My "Hell" in Russian CaptivityThursday, September 15, 2022
Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine include the brutal and unlawful detention of thousands of Ukrainians. At this hearing, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, a well-known Ukrainian volunteer medic who was detained in Mariupol in March and held by the Russians for three months, testified about her capture, the deplorable conditions of her captivity, the plight of those who continue to be detained unlawfully, and her lifesaving work since 2014 providing medical assistance to those wounded by Russia’s war. Taira outlined the daily experience of torture, psychological manipulation, and inhumane living conditions she and others were subjected to by their Russian captors. She explained that she was detained during a document check, and when a guard recognized her name, she was singled out for especially cruel treatment. Held in the occupied territories but under the direct control of Russian forces, Taira spent three months in captivity. Her captors attempted to force a public confession from her for crimes she had not committed. Taira knew they would use this footage to drive the Russian propaganda narrative of Ukrainian cruelty and defend their own atrocities. She had seen footage of friends and colleagues admitting to crimes she knows they did not commit in order to escape the torture that she herself faced. Taira noted that the Russians spared no one, capturing and torturing civilians as well as soldiers. After thanking the United States for all the support it has given to Ukraine, she asked for help fighting Russian propaganda. She believes that the world must challenge Russian narratives. Taira requested additional shipments of modern weapons from the United States, stating that Ukrainians have proved themselves as responsible stewards of American weaponry and will use them to continue fighting with honor. She also asked for American help in facilitating international access to prisons in occupied Ukraine, in order to ensure fair treatment of prisoners according to the Geneva Conventions. Finally, Taira requested that the United States designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, continue supporting Ukraine financially, and recognize the violence and oppression committed by Russia in Ukraine as a genocide.
Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses Role as Special Representative for Political PrisonerWednesday, September 07, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep Steve Cohen (TN-09) today spoke at a virtual hearing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA)about his new role as the assembly’s special representative for political prisoners. Co-Chairman Cohen thanked OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden for naming him to the special representative role and expressed his disappointment at the increased need to call attention to attacks on human rights as conditions around the world continue to deteriorate. He spoke in particular on the cases of Russian politicians Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, as well as politicians, journalists and dissidents in Belarus, Egypt, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Co-Chairman Cohen said of Kara-Murza, arrested after returning home to Moscow: “I will not let him be forgotten.” He also said in part: “I appreciate President Cederfelt’s appointment and her faith in me to execute this position as special representative on political prisoners. I take it very seriously and have been working on it regularly, notifying through posts on social media, press releases and calling on governments to release political prisoners. Unfortunately, this role is becoming more and more significant as we have more and more political prisoners… “I’ve contacted Secretary Blinken to work with him and the State Department. We’ve brought attention to political prisoners not only in Russia and Belarus but also in Myanmar and Egypt and, unfortunately, in several of the OSCE countries there are political prisoners as well…Conditions all around the world are getting worse…and Russia is the worst.” See his entire remarks here.
Ukrainian Medic to Testify on “Hell” in Russian Captivity, War in Ukraine at Upcoming Helsinki Commission HearingWednesday, September 07, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: MY “HELL” IN RUSSIAN CAPTIVITY Taira Paievska on Russia’s War in Ukraine Thursday, September 15, 2022 9:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine include the brutal and unlawful detention of thousands of Ukrainians. At this hearing, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, a Ukrainian volunteer medic who was detained in Mariupol in March and held by the Russians for three months, will testify about her capture; the deplorable conditions of her three-month captivity; the plight of those who continue to be detained unlawfully; and her lifesaving work since 2014 providing medical assistance to those wounded by Russia’s war. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, Ukrainian veteran and volunteer paramedic; Commander, “Taira’s Angels” Dr. Hanna Hopko, Co-Founder, International Center for Ukrainian Victory; Former Chair, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Parliament of Ukraine
Helsinki Commission Alarmed By Reported Transport of S-300 Missile Systems by Russia into the Black SeaFriday, September 02, 2022
WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Sparta II, a Russian cargo ship, transported S-300 missile systems through the Turkish Straits, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are alarmed by Russia’s reported transport of S-300 missile systems through the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea. As Russia is waging a bloody, unprovoked war against Ukraine, it is critical that any supplies of arms to Moscow be cut off as quickly and efficiently as possible. Any additional weapon in the hands of the Kremlin would mean another Ukrainian who would lose his or her life to the aggressor. “As the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, Turkey must do everything in its power to stop the flow of arms to Russia. We are perplexed that while third parties were able to spot the ship as it was entering the straits, it appears the Turkish government failed to prevent it from delivering the missile systems to Russia. Such systems will inevitably be deployed to commit crimes against humanity. “We are sure that Turkey does not want to be complicit in this by failing to carry out its responsibilities. We urge Turkish authorities to clarify their role in allowing the Sparta II into the Black Sea.”
Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeniy RoizmanMonday, August 29, 2022
WASHINGTON—Following the arrest of the Kremlin critic and former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeniy Roizman, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “The arrest and prosecution of Yevgeniy Roizman is another milestone in the Kremlin’s descent into a full-blown dictatorship. “Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine is what dishonors the Russian military. Mr. Roizman simply has reminded his fellow citizens of that truth. “As Mr. Roizman noted in a recent interview covered by the New York Times, ‘the worst thing is when you suddenly see that there is a lot of evil, that evil is winning, that evil is being supported. Evil can only win when it joins together with a lie.’ “Mr. Roizman also served as the mayor of Yekaterinburg, the same city where Brittney Griner played since 2014. “The Russian government should drop all the charges against Mr. Roizman and not put any restrictions on his work and activism, and I continue to call for the immediate release of other political prisoners including Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexey Navalny, and Ilya Yashin, as well as Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, Marc Fogel, and other journalists, dissidents, and wrongfully detained individuals in Russia.”
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It’s Time to Throw NATO’s Door Wide OpenTuesday, August 23, 2022
NATO was meant to be a harbor for the weak and imperiled. It should be again. June’s NATO summit in Madrid was by every account a historic event. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine andbroader belligerence against Europe, NATO unveiled a muscular new strategic concept and invited Finland and Swedento join the alliance—an epochal moment for the two traditionally neutral countries and a major statement for thealliance’s “open door” policy. Yet looming over all of this are the uncertain fates of the two countries most suffering from Russian aggression: Ukraine and Georgia. Both nations were promised membership in the alliance during the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, yet bothremain outside of it. Now, the enormous human and material toll of Russia’s genocidal, neo-imperial war in Ukraine hasput NATO’s extended and unfulfi lled promises into sharp, indelible relief. Obscured by ambiguous technicalities, the alliance’s failure to provide Ukraine and Georgia with a concrete pathway to membership was clearly an unintentional but predictable invitation to Russian aggression. As Ukrainians desperately defend their homeland and count civilians and their children among those killed, the moraland strategic poverty of Ukraine’s deferred accession is laid bare. NATO and its members must now reckon with thewages of a passive approach and rethink the alliance’s founding purpose. The bloc was never meant as an exclusive country club of the rich and strong but rather a harbor for the weak and imperiled. It should be again. In April, while observing the Hungarian parliamentary elections, I saw for myself the heartrending humanitarian crisis on Ukraine’s borders with Hungary and Slovakia. I saw children who had traveled great distances with their families, clutching the meager mementos of home; I met Ukrainians who traveled back and forth across the borders, bringing supplies from the European Union into western Ukrainian cities; and I saw the humanity of volunteers giving some measure of comfort and welcome to weary refugees who had, at long last, reached the promise of safety at the European Union’s frontiers. But what I didn’t see were any great barriers or edifices of geography to suggest the line where, on one side, NATO would risk nuclear war in the people’s defense and on the other side—in Ukraine—it would not. In the United States and Europe, discussions about the borders between NATO and the rest of Europe are treated like immutable features of geography or acts of god, as though certain states and people are afforded divine predestination into the Euro-Atlantic’s rarefied elect. Decisions in the run-up to the war to withhold crucial assistance or provide security guarantees were often justified based on Ukraine’s non-membership in NATO, even though concrete pathways into the alliance have never been offered despite the 2008 declaration. The idea that Ukraine and Georgia were somehow unready or unable to meet NATO’s technical criteria has always been a problematic argument. At no point has NATO established hard, technical benchmarks for membership—clear, achievable standards for entry—and doing so might have risked Ukraine and Georgia passing muster, potentially embarrassing the countries that were categorically opposed to their accession. Realistically, NATO enlargement has always been a political decision. More recent fixations on technical “readiness” and process were introduced after the Cold War to amplify NATO’s turn from a Cold War bulwark to a carrier of Euro-Atlantic values and to manage booming Eastern European demand for membership. But today, Moscow’s threat to Europe’s peace is all too apparent again—and devastatingly so in Ukraine as well as in Georgia. In response, NATO should change with the strategic landscape—not with “retrenchment,” in which it builds its walls higher while Ukraine and other threatened partners burn, but with aggressive enlargement. NATO is generally considered something of a walled garden—a protected redoubt of relative peace, prosperity, and predictability. However, this reputation elides the seismic strategic revolution that founding and early expansion represented. Firmly in the nuclear age and facing Soviet expansionism after two horrific continental wars in the first half of the 20th century, the United States sought to create structures to arrest Europe’s ruinous cycles of great-power war. Against thevery real risk of Soviet imperialism and a potential third World War, NATO created a protected sanctuary around Europe’s most threatened, impoverished, and war-torn countries. “I am sure,” then-U.S. President Harry Truman said just a year before NATO’s founding, “that the determination of the free countries of Europe to protect themselves will be matched by an equal determination on our part to help them.” To create the rules-based paradise of modern Europe, the United States and its closest allies drew a line in the face of Soviet expansionism and said: No further. Despite war weariness and the steep task of reconstruction, the North Atlantic founders pooled their military power and political determination as well as risked a third World War in Europe’s defense. The countries that joined were hardly all first-rate military powers, economic dynamos, or stable democracies—manywere politically unstable, militarily sapped, and economically broken. Several, such as Portugal and Spain, were military dictatorships. The principal continental combatants in World War II—Germany, France, and Italy—were quite literally ruined by the war and took decades to recover. Yet the United States and the other original NATO members didn’t quibble interminably over the vagaries of a threatened partner’s democratic credentials or its uptake of various technical or military reforms, and they generally accepted European states that sought Washington’s protection and a Western orientation. This wasn’t because of Western indifference to democracy but rather a recognition that democratization under the shadow of an imminent Soviet threat was essentially impossible and that a country swallowed by Moscow’s imperial agenda had no chance of true self-determination—much less democracy. Speaking of NATO’s purpose, then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson described it as “designed to contribute to thestability and well-being of the member nations by removing the haunting sense of insecurity” posed by Soviet expansionism. It took time, but the strategy paid off. Under NATO and the United States’ nuclear umbrella, great-power war was avoided, Europe democratized and prospered, and the Soviet Union and its brand of colonialism was dismantled, freeing tens of millions of people. With Russia again in the throes of despotism and expansionist militarism, the conditions that accompanied NATO’s founding are all too familiar. Russian aggression in the heart of Europe is an incontrovertible reality—as Ukraine’s blood-soaked lands so clearly attest—and there is no reason to believe or expect Moscow to stop until and unless it is stopped. NATO must meet the moment. Dithering over peacetime technicalities defi es NATO’s original purpose to secure Europefrom the specter of Moscow’s violently imperial agenda. This is not a return to the Cold War, but it is no less a civilizational struggle against a military dictatorship in Moscow. This threat is particularly plain and present for the millions of Ukrainians and Georgians who have had no choice but to suffer on the wrong side of the geopolitical train tracks. NATO should return to its roots and fling open its doors to all those in Europe at risk of Russia’s predations. How can this be done? NATO decisions, including membership, require consensus. Transitioning to a wartime open door policy will require a major shift in thinking. For one, the United States, as the ultimate underwriter of NATO’s military might, should take steps to provide robust security assistance and assurances to threatened partners—such as those promises it has given Finland and Sweden until their accession is complete—and encourage other like-minded allies to do the same. Similarly, NATO handwringing over outstanding territorial disputes—almost always created or supported by Moscow—should officially become a nonissue. Russia should not be rewarded for cultivating and backing violent separatist movements that inoculate the parent countries from NATO accession. If anything, Russian meddling and aggression evinces the necessity of NATO’s protection. This is simple in principle but admittedly difficult in policy amid hot war. How can Ukraine join NATO without triggering a global conflict? First, the United States and its allies can all do more to ensure that Ukraine has military dominance overits own territory and win its war of independence. Mystifying gaps that undermine Western sanctions policies demand attention—such as continued European dependence on Russian energy, U.S. imports of Russian steel, and the growing role of China and other countries in the Middle East, Eurasia, and Asia (including friends and partners) to bypass or ease the impact of international trade sanctions. Likewise, U.S. hesitance over delivering heavy arms and munitions to Ukraine must end. The delivery of U.S. artillery and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) platforms have completely changed the momentum of the conflict in recent weeks; more longer-range munitions and Western fast-jet capabilities could help Ukraine expand the initiative against Russia’s high-mass but low-morale attacking force. Second, the United States could consider extending its nuclear umbrella over Ukraine to erase Russia’s nuclear advantage and any temptation it may have to use nuclear weapons as Russian conventional losses mount. Doing so would only be a stronger and clearer statement of current U.S. policy that Russia’s use of weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and “entail severe consequences,” as U.S. President Joe Biden has already said. Against such a horrifying possibility, the West could stand to be much clearer on the evident downsides of such a strategy, which would itself violate Russian nuclear doctrine. And third, the United States can and should have discussions about certain security guarantees for free areas of Ukraine, such as via the provision of the most advanced Western arms or direct Western air defense coverage. For Georgia, and even for a country like Moldova should it so choose, it is even clearer: Provide support and security guarantees over non-occupied regions. Finally, democratic principles should remain a core requirement for NATO. Although the exigencies of the moment maynot allow the luxury of waiting for perfect democratization to develop before entry, NATO can and should create more robust and independent internal mechanisms to monitor and highlight vulnerabilities, advise and assist all members with undertaking difficult reforms, and hold members accountable for sustained and significant democratic backsliding. As Ukraine’s brave people fight for survival and every inch of their homeland against Russia’s overwhelming and genocidal war, it is impossible not to wonder what might have been had NATO understood in 2008 in Bucharest or in 2014 in Wales what horrors could have been prevented if Ukraine had been spirited into the alliance, along with Georgia. Ukraine will win this war, and Russia will lose—but in many ways, it is already too late for Ukraine and Georgia, having been so thoroughly and persistently victimized by Russian aggression. Yet each moment they are left to fend for themselves only compounds the error—and the shame.
NATO Refocused, Europe ReinforcedWednesday, August 10, 2022
By Jessika Nebrat, Max Kampelman Fellow Following the escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is playing a role it has not filled in years. Forced to reconcentrate its attention to Europe’s defense, NATO allies are demonstrating persistent resolve in countering Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. In doing so, NATO returns to a core facet of its founding mission: the defense against Moscow’s militarism. While NATO represents just one facet of the Euro-Atlantic security infrastructure, it is perhaps the most robust organization bound by formal agreements, dedicated to peacekeeping, and capable of enforcement. Its mission to “guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means” echoes the first dimension principles outlined by the Helsinki Final Act, and aligns NATO with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. Helsinki Commission. In supporting each other’s work, these institutions mutually reinforce their shared values and bolster European security. History of NATO In the aftermath of the second World War, the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations sought to boost European economic reconstruction and protect themselves from Soviet domination. The 1947 Treaty of Dunkirk predated NATO in promoting Atlantic alliance and mutual assistance between France and the United Kingdom. The agreement was expanded in March 1948 as the Treaty of Brussels to engage Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in military, economic, social, and cultural cooperation. In the same month, the United States hosted talks intended to unite both North American and Western European allies; as a result, NATO was officially signed into existence on April 4, 1949. The 12 founding member nations derived their legitimacy from United Nations (UN) Charter Article 51, which affirmed the right to collective defense. The foundational NATO Treaty mentioned collective defense only after declaring the parties’ commitments to finding peaceful resolutions of disputes, upholding UN principles, strengthening free institutions, and promoting economic collaboration. The Alliance formally defined its principal objectives to deter Soviet expansionism, oppose nationalist militarism on the continent, and bolster European political integration. Though it sought to deter military aggression, NATO’s original treaty did not provide any means of enforcing the agreed-upon principles. It was not until after the USSR’s 1949 detonation of an atomic bomb and the 1950 start of the Korean War that NATO approved a military command structure. In response, the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Though neither of the two ideologically opposed organizations used force during the Cold War, they engaged in an arms race that persisted until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. NATO after the Cold War Once NATO no longer had to defend against Soviet expansionism, the Alliance broadened the scope of its peacekeeping and security enforcement missions. In the 1990s, NATO forces were deployed: to Turkey during the Gulf Crisis; upon request to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States nations as part of a humanitarian mission after the fall of the USSR; to enforce a UN arms embargo and no-fly zone over former Yugoslavia; and in the Central Mediterranean during a period of tension with Libya. In the 21st century, NATO forces were also deployed during: the Second Gulf War; to the US and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the only Article 5 invocation in NATO history; to mitigate rising ethnic tensions in North Macedonia; to counter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean; as counter-piracy escorts to UN World Food Programme ships transiting the Gulf of Aden; to train Iraqi security forces; to enforce a no-fly zone after the popular uprising in Libya; for peacekeeping in Sudan; and to provide disaster relief throughout Europe, the Middle East, and in the United States. NATO currently maintains active operations in Kosovo, the Mediterranean, Iraq, and throughout the African Union; it recently ramped up air policing as part of a peace-keeping response to the Russian Federation’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the escalation against Ukraine this past February. Kremlin Narrative against NATO Over the years, Moscow has repeatedly resisted NATO enlargement – especially for countries it claims within its sphere of influence. Putin asserts that during a 1990 summit between President George H. W. Bush and President Gorbachev, the United States promised no further expansion of NATO; civil servants present at that meeting have refuted this claim, as has Mr. Gorbachev himself. In his conversation with Bush, Gorbachev repeatedly affirmed that nations have the right to make their own alliances. Though internal U.S. analyses of the 1990s suggested that expansion eastward may not be politically expedient, such positions never became official policy. The United States has remained resolute in its recognition of sovereign choice, and expansion has been driven by requests from former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states wary of Russian revanchism. The Kremlin has deployed an opposing narrative to justify Russian military engagements in Georgia in the early 2000s, and more recently in Ukraine. Putin sees the inclusion of either nation in NATO, and the political and economic liberalization that go with it, as threats to his regime’s stability. NATO membership would limit Russian interference in the internal affairs of either state. Additionally, if Russia’s neighbors and fellow post-Soviet states can become true democracies, provide higher quality of living, and ensure the rule of law, then why can’t Putin’s Russia? Any argument that NATO expansion threatens Russia misrepresents the organization, which is a diverse coalition dedicated to mutual defense and development. Moreover, such an assertion overlooks the efforts NATO has made to include and collaborate with Russia in the pursuit of cooperative security. NATO Back to its Roots By illegally and brutally invading Ukraine in February 2022 – a dramatic escalation of the grinding conflict started in 2014 – Putin has galvanized European and Western unity. Hearkening to its origins and returning attention to Eastern Europe, NATO is recommitting itself to “counter Russia’s attempts to destroy the foundations of international security and stability.” The international community is largely on board. In its collective attention beyond security, NATO – alongside other organizations – highlights not only the potential for, but the responsibility of the international community to condemn human rights violations, uphold the rule of law, and pursue economic health, all efforts that further challenge the Kremlin’s narrative that it can lead (or that there even needs to exist) an opposing bloc. Alarmed by Moscow’s renewed expansionism, Sweden and Finland have abandoned decades of neutrality in favor of NATO membership. They are on track towards the fastest accession process in history, and anticipate a smooth integration. Both already engage in the wider European community through membership in such organizations as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Their force structures are robust, and well-versed in NATO procedures following decades of partnership; their accession will secure northeast Europe, expand NATO’s border with Russia, and reinforce NATO presence in the Arctic and Baltic Sea. Although the Kremlin initially vowed “military and political repercussions” were Finland and Sweden to join NATO, such threats have dulled to warnings about the installation of NATO military infrastructure nearer Russia’s borders; as Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership neared finalization, Putin even expressed “no problem” with these states joining the Alliance. It remains to be seen how this change will play out. After decades of orientation towards international stabilization, humanitarian, and counterinsurgency mission sets, NATO has been refocused on European deterrence and defense following the Kremlin’s violent assault on Ukraine. In addition to condemning Russia’s invasion and supporting Ukraine via such measures as the Comprehensive Assistance Package, NATO plays a critical role in championing European collective defense and discouraging any expansion of conflict.
Co-Chairman Cohen Calls for the Release of Political Prisoners in BelarusTuesday, August 09, 2022
Washington – On the second anniversary of the sham presidential election in Belarus, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Two years ago today, Belarus’s autocrat Aleksander Lukashenko put up a show of an election that he had hoped would legitimize his unconstitutional power grab. Despite the many and well-documented cases of election abuse, the people of Belarus did not fall for the tricks of the one-man ruler of Belarus. They voted Lukashenko out, but, predictably, he refused to leave. He ignored the will of the people and chose vicious violence to suppress the peaceful dissent. “In the year following the unprecedented in scale peaceful rallies against the 2020 election results, Lukashenko’s troops arrested, tortured and imprisoned a reported 35,000 Belarusians for the simple act of demanding the government respect their choice and rights. He personally presided over the largest ever domestic repression that saw thousands behind bars and tens of thousands flee the country, including the opposition leader and likely legitimate winner absent election fraud, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been welcomed by neighboring countries. “Since that time, Lukashenko has continued a crackdown on civic participation in Belarus with arrests of civilians protesting the Russian war in Ukraine, changes to Belarus’s non-nuclear status, and the ongoing Lukashenko regime during last year’s March 25th anniversary of Belarus’s ‘Freedom Day,’ adding to the already sizeable number of politically motivated detainments in the country. “There are now close to 1200 individuals languishing in Belarusian prisons for speaking out against authoritarianism, corruption and war. Included among the political prisoners are: Syarhey Tsikhanouski, husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and potential candidate against Lukashenko detained in May 2020; Roman Protasevich, journalist and opposition figure accused of inciting mass protests and detained after a false bomb threat forced the landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 destined for Lithuania in Belarus in May 2021; Sofia Sapega, Russian citizen and girlfriend of Protasevich who also was aboard Ryanair flight FR4978; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarus Service journalists Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Kruzdzilovic; and Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna Human Rights Centre, a human rights organization based in Minsk that provides financial and legal support to political prisoners. These are but a few names representing political candidates, oppositionists, activists, journalists and other Belarusian and non-Belarusian citizens detained by Lukashenko’s regime. “Lukashenko must immediately order the release of all political prisoners and wrongfully detained individuals and stop the systematic violations of human rights. I call on the U.S. Department of State and our allies abroad to work together during this time of heightened tension with Belarus and Belarus’s benefactor, Russia, to ensure the unjustly imprisoned Belarusians are released at the earliest date possible.”
Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in RussiaThursday, July 28, 2022
WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.
Wicker Stands in Solidarity With Russian DissidentThursday, July 28, 2022
WASHINGTON – Mr. President, I rise this afternoon to make sure that the plight of Russian leader Vladimir Kara-Murza is not forgotten. That the outrageous imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza by the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is not forgotten. We remember three decades ago what hope we had for a new Russia. Russia entered a new age of possibility some three decades ago, after more than 70 years of communist repression, the Soviet order had collapsed, and with it the Iron Curtain that kept freedom away from millions was torn down. As the red flags came down in Moscow, the free world watched with anticipation, hoping that democracy and the rule of law might finally take root in a free Russia. Regrettably, that has not happened. Instead of democracy and freedom, the Russian people got Vladimir Putin, a man who has used his office to murder, imprison, and force into exile anyone who threatens his grip on power -- all the while, enriching himself beyond anyone's wildest imagination while ordinary Russians, especially out in the countryside of Russia, live in squalid conditions. One of his latest victims is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian patriot and a friend I had the privilege of hosting in my office just four months ago. As a matter of fact, I have hosted him several times. Today, Vladimir Kara-Murza spends his days in a prison cell, where the only thing you can see through the window is a barbed wire fence. What was his crime? He simply spoke the truth about Putin's war on Ukraine. His trial, if it can even be called a trial, was held in secret. No journalists, no diplomats or spectators of any kind were allowed to be there. And for his offense of talking about the Russian war against Ukraine, he now faces up to 15 years in prison. This is not the first time the Russian dictator has tried to silence him. Mr. Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, and almost died in both cases. Since then, his wife and three children have had to live abroad, though he himself has chosen to spend most of his time in Russia. In a recent interview with National Review, his wife, Evgenia explained why he insists on working in Russia: “He believes that he would not have the moral right to call on people to fight if he were not sharing the same risks.” Or as Mr. Kara-Murza put it in a recent CNN interview the day of his arrest. He said, “The biggest gift we could give the Kremlin would be to just give up and run. That's all they want from us.” What a contrast in character to the man currently running the Kremlin. The National Review's story goes on to describe Mr. Kara-Murza's courageous work for democracy through the eyes of his wife of Evgenia, as well as the costs that he and his family have endured along with so many other Russian dissidents. And, Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent at this point to insert the National Review story that I referred to into the record. Mr. Kara-Murza’s imprisonment is part of Mr. Putin's larger assault on what remains of political freedom in Russia. In Mr. Kara-Murza’s words, Putin's regime has gone, “from highly authoritarian to near totalitarian almost overnight.” In March, Russian officials passed a new censorship law, forbidding all criticism of Mr. Putin's war in Ukraine. That law has been the basis for more than 16,000 arrests since the war began in February, including that of Mr. Kara-Murza. Another 2,400 Russians have been charged with administrative offenses for speaking out against the war. Meanwhile, Putin's propaganda machine is ramping up. Independent Russian media outlets have all but vanished, having been blocked, shut down, or forced out of the country by the Kremlin. The last embers of freedom in Russia are going cold. Putin's crackdown on domestic freedom began in 2003, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on trumped up charges of tax fraud after he simply criticized the government. A former member of the elite, Mr. Khodorkovsky, had successfully led the Yukos Oil Company through privatization after the Iron Curtain fell. And contrary to the Kremlin's claims, the company consistently paid its taxes. But that didn't stop Vladimir Putin from plundering its assets, throwing Mr. Khodorkovsky in jail, where he stayed for ten years. I would note that just before his arrest, Mr. Khodorkovsky displayed the same courage and patriotism that we now see in Vladimir Kara-Murza. Like Mr. Kara-Murza, he knew very well he could go to jail for speaking out against the government. But Mr. Khodorkovsky did so anyway and refused to flee the country, saying, “I would prefer to be a political prisoner rather than a political immigrant.” Of course, by then, Mr. Putin had already shown himself willing to violate the international laws of war, having leveled the Chechen capital of Grozny in his own Republic of Russia in 1999. In 2008, he launched a new assault on international law with the invasion of Georgia. In 2014 he started a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, and in 2016, Soviet Russian dictator Putin and his forces attacked the Syrian city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Putin ramped up his attacks on domestic freedom as well. In 2015 Boris Nemtsov, leader of the democratic opposition, former deputy prime minister of Russia, was shot to death in broad daylight just yards away from the Kremlin. Three months later, Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned for the first time. More recently, in 2020, Alexei Navalny, the current leader of the opposition, was himself poisoned and had to seek treatment in Berlin. This is Vladimir Putin's Russia today. When Navalny recovered, he chose to return to Moscow, knowing the risks, and immediately upon landing, he was arrested. This is the deplorable state of Russia and freedom under Vladimir Putin. Time and again, he has shown that he is bent on stamping out the aspirations of his people for freedom and the rule of law. As leader of the free world, America must continue to condemn Putin's lawless acts and stand in solidarity with our Russian friends, who are courageously fighting against all odds for a better future in Russia -- and are suffering as a result. These are modern day heroes: Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and we should not forget them. My friend, the distinguished senior senator from Maryland, Senator Cardin and I, along with Congressman Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, are the four House and Senate leaders of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and former Soviet countries. We recently sent a joint letter to President Biden calling on the administration to name and sanction all of those who have been involved in the arrest, detention and persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. I issue that call again today, and I invite my colleagues from both parties to stand with Vladimir Kara-Murza and work for his release. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.
Helsinki Commission Deeply Concerned Over Latest Electoral Reform Initiative in Bosnia and HerzegovinaWednesday, July 27, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today expressed deep concern about an effort by the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia to impose changes on the country’s electoral system barely two months prior to general elections in early October. They issued the following joint statement: “We share the concerns of members of civil society, academia, and the political community in Bosnia and Herzegovina about the current proposal of the international community’s High Representative to make changes to Bosnia’s electoral system shortly before the upcoming general elections. These changes effectively only benefit the leading ethnically-based political party among Bosnia’s Croats and further entrench the divisive force of ethnicity in Bosnian politics as a whole. They fail to tackle the broader issues of citizen-based democracy that so obviously need to be addressed for the country to overcome destabilizing impasse and move forward. The timing of their introduction also is problematic. “The Helsinki Commission has long supported electoral reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina that remove ethnicity from governance. Such reforms should be designed to give citizens a wider range of truly democratic choices, an ability to hold their elected official accountable, a deserved sense of stability, and needed hope for European integration. We also have supported a more assertive role for the international community and its representatives in the country, including the Office of the High Representative, in responding to the lack of democracy and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, we believe that this specific action, if imposed now, will not represent the true progress Bosnia needs and may effectively make things worse.”
Helsinki Commission Urges Administration to Work to Free Vladimir Kara-MurzaMonday, July 25, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter urging the Biden Administration to “use every instrument in our toolbox” to free Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza. The letter read in part: “The United States has a proud history of standing up for political prisoners and working relentlessly to help them return to freedom. We stared down the Soviet Union, Communist China, military regimes in Latin America and South-East Asia, and succeeded in helping secure the release of those who deserved freedom the most – innocent and peaceful activists and freedom fighters representing a vision for better governments in those countries. Mr. Kara-Murza represents a hope for a democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and own citizens, and now is someone who the U.S. should advocate for his release… “The Helsinki Commission continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, and other countries across the OSCE region, and specifically Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case…Now, we call on your Administration to use every instrument in our toolbox to secure the release of Mr. Kara-Murza. This is in the interest of our national security, his well-being, and importantly, the well-being of his incredibly brave children and spouse. Mrs. Kara-Murza and their three children reside in the U.S and despite the distance, the Kremlin has been poisoning – literally and figuratively – their lives for decades now. We should do everything in our power to help free Vladimir Kara-Murza and reunite him with his family.” On April 12, Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in Russia on charges of disobeying police orders when he allegedly “changed the trajectory of his movement” upon seeing Russian police officers at his home. This carried a 15-day sentence in jail. With five days remaining in his sentence, new charges were levied against him for spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine. He now faces up to 15 years in prison. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said. The Helsinki Commission has a long tradition of advocating on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. Earlier this month, Co-Chairman Cohen was appointed the first-ever OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners.
CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERSThursday, July 21, 2022
WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment. Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.
Behind Enemy LinesWednesday, July 20, 2022
As Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine continues, Ukrainians in occupied territories are demonstrating courageous resistance in the face of atrocities, deprivation, and forced displacement, the scope and scale of which has shocked the world. This hearing examined the human toll the war is taking on the people of Ukraine. It also underscored the importance of continued assistance from Ukraine’s partners to help it win the war, restore its territorial integrity, rebuild its shattered infrastructure, and bring Russian war criminals to justice. U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Michael R. Carpenter outlined his institution’s comprehensive approach to supporting Ukraine. The OSCE continues to provide Ukraine with military aid; expose Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violation of the Helsinki Final Act based on its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people people; impose costs on the Kremlin, including instituting export controls and restricting Moscow’s participation in OSCE activities due to its breach of all ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act; promote multilateral support forUkraine; and hold Russian individuals and leadership accountable, especially for Russia’s violations of human rights. Ambassador Carpenter also highlighted a recent report that centers on Russia’s human rights violations, produced by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko highlighted the systematic attacks on his nation’s history, culture, and identity. In addition to mass civilian casualties, rape, and torture within Ukraine’s borders, more than 1.3 million citizens have been deported to the Russian Federation, 240,000 children among them. Many are forced into “filtration camps,” in which soldiers crudely inspect, interrogate, and terrorize Ukrainians to look for signs of loyalty to Kyiv. Territories that fall under Russian occupation have been quickly militarized and used for further assaults on neighboring regions. Goncharenko noted that Russia now occupies an amount of land in Ukraine roughly equivalent to the size of Pennsylvania. Olga Aivazovska, Board Chair of the Civil Network OPORA and Co-Founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, highlighted heartbreaking stories of human suffering, and Putin’s use of an asymmetric arsenal – including food insecurity, energy control, and misinformation campaigns – against Ukraine. She implored the international community to sustain investigations into and seek justice for widespread human rights violations. She also called attention to the wealth of resources that Russia has stolen from Ukraine, and the investment it will require to rebuild the nation after victory. Ukrainian witnesses asked for additional U.S. military support in the form of long-range HIMARS missile systems, western fighter jets, and related training. They also emphasized the need to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, to cultivate the legal and humanitarian infrastructure necessary to ensure justice, and to rebuild Ukraine’s economic, agricultural, and energy capacities. Members assured witnesses that their dedication to supporting Ukraine remains unwavering, and that Ukraine remains a great inspiration for the free world. Related Information Witness Biographies
Helsinki Commission Hearing to Highlight Life in Ukraine's Newly Occupied TerritoriesFriday, July 15, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: BEHIND ENEMY LINES Life in Ukraine’s Newly Occupied Territories Wednesday, July 20, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine continues, Ukrainians in occupied territories are demonstrating courageous resistance in the face of atrocities, deprivation, and forced displacement, the scope and scale of which has shocked the world. This hearing will examine the human toll the war is taking on the people of Ukraine. It also will underscore the importance of continued assistance from Ukraine’s partners to help it win the war, restore its territorial integrity, rebuild its shattered infrastructure, and bring Russian war criminals to justice. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Panel One: Michael Carpenter, Permanent Representative and Ambassador of the United States to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Panel Two: Oleksiy Goncharenko, Member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine; Vice President of the Committee on Migration and Refugees, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Olga Aivazovska, Head of the Board Civil Network OPORA; Co-Founder, International Center for Ukrainian Victory
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US Soldier Who Voluntarily Fought in Ukraine Says Hardest Days of War to ComeThursday, July 14, 2022
A U.S. Army veteran who independently and voluntarily fought in Ukraine warned on Thursday that the hardest days of fighting the war are still to come, as the Russian military tightens its control over territory in the eastern part of the country. Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Vasquez, who has returned from combat in the country but plans to go back, told the congressional Helsinki Commission during a briefing that while the Ukrainian military is better off now with increased foreign support, the most difficult fighting lay ahead for soldiers. “We have much more support now, and we have the weapons and gear that we need to be able to fight properly,” Vasquez said to the panel. “The fight’s harder than it was when I left. And that was hard fighting when I left.” Vasquez shared moving and oftentimes difficult details of his time in Ukraine at the hearing, alongside retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rip Rawlings, who is providing logistical support to the Ukrainian military through he and Vasquez’ foundation, Ripley’s Heroes. Vasquez, who has gained a social media following through the videos he shares from the battle’s front lines, said he has “pretty much sold everything I owned” so he can return to the fight in Ukraine. Vasquez explained the evolution of Ukrainian combatants that he witnessed, saying when he arrived the soldiers were fighting “primitively” but then saw them turn into battle-tested warriors. “I was fighting with guys who had a red T-shirt on and sneakers,” said Vasquez. “We were going into battle with white Toyota Camrys with Javelin (missiles) in the back.” But as the fighters have grown more sophisticated, and weapons and gear has rolled in from other countries, Vasquez and Rawlings both warned that the fighting situation was fragile and said Ukraine needs continued support from allies. “We need more, they need more (weapons),” Rawlings said. “We are at a very tenuous and fragile point. This war could go in any direction, very unfortunately.” Rawlings also urged lawmakers to amend export controls that do not allow Americans to send certain military equipment, including certain body armor, to Ukraine. “It is the largest single obstacle that we face,” Rawlings said. “The biggest issue that we have is that a U.S. citizen can go purchase a set of level three body armor, but you cannot purchase it and give it to a Ukrainian.” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) lauded the veterans for their decision to volunteer in the Ukrainian conflict at the briefing. “Foreign fighters have actually come in to heroically volunteer and are enduring intense combat conditions and witnessing the gross human rights violations perpetrated by (Vladimir) Putin.”
Shoulder to ShoulderThursday, July 14, 2022
Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson joined former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant James Vasquez and Lt. Colonel Ripley “Rip” Rawlings (USMC, Ret.) to discuss U.S. volunteers fighting for Ukraine. Mr. Vasquez is a volunteer soldier fighting in Ukraine who partnered with Lt. Col. Rawlings to provide on-the-ground support through an organization called Ripley’s Heroes. At the beginning of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Vasquez decided to travel to Ukraine and fight alongside Ukrainians. For three months, Vasquez armed and trained Ukrainian soldiers to “fight like gentlemen.” Vasquez noted that Ukrainians are “warriors in spirit and in heart,” but require training and supplies to be most effective. After fighting alongside Ukrainians, Vasquez developed a comradery with his unit, and is returning to Ukraine this month to deliver more supplies and continue fighting. Lt. Col. Rawlings met Vasquez in Ukraine in the early weeks of war and the two decided to launch Ripley’s Heroes, an organization providing essential military support to Ukrainian soldiers. Ripley’s Heroes has Ukrainian partners on the ground, including the Kiev-based NGO Come Back Alive, who help ensure that soldiers receive necessary supplies as quickly as possible. When asked by Rep. Cohen what the United States should do moving forward to support a Ukrainian victory, Lt. Col. Rawlings noted that a key obstacle to providing Ukrainians with warfighting supplies are U.S. commercial regulations on the export of military equipment, such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). According to Lt. Col. Rawlings, rather than simply keeping U.S. military technology out of the hands of nefarious actors, ITAR prevents private U.S. citizens from supporting the war effort by providing simple, effective, non-lethal equipment, like night-vision goggles. Mr. Vasquez agreed that changing U.S. laws to remove the regulations that prevent private citizens from helping Ukraine could help them win the war.
Helsinki Commission Delegation Convenes Historic Black Sea Security Summit, Demonstrates Bipartisan Support for European SecurityThursday, July 14, 2022
WASHINGTON—From June 29 – July 9, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led a bipartisan, bicameral congressional delegation to Romania, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden to consult with senior officials across Europe about Russia’s war on Ukraine, security in the Black Sea region, and Finland and Sweden’s plans to join NATO. On the shores of the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania, Sen. Wicker and Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu co-chaired the first-ever congressionally-organized Black Sea Security Summit to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. “Given Russia’s monstrous war on Ukraine and its wider aggression in the region, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Black Sea is currently the epicenter of Euro-Atlantic security and global peace,” said Sen. Wicker. “Ukraine must be successful in this war…Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against a neighbor cannot stand.” “Over the last 25 years, a key objective of our bilateral strategic partnership has been to act as partners in enhancing our joint security and promoting the democratic and economic development of the Black Sea region. The continuation of common decisive action in this regard at the bilateral and multilateral level is more relevant than ever,” said Minister Aurescu. “All along the Black Sea coast lies the first line of defense for the Euro-Atlantic community and the first line of support for our partners in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia.” Prior to the summit, members of the Congressional delegation visited Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, where they received briefings from U.S., Romanian, and other NATO personnel and met with American troops. Delegation members then traveled to Birmingham, UK, for the Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) was Head of the U.S. Delegation to the PA and spearheaded U.S. efforts to forge a strong, unified response from international legislators to Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and its people. “All OSCE parliamentarians must stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues as they battle the Kremlin’s vicious, intolerable war on Ukraine,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “We must do all in our power—through this forum and all others—to ensure that Ukraine is victorious against Russian aggression.” During the Annual Session, parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved a resolution introduced jointly by Sen. Wicker and the heads of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian delegations, responding to Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people and the greater Russian threat to European security. The document “condemns resolutely and unequivocally the ongoing, intensified, clear, gross and still uncorrected violations of Helsinki Principles as well as of fundamental principles of international law by the Government of the Russian Federation in its war of aggression against Ukraine, as well as the complicity of Belarus in this war of aggression, and calls on the governments of OSCE participating States to do the same.” Several members of the U.S. Delegation successfully introduced more than two dozen amendments, designed to keep the focus on Russia’s current aggression, to an array of other resolutions. In Birmingham, the delegation also co-hosted an event highlighting the growing problem of political repression in Russia and Belarus, especially in the context of protesting the war on Ukraine; met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky to discuss his organization’s work to support political prisoners and democracy in Russia; and held bilateral meetings with the UK’s parliamentary leadership, OSCE officials, parliamentarians from other OSCE countries. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) was re-elected to his post as chair of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Following the Annual Session, the congressional delegation stopped in Finland and Sweden to welcome the historic decision of both countries to join the NATO Alliance. In Finland, members met with President Sauli Niinistö, and Finnish parliamentarians including First Deputy Speaker Antti Rinne and OSCE PA Vice President Pia Kauma. In Sweden, they met with Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Deputy Defense Minister Jan Olof-Lin, and a group of members of the Swedish parliament, led by Speaker Andreas Norlén and OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt. In addition to Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Hudson, the Congressional delegation included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. John Garamendi (CA-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. August Pfluger (TX-11) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).
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Switzerland, Playground of Russian Oligarchs, Emerges as Sanctions Weak LinkTuesday, July 12, 2022
ZUG, Switzerland—After Switzerland said in February it was joining European Union sanctions against Russian oligarchs, this quiet Alpine getaway seemed like an obvious place to hunt for targets. The streets are clustered with the offices of companies founded by Russia’s wealthiest men, along with the headquarters for landmark natural-gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 and the energy-trading department of Gazprom PJSC. So many Russian billionaires have homes or businesses here that the local opposition party had begun taking sightseers on an Oligarch’s Tour. Swiss newspapers nicknamed Zug “Little Moscow” and joked that local leaders wanted to build a Kremlin wall around the town. It didn’t seem so easy to the six local officials charged with helping implement sanctions. Working from a fifth-floor conference room, the team had a hard time identifying homes or local businesses officially owned by any of the hundreds of Russian oligarchs on the Swiss government’s list of sanctioned people. They struggled with Cyrillic names and often couldn’t make sense of the 300-page list, said Heinz Tännler, the financial director for the Canton, or state, of Zug. They also struggled with the implications for the local economy, added Mr. Tännler, who worries that sanctions have jeopardized his canton’s reputation as a safe place for foreign investment. “This is a very difficult time, especially for the Canton of Zug,” he said. In the end, the officials found exactly one company out of the roughly 30,000 registered in Zug that they believed was owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. Zug’s slow start is emblematic of the country as a whole. Switzerland has pledged to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. So far, that promise hasn’t triggered much action against Russian companies doing business there, bolstering concerns in world capitals that the Alpine financial hub isn’t doing enough to forestall the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies. Eighty percent of Russia’s commodities are traded through Switzerland, mostly through Zug and the lakeside city of Geneva. Swiss banks manage an estimated $150 billion for Russian clients, according to the country’s banking association. Thirty-two of the oligarchs closest to Mr. Putin have property, bank accounts or businesses in Switzerland, according to Zurich-based transparency group Public Eye. In the four months since Swiss authorities began sanctions, $6.8 billion in Russian financial assets have been frozen, alongside 15 homes and properties, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, or SECO. By contrast, EU countries have collectively frozen $14 billion in alleged oligarch assets spanning funds, boats, helicopters and real estate, in addition to over $20 billion in Russian central-bank reserves. EU countries have also blocked around $200 billion in financial transactions. Authorities on the U.K. island of Jersey alone froze over $7 billion in assets they said are linked to oligarch Roman Abramovich, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. U.S. senators have privately petitioned Swiss officials to do more to locate Russian money and property. “Instead of enabling Russia’s abuse of the global financial system, they should stand against it,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation, which promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation. Switzerland’s government has rejected that kind of criticism, stressing that its adoption of EU sanctions marks a historic shift and that it is doing everything possible to hunt down blacklisted assets. “It is clear that the sheer volume of the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, as well as the speed with which they were adopted, creates certain challenges for implementing authorities, in Switzerland and elsewhere,” said a SECO spokeswoman. Western sanctions have increasingly been used to squeeze Russia since 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Since then, Mr. Putin and a tight circle of allies have been exploiting gaps in the global financial system to evade blacklists and hide wealth overseas. Despite Switzerland’s status as a global financial hub, the country’s regulators are hamstrung by limited resources—SECO had just 10 officials fully dedicated to sanctions until recently, when the government hired five more. Their work is also frustrated by an old structural problem: The business of registering companies remains a hive of secrecy, making it difficult to identify ultimate ownership of assets, according to Western diplomats. Swiss bankers and transparency campaigners say billions of dollars of Russian clients’ assets have been transferred to the names of spouses and children in recent years—a phenomenon that accelerated in the run-up to the war, they say. The Gateway The Putin regime’s presence in Zug can be traced to the early days of his presidency, and a ceremony in the canton’s sprawling art nouveau palace, Theatre Casino. While Russia’s military was bombing the restive republic of Chechnya, Mr. Putin was awarded the 2002 “Zug Peace Prize” by the Nuclear Disarmament Forum, an organization of influential local businessmen that has since disbanded. The meeting, attended by business and political leaders close to the Kremlin and serenaded by the Russian National Orchestra, heralded the flourishing of Russian commodity trading in the town, according to local politicians. Many oligarchs have businesses in Zug that remain untouched by sanctions. They include Mr. Abramovich, the largest shareholder of Evraz PLC, a Russian steelmaker and mining company that has a trading arm in the canton. Evraz was sanctioned in the U.K., where it traded on the London Stock Exchange, but hasn’t been sanctioned in Switzerland or the EU, even though Mr. Abramovich has. Not far from Zug, in Winterthur, is the headquarters of Sulzer AG , an engineering company that is 48.8%-owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who is sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.K. When Poland sanctioned Sulzer’s operations, the Swiss embassy in Warsaw unsuccessfully lobbied the Polish government to reverse the move, according to a Polish government official and the Swiss department of foreign affairs. Sulzer said Poland’s decision was wrong given that Mr. Vekselberg is just a minority shareholder and neither owns nor controls the company. Sulzer isn’t sanctioned anywhere else, a spokesman said. Representatives for Mr. Abramovich and Evraz didn’t reply to requests for comment. The SECO spokeswoman said the agency is in close contact with the U.K. authorities about sanctions, but “is not bound by their assessment.” A spokesman for the department of foreign affairs said that under Swiss law the government can assist Swiss companies abroad, and that sanctioning Sulzer’s Polish subsidiaries threatened jobs and hurt Sulzer clients. U.S. and European officials say they are counting on the Swiss government to find which companies and homes in Switzerland belong to sanctioned Russian oligarchs and freeze them. Switzerland’s history of financial secrecy, enshrined in its law, can make it exceedingly difficult to identify who owns what. Under Swiss legal precedent, lawyers can still open a company on behalf of a client and claim attorney-client privilege to block authorities from uncovering that person’s identity. That, officials say, hinders them from finding more companies whose accounts should be frozen under sanctions. It is also an obstacle for banks with small compliance teams. Swiss business registries don’t require firms to list true owners, which are often hidden by opaque companies in Switzerland held by trusts in financial havens, a loophole exploited by businessmen from Russia and elsewhere eager to mask the true ownership of their assets, according to Swiss opposition politicians and advocates for financial reform. “A Swiss lawyer hides the name of the beneficial owner in his vault, and there’s no way the Swiss authorities can get to the name,” said Mark Pieth, a former head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s bribery division now at the Basel Institute on Governance. “The government has deliberately tied its own hands behind its back.” EuroChem Trusts came into play earlier this year when Switzerland, following the EU’s lead, sanctioned Andrey Melnichenko, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and a longtime Swiss resident. On March 9, the EU added Mr. Melnichenko’s name—No. 721—to its blacklist, describing him as part of the “closest circle of Vladimir Putin ” and involved in businesses vital to the government. It mentioned a meeting he attended in Moscow with Mr. Putin in the first hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with 35 other oligarchs. In Italy, police seized his sailing yacht, the world’s largest. Left untouched was EuroChem AG, a company founded by Mr. Melnichenko in 2001 that grew into one of the world’s top producers of fertilizer, with revenue last year of $10.2 billion. Based in a small glass tower in Zug nicknamed the Dallas Building, the company is deeply entwined in the supply chains of Europe’s largest chemical giants. The day before the sanctions were announced, the tycoon disclaimed his interest in a Cyprus trust that held the company, according to a document signed by EuroChem’s chief financial officer. That left Mr. Melnichenko’s wife, Aleksandra, a former Serbian pop star, as the trust’s sole beneficiary. “Given that Mr. Melnichenko no longer owns, holds or controls any funds and economic resources of EuroChem Group…neither EuroChem Group nor any member of EuroChem Group are subject to EU asset freeze measures,” stated a document viewed by The Wall Street Journal. EuroChem lawyers also wrote to SECO that the company wouldn’t provide economic resources to Mr. Melnichenko or pay dividends to his wife. On March 28, SECO rendered its judgment: EuroChem didn’t need to have its assets or bank accounts frozen. Officials in Zug followed suit. Mr. Tännler, the canton’s financial director, bridled at criticism that local officials aren’t looking hard enough. “I think people know that we did a good job, that we did what we can do,” he said. He washed his hands of the EuroChem decision. “SECO made a determination that EuroChem is clean,” Mr. Tännler said. The European Commission in June countered that decision, ruling that Ms. Melnichenko was unduly benefitting from her husband and should be sanctioned. Switzerland then followed suit, blacklisting her but leaving EuroChem untouched. Credit Suisse, which needs to answer to tougher U.S. regulators because of its U.S. dollar business, has frozen the accounts EuroChem held at the bank. A spokesman for the couple said Mr. Melnichenko considers the sanctions against him unjust. “The formal justifications are nonsense,” said the spokesman, who denied that Mr. Melnichenko is a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle or provides substantial revenue to the Russian government. Ms. Melnichenko has appealed to the Council of the European Union, saying the sanctions against her have complicated EuroChem’s ability to sell fertilizer, “leading to the famine and death of millions of people.”
Helsinki Commission Chairman Delivers Remarks on Belarus, Ukraine Elections
Washington - The United States Helsinki Commission released the keynote address by Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) before The Heritage Foundation’s Conference on the Implications of the East European Elections: Ukraine and Belarus.
Keynote Remarks by Hon. Christopher H. Smith
Conference on the Implications of the East European Elections:
Ukraine and Belarus
The Heritage Foundation
September 28, 2004
Thank you for inviting me to participate in your important and timely session.
Both Ukraine and Belarus face important elections in the coming month. Both are societies burdened by the Soviet communist legacy of the past. Both were “Captive Nations” and both, albeit to varying degrees, are vulnerable to Russia’s political and economic influence, especially as all too many among the Russian political elite have not yet reconciled themselves to the loss of empire. Both now border on NATO and the EU. Both face serious challenges to democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration. There are many other similarities. There are also important distinctions.
Belarus is ruled by a dictator who controls the levers of power and increasingly all facets of Belarusian society. Given the level of control and repression, there are few counterweights to Lukashenka’s rule. The parliament, the National Assembly lacks real powers and Members have little power to be independent of Lukashenka’s strong-arm tactics. Civil society, including NGOs and independent media, is under a tight lid. Fundamentally flawed elections have left that country lacking a legitimate president and legislature.
Ukraine, for all of the backsliding, scandals, and problems with respect to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, has institutions that act at least somewhat as a check on the powers-that-be, despite the ruling regime’s attempts to control and, in some instances, stifle genuine democratic development and civil society. Civil society is tolerated to a greater extent than in Belarus, and independent media, while under severe pressure, is more widespread. There are competing centers of power and many diverse economic, political and social interests in Ukraine.
In the case of Ukraine, despite the progress in many areas since independence, there have been significant problems with respect to implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, including in the areas of media freedoms, freedom of association and assembly, corruption, the rule of law and elections. The largest faction in the Rada is that of democratic opposition and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. The pro-presidential parliamentary majority has disintegrated, with the defection earlier this month of the party led by Rada Speaker Lytvyn. Genuine political competition exists, and, of course, there is competition among the oligarchs.
In Belarus, there is only one oligarch. Although the Kuchma regime might be tempted, thus far, they have not been able to act with the same degree of impunity that Lukashenka exhibits.
International attention is rightly now focused on ensuring free, fair, open and transparent presidential elections on October 31 with a second round likely in late November. These elections are critically important to the future of Ukraine, yet we see on a daily basis an election campaign that calls into question Ukraine’s commitment to OSCE principles. Without exaggeration, Ukraine is facing a critical presidential election – a choice not only between Euro-Atlantic integration versus reintegration into the former Soviet Eurasian space, but a choice between further development toward a European-style democracy, such as in Poland or Hungary, versus the increasingly authoritarian system that prevails in Russia today.
Many analysts and organizations, including the Helsinki Commission, have chronicled the numerous election campaign violations taking place in Ukraine. We continue to maintain our strong interest and concern. Along with Chairman Henry Hyde, I joined him in introducing H.Con.Res. 415, calling on the Government of Ukraine to ensure a democratic, transparent, and fair election process for the presidential campaign. We make clear the expectation that Ukrainian authorities should – consistent with their own laws and international agreements – ensure an election process that enables all of the candidates to compete on a level playing field. We urge the Ukrainian Government to guarantee freedom of association and assembly, ensure full transparency of the election process, free access for Ukrainian and international election observers, and unimpeded access by all candidates to the media on a non-discriminatory basis.
Unfortunately, the pre-election environment in Ukraine gives great cause for concern. Ukrainian voters clearly are not receiving balanced and objective information about all the candidates in the race, independent media providing Ukrainians with objective information about the campaign – including channel 5 – is being shut down in the regions, and journalists who don’t follow the infamous secret instructions from the presidential administration, or temnyky, are harassed and even fired. Ukraine’s state-owned television channels are blatantly anti-Yushchenko.
Given the stakes in these elections, we should not be surprised that the ruling regime has launched an all-out campaign against the free media and against the opposition, the most recent of numerous examples being the highly suspicious poisoning of Victor Yushchenko. To its credit, the Rada last week overwhelmingly approved a resolution creating a special commission to investigate this alleged assassination attempt. We will be eager to see if the investigation will get underway. Four years have passed since the killing of independent journalist Georgi Gongadze, and the case remains unresolved. As you know, Gongadze was bravely exposing high-level corruption in Ukraine.
The Rada has also created an ad-hoc committee to monitor the upcoming election. Prime Minister Yanukovych, the presidential candidate of the ruling regime, instead of welcoming this move, called the Rada move “disloyal”. This speaks volumes.
The independence exhibited by the Rada in Ukraine would be unthinkable in Belarus. There, serious and persistent violations have been committed in most human dimension areas, including freedom of speech, association and assembly, media freedoms, religious liberties, elections and the rule of law. Thanks to Lukashenka’s iron rule, Belarus has the worst human rights record in Europe today, although Russia under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Putin appears to be catching up, and, perhaps, even emulating Mr. Lukashenka.
Regrettably, the Belarusian authorities have disregarded the four democratic benchmarks established by the OSCE in 2000 – ending repressions and the climate of fear, permitting a functioning independent media, ensuring transparency of the elections process, and strengthening the functions of parliament. Lukashenka has flaunted shamelessly his 1999 Istanbul OSCE Summit declaration commitments for a political dialogue, with OSCE participation which stressed the necessity of removing "all remaining obstacles in Belarus to this dialogue by respecting the principles of the rule of law and the freedom of the media.” Lukashenka has pointedly ignored this commitment and the situation with respect to the rule of law and media freedoms has only continued its steady deterioration.
At the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Bucharest in 2000, I offered language to continue to deny the seating of the illegitimate Lukashenka parliament. We won. I continued to fight this battle until 2003, when the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly abandoned this position and seated the Members of the National Assembly. Since that time, I’ve continued to be an outspoken critic of the dismal human rights record of the Lukashenka regime.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled in Belarus for October 17, and they now have an added dimension, with Lukashenka’s September 7 announcement of a referendum that would pave the way to extend his rule beyond 2006, when his ten-year tenure is due to expire, to potentially join the ranks of “presidents for life,” like President Niyazov in Turkmenistan and others in Central Asia. The fact that, according to the Belarusian electoral code, a referendum cannot contain any questions related to presidential elections will certainly not deter him. Interestingly, opinion polls suggest that most Belarusians are against extending Lukashenka’s rule, and the threshold for passage of the referendum is high, as at least 50 percent of all eligible voters – and not merely those casting ballots – have to vote “yes” for the referendum to pass. We will see how they manipulate that one.
Nevertheless, to say that the deck is stacked in favor of Lukashenka is an understatement. The Belarusian Government has almost total control over the electoral process and considerable experience in conducting elections that, to put it mildly, do not meet international democratic standards. For example, opposition parties have been allocated a mere two percent of seats on the district election commissions, and an appalling 0.2 percent of the 7,000 precinct commissions. One-third of the candidates proposed by Belarusian opposition parties were reportedly denied registration.
Ladies and gentlemen, to their credit, Belarus’ repressed and embattled opposition and NGOs have not yet given up. We need to continue to support these brave men and women and all those struggling for democracy and human rights in Belarus. I am the sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act, which is waiting for consideration by the full House. The BDA is intended to promote democracy, human rights and rule of law in Belarus, including assistance for democracy building activities such as support for NGOs, independent media, international exchanges and international broadcasting.
We want to stand firmly on the side of those who long for freedom. As President Bush noted at Madison Square Garden earlier this month [on September 2], “The story of America is the story of expanding liberty: an ever-widening circle, constantly growing to reach further and include more. Our nation’s founding commitment is still our deepest commitment: In our world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom.”
We are eager to have governments and parliaments in both countries with whom we can join forces to combat the scourges of our day, such as human trafficking, HIV/AIDS which has reportedly infected one percent of Ukraine’s population, or corruption and cooperation on movement towards common security and Euro-Atlantic integration. We know that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Belarusian women and children have been trafficked mostly to Europe and the Middle East over the course of the last decade. The problem is especially acute in Ukraine – one of the largest source countries in Europe. Ukraine is also a major transit country. Both Ukraine and Belarus have been designated in the most recent State Department report as Tier II countries (there are three tiers), meaning that these governments do not yet fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.
As the lead author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and its reauthorization which became law in 2003, I am pleased that our government, the OSCE and other international organizations and NGOs are devoting resources to combat this modern day slavery, but much more remains to be done.
For both Ukraine and Belarus, the best guarantee for their survival as independent countries is the full establishment of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, including, very importantly, democratic elections. In short, the best guarantee is their implementation of commitments both nations freely undertook when they joined the OSCE. Standing in solidarity with the courageous pro-democracy in both countries and with the people of Belarus and Ukraine, we must continue to encourage compliance with these commitments.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.