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Co-Chairman Wicker Condemns Fraudulent Election Results, Violence Against Protesters In Belarus

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

WASHINGTON—Following the August 9 presidential election in Belarus and ongoing violence against protesters across the country, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement:

“From the earliest stages of campaigning, Alexander Lukashenko has ruthlessly suppressed his political opponents, independent media, and ordinary citizens advocating for change. This electoral 'victory' was accomplished through blatant manipulation and fraud, as well as threats and violence. The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.”

In June and July 2020, longtime president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested in the lead-up to the election. Belarus’ Central Election Commission stated on August 9 that more than 80 percent of voters voted for Lukashenko, with opposition candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies, receiving about 10 percent of the vote. Experts consider these numbers to be highly inaccurate. Following the election, protests across Belarus have been marked by mobile internet shutdowns, police violence, and mass arrests.

According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994.

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  • OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Session in Oslo

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The meeting took place in Norway, a very close friend and strong, long-time ally of the United States of America. In discussions with Norwegian officials, we expressed our sorrow over the recent deaths of Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan. We also shared our concerns about climate change and particularly the impact global warming has on polar regions  Indeed, on our return we made a well-received stop on the archipelago of Svalbard, well north of the Arctic Circle, to learn more about the impact firsthand, from changing commercial shipping lanes to relocated fisheries to ecological imbalance that make far northern flora and fauna increasingly vulnerable. 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Estonia has come a long way since it reestablished its independence from the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago, making the visit quite rewarding for those of us on the Helsinki Commission who tried to keep a spotlight on the Baltic States during the dark days of the Cold War.  During the course of the meeting, the U.S. delegation also had bilateral meetings with the delegation of the Russian Federation and a visiting delegation from Kyrgyzstan to discuss issues of mutual concern and interest.  U.S. engagement in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly sends a clear message to those who are our friends and to those who are not that we will defend U.S. interests and advance the causes of peace and prosperity around the world.

  • A Decade of the Trafficking in Persons Report

    Senator Benjamin L. Cardin convened a standing-room only hearing centered on the diplomatic impact of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.  The hearing focused on the ten years that the annual TIP report has been prepared by the State Department. Improvements to TIP-related efforts were suggested, such as working more closely with the Tier 2 Watch List countries in the OSCE Region, – Azerbaijan, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – helping them to implement the changes necessary to meet the minimum standards and to avoid statutory downgrades which will otherwise be required in next year’s TIP report. Witnesses testifying at this hearing – including Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador at Large of the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons; Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; Jolene Smith, CEO & Co-Founder of Free the Slaves; and Holly J. Burkhalter, Vice President for Government Relations of the International Justice Mission – explored ways to potentially create extra-territorial jurisdiction for trafficking cases.  They also focused on ways to deter demand for trafficking victims in all countries, including Tier 1 countries.

  • Global Threats, European Security and Parliamentary Cooperation

    From nuclear security to climate change, global terrorism to anti-corruption efforts, this hearing examined what parliamentarians can do to work together on some of the most significant challenges facing the world. Members addressed European and Central Asian security concerns, including unresolved conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere, and considered how international parliaments can cooperate to address challenges related to trafficking, tolerance, and democratic development, including elections and media freedom.

  • Ukraine: Moving Beyond Stalemate

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  • State Department Human Rights Reports

    Mr. President, this month's release of the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices shows the value of consistently monitoring human rights around the globe. As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission charged with monitoring international human rights commitments in 56 countries from the U.S. and Canada to Europe and Central Asia, this annual report is a key tool that we, and others, use to track progress being made on universal freedoms. This year's reports have increased significance as 2010 is the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act and the 20th anniversary of historic international human rights agreements, the Copenhagen Document, and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. In a year commemorating such landmark human rights documents, this month's State Department reports remind us that many of the commitments countries made in the past still have not been met with meaningful action today. In Belarus, where I visited last summer, the political space for opposition remains tightly controlled, independent media face continual harassment, and elections are a farce. The overall situation in Russia remains disturbing as well. There 2009 was a year again filled with mourning the very people who stood for freedom, be they journalists, human rights advocates or lawyers simply trying to present a case against corruption. The country's harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses and forceful break up of public demonstrations remain particularly concerning. I urge Kazakhstan, as the current chair of the OSCE, to lead by example through concrete actions, starting with the release of activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, whom staff from the Helsinki Commission visited this week in prison. Zhovtis at least deserves the same freedoms afforded other prisoners in his facility, including the right to work outside the facility during the day. In Kosovo, in addition to problems with human trafficking, official corruption and a lack of judicial due process, the State Department notes the lack of progress regarding displaced persons of all ethnicities, politically and ethnically motivated violence, and societal antipathy against Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church. The lack of progress regarding the country's international recognition, while unfortunate, does not absolve Kosovo authorities from their responsibility to ensure greater respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner, who serves as the State Department Commissioner on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, did a superb job of unveiling the report today with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I was heartened to hear him specifically flag examples of 2009 human rights violations within the OSCE region that drew the attention of the Commission last year. The banning of construction of Muslim minarets in Switzerland, the pervasiveness of discrimination against Roma--Europe's largest ethnic minority, and the continued rise of anti-Semitism in Europe sadly still remain concerns this year.  While these country reports help to hold all governments--including our own--to account; and while much of their text shows the reality of a world troubled by violent conflicts and the mistreatment of our most vulnerable people; the State Department reports also show the positive that surrounds us. In this vein, Assistant Secretary Posner was right to mention the fairness of Ukraine's recent elections, for which my colleague Cochairman Hastings led the election observation mission. And the reports are eager to cite progress where appropriate.  But these reports affirm something else, and that is the strength of the legislative-executive branch cooperation when it comes to upholding universal standards. The Helsinki Commission is unique among all federal agencies for being comprised of Senate, House and executive branch commissioners, and Assistant Secretary Posner's activity with the Commission and the State Department's annual human rights reports mandated by Congress are but two examples of our two branches working together to keep a spotlight on human rights abuses.

  • U.S. Helsinki Group Slams Baku Court's Refusal of Bloggers' Appeal

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  • Helsinki Commission Applauds U.S. Human Rights Reports

    U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) hailed today’s release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices as a key tool to monitor and track progress on universal freedoms. “The State Department reports on human rights provide a valuable reference point for assessing human rights trends in countries throughout the world, including those in the expansive OSCE region stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” Chairman Cardin said. This year’s reports have increased significance as 2010 is the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act and the 20th anniversary of other international human rights agreements. “In a year commemorating landmark human rights documents of the Helsinki Final Act, the Copenhagen Document, and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, today’s State Department reports remind us that many of the promises countries made in those historic documents still have not been met with meaningful action,” Co-Chairman Hastings said. “These reports on human rights around the world are a critical tool, and they’ll provide a fact-base to inform our foreign policy in the year ahead,” said Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor. Posner, who serves as the State Department Commissioner on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, unveiled the reports with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a news conference this morning. As leaders of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the Co-Chairmen have consistently voiced concerns about the pattern of rights violations cited in several of the OSCE participating States. “In Belarus, the political space for opposition remains tightly controlled and independent media face continual harassment,” said Cardin, who travelled to Minsk in July 2009. “The overall situation in Russia remains disturbing with the murder of a leading human right advocate, harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and forceful break up of public demonstrations. I urge Kazakhstan, as the current chair of the OSCE, to lead by example through concrete actions, starting with the release of activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.” The Co-Chairmen welcomed Assistant Secretary Posner to the Commission Feb. 25.Posner’s activity with the Commission and the State Department’s annual human rights reports mandated by Congress are examples of legislative-executive branch cooperation to keep a spotlight on human rights abuses.

  • Democratic Change and Challenges in Moldova

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  • Ukraine Presidential Hopefuls Fear Election Fraud

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If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, as expected, there will be a runoff between the two top vote getters sometime in February. Sergei Markov, a member of the Russian parliament and an election observer, said Tymoshenko's fraud charges are part of an effort to prepare her supporters to challenge a Yanukovych victory. ''Claims that the opposition is trying to rig the vote show that the other side is ideologically preparing to reject the election in case they lose,'' said Markov, whose views on many issues are thought to reflect the thinking of the Kremlin. He spoke at the expert panel Friday. Yanukovych meanwhile has warned that his supporters will not allow any candidate to steal the current presidential contest, as he claims happened in 2004. The pro-Russian candidate's initial victory in that race was thrown out by the Supreme Court following the Orange street protests and accusations of widespread fraud by authorities on Yanukovych's behalf. ''No such scenario will be allowed,'' Yanukovych told reporters during a campaign trip to eastern Ukraine Thursday, referring to the street rallies that helped reverse his victory. ''If anybody is hoping for that, we will disappoint them.'' Yanukovych noted that in 2004 he called off plans for mass demonstrations by his supporters in the capital to avoid clashes with Orange protesters. He suggested that this time, his partisans would not back down against those who challenge a Yanukovych victory. Vladimir Fesenko, the head of Ukraine's Penta Center for Applied Political Research, predicted that neither Tymoshenko nor Yanukovych would accept defeat in the runoff, which is expected to pit the two old adversaries against one another. Instead, he said, they would challenge any defeat with peaceful protests. But he warned that if Tymoshenko's and Yanukovych's demonstrators face off, it could escalate into violence. ''Neither wants a real war,'' Fesenko said. ''But unfortunately there are risks. Often it is difficult to control people once they're on the streets. There could be adventurists from either camp that could provoke a clash.'' Authorities say they are planning to deploy thousands of police Sunday to ensure an orderly first round ballot. Foes of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko released a tape this week of a purported conversation between her and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in which he supposedly says he is sending 2,000 ''battle-ready'' observers to monitor the race. ''No worries, we are sending the best prepared and most battle-ready people to you,'' the voice alleged to be Saakashvili's says on the tape, which was played Friday at a panel of analysts and sociologists. Some here interpreted Saakashvili's purported comment as a pledge to support Tymoshenko in post-election street protests. Spokespeople for both Tymoshenko and Saakashvili declined to comment, and the authenticity of the tape could not be determined. Evgeny Kopatko, chief sociologist at Ukraine's R&B Group, a consultancy, said Friday that if tensions rise after the election, that ''could split the country in two, and this is a very serious risk, economically and politically. The country would be virtually uncontrollable.'' Parliament speaker Vladimir Litvin on Friday appealed to supporters of Ukraine's rival political leaders, urging not to take to the streets as they did in 2004. ''Today I'm calling on all of the politicians not to deal in actions on the Maidan,'' Litvin said, referring to Kiev's central square where tens of thousands rallied every day for weeks in late 2004. President Viktor Yushchenko, the eventual winner in 2004, is standing for re-election, but his popularity has plunged and his chances look slim. He warned that the elections could usher in an authoritarian government. ''Should there be an authoritarian regime of either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko, with the criminal elements that will come along, it will take away the freedom of expression,'' he said. Five years after the Orange Revolution brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital, public cynicism appeared widespread. Voters have offered to sell their votes on Web sites for the equivalent of between about $10 and $100. Despite the dire warnings, Alcee Hastings, a U.S. congressman who is deputy head of the international observer mission, told reporters Friday that so far no one has come up with evidence of intended voting irregularities. ''While the candidates accuse each other of fraud, neither of them has presented you in the media with a smoking gun,'' he said. ''I don't think there's going to be widespread fraud.'' Hastings noted that the election will come under intense scrutiny. He said there are more international observers in Ukraine for the presidential contest than for any previous election in the former Soviet Union. But Hastings did not rule out isolated efforts to falsify votes. ''Remember, I'm from Florida, the land of the hanging chads and the butterfly ballots,'' he said, referring to the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential contest and the controversial Florida vote count.

  • U.S. Diplomats Rap Astana's Democratization Performance

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  • The Western Balkans: Policy Responses to Today's Challenges

    This hearing reviewed the Vice President Biden’s meeting in Sarajevo and the Congressional delegation to Bosnia to speak about democratization process in the Balkan states. The Commissioners mentioned the need for governing bodies and systems that include every voice, particularly the ethnic communities in each country. These issues have correlated to potential instability in Bosnia resulting from the gridlock in government there.   The democratization and integration efforts, in relation to the Balkan joining closer to the greater European community and NATO, were touched upon to see the progress made.  The witness discussed examples of initiatives that moved the Balkans towards the goal of international standard of governance, for example the Model Court Initiative in Bosnia, which has helped to institute European standards in 33 local courts, upgrade court infrastructure and improve customer service.

  • Commission Plays Leading Role at Parliamentary Assembly in Lithuania

    By Robert A. Hand, Policy Advisor A bipartisan U.S. delegation traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania June 29 for the 18th Annual Session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation participated fully in the activity of the Assembly’s Standing Committee, the plenary sessions and the Assembly’s three General Committees. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin led the delegation, which included the following commissioners: Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, Ranking Minority Member Chris Smith, and Senator Roger Wicker, Representatives Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Mike McIntyre, G.K. Butterfield and Robert B. Aderholt. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Senator George Voinovich and Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Madeleine Z. Bordallo and Gwen Moore also joined the delegation. Background of the OSCE PA The Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of more than 300 parliamentarians from each of the 56 countries, which stretch from the United States and Canada throughout Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Annual Sessions are the chief venue for debating international issues and voting on a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development, rule of law, economic, environmental and security concerns among the participating States and the international community. The United States delegation is allotted 17 seats in the Assembly. Robust Congressional participation has been a hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago, ensuring U.S. interests are raised and discussed. 18th Annual Session This year’s Annual Session, hosted by the Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania from June 29 to July 3, brought together more than 500 participants from 50 of the 56 OSCE participating States under the theme: “The OSCE: Addressing New Security Challenges.” The Standing Committee -- the Assembly’s leadership body (composed of Heads of Delegations from the participating States and the elected officers) -- met prior to the Annual Session. Senator Cardin, as Head of Delegation and an OSCE PA Vice President, represented the United States. Chaired by the OSCE PA President, Portuguese parliamentarian João Soares, the committee heard reports from the Assembly’s Treasurer, German parliamentarian Hans Reidel, and from the Assembly’s Secretary General, R. Spencer Oliver of the United States. The Assembly continues to operate well within its overall budget guidelines and to receive positive assessments from auditors on financial management. The committee unanimously approved the proposed budget for 2009-2010. The Standing Committee also approved several changes in the OSCE PA’s Rules of Procedure, especially related to gender balance and the holding of elections for officers, as well as 24 Supplementary Items or resolutions for consideration in plenary or committee sessions. The committee brought up as an urgent matter a resolution regarding the detention of Iranian citizens employed by the British Embassy in Tehran. Senator Cardin spoke in support of the resolution. With the Standing Committee’s business concluded, Assembly President Soares opened the Inaugural Plenary Session, stressing in his opening remarks the need for OSCE reform. The first session concluded with a discussion of gender issues led by Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgaard that included comments from Rep. Gwen Moore. A Special Plenary Session the next day was scheduled to accommodate the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who had just presided over an informal meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Corfu, Greece, to launch a new, high-level dialogue on European security. Senator Cardin attended the Corfu meeting as a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Following her speech, Bakoyannis engaged in a dialogue with parliamentarians on a number of OSCE issues. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas also addressed the special session. Lithuania will chair the OSCE in 2011. U.S. Member Involvement The U.S. delegation actively participated in the work of the Assembly’s three General Committees – the first committee for Political Affairs and Security; the second for Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment; and the third on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. Each committee considered its own draft resolution, prepared by an elected Rapporteur, as well as 23 of the 25 Supplementary Items. Two Supplementary Items, including one by President Soares on Strengthening the OSCE, were considered in plenary session. Representatives Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, and Gwen Moore each proposed resolutions that were adopted dealing with freedom of expression on the Internet, international cooperation in Afghanistan, and prevention of maternal mortality respectively. Members of the U.S. delegation were also instrumental in garnering support for Supplementary Items introduced by others, co-sponsoring eight resolutions introduced by delegations of other countries. The U.S. delegation was responsible for 26 amendments to either the committee draft resolutions or various Supplementary Items. Chairman Cardin proposed climate-related amendments to a resolution on energy security and suggested the OSCE initiate work with Pakistan in the resolution on Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Hastings worked on numerous human rights and tolerance issues. Other amendments were sponsored by: Sen. Durbin on improving international access to clean water; Sen. Voinovich on combating anti-Semitism; Sen. Wicker on preserving cultural heritage; Rep. Smith on preventing the abuse of children; and Rep. Butterfield on responding to climate change. Bilateral Meetings The U.S. delegation also engaged in a variety of activities associated with the Annual Session, holding bilateral meetings with the delegations of Russia and Georgia focusing on their respective internal political developments and the tension in the Caucasus since Russia invaded Georgia last August and then sought to legitimize breakaway regions. Separate meetings were also held with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other Lithuanian leaders, at which the delegation pressed for new laws to resolve outstanding claims of property seized during the Nazi and Communist eras. The delegation also presented President Adamkus a letter from President Barack Obama on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first written reference to Lithuania. Members of the U.S. delegation attended a working lunch to discuss gender issues, hosted by Swedish parliamentarian Tingsgaard. A variety of social events, including a reception hosted by the British delegation at their embassy, afforded numerous informal opportunities to discuss issues of common concern. U.S. Leadership As a demonstration of active U.S. engagement, a Member of the U.S. Congress has always held some elected or appointed leadership role in the OSCE PA. The Vilnius Annual Session has allowed this to continue at least through July 2012. Chairman Cardin was reelected to a three-year term as one of nine Vice Presidents, a very welcome development given his long record of OSCE engagement going back to his years in the House of Representatives. Rep. Aderholt, who has attended every OSCE PA Annual Session since 2002 and often visits European countries to press human rights issues, was elected Vice Chair of the third General Committee, which handles democracy and human rights. President Soares was reelected for a second term and selected Rep. Smith to serve as a Special Representative on Human Trafficking and asked Co-Chairman Hastings to continue serving as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs. An unfortunate development in the election of new officers is the absence of a representative of the Russian Federation. Because the United States government may disagree so substantively with current Kremlin policies, the U.S. government has always felt it critical to welcome Russian engagement in the OSCE PA. It was, therefore, a disappointment that the head of the Russian Federation delegation, Alexander Kozlovsky, reversed course and decided not to run for a Vice Presidency seat and more disappointing that a political bloc at the OSCE PA defeated Russian incumbent Natalia Karpovich as rapporteur of the Third Committee. Karpovich had been accommodating of U.S. human rights initiatives in her draft resolution. Vilnius Declaration Participants at the closing plenary session adopted the final Vilnius Declaration -- a lengthy document which reflects the initiatives and input of the U.S. delegation. Among other things, the declaration calls for strengthening the OSCE in order to enhance its legitimacy and political relevance; addresses conventional arms control, disarmament and other security-related issues of current concern in Europe; calls for greater cooperation in the energy sector and better protection of the environment; and stresses the continued importance of democratic development and respect for human rights, especially as they relate to tolerance in society and freedom of expression. The most contentious part of the declaration related to the promotion of human rights and civil liberties twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included language noting the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While some of the language may have been provocative, strong Russian objections to the entire text appeared to be motivated by a desire to defend a Stalinist past and minimize its crimes. The Russian delegation’s effort to block passage of this resolution reflects a similar sentiment in Moscow that recently led to the creation of a widely-criticized commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." As a July 9 column for The Economist noted about recent Russian efforts to excuse Stalinism, the “debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.” Some of Russia’s traditional friends and allies in the OSCE PA were noticeably absent from the debate. The Balkans While the Congressional delegation’s work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, the trip afforded an opportunity to advance U.S. interests elsewhere in Europe. While Co-Chairman Hastings traveled to Albania to observe that country’s first parliamentary elections since becoming a NATO member earlier this year, the rest of the delegation visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the conflict in the 1990s and the associated horrors of the Srebrenica genocide and massive ethnic cleansing. The reverberations of the conflict continue to hinder prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The United States was instrumental in bringing the Bosnian conflict to an end in 1995, especially with the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement, and the United States has invested considerable financial, diplomatic and military resources in the post-conflict period. The visit came one month after Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo with a message of renewed U.S. engagement in the Balkans. While meetings with Bosnian political leaders revealed little willingness to work constructively toward constitutional reform needed for an effective central government, a meeting with English-speaking university students revealed a refreshing desire to overcome ethnic divisions and move the country forward. Belarus Given its proximity to Vilnius, members of the Congressional delegation visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to press for greater democracy and respect for human rights in that country. Belarus has remained a repressive state over the years even as its European neighbors have transitioned from being former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states to EU and NATO members or aspirants. Following a delegation meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusian authorities released imprisoned American Emanuel Zeltzer, who was convicted of espionage in a closed trial and had numerous health concerns. The delegation also urged for greater progress in meeting the conditions in the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and reauthorized in 2006. A meeting with political activists provided useful information on the situation for political opposition, non-governmental organizations and independent media. Finally, the delegation pressed Belarus’ officials to allow for an increased U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In response to expanding U.S. sanctions, Minsk kicked out 30 diplomats last year, including the U.S. ambassador, leaving a staff of five at the U.S. Embassy. During the course of the Vilnius Annual Session, Senator Voinovich also broke away for a brief visit to Riga, Latvia. That visit was among the highest level visits from a U.S. official in three years, and was important for our relations with this NATO ally, which has deployed troops with Americans in Afghanistan without caveat and recently suffered losses which easily impact such a small country. U.S. interests abroad are advanced through active congressional participation in the OSCE PA. The 19th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be held early next July in Oslo, Norway.

  • Moldova’s Recent Elections: Prospects for Change in Europe’s Poorest Country

    This briefing took place in the wake of the June 20th, 2009 parliamentary elections in Moldova. Nearly 60 percent of the Moldovan populace voted, and nearly 3,000 international and local observers were present. The international election observation mission consisted of delegations from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, and the European parliament. The international election observation mission evaluated the elections positively overall, but noticed a number of shortcomings, particularly in the process of registration of electoral lists and the overall tense climate of the electoral campaign.

  • The Trouble with the Recent Iranian Elections

    Mr. President, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which has had decades of experience monitoring election and promoting democracy and human rights, I would like to take this moment to speak on a troubling matter that has filled headlines around the world in the last few days. We have all seen the images. Violence and mass protests are erupting across Iran following the hasty vote count of a deeply flawed presidential election process in that country. Yet another unfortunate chapter is unfolding before our eyes that reinforces Iran’s record as a police state and totalitarian regime more concerned with keeping its tight grip on power than yielding to the will of the people. I stand with President Obama calling for the government to exercise restraint and the violence to end. Regrettably, at least seven people have been killed and countless others injured. We may never know the true results of this election, given the lack of international monitoring. But what we do know is that in the last few days we have witnessed tens of thousands of Iranians raise their voice in protest to ensure that their vote meant something. On Friday, voters in Iran lined up in unprecedented numbers to choose their next president. I, like many others, was dismayed on Saturday to hear the ruling clerics rush to announce that Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a large margin. Regardless of the limited official scope of his duties, President Ahmadinejad’s consistent pattern of noxious remarks and his belligerent attitude inject understandable tension around the Middle East and beyond. He has used the presidential podium to instigate conflict with the international community, pursue acquisition of nuclear weapons, and spew hatred and intolerance toward Israel and the United States. I cannot say and will not say what could have been or should have been if any other candidate was elected, but there is no doubt whatsoever as to Ahmadinejad’s unfitness as a leader. Equally troubling were the almost immediate reports coming from Tehran and elsewhere around Iran that there were deep flaws in this election. Elections do not equal democracy, nor do they guarantee that the will of the people will be reflected in their government. But this was not a free and fair election from the start. In Iranian Presidential elections, only a select group of candidates approved by a 12-person Council of Guardians are eligible to run. The Iranian regime, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to severely restrict civil liberties including freedom of speech, expression, assembly, and association. Freedom to discuss ideas without threat of oppression is a fundamental human right that is essential to a government truly reflecting the will of its people. This freedom is absent in Iran. Typically, Iranian elections and public expressions are carefully monitored and manipulated by the ruling regime to prevent challenges to their authority. The last few days we have seen something different. The tens of thousands of people lining the streets of Tehran – in an incredible rebuttal to the ruling powers – want to know that the votes that they cast are counted properly. The deliberate lack of transparency in the vote tabulation and the blatant attempts to block mass communications among citizens, particularly the youth, are too glaring to ignore. Even the Supreme Leader has been forced to backtrack on his immediate approval of the results and has called for at least the appearance of a recount in some disputed areas. Americans know something about wanting to have their votes counted accurately. The difference between our two nations is when the results of a U.S. election were in dispute, the world spotlight shined bright on the process and the people involved resolved the conflict peacefully. Transparency and openness is not a hallmark of Iranian elections. Even before the presidential election took place, Iran’s totalitarian regime blocked personal communications like texting and access to the Internet. Media have been confined to Tehran, if they haven’t been asked to leave the country. The regime’s ongoing attempts to curtail communication and silence protests – often with brutal force – demonstrate the regime’s fear of losing a grip on power. Allegations of a fraudulent vote count are a symptom of a regime that has survived by mixing select elements of democracy into an authoritarian power structure that oppresses its people. On June 12, the people of Iran did not vote for the Supreme Leader of their country. Under the current system, Khamenei and his supporters will continue to dictate policy to the President of Iran, regardless of who that president is and whatever policy decisions the president is authorized to make. The people of Iran want their voices to be heard and they should be assured that the world is listening. I urge those in power in Iran also to listen and implement the reforms necessary to allow the will of the people to be expressed. I look forward to a future when the people of Iran have an opportunity for a free and fair election of leaders of their choosing. It is my sincere hope that one day this vision will be realized, and the voice of the Iranian people will truly be heard.

  • Albania’s Elections and the Challenge of Democratic Transition

    In this briefing, Co-Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings examined the democratic progress made in Albania on the eve of the country’s parliamentary elections, set for June 28, 2009.  This examination was to assess Albania’s overall preparedness for European integration after it had applied for candidate status with the European Union and joined the NATO Alliance. Panelists - including Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Co-Chair, Albania Issues Caucus, Elez Biberaj, Director, Eurasia Division, Voice of America, Jonas Rolett,  Regional Director for South Central Europe, Open Society Institute, and Robert Benjamin, Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe, National Democratic Institute - discussed the prospects for the upcoming elections to be held in accordance with the standards set by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which would be observing the election.

  • The Western Balkans: Challenges for U.S. and European Engagement

    This hearing discussed the recent progress of the seven countries of the Western Balkans with regards to internal stability, democratic development, minority rights, anti-corruption efforts, and the rule of law. The witnesses evaluated each country’s progress and that of the region as a whole. In addition, the hearing also focused on the on the election process in each country and whether they had met the OSCE standards for elections.

  • Belarus Imprisonment

    Mr. President, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I would like to bring to the attention of the Senate a situation which is literally a matter of life and death for an American citizen, Emanuel Zeltser, who has been imprisoned in Belarus since March 12, 2008. Mr. Zeltser is in desperate and immediate need of serious medical treatment--including a coronary bypass operation. The poor human rights record of President Lukashenka's regime is well known. No American--indeed no human being--should be subjected to the kind of treatment Mr. Zeltser has been forced to endure during his incarceration. Despite Mr. Zeltser's grave health condition--he suffers from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, severe arthritis, gout, and dangerously elevated blood pressure--Belarusian authorities have repeatedly refused to provide Mr. Zeltser with his prescribed medications. He was initially denied two independent medical evaluations and he has reported being physically assaulted and abused while incarcerated. Amnesty International has urged that Belarusian authorities no longer subject Mr. Zeltser to "further torture and other ill-treatment.'' Mr. Zeltser was convicted of "using false official documents'' and "attempted economic espionage'' in a closed judicial proceeding. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk criticized the proceedings, noting that it was denied the opportunity to observe the trial. The State Department has repeatedly called for Mr. Zeltser's release on humanitarian grounds. So have others in Congress, especially my colleague on the Helsinki Commission, cochairman Representative Alcee Hastings. But now the situation appears dire. Earlier this month, Mr. Zeltser was examined by an American doctor. It was only the second time an American physician has been permitted to see Mr. Zeltser. The doctor concluded that "there is a clear and high risk of sudden death from heart attack unless the patient is immediately transferred to a U.S. hospital with the proper equipment and facilities. ..... Refusal to transfer Mr. Zeltser to a U.S. hospital is equivalent to a death sentence.'' Specifically, Mr. Zeltser is in dire need of a coronary bypass procedure. The doctor also determined that because he had been denied prescribed diabetes medication, Mr. Zeltser's left foot may need to be amputated. In response to a press inquiry in December, the State Department called for "the Belarusian authorities to release Mr. Zeltser on humanitarian grounds before this situation takes an irrevocable turn.'' Based on the recent doctor's report it is apparent that such an irrevocable turn is imminent unless this American citizen can be brought home promptly for the medical treatment necessary to save his life. Belarus has taken some tentative steps to improve its notably poor human rights record, in particular the release of several political prisoners last August. However, Mr. Zeltser's continued, and potentially terminal, imprisonment threatens to override those initially encouraging signs. As such, I strongly urge the Belarusian authorities to release Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds so that he may obtain the immediate medical treatment his doctor has concluded is required if he is to live.

  • Turkmenistan: Prospect for Change?

    The purpose of this hearing was to examine Turkmenistan’s parliamentary elections- the first such election since the regime changed. The hearing focused on whether the election might mark a turning point at all for Turkmenistan as well as whether Turkmenistan has made progress on Democratic reforms. Positive signs were reviewed, particularly on education, but also areas of concern, such as reports of Turkmen officials pressuring young men not to apply for study programs in the United States. The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners reviewed the reform process and the significant advancements since the death of longtime President, Berdimuhamedov. In regards to areas of further reform and advancement, the hearing addressed measures in which the U.S. and the OSCE should respond to better the human rights condition in Turkmenistan.

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