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What’s really behind Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act
The Washington Post
Vladimir Kara-Murza
Friday, July 20, 2018

Standing by President Trump’s side in Helsinki for their first bilateral summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made what Trump described as an “incredible” offer: He would help U.S. investigators gain access to Russian intelligence officers indicted for the 2016 election hacking, on one small condition. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate and they would question [U.S.] officials … who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” Putin said, producing the name to indicate what actions he had in mind: “Mr. Browder.”

Bill Browder, an American-born financier, came to Russia in the 1990s. The grandson of a former general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Browder by his own admission wanted to become “the biggest capitalist in Russia.” He succeeded and was for a decade the country’s largest portfolio foreign investor.

Whatever the sins of Russia’s freewheeling capitalism, Browder’s real crime in the eyes of the Kremlin came later, after he had been expelled from Russia in 2005. In 2008, his Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a tax scam involving government officials that defrauded Russian taxpayers of $230 million. He did what any law-abiding citizen would, reporting the crime to the relevant authorities. In return, he was arrested and held in detention without trial for almost a year. He was beaten and died on Nov. 16, 2009, at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison under mysterious circumstances. Officials involved in his case received awards and promotions. In a chilling act worthy of Kafka, the only trial held in the Magnitsky case was a posthumous sentencing of himself — the only trial against a dead man in the history of Russia.

It was then that Browder turned from investment to full-time advocacy, traveling the world to persuade one Western parliament after another to pass a measure that was as groundbreaking as it would appear obvious: a law, commemoratively named the Magnitsky Act, that bars individuals (from Russia and elsewhere) who are complicit in human rights abuses and corruption from traveling to the West, owning assets in the West and using the financial system of the West. Boris Nemtsov, then Russia’s opposition leader (who played a key role in convincing Congress to pass the law in 2012), called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign Parliament.”

It was the smartest approach to sanctions. It avoided the mistake of targeting Russian citizens at large for the actions of a small corrupt clique in the Kremlin and placed responsibility directly where it is due. It was also the most effective approach. The people who are in charge of Russia today like to pose as patriots, but in reality, they care little about the country. They view it merely as a looting ground, where they can amass personal fortunes at the expense of Russian taxpayers and then transfer those fortunes to the West. In one of his anti-corruption reports, Nemtsov detailed the unexplained riches attained by Putin’s personal friends such as Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk and the Rotenberg brothers, noting that they are likely “no more that the nominal owners … and the real ultimate beneficiary is Putin himself.” Similar suspicions were voiced after the publication of the 2016 Panama Papers, which showed a $2 billion offshore trail leading to another close Putin friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin. Some of the funds in his accounts were linked with money from the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky.

Volumes of research, hours of expert testimony and countless policy recommendations have been dedicated to finding effective Western approaches to Putin’s regime. The clearest and the most convincing answer was provided, time and again, by the Putin regime itself. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin tasked his foreign ministry with trying to stop; it was the Magnitsky Act that was openly tied to the ban on child adoptions; it was the Magnitsky Act that was the subject of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting attended by a Kremlin-linked lawyer; it is advocating for the Magnitsky Act that may soon land any Russian citizen in prison. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin named as the biggest threat to his regime as he stood by Trump’s side in Helsinki.

After the Trump-Putin meeting, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office released the names of U.S. citizens it wants to question as supposed associates of Browder. The list leaves no doubt as to the nature of the “crime.” It includes Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia policy at the Obama White House and later U.S. Ambassador in Moscow who oversaw the “compiling of memos to the State Department … on the investigation in the Magnitsky case.” It includes David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, who, as president of Freedom House between 2010 and 2014, was one of the most effective advocates for the Magnitsky Act. Perhaps most tellingly, it includes Kyle Parker, now chief of staff at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who, as the lead Russia staffer at the commission, wrote the bill that subsequently became the Magnitsky Act.

Vladimir Putin has left no doubt: The biggest threat to his regime is the Magnitsky Act, which stops its beneficiaries from doing what has long become their raison d’être — stealing in Russia and spending in the West. It is time for more Western nations to adopt this law — and for the six countries that already have it to implement it with vigor and resolve.

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Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), co-chair of the bipartisan Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe; Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), ranking member of the commission; and Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), a member of the caucus. “All around the world, countries are being looted and the most vulnerable people victimized by their elites,” Cohen said. “These kleptocrats then launder that money to the West, where they enjoy the high life — spending the money on luxury cars, penthouses, jets and opulent parties. Some also spend it on intervening in our democracy … working to undermine the rule of law. In order to fight corruption, we must curb the enablers.” If passed, the law would give the Treasury Department until December 2023 to create anti-money-laundering rules for the gatekeeper industries. A new national security task force would oversee the effort. After 9/11, banks — criticized for serving and shielding terrorists, drug traffickers and dictators — shored up their due-diligence practices. Financial crime experts say that such measures encouraged wrongdoers to find other financial gatekeepers, including the U.S. trust industry. “Global criminals, kleptocrats, dictators, they’re going to look for new ways to launder their money and we’re going to try to close them down, but the gap right now is just massive — we basically left our financial defenses wide open,” said Paul Massaro, a congressional anti-corruption adviser who helped work on the proposed legislation. In South Dakota, now considered a top destination for global wealth, trust companies oversee more than $360 billion in assets, state data shows. The Post and the ICIJ investigation identified a series of international clients who moved their assets into trusts in South Dakota in recent years, including a Colombian textile mogul implicated in an international scheme to launder drug proceeds and a Brazilian orange juice executive accused of colluding to underpay local farmers. “Regulating professional enablers is how the United States could stop being the world’s top offshore financial haven, begin treating dirty money as a leading national threat and start demonstrating how democracies can deliver against corrupt adversaries and powerful special interests,” said Josh Rudolph, a member of the National Security Council staff in the Obama and Trump administrations who recently published an analysis on the role of financial gatekeepers. The proposed legislation comes as new information surfaces about Abdullah’s steps to contain the impact of the Pandora revelations before the articles about him were published. Newly filed U.S. federal disclosure forms show that Abdullah hired a law firm and a crisis management public relations company after learning that his use of shell companies to purchase luxury properties costing more than $106 million was about to become public. The moves reflect apparent concern about the potential fallout both in Washington and in Jordan, where there has been scant coverage of the Pandora stories and at least one news outlet said it was contacted by the Jordanian intelligence service and told to take down an article about the Abdullah revelations. The forms were filed by DLA Piper, a law firm hired by Abdullah, to comply with laws requiring U.S. firms to disclose when they have been hired to represent a foreign government. A letter attached to the filing shows that the DLA Piper was hired at an hourly rate of $1,335 to represent Abdullah “related to potential defamation and other legal remedies associated with inquiries and/or articles concerning His Majesty.” A lawyer for DLA Piper did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The firm was quoted in The Post as well as news stories saying that Abdullah had not misused aid money and that his use of offshore companies was driven by security concerns. A second federal filing shows that Abdullah and DLA Piper also hired Stripe Theory, an Atlanta-based consulting and public relations firm that describes itself online as a provider of strategic marketing advice “when your brand is on the line.” Craig Kronenberger, listed on the letter as an executive at Stripe Theory, did not respond to an email sent to his company address requesting comment.​​ On Sunday, The Post and the ICIJ broke the story about Abdullah’s property purchases in the United States. All told, 150 media partners contributed to the Pandora Papers, which revealed the financial secrets of 35 current and former world leaders and more than 330 politicians and public officials with assets around the world, including in the United States. “If we are serious about fighting dictatorship, we need U.S. professionals to do the most basic due diligence — no American should be accepting money from Chinese Communist Party operatives, Iranian mullahs, Russian oligarchs or others,” Wilson said. “The Enablers Act is a critical national security measure.”

  • Chairman Cardin on Impact of Pandora Papers

    “This unprecedented investigation should further drive the need for transparency and delving deeper into such international transactions.” WASHINGTON—Following the release of the Pandora Papers, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, issued the following statement: “The Pandora Papers are a wake-up call for anyone who cares about the future of democracy. The sheer scale of questionable financial flows entering the United States from abroad is astonishing and warrants further review. Kleptocrats from dictatorships and struggling democracies have stolen untold sums and potentially have laundered them through our country and those of our allies. “Such activity poses a direct threat to U.S. national security by hollowing out the rule of law abroad and threatening to do the same at home. It is more important than ever that we increase transparency of such transactions, purge dirty money from our system, and ensure that the United States of America denies kleptocrats safe haven. Our nation must continue to stand with the victims of kleptocracy. This means tackling the problem of the enablers of kleptocracy.” The Pandora Papers represent the largest investigation ever into the true workings of the offshore economy. They reveal how “the United States, in particular, has become an increasingly attractive destination for hidden wealth.” These investigations on the hidden wealth of foreign dictators, their associates, and other corrupt officials include documents from 206 U.S. trusts in 15 states and Washington, D.C., and 22 U.S. trustee companies. South Dakota, in particular, was singled out for criticism. Lawyers also have been central to creating the offshore system, which is behind the ability to transfer illicit wealth anonymously and easily. Three hundred politicians and public officials from more than 90 countries and territories are identified in the Pandora Papers. Two members of Putin’s inner circle and individuals listed on the Navalny 35 list of human rights abusers and kleptocrats, Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko, used offshore companies and enablers to engage in a $230 million sweetheart real estate deal, and received hundreds of millions of dollars in suspicious “loans,” respectively. Azerbaijan’s kleptocratic ruling family, the Aliyevs, used offshore companies and enablers to obtain $700 million worth of real estate in London. Chinese Communist Party politician Feng Qiya used an offshore company and enablers to trade U.S. stocks with $2 million worth of illicit funds. The Helsinki Commission recently held a public briefing on the enablers of kleptocracy, examining how they put U.S. national security at risk and how they could effectively be regulated.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Russian Obstruction of OSCE Human Rights Work

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian intransigence blocking the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed that the HDIM failed to start this week as planned, due solely to Russian intransigence blocking the meeting. The Kremlin has reached a new low in its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s work to promote human rights and democracy. “Russia clearly fears criticism of its worsening human rights record and fraudulent elections from the OSCE, other OSCE participating States, and civil society. The HDIM, through its thorough review of states’ human rights records and its inclusion of civil society, is a crown jewel of the OSCE’s human rights work. “We urge Russia to change its position and we expect the HDIM to be held in accordance with the agreement adopted in Helsinki in 1992 by the heads of state of all OSCE participating States—including Russia—that established the HDIM. For our part, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations, including in the Russian Federation.” The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy-related commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • Enabling Kleptocracy

    Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. This public briefing brought together four experts on the enabling industry to discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. At this briefing, four experts on the enabling industry came together to discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Paul Massaro opened the briefing by explaining that currently only banks are required to do due diligence on the source of funds; no other industries are similarly regulated, which allows them to accept and launder dirty money with impunity. Massaro explained that actions in the 116th Congress abolished anonymous shell companies and made it harder to launder money; now, it is necessary that we curb the enablers. Lakshmi Kumar, policy director at Global Financial Integrity, focused on the real estate market. According to a recent GFI report, more than $2 billion of laundered money flows through the real estate market each year, with 80 percent from foreign sources spread across more than 26 countries. The majority comes from high net worth and politically connected individuals who rely on an “arsenal” of enablers to help guide them through the process of laundering money. These enablers include lawyers, real estate agents, real estate developers, and investment advisors who generally are either directly complicit or willfully blind. “The absence of rules and regulations around these enablers is what creates this environment,” Kumar said. Journalist Casey Michel highlighted the case study of Teodorin Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s authoritarian leader, who came to the United States to launder millions of dollars in illicit funds. An American lawyer, Michael Berger, helped him circumvent U.S. anti-money laundering efforts. Josh Rudolph, malign finance fellow at the German Marshall Fund, presented several policy options for tackling money laundering in the United States and highlighted three sectors of focus for the U.S. Treasury Department’s efforts: investment fund advisors, real estate professionals, and the art industry. He offered a blueprint for the Biden administration to counter such enablers by requiring legal professionals, company formation agents, accountants, and covert PR and marketing firms to comply with anti-money laundering rules, as well as by repealing exemptions for real estate professionals, sellers of yachts and planes, as well as crypto and other currency businesses. Transparency International’s Co-Founder Frank Vogl discussed the transactional nature of U.S. and Western foreign policy. Vogl explained that major banks found to launder money in the U.S. most often receive small fines, settle out of court, and go without the punishment of any executives in the matter. Money laundering fines have simply become the cost of doing business. Vogl also expressed the need to investigate legal finance, specifically the bond market, which allows millions to flow to authoritarian regimes. He also argued that more money should flow towards enforcing existing laws, rather than just passing new laws. Asked how money laundering and kleptocracy hurt Americans in a tangible way, Kumar responded that the rental and lease market in the U.S. is impacted negatively by kleptocrat real estate purchases. Michel added that oligarchs’ investments into the Rust Belt and other economically depressed areas in the U.S. were purely to hide money from international investigators and have led to the implosion of the broader economic base in the region. On the question of how to keep anti-money laundering efforts bipartisan, Vogl and Rudolph agreed that the problem is bipartisan at heart and should be viewed as the national security threat that it is. Finally, asked if the world bank, IMF, and other international financial institutions enable kleptocracy, Frank Vogl answered in the affirmative and called for higher transparency among international financial institutions to effectively tackle money laundering and kleptocracy.

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes New Senior State Department Advisor, Senior Policy Advisors

    WASHINGTON—The leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is pleased to welcome Edward A. White, Michael Hikari Cecire, and Bakhti Nishanov to the Helsinki Commission staff. White has been appointed as the commission’s senior State Department advisor, and Cecire and Nishanov join the commission as senior policy advisors. “On behalf of the entire bipartisan, bicameral commission, I am delighted to welcome Ed, Michael, and Bakhti to the Helsinki Commission team,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD). “They each bring extensive experience and expertise to their assignments at the commission. I am confident that their contributions will be invaluable to the commission as we work to promote human rights, justice, and security across the OSCE region.” Edward A. White, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor, serves as the Helsinki Commission’s senior State Department advisor. From 2019 to 2021, he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau. Immediately prior to his Pentagon assignment, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Beirut. Earlier assignments included the State Department’s Office of Levant Affairs; the United States Mission to NATO in Brussels; and U.S. Embassies in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, and Caracas. Since the Helsinki Commission was founded in 1976, career foreign service officers have been assigned to the agency to help foster contact between Congress and the State Department, and to provide political and diplomatic counsel in areas related to the monitoring and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. Michael Hikari Cecire most recently served as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Previously he was a policy advisor, strategic researcher, and Eurasia regional analyst supporting the Department of Defense and other U.S. Government agencies. Cecire also has served as an international security fellow at New America, a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and as a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. At the Helsinki Commission, Cecire is the senior policy advisor specializing in the Caucasus, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and the conflict in Ukraine. Bakhti Nishanov joins the Helsinki Commission from the International Republican Institute where, as Deputy Director for Eurasia, he helped oversee a portfolio of democracy and governance programs. His previous experience includes roles with Freedom House, the World Bank, and USAID. At the Helsinki Commission, he is the senior policy advisor covering Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and the OSCE’s Mediterranean Partners.

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine How Western Enablers Support Kleptocrats

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: ENABLING KLEPTOCRACY Wednesday, September 29, 2021 1:00 p.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3kwlHbz Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. This public briefing will bring together four experts on the enabling industry. They will discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director, Global Financial Integrity; Author, Acres of Money Laundering: Why U.S. Real Estate is a Kleptocrat’s Dream Casey Michel, Journalist; Author, American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World's Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History Josh Rudolph, German Marshall Fund, Malign Finance Fellow; Author, Regulating the Enablers: How the U.S. Treasury Should Prioritize Imposing Rules on Professionals Who Endanger National Security by Handling Dirty Money Frank Vogl, Co-Founder, Transparency International, Partnership for Transparency Fund; Author, The Enablers – How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption - Endangering Our Democracy  

  • Remembering Diplomat George S. Vest

    Mr. COHEN. Madam Speaker, I rise today to remember and praise the contributions George S. Vest made to U.S. foreign policy. Vest had a long career as a U.S. diplomat during the Cold War. He died on August 24 at the age of 102. Among Ambassador Vest's accomplishments was representing the United States while initiating the 35-country multilateral diplomatic process that led to the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975. This process continues to this day as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based largely in Vienna with 57 participating countries. History records the U.S. approach to those negotiations, a Soviet initiative, in late 1972 and 1973, as one of damage control, but Vest, his team and his successors did better than that. Working with our friends and allies in Europe, and engaging our Soviet and Warsaw Pact adversaries directly, they laid the groundwork for overcoming the East-West divide with a direct and frank dialogue based on a comprehensive definition of security that included respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the time, addressing human rights issues in other countries was something diplomats hoped to avoid; over time it became recognized as essential to their security and developing relations. The negotiations also produced confidence- building measures designed to lessen the risk of accidental war during a time of heightened tensions. Although neither Vest nor most of his fellow diplomats may have foreseen its potential value, their work eventually helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end 30 years ago, and the OSCE continues to serve as a forum for addressing tension and instability in Europe to this day. Even in the darker days of the Cold War, this diplomatic process showed many courageous human rights advocates--private citizens--that they were not alone. It gave them the hope to keep fighting for a better world. As long as it remains true to its original Helsinki principles, it still does, and always will. As the Co-Chairman of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), better known as the Helsinki Commission, I believe it is important that we recognize George Vest's early efforts. The U.S. Helsinki Commission was founded in 1976 and has since helped to ensure that the multilateral diplomatic process Vest started reflects not only U.S. interests but those of any country--indeed any person--who values freedom and democracy. As the elections just held in Russia demonstrate, work still remains. George Vest was a combat veteran of World War II and later served in various diplomatic positions beyond those related to Helsinki, including as advisor to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the State Department's liaison to the Defense Department, spokesman for the State Department Under Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Vest ended his career at the State Department as director general of the Foreign Service, recruiting and selecting future American diplomats. Our debt to this fine public servant, and his legacy of promoting peace over decades, is boundless. I thank his living sons, George S. Vest IV and Henry Vest, for their father's historic service to our country.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

  • Repression in Belarus Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SEEKING JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN BELARUS Tuesday, September 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than a year has passed since mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. In the meantime, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime cling to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. As Lukashenko lashes out at the West—even engineering the forced landing of an EU flight to abduct a journalist and sending overwhelming numbers of migrants into the EU via Belarus—the exiled leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been engaging the world on her country’s behalf, calling for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for the repressive regime. Expert witnesses will provide updates on the current situation in Belarus, including the state of media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Serge Kharytonau, Media Expert, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Tatsiana Khomich, Coordination Council Representative for political prisoners, Viktar Babaryka Team Coordinator, and sister of political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University Siarhej Zikratski, Representative on Legal Affairs, Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

  • Congress takes aim at kleptocracy

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers is gearing up to make 2021 the year Congress has the bipartisan support necessary to pass sweeping legislation to fight kleptocracy. On Sept. 10, Reps. Steve Cohen, the U.S. Helsinki Commission cochair, and the committee’s ranking member, Joe Wilson, introduced the Counter-Kleptocracy Act. The legislation consolidates seven bipartisan bills that aim to tackle corruption and illicit financial flows, all of which lawmakers introduced in the past year. The Counter-Kleptocracy Act now has 17 bipartisan cosponsors. It includes legislation enabling the administration to name and shame kleptocrats banned from the U.S. and creates a public website documenting the amount of money stolen by corrupt officials in each country, among other initiatives. The game plan is to leverage the bipartisan support for the bills in the House and Senate, and to include the bills in the National Defense Authorization Act this year or next. Several of the measures have already been added to the most recent version of the House bill. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, many lawmakers in Washington recognize that, rather than adopting democratic norms and practices, corrupt officials and kleptocrats from abroad have influenced the U.S. political system and undermined national security by funneling money stolen from their own citizens into the U.S. With this in mind, fighting kleptocracy is becoming one of the standout issues that Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree about tackling. “We’ve never had more momentum on this than we have now,” said Paul Massaro, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, who has been advocating for anti-corruption efforts in Congress for a decade. “If you told national security experts in 2014 or 2015 that corruption is a national security threat, you would get blank looks. Now Congress and the president are calling it a national security threat.” The Biden administration released a memorandum establishing the fight against corruption as a core national security interest in June. Members of Congress say they wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. “From my experience as a former CIA case officer and from my work on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it is very clear that corruption at home and abroad is a national security threat,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, one of the bill’s cosponsors. Rep. Katie Porter, another cosponsor, added that anti-corruption efforts at home can help advance U.S. interests abroad. “Americans know that corruption makes government less representative, less transparent, and less responsive to people’s needs. That’s true everywhere there is government corruption, including in many countries where it poses a threat to our foreign policy and national security goals,” Porter said. Experts say former President Trump’s administration played a crucial role in highlighting the dangers of kleptocracy and raising awareness about corruption. “I think one of the reasons that we’ve seen enormous momentum in Washington is that the U.S. had a very unique experience over the past several years with a president who was so saturated in and benefited significantly from these types of pro-kleptocracy or kleptocratic services,” said Casey Michel, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute's Kleptocracy Initiative and author of the book American Kleptocracy. “Trump was one of the first global leaders to emerge from one of these pro-kleptocracy industries. That is, the American luxury-real-estate industry and its marriage with anonymous shell companies,” Michel added. What’s more, it’s becoming apparent that global kleptocracy affects the lives of the people that Congress members represent. When Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky laundered millions of dollars through real estate in Cleveland, for example, it stymied economic growth in the area, Michel says. “They used all of this looted wealth and bought up commercial real estate, factories, and manufacturing plants that were really the life blood of these small communities, and they left these buildings to rot,” Michel said. “So instead of being a revitalization campaign and bringing jobs back, they are just dead weight.” Meanwhile, the rise of illiberalism and anti-democratic regimes from Hungary to Venezuela has also played a role in calling attention to illicit financial flows, lawmakers argue. “With authoritarianism on a troubling rise around the globe, the United States must do everything humanly possible to root out foreign corruption and kleptocracy—which is the preferred fuel of a tyrant’s rise to, and hold on, power,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. “The Counter-Kleptocracy Act is critical to America’s national security and the defense of democracy-loving nations across the world,” Cleaver added. Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also introduced bills included in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act because of concern for rising authoritarianism. “As corrupt regimes worldwide seek to undermine the rule of law, the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act of 2021 represents a step in the right direction in order to hold kleptocrats accountable,” Rubio said, referring to a bill that would create a public Justice Department website documenting the amount of money stolen by corrupt officials in each country and recovered by the U.S. In general, U.S. counter kleptocracy initiatives fall into three categories. Some work to push dirty money out of the U.S. financial system by enforcing beneficial ownership transparency or requiring lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate agents, and other gatekeepers to verify the source of their clients’ income. Advocates say more efforts are needed on this front, including legislation imposing gatekeeper requirements. Other efforts aim to bolster the rule of law and tackle corruption abroad by abolishing tax havens and making it more difficult for corrupt individuals to use anonymous shell companies based in foreign jurisdictions. Another category of anti-corruption efforts, led in large part by the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, include dismantling kleptocratic networks by issuing sanctions, visa bans, or indictments. The legislation in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act focuses largely on these latter efforts. For example, the Foreign Corruption Accountability Act authorizes visa bans on foreign nationals who use state power to engage in acts of corruption and the Revealing and Explaining Visa Exclusions for Accountability and Legitimacy Act enables the executive branch to reveal the names of human-rights abusers and kleptocrats banned from the U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who introduced two of the initiatives in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act, noted that the bills have support in the Senate. “I am proud that two of my initiatives, the Combating Global Corruption Act and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, have been included in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act. A third, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, is also moving in the House. All three bills have momentum in the Senate as well,” Cardin said. “By passing these pieces of legislation, we create the tools and authorities necessary to confront modern dictatorship.” Cohen, who introduced the package, also said he’s counting on his colleagues to back the initiative. “All seven of these bills are bipartisan and they are good bills,” Cohen said. “I don’t know of a single member of Congress who publicly supports corruption or kleptocracy. Does that mean there won’t be pushback? Maybe not. I have been surprised before. But I hope that my colleagues in Congress will recognize how important this bill is and lend their support.”

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