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In the News

Helsinki Commission leadership, members, and initiatives are frequently featured in both the U.S. and foreign press.

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  • Resolute in Russia

    A month after delivering his visionary inaugural address on the commitment of the United States to foster freedom and democracy, President Bush sat down yesterday at the Bratislava summit in Slovakia with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the architect of post-Soviet "managed" democracy. The Bush-Putin summit comes at a time when the Kremlin is on the offensive. It is moving to contain the burgeoning democracy in the former Soviet Union and to cement Russia's ties with those among the former Soviet republics which have the poorest human rights records. Russia is attempting to distance the United States from those countries. Of particular interest to us as chairman and co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Russian rhetoric assailing the democracy-promoting activities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has intensified. Moscow is now threatening to paralyze the OSCE by holding its budget hostage. Russia reportedly will not give consent to the budget unless a committee is created to review the electoral commitments of the OSCE. The committee would attempt to revisit and water down the longstanding commitments using the pretext of setting "minimum standards" for judging whether elections are indeed free and fair. Russia appears determined to undermine the democratic commitments that are at the very heart of the OSCE, the power of the ideals behind OSCE commitments Russia has agreed to support, including that the will of the people is the basis of legitimate government. Russia and its allies -- particularly the outpost of tyranny, Belarus -- have responded to the pro-democracy developments in Georgia and Ukraine by attacking the commitments of the OSCE. Russia, the other former Soviet states and all OSCE countries have formally agreed that a democracy based on the will of the people and expressed regularly through free and fair elections, is the only acceptable form of government for our nations. While claiming to observe the voluntary commitments accepted when their countries joined the OSCE in 1992, most leaders within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have remained in control by rigging elections and excluding potential rivals, sometimes using criminal means, which is in contradiction to the commitments. Since the late 1990s, Russian-led observer delegations from the CIS routinely approved of elections in CIS countries, which OSCE-led observers overtly criticized or damned with quiet condemnation. We understand that some members of the OSCE in Vienna are inclined to pursue a policy of engaging Russia on the issue, in the hopes of finding some common ground. While we are not adverse to engagement with the Russians, the fundamentals of democratization and elections must not be fodder for appeasement or used as bargaining chips. Indeed, we have already found common ground: the considerable body of existing OSCE commitments on democracy that our countries have signed and that Mr. Putin and his shrinking circle of allies seem intent on scuttling. We must not ignore the fact that human rights, civil and religious liberties and media freedom have been gravely undermined on Mr. Putin's watch. The deteriorating human-rights trends give cause for serious concern. As Mr. Bush directly declared in his inaugural address, "we will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people." The Bratislava summit will provide a timely opportunity for the president to underscore this point face to face with his Russian counterpart. It is also essential that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice respond resolutely to this challenge, insisting that there be no retreat from OSCE commitments and principles to placate Mr. Putin. Moscow may be intent on precipitating a crisis in the OSCE, or even threatening its very existence. Nevertheless, having stood firm against rigged elections in Ukraine, the United States must not be bullied into concessions. Watering down the democratic content of the OSCE would not only undermine the organization's reason for being, but would undercut the very people struggling to be free.

  • Democracy in the CIS

    In the last year, a political earthquake has struck the countries of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and the ongoing Orange Revolution in Ukraine are a direct challenge to ruling elites in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. They also threaten to derail Russian President Vladimir Putin's policy of retaining as much control as possible over the former Soviet empire. Throughout this region, ex-communist rulers allied with oligarchic groups have, to varying degrees, seized control of their countries' economies and political arenas. While claiming to observe the democracy commitments voluntarily accepted when their countries joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1992, these leaders have remained in power by rigging elections and excluding potential rivals, sometimes using any means necessary. Executive control of the legislative and judicial branches of power, as well as the state's coercive apparatus, has made it possible to largely intimidate the public out of politics, which has remained an "insider's-only" game. This arrangement has served the Kremlin well. Building alliances with leaders of dubious legitimacy seemed an ideal way to stem the "invasion of Western influence" and its annoying imperative of free and fair elections. Since the late 1990s, Russian-led observer delegations from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) routinely approved of elections in CIS countries which OSCE monitors criticized or damned with faint praise. In this way and others, Moscow showed other CIS capitals that, unlike the United States, Russia would not question their right to rule by hook or by crook and was a reliable bulwark, unlike the preachy West. Consequently, the democratic revolution which swept Georgia last year horrified the leaders of other former Soviet republics. For the first time in ex-Soviet space, opposition leaders united to mobilize a broad-based protest movement that overturned the results of a rigged election. The emergence of Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia's Rose Revolution and was subsequently elected president in a landslide, signaled more than the end of Eduard Shevardnadze's corrupt, moribund regime: Mr. Saakashvili symbolized the first popular revolt against the system of pseudo-democracy prevalent on post-Soviet soil. What is now transpiring in Ukraine is the logical continuation of what began last year in the Caucasus. And every successful precedent emboldens opposition movements in other CIS countries and gives hope to impoverished, frustrated and seemingly apathetic publics, proving that real change is possible. The picture of a victorious Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili ushering in a New Year in Kiev's Independence Square no doubt causes angst in other CIS leaders, even as it inspires those living under repressive regimes elsewhere in the region. In a telling twist, CIS election observers for the first time criticized an election held in the former Soviet Union, decrying the conduct of Ukraine's Dec. 26 repeat runoff and questioning the legitimacy of the poll. For the Kremlin, Georgia's Rose Revolution was bad enough; the Orange Revolution in Ukraine is a nightmare. Apart from the stunning loss of face suffered by Mr. Putin, who openly campaigned for pro-Russian candidateViktor Yanukovich, "People power" can no longer be dismissed as an anomaly or a deviation possible only in small, unstable, atypical Georgia in the wild Caucasus. Now, "fraternal" Slavs in large, European Ukraine also insisted that elections be fair and reflect the voters' will. The handwriting on the Kremlin wall is clear: Peaceful popular protests backed by OSCE standards on elections can bring down entrenched corrupt regimes that rely on vote fraud to remain in power. Where will this contagion stop? A worried Moscow has responded by attacking the OSCE. Russia, the other former Soviet states and all OSCE countries have formally agreed that democracy, based on the will of the people expressed regularly through free and fair elections, is the only acceptable form of government for our nations. But with its alliance system in jeopardy, Russia last July orchestrated a CIS assault on OSCE's "imbalanced" stress on democracy and human rights, followed by a broadside in September against, among other things, allegedly skewed OSCE standards on elections. (In response, 106 human-rights advocates, mostly from CIS countries, issued a sharp rebuttal to these attacks at the OSCE's main human- rights meeting of the year held in October.) Moscow is now threatening to paralyze the consensus-based OSCE if the organization does not effectively revisit and dilute longstanding election commitments, under the pretext of setting "minimum standards" by which to judge whether elections are indeed free and fair. The Russians are also pushing to de-emphasize human rights and democracy in the work of OSCE's field missions in CIS states. Recognizing the power of the ideals behind OSCE commitments that it signed up to, Russia appears determined to dilute the democracy commitments that are at the very heart of the OSCE. It is essential that the United States respond resolutely to this challenge, insisting that there be no retreat from OSCE commitments and principles to placate Mr. Putin, the patron saint of post-Soviet "managed" democracy. Moscow may be intent on precipitating a crisis in the OSCE, or even threatening its very existence. Nevertheless, having stood firm against rigged elections in Ukraine, the United States and its democratic OSCE partners should not be bullied into concessions. Watering down the democracy content of the OSCE would not only undermine the organization's raison d'etre, but undercut the very people struggling to be free.

  • Moscow Should Engage the OSCE in Resolving the Chechen Problem

    It’s impossible to achieve progress and prosperity by means of the misguided notion of so-called “managed democracy” Having been propelled from relative obscurity to the presidency of the Russian Federation four years ago, Vladimir Putin is the undisputed leader of his country. His power further consolidated by recent, albeit flawed parliamentary elections, Putin is poised to secure a second mandate in presidential elections scheduled for mid-March. However, with his position secure, the question remains as to how President Putin will wield his considerable power to shape Russia domestically and internationally. The role Russia chooses to play in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will also be an important indicator of the degree to which President Putin is interested in pursuing productive partnership with the West. Federation Council International Relations Chairman Margelov recently suggested that the OSCE no longer served Russia's interests. He suggests that the raison d'etre for the OSCE -- which consisted originally in Soviet willingness to discuss democratization and human rights in return for Western agreement to arms control talks -- became invalid with the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, he argues that NATO's preponderance in political-military issues, combined with the EU's weight on economic issues, has turned the OSCE's previous multidimensional approach to a geographically and functionally discriminating emphasis on democracy in the former Soviet space. But this is a false argument, since it is also in Russia's interest that its neighbors become stable and prosperous democracies. Rather than being viewed as a challenge to Russia’s interests, OSCE principles and standards – which Moscow helped shape over the years – should be seen as essential tools in strengthening security at home and abroad. As such, the OSCE provides an important and useful framework for building a stronger Russia and enhancing its leadership. Russia should use the organization to its own advantage, and our common democratic agenda, rather than seeing it as a threat to Russian interests. Indeed, we have many times seen that when Russia chooses to play a positive role it can be the best of partners, actively cooperating with OSCE efforts to combat international terrorism and human trafficking, and promoting a strong role for the organization in economic and environmental affairs. From the first, Russian military forces have played a valuable role in post-Dayton peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. Recent steps by President Putin and the Duma to strengthen legislation against the plague of human trafficking is a timely example of positive leadership Russia can exert on a pressing human rights issue. Such steps are not only in the best interest of the Russian people, but enhance Russia’s standing and prestige throughout the world. The same can be said for President Putin’s strong statements condemning anti-Semitism. At home, President Putin’s stated objective is to build a “united Russia.” If this is to be more than a mere slogan, he will have to choose between pursuing this goal by either fostering freedom or resorting to force –i.e. embracing elements of pluralistic civil society or marginalizing, if not eliminating, them. A rapidly disappearing independent national broadcast media, actions against human rights and pro-democracy NGOs, and manipulations of elections must be reversed in keeping with Russia’s OSCE commitments if the country is to play the leadership role that it could and should play. Those commitments offer a far better blueprint for progress and prosperity than does the misguided notion of so-called “managed democracy” popular among some political circles close to Putin. The OSCE can also be an important resource for resolving issues of concern to the international community. Moscow should seriously engage the OSCE in efforts to bring about a political solution to the current Chechen conflict now entering its fifth year. Although Russia pledged to withdraw its forces from the Transdniestria region of Moldova at the 1999 OSCE Summit, those troops have not been withdrawn and efforts to reach a settlement have been complicated by Russian “free-lance” negotiating outside the agreed international framework. Russian forces also remain deployed on the ground in Georgia, a policy which has tended to exacerbate the situation in that country rent by conflict and division. Blatant assistance to separatists in Georgia makes Russia look like a bully and a troublemaker and lowers her prestige internationally. Russian status was further undermined by the contretemps with Ukraine over Tuzla Island in late October. Russia has considerable assets at its disposal – including a seasoned diplomatic corps – to advance the aims of the OSCE in overcoming the legacy of the past and enhancing security through the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. But through steps like those recounted above, Moscow has raised questions about her intentions and created concern, lowering her ability to persuade OSCE partners of her positive political motivations in the region. The comprehensive nature and membership of the OSCE offer Russia a unique framework within which to enhance security while advancing cooperation. When Russia has been a creative, energetic partner in the organization, the Russian people have gained respect and strength. Our common goal in 2004 should be to seek ways to strengthen cooperation. Everyone will gain. View the article in Russian.  

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