Title

Asset Recovery in OSCE Region to be Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

WASHINGTON —The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following staff-led briefing:

"Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region:
Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens"

Thursday, June 1, 2017
10:30 AM – 11:30 AM
Dirksen Senate Office Building
Room G11

Combating corruption has been an essential element of the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for decades.  This has involved a multitude of activities, including the exchange of information to identify, trace, and suppress money laundering. But what happens with the corrupt assets recovered from such operations?

This briefing will explore the historical context for asset recovery as an integral part of the global fight against corruption, with a special focus on the OSCE region. Briefers will discuss corruption prevention mechanisms in the OSCE and beyond, the U.S. national interest in countering corruption, and methods of ensuring responsible repatriation.

The following experts are scheduled to participate:

  • Charles Davidson, Executive Director of the Kleptocracy Initiative, Hudson Institute
  • Brian Campbell, U.S.-based Attorney
  • Ken Hurwitz, Senior Managing Legal Officer on Anticorruption, Open Society Justice Initiative
  • Moderator: Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor, Helsinki Commission
Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
Relevant issues: 
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  • Bill Browder, Putin Enemy No. 1

    The harrowing tale of Bill Browder—how an American-born businessman became an enemy of the Russian state, how he has to live in constant fear, never knowing if the long arm of the Kremlin will snatch him, or kill him—is its own kind of daily terror. But what Browder’s story tells us about the way Vladimir Putin operates, and what he might want from this country, should scare us all. William Browder took his family on vacation in July, though he won't say where because that is one of those extraneous bits of personal information that could, in a roundabout way, get him bundled off to a Siberian prison or, possibly, killed. For eight years, he's been jamming up the gears of Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic machine, a job that seems to often end in jail or death, both of which he'd very much like to avoid. He'll concede, at least, that his leisure travels took him from London, where he lives, through Chicago, where he changed planes. As he walked through a terminal at O'Hare, he got a call from a New York Times reporter named Jo Becker. "Do you know anything," she asked, "about a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya?" Browder stopped short. "Yes," he said. "I know a lot about her." One of the most important things he knew was that Veselnitskaya had spent many dollars and many hours trying to convince Washington that Browder is a criminal. More than a decade ago, Browder was the largest individual foreign investor in Russia, managing billions in his hedge fund. Then, in 2009, one of his attorneys was tortured to death in a Moscow jail after exposing a massive tax fraud committed by Russian gangsters. His name was Sergei Magnitsky, and Browder has spent the years since trying to hold accountable anyone connected to Sergei's death. The most significant way is through the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a 2012 U.S. law that freezes the assets and cripples the travel of specific Russians, many of whom have allegedly laundered millions of dollars in the West. The Kremlin hates that law. Putin's hold on power requires the loyalty of dozens of wealthy oligarchs and thousands of complicit functionaries, and their loyalty, in turn, requires Putin to protect the cash they've stashed overseas. Putin hates the law so much that he retaliated by banning Americans from adopting Russian children—yes, by holding orphans hostage—and has said that overturning the Magnitsky Act is a top priority. That's where Veselnitskaya comes in. As a lawyer, she represented a Russian businessman trying to recover $14 million frozen by the Magnitsky Act. More important, she was involved in an extensive 2016 lobbying and public-relations campaign to weaken or eliminate the act, in large part by recasting Browder as a villain who conned Congress into passing it. That was not empty political spin for an American audience: The Russians really do want Browder in prison. In 2013, a Russian court convicted him in absentia (and Sergei in his grave) of the very crime Sergei uncovered and sentenced Browder to nine years in prison. Later, it got worse. In April 2016, Russian authorities accused Browder of murdering Sergei—that is, of killing the person on whose behalf Browder had been crusading, and who the Russians for seven years had insisted was not, in fact, murdered. The campaign was oafish yet persistent enough that Browder thought it wise to compile a 26-page presentation on the people behind it. Veselnitskaya appears on five of those pages. "I've been trying to get someone to write this goddamned story," Browder told Becker on July 8. "She's not just some private lawyer. She's a tool of the Russian government." But why, Browder wanted to know, was Becker suddenly interested? "I can't tell you," she said. "But I think you'll be interested in a few hours." Browder flew off to the place he won't name, switched on his phone, and scrolled to the Times website. He drew in a sharp breath. He exhaled. F***. Donald Trump Jr. told the Times that the June 9, 2016, meeting had been about adoptions, which demonstrated either how out of his depth he was or how stupid he thought reporters were. If Veselnitskaya had been talking about adoption, she of course had been talking about the Magnitsky Act. Which meant she'd also been talking about Bill Browder. He read the story again, closely. Browder wasn't sure what the implications were. But if he'd known about it in real time—that the staff of a major-party presidential candidate was listening intently to those who accuse him of murder and want him extradited and imprisoned—he would have been terrified. "Putin kills people," Browder said to me one afternoon this autumn. "That's a known fact. But Putin likes to pretend that he doesn't kill people. So he tends to kill people he can get away with killing." Browder did not say this as if it were a revelation. (And technically it's an allegation that Putin has people killed, albeit one so thoroughly supported by evidence and circumstance that no one credibly disputes it.) Rather, he told me that by way of explaining why he was telling me anything at all: The more often and publicly he tells the story of Sergei Magnitsky, the less likely he'll be to get poisoned or shot or tossed out a window, which has happened to a number of Putin's critics. If anything does happen to him, he reasons, the list of suspects would be short. He spoke softly, methodically, though with great efficiency; not scripted, but well practiced. We were in the conference room of his offices in London. Afternoon light washed through a wall of windows, threw bright highlights onto his scalp, sparked off the frame of his glasses. Browder is 53 years old, medium build, medium height, medium demeanor, and was wearing a medium-blue suit. He does not look like a threat to Russian national security, which the Kremlin declared him to be 12 years ago. Still, there is a hint of steel, something hard and sharp beneath all of the mediumness; if he confessed that he'd served in the Special Forces, it would be a little surprising but not shocking. It was late September, and Donald Trump had been president for 248 days. In the weeks after the election, Browder was "worried and confused." Trump has a creepy habit of praising Putin, but he'd also surrounded himself with Russia hard-liners like General James Mattis, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo—secretary of defense, ambassador to the United Nations, and director of the CIA, respectively. Browder war-gamed the Magnitsky Act but didn't see any way that Trump could kill it—Congress would have to repeal the law—only a chance that he might refuse to add more names to the target list. (Five people were added to the list last January, bringing the total to 44.) He figured the same was true with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which President Obama signed shortly before leaving office, expanding the targeted-sanctions tool to human-rights abusers worldwide. The Russians hate that law, too, because having "Magnitsky" in the title reminds the entire planet where the standard was set and by whom. The first months of the new administration unspooled, spring into summer. Trump's flirtation with Putin persisted, but with no practical effect. "The Russians got nothing," Browder said. Congress, in fact, imposed its own sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, cutting Trump out of the loop entirely. "I watch this like a hawk," Browder said, "and so far they've gotten nothing. There's not a single piece of Russian policy that's gone Putin's way." But then, in July, the Times reported that Veselnitskaya had met with Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager at the time, in June 2016. That shifted the calculus. "America has been my staunchest ally," Browder said. "It wasn't an assumption but a question: Had they flipped my biggest ally?" That was still an open question when we met in London. Much more had been reported about Trump and Russia. Other contacts and communications were known, and details kept evolving, an endless, sloppy churn of information. There was more, too, about the meeting with Veselnitskaya, which happened two weeks after Trump secured the nomination: It was attended by eight people in all, including Rinat Akhmetshin, who is usually described as a former Russian military-intelligence officer, though that generously assumes that any Russian spook is ever fully retired from the spy game. Browder has another PowerPoint presentation on him. Additionally, Manafort's notes on the meeting reportedly mentioned Browder by name. This is all bad. "They were in a meeting to discuss Bill Browder, the Magnitsky Act, and how to get the Magnitsky Act repealed," he said. "Now, what [the Russians] were offering in return, we don't know. But if it had just been a courtesy meeting, only one of [the Trump team] would have showed up." Maybe no one will ever know what, if anything, the Russians offered. But there's no doubt what they wanted, and how badly. In a four-page memo prepared for the meeting by Veselnitskaya (and later obtained by Foreign Policy), the Magnitsky Act was inspired by "a fugitive criminal" who ripped off the Russian treasury and then went on a worldwide publicity tour to, apparently, cover it up. "Using the grief of the family of Magnitsky to his own advantage, Browder exposes them as a human shield to distract attention from the details of his own crime," she wrote. Passage of the Magnitsky Act, moreover, marked "the beginning of a new round of the Cold War." That is an assertion as grandiose as it is belligerent. And yet it is not wholly inaccurate. To understand why the Kremlin is so perturbed, it helps to understand Bill Browder. In many ways, he is the Rosetta Stone for decoding the curious relationship between the Trumps and the Russians. Browder's grandfather Earl was a communist. He started as a union organizer in Kansas and spent some time in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, where he married a Jewish intellectual and had the first of his three sons, Felix. The family moved to Yonkers in 1932, where Earl became secretary general of the Communist Party USA. He ran for president twice, in 1936 and 1940, and Time magazine put him on its cover in 1938 above the headline COMRADE EARL BROWDER. His fortunes fell in 1941, when he was convicted of passport fraud. His four-year sentence was commuted after 14 months, and he was released into relative obscurity until the 1950s, when he was harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bill's grandmother steered her boys away from politics and toward academics, in which they wildly overachieved. Felix enrolled at M.I.T. at the age of 16, graduated in two years, and had a Princeton Ph.D. in math when he was 20. He met his wife, Eva, at M.I.T., a Jewish girl who'd fled Vienna ahead of the Nazis and spent her teenage years in a tenement with her impoverished mother. Felix and Eva had two boys. Their first, Thomas, took after his father: University of Chicago at 15, doctoral student in physics at 19. Their second, Bill, did not. He liked to ski and smoke and drink. He got kicked out of a second-tier boarding school and barely got into the University of Colorado, which was fine with him because it was a notorious party school. By his account, he spent his formative years rebelling against everything his leftist-intellectual family held sacred. "Rejecting school was a good start, but if I really wanted to upset my parents, then I would have to come up with something else," he wrote in his 2015 book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice. "Then, toward the end of high school, it hit me. I would put on a suit and tie and become a capitalist. Nothing would piss off my family more than that." He started studying, transferred to the University of Chicago, got into a two-year pre-MBA program at Bain & Company, in Boston. He parlayed that and an essay about Comrade Earl Browder—from communist to capitalist in two generations!—into a seat at Stanford. Out of genealogical curiosity, he began thinking about Eastern Europe. "If that's where my grandfather had carved out his niche," he wrote, "then maybe I could, too." He got a job with a consulting firm and moved to London in August 1989. Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled. Eastern Europe was wide open for business. His first account was consulting for a Polish bus manufacturer that was bleeding cash. It was miserable work in a miserable little city, but while he was there his translator explained the financial tables in the local newspaper. With the fall of communism, nationalized companies were being privatized and their stocks were offered at fire-sale prices: A company with $160 million in profits the previous year had a stock valuation of only $80 million. Browder invested his entire savings, $2,000, in Polish stocks. He eventually walked away with $20,000. He'd found his niche. By 1993, he was in Moscow, investing in staggeringly undervalued stocks: He invested $25 million and turned a $100 million profit. With money that good and almost no Western competition, Browder, in 1996, raised enough cash to open his own fund, Hermitage Capital. Over the next decade, Hermitage did exceptionally well. The downside, though, was that the economy wasn't transitioning from communism to capitalism so much as it was devolving into gangsterism. Corruption was endemic. A handful of oligarchs looted and swindled at their leisure. Browder countered by positioning himself as an activist shareholder; he and his staff would piece together who was ripping off what, name names, try to impose a modicum of order on a lawless system. When Vladimir Putin rose to power, Browder believed he was a reformer eager to purge the kleptocracy. In 2003, for example, Putin arrested the country's richest man, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, charged him with fraud, and displayed him in a cage in a courtroom until his inevitable conviction. In the context of the time, many critics saw the ordeal as a capricious show trial orchestrated by an authoritarian thug. Not Browder. "I would trust Putin any day of the week," he told The Washington Post in early 2004. "It's like being in a lawless schoolyard where there's bullies running around and beating up all us little people, and then one day a big bully comes along and all the little bullies fall into line. That's what the state is supposed to be—the big bully." But Putin, he discovered, wasn't pushing for good corporate governance. He was taking over the rackets. Putin put Khodorkovsky in a cage for the same reason Vito Corleone put a horse's head in Jack Woltz's bed: to send a message. Oligarchs could steal, but they had to pay tribute. Oligarchs no longer needed to be named and shamed; they needed to be kept in line and to keep earning. At that point, an activist shareholder like Browder became an expensive nuisance. Browder was kicked out of the country on November 13, 2005. For a while, he thought the Russian bureaucracy had made a mistake by canceling his visa, confusing him with someone else, perhaps, or misfiling some paperwork. He enlisted the help of British diplomats—Browder had been a British citizen since 1998—to no avail. There had been no mistake. Browder had been declared a threat to Russian national security. Hermitage Capital remained in business, though, its office run by Browder's staff while he oversaw operations from London. But in Moscow, the pressure only increased. In June 2007, security forces raided Hermitage and the office of the law firm it employed. They carted away computers and files and, interestingly, all the corporate seals and stamps. At first, none of that made sense. But then Sergei Magnitsky, a 36-year-old Muscovite who handled tax matters for Hermitage, started digging around. He eventually discovered three of Hermitage's holding companies had been used by Russian gangsters to swindle $230 million in tax rebates. It was a straight-up robbery of the Russian treasury. The scam wasn't unheard of, except the amount was perhaps the largest such tax fraud ever uncovered in Russia. Browder and his staff reported the theft to the authorities and the media in the summer of 2008. They even named suspects, including some of the security officials who'd earlier been involved in the office raids. Nothing happened. Then, a few months later, on November 24, 2008, Sergei was arrested at his home. He was held for nearly a year in various prisons, overrun with rats and damp with sewage. According to complaints Sergei wrote, he was fed porridge infested with insects and rotten fish boiled into mush. He contracted pancreatitis and gallstones but was refused treatment. Yet he was repeatedly told he would be released if he would recant his allegations and, instead, implicate Browder as the mastermind of the tax scam. He refused every time. Almost a year after he was arrested, desperately ill, Sergei was handcuffed to a bed rail in an isolation cell. Eight guards beat him with rubber truncheons. A little more than an hour later, he was dead. Before Sergei was killed, Browder had been lobbying anyone he could think of to pressure the Russians into releasing his accountant. One of the agencies he approached in the spring of 2009 was the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency in Washington that monitors human rights in 57 countries, including Russia. Kyle Parker, one of the Russia experts there, wasn't interested. He knew who Browder was—the money manager who'd championed Putin, the guy who'd made the rounds of Western capitals a few years earlier trying to get his visa restored. He assumed that's what Browder was still after. "Not gonna be able to make it," he e-mailed a colleague scheduling the meeting. "Unless much has changed, I see this meeting as info only and would not support any action on our part." He eventually met with Browder, though, and he listened to the story of Sergei. Parker understood, but it didn't seem especially uncommon. "I was thinking: Why is Bill trying to suck us into a pissing match between competing criminal groups?" Parker didn't even include Sergei in a 2009 letter to Obama highlighting the commission's most pressing concerns. After Sergei had been killed, Browder went back to the Helsinki Commission. Parker told him how sorry he was. He told him that he cried when he heard Sergei was dead, that he read about it through teary eyes on the Metro, riding the Red Line home to his wife and kids. He said he was going to help. "Here you have this Russian hero almost of a literary quality in Sergei Magnitsky," Parker told me. "He wasn't a guy who went to rallies with a bullhorn and protested human-rights abuses in Chechnya. He was a bookish, middle-class Muscovite. I see Sergei metaphorically as that Chinese guy standing in front of the tanks, but with a briefcase. He provided an example for all the other Russians that not everybody goes in for the deal, not everybody is corrupt, not everybody looks the other way when people are swindled." What Browder wanted was some form of justice for Sergei, though what form that would take was unclear. He'd researched his options for months. The Russians weren't going to prosecute anyone—officially, Sergei died of heart failure. There was no international mechanism to hold Russian nationals criminally accountable in another country. "Eventually," Browder said, "it became obvious that I was going to have to come up with justice on my own." He outlined a three-pronged approach. One was media, simply getting Sergei's name and his death and the reasons for it into the public consciousness. He talked to reporters, and he produced a series of YouTube videos, short documentaries on the people allegedly involved in Sergei's death. The second was tracing the money. "They killed him for $230 million," Browder said, "and I was going to find out where that money went." It was parceled out to dozens of people, tucked away in Swiss accounts and American real estate and Panamanian banks, some of it held by proxies; part of it allegedly ended up in the account of a Russian cellist who happened to be a childhood friend of Putin's. By mining bank transfers and financial records, Browder and his staff have accounted for much of it, including $14 million allegedly laundered by a Cypriot company into Manhattan property. (The Justice Department froze those funds in 2013 but settled with the company, Prevezon, last summer for $5.9 million. Prevezon's owner, a Russian named Denis Katsyv, is represented by Natalia Veselnitskaya. The case did not allege that he had any role in Magnitsky's death.) The final prong was political. Browder had heard about an obscure regulation that allows the State Department to put visa restrictions on corrupt foreign officials. But in the spring of 2010, the Obama administration was attempting to normalize relations with Russia—a "reset," as Obama famously put it. People die horrible deaths every day, and it's terrible and it shouldn't happen. But Russia is also a large country with a significant sphere of geopolitical influence and a lot of nuclear weapons. In that context, a dead middle-class tax lawyer wasn't relevant. But what if, Parker suggested, they went to Congress? What if the legislature, rather than the administration, took action? That was also a long shot. Getting any law passed is difficult, let alone one the administration opposes. But Browder told Sergei's story to congressional committees and individual senators and congressmen, and he kept telling it until the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law 11 days before Christmas 2012. The act originally named 18 Russians, including bureaucrats implicated in the original scam; investigators Sergei had accused of being involved and getting a cut of the $230 million; jailers who tormented him; and two alleged killers. As more of the stolen money was traced, more names were added to the list. Everyone on it is banned from entering the United States and, more damaging, cut off from the American banking system. That has a ripple effect: Legitimate financial institutions all over the world monitor the Treasury Department list of sanctioned individuals and are loath to do business with anyone on it. "That's what people hate about it the most," Browder said. "It makes you a financial leper." And that matters to Putin, Browder maintains, because the Russians on the list are not independently wealthy, like, say, Bill Gates or Richard Branson. "They're dependently wealthy," he said. "They're dependent on Putin." If the deal is that corrupt Russians can keep their cash in return for their loyalty, the Magnitsky Act is an enormous thorn in Putin's side. If he can't protect anyone's pilfered money, what's the point of loyalty? Putin surely understands that, because he was so transparently rattled: Taking orphans hostage is not the reasoned reaction of a man merely annoyed. Browder initially wanted to call the law the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act. But Parker never took to that. "Banning some corrupt officials from coming here isn't even close to justice," he said. "But it's a legislative monument to Sergei Magnitsky until one day Russia builds a stone monument to him. Because I have no doubt he'll be seen as the Russian patriot and hero that he was." Not quite three weeks after the Times broke the story of Veselnitskaya lobbying the Trump campaign to get rid of the Magnitsky Act, Browder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about, primarily, how Russian operatives wield influence and frame their propaganda. Eight years after he'd started targeting a handful of Russian crooks, Browder was suddenly very relevant to a much larger political storm. He flew home to London after he testified but had to return to the United States in early August. He checked in at an airline counter in Heathrow but was told there was a problem with his visa. He'd been flagged by Interpol, which had issued a red notice on him. It's basically an international arrest warrant, and it was the fourth requested by the Russians for Browder. Technically, a member nation is supposed to extradite him to the country that asked for the notice. But the British, along with other sensible Western nations, stopped taking Russia's attempts regarding Browder seriously years ago. In the end, it was only an inconvenience. But what if he'd been in, say, Finland when that notice popped up? The Finns are fine people, but they also have a 500-mile border with Russia. Would letting Browder go be worth risking an international incident with a bigger, more aggressive neighbor? He can make a reasonable case that, no, he would not be worth it. "I'm very realistic about who's coming to my defense," he said. "I am my defense." So he's careful. He avoids countries that might be friendly to Putin. Much of the Third World is out. So is Hong Kong. He'd be fine in Japan, but only if he didn't fly over Russian airspace. What if the plane has trouble and makes an emergency landing in Novosibirsk? That's where Khodorkovsky was seized and hauled off to a cage. Even in London, he's cautious. He won't talk about his family or where he lives. He varies his schedule and his route to work every day. He doesn't eat in the same restaurant twice in succession, or in any restaurant with predictable frequency; Russian agents have reputedly twice poisoned dissidents in London. He told me the British government has rebuffed at least a dozen requests to extradite him, and American intelligence has warned him that Russian agents planned to grab him off the street. Years ago, a Russian living in London came to Browder's staff with information about certain wealthy, corrupt people in Moscow. He was cagey and shifty and, at first, it seemed like he might be a Russian agent trying to plant false clues. But his information checked out and Browder learned who he really was. His name was Alexander Perepilichnyy, and he was nervous because he believed he was on a Russian hit list. On November 10, 2012, Perepilichnyy dropped dead in front of his house in Surrey. There was no obvious cause of death—no heart attack or stroke or aneurysm—and an inquest wasn't opened until last June. Perepilichnyy wasn't a well-known dissident, so no one thought to take a hard look when he died. "They got away with it," Browder said, meaning the Russians. "That's a perfect example of why you don't want to be an anonymous guy who drops dead." So Browder is deliberately not anonymous. He does not live in cloistered fear. When a car service got confused trying to pick him up for a photo shoot—definitely a way to not be anonymous—we took the Tube a few stops, then walked through Kentish Town to the studio. There was no security, just two men wandering around London. He has hobbies that he asked I not name, but none of them are solitary or sedentary. "One thing I can tell you," he said, "with the threat of death hanging over you, you live life to the fullest." He laughed a little. In this new version of his life, Browder is still most often referred to as a financier, but that's only marginally true. He gave all his investors their money back, and manages only his own now. Justice for Sergei—and aggravating Putin—is his full-time job. His staff of 11 tracks money launderers, deciphering which flunky is fronting for which oligarch, sniffing out the rest of that $230 million. He lobbies other governments to pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. The United Kingdom has one, as does Estonia. Lithuania is close, and Canada passed one in October. "Unconstructive political games," Putin told a Canadian interviewer immediately after, orchestrated by "the criminal activities of an entire gang led by one particular man, I believe Browder is his name." And Putin wasn't finished. A week later, Russia slipped another red notice into Interpol's system. For the second time in three months, Browder was temporarily barred from entering the U.S. It's relentless, Putin clawing at him, thrashing. "Their main objective is to get me back to Russia," he said. "And they only have to get lucky once. I have to be lucky every time." "Everything Bill's done has cost him tremendously," Parker said. "It's cost him money, restricted his personal freedom. And he didn't have to. He was out of Russia. He could have done what many did and walked away. Bad things happen, right? But here's a guy who's proven whatever he needed to prove to himself. He made his money. Now here's a way to find meaning. It's also a debt of honor." No, it's more than that. "It's penance," Browder said. Sergei Magnitsky was an ordinary Muscovite who happened to work for an American who annoyed Vladimir Putin. "Sergei was killed because of me. He was killed instead of me." He let that hang there a moment. "So, yeah, it's all penance." Sean Flynn is a GQ correspondent. This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue with the title "Putin Enemy No.1."

  • Corruption in Russia: An Overview

    Endemic corruption is a defining characteristic of the Putin regime. While the president is the prime beneficiary, cronies maintain this system of corruption. These loyal supporters are necessary for Putin to ensure the status quo and they often pursue the government’s illicit interests, which it cannot fulfill itself. This publication presents a succinct overview of the systemic corruption present in Russia. Unlike corrupt systems where oligarchs rule and compete with one another over power and wealth, Russia has developed a top-down structure of corruption, where the political and business success of elites is dependent almost entirely upon their relationship to the President. Although these elites continue to be called “oligarchs,” it is no longer appropriate to think of them as such. Rather, they ought to be thought of as “cronies.” Download the full report to learn more.

  • Corruption Currents

    A daily roundup of corruption news from across the Web. We also provide a daily roundup of important risk & compliance stories via our daily newsletter, The Morning Risk Report, which readers can sign up for here. Follow us on Twitter at @WSJRisk. Bribery: A bribery case in Russia involving the country’s elite is causing a stir in the Kremlin. (NY Times) The question of what constitutes bribery is trickier than it seems. (Washington Post, GAB) The NCAA bribery scandal claimed more scalps. (AP, ESPN, 24) Cybercrime: The Dark Web’s most notorious thief was doxed. (Daily Beast) The hack of Equifax is leading to calls to change the credit-reporting industry. (NPR) Fraud: A federal judge postponed a Texas lawmaker’s fraud trial. (mySA) Money Laundering: Canadian authorities laid charges against a money-transfer firm in a case of alleged drug-linked money laundering. The firm didn’t respond to a request for comment. (Vancouver Sun) A guilty plea to a structuring charge, in which he made transactions of a certain size to avoid regulators, killed a man’s business and his wife, and the IRS won’t return his money. (Washington Post) The son of Thailand’s former premier blasted authorities for releasing photos of him answering questions about money-laundering allegations. (Bangkok Post, Reuters, Bangkok Post) Indian authorities continue bringing money-laundering cases. (Express, Telegraph) Sanctions: The U.S. State Department revoked the visa of Bill Browder after Russia sought an Interpol notice for his arrest in the death of Sergei Magnitsky. Mr. Magnitsky, however, died in Russian police custody after reporting a tax fraud while working for Mr. Browder; his death led the U.S. to pass the Magnitsky Act. (Newsweek, NPR, euronews, NY Times, Channel4) Iran’s president is cutting back on the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ power amid sanctions. Did President Donald Trump preserve the status quo on the Iran deal? (NY Times, Platts) Turkey’s banking regulator dismissed reports that the country’s financial institutions face fines for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. (Reuters) Switzerland implemented a series of sanctions on North Korea. (Swissinfo) Terrorism Finance: Can bankers fight terrorism? (Foreign Affairs) Transparency: Panama Papers: Malta offered a $1.18 million reward for information on the person who killed a reporter investigating the leak. The EU ended its inquiry into the leak. (AP, WNYC, EuroNews) Whistleblowers: A U.K. judge sued to be included as a class of whistleblowers. (Guardian) General Anti-Corruption: The U.S. is seeking to seize assets it said were looted from disaster relief in the Philippines and placed in California. (OCWeekly) China’s anti-graft czar is about to leave the agency as Beijing puts new laws in place. The country banned its notorious interrogation technique as part of the reforms. (SCMP, SCMP, Reuters) Officials: Slovakia jailed government ministers for corruption for the first time. A fugitive former Mexican state official allegedly stole cows bought with government funds. (Bloomberg, BBC) A South African corruption investigation continues. U.K. banks were exposed, regulators say. (Guardian, Fin24, TimesLive, BBC) The Helsinki Commission fights kleptocracy. (KI) U.S. investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. election continue, as Mr. Trump pledged to pay staffers’ legal bills. (NBC, NY Times, Washington Post) Taekwondo generated the most corruption complaints in Korean sports. (Korea Herald)  

  • Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Discusses Kleptocracy at Hudson Institute Event

    On October 11, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commission anti-corruption policy advisor Paul Massaro joined experts including Ilya Zaslavskiy of the Free Russia Foundation; Jeffrey Gedmin of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; David Kramer of Florida International University’s Green School for International and Public Affairs; Louise Shelley of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University; Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace; and Ambassador Richard D. Kauzlarich of the Center for Energy Science and Policy to discuss the threat that kleptocratic regimes pose to the United States and its allies. The public seminar was hosted by the Hudson Institute and was moderated by Charles Davidson, the Executive Director of the Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative. A recent report by Zaslavskiy, “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West,” was the focal point of the event, which was designed to explore the nature and mechanisms of kleptocracy and strategies Washington can employ to combat it. During the discussion, the panelists stressed the threat kleptocracy poses to global democracy; described the extent to which it is entrenched in authoritarian societies; and explained how the silence of our institutions enables this system to perpetuate itself. Though kleptocrats benefit from criminal activity, their exploitation of legitimate financial and legal institutions insulates them. Furthermore, the panel noted the dual nature of the environment in which corruption thrives; it not only finds fertile ground in states with a legacy of autocracy, but also in cultures of acquiescence and complicity. Discrediting such public indifference is among the most severe challenges Western institutions face, but it is one that must be addressed in order to successfully combat kleptocracy. In his remarks, Massaro outlined the avaricious and cruel nature of kleptocracy and the grave threat it poses to democracy and the rule of law. He characterized the fight against kleptocracy as an ideological struggle between corruption and the rule of law, and strongly reaffirmed the Helsinki Commission’s resolve to counter global corruption in all its forms. As Massaro explained, “On the Hill, we [the Helsinki Commission] have become the primary forum for discussion of the topic and we will continue to work to expose the severity of kleptocratic practices.” He commended his fellow panelists on their committed work to combat corruption and challenge kleptocratic norms and reaffirmed the Commission’s aim to work collaboratively with other organizations to recognize and meet this challenge.

  • The Internal Enemy

    Ukraine’s struggle with corruption has prevented it from becoming a full, prosperous democracy and hinders its ability to respond effectively to Russian violations of its sovereignty. This Helsinki Commission staff report examines why corruption has been so persistent in Ukraine. It provides a historical analysis of corruption in Ukraine from its break with the Soviet system to today, reviewing the current state of reforms and providing recommendations in context. The resilience and influence of Ukraine’s oligarchs are at the heart of the country’s persistent corruption. Oligarchs have captured the Ukrainian state, crowding out non-corrupt political parties and competing with one another to steal Ukraine’s wealth. They are not so much businesspeople as courtiers, who transform political and personal connections into monopolies supported by the state. Two phenomena in particular have given rise to this system of oligarchic competition: (1) the lack of reforms in the early years of independent Ukraine, which resulted in incomplete economic liberalization, and (2) gas arbitrage, which has been uniquely devastating to reform attempts due to building so many oligarchic fortunes and providing a backdoor for Russia to influence Ukrainian politics for decades. Today’s Ukraine has implemented many important reforms that have helped to counter corruption, specifically in energy, finance, and economics. However, judicial reforms continue to lag behind. Commentators have observed that progress has slowed and frustration among civil society and the international community has increased. This report recommends that Ukraine move forward with remaining reforms, supported by both civil society and the international community. Most important is that Ukraine not allow backsliding to occur.  Ultimately, the oligarchs must be transformed from courtiers into entrepreneurs and businesspeople so as to finally end the pervasive institutionalized corruption. An empowered Ukrainian civil society—including independent media—will be paramount to such reforms, and has proven time and again that it is world class in its engagement. Key here is to condemn any attempt to hinder or harm civil society. The report makes numerous recommendations by sector, with an emphasis on the importance of reforming the judiciary. In particular, Ukraine should establish an anticorruption court as soon as possible, so as to provide the final necessary piece of Ukraine’s anticorruption architecture. Additional reform areas discussed include the safeguarding and further empowering of the anticorruption architecture; implementing privatization and additional regulatory and corporate governance reform as the next step for energy sector reform; pursuing consolidation and transparency as ideas for banking sector reform; and limiting parliamentary immunity. This report also discusses greater e-government and press freedom as mechanisms to empower Ukrainian civil society, including independent media, to monitor the reform process and prevent backsliding. Finally, it encourages the international community to continue its support for Ukraine and dig in for the long haul. Download the full report.  

  • Combating Kleptocracy with Incorporation Transparency

    The world is locked in a struggle between the rule of law and corruption. On the one side are democratic governments that respect the rule of law; on the other, authoritarian regimes that steal with impunity and view the rule of law with disdain. Sadly, the former enables the latter by providing a safe haven for stolen assets. Once laundered, this ill-gotten money is used to finance crime and terrorism, corrupt public institutions, and fund criminals’ luxurious lifestyles. The OSCE, NGOs, and national governments have emphasized incorporation transparency as an effective way to combat global corruption. The EU has been at the forefront of this effort, enacting rules that require Member States to maintain registers of the beneficial owners of companies and other structures associated with laundering the proceeds of crime. This hearing examined the development of the EU’s beneficial ownership transparency provisions as well as the success of their implementation as relates to corruption as a vector for authoritarian influence in Europe. Witnesses also addressed transparency and anti-money laundering policies in the United States as they relate to U.S. foreign policy.

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing On Combating Kleptocracy

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: COMBATING KLEPTOCRACY WITH INCORPORATION TRANSPARENCY Tuesday, October 3, 2017 2:30 PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce100317 The world is locked in a struggle between the rule of law and corruption. On the one side are democratic governments that respect the rule of law; on the other, authoritarian regimes that steal with impunity and view the rule of law with disdain. Sadly, the former enables the latter by providing a safe haven for stolen assets. Once laundered, this ill-gotten money is used to finance crime and terrorism, corrupt public institutions, and fund criminals’ luxurious lifestyles. The OSCE, NGOs, and national governments have emphasized incorporation transparency as an effective way to combat global corruption. The EU has been at the forefront of this effort, enacting rules that require Member States to maintain registers of the beneficial owners of companies and other structures associated with laundering the proceeds of crime. This hearing will examine the development of the EU’s beneficial ownership transparency provisions as well as the success of their implementation as relates to corruption as a vector for authoritarian influence in Europe. Witnesses will also address transparency and anti-money laundering policies in the United States as they relate to U.S. foreign policy. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Charles Davidson, Executive Director, Kleptocracy Initiative, Hudson Institute Pat O’Carroll, Executive Director, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Caroline Vicini, Deputy Head of Delegation, Delegation of the European Union to the United States Gary Kalman, Executive Director, FACT Coalition

  • Beyond Pipelines: Breaking Russia’s Grip on Post-Soviet Energy Security

    By Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor, and Andras Olah, Intern In 2007, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing titled “Pipeline Politics: Achieving Energy Security in the OSCE Region,” which focused on energy security in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe. The hearing took place in the wake of the first major Ukrainian-Russian gas dispute in 2006 that demonstrated not only the Kremlin’s willingness to use its energy resources as a weapon to meddle in its immediate neighbors’ domestic affairs, but also the extreme dependency of much of  Europe on Russia’s energy supplies. At the time, experts and policymakers focused primarily on the enhancement of security of supply through the construction of new energy infrastructure, including pipelines, which would allow the diversification of energy imports of countries in the OSCE region. Ten years later, the energy landscape of the world fundamentally has changed. As Peter Doran, the Executive Vice President of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), stressed at a July 2017 Helsinki Commission briefing titled “Energy (In)security in Russia’s Periphery,” new energy infrastructure been built and the regulatory environment of the EU’s energy sector has significantly improved. At the same time, the shale gas revolution in the United States and the simultaneous development of a global liquid natural gas (LNG) market offers European gas consumers more alternative options to Russian gas imports than ever before. Most countries in Central and Eastern Europe have improved their energy security by the implementation of crucial reforms in their energy sectors. For example, in Ukraine, where for a long time “energy oligarchs” profiting from dodgy gas deals with Gazprom torpedoed any meaningful reform initiatives, a recent landmark decision has eliminated energy subsidies that have been a lucrative source of corruption for decades. However, Moscow has resisted surrendering its monopolistic market position and is fighting back through politically motivated energy projects designed to exploit the fault lines between European countries’ differing energy policies. The most important Kremlin-sponsored projects to date have been the planned Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream pipelines, which will carry gas to EU countries by circumventing Russia’s immediate post-Soviet neighbors. According to Doran, the Kremlin aims to end the role that neighbors like Ukraine, and to a lesser extent Moldova, currently play in the transit of gas to the EU through the Brotherhood and the Trans-Balkan pipelines. The success of Nord Stream 2 potentially could result in the loss of billions of dollars in transit revenues for Ukraine and Moldova, as well as diminishing their geopolitical importance for Europe, while subsequently enabling Russia to reassert its old influence over them by exploiting their diminished energy security. As a result of massive infrastructure projects promoted by the EU to develop reverse flow capacities on existing pipelines and create new interconnections, Ukraine is now capable of purchasing gas from a Western direction and, for the first time, since November 2015 has ceased buying gas contractually from Russia altogether. New pipeline infrastructure projects, namely the planned expansion of the Iaşi-Ungheni pipeline, as Lyndon Allin, Associate at Baker Mackenzie, pointed out at the same briefing, might enable Moldova in the medium-run as well to reduce its dependence on Russian gas that currently constitutes almost a 100% of its total gas consumption. Nevertheless, the effectiveness and profitability of these regional gas transit systems could be severely endangered once the transit of gas is diverted to other pipelines, potentially hampering the prospects of further gas infrastructure modernization, which is necessary for both countries to ensure their energy security. Moreover, as both ‘Stream projects’ would circumvent the region, Russian gas could become the only one that can be bought from the east as well as the west direction, strengthening Gazprom’s monopolistic market position in the region.  While political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have been pushing recently for the introduction of U.S. LNG to the region to serve as a new ‘external solution’ to the above mentioned challenges, as Edward Chow, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), noted at the briefing, the main challenge for post-Soviet Eastern European countries remains an internal one. While the level of energy infrastructure might already be close to sufficient, the biggest problem for post-Soviet countries remains the underdeveloped nature of their energy sectors that lack harmonized and stable regulations, consistently-applied property rights, and transparency. Additionally, as Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli, Senior Fellow of the Central Asia – Caucasus Institute pointed out, energy security could not be achieved without high-levels of cross-border market integration, even if physical infrastructures are in place. The underdeveloped nature of post-Soviet Eastern European countries’ energy sectors has been having a severe impact on the energy security of those states, in particular of Ukraine, which could be easily self-sufficient—even without the import of U.S. LNG—in natural gas if private investment was not being discouraged by the opaque, uncompetitive, and corrupt nature of its energy sector. Once the right regulatory environment is established, Ukraine, for instance, could possess an immense gas transmission and storage infrastructure that, if properly upgraded, as well as connected to the energy networks of Central European countries, could lead to the establishment of a highly liquid East Central European gas trading hub with a spot-based gas trade. This could create increased energy security in the entire region by improving both the level of competition and the diversification of supplies. While the West could offer the countries of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Moldova in particular, alternative energy sources (e.g. U.S. LNG), these should and could not serve as a substitute for structural reforms and capacity-building, which are ultimately necessary to achieve true energy security in the region.

  • Democracy in Central & Eastern Europe

    On July 26, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on “Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Renewing the Promise of Democratic Transitions.” This briefing followed a series of roundtable discussions and other events earlier in the year relating to this region, demonstrating the Helsinki Commission’s interest in Central and Eastern Europe. Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law for the U.S. Helsinki Commission, welcomed panelists Andrew Wilson, the Managing Director of the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE); Peter Goliaš, Director of the Institute for Economic and Social Reforms in Slovakia; András Lőke, Chair of Transparency International in Hungary; and Marek Tatała, Vice-President of the Civil Development Forum in Poland. Jan Surotchak, Regional Director for Europe at the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Jonathan Katz, Senior Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) added Washington policy perspectives. The discussion was moderated by Martina Hrvolova, Central Europe and the Balkans Program Officer at CIPE. The panelists provided a background on democracy in the regional context, as well as on the specific case studies of Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. Andrew Wilson observed that new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe face serious stresses that raise questions about the resilience of their democratic transitions and threaten to undo the remarkable progress the countries made during the last three decades. He argued that the problems in the region do not stem from the failure of democracy, but rather a failure to more actively pursue its consolidation. Peter Goliaš offered a brief overview of the current state of democracy in Slovakia. He described the findings of a recent public opinion poll that paint a very bleak picture of how Slovakians see the current state of democracy in their country. He argued that a main reason for people’s dissatisfaction with democracy has been the perception that politicians do not work in the public’s interest, but in the interest of the oligarchs. He projected that current political trends will lead to the continued slow deterioration of Slovak democracy. To stop this deterioration, Goliaš proposed several short- and long-term measures that he believes would strengthen the rule of law and civil society in Slovakia. András Lőke cited the reports of several influential NGOs to describe the current state of Hungarian democracy. While both Freedom House and Transparency International still give moderate scores to Hungary on the level of freedom and corruption, Hungary is trending downward on every indicator that were examined. Lőke argued that the most telling figures were found in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which ranked Hungary very poorly based on an assessment of the rule of law and the level of corruption. After identifying the challenges facing Hungary today, Lőke outlined a list of solutions to these problems that would ultimately enable civil society to reassert its role in maintaining transparency and accountability in governance, and generally increase the crucial engagement of civil society in public affairs. Marek Tatała assessed the state of democracy in Poland, arguing that while the country remains a democracy, its current political leadership is weakening rather than strengthening its democratic development. Tatała observed that laws on the constitutional tribunal and on the organization of courts, and the rapid nature of the legislative process, have been harmful to the rule of law in Poland. He underlined the need for a higher level of engagement of the business community in public affairs, and a better quality of education that is more focused on civic engagement and economic literacy. Following up on the three country case studies, Jan Surotchak presented the findings of a recent poll conducted as part of IRI’s Beacon Project. The findings revealed a number of disturbing trends in Central and Eastern Europe, including waning support for core transatlantic institutions; tensions over the nature of European identity; and a deep discontent with socioeconomic challenges in the region. Most importantly, the study confirmed that there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic disparities in these countries and their vulnerabilities to Russian influence. Finally, Jonathan Katz emphasized the need to increase the United States’ bilateral and joint diplomatic engagement and development assistance efforts in the region to support continued democratic and economic transition. More specifically, Katz presented four core strategies that he argues are needed, which included the establishment of joint US-EU mechanisms to strengthen development cooperation and coordination in the entire OSCE region. The panelists agreed that any external development assistance should primarily support the work of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe, with a special focus on communication campaigns. Particular emphasis should be given to the improvement of the education system with a focus on promoting discussions with students. Marek Tatała also argued that given the fairly strong ties of these countries’ leaders with the United States, a stronger voice from the current US Administration regarding negative developments in Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland would be also welcome and effective. With regard to action from Congress, panelists argued that resources for development assistance could come in the form of a congressional authorization bill. Panelists also noted that to be effective, any external development fund that targets NGOs or the civil society must be monitored by donors to avoid corruption. Panelists observed that the Congress could play a particularly important role in providing oversight of such assistance programs and making sure that their spending follow very strict guidelines.

  • Kleptocrats of the Kremlin: Ties Between Business and Power in Russia

    On July 20, 2017, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe held a staff-led briefing on Russian kleptocracy. Panelists included Brian Whitmore, Author of the Power Vertical Blog and Senior Russia Analyst at Radio Free Europe; Ilya Zaslavskiy, Research Expert at the Free Russia Foundation and Academy Associate with Chatham House; Dr. Anders Aslund, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Professor at Georgetown University; Marius Laurinavicius, Senior Analyst at the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and a former Fellow with the Hudson Institute; and Ambassador Daniel Fried, Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council and former Coordinator on Sanctions Policy at the US Department of State. The discussion, which was covered by C-SPAN 1, was moderated by Paul Massaro, Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor on Economic and Environmental Issues. Whitmore provided an insightful overview, explaining how kleptocracy ensures the control of loyal elites while simultaneously providing the Kremlin with a tool of statecraft internationally. In a compelling argument, he compared corruption with communism, as the Kremlin's use of kleptocracy is reminiscent of the use of communism as a tool for international influence during Soviet times.  Zaslavskiy spoke about how the current regime took the worst but most practical lessons from the Communist party, the KGB, and organized crime, and amalgamated these practices into the corrupt system that exists today. Therefore, he rejected the term “oligarch,” deeming it irrelevant. This notion would assume that businesses act independently, when in reality, their operations depend on the Kremlin's approval. Dr. Aslund, in agreement with Zaslavskiy, concluded that oligarchy is over, as it has been assimilated by the state. He broke down the Kremlin's system of kleptocracy into four different aspects: firstly, the state institutions, the security agencies, and the judiciary; secondly, the state corporations; thirdly, President Putin's circle of loyal cronies who benefit from asset stripping and procurement contracts from the state; and lastly, the West. Western complicity is an essential aspect of Russian kleptocracy, as cronies take advantage of rule of law in the West to secure assets from the East. Dr. Aslund called for tougher measures to ensure transparency and beneficial ownership.  Laurinavicius then joined in to provide a Baltic perspective, arguing that lessons can be learned from the three Baltic States, the front line in the fight against Russian kleptocracy. Laurinavicius argued that Putin's regime uses kleptocratic cronies to achieve goals that the state cannot achieve itself. He emphasized how the Baltic region has been a target of these kleptocratic tactics as early as 1991 in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Lastly, Ambassador Fried expanded on tools to combat kleptocracy. He cited journalistic exposure and governmental pressure as two critical aspects of a comprehensive strategy. Naming the Global Magnitsky Act as a legislative vehicle that allows lawmakers to go after Russian human rights abusers, Ambassador Fried called for additional legislation to target individuals complicit in Kremlin's system of kleptocracy. Ambassador Fried ended the panelists' testimonies on a hopeful note: "I do not believe that Russia is doomed to live forever its worst history. I don’t accept the notion of a civilizational divide. In Russian history, Russia does, when it fails at external aggression, turn to internal reform, and has sometimes been successful. And the period of Russian history we think of as the most successful, the period that gave us world-class literature and art and music, and a rapidly developing economy, and the beginning of a more modern economic system, came as a result of its – the failure of its aggression and failure in various wars – Crimean War, Russo-Japanese War. I mention this because it is important to remember what it is we are trying to achieve. We are not trying to achieve a weakening of Russia. We are trying to achieve a defeat of Putinist Russia, the better to have a better relationship with that better Russia."

  • Democracy in Central & Eastern Europe 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: DEMOCRACY IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE: RENEWING THE PROMISE OF DEMOCRATIC TRANSITIONS Wednesday, July 26, 2017 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM Capitol Visitors Center Room SVC-215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission In 1990, at a moment of historic transition, the countries of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted a watershed agreement recognizing the relationship between political pluralism and market economies. To advance both, they committed to fundamental principles regarding democracy, free elections, and the rule of law.  In recent years, however, concerns have emerged about the health of the democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in the face of ongoing governance challenges and persistent corruption. At this briefing, speakers will examine the current state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and analyze efforts to address the region’s challenges.  They will also discuss the declaration adopted on June 1 by civil society representatives, members of business communities, and others, which seeks to reinvigorate the region’s democratic trajectory, support democratic and economic reform, and strengthen the transatlantic partnership. The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Andrew Wilson, Managing Director, Center for International Private Enterprise Peter Golias, Director, Institute for Economic and Social Reforms, Slovakia Andras Loke, Chair, Transparency International, Hungary Marek Tatala, Vice-President, Civil Development Forum, Poland Additional comments will be provided by: Jan Surotchak, Regional Director for Europe, International Republican Institute Jonathan Katz, Senior Resident Fellow, German Marshall Fund

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on Kleptocracy in Russia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: KLEPTOCRATS OF THE KREMLIN: TIES BETWEEN BUSINESS AND POWER IN RUSSIA Thursday, July 20, 2017 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room G11 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Eighteen years after he first took power, Vladimir Putin rules a Russia increasingly characterized by censorship, political repression, and human rights violations.  A central feature of Putin’s authoritarian regime is sprawling corruption. This corruption undermines the legitimacy of public institutions domestically and internationally via an opaque network of interlocutors who enable assets to be stolen from the Russian people and hidden abroad. While the president is the primary beneficiary, the Kremlin’s brand of kleptocracy depends on a loyal group of cronies, who acquire untold wealth by ensuring that state institutions follow Kremlin directives, and that private businesses play along or stay out of the way. The briefing will examine the dynamics of Putin’s closest circle in order to establish who most strengthens and benefits from his rule. Additionally, briefers will analyze how these cronies advance Putin’s geopolitical goals and interests. The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Brian Whitmore, Senior Russia Analyst, Radio Free Europe Ilya Zaslavskiy, Research Expert, Free Russia Foundation Dr. Anders Aslund, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council Marius Laurinavicius, Senior Analyst, Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis Ambassador Daniel Fried, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council

  • The Romanian Anti-Corruption Process: Successes and Excesses

    Corruption is an issue of particular concern to the United States and the OSCE because of the threat it poses to security, economic development and human rights. Romania has a history of combating corruption since the fall of Communism, and to this day struggles to maintain transparency in its government institutions and businesses. The fight against corruption is the modern arena for the protection of democratic institutions and freedoms, which for Romania means the strengthening of its institutions and rule of law. The U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on June 14, 2017, focused on Romania’s anti-corruption process, examining progress as well as recommendation for the United States to help support these goals.   “Romania’s anti-corruption efforts have garnered international attention and have been held up as an example for other countries, such as Ukraine,” observed Chairman Wicker. “We want those efforts to be successful. In holding this hearing today, we hope to support those working to fight against corruption in a way that is consistent with the rule of law and strengthens the democracy Romanians have worked so hard to build.” Witnesses at the hearing included Ambassador Marc Gitenstein, former U.S. Ambassador to Romania from 2009 to 2012 and a partner at leading global law firm, Mayer Brown; Ms. Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies; Mr. David Clark, a British foreign policy commentator and consultant with Shifting Grounds; and Mr. Philip Stephenson, Chairman of the Freedom Group and former partner of the International Equity Partners.  Witnesses overwhelmingly stressed the need for continued anti-corruption work in Romania and made recommendations for strengthening and improving those efforts. In his opening statement, Ambassador Gitenstein conveyed his optimistic view of Romanian anticorruption efforts, and pointed to the recent mass demonstration in January of this year—the largest in Romania since 1989—as evidence of strong public support for continued progress. In this regard, he said Romania was a model for the region, and continues to meet benchmarks set by the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) of the EU - a special monitoring mechanism established by the EU as a condition for Romania’s accession. Ms. Conley characterized the fight against corruption as “a matter of national security.”  While echoing Ambassador Gitenstein’s optimism, she underlined that Romania is not done with its fight against corruption. She stated that the United States decreased the amount of assistance to Romania after the country’s accession to the EU and NATO, suggested that this was a mistake. “This is what leaving the policy playing field looks like,” Ms. Conley argued. She warned that allowing corruption to spread and create weaknesses within Romanian institutions would allow for future exploitation by Russia. Mr. David Clark expressed concern regarding several areas of Romania’s anti-corruption measures, which he said had been tainted by the politicization of justice, collusion between prosecutors and the executive branch, intelligence agency influence over the process, lack of judicial independence and other abuses of the process. He doubted the accuracy of the European Union’s CVM progress reports due to the Union’s “epic capacity for wishful thinking,” as evidenced by how slow the EU has been to respond to the serious deterioration of democratic standards in Hungary and Poland. He pointed to several troubling human rights violations in Romania and urged the Helsinki Commission to ask hard questions of the State Department and support better reporting on corruption issues in the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights. Mr. Phil Stephenson described his personal experience with the Romanian judicial system and his ongoing investigation by DICOTT, an antiterrorism organization in Romania, stating that “the fight against corruption itself has been corrupted.” He appreciated the attention that the Commission was bringing to the issue of corruption in Romania and argued that continued attention will protect against deficiencies in the anti-corruption process. Note: The unofficial transcript includes a Romanian translation.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Romanian Anti-Corruption Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE ROMANIAN ANTI-CORRUPTION PROCESS: SUCCESSES AND EXCESSES Wednesday, June 14, 2017 9:30 AM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 212-210 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce061417 Since the fall of Communism, Romania’s greatest challenge has been the fight against corruption. This fight has largely succeeded, with powerful national-level prosecutors (the National Anticorruption Directorate) getting public support and scoring large numbers of convictions ranging from the level of local politicians to former Prime Ministers. However, two worrying trends have developed recently. First, in what was seen as an attempt to exempt government officials from prosecution, a move by the government to pardon government officials whose abuse of office caused damages of less than $47,000 led to the largest mass protests since 1989. Second, there are indications that some elements of the Romanian state, including possibly the security services, are using the necessary and popular fight against corruption as a pretext, in a few cases, to punish political opponents and expropriate business interests. The hearing will examine the current state of the Romanian anti-corruption process with goal of understanding its successes and excesses and how best to respond. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Ambassador Mark Gitenstein, Special Counsel, Mayer Brown Heather Conley, Senior Vice President, Center for Strategic and International Studies David Clark, Foreign Policy Commentator and Consultant Philip Stephenson, Chairman, Freedom Capital

  • Russia’s Weaponization of Corruption (and Western Complicity)

    By Paul Massaro, policy advisor and Amelie Rausing, intern Russia’s weaponization of corruption—its export of corrupt practices via the abuse of western legal and financial loopholes in order to further its geopolitical goals—has stimulated anti-American sentiment in Europe and galvanized extremist forces on both sides of the Atlantic. While Moscow pushes its anti-globalization narrative, it is simultaneously taking advantage of globalization to export its own version of crony capitalism to many countries in the OSCE region. The Russian brand of corruption thrives off of globalization and depends on access to the global financial system. Under this model, weak property rights and lack of rule of law support a corrupt system at home, where markets are distorted and courts are politicized. State funds are looted and assets are acquired through corporate raiding and asset stripping. Cronies then siphon off national funds to safe havens outside of former Soviet countries. Offshored money can be used to buy real estate, education, and health care in the United States and in Europe. It can also be used back home, to finance rigged elections, support local political figures, reward loyal cronies, and fund projects strategically important for geopolitical goals. Stolen money can also buy influence and keep foreign governments friendly. In the meantime, popular discontent brews domestically. Western politicians often argue that globalization undermines corruption and authoritarianism. In reality, that is not the whole story. The emergence of a parallel, opaque, financial system that allows dictators to anonymously and untraceably funnel money to the West is one of the direst consequences of an increasingly globalized world. European and American lawyers, bankers, lobbyists, and accountants provide services that facilitate and benefit from the laundering of stolen assets. Illicit wealth is then invested in real estate in cities like London, New York, and Miami. In many cases, victims are well aware of the West’s complicity in funneling off their hard-earned taxes and state budgets. Their sense of powerlessness is further fortified when the United States and European countries fail to trace and recover funds that have vanished in the global financial system. It strengthens the sense of a culture of impunity for grand corruption, a public setback that can then be exploited by extremist voices. In Russia, “Londongrad” is widely known as the capitol of Russia’s stolen wealth. Furthermore, in the digital era, stolen assets are flaunted on social media for everyone to see. Last year, reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Novaya Gazeta established that a 280-plus foot super-yacht named St. Princess Olga belonged to Putin crony and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin after examining the social media accounts of his rumored girlfriend, Olga Rozhkova. While the exact price of the yacht is unknown, it is estimated to be around $190 million. At best, the United States and other Western countries are accused of facilitating the looting of corrupt countries. At worst, they drive and benefit from the transfer of financial assets from the East to the West. Disdain of the West becomes especially contagious when people like Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny start to express frustration with Western complicity in money laundering. It is bad news when freedom fighters and dissidents, traditional allies of the United States, start to question the West’s commitment to democratic development. The failure to return ill-gotten assets, especially when they have been invested in the U.S. economy, diminishes the United States’ democratic legitimacy and America’s claim to be a champion of freedom. The perception of a hypocritical West with sham values is then exploited by opportunist politicians and media, who egg on anti-American sentiment with this carefully constructed narrative about globalization. This narrative fuels extremism and terrorism and it is in the United States’ national interest to encounter it. The Helsinki Commission recently investigated one aspect of this phenomenon in a staff-level briefing titled, “Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens.” This briefing demonstrated that strengthening mechanisms for repatriation and accountability in the financial sector needs to be a priority. When these illicit assets are safeguarded in places where democratic governments have some leverage then it is important to use it to ensure the responsible return of funds for the benefit of victims. To avoid looking hypocritical, financial organizations and law firms that enable the looting cannot profit from the repatriation process. There are many different methods required to combat corruption and responsible asset recovery might not seem like the most critical at first glance. However, it is an essential step for preventing future corruption. Recovered assets can be invested in the rule of law and aspects of civil society that serve as corruption watchdogs. Responsible and transparent repatriation has the potential to empower these watchdog organizations, strengthening the backbone of democratic development.

  • Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens

    The World Bank estimates that twenty to forty billion dollars are stolen from developing countries every year. The majority of stolen funds are never found, and even if they are, recovering stolen assets and repatriating victims is a complicated process. The process often involves many different countries with different legal frameworks and financial structures. On June 1, 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a briefing on asset recovery in the OSCE region. Ill-gotten assets from the region frequently end up in money laundering safe havens in the West, where Western financial services enable the safeguarding of stolen funds. Briefers included Charles Davidson, executive director of the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute; Brian Campbell, legal advisor for the Cotton Campaign; and Ken Hurwitz, senior managing legal officer on anti-corruption with the Open Society Justice Initiative. The briefing was moderated by Paul Massaro, economic and environmental policy advisor with the Helsinki Commission.  Panelists at the briefing discussed methods to achieve responsible repatriation for grand corruption. After tracing and freezing assets, Western authorities are faced with the dilemma of how to return assets stolen by kleptocrats to the people of that country. A critical part of anti-corruption work, successful repatriation can empower civil society and democratic development in affected countries. In turn, civil society and the judiciary can play critical roles in fighting and exposing grand corruption. Panelists drew comparisons between the challenges associated with returning assets stolen by the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan and the successful case in Kazakhstan, where $115 million in disputed assets was returned to the people through the BOTA Foundation. While grand corruption takes on many different forms, most corrupt countries in the OSCE region are former members of the Soviet Union and have imported Moscow’s own brand of corruption. Panelists discussed how the lack of transparency and accountability in Western financial systems facilitate the looting of former Soviet countries. Additionally, they argued for the United States’ national interest in countering corruption and ensuring responsible repatriation.

  • Political Prisoners in Russia

    Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act recognizes the right of individuals to know and act upon their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The following individuals who were profiled in the Helsinki Commission's April 2017 hearing, "Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight," illustrate the many cases of political prisoners in Russia today. Dmitry Buchenkov – Buchenkov was charged under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”) for his participation in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against fraud in the 2011 presidential elections. He was arrested in December 2015 and is currently under house arrest.  He is recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner not only because the alleged offense did not take place, but also due to the lack of a fair trial and the disproportionate use of pretrial detention in light of the charge against him. His case illustrates the prosecution of individuals for engaging in nonviolent public protest against the government in general and the Bolotnaya Square cases in particular. Oleg Navalny – Navalny was charged under Article 159 (“swindling on a large scale”), article 159.4 (“swindling on a particularly large scale in the entrepreneurial sphere”), and article 174.1.a (laundering of funds on a large scale acquired by a person through a crime committed by him”).  He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a closed proceeding, Memorial considers him a political prisoner because the alleged offense did not take place and he was not given a fair trial. In reality, Oleg Navalny was targeted because he is the brother of prominent political activist Alexei Navalny.  It appears the authorities are unwilling to make a martyr out of Alexei Navalny but seek to exert pressure on him by persecuting his brother. Oleg Navalny’s case illustrates the willingness of the government to target family members as a means of exerting pressure on political activists, which is specifically prohibited under the OSCE 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. Darya Polyudova – Polyudova was charged under article 280 of the Russian criminal code (“public appeals for extremist activity” and “public appeals for actions aimed at a violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”) in connection with her participation in preparation for a march that did not take place.  In reality, she was indicted for criticizing Moscow online for its support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.  She is recognized as a political prisoner because the offense did not take place, her right to a fair trial was violated, and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention given the nature of the charges.  She was sentenced to two years in prison, becoming the first person in Russia convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing calls for separatism on the Internet. Her case illustrates the government’s prosecution of Russian nationals who criticize Russia’s actions and policies in Ukraine. Sergei Udaltsov – Udaltsov was charged under Article 30 of the Russian criminal code (“preparation of actions aimed at organizing mass riots”) and Article 212 (“organization of mass riots”) after participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests. He has been arrested multiple times before for protesting against the government. Memorial recognizes him as a political prisoner on the grounds that he was charged with an offense that did not take place; his right to a fair trial was violated; and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. Ivan Nepomniashchikh – Nepomniashchikh was charged with Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”). He is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that he is being prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of assembly; he is being charged with an offense that did not take place; he was not allowed a fair trial;  and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He is another example of those being prosecuted for participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests against the 2011 fraud in the presidential election. Alexei Pichugin – Pichugin was charged under Article 162 of the Russian criminal code (“robbery”) and Article 105 (“murder”). At a closed trial, Pichugin, the former head of internal economic security for the Yukos Company then headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime penal colony. He has been in prison since 2003 and is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that his prosecution was conducted without a fair trial.  The European Court on Human Rights also has held that Pichugin was denied a fair trial.   Oleg Sentsov – Senstov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia since 2015, and was the focus of a separate Helsinki Commission briefing. Sentsov was arrested in the Russian-occupied Crimean territory of Ukraine and charged under Article 205.4 of the Russian criminal code (“organization of a terrorist group”), Article 205 (“terrorist act committed by an organized group”), Article 30 in connection with Article 205 (“preparation of a terrorist act”), Article 30 in connection with Article 222 (“attempted illegal acquisition of firearms and explosive devices”), and Article 222 (“illegal acquisition and storage of far arms and explosive devices”).  He was accused of planning an attack on a monument to Lenin, a charge he denies. He was sentenced in a Russian military court to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for terrorism. Other Illustrative Cases Alexander Kolchenko – Kolchenko, a Crimean activist, was charged under article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (art. 205.4 part 2: "Participation in a terrorist organization," and art. 205, paragraph "a," part 2: "A terrorist act conducted by a terrorist group"). He refuted the accusations of terrorism. Mr. Kolchenko was detained in May 2014, in Simferopol, Crimea, shortly after Russia took control over the peninsula. On August 25, 2016, the North Caucasus District Military Court of Russia sentenced Mr. Kolchenko to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime colony. He is serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the city of Kopeysk, a facility notorious for its poor treatment of convicts. Mr. Kolchenko is recognized as a political prisoner by Russia’s Memorial watchdog group. Mykola Semena (under a travel ban) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Roman Sushchenko (in pre-trial detention) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Memorial, a Russian organization established to report on the crimes of Stalinism, documents cases of political prisoners as well as cases of those persecuted for their faith.This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from Memorial, the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and news sources. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also tracks cases of individuals imprisoned in connection with their faith.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

  • Moldova at a Crossroads

    Twenty-five years after its independence, Moldova is at a crossroads as it prepares for presidential elections scheduled for October 30. While it seeks to overcome significant internal challenges, the country is also squarely in the crosshairs of Russian destabilization efforts intended to maintain Moscow’s influence and strike at the foundation of Moldovan democracy. The experts at this briefing offered valuable insight on the significant internal and external challenges Moldova faces as it approaches presidential elections in October 2016. The speakers addressed continued threats to Moldovan territorial integrity and sovereignty; hostile Russian actions including disinformation campaigns, an economic blockade, and threatening rhetoric; and the roles of the Moldovan government and external actors, including the OSCE, in addressing Moldovan vulnerabilities. Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) opened the briefing with a statement on Moldova and the Transnistrian conflict, as he has been deeply interested and engaged in Moldova throughout his career.  Witnesses Ambassador William Hill and Matthew Rojansky then discussed Moldova's internal and external challenges in greater depth. As a veteran diplomat in Moldova and the region, Ambassador William Hill assigned an absence of rule of law as Moldova’s central challenge. Mr. Rojansky, a renowned scholar on this subject, offered historical perspective on Russia’s objectives in maintaining instability in neighboring countries like Moldova. Before beginning audience Q&A, the event also welcomed comments from Tatiana Solomon, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Moldovan Embassy, who thanked the witnesses and the Helsinki Commission for engagement on the issues discussed. All participants encouraged U.S. support for Moldova and the region as it works towards a stable, democratic, and prosperous future.

  • It’s Time for the United States to Act on Azerbaijan

    David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Richard Kauzlarich is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan looked like he was softening his authoritarian grip on his country. In March, he released 14 political prisoners ahead of his visit to Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. Even the harsh anti-American rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and regime media seemed to subside. While in Washington, Aliyev had sit-downs with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry. But since the April summit, Aliyev’s regime has intensified its crackdowns on freedoms. Azerbaijan’s rapid, dangerous deterioration demands more decisive action from the United States, yet the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The government in Baku has increased its arrests and detentions of another dozen opposition figures, peaceful religious believers and civil society activists. Nearly 100 political prisoners are languishing in the country’s jails. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli was detained at the national airport and prevented from leaving the country. Faig Amirli, financial director of Azadliq newspaper and assistant to the chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was arrested last month. Other opposition politicians arrested in August include Natiq Jafarli,  executive secretary of the REAL movement, and NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Qahraman. The situation on the ground may get even worse. On Sept. 26, Aliyev’s regime plans to force a referendum which aims to enhance his powers. The result of the referendum is already known; we can be sure that the government will ensure its approval. That means that Aliyev can extend his term from five to seven years, create new positions of vice president (to which he might name a member of his family) and lower the age for members of parliament — opening the door for his son Heydar to be elected. It would not be a surprise if elections were called early under the new constitution to ratify these authoritarian steps. Quiet diplomacy, we are told, is the only way to protect American interests in Azerbaijan. Along with its strategic location on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, the country of 8 million is rich in oil and gas resources, and plays a role as a national security ally to the United States. No American interests are served if Azerbaijan’s increasing authoritarianism explodes into a political and social crisis. Moreover, Azerbaijan is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s media tactics in Russia by increasingly  painting the United States as the enemy. An editorial in the state-approved media outlet, Haqqin, accused the United States of “losing” Azerbaijan, “driving it into a corner” and “neglecting a valuable partnership” with Baku. The editorial warned that Azerbaijan will be left with no option but to establish closer relations with its immediate neighbors, Iran and Russia. Aliyev’s supporters have pointed to the failed Turkey coup and have accused the United States of supporting opposition forces not only to spoil the upcoming referendum — but to plot a coup in Azerbaijan. Aside from legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) last December and the cries of activists and human rights groups, Azerbaijan has received a free pass from the Obama administration. Rarely do either the U.S. Embassy in Baku or the State Department in Washington speak out against human rights abuses. Even the 2014 raid on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the arrest of one of its journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, triggered a mild response from Washington. Ismayilova was released from prison earlier this year but has been refused permission to travel outside the country. RFE/RL  is still barred from operating in Azerbaijan, as are most American nongovernmental organizations. In the past, we have called for sanctions — asset freezes and visa bans — against Azerbaijani officials involved in and responsible for gross human rights abuses, similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia. President Obama doesn’t need new legislation to take such measures; he can do so under existing presidential authorities. Beyond that, we should withhold U.S. support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance should Azerbaijan request it amid its deteriorating economic situation and end Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank lending to Azerbaijan. The United States should consider recalling our ambassador for extended consultations over human rights concerns as well as the rising anti-American rhetoric of Azerbaijan officials and government-sanctioned media. We also need to get the Europeans on board with similar measures. These steps should be taken unless and until all the political prisoners are released and the referendum enhancing Aliyev’s powers is voided. Letting Azerbaijan follow through on its threat to form closer ties with Moscow and Tehran without balance from the United States may be a necessary, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for the regime in Baku. The problem in Azerbaijan is not that Aliyev has too little power; it is that he exercises the power he has in the wrong ways against innocent people.  America’s silence as the situation on the ground worsens risks making us accomplices to a looming human rights disaster in Azerbaijan.

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