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Helsinki Commission Condemns Pending Legal Action against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

WASHINGTON—Following the Russian government’s request for its Supreme Court to effectively ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia from worshipping, claiming that they are members of an “extremist organization,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), issued the following statements:

“It is wrong to apply flawed counterterrorism laws to those who seek to practice their faith,” said Chairman Wicker. “The Russian government is exploiting genuine threats of violent extremism to undermine what little religious freedom remains in that country. This distracts from real efforts to fight terrorism. I urge the Russian government to drop the case immediately.”

“At stake in the upcoming court case is the legality and perhaps the survival of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—and in fact basic religious freedom—throughout the Russian Federation,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “If the Supreme Court of Russia declares this faith group an extremist organization, it is an ominous sign for all believers and it marks a dark, sad day for all Russians.”

“As a staunch supporter of religious liberty, I am appalled by the Russian government treating an entire religious group as a threat to national security,” said Commissioner Hudson. “Religious affiliation should never be a justification for persecution.” 

On March 15, the Russian Ministry of Justice filed a formal court claim to label the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an extremist group and liquidate their national headquarters and 395 local chapters, known as “local religious organizations.” Should the Russian Supreme Court decide against the Administrative Center, 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia could face criminal prosecution for practicing their faith. 

According to the Helsinki Final Act signed by all 57 participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe –  including Russia – “participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”

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

  • Energy (In)Security in Russia’s Periphery

    On July 13, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on “Energy (In)security in Russia’s Periphery.” Energy security is an important topic that belongs to the OSCE’s Second Dimension. This briefing addressed energy security challenges in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, in particular in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Panelists included Peter Doran, Executive Vice President and Interim Director at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA); Edward Chow, Senior Fellow at the Energy and National Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); Andrian Prokip, Senior Associate at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center and Energy Expert at the Institute for Social and Economic Research; Lyndon Allin, Associate at Baker McKenzie; and Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli, Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. The panelists provided a background on energy security both generally and in the regional context of the post-Soviet space, as well as in the specific case studies of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Mr. Doran stated that the energy security situation in Europe, and also in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, has fundamentally changed as a result of the end of energy scarcity in the world and the construction of new energy infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe in a positive way. However, the bad news is that Russia is not willing to accept this game-changing market shift and is fighting back. For instance, the panelists agreed on the key role that Azerbaijan could play for the supply of energy not only in the post-Soviet space, but also in other European countries. They noted, however, in order for world-class projects, like the ones operating or being planned in Azerbaijan, to become a reality, the achievement of market integration is critical. Unfortunately, market integration in Southeastern Europe is exactly what Russia has been trying to prevent with the tool of energy corruption, which it uses to keep its neighboring countries dependent on it for energy supplies, and to obtain kompromat on various political leaders in the region. Mr. Doran specifically cited the case of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which he argued is a political and not a commercial project for Russia to gain more influence over European, and in particular Ukrainian, energy security. When it comes to ways of approaching energy security, panelists agreed that it must be achieved not by top-down but rather with bottom-up solutions, citing the specific example of Ukraine, which could easily become self-sufficient if it implemented crucial reforms that hinder much-needed private investment in its energy sector. In particular, Mr. Chow observed that, while external challenges must be confronted and overcome, the implementation of crucial structural reforms in the energy sectors of post-Soviet countries is critical to meet the challenge that Russia poses. For example, he regards corruption in the energy sector in Ukraine as the key reason for the nation’s energy insecurity. The panelists agreed that U.S. political leaders should be careful about making promises to politicians in the region, for example the oft-cited promise that U.S. LNG exports will be able to substitute for Russian gas and solve the energy security problems of the region. Instead, as the panelists pointed out, the emphasis should be put on supporting the energy market development of countries in the post-Soviet space. Mr. Prokip stressed that the recently proposed reforms in Ukraine must go forward. In particular, progress must be made in implementation, which he argued could only happen if the West is willing to exert more pressure on the Ukrainian authorities, while continuing to provide advice and assistance. In both Chow’s and Prokip’s view, U.S. energy exports cannot serve as a substitute for structural economic reforms in Ukraine. Following a similar line of argument, Mr. Allin pointed out that, in the case of Moldova, it is the Moldovans who need to make more effort to solve their own problems, rather than looking only to foreign partners for external solutions. Finally, Dr. Tsereteli reminded the audience that structural reforms and the openness to trade and investment that accompanies them can lead to post-Soviet countries’ integration in the global economic system, as was the case in Georgia, which managed to improve its energy security significantly this way.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Energy Security in Russia’s Periphery

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ENERGY (IN)SECURITY IN RUSSIA’S PERIPHERY July 13, 2017 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room G11 Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has used its neighbors’ dependence on its energy supplies as a source of geopolitical leverage and sought to keep their energy sectors underdeveloped and corrupt. Ukraine has recently managed to implement crucial reforms in its energy sector, but challenges remain. Meanwhile, initiatives for similar reforms in Moldova have stalled, while Georgia has successfully reformed its energy sector and developed new infrastructure. Why are these outcomes so different and what more can be done to achieve energy security in post-Soviet Eastern Europe? This briefing will provide a general overview of energy security in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and examine challenges and opportunities in the energy sectors of these states. Briefers will discuss the role that corruption plays in preventing the implementation of effective reforms as well as strategies to curb Russian influence. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Peter Doran, Executive Vice President and Interim Director, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) Edward Chow, Senior Fellow, Energy and National Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Andrian Prokip, Senior Associate, Kennan Institute; Energy Expert, Institute for Social and Economic Research Lyndon Allin, Associate, Baker McKenzie Mamuka Tsereteli, Senior Fellow, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute  

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

    Human trafficking remains a pressing human rights violation around the world with the International Labor Organization estimating that nearly 21 million people are enslaved at any given time, most of them women and children. As part of U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State today released the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), reflecting the efforts of 187 countries and territories to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and to identify and assist victims, as described by the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Trafficking Victim Identification and Care: Regional Perspectives According to the new TIP Report, in the 2016 reporting year, countries in the OSCE region identified 304 more trafficking victims than in the previous year, for a total of 11,416 victims.  This increase is particularly notable when compared to the East Asia and Pacific, Near East, South and Central Asia, and Western Hemisphere regions, where victim identification declined, but still maintained a generally upward trend over 2014.  Trafficking victim identification and care is critical for proper management of refugee and migrant flows.  In order to help law enforcement and border guards identify trafficking victims among the nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees entering the region last year, the OSCE Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings launched a new project to conduct multiple trainings, including simulation exercises, through 2018.  The first training in November 2016 included participants from 30 OSCE participating States. Victim identification and care are also critical for successful prosecutions.  Nearly every region of the world saw a drop in prosecutions of human traffickers, but an increase in convictions in the 2016 reporting year.  This trend may reflect a growing knowledge among prosecutors of how to successfully investigate and prosecute a trafficking case.  It also may reflect an overall increase in trafficking victims who have been identified, permitted to remain in-country, and cared for such that the victims—now survivors—are ready, willing, and able to testify against their traffickers.  Despite the dramatic decline in prosecutions (46 percent) in the OSCE region, convictions held steady at nearly the same numbers as the previous year. Individual Country Narratives Along with regional statistics, the TIP Report also provides individual country narratives, recommendations for the most urgent changes needed to eliminate human trafficking, and an assessment of whether the country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 1 countries meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 2 countries do not yet meet the standards, but are making significant efforts to do so.  Tier 2 Watch List countries do not meet the minimum standards and are making significant efforts to do so, but have a very large or increasing number of trafficking victims, have failed to demonstrate increasing efforts over the previous year, or lack a solid plan to take additional steps in the coming year. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Twenty-five OSCE participating States qualified for Tier 1 in the TIP Report.  Nineteen participating States qualified for Tier 2, including Ukraine, which was upgraded this year after four years on the Tier 2 Watch List.  Five participating States were designated for the Tier 2 Watch List, including Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.* Four participating States were on Tier 3, including Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  States on Tier 3 may be subject to sanctions. Legislation authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith—who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly – requires the TIP Report to be produced every year.  In recent years the report has also included an assessment of the United States.   Since the inception of the report, more than 100 countries have written or amended their trafficking laws, with some nations openly crediting the report for inspiring progress in their countries’ fight against human trafficking. * OSCE participating States Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and San Marino are not included in the TIP Report.

  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

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

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

  • The Growing Russian Military Threat in Europe

    Russian military aggression in recent years has flagrantly violated commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act relating to refraining from the threat or use of force against other states; refraining from violating other states’ sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence; and respecting the right of every state to choose its own security alliances. The Commission’s hearing on May 17, 2017, closely examined Russia’s military threats in Europe – especially in terms of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its attempts to influence events in other neighboring countries – alongside its ongoing violations of arms control agreements and confidence-building measures. Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense; Mr. Stephen Rademaker, Principal with the Podesta Group and former Assistant Secretary of State; and Ambassador Steven Pifer, the Director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brooking Institution and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. In his opening statement, Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker reiterated that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has violated a number of commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other agreements, among them, the inviolability of frontiers or the principle of refraining from the threat of use of force against other states. “The Russian leadership has chosen an antagonistic stance, both regionally and globally, as it seeks to reassert its influence from a bygone era,” Chairman Wicker said. He was echoed by Representative Chris Smith, Co-Chairman of the Commission, who added that Russian aggression is more than a localized phenomenon. “Russia is threatening the foundations of European security and recklessly endangering the lives of millions,” Representative Smith said. Dr. Carpenter, the first witness to testify in the hearing, said that the Kremlin was relying on denial, deception, and unpredictability to advance its goals. “In the non-NATO countries, Russia has proven it is willing to use military force to achieve its aims.  In NATO countries, it is turning to asymmetric tactics, such as cyberattacks, cover subversion operations, and information warfare,” he said. Mr. Rademaker, who testified next, noted that Russia will comply with various arms control treaties like Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), Open Skies, and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, only as long as it serves its interests.  He concluded that the Kremlin sees security in Europe as a zero-sum game–diminishing the security of its neighbors keeps Russia stronger in Moscow’s view. The third witness, Ambassador Pifer, focused on Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. “The Kremlin is not pursuing a settlement of the conflict, but instead seeks to use a simmering conflict as a means to pressure and destabilize the government in Kiev,” Ambassador Pifer said, adding that a change in Moscow’s policy is necessary to bring peace to Ukraine. Ambassador Pifer also argued that the US should consider applying additional sanctions on Russia related to its annexation of Crimea. Mr. Carpenter later echoed those concerns and said that the US should focus on financial sanctions in order to increase its pressure on Russia. He also said that the Magnitsky Act is “vastly underutilized by both the previous administration and this administration.” “If we do not check Russian aggression with more forceful measures now, we will end up dealing with many more crises and conflicts, spending billions of dollars more on the defense of our European allies, and potentially seeing our vision of a Europe whole and free undermined,” Mr. Carpenter argued. Answering a question on where the Kremlin could be expected to agitate next in Europe, Mr. Carpenter pointed to the countries of the Western Balkans that remain, in his view, “in the crosshairs of Russian influence operations now.” He said that Serbia and Macedonia are particularly vulnerable and the potential for a full-fledged ethnic conflict in the Balkans is very high. Mr. Rademaker added that the Western Balkan countries lie outside of NATO and therefore “present an opportunity for Russia.” He also expressed worries that the Baltic states, although members of NATO, are at risk as the Kremlin sees the area as a “near-abroad” and thinks Russia is entitled to play “a special security role” in the region. “We need to begin to shape Russian thinking, that they have to understand that there are certain places that the West will not tolerate Russian overreach and will push back on,” Ambassador Pifer concluded. “And hopefully, as we shape that thinking, maybe Moscow comes around to a more accommodating view on some of these questions.”

  • Former Top U.S. Officials Call For New Sanctions, More Aggressive Action On Russia

    WASHINGTON -- The United States should impose new sanctions and move more aggressively to "shape Russian thinking" in response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, former top State and Defense department officials said. Michael Carpenter, who was the Pentagon’s top Russia official until January, said the measures Washington should take should include deploying an armored brigade permanently to the Baltics and restricting some Russian surveillance flights over U.S. territory now authorized under the 2002 Open Skies treaty. "If we do not check Russian aggression with more forceful measures now, we will end up dealing with many more crises and conflicts, spending billions of dollars more in the defense of our European allies, and potentially see our vision of Europe whole and free undermined," Carpenter told a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on May 17. Carpenter, along with former State Department arms control director Stephen Rademaker, also suggested that the United States should consider returning intermediate-range cruise missiles to Europe, in response to Russia’s alleged violations of a key Cold War-era arms agreement. Rademaker told the commission that Russia will comply with important treaties like Open Skies, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, and Conventional Armed Forces in Europe but only when it is in Moscow’s interest. When it isn’t in Moscow’s interest, "it will seek to terminate them…or violate them while continuing to play lip service to them...or it will selectively implement them," he said. Russia, for its part, has repeatedly denied violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty and instead accuses the United States itself of violating the agreement. Carpenter called for more financial sanctions that leverage U.S. dominance in financial markets, for more pressure on top Russian officials, and he said that the so-called Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that puts restrictions on alleged Russian human rights offenders, had been "vastly underutilized." Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said the list should be expanded to include relatives of Kremlin-connected oligarchs and other powerful government officials, for example, to keep their children from enrolling at U.S. colleges and universities or spouses from "going on London shopping trips." During last year's election campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly expressed a conciliatory approach toward Moscow, saying more cooperation was needed in the fight against terrorism. Since taking office, however, the administration has largely maintained the stiff-armed policy initiated by Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. The Helsinki Commission is a U.S. government agency that monitors international adherence to the 1975 Helsinki Accords on human rights.

  • Russian Military Activities in Europe to Be Examined at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “THE GROWING RUSSIAN MILITARY THREAT IN EUROPE: ASSESSING AND ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGE” Wednesday, May 17, 2017 9:30 AM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 208/209 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce051717 Russian military aggression in recent years has flagrantly violated commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act relating to refraining from the threat or use of force against other states; refraining from violating other states’ sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence; and respecting the right of every state to choose its own security alliances. Witnesses will review Russia’s military activities in Europe, and how Moscow has consistently and deliberately undermined its OSCE and related arms control commitments. Witnesses will also explore if and how Russia could be coaxed back into compliance, and assess the OSCE as a vehicle to address the growing instability and unpredictability in the European security environment.  The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Michael Carpenter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia; currently Senior Director at the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement  Steven Pifer, Senior Fellow and Director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution Stephen Rademaker, Principal, Podesta Group; former Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Bureau of Arms Control and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system.   Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally.  Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union.  Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval.     The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response.  I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July.  Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt.         As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region.  They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions.    In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order.      With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability.  Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace.  The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents.  Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims.  The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political.   An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested.  Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process.  The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets.  Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars.  The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested.  The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper.  Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire.   Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum.  Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt.    It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16.  These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent.  The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”  Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished.  The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will.  The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council.  In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.”    Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership.  President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules.  Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance.  Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression.  In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary.  Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable.  A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic.  Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic.  It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.

  • World Press Freedom Day 2017

    By Jordan Warlick, Staff Associate Although freedom of the press is recognized by democracies around the world as an essential and basic human right, emerging reports show that it is globally in decline, even in countries considered strong democracies. The recently published Freedom House 2017 Freedom of the Press Report and Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index both indicate grim trends – Freedom House declares press freedom at its lowest point in 13 years, and Reporters Without Borders describes the “ever darker world map” it has published this year. The OSCE region is not uniform when it comes to freedom of the press. OSCE participating States include some of the freest nations in the world, like Norway and the Netherlands, alongside some of the least free nations, like Azerbaijan and Turkey. The worst-performing region in the aforementioned Freedom House report is Eurasia, while the best-performing is Europe, both of which are largely encompassed in the OSCE region. The central problems of media freedom are also varied between countries, from violence, intimidation, and incarceration of journalists; to emerging contempt for the media among politicians; to media outlet ownership and transparency issues. While some countries require more attention and monitoring than others, any conditions that impede on press freedom or that are considered harmful for journalists deserve attention. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media was an office created in 1997 to do just that: monitor and assist participating States with compliance commitments on freedom of expression and free media. The most recent OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, was a fierce advocate for the rights of journalists across the OSCE. The OSCE participating States currently are in the process of selecting her successor, an appointment that requires consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States.  This office’s function as a watchdog for violations and deteriorating conditions for media has been critical to bringing attention to issues and cases that may otherwise go unnoticed. Still, undemocratic regimes, changing political tides in the region, and the evolving landscape of journalism present ongoing challenges. Over the last week alone, the Helsinki Commission has held three different events where media freedom has been an important topic of discussion: a hearing on human rights abuses in Russia; a briefing on Russian human rights violations of Ukrainian citizens; and a briefing on human rights in Turkey after its referendum on changes to the constitution.  At the hearing on human rights in Russia, each witness brought attention to the Kremlin’s control of the media and persecution of independent journalists. The briefing on Russian human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens focused on the incarceration of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, but highlighted other cases of imprisoned journalists such as Roman Sushchenko of Ukrinform News and Mykola Semena, a contributor to Radio Free Europe. On Turkey, Freedom House panelist Nate Schenkkan described the severe restrictions on access to information and underscored Turkey’s status as the number one jailer of journalists in the world. If there is any hope for the future of press freedom in these countries where media is especially unfree, it is in the passion and talent of journalists who are committed to holding their governments accountable despite the risks. It is vital that the United States continue to be an exemplar of and advocate for freedom of the press, enshrined by our founders in the First Amendment in recognition of its importance for democracy, for other countries around the world.

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