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Helsinki Commission Chairman Delivers Remarks on Belarus, Ukraine Elections

Chair, U.S. Helsinki Commission
Rep. Christopher H. Smith
Washington, DC
United States
Tuesday, September 28, 2004

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Conference on the Implications of the East European Elections:
Ukraine and Belarus

The Heritage Foundation

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 ofBelarusian 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 inUkraine.  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 BelarusDemocracy Act, which is waiting for consideration by the full House.  The BDA is intended to promote democracy, human rights and rule of law inBelarus, 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 Belarusand Ukraine, we must continue to encourage compliance with these commitments.

END REMARKS

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With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time. Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.  The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.  Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.  Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.  Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots.  In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).  U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members. Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour.  The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process. Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary. Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.  A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.  After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.  Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square. It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level. The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.  Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote. Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”  The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance. During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system. In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.   The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.

  • Press Conference Following U.S. Congressional Delegation Meetings in Bosnia

    Thank you Madam Ambassador.  We appreciate it very, very much.  And this is indeed a bicameral and bipartisan delegation of members of the United States Congress and I am pleased to be here in Sarajevo for my fifth visit.  This is a nine-member congressional delegation. It represents – as the Ambassador said – the bicameral U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I’m privileged to serve as chair.  The Helsinki Commission and its members from the United States Congress have always cared about Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Its first congressional visit here was in early 1991, before the conflict began.  Commissioners returned when they could during the conflict, and have come back on several occasions after the conflict to assess and encourage recovery and reconciliation.   This time, we come here first and foremost to let both the political leaders and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina know the United States remains interested and engaged in the Balkans.  The progress we want to see throughout the region must include progress here in Bosnia.  We are committed to protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in line with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, and we support Bosnia’s aspirations for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.  Efforts to undermine state institutions, along with calls for secession or establishment of a third entity, violate the spirit and letter of the Dayton Accords and endanger the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the entire region, and they diminish the likelihood of progress for local families and job creators.   We encourage the Bosnian government to undertake the necessary reforms to make integration a reality.  The inability to make Bosnia’s government more functional, efficient, and accountable is holding this country back.  It is the consensus of the international community that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are ill-served by their government’s structure. Bosnia should correct one glaring shortcoming.  The discriminatory ethnic criteria that prevent some Roma, Jewish, Serbs in the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, and other citizens who do not self-identify with a group from seeking certain public offices is unacceptable and can easily be addressed.  Bosnia’s neighbors are making progress, and we do not want to see this country fall further behind.   In our meeting with Members of the Bosnian Presidency, we expressed our frustrations with the political impasse and often dangerous rhetoric.  We urged stronger leadership and a more cooperative spirit in moving this country forward, together.  This should include electoral reform now and a serious commitment to the additional reforms that are obviously needed in the near future.  We are tired of the way ethnic politics dominates debate and makes decision-making such a difficult progress.  We share this impatience with our allies and the people this country would like to move closer toward.  This does not enhance the future of young people who want to stay and raise families in Bosnia, and it places a drag on efforts toward Euro-Atlantic integration. We encouraged international mission heads and the diplomatic community based here in Bosnia to defend human rights, democracy, the rule of law and all principles of the Helsinki Final Act in their important work.  In these areas, there should be no compromises here in Bosnia that we would not accept elsewhere.  Working together, the United States and Europe must deal firmly with those who seek to undermine those principles in any way, and that should include – for the worst offenders – coordinated sanctions on their ability to travel and on their individual assets.  We also need to work with Bosnian officials to counter external forces that actively seek to make Bosnia even more vulnerable to internal instability than it already is right now.  We are proud of the work between the United States and Bosnian officials thus far on countering terrorism.  We hope Bosnia remains committed to prosecuting and rehabilitating foreign terrorist fighters through ensuring longer sentences for convicted terrorists. Second to sending a strong U.S. message, we come to hear the voices of the people.  The Helsinki Commission and members of Congress regularly meet with diplomats and senior officials from Bosnia who visit Washington.  Their views are important, and we have good discussions, and we had good discussions this time.  However, we often wonder what the people of Bosnia truly think about their situation.  To that end, we met here with citizens who continue to be denied their recognized right to seek certain public offices.  We also heard the many concerns of non-governmental representatives.  In Mostar, we met with a young leader whose organization is trying to find common ground among the people of that spectacular city, which is still divided in too many ways.  It is deplorable that the citizens of Mostar have been denied their right to vote in local elections since 2008; we call on Bosnia’s political leaders to set aside the differences and work toward a compromise that resolves the impasse. We encourage all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to give priority not to protecting ethnic privileges that keep them segregated from one another, but to promoting policies that will give them jobs, greater opportunity, a 21st century education, and the prosperity they want for their children and grandchildren.  To succeed, Bosnian citizens must all move forward together.   However, ethnic divisions continue to thwart needed cooperation.  We sense that these divisions are not as deep as claimed by the political leaders who exploit them. They exploit them for power, in our judgment.  And if there is one thing which should unite all Bosnians, it should be the desire to end the rampant corruption that robs this country of its wealth and potential. We hope that the upcoming Bosnian elections are not only conducted smoothly and peacefully, but their results reflect the genuine will of the people.  Democracy is strengthened when voters cast their ballots based, not on fear, pressure or expectation, but based on their own, personal views regarding the issues and opinions of the candidates, their views and their character.  The outcome must accurately capture these individual sentiments.  We hope for progress on electoral reform, in line with accepted norms for free and fair elections, so that election results can be implemented and a government formed.  We are dismayed at the lack of political diversity within some of the main ethnic groups in this country, and take issue with those who argue they are entitled to a monopoly in representing those groups. A third and final reason this delegation has come to Bosnia and Herzegovina is to remember —as American citizens and elected officials — why the United States of America should continue to care about Bosnia and Herzegovina, even when so many other crises demand attention.  We are reminded, in that regard, of the upcoming anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica and the unimaginable pain and loss that lingers from that and other wartime atrocities.  Some of us visited the War Childhood museum, reminding us as well of the innocence and vulnerability of civilian victims.  We also remember past U.S. leadership in responding to the conflict.  The address of this building is “1 Robert C. Frasure Street,” after one of three American envoys who lost their lives on nearby Mount Igman while seeking to bring peace to this country.  Their work, and that of so many other American diplomats, soldiers and citizens who have continued their work to this day, cannot be left unfinished.   Finally, we also witnessed the incredible beauty of the countryside, the vibrancy of places like Sarajevo and Mostar, and the generous hospitality of the people.  Having been through so much, they deserve better than they have right now.            We therefore leave here more committed than ever to this country’s future, and as confident as ever in our ability to work together to build that future.  We support Ambassador Cormack here in Sarajevo and will continue to encourage our government in Washington to take further steps to encourage the good governance and prosperity that the citizens of this country deserve.

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Senator Cardin Urge President Trump to Call on President Putin to Free Oleg Sentsov

    WASHINGTON—In a letter on Friday, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged President Trump to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to free Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment. On May 14, 2018, Sentsov began a hunger strike, which he plans to continue until all Ukrainian political prisoners jailed in Russia are released. The letter reads in part: “Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years. In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there… “As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country. In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him. Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world.” In April 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on Russia’s human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens, including Sentsov. The full text of the letter can be found below: The Honorable Donald J. Trump President of the United States The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear Mr. President, We hope you will call on Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately and unconditionally to release the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment in Siberia. In light of Sentsov’s hunger strike, our request is urgent. Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years.  In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there. On May 14, 2018, Mr. Sentsov declared he had begun an indefinite hunger strike, stating that “the one and only condition for its termination is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.” With his health already weakened, it is uncertain how long he can survive. As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country.  In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him.  Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world. Sincerely,

  • High Crimes and Pipelines

    Corruption continues to plague Ukraine’s energy sector. Despite the success of reforms to its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, rampant corruption in regional distribution companies and elsewhere prevents Ukraine’s energy sector from realizing its potential. Coupled with the Russian assault on energy security in the form of Nord Stream 2, Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads: will it continue on the reformist path toward energy independence, or will its energy sector once again become defined by corruption? This briefing reviewed the challenges facing Ukraine’s energy sector with a focus on corruption’s role in preventing necessary reforms. Speakers provided expertise and insight as to how Ukraine’s energy sector fits into the larger picture of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. They also examined Russia’s malign influence in the country. Finally, the briefing offered policy responses to these issues.

  • Amendment on U.S. military involvement in Poland

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my support for the amendment the senior Senator from Arkansas has offered to the H.R. 5515, the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, NDAA. Senator BOOZMAN’s amendment is a thoughtful one. It proposes to solicit information from the Department of Defense to help us carefully think through our response to the changed strategic situation in Europe. Russia’s military aggression and Military incursions in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere have made it abundantly clear that we are no longer in the security environment that provided the context for the commitments we made in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. The United States and Poland have a long record of highly effective cooperation in military matters. Poland has made important contributions to operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and an American-led NATO battle group in Poland is playing an important role in reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank today. Still, a decision to permanently deploy U.S. forces to the territory of even such a stalwart ally should not be taken lightly. This amendment wisely requests that the Department of Defense provide its assessment of a number of factors that we will need to weigh when deciding whether to take such a step, including the reactions we should anticipate from other allies, possible responses by Russia, and more practical considerations including cost and timing. Poland needs no reminder about the external threats it faces. After all, it borders Ukraine. However, Poland faces an enemy within: democratic backsliding, which plays into Vladimir Putin’s hands as he aims to undermine democratic values across Europe. Since 2015, the Polish Government has challenged constitutionalism, eroded checks and balances, and indulged in historical revisionism. The breadth and depth of the government’s actions led the European Commission to conclude in December that Poland’s “executive and legislative branches have been systematically enabled to politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch.” I discussed these concerns in a meeting with Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marek Magierowski in February, including a controversial law, introduced on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which may actually impede research, scholarship, and journalism about the Holocaust. The Department of State rightly observed that this law might have repercussions for “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships—including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.” Independence of the judiciary will take another hit on July 3, when a new law will go into effect forcing the early retirement of up to 40 percent of Poland’s 120-member supreme court, the reintroduction of the Soviet-era feature of ‘‘lay judges,’’ and make final judgments subject to ‘‘extraordinary appeals.’’ These developments—very concerning both for Poland and the region—should be part of the administration’s dialogue with Warsaw on comprehensive transatlantic security.

  • Corruption in Ukraine's Energy Sector Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: HIGH CRIMES AND PIPELINES: CURBING CORRUPTION IN UKRAINE’S ENERGY SECTOR Monday, June 18, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room G11 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Corruption continues to plague Ukraine’s energy sector. Despite the success of reforms to its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, rampant corruption in regional distribution companies and elsewhere prevents Ukraine’s energy sector from realizing its potential. Coupled with the Russian assault on energy security in the form of Nord Stream 2, Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads: will it continue on the reformist path toward energy independence, or will its energy sector once again become defined by corruption? This briefing will review the challenges facing Ukraine’s energy sector with a focus on corruption’s role in preventing necessary reforms. Speakers will provide expertise and insight as to how Ukraine’s energy sector fits into the larger picture of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. They will also examine Russia’s malign influence in the country. Finally, the briefing will offer policy responses to these issues. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Bill Courtney, Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan and career foreign service officer Ed Chow, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies Nataliya Katser-Buchkovska, Member of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada

  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

    On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.  While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.  Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.  One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations. Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.  A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.  Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.  We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.  For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.  We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.  One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.  We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. Election Aftermath In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” “Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said. The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures. At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently. Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.” The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement. “A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”

  • Helsinki Commission Observation of Russia’s Presidential Elections

    Presidential elections were held in the Russian Federation on March 18, 2018; incumbent Vladimir Putin took about 76 percent of the votes cast among eight candidates, with a voter turnout topping 67 percent. These lopsided results were unsurprising in a country where the current regime has steadily and systematically decimated the democratic norms that gained a foothold in the 1990s. Nevertheless, international observers traveled to Russia under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to provide an authoritative assessment of electoral conditions and to encourage Russia to adhere to its OSCE commitments. The Russian Federation, along with the 56 other OSCE participating States, has committed to hold free and fair elections, as well as to invite international observers. An OSCE presence also indicated an ongoing willingness to support democratic development by engaging not just the government but all players in Russian society. Despite a variety of official efforts to suppress critics and marginalize opposition, independent and democratic forces remain active in Russia. Based on an December 21, 2017, recommendation to deploy a comprehensive OSCE observation mission for the Russian election, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed a Moscow-based core team of 13 experts supplemented by 60 long-term observers deployed throughout the country. On election day, 481 observers from 44 countries visited more than 2,000 polling stations. The election day deployment included a 101-member delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), including two Helsinki Commission staffers who were the only U.S. government officials to observe the elections. They observed in Istra and other towns northwest of Moscow and in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Ending the War in Ukraine

    The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker explored the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election. During his opening statement, Ambassador Volker noted that the conflict will only be resolved if Russia decides to remove its forces from the territory of Ukraine and to allow a genuine security presence to enter. He highlighted a proposal to institute a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force that would help fulfill the Minsk Agreements by establishing security, controlling the border, and creating conditions to hold local elections. This peacekeeping force would be funded through voluntary contributions by nations and coordinated by a special representative of the secretary-general. In the Q&A, Ambassador Volker underlined that a U.N. mandate for such a mission would necessarily depend on Russian agreement. He noted that it is possible that after President Putin’s reelection, there may be greater political space for such a decision to take place, particularly as Russia continues to suffer significant economic and human costs from its occupation and will gain little by continuing the conflict. Regarding Crimea, Ambassador Volker noted that, although it is fortuitous there is no active military-style fighting, the centralized Russian rule has created a dire human rights situation on the illegally occupied territory. The Muslim Crimean Tartar population in particular has suffered greatly under Russian rule. As a result, many Crimean Tartars have fled for other parts of the country. He also stated that he has made it clear to his Russian counterparts that the United States does not accept Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. Ambassador Volker highlighted some areas where the OSCE’s role could be enhanced. He said that a U.N. peacekeeping force would support the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in executing its mandate in full. Furthermore, the OSCE could help provide supervision and training to local police forces to fill any potential security vacuum after illegal armed groups are removed. The OSCE could also be instrumental in creating and monitoring local elections.  Ambassador Volker closed the briefing by emphasizing the utility of working toward implementation of the Minsk Agreements rather than seeking to negotiate a new format. Even though the agreement has to date seen little implementation, attempting to create an alternative would just start a new open-ended negotiating process. He reiterated his belief that a U.N. peacekeeping force has the potential to unlock significant progress towards implementation of Minsk. He asserted that the United States would continue to be an active contributor to creating a prosperous and successful democratic Ukraine which could help foster a positive security and political environment in Europe going forward.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.   The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Kurt Volker to Discuss War in Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ENDING THE WAR IN UKRAINE: KURT VOLKER, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR UKRAINE NEGOTIATIONS Tuesday, May 8, 2018 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker will explore the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election.  

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Cardin on Anniversary of Death of Joseph Stone in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On the one-year anniversary of the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) recalled Stone’s tragic death, criticized the pressure put on international monitors, and called for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in Stone’s death.  Stone’s life was cruelly cut short when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Civilian OSCE monitors like Mr. Stone risk their lives to tell the world what is happening, even as they face violent harassment and physical obstruction. Monitors should be able to travel throughout the country without restriction or intimidation, as their mandate requires,” Sen. Wicker said. “Russia’s continued fueling of this war must end. Putin and those he supports should live up to their commitments under the Minsk agreements and get out of Ukraine.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Ranking Senate Commissioner, praised the work of the monitors and condemned Russia’s leaders for their role in the conflict. “Joseph Stone gave his life in service to a mission that shines a light on a war that has killed thousands and affected millions more.  Every day, these brave, unarmed monitors report the ground truth from a conflict manufactured by Putin and his cronies to advance his vision of a weak and destabilized Ukraine,” Sen. Cardin stated. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the most serious breaches of OSCE principles since the signing of Helsinki Final Act in 1975. The Russian regime must put an end to the cycle of violence it perpetuates in Ukraine and live up to its OSCE commitments.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine.  It currently fields roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United States supports the SMM by providing more than 60 monitors and other resources to the mission.

  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Boris Nemtsov: 1959-2015

    On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was brutally murdered on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Three years after Nemtsov’s assassination, the Helsinki Commission examined the investigation into Nemtsov’s murder to shed light on the circumstances of the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia. The Helsinki Commission probed reasons why the plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to a fair trial, the effects Russian propaganda has had on Russian citizens in the suppression of information about the case, and the impact of sanctions resulting from the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act. The Commissioners heard testimony from Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of Boris Nemtsov; Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom; and Vadim Phrokhorov, Lawyer for the family of Boris Nemtsov. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the witnesses and commended Ms. Nemtsova for her courageous activism against gross human rights violations in Russia. Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, highlighted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to suppress democracy in Russia, as well as the Kremlin’s use of military force in Ukraine, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and involvement in the deaths of political opponents like Mr. Nemtsov. Sen. Cardin also praised Russian citizens who side with democracy and emphasized that “[members of the Helsinki Commission] are on the side of the Russian people.” Rep. Christopher Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, discussed how the Magnitsky Act is a breakthrough and a “very useful tool against repressive regimes.” He also asked the panelists for recommendations on actions the United States can and should take to further transparency on the investigation, and expressed interest in initiating a procedure to establish a special representative for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in July of 2018. “And, so, for Boris himself, we need [...] all parties responsible to be held to account — total transparency,” Rep. Smith said.   Ms. Nemtsova, the first to testify, criticized Russian authorities for failing to classify the murder as politically motivated. She also explained how the Russians want to end public debate on sensitive political issues. “You probably are aware of what [the Russians] are afraid of most,” she said. “They’re afraid of the sunshine. My father’s case is one of the sensitive issues, and that’s why it’s important to bring it to the sunshine.” Ms. Nemtsova also criticized the investigative committee for not identifying the individual that orchestrated the murder. In closing, she noted that the Government of Russia has tried—but failed— to erase her father’s memory, and urged the Commissioners to appoint a special representative to oversee the investigation at the July 2018 Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Berlin, Germany. During his testimony, Mr. Kara-Murza reiterated the importance of the Boris Nemtsov plaza-naming ceremony that took place on February 27, 2018, exactly three years after his murder. The District of Columbia renamed a section of Wisconsin Avenue, in front of the Russian Embassy, to honor Boris Nemtsov’s legacy. “It is important for those who continue to hold remembrance marches [...] for people who continue Boris Nemtsov’s work by exposing government corruption. You can kill a human being, but you cannot kill what he stood for,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza noted that experts frequently blur the line between a country and a regime and urged political leaders in Western democracies to “not equate Russia with the regime that is ruling it.” He concluded by urging the Commissioners to initiate a process, similar to the appointment of a special rapporteur, under the auspices of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session being held in July 2018.   Mr. Prokhorov reiterated how Russian authorities refused to recognize Boris Nemtsov’s murder as politically motivated and that the evidence led to the inner circle of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya. “The problem is not that the investigation of the suspects is difficult or impossible. Our principal concern is that the investigative authorities are not willing to make any effort to do so,” Mr. Prokhorov said. Mr. Prokhorov stated that the Russian authorities breached the family of Boris Nemtsov’s right to a fair trial and how “none of the organizers or masterminds have been identified or persecuted to date.” He concluded by urging western political leaders, diplomats, and public figures to engage Russian counterparts in dialogue regarding Boris Nemtsov’s murder when given the opportunity to do so.

  • Nemtsov Murder Investigation Under Scrutiny at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: BORIS NEMTSOV, 1959-2015: SEEKING JUSTICE, SECURING HIS LEGACY Wednesday, February 28, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 138 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce022818 Three years after Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge in front of the Kremlin, and one day after the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Helsinki Commission will examine the outcome of the official investigation and trial into his assassination. An officer of the Russian Interior Ministry with links to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was convicted of pulling the trigger; four others were sentenced as perpetrators. Gen. Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee has declared the case “solved.” Yet, three years on, the organizers and masterminds of the Nemtsov assassination remain unidentified and at large. The United States has sanctioned both Kadyrov and Bastrykin for gross human rights violations under the Magnitsky Act. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has appointed a Special Rapporteur to assess the status of the case and report on its shortcomings. At this hearing, the Commission will consider whether similar oversight is needed within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This hearing will also examine the particular importance of Boris Nemtsov’s legacy of public and competitive politics as Russia looks to Vladimir Putin’s fourth official term in office. Witnesses scheduled to testify include: Zhanna Nemtsova, Daughter of Boris Nemtsov Vadim Prokhorov, Lawyer for the Nemtsov family Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman, Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom

  • European Security in 2018

    From the Kremlin-engineered conflict in Ukraine, which has killed over 10,000 people, wounded tens of thousands, and displaced over a million, to military exercises designed to intimidate Russia’s neighbors, Moscow’s actions have severely undermined security and stability throughout Europe – including that of U.S. allies and partners. From November 2014 until his retirement in December 2017, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frederick Benjamin “Ben” Hodges helped lead the U.S. response to Russia’s military aggression as Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe. Hodges was credited by Gen. Curtis M. Scapparrotti, commander of European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, with leading American land forces during one of the most volatile periods in recent European history and driving an increased U.S. force presence to deter further aggression and reassure allies. During the briefing, General Hodges offered his perspective on the importance of Europe to the United States, NATO’s success in maintaining stability in Europe, and the significance of the United States’ relationship with Germany. The economic relationship between Europe and the United States and the reliability of European partners underlined the continued strategic relevance of Europe to the U.S., Hodges argued. General Hodges also emphasized the importance of the strategic relationship between Germany and the United States. He noted the importance of Germany to our own economic prosperity, as well as access to military bases throughout the country, asserting, “We’ll always have a special relationship with the UK, for historical, cultural reasons. But in terms of what’s most important, it’s Germany.” In response to questions from Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Alex Tiersky, General Hodges outlined the U.S. Army’s support to Ukraine in the wake of ongoing Russian aggression, noting the utility of the training mission in Yavoriv to both sides, with American soldiers gaining critical insights on Russian tactics and technology. General Hodges also addressed the provision of lethal military assistance to Ukraine in the context of supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and, ultimately, a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Tiersky also asked about ZAPAD 2017, a Russian military exercise which took place across Russian and Belarus, as well as broader trends in Russian military exercises. Hodges underlined the lack of Russian transparency regarding ZAPAD, and described its broad scale and ambition.  The exercise had the positive effect of forcing impressive intelligence sharing among Allies, Hodges revealed, a dynamic he hoped would endure. Hodges also commented on Turkey’s strategic direction; NATO reform and defense spending commitments; cyber conflict; and the role of multilateral institutions.

  • Presidential Elections in Kyrgyzstan

    Kyrgyzstan’s presidential elections on October 15, 2017, provided for an orderly transfer of power despite curbs on political opposition and media freedom in the run-up to the election, as well as allegations of administrative pressure on voters, vote-buying, and other irregularities during the electoral process. The OSCE Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions stated that the elections “contributed to the strengthening of democratic in-stitutions by providing for an orderly transfer of power from one elected president to another. The election was competitive, as voters had a wide choice and candidates could, in general, campaign freely, although cases of misuse of public resources, pressure on voters, and vote-buying remain a concern….While televised debates contributed to greater pluralism, self-censorship and limited editorial coverage of the campaign signaled deficiencies in media freedom.” Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: U.S. Helsinki Staff

  • Chairman Wicker Statement on Lethal Arms Sales to Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has issued the following statement in response to the Trump Administration’s approval of lethal arms sales to Ukraine: “The President’s decision is a good first step to give the Ukrainian people the means to defend themselves. ‎The best way to stop Russian aggression is to deter it. I am hopeful that approval will also be given to future sales of anti-tank weapons and other heavy arms.” The decision by the Department of State was reported as the fighting in eastern Ukraine has sharply escalated to levels not seen in months, following Russian unilateral withdrawal from a coordination mechanism critical to prior de-escalations and local ceasefires. The conditions of civilians in Eastern Ukraine was the focus of a November 30 Helsinki Commission briefing featuring a senior OSCE monitor.

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