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The U.S. Midwest Is Foreign Oligarchs’ New Playground
Foreign Policy
Casey Michel and Paul Massaro
Thursday, June 03, 2021

Forget Manhattan or Monaco; it’s cities like Cleveland that are now attracting ill-gotten money from abroad.

For many in the West, the notion of kleptocracy—of transnational money laundering tied to oligarchs and authoritarians bent on washing billions of dollars in dirty money—remains a foreign concept. It conjures images of oligarchs purchasing penthouses in Manhattan or regime insiders floating aboard yachts along the French Riviera or maybe even the children of despots racing luxury cars down the streets of Paris. With pockets bulging with billions of dollars in illicit wealth, it makes a certain sense why these kleptocrats would gravitate toward other deep-pocketed areas.

But these kleptocrats are no longer just laundering and parking their dirty money in places like MiamiMalibu, and Monaco. Instead, they’ve begun targeting new areas for their laundering sprees, places few would suspect: from declining, second-tier cities like Cleveland, Ohio, to small factory and steel towns across the American Midwest. In so doing, these kleptocratic figures are no longer simply keeping luxury condos on standby or collecting fleets of private jets and high-end automobiles. Instead, they’re increasingly leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, demolishing the economies of working-class towns and leaving behind empty, sagging downtowns as relics of better times.

Take, for instance, the ongoing story of Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky. Recently sanctioned by the United States for his rank corruption, Kolomoisky stands accused by Ukrainian and U.S. authorities of overseeing one of the greatest Ponzi schemes the world has ever seen. Running PrivatBank, one of Ukraine’s leading retail banks, for years, Kolomoisky crafted an image of a successful entrepreneur devoted to Ukraine’s growing middle class. However, not long after Ukraine’s successful anti-authoritarian revolution in 2014, Ukrainian authorities began poking around the ledgers of Kolomoisky’s bank. Their findings were staggering. Ukrainian investigators—led by Valeria Gontareva, then-reformist head of Ukraine’s banking governing body—discovered a $5.5-billion hole in the middle of PrivatBank’s books.

The hole forced Kyiv to nationalize the bank, plugging an institution that was too big to fail and sending Kolomoisky on the run. When it came to Ukrainian banks transforming into money laundering machines, “PrivatBank wasn’t an exception,” Gontareva told Foreign Policy. “The problem was that it was the biggest one.”

The immediate question was an obvious one: Where had the money gone? As journalists discovered, and as the U.S. Justice Department has alleged in a series of filings in recent months, Kolomoisky didn’t direct the missing billions of dollars into London flats or mansions on the Italian coastline. Instead, as U.S. and Ukrainian investigators discovered, Kolomoisky and a network of enablers plowed much of the money into commercial real estate in places like Cleveland and Louisville, Kentucky—and into small towns reliant on manufacturing plants and steel factories in Illinois, West Virginia, and Michigan. Rather than use the illicit money to play alongside the world’s elite, Kolomoisky and his network allegedly buried their money in the heart of Middle America, using a series of shell companies and cash purchases to obscure their trail.

Why would a foreign oligarch decide to hide hundreds of millions of dollars (and potentially more) across overlooked pockets of the United States? Kolomoisky’s example offers three possible motivations. The first reason lies in the obscurity of smalls town like Warren, Ohio, and Harvard, Illinois. Few investigators, journalists, and authorities would have paid any attention to these purchases, let alone asked questions about the source of funds. Unlike places like Seattle, Dallas, or New York City, where the United States now effectively bars anonymous real estate purchases, much of the rest of the country remains perfectly open for the kinds of anonymous real estate purchases at the heart of kleptocratic networks.

The second reason appears directly linked to the economic decline of many of these overlooked regions, especially following the Great Recession. For many of these assets, the only buyers are often kleptocrats with deep pockets. In Cleveland, for instance, Kolomoisky’s network of enablers swooped into town when no one else appeared interested, snapping up numerous massive downtown buildings in the post-2008 world. According to a local Cleveland journalist who requested to speak on background, Kolomoisky’s network simply “showed up in Cleveland and started buying when no one else was buying.” Eventually, the oligarch and his team became the biggest commercial real estate holders in the entire city. And that dynamic—with kleptocratic money the only game in town—meant those on the receiving end had no incentive to look this foreign gift horse in the mouth, even when the signs of money laundering were clear.

And the ease of entering these markets meant Kolomoisky and his network could do whatever they wanted with these assets—even running them into the ground as they did time and again. Indeed, Kolomoisky never appeared interested in turning a profit for any of these U.S. assets but instead using them simply as something of a kleptocratic nest egg, far away from Ukrainian authorities. According to court documents, Kolomoisky used his U.S. investments simply as nodes in his laundering network, allowing them to slowly fall apart—but not before, in some cases, these assets’ slow-motion collapse sent Americans to the hospital with debilitating injuries.

This happened time and again across the American Rust Belt and Midwest. The steel plant in Warren, now shuttered, looks like something out of a dystopian landscape, with cavernous holes gouged in the siding and walls covered in rust—and with all of its former employees now without jobs. A hulking manufacturing plant in the town of Harvard, Illinois—a plant that should have been the economic lifeblood for the town—has been left to rot, with the cash-strapped city left to pick up the tab. (“The building is f—ing cursed,” Michael Kelly, the town’s mayor, told us.) And rather than investments and the dreamed-of revitalization, Cleveland has been left with, as one local paper said, a “gaping hole” in its downtown, courtesy of the investments Kolomoisky and his network let effectively implode. As the local  journalist familiar with the Kolomoisky-linked purchases added, “They pretty much ruined everything they touched.”

Over and over again, Kolomoisky and his network allegedly turned to Middle America—overlooked towns, forgotten areas, regions that needed an economic lifeline, whatever the source—for their massive laundering needs. And in so doing, they revealed kleptocrats no longer simply turn to the coasts or the cultural capitals and beach-front areas traditionally associated with modern kleptocracy. Main Street America is now a target for this corrosive, kleptocratic capital, draining these areas of whatever hope or promise remained.

“I like to use the analogy of—if you’ve ever lived out in the far West—a dry streambed,” said former FBI agent Karen Greenaway, who’d been involved in tracking transnational money laundering for years, in 2019 congressional testimony at the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. federal agency focusing on human rights and pro-democracy policies. “Dirty money is like a rainstorm coming into a dry streambed. It comes very quickly, and a lot of it comes very fast, and the stream fills up, and then it gets dry again.” Yet the sources of illicit wealth—those behind the dirty money flood—aren’t interested in turning their investments into productive, job-creating engines. “What we have is people who don’t live in the United States, who don’t have any intention of really investing in the United States, but they needed a place to put their money,” Greenaway continued. “I think it’s hurting small-town America. I just don’t think that we’ve come to that realization yet.”

Thankfully, U.S. legislators are finally starting to propose solutions and beginning to center the kind of kleptocracy embodied by Kolomoisky at the heart of proposed reforms. Although the polarization of Congress is taken for granted these days, counter-kleptocracy efforts remain an important space where Democrats and Republicans continue to agree. As such, a bipartisan slate of legislators will be launching a “Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy” on June 10, seeking to advance solutions and educate other members on the corrosive effects of kleptocracy, especially as it pertains to its effects on mainstream Americans.

The proposed solutions address three primary prongs of counter-kleptocracy efforts. The first of these proposals entails enhancing resiliency at home by building legal and financial systems more resistant to the taint of corruption. Congress took a significant step forward last year by banning anonymous shell company formations, long a favorite tool of kleptocrats moving their money around the West. But it hasn’t stopped there. Congress will soon be debating the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, a critical piece of legislation to counter authoritarian regimes increasingly reaching into democratic countries to target dissidents and journalists (such as what we recently saw out of Belarus). Kleptocratic regimes do this via things like Interpol, which is itself regularly abused by these governments and figures to harass and silence dissidents and critics, ensuring their stolen money remains hidden elsewhere. Among other things, this bill would effectively protect the U.S. judicial system from abuse by kleptocrats and would aid U.S. efforts to reform rule-of-law governance mechanisms within Interpol.

The second prong of proposed reforms targets kleptocrats directly, including the use of sanctions, visa bans, intelligence networks, and law enforcement authorities to disable individual kleptocrats and ensure they cannot corrode democratic institutions. Congress took another step forward last year with the passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, a rare extraterritorial criminal statute that enables U.S. law enforcement to indict and pursue “doping fraud,” the use of doping regimes to defraud athletes, businesses, and states—a common tactic of authoritarian kleptocracies at international games. Congress is also now set to debate the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA). If passed, this bill would serve as a long-awaited complement to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Where the FCPA makes it illegal for a company to pay a bribe abroad, FEPA will make it a crime for a foreign official to demand a bribe. This creates liability for the kleptocrats who extort law-abiding companies. These kleptocrats can then be arrested and tried when they travel to the West to spend and launder their ill-gotten gains.

Finally, the third prong centers on building the rule of law abroad, including emphasizing more targeted uses of foreign aid to fight corruption as well as working closely with allies to dismantle the broader offshore economy. For instance, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, recently introduced in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, would create an “anti-corruption action fund” that accumulates money via a surcharge on fines from the FCPA. These resources can then be surged into countries undergoing significant democratization movements and reforms (such as Ukraine following its successful 2014 revolution), providing increasing resources for investigators in recipient countries to track how these kleptocrats loot, launder, and stash their ill-gotten gains abroad—including in places like small-town America.

whole host of other ideas are under discussion in Congress, many of which will be spearheaded by the forthcoming “Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy.” And the ideas can’t come a moment too soon. As the case of Kolomoisky clearly illustrates, kleptocracy and the regimes that benefit are no longer things that simply happen abroad or in elite, coastal enclaves. Until these bills are passed and currently floated ideas are implemented, these kleptocrats will continue to assume they can target any U.S. state, city, or town they’d like—and that they can upend the lives of Americans regardless of profession or political leaning.

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    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s confirmation of Ambassador James S. Gilmore as the U.S. Representative to the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I congratulate Ambassador Gilmore on his confirmation as the U.S. Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and look forward to working with him to promote human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and Central Asia. A strong U.S. voice at the OSCE is essential to demonstrating our dedication to common values and continuing to advance implementation of OSCE commitments.”

  • Shady Shipping

    Trade-based money laundering (TBML) is the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and moving value through trade transactions in an attempt to legitimize their illicit origins. This highly sophisticated form of money laundering has become a favorite method for transnational criminals, dictators, and terrorists to move ill-gotten gains to new jurisdictions. This event examined what TBML is, how it works, and why it has become such a ubiquitous method of laundering money. Panelists also discussed the broader interplay of illicit commerce, global corruption, and TBML. Finally, panelists recommended practical steps the United States and non-governmental organizations can take to counter TBML. David Luna, President and CEO of Luna Global Networks, shared his insights on the dark side of globalization and how it fits into the TBML paradigm. Luna outlined the need to increase understanding of the networks between illicit commerce and money laundering across legal and illegal means through convergence crimes. He spoke to the methodologies of “cleaning dirty money” utilized by kleptocrats, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups, while expressing the importance of tracing money and the value of goods to expose illicit crimes. Luna cited a 2015 World Economic Forum report to support his points, which estimated the value of transnational criminal activities between 8-15 percent of Gross Domestic Product, even by conservative standards, totaling around 80 trillion in the US market. John Cassara, retired Special Agent of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, spoke about the confusion surrounding TBML, both in understanding and enforcement. He explained that TBML is the largest method of money laundering because of excess ways to commit it: customs fraud, tax evasion, export incentive fraud, evading capitol controls, barter trade, and underground financial systems. Cassara explained how money is transferred under the noses of customs enforcement by undervaluing or overvaluing an invoice of an otherwise legal trade. Cassara asked, “If our highly trained police force can’t catch this, what about the rest of the world?” Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director at Global Financial Integrity, described the difficulty with tracking TBML, both domestically and internationally. She outlined how domestic policy and law complicates internal tracking, while the lack of consistent transnational collaboration and information sharing complicates international tracking. Kumar spoke to the components of the trade chain and how hard it is to watch all the mechanisms with due diligence. Explaining the role of banks, Kumar noted that 80 percent of all international trade occurs through open account trading, in which banks aren’t involved or able to offer oversight. This allows for trade profits to be separated into various accounts, tricking the customs and enforcement agencies to enforce a lower level of taxation on the profits and the freights and allowing for TBML. In summary, even with world class law enforcement, the U.S. legal and financial frameworks needs to catch up in order to adequately combat TBML.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on UK Anti-Corruption Policies

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: CURBING CORRUPTION THROUGH CORPORATE TRANSPARENCY AND COLLABORATION The British Model Wednesday, May 29, 2019 9:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2128 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The United Kingdom has implemented some of the world’s most innovative anti-corruption policies. In particular, its public beneficial ownership registry is the only active one of its kind and its Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce models effective collaboration between law enforcement and the private sector. This briefing will examine these policies and the United Kingdom’s broader strategy to counter illicit finance. Panelists will discuss how the United Kingdom implements its policies, their successes and shortcomings, and what remains to be done. Though U.S. corporate transparency proposals take a non-public approach, panelists will also discuss the lessons that the United States can draw from the British experience. Opening remarks will be provided by John Penrose, M.P., the U.K. Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion. The following panelists also are scheduled to participate: Mark Hays, Anti-Money Laundering Campaign Leader, Global Witness Edward Kitt, Serious and Organized Crime Network Illicit Finance Policy Lead, British Embassy Washington Nate Sibley, Research Fellow, Kleptocracy Initiative, Hudson Institute

  • Helsinki Commission and House Financial Services Committee Announce Joint Briefing on Trade-Based Money Laundering

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, in partnership with the House Financial Services Committee, today announced the following joint briefing: SHADY SHIPPING Understanding Trade-Based Money Laundering Friday, May 24, 2019 9:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2360 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Trade-based money laundering (TBML) is the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and moving value through the use of trade transactions in an attempt to legitimize their illicit origins. This highly sophisticated form of money laundering has become a favorite method for transnational criminals, dictators, and terrorists to move ill-gotten gains to new jurisdictions. This event will examine what TBML is, how it works, and why it has become such a ubiquitous method of laundering money. Panelists will also discuss the broader interplay of illicit commerce, global corruption, and TBML. Finally, panelists will recommend practical steps the United States and non-governmental organizations can take to counter TBML. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: John Cassara, Special Agent, U.S. Department of the Treasury, retired Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director, Global Financial Integrity David Luna, President and CEO, Luna Global Networks

  • Chairman Hastings on Upcoming Meeting Between President Trump and Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Monday’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Thirty years after Central European nations threw off the mantle of communism and oppression, I recall the unwavering support of the United States for the democratic aspirations of their citizens, and the warm welcome Hungary received when it joined the ranks of self-governing, free nations. I echo Secretary’s Pompeo’s message, delivered in Central Europe in February: Upholding democracy in each and every country is vital to human freedom. “President Trump must urge Prime Minister Orban to end Hungary’s anti-Ukraine policy at NATO, resolve concerns about the relocation of the Russian International Investment Bank to Budapest, ensure that Hungary’s ‘golden visas’ are not used to evade U.S. sanctions, and address document security problems to ensure the integrity of the visa waiver program. In addition, the president must prioritize meaningful democratic change in Hungary and encourage the Hungarian Government to repeal the 2017 and 2018 laws curtailing freedom of speech, assembly, and association.” U.S. authorities have identified at least 85 criminals who fraudulently obtained Hungarian passports to enter or attempt to enter the United States. At an April 2019 Helsinki Commission briefing, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the chairman of the International Investment Bank has long-standing ties to Russian intelligence agencies, raising concerns that the relocation of the bank from Moscow to Budapest could provide a platform for intelligence-gathering operations against U.S. allies. In April, U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker visited Budapest and urged Hungary to end its anti-Ukraine policy in NATO. In February, during a visit to Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.”

  • Power and Politics

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists explored the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019. This briefing also explored implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption.

  • Ukrainian Elections Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: POWER AND POLITICS Implications of Ukraine’s Presidential Elections Thursday, May 9, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019.  This briefing will explore implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement Natalie Sedletska, Journalist and Host, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Ukrainian Service Additional panelists may be added.

  • Hastings, Wicker, and Moore Mark the Anniversary of Joseph Stone’s Death In Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On the two-year anniversary of the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recalled Stone’s tragic death in the Russia-driven conflict and underlined that agreements to end the use of mines in the conflict must be respected.  Stone was killed on April 23, 2017, when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “We honor the ultimate price paid by Joseph Stone, an American who served the innocent civilians suffering from the senseless conflict Moscow has perpetuated in Ukraine,” said Chairman Hastings. “Men, women, and children near the contact line remain steps from oblivion wrought by the indiscriminate cruelty of landmines. This human cost of the Kremlin’s ambition is unacceptable.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) called on the Russian Government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in Stone’s death.   “Instead of continuing to fuel this war, Vladimir Putin and his proxies should live up to their promises under the Minsk Agreements and the Helsinki Accords and get out of Ukraine—including Crimea,” said Sen. Wicker. “The second anniversary of Joseph Stone’s death is a tragic reminder that Russia has not met its commitments on clearing areas of explosive remnants of war and preventing new mines from being laid in eastern Ukraine.” Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) praised Stone’s courage and criticized the pressure put on international monitors. “Joseph Stone, who was born in my district in Milwaukee, gave his life to help the world know the truth about the war in eastern Ukraine. OSCE monitors voluntarily put themselves at risk to document the day-to-day tragedies of a conflict that has killed thousands and affected millions more,” said Rep. Moore. “They do this important work despite facing severe threats of violence; these threats, including the laying of landmines such as the one that killed Joseph and continue to kill and maim innocents—must end.”  Eastern Ukraine is among the most heavily-mined regions in the world. According to Alexander Hug, former Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, mines and unexploded ordnance are the No. 2 cause of casualties in the war in Ukraine. Anti-vehicle mines are responsible for more deaths in the Donbas than anywhere else in the world.​ In the last year alone, at least 70 people—including 18 children—have been killed or injured by mines or unexploded ordinance in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. It currently fields roughly 800 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United States supports the SMM by providing 57 monitors (the largest contingent) and has contributed over $100 million to the mission since its inception.

  • First Person: #UkraineElections2019

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative   Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day. This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy. We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Developments in Hungary

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group at the German Marshall Fund; Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at Human Rights First; and Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute explored recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.” – Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, February 12, 2019 Mr. Rohac discussed Hungary’s measurable decline on various indicators of good governance and the rule of law; patterns of politically organized corruption; and the implications of developments in Hungary for the United States. He observed that Hungary has experienced a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance according to virtually any indicator, including the assessments of the World Bank, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. He noted that the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom places the protection of property rights in Hungary in the mostly unfree territory. This stems in part from the seizure of pension fund assets as well as the concentration of ownership in the hands of Fidesz-connected oligarchs. The same index notes a marked decline in government integrity measures, placing Hungary into the oppressed territory on those sub- indices, with a score dramatically worse than in 2009. While Mr. Rohac observed that corruption is a problem across central Europe and across post-communist countries, Hungary’s case is notable for the extent to which corruption has been embedded into the political system, centralized, connected to the ruling party, and has served as a mechanism of political patronage and political mobilization. “[T]here is something special about the nexus of legal patronage and graft and authoritarianism. The two cannot be separated.” Panelists also described something of a paradox. On the one hand, the Orban government has exploited EU funds to build its corrupt oligarchy. Tax and procurement-related irregularities have been cited by the EU anti-corruption agency OLAF as the source of millions in suspect deals involving Orban’s family and friends, many of which also involve Russian state actors. On the other hand, the EU – precisely because it is not a federal government but depends on the consent of the EU member states – has limited ability to rein in this corruption and hybrid forms of governance. Mr. Rohac asserted that this embrace of crony authoritarianism by Hungary is a direct threat to U.S. interests in the region as well as to the West’s interests more broadly. He rejected the notion that competing for positive influence in the region means we should not hold our allies to high standards. He suggested that such a view is enormously detrimental because it’s precisely the authoritarianism, the graft, and the cronyism that opens the way for foreign revisionist powers to enter Hungary and influence the country, pulling it away from the West.  “The U.S. stood by Central European nations as they liberated themselves from communism in the 1990s, in the 90s when they joined the ranks of self-governing free nations of the West,” he observed. “The idea that the U.S. should now either be silent or cheerleader for policies that are now driving Hungary away from the West strikes me as a particularly misguided one.” Ms. Corke described the concerns about trends in Hungary and other countries in the Euro-Atlantic region which led to the formation of a bipartisan group, the Transatlantic Democracy Group, focused on democratic erosion and the need for U.S. leadership.  She joined with 70 signers for NATO’s 70th anniversary on a declaration to reaffirm commitment to democracy.  Ms. Corke is sometimes asked, “why is your group so concerned about Hungary? It’s a small country. Why are you so concerned about Central European University?” She observed that Central European University is a joint American-Hungarian institution and Victor Orban’s campaign against it is a highly symbolic move against a vital institution founded to promote the transatlantic values of democracy, openness, and equality of opportunity and was therefore a direct challenge to the United States. She concluded that Moscow is using Hungary and other NATO members as backdoors of influence, and that Hungary’s centralized, top-down state has enabled an increasingly centralized, top-down system of corruption. Ms. Corke also suggested that a lesson learned from recent developments in the region is that transparency is a necessary, but alone insufficient, condition to fight corruption.  She asserted that the concept of a linear progression of democracy is outdated and new approaches to supporting civil society are needed. In addition, Ms. Hooper stated that while the Obama-era policy of limited high-level engagement precluded some of the Hungarian government’s controversial actions, it did not appear to motivate fundamental change. The Trump-era policy of transactional engagement devoid of values has fared no better, she said, and the U.S. should therefore re-examine its policy toward Hungary.  First, the United States should reinvest in democracy promotion.  Second, the United States should announce publicly that it is reintroducing support for civil society in the region, and specifically in Hungary, due to a decline in the government’s ability to or interest in protecting democratic institutions.  Third, Congress should be more vocal and pointed in expressing its concern and even alarm in Hungary’s antidemocratic movement and should support for individuals such as journalists or other members of watchdog organizations that are targeted by government campaigns or blacklists.  Finally, the United States should not shy away from applying targeted sanctions, such as the Global Magnitsky law, when clear lines are crossed. When visa bans were used against some officials in 2014, they had an impact in Hungary. Background materials available for the briefing included panelist biographies; Department of State materials including statements by Secretary Michael Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein; recent Helsinki commission statements and publications; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum FAQs on the Holocaust in Hungary.

  • Hastings, Wicker, Watkins, and Cardin Introduce Resolutions Celebrating Romani American Heritage

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage. They issued the following joint statement: “Roma enrich the fabric of our nation. They have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States since the colonial period, tying our country to Europe and building the transatlantic bond. Through this resolution, we celebrate our shared history and applaud the efforts to promote transnational cooperation among Roma at the historic First World Romani Congress on April 8, 1971.” In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage and International Roma Day, the resolutions commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” at Auschwitz when, on August 2-3, 1944, Nazis murdered between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children in gas chambers in a single night. They also commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its critically important role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating audiences about the genocide of Roma. April 8 is recognized as “International Roma Day” around the world. It celebrates Romani culture and raises awareness of the issues facing Romani people. 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Recent Developments in Hungary

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEVELOPMENTS IN HUNGARY Tuesday, April 9, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1539 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Democracy Working Group, German Marshall Fund Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society, Human Rights First Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

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