Title

Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement:

“Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.”

Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot.

According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

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Stacy Hope
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csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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  • What’s Washington’s role in Belarus?

    The United States should lift up Belarusian civil society, according to experts, and slap tougher sanctions on mid-level government officials abusing protestors. The Trump administration should widen sanctions against human-rights abusers in Belarus and ramp up support for civil-society groups monitoring president Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown, according to former State and Treasury department officials. Lukashenko purged his political opponents from the ballot in mid-August and unleashed security forces against civilians protesting the election. The crackdown has not cowed Lukashenko’s opponents, who have called for his ouster every weekend for the past two months. Over 100,000 people protested in Minsk on Sunday. The United States penalized senior members of Lukashenko’s inner-circle last week in an effort to push the embattled leader to negotiate. The State Department announced in September that the United States no longer recognizes Lukashenko’s government, and coordinated the sanctions with wider penalties from Europe. Both the Trump administration and European Union officials could be doing more to support the protestors, experts told National Journal. “I think both the U.S. and the EU need to go much further than they have so far, in terms of the number of people that they sanction,” said Michael Carpenter, director at the Penn Biden Center, who called for sanctions against “mid-level” Belarusian officials directly responsible for the human-rights abuses. Belarus-specific sanctions date to the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, and a Bush-era executive order that sets out guidelines for penalizing officials responsible for undermining democracy. Lawmakers added further penalties in 2011. The Trump administration targeted eight people Friday, including the head of Belarus’s elections and the chief of Belarus’s security forces, and the European Union sanctioned 40 people. The United Kingdom and Canada also announced sanctions over the weekend, including against Lukashenko himself. The sanctions are only one part of Belarus policy, experts stressed, which is ultimately supposed to push Lukashenko to negotiate. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mediate the negotiations on Tuesday. Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, predicted that Merkel would take up the challenge—but would have to act quickly. Russian President Vladimir Putin might accuse the EU of meddling in Belarus’ government should the talks drag, Dempsey told National Journal. “If Merkel does take on this mediating role, it’s got to be incredibly sophisticated and it’s got to be very fast,” said Dempsey. The United States may not play a direct role in mediating the talks, but the Trump administration might put more pressure on Lukashenko by targeting mid-level officials inside his government. Former State Department sanctions coordinator Daniel Fried told National Journal that the State Department and OFAC could craft an executive order to authorize “status-based” penalties: those which authorize Treasury to target specific people based on their employment. Officials could then work with Belarusian civil society to identify targets, like “the plainclothes cops roughing up dissidents.” “Putting this into legislation is hard as hell, and then it’s not as flexible,” said Fried. “It’s far better to let OFAC do it, in coordination with the State Department.” Lawmakers have remained largely hands-off on Belarus, besides offering statements in support of those protesting against Lukashenko. In July, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the arrest of opposition candidates and political protesters. The chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee separately called out Lukashenko’s handling of the election in early August, and later in the month issued a joint statement calling for sanctions against those responsible for human-rights abuses. The upper chamber might support Belarus policy by advancing Trump’s ambassadorial nominee to Belarus, several former officials and experts told National Journal. The United States and Belarus haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2008. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced career State Department official Julie Fisher favorably out of committee in late September. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy voted against the nomination, and argued that sending the ambassador to Belarus during the crackdown would reward Lukashenko. Some experts disagreed, and said having an ambassador in Minsk could help the United States coordinate policy with civil-society groups and would send an important signal to domestic opposition. Sen. James Risch told Murphy that the State Department believed having an ambassador to Minsk was “the best way to help the Belarusian people.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not respond to emailed questions about Fisher’s nomination; Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesperson Suzanne Wrasse told National Journal that McConnell has “a number of priorities,” and that ambassadorial nominations were “on the list.” While former officials agreed that ramping up support for civil society groups and sanctioning mid-level Belarusian officials could be effective at prodding Lukashenko to negotiate, they disagreed over whether also to target large state-owned firms that form the backbone of the Belarusian economy. Carpenter, Fried, and other former Obama administration officials suggested that penalizing the companies could end up hurting protestors, many of whom work on the factory floors. The Lukashenko government has close ties with heavy industry, however, and a few lawmakers told National Journal they support lifting waivers granting them access to the U.S. market. Rep. Alcee Hastings asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in mid-August to cancel sanctions waivers for several Belarusian companies. Hastings led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election-monitoring mission for Belarus’s 2006 presidential election, and now heads the Helsinki Commission, a congressionally-created agency that coordinates OSCE policy on Capitol Hill. The Treasury Department has not responded to Hastings’ letter. “Providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system is unacceptable, and the sanctions announced on individuals last week by the Treasury Department are a step in the right direction,” said Hastings in a statement to National Journal. “However, Lukashenko himself has long been a prime candidate for Global Magnitsky sanctions, and failing to include him among the sanctioned individuals is a severe oversight.” Last fall, the state-owned Belarusian oil company Belneftekhim retained lobbyist David Gencarelli to push for the continuation of a licensing exemption allowing the company to purchase “crude oil with delivery to the refineries in the Republic of Belarus.” The Treasury Department extended relief to Belneftekhim and other heavy-industry players, giving them continued access to the American market until April 2021. “What we’ve seen over the years with Lukashenko is he’s a very skillful player juggling between the U.S. and Europe, which is a natural market for Belarus, and Russia,” said Sofya Orlosky, senior program manager for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. The EU has similarly sought to keep Lukashenko from sliding into Putin’s orbit, periodically lifting and reimposing sanctions on his government for human-rights abuses. The bloc suspended financial penalties in 2016 after Lukashenko granted “amnesty” to a number of political prisoners, which Orlosky said normalized Lukashenko’s undemocratic behavior. “There’s been, as it were, a limit to the severity of sanctions in the past, because the argument was made at least implicitly that we don’t want to alienate Belarus too much or throw them into Russia’s arms,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus. The Trump administration has pursued normalization with Minsk for the past several years, prior to Lukashenko’s crackdown. The State Department’s top political official, David Hale, met with Lukashenko in Minsk in September 2019, and stated afterward that the U.S. was ready to exchange ambassadors “as the next step in normalizing our relationship.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February for the same purpose. The difference now, according to Gould-Davies: The legitimacy of Lukashenko’s regime “is basically broken.” Very few people support the government, aside from people working directly for the state, which undercuts calls for moderation in the West. “He enjoys no significant support outside of those who actually work for the state,” said Gould-Davies.

  • U.S., EU Sanction Belarus in Coordinated Western Action

    Lukashenko government lashes out, saying no ‘self-respecting’ state would agree to demands posed by the West. The U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus officials on Friday, part of a coordinated effort by Western allies to censure the authoritarian regime over accusations of political repression and rigging elections. The EU reached an early morning deal to advance a sanctions package against more than three dozen Belarusian individuals deemed responsible for suppressing protests and for election fraud. Hours later, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted eight senior figures in longtime President Alexander Lukashenko’s government or associated with his rule. Among those blacklisted were Interior Minister Yuriy Khadzymuratavich Kareau and top election commission officials. The EU’s action against Belarus, together with a joint statement reprimanding Turkey for drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece, was meant as a broader message of mounting concern that Europe’s eastern periphery, a region that once held hopes for a spread of democracy, is increasingly turning back to its authoritarian past. Divisions within the EU stymied an attempt to sanction Turkey during a summit this week, but officials said the bloc could approve punitive actions in the future. The EU was able to move forward with its Belarus sanctions package, originally promised in August, after Greece and Cyprus secured the statement calling for Turkey to halt its drilling. While the U.S. sanctioned Mr. Lukashenko in 2006, the EU declined for now to include the Belarussian leader himself in their action. Officials said the president, who previously was the subject of EU sanctions that were lifted in 2016, still could be targeted again later. The EU sanctions came into effect Friday afternoon. Mr Lukashenko’s interior minister was also one of the highest-profile names on the EU sanctions list. The Belarus foreign ministry condemned the sanctions and said the government also enacted its own sanctions list, which won’t be made public. It said it may also reconsider its participation in joint programs with the EU and could cut diplomatic ties if further EU sanctions are levied. “The sanctions were introduced as a punitive measure…for the fact that Belarus did not comply with a set of ultimatum requirements that no self-respecting sovereign state would satisfy,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. The statement didn’t address the specific allegations of election-rigging and violent political repression. The U.S. and EU sanctions follow the imposition of sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko and seven senior figures in his government by the U.K. and Canada on Tuesday, a sign of widening discontent in the West over ongoing repression of peaceful protests against his purported victory in a disputed election. Western officials have accused Mr. Lukashenko and his allies of multiple human rights violations in detaining and allegedly torturing protesters following the Aug. 9 vote, which Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents and Western governments say was rigged in his favor to extend his more than a quarter-century in power. The EU has called for a rerun of the presidential elections with international supervision. It has warned it could add additional sanctions if Mr. Lukashenko refuses to enter dialogue with the opposition. The U.S. sanctions targeted officials the Treasury Department said run government offices responsible for the political repression, human rights abuses and election fixing. Besides the top two Interior Ministry officials, the Treasury also blacklisted the two leaders of Interior’s Internal Troops, Yuriy Henadzievich Nazaranka and Khazalbek Bakhtsibekavich Atabekau. “The Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations to choose their own leaders and peacefully exercise their rights have been met with violence and oppression from Belarusian officials,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The Trump administration declined for now to revoke a special license giving the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus access to the U.S. financial system, as urged by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a government body that advises administrations on sanctions. While the EU’s Belarus sanctions had broad support, the bloc has been deeply split over how to respond to Turkey’s increasingly frequent flexing of military muscle in the region, including its unilateral moves to explore and drill for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey says it has the right to seek energy resources in the region. With respect to Turkey, the EU leaders settled on diplomacy for now, issuing the joint statement but threatening sanctions if Ankara didn’t show willingness to improve ties. Western diplomats said tensions between Ankara and Athens this summer rose to levels not seen since the 1970s, when Turkey and Greece came close to a direct military conflict over Cyprus. Greece and Turkey are North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. However, Turkey has for now suspended its energy activities in waters claimed by Greece but not by Cyprus. Separately, Turkey and Greece reached an agreement Thursday, mediated by NATO, to take measures to avoid an air or naval clash in the eastern Mediterranean, including a hotline between the two countries. European diplomats have also grown alarmed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to send troops into Libya and Syria, its unconditional support for Azerbaijan in renewed fighting with Armenia and its acquisition of advanced weaponry from Russia. On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said France had clear evidence that jihadist fighters were leaving Syria to go to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh via Turkey. Mr. Macron had earlier criticized Ankara for what he called its bellicose comments against Armenia over its conflict with Azerbaijan. —Ann Simmons in Moscow contributed to this article.

  • ONGOING TRANSATLANTIC ENGAGEMENT THROUGH THE OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY

    Mr. HUDSON. Madam Speaker, I rise today to highlight my recent efforts to engage with our allies across Europe to address the current political turmoil in Belarus and seek a way forward. On September 23, I joined a video call of the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), where I serve as Chairman the Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Joining us for the discussion were the Head of the Belarusian delegation to the OSCE PA, Mr. Andrei Savinykh, and the leader of the Belarusian opposition and former presidential candidate, Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Ms. Tikhanovskaya shared with us the long struggle of the people of Belarus for their rights under President Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year authoritarian rule. The fraudulent presidential election on August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed he ``won'' with over 80 percent of the vote, led thousands of Belarusians across the country to come out into the streets. They risk physical harm and imprisonment to demand free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. Unfortunately, these individuals have been met with brute force from the authoritarian regime. They continue to injure and detain protestors, journalists, and even bystanders on a massive scale. Instances of torture in detention have been reported, and some have been killed. Lukashenko is clearly afraid for his political future. In another desperate move, he recently held an illegal, early "inauguration'' in an attempt to consolidate his illegitimate power. I strongly condemned Lukashenko's violent repression of Belarusians and express solidarity for their desire to choose their own leadership in a democratic and transparent manner and to exercise their fundamental freedoms without fear of violent repercussions or harassment. During our meeting, I noted two particular cases that we in the United States are watching closely. U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov, who was in Belarus visiting family, was unjustly detained in July and languishes in a Belarusian prison since the end of July. We are concerned for his welfare and I called for his release. I also mentioned that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mogilev, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, has been denied re-entry to Belarus after a visit abroad, even though he is a citizen. He has openly criticized the government's use of violence against peaceful people, including the detention of priests and clergy, and we fear that this too is a political act on the part of Lukashenko and an infringement on religious freedom. The future of Belarus belongs to its people, and, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized, this path should be ``free from external intervention.'' Indeed, my colleagues in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly understand that it is not our place to choose the leadership of Belarus, but to use the unique role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as a representative body to foster authentic dialogue, prevent and resolve conflict, and hold each other accountable. As an OSCE participating State, Belarus has an obligation to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, including those on human rights and fundamental freedoms. I am pleased that 17 participating States of the OSCE, including the United States, have invoked the Moscow Mechanism, which will establish a mission of independent experts to look into the particularly serious threats to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in Belarus. The report that the mission issues will hopefully offer us greater insight into the situation in Belarus and recommendations for future actions. It is a privilege, through the U.S. Helsinki Commission, to represent the United States Congress in the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. The Parliamentary Assembly provides Members of Congress with a unique, bipartisan opportunity to work with our friends and allies to help resolve pressing global issues while promoting our shared values. Because the Parliamentary Assembly includes representatives of Belarus and our European allies, it is uniquely suited to address the human rights and security implications of the moment in Belarus. Madam Speaker, please join me today in calling for an end to violence and mass detentions in Belarus and recognizing the importance of continued Congressional engagement with the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE.

  • Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: ALBANIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Responding to the Multiple Challenges of 2020 Thursday, September 17, 2020 1:00 p.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2020, Albania holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—with a multi-dimensional mandate and a 57-country membership stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. This year, the OSCE has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic and the clear urgency of action against racism, while maintaining its necessary focus on other longtime concerns often impacted by these developments.  These concerns include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine and threats to other nearby or neighboring countries; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and political leaders in Belarus as well as in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and other OSCE countries seeking to undermine democratic institutions and stifle dissent in every sector.  Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Vulnerable communities, including migrants, are targets of discrimination and violence.  Uncertainties in the Western Balkans and Central Asia remain.  The recent decision of some countries to block reappointments of senior officers at key OSCE institutions undermines the organization at a time when effective contributions to security and cooperation across the region are so deeply needed. The Helsinki Commission regularly holds a hearing allowing the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to present its priorities for the year and to exchange views on current issues. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who holds his country’s foreign affairs portfolio, will appear at this hearing to discuss the performance of the OSCE thus far in 2020 and to share his views in advance of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting scheduled for early December.

  • Chairman Hastings Asks Treasury Secretary to Revoke Access to U.S. Financial System for Largest State-Owned Companies in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. The letter, which follows the violent suppression of peaceful protests in Belarus after the country’s fraudulent presidential election on August 9, reads in part: “As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime… “Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to [Belarus’] March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action.” During the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, Chairman Hastings led the OSCE’s short-term international election observation mission of more than 500 observers; its report noted that the “arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition.” The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, I request that you revoke General License No. 2G with respect to Executive Order 13405, which authorizes access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus.  As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime. For the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, I served as Special Coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chair-in-Office, where I led the international election observation mission of more than 500 observers and declared that those elections were not free and fair.  At that time, President Lukashenko failed to live up to international commitments by arbitrarily preventing 19 international observers from joining the mission, enforcing a pattern of intimidation against voters and opposition candidates, as well as manipulating state media.  I am sad to see that nothing has changed in more than a decade and the reach of President Lukashenko’s regime has consequently done even more irreparable damage to the Belarusian people. Ahead of Belarus’ presidential election on August 9, Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has once again authorized crackdowns on opposition protestors, journalists, and civil society activists.  Over 1,300 people were arbitrarily detained in the course of the campaign.  Still more are being detained in protests following the election.  The president disqualified or jailed his top three competitors, hoping to ensure victory.  Belarus also failed to extend a timely invitation to international observers, preventing impartial monitors from the OSCE from observing the election process, which increases the likelihood of large-scale fraud. Lukashenko underestimated, however, how much the public would rally around the wife of an intended presidential candidate who was unjustly imprisoned.  As an opposition candidate and everyday citizen concerned for the future of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has mobilized thousands across Belarus to demand change in their country, starting with free and fair elections.  Tikhanovskaya and her family are now safely in refuge under the protection of the Lithuanian government for fear of what might become of them now that the fraudulent election results have been announced. Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to the aforementioned March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action. The people of Belarus have demonstrated through these protests their deep desire for democracy and their refusal to be silenced.  It is incumbent upon us to stand with them.  At the very least, this means that we should not be inadvertently providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system. Sincerely, Alcee L. Hastings Chairman

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

    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.

  • Hastings: Petty Parochialism Denies OSCE Vital Leadership During Global Crisis

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  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Corrosive Impact of Disinformation on the Electoral Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DISINFORMATION, COVID-19, AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS Thursday, May 21, 2020 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Register to attend. Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many countries still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of the year, the stakes cannot be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing will examine the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explore opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program; author of “How to Lose the Information War” Sophia Ignatidou, Academy Associate, International Security Programme, Chatham House

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning COVID-19 Emergency Responses

    OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue.  Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid.  Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need.  And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news.  A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience.  Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time.  I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE.  As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders.  Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency.  I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.”  “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.”  We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections.  But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments.  Thank you.

  • Chairman Hastings Denounces Unchecked Power Granted To Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Following the Hungarian Parliament’s decision on Monday to accept Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s request for unlimited power to rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Prime Minister Orban has taken gross advantage of the fear and uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic to secure the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Instead of focusing on the well-being of Hungarian citizens likely to suffer from the coronavirus, he has chosen to prioritize preserving his parliamentary majority and permanently consolidating his control of the Hungarian Government.  “At both the global and national levels, defeating the coronavirus will require extraordinary social solidarity, not unchecked executive power.  The further concentration of powers in Hungary will only pave the way for the further concentration of corruption.” Among other provisions, the new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for spreading false or distorted information regarding the fight against the coronavirus, which could be used against journalists reporting on the state of Hungary’s hospitals or health care delivery.  The law also suspends elections.  Hungary has recently completed a cycle of elections (parliamentary, European Parliament, and municipal) with no other major elections scheduled until 2022. In the meantime, by-elections and referenda are prohibited.  The law, which lacks a sunset clause, may only be repealed by a two-thirds vote of parliament, or terminated by the Prime Minister himself. In 1991, Hungary—along with all other OSCE participating States—adopted the Moscow Document in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Russia. The agreement includes specific provisions on states of emergency.  In particular, the OSCE participating States agreed to “in conformity with international standards regarding the freedom of expression, take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession other than those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”   On March 30, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir warned that emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region, including Hungary, must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight. Since 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing to explore developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.  

  • E.U. Tries Gentle Diplomacy to Counter Hungary’s Crackdown on Democracy

    European leaders were reluctant to pick a fight with Prime Minister Viktor Orban a day after he secured powers to rule by decree indefinitely. BRUSSELS — The European Union’s written response to Hungary’s effective suspension of democracy omitted one important word: Hungary. A day after the Hungarian Parliament passed sweeping emergency measures allowing the far-right populist leader Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus, the European Commission on Tuesday reminded its members to respect rights. But it was a muted first response from the one institution that can take on Mr. Orban, and it appeared aimed at balancing the political imperative of cooperation in the era of the coronavirus with the risk of emboldening him. “It’s of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Orban or Hungary. The European Commission is the European Union’s executive branch, and it often describes itself as “the guardian of the treaty” that created the bloc of 27 democracies. But Mr. Orban has long been in an open struggle with parts of that treaty. He has said frankly that he does not believe in liberal democracy — which the European Commission says is fundamental to the European Union’s values. The severe measures adopted Monday in Budapest may dramatically ratchet up the confrontation between the Orban government and European Union institutions in Brussels. Hungary’s new legislation suspends elections and also allows the prime minister to suspend existing laws and rule by decree. One vaguely worded section also says that people found to be spreading “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” that obstruct the authorities from protecting the public may be punished with prison sentences of up to five years. That new tool that may allow Mr. Orban to further curb the press freedoms long in his cross hairs. To be sure, in the face of the epidemic, European countries have all to lesser or greater extent adopted emergency measures curbing liberties, including measures that require citizens to register any movement and observe curfews. But Hungary’s new rules are the most far reaching. And rights experts, political analysts and academics say that, given Mr. Orban’s track record and espousal of “illiberal democracy,” the measures he says he is taking to fight the virus could become fixtures in Hungarian public life, used to crack down on opposition well after the threat of the virus passes. European Union officials believe that the statement issued Tuesday, which came from Ms. von der Leyen personally, sent a clear message to Mr. Orban — even without naming him. European Commission lawyers are now closely watching how he enforces Hungary’s new measures, the officials said. But they said that now — as Europe battles to stem the spread of the virus and mitigate its catastrophic economic damage, and with many nations suspending some liberties — was not the moment to pick a fight with just one member. That measured approach surprised some observers, despite the fact that the commission often takes a conciliatory stance toward wayward members in a bid to entice them to reform voluntarily. (That has never worked with Hungary.) “It is bizarre,” Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who belongs to the German Greens political party, said of Ms. von der Leyen’s statement. “The decision that the Hungarian Parliament took yesterday is a watershed moment,” Mr. Freund said. “Now you have to do something, or we really lose democracies.” Mr. Freund and other members of the European Parliament believe that even before the European Commission opens a formal investigation into Hungary’s new law, which would take months, it should use existing rules to put pressure on Mr. Orban. “If we end up after the crisis with a virus well fought but democracy lost in several member states, that’s an unacceptable situation,” Mr. Freund said. Daniel Kelemen, a professor European Union politics and law at Rutgers University, said the epidemic could prove an opportunity for the Hungarian leader. “Throughout his consolidation of power, Orban has counted on the European Union to be distracted with other crises,” he said. “But now,” Mr. Kelemen said, “the scale of this crisis does call for consolidation of power for the executive, so it gives him more effective cover for this next stage of escalation.” Mr. Orban’s hold on power was unparalleled by European Union standards well before Monday’s vote authorizing him to rule by decree. In practical terms, Mr. Orban and his allies already controlled the legislative and executives branches of government, and had stacked the Constitutional Court. With Mr. Orban’s parliamentary opposition unable to slow his political machine, the European Union has shown itself to be the only entity capable of curbing his power, but the results have been mixed. Lengthy and cumbersome European Union legal proceedings could not stop Mr. Orban and his allies from taking over the Hungarian media landscape, weakening the independence of the judiciary, levying a special tax on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding, or ejecting the Central European University from the country. In the end it may be Mr. Orban’s love for European financial aid, not freedoms, that acts as a brake on his government. “Aware that the European Union is watching, Orban is likely to tread modestly at first,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe at Eurasia Group consultancy. “He will not wish to put at risk the €5.6 billion windfall granted to Hungary by the European Parliament last week as its portion in the union’s efforts to battle the coronavirus." President Trump has warmly embraced Mr. Orban. Mr. Trump’s ambassador in Hungary has spoken glowingly about Mr. Orban’s grip on power and said that Mr. Trump would love to have the powers of his Hungarian counterpart. But Mr. Orban’s autocratic tendencies have long alarmed others in Washington, particularly lawmakers who serve on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. A congressional delegation visited Hungary last year to investigate democratic backsliding.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commend Political Compromise in Georgia

    WASHINGTON—After a March 8 announcement that Georgia’s political leadership reached a deal paving the way for the adoption of compromise electoral reforms ahead of the October 2020 parliamentary election, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “Debate and compromise, two hallmarks of democracy, have rebuilt hope that Georgia’s leaders can bridge divisions and meet the demands of the people for accountability in electoral processes and outcomes,” Chairman Hastings said. “Having led an international election observation mission to Georgia, I commend the hard work it took to reach this agreement and the role of international ambassadors, particularly U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan, in facilitating it. As the agreement’s implementation proceeds, I hope to see prioritization of the parties’ joint commitment to address perceptions of politically-motivated criminal charges in recent months.” During the January 2008 presidential election in Georgia, Chairman Hastings served as head of the OSCE PA election observation mission and was appointed by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office as the Special Coordinator leading all OSCE short-term observers. “As a longtime champion of the United States’ strategic partnership with Georgia, I am glad to see Georgia’s political leaders take the path of dialogue to resolve this months-long crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The coming months should serve as an opportunity for the Georgian people to regain confidence in the ability of their democratic institutions to represent their voices and render independent justice.” In December 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker sent a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia urging the ruling Georgian Dream party to address growing public discontent with preparations for the 2020 national election and a string of decisions that undermined public confidence in the rule of law. Since November, Georgia has been embroiled in a political crisis sparked by the surprise defeat in parliament of constitutional amendments that would have transitioned the country to a fully proportional electoral system for 2020 parliamentary elections. In response to a political crisis last summer, Georgian Dream Party Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili pledged his party would pass the amendments, which enjoyed broad support from Georgian political factions and international democracy advocates. Despite this pledge, a group of Georgian Dream parliamentarians voted last month to scuttle the proposal, prompting angry reactions across the Georgian political spectrum. This political controversy coincided with criminal prosecutions against several prominent opposition figures that created the appearance of selective enforcement of the law. Georgian Dream parliamentarians also disregarded an opposition boycott last week to approve 14 justices to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court despite serious questions about some of their legal qualifications. 

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Election Observation 101

    On January 22, 2020, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Mark Veasey (TX-33) moderated a roundtable at the Texas A&M School of Law titled “Election Observation 101: Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century.”  Rep. Veasey—who also is a co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a former member of the Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives—and expert panelists discussed the importance of election observation missions across the OSCE region. Rep. Veasey was joined at the roundtable by veteran election observer Lindsay Lloyd, director of the human freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute; Amanda Schnetzer, chief operating officer of Pointe Bello; and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson.  Law school dean Robert Ahdieh offered a warm welcome and reflected on his fondest memories of the Helsinki Commission as a young man living in Moscow, Russia. Rep. Veasey then set the stage with the 30-year celebration of the 1990 Copenhagen Document which established the international standards for “free and fair elections”, while Mr. Lloyd explained the dynamics of how teams are assembled. Mr. Johnson further clarified the role of observers as strict watchers or objective examiners, and never interventionists, and Ms. Schnetzer shared how her experience observing elections in Tunisia forever shaped her passion for civic engagement and democratic values.  “[In 2011], the people of Tunisia were voting... To see the looks on the faces of women, grandparents coming to poles for the first time, casting a vote, and bringing a grandchild in tow, to say ‘I have waited all my life to do this’ was simply inspirational,” Ms. Schnetzer said. “I saw the stark comparison in the United States because few get excited on the first day they get to vote… I wish that we could find a way to positively spark that enthusiasm here [in the U.S.].” Looking ahead to the U.S. elections in November 2020, all panelists agreed that more could be done to inform the American public about foreign observers and the benefits of international election observation. Election observers from both the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are expected to be invited by the United States Government to observe the 2020 elections. The OSCE was first invited to observe U.S. elections by the Bush Administration in 2002 and has been invited to observe every midterm and general election since (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) by the administration in office. However, the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system means some states prohibit or greatly restrict foreign observers. A few states explicitly permit foreign observation, or at least a sufficiently public observation to include those from other countries.

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