Title

Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing:

DEMOCRACY DEFERRED:
THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN

Wednesday, May 9, 2018
10:30 a.m.
Capitol Visitor Center
Room SVC 215

Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission

After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.”

The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013. 

As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  

The following panelists are scheduled to participate:

  • Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst
  • Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV
  • Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now

Additional panelists may be added.

In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to Counterterrorism

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    Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing explored these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman opened the briefing by posing questions to the room: “Will Moldova’s deeply divided parliament be able to form a governing coalition? What influence will Moldova’s oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc have on the process of forming a government? And is there real political will in Moldova, especially right now after elections, to become a full-fledged member of the EU? And finally, what’s going on in the breakaway Russian region of Transnistria?” Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, jumped in first to provide context for the conversation. Welt explained, “According to international and domestic observers, Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections were democratic but somewhat flawed. And these flaws included allegations of vote buying and the misuse of state resources. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections appears to reflect longstanding domestic divisions within Moldova, between what you might characterize as a European-leaning majority and a Russian-leaning minority.” Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, reflected on his experience observing the 2018 elections in Moldova. Kirchick also spoke to the main question of the briefing, saying, Moldova “matters because the United States has been committed to a policy of a Europe whole, free and at peace, really since the end of the Cold War, and consolidating democracy and good government. And Moldova is a pretty sore spot. It’s the poorest country in Europe. It’s the site of very high corruption. It’s the site of Russian influence. It’s the site of a lack of territorial integrity. And we’ve seen now that there are three nations in this region – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – that all have Russian troops stationed on them. And this is something that should certainly concern the United States and its democratic allies.” H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States maintained that while Moldova has seen hard times, the country is working to improve. She highlighted its strong partnership with the U.S., fight against antisemitism, and growing economy as signs of development. Ambassador Balan concluded with a call to action, saying, “Of course, there is so much more work to be done, including addressing corruption issues, including increasing our national defense capability, including resolving the Transnistrian conflict, and many others. There is a lot of work to be done.” The questions from the audience were largely posed to Ambassador Balan and allowed for a deeper exploration into the economic and political realities of life in Moldova and the relationship, or lack thereof, with Russia.

  • Moldova Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON— The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: WHY MOLDOVA MATTERS Tuesday, June 4, 2019 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 121 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing will explore these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs, Congressional Research Service H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States

  • Chairman Hastings on Upcoming Meeting Between President Trump and Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Monday’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Thirty years after Central European nations threw off the mantle of communism and oppression, I recall the unwavering support of the United States for the democratic aspirations of their citizens, and the warm welcome Hungary received when it joined the ranks of self-governing, free nations. I echo Secretary’s Pompeo’s message, delivered in Central Europe in February: Upholding democracy in each and every country is vital to human freedom. “President Trump must urge Prime Minister Orban to end Hungary’s anti-Ukraine policy at NATO, resolve concerns about the relocation of the Russian International Investment Bank to Budapest, ensure that Hungary’s ‘golden visas’ are not used to evade U.S. sanctions, and address document security problems to ensure the integrity of the visa waiver program. In addition, the president must prioritize meaningful democratic change in Hungary and encourage the Hungarian Government to repeal the 2017 and 2018 laws curtailing freedom of speech, assembly, and association.” U.S. authorities have identified at least 85 criminals who fraudulently obtained Hungarian passports to enter or attempt to enter the United States. At an April 2019 Helsinki Commission briefing, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the chairman of the International Investment Bank has long-standing ties to Russian intelligence agencies, raising concerns that the relocation of the bank from Moscow to Budapest could provide a platform for intelligence-gathering operations against U.S. allies. In April, U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker visited Budapest and urged Hungary to end its anti-Ukraine policy in NATO. In February, during a visit to Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.”

  • Power and Politics

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists explored the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019. This briefing also explored implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption.

  • Ukrainian Elections Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: POWER AND POLITICS Implications of Ukraine’s Presidential Elections Thursday, May 9, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019.  This briefing will explore implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement Natalie Sedletska, Journalist and Host, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Ukrainian Service Additional panelists may be added.

  • Hastings and Wicker Mark World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “On World Press Freedom Day, we reflect on the importance of the free media to the strength of our own democracy and to the cause of freedom worldwide. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right we cannot take for granted. If we do, we weaken our ability to fight corruption, speak truth to power, and defend the disadvantaged and oppressed. “Throughout the OSCE region, journalists working in conflict zones or under authoritarian regimes regularly risk their freedom and their lives to show the world the truth. They persist in the face of intimidation, arrest, and even the threat of physical violence. We honor their work and pledge to protect journalists around the globe, to support independent journalism, and to foster transparency on the part of our government and governments worldwide.”

  • First Person: #UkraineElections2019

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative   Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day. This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy. We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

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