First Person: Wood Smoke and ExpectationFriday, December 21, 2018
By Stacy Hope, Communications Director When I checked in to my hotel room in Yerevan, Armenia, on December 6, it smelled faintly—not unpleasantly—of wood smoke. I never did find the source, but to me, the smell of wood smoke in December has always been a harbinger of good things to come. It reminds me of cozy evenings with family by the fireplace, talking about the hopes and expectations we have for the new year, even if the weather is frigid and damp and other circumstances are less than ideal. It is the aroma of expectation. It seemed fitting that wood smoke welcomed me to Armenia for December’s historic elections. In April, Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who had served as the country’s president since 2008, resigned less than one week after taking office for what was perceived by many to be a de facto third term. His resignation was sparked by popular protests against Sargsyan and his Republican Party, led by opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan, who was later elected interim Prime Minister. On October 16, Prime Minister Pashinyan resigned abruptly, forcing the country’s first-ever snap parliamentary elections on December 9. I traveled to Armenia as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s election observation mission, organized in coordination with the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The OSCE PA observation mission included approximately 50 short-term observers from 17 of the OSCE’s 57 participating States. Our pre-election briefings featured briefings by analysts, civil society, members of the media, and party representatives. Parties in Armenian politics have traditionally been associated with specific personalities, rather than domestic or foreign policy. However, according to interlocutors, this campaign was different. While the personalities of party leaders still play an important role, for the first time a nearly equal focus was placed on policies. This was highlighted by the country’s first-ever televised parliamentary debate, which aired on Armenian public television on December 5 and generated widespread excitement throughout the country. Previous elections in Armenia had been marked by allegations of election fraud, including abuse of state resources, pressure on civil servants, outright vote-buying, and undue influence of the ruling party on the media. Among the media representatives in particular, there was a tangible sense of hope, accompanied by an equal amount of trepidation, that things were changing for the better. In the past, several speakers noted, they had been explicitly directed (“we received phone calls”) by the party in power as to which candidates should be covered, how, and for how long. Now, they noted, there were no phone calls. They were flying blind—coverage decisions were completely at their discretion, as long as they remained within the guidelines of the electoral code. That freedom was unprecedented, exhilarating, and a little bit intimidating. * * * On the morning of December 9, my election observation partner—a British parliamentarian—and I arrived before sunrise at our first polling station in Yerevan. In the city, streetlights turn off in the early hours of the morning, so we gingerly picked our way in near-blackness around potholes and through puddles to the front door of a local school. Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by the head of the polling station, an enthusiastic and competent woman who proudly showed us where voting would take place: the large hallway/common area on the second floor of the building. Like most of the polling stations we would visit throughout the day, it was staffed predominantly by women, many in their mid-to-late twenties. Another thing it had in common with most of the precincts we visited: it was totally inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair or who could not easily navigate stairs. We remained at the first polling station to observe pre-election procedures as well as the first several voters. We then departed to observe 10 other polling stations, all of which were located in Armavir, the province directly to the west of the city. Outside a polling station in Armavir, where a full list of voters registered at that location was displayed publicly, in line with the electoral code. The polling stations in Armavir ranged from substantially urban to relatively rural and were generally located in schools or “cultural centers”—desolate-looking structures built during the Soviet era, which are still used for civic events, including elections. Throughout the day, we observed very few irregularities and an obvious commitment by poll leaders and workers to faithfully follow election procedures. In addition to our own observation, most of the polling stations we visited were being observed by representatives of each of the political parties, known as “proxies.” We also encountered a few citizen observers. My observation partner and our interpreter speak with a poll worker. One particularly charming ritual we observed in two of the polling stations we visited was the recognition by the poll workers and others in the polling station of first-time voters. When new voters cast their ballots, they were ushered to the center of the room by poll workers and awarded, to a round of applause, a commemorative pin. Almost without fail, the new voters blushed and hurried out of the polling station, embarrassed but unable to hide their smiles. At the end of the day, we returned to the school in Yerevan to observe the polling station’s closing and counting procedure. At some point during the very long day, the vibrant leader of the polling station had contracted a head cold and nearly lost her voice. (She offered us snacks—we offered her cough drops. Both offers were gratefully accepted.) Despite her illness, she persevered, counting by hand the more than 900 ballots cast in her precinct among the 11 political parties and alliances competing in the election. Observed closely by party proxies, the leader of a polling station in Yerevan sorts and counts ballots. I returned to my hotel room—still faintly scented with wood smoke—after midnight, hoping that the high expectations of many of the Armenians we met had been fulfilled. * * * In a landslide victory, Pashinyan’s MyStep alliance surged from just nine seats (7.8 percent of the vote) in 2017 to 88 seats (70.4 percent of the vote). The joint preliminary statement by international election observers from the OSCE, the OSCE PA, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament reflected my own impressions: that the December 9 election process respected citizens’ fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust. Almost without exception, other international observers shared my sense that the polling stations were efficiently and professionally run. The overall campaign featured open political debate, including in the media, and the lack of vote-buying or similar examples of election fraud meant that the elections were genuinely competitive. Election turnout hovered just under 50 percent—low by Armenian standards, but according to many election analysts, not entirely negative. The relatively low voter turnout (12 percent lower than in the previous election) could likely reflect a lack of the vote-buying and bribery that would encourage otherwise apathetic voters to turn out in droves. Peter Osusky, leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission, noted, “Now that voters have delivered their message, it is up to the political leadership of Armenia to ensure that this momentum is maintained.”
December 1, 1991Saturday, December 01, 2018
By Alexa Zouboukos, Intern On December 1, 1991, 84 percent of eligible voters in Ukraine exercised their democratic rights in a referendum on independence and the election of their president, peacefully transferring power after the long struggle of the Cold War. If the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled a symbolic end to the war, then Ukraine partaking in the democratic process was a concrete outcome. Three U.S. Helsinki Commission staffers sent to monitor the elections—Orest Deychakiwsky, Michael Ochs, and Heather Hurlburt—reported on the implementation of regulations that we recognize in today’s U.S. elections. Some of these regulations included the collection of a certain number of signatures for a candidate to be placed on the ballot, campaign finance laws, and the methodology for marking and counting ballots. Despite many accounts of a free and fair election, however, there were also indicators of information suppression. Helsinki Commission staff noted that there were reports of pro-independence literature being withheld from Crimea and Mykolaiv. Limits to the free flow of information were not the only threat Ukrainians faced, but also “dark warnings by Mikhail Gorbachev, by the central Soviet media and, to some extent, Russian media about the difficulties and dangers Ukrainian independence would pose to Ukrainians themselves, to their neighbors and to international stability.” These threats to the will of Ukrainian people did not dampen their spirits; in fact, according to the report, “many Ukrainians later told Helsinki Commission staff that such attempts to intimidate them only made them more determined to see their cause through to the end.” Ukrainian citizens demonstrated this determination through a landslide referendum. Three-quarters of participants voted in favor of independence. Helsinki Commission staff also observed a distinct feeling of festivity at polling stations, reinforced by the testimonies of Ukrainians previously imprisoned in Siberia who said that this day was the realization of a long-held dream of independence from the Soviet Union. Ukrainians were aware that there would be greater struggles ahead, but also recognized that these could be opportunities to exercise their new sovereignty. December 1, 1991 did not mark the end of Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia, but it did finally allow Ukrainians to exercise rights that were long suppressed under the Soviet yoke.
Lies, Bots, and Social MediaThursday, November 29, 2018
From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder. What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.
Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Computational PropagandaMonday, November 26, 2018
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: LIES, BOTS, AND SOCIAL MEDIA What is Computational Propaganda and How Do We Defeat It? Thursday, November 29, 2018 10:30 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder. What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts will examine the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explore options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Matt Chessen, Acting Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology Policy Program, The German Marshall Fund of the United States Nina Jankowicz, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Kennan Institute
Interview with Georgia Holmer, Senior Adviser for Anti-Terrorism Issues, Organization for Security and Cooperation in EuropeTuesday, November 20, 2018
By Yena Seo, Communications Fellow Georgia Holmer, an expert on counterterrorism policy, recently visited the Helsinki Commission offices to discuss her portfolio at the Anti-Terrorism Issues Unit in the Transnational Threat Department at the OSCE Secretariat. At the OSCE, she oversees policy support and capacity building work on preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism (VERLT). Ms. Holmer gave a short interview on her position at the OSCE and explained why she sees a human-rights based approach to counterterrorism to be critical. Holmer, who has worked on counterterrorism issues for over 20 years, observed that she “lived through an evolution in the U.S. government’s approach to terrorism that was quite extraordinary.” After spending 10 years as a terrorism analyst for the FBI, Holmer helped build analytic capacity at the Department of Homeland Security and taught classes on understanding radicalization. Later she directed the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program at the United States Institute of Peace, where she helped develop a strategic approach to violent extremism that harnessed peacebuilding tools. “We went from approaching terrorism as a security threat in which operations needed to be disrupted to realizing that there also had to be something done to prevent people from joining these groups and movements in the first place,” Holmer explained. “Not only did we begin to understand and address the root causes of terrorism but increasingly there was a realization that repressive measures in counterterrorism could actually exacerbate the problem. Upholding human rights as part of the effort to counter terrorism is necessary and can contribute to preventing violence in the long term.” Holmer acknowledged some of the pitfalls and counterproductive measures to be avoided in counterterrorism: a lack of due process and clear legislation, abusive treatment in detention facilities, and stigma and censorship against certain religious and ethnic groups can also fuel terrorist agendas and draw more people to violent extremism. These ideas led Holmer to pursue a degree mid-career in international human rights law at Oxford University. In 2017, Holmer was offered a position at the OSCE, and was drawn to its comprehensive approach to security. “I thought, here is a chance to work for an organization that had both a counterterrorism mandate and a human rights mandate. I think it’s a necessary marriage.” She sees the work she does in the prevention of VERLT to be directly relevant to human rights. “Programs to prevent radicalization that leads to terrorism not only ensure security, but they also help build more inclusive, resilient and engaged communities. This can also be understood inversely – upholding human rights is a pathway to preventing terrorism.” Holmer was further drawn to the OSCE because of its operational focus, pointing to the organization’s robust field operations presence. She stressed that the organization’s “on-the-ground presence” – particularly in the Western Balkans and Central Asia – allows it to develop close working relationships with governments and policymakers, giving it “a different level of reach.” For example, OSCE field missions in Dushanbe and Skopje have helped to convene stakeholders for important discussions, coordinate funders, and organize external partners for project implementation. Holmer considers the OSCE’s structure a strength when it comes to countering violent extremism. Holmer explained that because the OSCE is a political organization, its structure and activities invite states and other stakeholders to exchange ideas frankly. The OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conferences allow participating States to share opinions in a productive and meaningful manner. The OSCE frequently convenes policy makers and practitioners from its participating States to discuss measures to prevent radicalization leading to terrorism. Various seminars, workshops, and conferences have introduced concepts of prevention and helped advance the role of civil society in countering violent extremism. Holmer observed that while there is no “one-size-fits-all solution,” the organization regularly emphasizes the sharing and implementation of good practices. She also added that sharing good practices is only effective when efforts are made to tailor responses and approaches to a specific context. Measures to prevent need to incorporate an understanding of the nature of the threat in any given environment. She said the ways that individuals radicalize and the dynamics that influence people to become engaged in violent extremism differ. “What works in a rural village in Bosnia-Herzegovina versus what might work in Tajikistan might be completely different.” Holmer believes that through her role as Senior Adviser, she can continue working with member states to pursue “good practices” in the prevention of VERLT and support anti-terrorism within a human rights framework. “The aim of our work at the OSCE is to support participating states with the tools, the policy and legal frameworks they need to address these complicated challenges.” For more information, contact Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor for Global Security and Political-Military Affairs.
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The Cold War Is Over, But The OSCE's Value Is TimelessWednesday, November 14, 2018
History has shown that robust engagement in multilateral arenas represents long-term realism: to lead, we must be involved; to protect our national interests and the principles we hold dear, we must remain engaged; and to inspire those who suffer every day under authoritarian regimes, we must hold our own country to the highest standards on the world stage. Unfortunately, efforts to maintain America’s preeminence in the world have come under increasing pressure in recent years. These challenges are not isolated and are waged on many fronts – economically, militarily, and diplomatically. Some may use these challenges as an excuse to retreat, claiming that engagement in international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adds no value. We believe that quite the opposite is true. If we want to continue to lead, protect, and inspire, we need the OSCE’s opportunities for multilateral engagement more than ever. Amid the alphabet soup of institutional acronyms, many Americans probably have not heard of the OSCE, let alone know that it is the largest regional security organization in the world. Comprising 57 countries, it links Vancouver in the West to Vladivostok in the East, spanning North America, Europe, and Central Asia. We are members of the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly, where we have represented our country and our principles in a forum of international lawmakers for a combined 34 years. We have engaged the OSCE, as a whole, even longer. We know firsthand the value of U.S. leadership and sustained high-level engagement in the organization – and conversely, we know the enormous risks that would come with retreat. A Broader Definition of Security The essential, enduring value of the OSCE can be traced back to its founding and the ideological transformation that it quietly unleashed. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union first conceived the idea of the Helsinki Final Act. The founding charter of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, later institutionalized as today’s OSCE, would eventually be signed in 1975. Moscow saw the document as a way to validate post-World War II border changes and tighten its stranglehold on Eastern Europe. The Kremlin, no doubt, also hoped to create an alternative to NATO and weaken U.S. ties to Europe. As troops massed along the Iron Curtain after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Europe began to see some value in greater East-West engagement. The United States saw the Soviet proposal as a damage-mitigation exercise at best. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously decried the Helsinki Final Act, saying, “They can write it in Swahili for all I care… The Conference can never end up with a meaningful document.” Opposition to the Helsinki Final Act was not limited to Foggy Bottom. The Wall Street Journal published the editorial “Jerry, Don’t Go” just prior to President Ford’s departure to sign the document in Finland, reflecting widespread opposition from U.S. foreign policy hawks and Americans across the country who descended from the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe. What most observers at the time overlooked, however, was the Helsinki Final Act’s uniquely comprehensive definition of “security.” The Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect for sovereign equality; recognition of the territorial integrity of states; and the commitment of states to fulfill in good faith their obligations under international law. The integration of human rights into a concept of security was revolutionary. The Act also provided that any country signatory could publicly challenge any other country that wasn’t living up to Helsinki principles, either internally or externally. This was remarkable for its time. These two innovations made the Act a rallying point for human rights advocates everywhere, especially dissident movements in the one-party communist states of the Soviet bloc. Groups like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, and other monitoring groups in the Soviet Union and Baltic States that were crucial to the eventual collapse of communism in Europe relied on Helsinki commitments in their advocacy. With U.S. leadership, meetings of the CSCE also became venues for frank exchanges, where countries committing human rights abuses were named and victims identified. The strongest weapons in the U.S. arsenal – democratic ideals, market principles, and the primacy of individual rights – rallied European friends and allies, attracted Soviet satellites, and left Moscow isolated, if not fully convinced. Today's Inflection Point We were both serving in the House of Representatives shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. We were aware that the transitions ahead would be difficult, particularly as horrific ethnic cleansing spread in the Balkans and a brutal war was waged in Chechnya. Although we were on opposite sides of the aisle, we were joined in our conviction that liberal democracy would ultimately prevail throughout Europe and into Central Asia. Unfortunately, our confidence was dramatically misplaced. Thirty years later, instead of the peace and prosperity we expected in the OSCE region, we are at an inflection point, faced with uncertainty and the increasing erosion of the security framework that followed the Cold War. In recent elections, we’ve watched nationalist parties gain a strong foothold in Europe. NATO ally Turkey – one of the world’s most oppressive regimes toward journalists – is succumbing to authoritarian rule, weakening checks on executive power and targeting more than 100,000 perceived opponents of the ruling party in sweeping purges. Vladimir Putin continues to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of not just Ukraine – where, in areas controlled by Russia, pro-Ukrainian sentiment is met with imprisonment, torture, or death – but also Georgia, where Russia has occupied 20 percent of the country’s territory for more than a decade. The Russian government supports separatists in the Transnistrian region of Moldova, interferes in elections in the United States and Europe, and undermines faith in democratic governments worldwide through cyberattacks and information warfare. An era of increasing nationalism, Kremlin revisionism, and rising authoritarianism may not, at first, seem to be the best moment to revitalize multilateral diplomacy. But it has been, and will continue to be, in our national interest to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights around the world – just as we did more than 40 years ago in the Finnish capital. Those Helsinki commitments, and their institutionalization over time, empower us to stand up for our values and for comprehensive security at a time in which we absolutely must. In April 2017, we – along with every other senator currently serving on the Helsinki Commission – introduced a resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE as well as their relevance to American national security. We hope the administration will endorse this effort. A Record of Results The value of the OSCE and the effectiveness of American involvement are evident in the organization’s more recent evolution and achievements. This is no Cold War relic. We have seen examples of multilateral success in many initiatives, beginning with its quick embrace of newly independent states, from the Balkans to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As multiethnic states broke apart, the OSCE created a high commissioner on national minorities in 1992 to address ethnic tensions and proactively prevent conflict between or within states over national minority issues. Participating states developed mechanisms to respond to the most recalcitrant actors, such as the unprecedented suspension of Yugoslavia the same year for the “clear, gross, and uncorrected” violations of Helsinki principles by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under OSCE auspices, internal political confrontations in Serbia in 1996 and Albania in 1997 were resolved through high-level engagement before they became a broader threat to peace and prosperity in Europe. The United States led the way, generating the political will to act quickly and with resolve. Robust field missions also were created in the 1990s to respond to conflicts, first in the Balkans and then extending into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In some places, such as Kosovo, the OSCE often was the only acceptable international monitor or facilitator on the ground, serving as the eyes and ears of the international community, bringing opposing sides together, and mitigating spillover effects in neighboring countries. Today, the OSCE’s civilian Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group in the war zone. Established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk Agreements, its approximately 700 monitors provide clear and unbiased reporting of ceasefire violations and human costs of the conflict. Approximately half of the U.S. contribution to the OSCE goes toward funding the SMM. The mission faces challenges, including attempts to sabotage its work and concerns about security. The latter was tragically demonstrated by the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic killed last year when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory. Without the SMM’s reporting, however, we would lack critical information to understand and address ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Kremlin propaganda would have a clear field to disguise the true nature and scale of the conflict. The OSCE also sets the gold standard for election observation across the region. The organization’s trained observers partner with international lawmakers, including ourselves, to analyze election-related laws and systems and the effectiveness of their implementation. The evaluations that these missions produce are critical benchmarks for OSCE countries and support U.S. efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law around the world. Pressure from the organization and its participating states has been a major factor in the release of political prisoners in countries like Azerbaijan. For example, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly publicly condemned Baku for its targeting of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and the broader use of its judicial system to repress political opponents, journalists, and minorities. The Helsinki Commission also weighed in. In May 2016, Ismayilova was released from prison. Our actions in this and similar cases demonstrate global leadership. We welcome the recent nomination of a new U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE. This important post has remained vacant for far too long. We urge our Senate colleagues to swiftly consider the nominee, who will be responsible for leading America’s vigorous defense of democracy and human rights in the region. Let us also not overlook the fact that our work in the OSCE in relation to Russia is not simply to counter Moscow’s anti-democratic ambitions. Follow-up meetings to the original Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe became one of a shrinking number of places where East-West dialogue could take place during the Cold War. Likewise, after Russia was suspended from the G8 in March 2014, today’s OSCE provides one of the few remaining opportunities to engage with Russia and hold the Kremlin accountable to principles it has endorsed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends OSCE ministerial meetings, where he easily – and with great success – engages with senior officials from around the region. That alone should encourage our secretary of state to be present. Secretary Tillerson attended the 2017 ministerial, and we urge Secretary Pompeo to do the same. Future Challenges Along with successes, we also have seen areas where multilateralism has fallen short. Areas like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have consumed OSCE attention and resources, but unfortunately, the organization’s actions have not thawed these frozen conflicts. The OSCE may have kept things from getting worse than they might have been otherwise; this is something to praise, but cannot yet be counted as a win. These efforts have been hindered in part by the otherwise positive requirement that major decisions in the organization require consensus. This rule is vital to the OSCE’s success. The organization can convene all parties on an even footing and – because no country can claim that it didn’t voluntarily agree to its commitments – the rule gives unique force to the OSCE’s actions. However, decision-making by consensus also allows a single intransigent country to wield its veto as a weapon, even in cases of otherwise overwhelming agreement. In 2008, Russia successfully blocked the OSCE from establishing a field mission in Georgia as Russian-backed separatists occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then, resistance to hosting or authorizing field missions, a core capability of the OSCE, has spread. Belarus kicked out its OSCE mission in 2011. Azerbaijan forced the mission in Baku to close in 2015, and two years later, it insisted on the shuttering of a mission in Armenia. Mongolia, the newest OSCE participating state, has repeatedly requested a mission to foster its continued democratic development and build closer ties with other participating states. Moscow consistently blocks that request. A related and ongoing problem is the lack of transparency of the OSCE’s decision-making. Opening its official deliberations to the public would help make those countries that thwart progress more broadly accountable for their recalcitrance. A more recent challenge comes from the government of Turkey. Ankara continues to use the 2016 coup attempt as pretext for not only violently repressing its citizens and detaining others, including Americans, but also for limiting the participation of non-governmental organizations in certain OSCE meetings. The OSCE is the only international organization that allows NGOs to participate equally with governments in meetings on human rights commitments, allowing these groups to raise their concerns directly. If Turkey has its way, human rights groups might be denied a seat at the table. It is easy to imagine which countries quietly hope this effort will succeed. The United States must continue to make it clear that it is not one of them. Indeed, the moral here is that the United States should not only support the strengths and potential of the OSCE, but we must also be present and potent when progress and principles are challenged within the organization. Our colleagues in both chambers of Congress have the passion and determination to do just that. In these days of partisan discord, we must remember – and treasure – the fact that Congress is broadly committed to the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act: respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and liberty. We see this in the establishment of the Helsinki Commission itself, a unique agency conceived by Congress to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring, defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms, and ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy. The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region. Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy. We have not only the right, but also the duty, to hold countries responsible if they fail to adhere to the basic principles that we all agreed to in 1975. We also have the responsibility to hear and consider other participating states when they feel that the United States is not fully meeting our commitments. Leading by example means that we must be held accountable, too. At this critical juncture, when the rules-based order appears particularly fragile, any weakening or absence of the OSCE could irreversibly damage the chances for democracy and peace in the region. We must not allow that to happen – and the key is our own steadfastness, in words and deeds. Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker) is chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Republican Party, he has represented Mississippi in the Senate since December 2007. He previously represented Mississippi for 13 years in the House of Representatives. Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) is ranking Senate member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He serves as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Democratic Party, he has represented Maryland in the Senate since January 2007 after 20 years in the House of Representatives.
Belarus Reality CheckTuesday, November 13, 2018
On October 22, 2018, over 50 international analysts, practitioners, diplomats and policymakers gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the eighth Belarus Reality Check, a full-day review of the Belarusian economy, political and human rights developments, and changes in the regional security situation in and around Belarus. Former Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland joined representatives of the IMF, the World Bank, Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, the EU Ambassador to Belarus, and dozens of analysts from Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, and other European nations for the event. Political Developments in Belarus During the first panel, presenters noted that sovereignty and stability remain top priorities for the Government of Belarus. Despite a great deal of work by the OSCE’s Office of Democracy Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in recent years, its recommendations to improve Belarusian elections have still not been implemented, and panelists were skeptical that any action would be taken before parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2020. Although the Belarusian political opposition remains divided and marginalized, several panelists believed that support for the opposition is growing. Unfortunately, there was consensus that Russian malign influence in Belarus is also growing, primarily via Russian exploitation of social media platforms in Belarus. The Belarusian Economy The second panel featured four presentations that examined challenges facing the Belarusian economy and analyzed the country’s agonizing choice between beginning long-overdue reforms or remaining dependent on Russian subsidies for oil and gas to shore up failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Panelists pointed out that— due largely to those subsidies—the Belarusian economy has fared better than many of its neighbors for years, and that Belarusians enjoy a better standard of living than a number of their Eastern European counterparts. Polling by the IPM Research Center has shown that a top priority for Belarusians, and thus for the Government of Belarus, is low inflation. According to the same study, most Belarusians are satisfied with the current state of affairs. Should the subsidies end, Belarus could face a true crisis. Belarusian Foreign Policy The final panel discussed Belarusian relations with its neighbors—strangely including China, but omitting the U.S. Positive trend lines were noted for Belarusian relations with all major countries except Russia, and international organizations have demonstrated increased interest in Belarus. In particular, OSCE Secretary General Greminger visited Belarus for a third time in 2018. Anaïs Marin of France, recently appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, remarked that progress had been made by Belarus on its 2016 National Action Plan on Human Rights, but described continuing Belarusian support of the death penalty as something that required continued scrutiny by the international community. One analyst took EU policy to task for “aiming at progress, not results.” Russian policy in Belarus, he claimed, is intended to produce results—namely, to keep Belarus under control and on a short leash. Another panelist described the conundrum of trying to contain Russian influence in Belarus: “We can’t get rid of Russian influence (money) in Latvia or London; how can we expect to get them out of Belarus?” In a concluding question and answer session, Rauland—who served as charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk from June 2014 through July 2016—asked the panel to comment on the diverging EU and U.S. strategies on Belarus, noting that the EU had decided to lift sanctions on Belarus completely in 2016, while the U.S. had merely suspended them while awaiting further improvements in human rights. The panelist who responded to that question described EU policy as a mistake, noting that political prisoners had been released (the event which triggered sanctions relief by the EU), but that their civil rights had not been restored, something he felt should have been a condition for the EU completely lifting sanctions. Answers to a question earlier in the day, asking whether panelists were optimistic about the future for Belarus, may have captured the range of views of the participants best of all. “Yes,” replied the first to answer. “I’m ‘realistic’ about progress,” replied the next panelist. “And I’m an optimistic realist,” concluded the third. The event was organized by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre with the support of USAID, Pact and Forum Syd, together with programmatic contributions from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Human Dimension is a Parliamentary PriorityFriday, September 21, 2018
Each September, the OSCE focuses considerable attention on its body of commitments in the human dimension, ranging from human rights and fundamental freedoms, to democratic norms and the rule of law, to tolerance in society and other humanitarian concerns. For two weeks, the participating States and interested non-governmental organizations gather in Warsaw, Poland, to review implementation of OSCE commitments in each of these areas. This Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) is organized under the auspices of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Other OSCE institutions, like the High Commissioner for National Minorities and the Representative on the Freedom of the Media, also participate in the exchange of views. Traditionally, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) is also represented at the meeting, and its presence this year was particularly strong. About the OSCE PA The OSCE PA is one of the original institutions of the OSCE and consists of 323 parliamentarians who gather three times a year, including at an annual session each summer where resolutions are adopted. Today’s high-profile OSCE work on human trafficking, anti-Semitism, and media freedom began years ago with initiatives undertaken by the assembly and transferred at the urging of parliamentarians to national governments for concrete follow-up activity. Decision-making in the OSCE PA is usually based on a majority vote, which contrasts with the consensus needed among government representatives in OSCE diplomacy. This allows the Assembly to address issues, particularly in the human dimension, in a way that reflects the overwhelming opinion of the participating States but would be unlikely to succeed in other OSCE bodies, where representatives of offending countries can block action. For example, in the past five annual sessions the OSCE PA has adopted resolutions condemning Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles in it aggression against Ukraine, including violations in the human dimension. At the 2018 annual session in Berlin last July, Russian parliamentarians unsuccessfully opposed consideration and adoption of a text on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea, and on the human rights situation in Russia itself. The OSCE PA also criticizes other countries’ record in the human dimension records—including actions of the United States—but the assembly’s criticism is generally commensurate with the severity of perceived violations. The OSCE PA defends ODIHR in its work facilitating implementation of commitments where needed, and civil society in its advocacy of human rights. At the 2018 annual session, parliamentarians condemned the ongoing efforts of Turkey and some other countries to restrict non-governmental voices at the HDIM and other human dimension events, or to dilute them with non-governmental organizations formed at the behest of some of the more repressive regimes in the OSCE region. In Berlin, the OSCE PA called “on all OSCE participating States to welcome NGO participation in OSCE events, and to reject all efforts to restrict participation in OSCE human dimension events so long as these groups do not resort to or condone violence or terrorism, to ensure the broadest possible contribution from NGOs to the OSCE’s work and a full and unrestricted exchange of information and opinions.” OSCE PA Participation in HDIM 2018 OSCE PA President George Tsereteli addresses the 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. In 2018, five OSCE PA officers—all elected members of national parliaments—spoke at the HDIM. OSCE PA President George Tsereteli of Georgia addressed the gathering’s opening session, observing that while the human dimension is also known as the “third dimension” of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security, it “should always be our first priority.” “When we put our OSCE hats on, our primary goal is to better the lives of the more than one billion people in the OSCE area,” said President Tsereteli. “Our duty is to respond to their desire to live in a free society, where democratic debate is encouraged and not stifled, where journalists are respected and not jailed or killed, where a simple citizen can trust that his or her voice counts and is not discarded.” Two of the OSCE’s nine Vice Presidents—Isabel Santos of Portugal and Kari Henriksen of Norway—also attended. Santos focused on the human rights of migrants, and Henriksen on promoting opportunities for women and children that will protect them from human trafficking. Two of the three officers of the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions were also in Warsaw. Committee chair Margareta Kiener Nellen of Switzerland addressed hate crimes and hate speech, including ways to combat them, while committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni of Cyprus focused on challenges to freedom of the media, ranging from rhetorical attacks to violence and incarceration of journalists. OSCE PA human rights committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni delivers remarks at the freedom of the media session at the 2018 HDIM in Warsaw. Other Human Dimension Activities Throughout the year, the OSCE PA deploys short-term election observation missions and represents the OSCE as a whole in reporting the preliminary conclusions immediately after elections take place. The assembly also has an active Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, chaired by Belgian parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri, which encourages humane treatment of refugees and migrants alike, including respect for their rights, in accordance with international norms. Various Special Representatives of the OSCE PA President also have human dimension portfolios, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (Human Trafficking Issues) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance).
Viewing Security ComprehensivelyMonday, September 17, 2018
By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs What does an annual human rights dialogue have to do with peace and security? To the uninitiated, the answer may not be obvious. The OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) focuses on the compliance by participating States with the Helsinki Final Act’s ten guiding principles for relations between states, including respect for human rights, and with its humanitarian commitments. Like the OSCE’s annual reviews of the security and the economic/environmental dimensions, the HDIM is a deep dive into a specific group of issues embraced by the OSCE. Yet all three of these dimensions are inextricably intertwined. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act enshrined groundbreaking linkages between the rights of the individual and peaceful relations among states in the concept of comprehensive security. It explicitly recognized that democracy, fundamental freedoms, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities underpin regional peace and security. By signing the document, all OSCE participating States have agreed that lasting security cannot be achieved without respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions. The Potential of Comprehensive Security Soviet dissident groups were among the first to recognize the potential of the Helsinki Final Act’s then-revolutionary linkages. According to Yuri Orlov in Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir “Thaw Generation,” the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group observed that the act represented “the first international document in which the issue of human rights is discussed as a component of international peace,” empowering dissident groups to hold their own authorities to account for human rights violations by way of other governments’ assessments. American presidents have repeatedly underlined the significance of the comprehensive concept of security enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. President Ronald Reagan, returning from discussions with his Soviet counterpart in October 1986, made clear that progress on lessening of tensions and possible arms control agreements would require trust between the two sides, and that this trust was in turn predicated on the Soviet government’s record on meeting human rights commitments: “… I also made it plain, once again, that an improvement of the human condition within the Soviet Union is indispensable for an improvement in bilateral relations with the United States. For a government that will break faith with its own people cannot be trusted to keep faith with foreign powers.” President George H.W. Bush in 1992 underlined that in the act, “participating States recognized respect for human rights as an ‘essential factor’ for the attainment of peace, justice and cooperation among nations.” President Barack Obama in 2015 hailed the act’s central conviction that “the security of states is inextricably linked to the security of their citizens’ rights.” The concept of comprehensive security also lay behind the establishment of institutions such as the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is tasked by the participating States with helping governments to meet their commitments to human rights and democracy. ODIHR describes its mission as “a cornerstone of the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security.” Similarly, OSCE field missions helping OSCE participating States to strengthen their democracy and thereby their security through the implementation of the OSCE commitments in areas ranging from minority rights to media freedom. The relevance of human rights to building and upholding both internal and international peace has also been a reoccurring theme in the work of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. For example, in June 2017 the rapporteur of the OSCE PA Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions urged OSCE “governments to prioritize commitments to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms of every individual in addressing such pressing issues as countering violent extremism.” Comprehensive Security and the Helsinki Commission The comprehensive concept of security also inspired today’s U.S. Helsinki Commission. The commission has heard on numerous occasions from serving government officials just how crucial the relevance of human rights within states is to security among states. For instance, at a Helsinki Commission hearing while serving as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip Gordon emphasized, “The OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security offers a vehicle for engagement across the political, military, economic, and human rights dimensions. ... one of the most important features of the OSCE is that it recognizes that security is not just about what happens between states or beyond borders, but what happens within them.” At the same hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner underlined, “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states is an essential element of security and prosperity among states. This principle lies at the core of the OSCE. Without a vigorous Human Dimension, the Helsinki Process becomes a hollow shell.” Helsinki Commissioners consistently emphasize the linkages between the various dimensions of security in all aspects of their work, including efforts to condemn torture; defend the rights of a free press; protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism; or underline the importance of individual liberty and the rule of law as the foundations of the NATO alliance. In 2017, all Senate members of the Helsinki Commission jointly introduced a introduced a bipartisan resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and its relevance to American national security. As Chairman Roger Wicker observed, “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty.”
Bosnia & HerzegovinaWednesday, September 12, 2018
Mr. President, it is important for this Senate and this country to once again be interested in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During my time in Congress, and particularly since joining the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which I now chair, the Western Balkans have been an ongoing concern of mine. Although our relationship with all of these countries of the Western Balkans is important, the United States has a specific interest, a particular interest, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We need to concentrate more on that. I had the opportunity in July to lead a nine-member bicameral delegation to Bosnia. The delegation sought to see more of the country and to hear from its citizens, rather than meet only in the offices of senior Bosnian officials. We visited the small town of Trebinje in the entity of Republika Srpska, and we visited the city of Mostar in the entity of the Federation. Then, we went on and visited in Sarajevo, the capital, engaging with international officials, the Bosnian Presidency, and citizens seeking a better Bosnia. Bosnia was a U.S. foreign policy priority when I came to the House in 1995. In less than a decade, Bosnia had gone from international acclaim while hosting the Winter Olympics to the scene of the worst carnage in human suffering in Europe since World War II. The conflict that erupted in Bosnia in 1992 was not internally generated. Rather, Bosnia became the victim of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the extreme nationalist forces this breakup unleashed throughout the region, first and foremost by Serbian leader and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. The carnage and tragic conflict that occurred in the early 1990s was more than about Bosnia. It was about security in a Europe just emerging from its Cold War divisions and the international principles upon which that security was based. For that reason, the United States, under President Bill Clinton, rightly exercised leadership when Europe asked us to, having failed to do so themselves. The Clinton administration brokered the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995 and enabled NATO to engage in peacemaking and peacekeeping to preserve Bosnia's unity and territorial integrity. That was the Bosnian peace agreement. Almost a quarter of a century later, after the expenditure of significant diplomatic, military, and foreign assistance resources, the physical scars of the conflict have been largely erased. As we learned during our recent visit, the country remains far short of the prosperous democracy we hoped it would become and that its people deserve. Mostar, a spectacular city to visit, remains ethnically divided with Bosniak and Croat students separated by ethnicity in schools, even inside the same school buildings. Bosnian citizens, who are of minority groups, such as Jews, Romanis, or of mixed heritage, still cannot run for certain political offices. This is 2018. They can't run for State-level Presidency, simply because of their ethnicity. Neither can Bosniaks and Croats in Republika Srpska or Serbs in the Bosnian Federation run for the Presidency because of their ethnicity, in Europe in 2018. Nor can those numerous citizens who, on principle, refuse to declare their ethnicity because it should not replace their real qualifications for holding office. This goes on despite repeated rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that this flaw in the Dayton-negotiated Constitution must be corrected. In total, well over 300,000 people in a country of only 3.5 million fall into these categories despite what is likely their strong commitment to the country and to its future as a multiethnic state. This is simply wrong, and it needs to end. In addition, youth employment in Bosnia is among the highest in the world, and many who can leave the country are doing so, finding a future in Europe and finding a future in the United States. This denies Bosnia much of its needed talent and energy. Civil society is kept on the sidelines. Decisions in Bosnia are being made by political party leaders who are not accountable to the people. They are the decision makers. The people should be decision makers. Corruption is rampant. Ask anyone in Europe, and they will tell you, Bosnia's wealth and potential is being stolen by corruption. General elections will be held in October with a system favoring the status quo and resistance to electoral reforms that would give Bosnians more rather than fewer choices. The compromises made two and a half decades ago in Dayton to restore peace and give the leading ethnic groups--Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats-- an immediate sense of security make governance dysfunctional today. Two-and-a-half-decades-old agreements make governance inefficient today in Bosnia. Collective privileges for these groups come at the expense of the individual human rights of the citizens who are all but coerced into making ethnic identity their paramount concern and a source of division, when so many other common interests should unite them. Ethnically based political parties benefit as they engage in extensive patronage and corruption. Beneath the surface, ethnic reconciliation has not taken hold, and resulting tensions can still destabilize the country and even lead to violence. Malign outside forces, particularly Vladimir Putin's Russia but also influences from Turkey and Gulf States, seek to take advantage of the political impasse and malaise, steering the country away from its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. As a result of these developments, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not making much progress, even as its neighbors join NATO and join the EU or make progress toward their desired integration. In my view, we should rightly credit the Dayton agreement for restoring peace to Bosnia. That was 25 years ago, but it is regrettable the negotiators did not put an expiration date on ethnic accommodations so Bosnia could become a modern democracy. As one of our interlocutors told us, the international community, which has substantial powers in Bosnia, has steadily withdrawn, turning over decision making to Bosnian officials who were not yet committed to making the country work and naively hoping the promise of future European integration would encourage responsible behavior. That has not happened. Of course, we can't turn back the clock and can't insert that expiration date on the Dayton agreement, but having made a difference in 1995, we can and should help make a difference again today. It is in our national security interest that we do so. I suggest the following. The United States and our European friends should state, unequivocally, that Dayton is an absolute baseline, which means only forward progress should be allowed. Separation or new entities should be declared to be clearly out of the question. Secondly, U.S. policymakers should also remind everyone that the international community, including NATO, did not relinquish its powers to Bosnia but simply has chosen to withdraw and exercise them less robustly. We should seek an agreement to resurrect the will to use these powers and to do so with resolve if growing tensions make renewed violence a credible possibility. Next, the United States and Europe should adopt a policy of imposing sanctions on individual Bosnian officials who are clearly engaged in corruption or who ignore the Dayton parameters, Bosnian law, and court rulings in their work. Washington has already done this regarding Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, and just recently, Nikola Spiric, a member of Bosnia's House of Representatives. However, the scope should be expanded, and European capitals need to join us in this regard. Senior U.S. officials, as well as Members of Congress, should make Sarajevo a priority. I hope more of our Members will visit Bosnia and increase our visibility, demonstrate our continued commitment, and enhance our understanding. Bosnia may not be ready to join NATO, but its Membership Action Plan should be activated without further delay. As soon as this year's elections are over in Bosnia, the international community should encourage the quick formation of new parliaments and governments at all levels, followed immediately by vigorous reform efforts that eliminate the discrimination in the criteria for certain offices, ensure that law enforcement more effectively serves and protects all residents, and end the corruption in healthcare and so many other violent areas of daily life. Our policy must shift back to an impetus on universal principles of individual human rights and citizen-based government. Indeed, the privileges Dayton accorded to the three main ethnic groups are not rights but privileges that should not be upheld at the expense of genuine democracy and individual rights. We, in my view, have been far too fatalistic about accepting in Bosnia what we are not willing to accept anywhere else. We also underestimate what Bosnians might find acceptable, and we should be encouraging them to support leaders based on credentials, positions, and personal integrity, not based on ethnicity. There should no longer be a reason why a Bosniak, Serb, or Croat voter should be prohibited by law from considering a candidate of another ethnicity or a multiethnic political party. All candidates and parties would do well to seek votes from those not belonging to a single ethnic group. This may take time and perhaps some effort, but it should happen sooner rather than later. Let me conclude by asserting that greater engagement is in the interest of the United States--the economic interest and the national security interest. Our country is credited with Bosnia's preservation after the country was almost destroyed by aggression, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Thank God our country was there for Bosnia. Our adversaries--notably, but not exclusively, Russia--would like nothing more than to make an American effort fail in the end, and they would ensure that its repercussions are felt elsewhere around the globe. Current trends in Bosnia make the country an easier entry point for extremism in Europe, including Islamic extremism. If we wait for discrimination and ethnic tensions to explode again, our engagement will then become a moral imperative at significantly greater cost. The people of Bosnia, like their neighbors throughout the Balkans, know they are in Europe but consider the United States their most trusted friend, their most honest friend. They want our presence and engagement, and given the tragedies they have experienced, they have earned our support and friendship
Inside the Turkish ElectionWednesday, July 11, 2018
By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions. In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs. The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions. In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional. Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges. Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president. One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp. Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP. Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara. The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process. Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage. All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature. Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side. The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country. It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation. We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day. Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls. We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for. The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.) Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day. Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process. With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station. An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow. Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC. Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote. This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials. Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities. Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters. In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds. At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after. As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through. Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room. After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time. Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results. The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation. Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated. Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations. Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots. In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank). U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members. Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour. The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process. Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary. Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference. A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation. After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board. Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square. It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level. The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended. Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote. Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!” The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance. During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system. In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality. The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.
Annual Trafficking in Persons Report: Europe Falling Behind on Trafficking Victim IdentificationTuesday, July 03, 2018
WASHINGTON—Last week, the U.S. Department of State released the 18th annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which tracks the progress of 189 countries toward meeting minimum standards of prosecution, protection, and prevention in the fight against human trafficking. This year’s report showed a 45 percent increase in trafficking victim identification worldwide in 2017 to 100,409—an all-time high for both labor and sex trafficking. However, while more labor trafficking victims were identified in Europe than in 2016, overall victim identification in Europe dropped 4 percent. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, said, “With the current migrant crisis, it is more important than ever that OSCE participating States in Europe are informed and on the lookout for human trafficking victims, and have care available for them when they are found. Unaccompanied minors, in particular, are vulnerable to trafficking and re-trafficking all along the migration routes.” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) welcomed the report and noted that despite the downturn in victim identification in Europe, several OSCE participating States have made substantial progress in fighting human trafficking. “Estonia, Cyprus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Uzbekistan are to be congratulated for their efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking,” he said. Ireland and Armenia, however, moved down from Tier 1 to Tier 2. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia moved from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watch List. The TIP Report classifies countries into several tiers based on their progress toward meeting minimum standards to combat human trafficking. Tier 1 countries fully meet the minimum standards. Tier 2 countries do not meet the minimum standards but are making a significant effort to do so. Tier 2 Watch List countries are in a grace period and are in real danger of becoming Tier 3 if they do not take concrete action to improve their efforts. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant effort to do so. Tier 3 countries may be subject to U.S. sanctions. Since the creation of the annual TIP Report by Co-Chairman Smith’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, more than 120 countries have enacted anti-trafficking laws and many countries have taken other steps to significantly raise their tier rankings—citing the TIP Report as a key factor in their new anti-trafficking efforts.
Press Conference Following U.S. Congressional Delegation Meetings in BosniaTuesday, July 03, 2018
Thank you Madam Ambassador. We appreciate it very, very much. And this is indeed a bicameral and bipartisan delegation of members of the United States Congress and I am pleased to be here in Sarajevo for my fifth visit. This is a nine-member congressional delegation. It represents – as the Ambassador said – the bicameral U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I’m privileged to serve as chair. The Helsinki Commission and its members from the United States Congress have always cared about Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its first congressional visit here was in early 1991, before the conflict began. Commissioners returned when they could during the conflict, and have come back on several occasions after the conflict to assess and encourage recovery and reconciliation. This time, we come here first and foremost to let both the political leaders and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina know the United States remains interested and engaged in the Balkans. The progress we want to see throughout the region must include progress here in Bosnia. We are committed to protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in line with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, and we support Bosnia’s aspirations for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Efforts to undermine state institutions, along with calls for secession or establishment of a third entity, violate the spirit and letter of the Dayton Accords and endanger the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the entire region, and they diminish the likelihood of progress for local families and job creators. We encourage the Bosnian government to undertake the necessary reforms to make integration a reality. The inability to make Bosnia’s government more functional, efficient, and accountable is holding this country back. It is the consensus of the international community that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are ill-served by their government’s structure. Bosnia should correct one glaring shortcoming. The discriminatory ethnic criteria that prevent some Roma, Jewish, Serbs in the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, and other citizens who do not self-identify with a group from seeking certain public offices is unacceptable and can easily be addressed. Bosnia’s neighbors are making progress, and we do not want to see this country fall further behind. In our meeting with Members of the Bosnian Presidency, we expressed our frustrations with the political impasse and often dangerous rhetoric. We urged stronger leadership and a more cooperative spirit in moving this country forward, together. This should include electoral reform now and a serious commitment to the additional reforms that are obviously needed in the near future. We are tired of the way ethnic politics dominates debate and makes decision-making such a difficult progress. We share this impatience with our allies and the people this country would like to move closer toward. This does not enhance the future of young people who want to stay and raise families in Bosnia, and it places a drag on efforts toward Euro-Atlantic integration. We encouraged international mission heads and the diplomatic community based here in Bosnia to defend human rights, democracy, the rule of law and all principles of the Helsinki Final Act in their important work. In these areas, there should be no compromises here in Bosnia that we would not accept elsewhere. Working together, the United States and Europe must deal firmly with those who seek to undermine those principles in any way, and that should include – for the worst offenders – coordinated sanctions on their ability to travel and on their individual assets. We also need to work with Bosnian officials to counter external forces that actively seek to make Bosnia even more vulnerable to internal instability than it already is right now. We are proud of the work between the United States and Bosnian officials thus far on countering terrorism. We hope Bosnia remains committed to prosecuting and rehabilitating foreign terrorist fighters through ensuring longer sentences for convicted terrorists. Second to sending a strong U.S. message, we come to hear the voices of the people. The Helsinki Commission and members of Congress regularly meet with diplomats and senior officials from Bosnia who visit Washington. Their views are important, and we have good discussions, and we had good discussions this time. However, we often wonder what the people of Bosnia truly think about their situation. To that end, we met here with citizens who continue to be denied their recognized right to seek certain public offices. We also heard the many concerns of non-governmental representatives. In Mostar, we met with a young leader whose organization is trying to find common ground among the people of that spectacular city, which is still divided in too many ways. It is deplorable that the citizens of Mostar have been denied their right to vote in local elections since 2008; we call on Bosnia’s political leaders to set aside the differences and work toward a compromise that resolves the impasse. We encourage all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to give priority not to protecting ethnic privileges that keep them segregated from one another, but to promoting policies that will give them jobs, greater opportunity, a 21st century education, and the prosperity they want for their children and grandchildren. To succeed, Bosnian citizens must all move forward together. However, ethnic divisions continue to thwart needed cooperation. We sense that these divisions are not as deep as claimed by the political leaders who exploit them. They exploit them for power, in our judgment. And if there is one thing which should unite all Bosnians, it should be the desire to end the rampant corruption that robs this country of its wealth and potential. We hope that the upcoming Bosnian elections are not only conducted smoothly and peacefully, but their results reflect the genuine will of the people. Democracy is strengthened when voters cast their ballots based, not on fear, pressure or expectation, but based on their own, personal views regarding the issues and opinions of the candidates, their views and their character. The outcome must accurately capture these individual sentiments. We hope for progress on electoral reform, in line with accepted norms for free and fair elections, so that election results can be implemented and a government formed. We are dismayed at the lack of political diversity within some of the main ethnic groups in this country, and take issue with those who argue they are entitled to a monopoly in representing those groups. A third and final reason this delegation has come to Bosnia and Herzegovina is to remember —as American citizens and elected officials — why the United States of America should continue to care about Bosnia and Herzegovina, even when so many other crises demand attention. We are reminded, in that regard, of the upcoming anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica and the unimaginable pain and loss that lingers from that and other wartime atrocities. Some of us visited the War Childhood museum, reminding us as well of the innocence and vulnerability of civilian victims. We also remember past U.S. leadership in responding to the conflict. The address of this building is “1 Robert C. Frasure Street,” after one of three American envoys who lost their lives on nearby Mount Igman while seeking to bring peace to this country. Their work, and that of so many other American diplomats, soldiers and citizens who have continued their work to this day, cannot be left unfinished. Finally, we also witnessed the incredible beauty of the countryside, the vibrancy of places like Sarajevo and Mostar, and the generous hospitality of the people. Having been through so much, they deserve better than they have right now. We therefore leave here more committed than ever to this country’s future, and as confident as ever in our ability to work together to build that future. We support Ambassador Cormack here in Sarajevo and will continue to encourage our government in Washington to take further steps to encourage the good governance and prosperity that the citizens of this country deserve.
Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential ElectionThursday, May 31, 2018
On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018. While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints. Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million). Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners. One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev. He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations. Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers. A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process. The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere. One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand. Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible. We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing. They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed. For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles. We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled. One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities. We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. Election Aftermath In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” “Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said. The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures. At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently. Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.” The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement. “A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”
Helsinki Commission Observation of Russia’s Presidential ElectionsTuesday, May 22, 2018
Presidential elections were held in the Russian Federation on March 18, 2018; incumbent Vladimir Putin took about 76 percent of the votes cast among eight candidates, with a voter turnout topping 67 percent. These lopsided results were unsurprising in a country where the current regime has steadily and systematically decimated the democratic norms that gained a foothold in the 1990s. Nevertheless, international observers traveled to Russia under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to provide an authoritative assessment of electoral conditions and to encourage Russia to adhere to its OSCE commitments. The Russian Federation, along with the 56 other OSCE participating States, has committed to hold free and fair elections, as well as to invite international observers. An OSCE presence also indicated an ongoing willingness to support democratic development by engaging not just the government but all players in Russian society. Despite a variety of official efforts to suppress critics and marginalize opposition, independent and democratic forces remain active in Russia. Based on an December 21, 2017, recommendation to deploy a comprehensive OSCE observation mission for the Russian election, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed a Moscow-based core team of 13 experts supplemented by 60 long-term observers deployed throughout the country. On election day, 481 observers from 44 countries visited more than 2,000 polling stations. The election day deployment included a 101-member delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), including two Helsinki Commission staffers who were the only U.S. government officials to observe the elections. They observed in Istra and other towns northwest of Moscow and in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor
Democracy DeferredWednesday, May 09, 2018
After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013. As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.
Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in AzerbaijanWednesday, May 02, 2018
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013. As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.
How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky ActTuesday, March 13, 2018
The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.
Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions ProcessWednesday, March 07, 2018
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.
Boris Nemtsov: 1959-2015Wednesday, February 28, 2018
On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was brutally murdered on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Three years after Nemtsov’s assassination, the Helsinki Commission examined the investigation into Nemtsov’s murder to shed light on the circumstances of the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia. The Helsinki Commission probed reasons why the plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to a fair trial, the effects Russian propaganda has had on Russian citizens in the suppression of information about the case, and the impact of sanctions resulting from the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act. The Commissioners heard testimony from Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of Boris Nemtsov; Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom; and Vadim Phrokhorov, Lawyer for the family of Boris Nemtsov. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the witnesses and commended Ms. Nemtsova for her courageous activism against gross human rights violations in Russia. Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, highlighted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to suppress democracy in Russia, as well as the Kremlin’s use of military force in Ukraine, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and involvement in the deaths of political opponents like Mr. Nemtsov. Sen. Cardin also praised Russian citizens who side with democracy and emphasized that “[members of the Helsinki Commission] are on the side of the Russian people.” Rep. Christopher Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, discussed how the Magnitsky Act is a breakthrough and a “very useful tool against repressive regimes.” He also asked the panelists for recommendations on actions the United States can and should take to further transparency on the investigation, and expressed interest in initiating a procedure to establish a special representative for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in July of 2018. “And, so, for Boris himself, we need [...] all parties responsible to be held to account — total transparency,” Rep. Smith said. Ms. Nemtsova, the first to testify, criticized Russian authorities for failing to classify the murder as politically motivated. She also explained how the Russians want to end public debate on sensitive political issues. “You probably are aware of what [the Russians] are afraid of most,” she said. “They’re afraid of the sunshine. My father’s case is one of the sensitive issues, and that’s why it’s important to bring it to the sunshine.” Ms. Nemtsova also criticized the investigative committee for not identifying the individual that orchestrated the murder. In closing, she noted that the Government of Russia has tried—but failed— to erase her father’s memory, and urged the Commissioners to appoint a special representative to oversee the investigation at the July 2018 Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Berlin, Germany. During his testimony, Mr. Kara-Murza reiterated the importance of the Boris Nemtsov plaza-naming ceremony that took place on February 27, 2018, exactly three years after his murder. The District of Columbia renamed a section of Wisconsin Avenue, in front of the Russian Embassy, to honor Boris Nemtsov’s legacy. “It is important for those who continue to hold remembrance marches [...] for people who continue Boris Nemtsov’s work by exposing government corruption. You can kill a human being, but you cannot kill what he stood for,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza noted that experts frequently blur the line between a country and a regime and urged political leaders in Western democracies to “not equate Russia with the regime that is ruling it.” He concluded by urging the Commissioners to initiate a process, similar to the appointment of a special rapporteur, under the auspices of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session being held in July 2018. Mr. Prokhorov reiterated how Russian authorities refused to recognize Boris Nemtsov’s murder as politically motivated and that the evidence led to the inner circle of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya. “The problem is not that the investigation of the suspects is difficult or impossible. Our principal concern is that the investigative authorities are not willing to make any effort to do so,” Mr. Prokhorov said. Mr. Prokhorov stated that the Russian authorities breached the family of Boris Nemtsov’s right to a fair trial and how “none of the organizers or masterminds have been identified or persecuted to date.” He concluded by urging western political leaders, diplomats, and public figures to engage Russian counterparts in dialogue regarding Boris Nemtsov’s murder when given the opportunity to do so.
For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating.
Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top.
Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice.
Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term.
In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power.
Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister.
Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence.
They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters.
Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating.
The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders".
President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial.
Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings.
Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup.
Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated.
The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov.
In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come.
"I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said.
Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates.
There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov.
Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules.
The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters.
An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him.
Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged.
"Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh.
Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.