission, an independent US government agency that observes human rights and the rule of law in Europe, agrees. In a report issued in May, it labelled the alpine state and its banks “a leading enabler of Vladimir Putin and his cronies”. The Swiss government responded by calling US secretary of state Antony Blinken in protest. A spokesperson for the Swiss government said president Ignazio Cassis “rejected the [report] in the strongest possible terms”. Like their counterpart in St Moritz, Swiss bankers the FT interviewed for this story all declined to be identified. Many more refused to speak at all. Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws are draconian — talking about clients can earn a lengthy jail term — and talking about Russian clients is even more taboo. “When we were onboarding a lot of these clients [in the 2000s], the entire approach was just very different. And you can’t really say that publicly now,” says one former banker who handled eastern European and Russian clients until retiring two years ago. “These [Russians] were people who had earned so much money, so quickly, that they didn’t know what to do with it. They were basically ideal clients. As long as you had no questions about where that money had come from . . . and, basically, we didn’t.” Quite how much Russian money there is in Switzerland is open to question. In March, the industry body representing Switzerland’s banks, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), caused a stir when it released details of a study estimating there was SFr150bn-SFr200bn ($154bn-$205bn) held in accounts for Russian citizens. At the end of last year, the total cash held on behalf of customers by Switzerland’s banks was SFr7,879bn, more half of which was wealth from abroad, according to the SBA. The disclosure prompted hand-wringing in the Swiss media. Commentators, even at conservative outlets such as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked whether Switzerland should do business with autocratic regimes anywhere in the world any more. But others in the country have defended its economic relationships with Russia. The outspoken finance director of the canton of Zug, an important low-tax centre, said in March it was not his job to “act like a detective” and make judgments on Russian assets. In April, he announced that Zug, home to 37,000 companies, had no sanctioned assets to report back to Bern. Nevertheless, by April, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that it had frozen SFr9.7bn of Russian assets. Authorities have insisted that the amount is proportionate to the scale of asset freezes in other leading financial centres. But Bern has been forced to row back in some cases, and in May it announced it was unfreezing SFr3.4bn of funds. Switzerland cannot freeze funds “without sufficient grounds”, says Erwin Bollinger, a SECO official, who adds that the government has received data on sanctioned accounts at more than 70 of the country’s banks. Direct disclosure by the banks has been patchy. Credit Suisse chief executive Thomas Gottstein told a conference in March that about 4 per cent of assets in his bank’s core wealth management business were Russian — a proportion that would equate to roughly SFr33bn. Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. Switzerland’s banks have moved dramatically from the freewheeling approach of previous years, when there was “a run on Russia”, says Thomas Borer, a former leading Swiss diplomat turned consultant, who has worked with prominent Russian clients. He now supports Switzerland’s sanctions policy. “Being militarily neutral does not mean being economically indifferent,” he says. But he argues that Swiss banking culture is still very different from elsewhere in the west. Even the biggest banks, he says, were clinging to relationships with Russian clients as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. The Financial Times revealed that, as late as March, Credit Suisse was asking investors to destroy documents that might expose Russian oligarchs it had done business with to legal risks. One senior relationship manager at a Zurich-based bank agrees. Even as sanctions came in, he says, the dominant approach was to ask, “how can we make this work for the client?” rather than “how do we do this for the government?”. But he defends the approach, saying: “Doing everything you can for your client is a Swiss commitment to excellence. If I was a watchmaker I would want to make the best watches with many complications. And if I was a policeman, then maybe I would want to be the best at catching Russian criminals. But I’m a banker.” There is still legal ambiguity in Switzerland over whether sanctions apply to family members and friends of listed individuals. This has provided a loophole bankers have helped at-risk clients to actively exploit in recent years. Swiss banks have seen “billions” of assets transferred to the names of spouses and children of Russian clients, in a trend that accelerated in the run-up to the war, says one banker. One bank chief executive admitted recently to the FT that there were many “grey areas” in applying sanctions. Part of the problem, he said, was that bank legal departments were struggling to obtain clarity from Bern on which asset transfers were deemed to be evading sanctions and which were not. Many who have been in the industry for a long time decry the new rules they must follow around taking new clients and being certain of the source of their wealth. “Know your customer used to mean just that: do you know the person? Now it is supposed to mean: do you know every little thing about their financial and private life?” says one Geneva-based banker. Many Russians themselves knew the banks were no longer safe havens, particularly since 2018 when Swiss banks began making significant concessions to information sharing on client accounts with other governments. Swiss residency did not protect billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2018, for example, when he was targeted by US sanctions; both Credit Suisse and UBS moved to terminate loans with him. The SBA says its members adhere to the highest international standards. Chief executive Jörg Gasser, argues Swiss banks have “no interest in funds of dubious origin” and have rigorous procedures in place to rapidly screen for sanctioned assets. “Swiss banks have been — and still are — very careful and diligent when it comes to accepting client funds,” he says, adding it is important to recognise the huge amount of legitimate business done with Russian entrepreneurs who are not subject to sanctions. For Mark Pieth, emeritus professor of criminal law at the University of Basel and a specialist in white-collar crime, the real story of the past decade is how Switzerland’s lawyers, rather than its bankers, have become the facilitators of hidden foreign money. “Swiss bankers were extremely cosy with Russians in the past,” he says. “Alongside London, this country was the porch for Russians into the west . . . but now I wouldn’t say the problem is so much with the banks — it is all the other intermediaries.” Swiss law gives remarkable sweep to attorney-client privilege, says Pieth, meaning lawyers can refuse to disclose almost anything to the authorities about their clients. The Swiss Bar Association strongly rejects this. “Professional secrecy does not protect against criminal acts,” it says. “Lawyers know the law and know what to do.” One senior industry figure defends the banks’ position unapologetically. He says everybody now wants to know the origins of their luxury jackets. But 10 years ago nobody was asking where they were made, by whom and with what materials. In banking, as in fashion, things have changed, he says, but nobody is haranguing the fashion world in the same way they are criticising banks. Fashion companies, though, have moved with the times and opened up, whereas Switzerland’s banks, for all their insistence on change and compliance, still want to maintain as much of the secrecy surrounding their clients as possible — even at a time of international crisis.  

  • European Energy Security Post-Russia

    Russia is weaponizing energy to prolong its unlawful invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, the sanctions that Europe and the United States have put in place have not been enough to curb Russian aggression thus far and the European Union pays Russia almost a billion euros a day for energy resources—mostly gas— that fund the Russian war machine.  Germany, in particular, has struggled to move away from its dependence on Russian gas. At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany imported 55 percent of its gas from Russia. As of June 2022, Russian gas imports had decreased to 35 percent, with a goal to decrease to 10 percent by 2024, but progress is slow and buying any energy from Russia means that Germany continues to fund their unlawful invasion. Dr. Benjamin Schmitt, Research Associate at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, pointed to the resurgence of Ostpolitik, a German diplomatic theory which seeks to build relationships and spread good governance through trade. First introduced in the Cold War era, Ostpolitik was put into action once more in the early 2000s by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who became infamous for lobbying for Kremlin-backed projects in office and for sitting on the board of the Russian state-owned energy company, Gazprom, after leaving office. However, Russia attempted to leverage such projects, including the Nord Stream 1 project and its ultimately bankrupted predecessor, Nord Stream 2, to increase the vulnerability of Western Europe toward Russia. According to Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, domestic political will exists in Germany to diversify energy sources, even if most are wary of making those changes immediately. German polling shows that one-third of Germans are willing to cut off Russian gas immediately, while two-thirds would prefer a slow gradual decrease in gas. Dr. Stelzenmüller explained that if Germany were to immediately cut off Russian gas supplies, it is likely that a recession would affect not only Germany, but also many surrounding Eastern European countries, most of which have less capacity to manage a recession. She stated, “Much of [Germany’s] manufacturing supply chains go deep into Eastern Europe. So, a recession in Germany would absolutely produce a massive, and perhaps worse, recession in our neighboring economies.”  Any actions taken against Russia should ensure that sanctions hit Russia harder than those countries imposing the sanctions. Mr. Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO of Naftogaz Ukraine, and Dr. Schmitt also emphasized the importance of the following recommendations outlined in the REPowerEU plan, the European Commission’s plan to make Europe independent from Russian energy before 2030, and the International Working Group on Russia Sanctions Energy Roadmap: Full European/US embargos on Russian gas. Creation of a special escrow account that will hold net proceeds due to Russia until the Kremlin ceases all hostilities. Diversification of energy dependance away from Russia through energy diplomacy that identifies other potential suppliers, like Qatar. Funding and construction of energy infrastructure around Europe. Termination of Gazprom ownership of all critical energy infrastructure in Europe. Designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would automatically trigger secondary sanctions on any country that imports Russian goods. Sanctioning of all Russian banks. Strengthening of Ukrainian capacity to participate in the energy sector through the creation of modern energy infrastructure during the post-war reconstruction period. Pass the Stop Helping America’s Malign Enemies (SHAME) Act, banning former U.S. government officials from seeking employment by Russian state-owned-enterprises, or Schroederization. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • European Energy Security Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: EUROPEAN ENERGY SECURITY POST-RUSSIA Tuesday, June 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The United States and European allies have largely cut Russia out of the global economy following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, given European reliance on Russian natural gas and oil, sweeping energy sanctions have lagged. The European Union spends nearly a billion euros a day on Russian energy, and several EU Member States are struggling to wean themselves off Russian resources in order to implement a full embargo. This hearing will examine plans to create a Europe that is wholly free from Russian oil and gas. Witnesses will discuss the importance of a robust energy embargo to starving the Russian war machine; options to ensure that Ukraine’s energy needs are met; alternative sources of energy for Europe; and the perspective of Germany, which plays an outsize role as the most powerful economy in Europe and a primary consumer of Russian natural resources. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO, Naftogaz Ukraine Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution Benjamin Schmitt, Research Associate, Harvard University; Senior Fellow, Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest May 2022

  • Why I’m Sad to Be on Russia’s All-Purpose Payback List

    Reading Russia’s latest sanctions list, permanently banning travel to the country by 963 people, saddened me — and not just because my name is on it. It’s a catalogue of hurt from a nation that seems ready to blame everybody but its leaders for its current troubles. The list is very long indeed, running to nearly 100 pages in my printout. Reading so many names, you sense that Russia is deliberately burning nearly all its bridges to the United States. Russia’s ruling elite feels abused by American politicians, business leaders, journalists, judges, think tanks — nearly everyone, it seems. Donald Trump can still visit Moscow, but scores of Republican members of Congress can’t. The list of excluded GOP senators ranges from moderates such as Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mitt Romney of Utah to hard-right stalwarts Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The GOP doesn’t fare much better in the House. Moderates Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin can’t tour the Kremlin anymore, but neither can Jim Jordan of Ohio or Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. As for Democrats, forget about it. The sanctions list includes the Democratic House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. The Congressional Progressive Caucus can save its rubles, too. The members of “the Squad” are all banned. So are Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California. It’s the same on the Senate side. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois: Nyet, nyet.

  • Putin's Bribetakers and Warmongers

    The Helsinki Commission was briefed on 6,000 bribetakers and warmongers identified by Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Lead Bipartisan Ask for Biden to Sanction Russians Responsible for Jailing Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and Chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), along with Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Commissioners Senators Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) are urging President Joe Biden to publicly sanction “every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza.” The lawmakers made the plea last week in a letter that also was signed by U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chair of the Helsinki Commission; Joe Wilson (SC-02), Ranking Member of the Helsinki Commission; Gerald Connolly (VA-11); John Curtis (UT-03); Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Ruben Gallego (AZ-07); Richard Hudson NC-08); Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18); Marcy Kaptur (OH-09); Bill Keating (MA-09); Adam Kinzinger (IL-16); Tom Malinowski (NJ-07); Peter Meijer (MI-03); Mike Levin (CA-49); Gwen Moore (WI-044); Burgess Owens (UT-04); Katie Porter (CA-45); Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27); Abigail Spanberger (VA-07); and Marc Veasey (TX-33). “Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has long stood up against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He embodies what Russia might be one day when it is democratic and free,” the lawmakers wrote. “As Russia loses its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, we must consider what might come next in that country. Kara-Murza offers a vision of a Russia free from imperialist kleptocracy. He has bravely answered the call of many Ukrainians for Russians to take a stand and oppose this bloody and senseless war. He must be immediately freed and allowed to continue his work.” The full letter is below and can be downloaded at this link. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear President Biden, We urge you to name and sanction every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has long stood up against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He embodies what Russia might be one day when it is democratic and free. We also urge you to examine whether to sanction those involved in the persecution and imprisonment of other Russian political prisoners. Kara-Murza is a Russian patriot who has fought for decades for democracy in Russia and a prosperous future for his country. For this, the regime in Russia has poisoned him twice. On April 11, while in Russia, Kara-Murza called this regime “a regime of murderers.” He was then arrested, and now faces trumped up charges that may result in years of unjust imprisonment. Kara-Murza was the key Russian activist behind the passage of the Magnitsky Act and its adoption by our allies. The late Senator John McCain called him “one of the most passionate and effective advocates for the passage of the Magnitsky Act.” Kara-Murza himself, like his mentor Boris Nemtsov before him, has called the Magnitsky Act the most “pro-Russian law passed in the United States in the history of our countries.” Nemtsov was murdered in front of the Kremlin. The Magnitsky Act is the appropriate tool to sanction those involved in the persecution of Kara-Murza. We ask that you coordinate with our allies to sanction these individuals at the same time. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia now all have Magnitsky sanctions laws of their own. As Russia loses its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, we must consider what might come next in that country. Kara-Murza offers a vision of a Russia free from imperialist kleptocracy. He has bravely answered the call of many Ukrainians for Russians to take a stand and oppose this bloody and senseless war. He must be immediately freed and allowed to continue his work. Sincerely,

  • Swiss Release Some Frozen Russian Assets

    The Swiss government on Thursday reported 6.3 billion Swiss francs ($6.33 billion) worth of Russian assets frozen under sanctions to punish Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, a drop from early April as around 3.4 billion francs in provisionally blocked assets were released. The figure marked a decrease from roughly 7.5 billion Swiss francs in funds the government reported frozen on April 7. Government official Erwin Bollinger pointed to fewer funds -- 2.2 billion francs -- newly frozen than those that had been released. read more "We can't freeze funds if we do not have sufficient grounds," Bollinger, a senior official at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) agency overseeing sanctions, told journalists. Pressure has increased on Switzerland -- a popular destination for Moscow's elite and a holding place for Russian wealth -- to more quickly identify and freeze assets of hundreds of sanctioned Russians. read more The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government-funded independent commission which looks at security, cooperation and human rights issues in Europe, in early May called Switzerland "a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies", who the commission said used "Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes". The Swiss government rejected the accusations "in the strongest possible terms", while Swiss President Ignazio Cassis had requested the U.S. government "correct this misleading impression immediately" during a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Swiss banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth, Switzerland's bank lobby estimates, with its two largest lenders UBS (UBSG.S) and Credit Suisse (CSGN.S) each holding tens of billions of francs for wealthy Russian clients. read more Credit Suisse alone froze some 10.4 billion Swiss francs of that money through March under sanctions imposed in connection with the invasion. read more Credit Suisse's reporting did not make clear how much of that money was frozen in Switzerland. While banks and asset managers can provisionally freeze funds, SECO officials on Thursday said funds needed to be released if they could not establish the assets were directly owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. "The amount of assets frozen is not a measure of how effectively sanctions are being implemented," Bollinger said, adding asset freezes were "by far" not the most important measure in a wide-ranging packet of sanctions. ($1 = 0.9948 Swiss francs)

  • Russia's Swiss Enablers

    Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes. Close relations between Swiss and Russian authorities have had a corrupting influence on law enforcement personnel in Switzerland and have led to the resignation of numerous officials, including the head prosecutor of Switzerland. A recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that Credit Suisse catered to dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors, and identified problematic accounts holding more than $8 billion in assets. According to the Financial Times, Credit Suisse also asked investors to destroy documents linked to yacht loans made to oligarchs and tycoons. This briefing examined the relationship between Switzerland and Russia in light of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Panelists discussed how a compromised Switzerland affects U.S. national security and whether the United States should rethink its strategic bilateral relationship with Switzerland. Related Information Panelist Biographies How the Swiss Law Enforcement Capitulated to the Russians in the Magnitsky Case - Bill Browder

  • Swiss Attacked for Going Easy on Seizing Russian Billions

    The $7.6 billion in Russian assets seized to date by Swiss authorities is “insulting,” outspoken Kremlin critic Bill Browder said at briefing on Russian money in Switzerland.  It’s “a lot of money in absolute terms but Switzerland is one of the main destinations for dirty Russian money,” said Browder. Given the Swiss Bankers Association has said there’s as much as 150 to 200 billion Swiss francs ($202 billion) in Russian assets in the country’s banks “I would almost say it’s slightly insulting,” he said.  Browder, who has also highlighted what he perceives to be Swiss prosecutors’ soft approach to investigating Russian financial crime, called on the U.S. to review its cooperation framework with its Swiss counterparts, during the hearing organized by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday. “Based on my experience, it would lead me to believe the Swiss are knowingly turning their head the other way when it comes to some of the other oligarchs,” said Browder. The Swiss government said a month ago it had blocked 7.5 billion Swiss francs ($8 billion) in Russian assets in the country to date, as it issues sanctions that mirror those imposed by the European Union on those seen as close to Vladimir Putin.  That figure represented a jump of 30% from their previous tally two weeks earlier and Swiss officials say the number will continue to rise as more assets hidden behind shell companies or in the names of associated are painstakingly uncovered.  Switzerland surprised the world in early March by departing from its tradition of neutrality and saying it would fully embrace the European Union measures against Russia.  But critics including Browder contend that the country needs to go much further. Read more: Swiss Hunt for Russian Wealth Criticized Despite $6 Billion Haul Erwin Bolliger, the chief of the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs which is enforcing the sanctions, has tried to explain the gap by pointing out that are plenty of legitimately-held Russian investments in Switzerland. “There is merit in Bill’s suggestion to review the law enforcement relations between the U.S. and Switzerland,” said Mark Pieth, a law professor at the University of Basel and corruption expert, said at the hearing. Up until now, Switzerland’s approach to clamping down on dirty Russian money in the country has shown a “lack of courage,” Pieth said.

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