Title

Russia and Central Asia: the Growing Policy Challenges for the International Community

Hon.
Alcee L. Hasitngs
Washignton, DC
United States
Monday, March 12, 2007

Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Distinguished Speakers and Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank Freedom House for inviting me to speak at this important event. Freedom House has well earned its reputation as one of the foremost democracy-promoting organizations in the world. Moreover, Nations in Transit – whose 2007 edition this conference is launching – has become an indispensable source of information, measuring the advance of democratization around the globe. Thanks also to SAIS for co-hosting and my congratulations to you on the success of your Russia and Eurasian Studies Program.

As Paula said, I Chair the Helsinki Commission, which Congress created in 1976 to monitor and promote implementation of the Helsinki Final Act in all the participating States. Moreover, I have recently completed two years as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly – the only American to ever hold that post. In that capacity, I visited 31 OSCE states, including Russia and all the Central Asian countries. In my travels and in Washington, I have met with presidents and foreign ministers, with parliamentarians, opposition leaders and dissenters, and with journalists and human rights activists.

In these remarks, I would like to give you my assessment of where I see democratic governance and human rights trending in the region, more than 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But first, I want to state that we need to take back the moral high-ground that we once stood on. This starts by holding ourselves accountable when human rights issues arise here at home. Not that we have anything to be afraid of. But we must take away the credibility of those who would accuse us of double standards. As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, this will be one of my priorities.

Let me now talk about Russia. You are all surely familiar with President Putin’s speech in Munich last month, and how pundits have characterized U.S.-Russian relations these days. It’s a bad sign when our Secretary of Defense has to note that “one Cold War was enough.” Actually, one Cold War was more than enough.

Now, I understand that Russians remember the 1990s very differently than we do. Despite what many viewed from abroad as a “springtime” of freedom for Russia and the territory of the former Soviet Union, many citizens of Russia remember the nineties as a period of tremendous economic dislocation, rampant crime, chaos at home, and humiliation abroad. The relative order and, at least, superficial international respect that President Vladimir Putin brought to Russia has been welcomed by a majority of the Russian population and seems to be strongly supported by the younger generation. From our point of view, this runs somewhat counter to the assumption that the post-communist generation would yearn for still greater freedom and be less pugnacious. It is necessary that we find a way to come to grips with these divergent views of the recent past as we look to the future.

So it’s understandable that today, Russians proudly proclaim that “Russia is back.” This is certainly true, and in no small measure due to high energy prices. Nor is it surprising that a great country with vast human and material resources should rebound from even the disruptions of the last 20 years. What troubles me and many others is what kind of Russia has returned to a leading role on the world stage.

Russian officials maintain that their democracy is developing in its own way and in accordance with its own traditions. They accuse the United States of unilateralism in foreign affairs and of seeking to impose the American form of democratic governance on Russia and the rest of the world and hypocritically meddling in the affairs of others.

To be sure, our attempts to spread the undeniable benefits of the American experience have not always been distinguished by cultural sensitivity. But I get nervous when I hear the phrase “according to our own traditions and national mentality.” No rational person expects Ivan Ivanov to be a carbon copy of John Johnson. However, there are certain basic shared assumptions about what democratic governance entails: freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; rule of law; a reasonable distribution of power between the branches of government; an independent judiciary; etc. I would also note that reference to one’s “traditions” as a method of denying rights to others is not solely a Russian phenomenon.

There’s little doubt that under President Putin – who is undeniably popular – some people have begun to live better materially. Many Russians are proud of their president, of his sober, disciplined approach to government and his determination to restore Russia’s greatness. But in Russia – and Central Asia – we have witnessed the emergence of super-presidencies, which have overwhelmed the legislative and the judicial branches.

For instance, in successfully recentralizing power in the Kremlin, President Putin has turned the Duma into a virtual rubber stamp. True, the Duma was quite complicit in this. And I am aware that American history has also produced “honeymoons” between popular chief executives and a congressional majority representing the same political party. We’ve just finished a six year version right here in Washington. But I hope my colleagues in the Russian Duma would agree that a vital element of representative government is a legislature that acts as a check on executive power.

As for judicial independence – a critical component of checks and balances – when was the last time a court in Russia ruled contrary to government wishes in a politically sensitive case in which the Kremlin or the security forces – some would say they are synonymous – have an interest?

Especially alarming is the contraction of freedom of the media. The Kremlin now controls all major TV stations, which parrot the official perspective. As for newspapers, though less popular as a source of information, journalism has become a very dangerous profession. In fact, according to the International News Safety Institute, Russia is the second most dangerous country for journalists in the world – the first is Iraq. Just last week, yet another investigative journalist died under suspicious circumstances. There is a long list of such crimes, which have largely gone unsolved. Obviously, the Fourth Estate is being told to shut its mouth, if it wants to keep its head.

Furthermore, I am troubled by the government’s attempts to rein in civil society, at least those elements that the Kremlin views as threatening. Many of you may have read about the judge who recently fined members of a local human rights group for meeting in a school with foreign visitors without notifying the authorities – a mentality that smacks frighteningly of the Soviet era.

Russian officials often get irritated when they hear the terms “managed democracy” or “sham democracy.” But I see in Russia a system that attempts to carefully control politics, in which the public has been removed from the political process while the state’s well-connected individuals have taken charge of the country’s most profitable giant companies. And it is hard for me to see how or when this system will open up again.

One way the system could open up is through legitimate presidential elections in 2008, when President Putin is expected to retire. But to judge by the current difficulties reported by “outsiders” testing the waters in Russia, there is no reason to expect that opposition candidates can count on an equal playing field.

The rise of “illiberal democracy” at home is also reflected in Russia’s behavior abroad. For example, Moscow’s unrelenting pressure on Georgia and Moldova has tarnished Russia’s reputation as a conscientious upholder of international law. Especially worrying for Europe are possible interruptions in oil and gas supplies, as has happened during Russia’s disputes with its neighbors. Not surprisingly, Washington and other capitals – even Minsk – are wondering whether Russia can be a reliable supplier of the energy on which our economies depend.

Of course, Russia should be able to enjoy the benefits of its energy resources, which account for fully one-quarter of its GDP. But what will benefit Russia, as well as transit and consumer countries, would be more transparency and predictability in energy supply. Think of Russia moving toward a Canadian or Norwegian model instead of an OPEC model.

This would entail the promotion of free-market policies in the energy sector. It would mean the protection of property rights, which ensure fair competition, backed up by a commitment to the rule of law that give these rights some meaning. Such transparency and predictability will help ensure that Russia can rationally exploit its resources and that consuming countries can sleep easy – and warm – at night. And Russia’s leaders must understand that other states have become hypersensitive to the possibility that the Kremlin will exploit its control of hydrocarbons for political gain and draw the appropriate conclusions. Yet I often wonder if they do. Sometimes it seems that oil has simply gone to people’s heads in Moscow.

As a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, I am well aware of the gravity of the terrorist threat facing this country as well as Russia. I understand the need for us to work together to confront this danger to the whole world. But the legitimate struggle against terrorism cannot be an excuse for gross violations of international humanitarian law and norms – Chechnya comes to mind in this context.

Before moving on to Central Asia, I would just emphasize my sincere belief that we best advance our interests with Russia in an atmosphere of mutual respect and not of mutual recrimination. Knee-jerk Russia bashing may be emotionally satisfying for some and may help bolster budgets for others, but it does little to promote our goals and, in fact, closes many doors for dialogue and understanding. On the other hand, being best friends should not be the measure of successful bilateral relations. We need to focus our efforts more on bolstering Russia’s nascent democratic institutions rather than on the rapidly changing faces of the Russian elite.

I would also add that I support granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Russia. Russia has complied with our law. We spend millions of dollars promoting rule of law abroad, but we seem unable or too preoccupied to comply with our own legislation and retire this Cold War relic.

Let me now turn to Central Asia. Over the last 15 years, we have seen the rise of the familiar “super-president,” the controlled parliament, the supine judiciary and the media under pressure, while the families and cronies of rulers prosper. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, no political opposition has been permitted. Turkmenistan – which is still a one-party state today – has been one of the most repressive countries in the world, virtually a post-Soviet North Korea, with a similar cult of personality.

In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, opposition is tolerated but tightly controlled; there is very little opposition representation in their parliaments. Only Kyrgyzstan has bucked the Central Asian trend to some degree. Former President Akaev did not control the political arena as his counterparts did and civil society was much stronger than elsewhere in the region. So it was not surprising that if an opposition-led protest movement in the region had any chance of toppling a government, it would be in Kyrgyzstan.

All this was true even before the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. But that historic event, followed by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the March 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, upset the rulers of most former Soviet states. Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan’s President Karimov, have moved to preempt similar uprisings in their countries by undercutting opposition activists, NGOs – including foreign ones, like Freedom House and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – and human rights groups.

In this campaign they have received backing from Moscow, which has warned of sinister U.S. plots of regime change. Indeed, Moscow unfortunately seems to see democratization as a key weapon in a zero-sum competition for influence with the United States. Russia viewed the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan not only as unwelcome achievements of democracy but as a new, historic Western “incursion” into its own sphere of influence. Its apparent strategy is to build alliances with repressive rulers, while dismissing Western disapproval of their authoritarianism as geo-politically motivated. In fact, an anti-revolutionary alliance of states has emerged, embracing most post-Soviet republics and China as well.

And these efforts have borne fruit – since Kyrgyzstan, the wave has receded, at least for now.

This situation puts U.S. policymakers in a tough spot. Even before September 11, Washington had struggled to find ways to move Central Asian rulers towards more political openness. But they had already concluded that even if relations with the Americans were not very close, the U.S. interest in security, energy and providing a strategic alternative to Russia meant that Washington might criticize flawed elections or human rights problems but would not level serious sanctions or cut off ties.

After September 11, the countries of Central Asia saw the opportunity for closer relations with the United States, which was happy to accommodate them in the name of fighting terrorism. An agreement on strategic cooperation was struck with Uzbekistan. We opened military bases there and in Kyrgyzstan. The Tajiks and even Turkmenistan cooperated in overflights and assistance corridors to Afghanistan.

Today, economic concerns have come to equal security priorities: with the price of a barrel of oil down to about $60 from a high in the mid-70s and Kazakhstan’s oil and Turkmenistan’s gas beckoning, how do we influence Central Asia’s leaders to liberalize their political systems? It doesn’t look like they want to and they seem to think they don’t have to.

There are no easy answers to this question. Obviously, we cannot compel them to democratize or observe their human rights commitments. We have 150,000 troops in Iraq but we can’t ensure basic order, much less build a democratic state there at this time. Even in the 1990s, when Russia was much weaker and poorer than it is today, our leverage was limited. Today, I have the sense that our criticism has the opposite effect on Russian officials.

The countries of Central Asia don’t have issues of superpower rivalry with the United States, and they do want to have good relations with us, which facilitates dialogue with them about democratization and human rights. Still, those in power want to remain there – it is their highest priority and they will resist systemic reforms that could threaten their position.

You might infer from this overview that I am a pessimist. Not at all. No black man who grew up during the halcyon days of the segregated south and became a judge and then a Congressman while a black woman from the segregated south is Secretary of State can be a pessimist. But I have become more realistic and pragmatic. Let me share with you some conclusions I have drawn.

First, democratic transformations take much longer than we would like. The experience of the former Soviet Union proves that the collapse of communism is necessary but not sufficient. We should understand we are in this for the long haul.

Second, repressive leaders often maintain that their people are not ready for democracy. I think, however, that publics are much more ready than governments. People in Russia and Central Asia, who have experienced or witnessed enough disruption for several lifetimes, understandably value stability and predictability. But that does not mean they do not want the basic gifts of democracy and human rights. Everyone wants a say in his or her own government and to be treated with respect. When circumstances permit, those desires, I believe, will come to the fore.

Third, we in the West saw the so-called color revolutions as a glorious exercise in popular sovereignty, as people peacefully went to the streets to oust corrupt, unresponsive regimes. But we sometimes forget that revolutions are evidence of failed politics. They reflect a crisis in the relations between state and society when people have no satisfactory methods of influencing policy or seeking redress of grievances, such as recourse to the courts for the impartial administration of justice. So while I welcome the Rose, Orange, and Tulip revolutions, I regret their necessity. Slow, steady progress towards democratic governance would be better for all concerned. It is this goal we should work for, through the building of institutions that promote the rule of law and civil society.

Fourth, in the absence of established institutions, the ruler’s character remains critical in such highly personalized political systems. It was clear, for example, that while President Niyazov lived, there was no chance of reform in Turkmenistan. The notion may not be popular among some scholars today, but his long reign clearly demonstrates the power of individuals to shape history, certainly for ill and I hope, for good.

Fifth, succession can spark unexpected events and accelerate or slow down institution-building. I suspect the death of President Niyazov in December has got the other Central Asian leaders thinking. They are not young men and they have some serious inheritance issues to consider. Nowhere has there been established any tested method for peacefully transferring power at the top. In Kyrgyzstan, a head of state has been removed, but presidential succession has come to be associated with street politics as much as constitutional requirements. In the other countries…well, we will have to see. But barring dramatic headlines, the first important such decision will come in Uzbekistan. President Karimov’s term runs out this year. He will have to decide whether to step down or resort to some ploy to remain in office. I believe that if he chooses the latter course, he will damage his reputation still further and make instability more likely.

Whatever happens, however, I strongly believe that all of Central Asia will be watching how President Putin handles his own succession problem. If he steps down, some may be more inclined to follow his example.

Sixth, we must not turn our backs on the region and its people. I know Uzbekistan is a repressive state and I share the widespread revulsion at the slaughter in Andijon, but does it help us not to be engaged with President Karimov? Have we gained anything by these frozen relations – quite apart from the loss of our base at K-2, has democracy advanced in Uzbekistan while we criticize him from afar?

At the same time, Tashkent must understand we cannot turn a blind eye to atrocities. I have supported the European Union’s serious effort to restore ties with Uzbekistan based on human rights progress, but I would welcome a good faith gesture from Tashkent. For example, Umida Niyazova, a human rights activist who used to work for Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, is in jail. I call on President Karimov to release her immediately.

As for Turkmenistan, President Niyazov’s death offers no guarantees of liberalization. But at least there is reason now to hope for a more rational leadership that will focus on the public good, not the president’s ego.

I see mixed messages coming out of Ashgabat. On the one hand, the new president has pledged to broaden internet access and has restored the tenth grade and physical education to the school curriculum. That doesn’t sound like much but when you start from such a low base, it can seem like a huge improvement. I expect that gradually, the more bizarre aspects of President Niyazov’s misrule will disappear. But I hope to see much more – the release of people jailed on political grounds and the beginnings of political pluralism. I expect to travel to Ashgabat to discuss with the new Turkmen leaders the prospects for systemic democratization. We need to engage with them in a process of consultation and give and take.

Let me conclude by mentioning a few things we should not do, starting with not shooting ourselves in the foot. I have in mind the Voice of America. As many of you probably know, the American Administration has called for major cuts in VOA broadcasting, including closing down the Uzbek and Georgian Services and ending radio programs while retaining television transmission in Russian and Ukrainian. This, ladies and gentlemen, seems to me to be the height of folly. As I have argued here, the democratic transition in the former Soviet Union is far from secure. VOA broadcasts are one of the most effective, biggest-bang-for-the-buck tools in our arsenal to propagate democratic ideals.

And in this connection, I want to associate myself with remarks made on Thursday by my good friend Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a hearing on U.S. assistance. Like him, I simply cannot comprehend why we should now cut our funding for democracy promotion – especially to the tune of 40 percent. He called for more aid to NGOs that try, under ever worsening conditions, to promote freedom in Russia. I am in full solidarity with him and together with likeminded Members of Congress, we hope to roll back the VOA cuts and increase assistance for democracy promotion.

The same applies to funding for the OSCE, which the budgeters also want to slash. Please be assured that I will fight this.

Paula, I’ve gone on for quite some time. I hope I haven’t overstayed my welcome. Thank you once again for inviting me. Let me end here and I look forward to hearing from the other speakers.

Leadership: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • Podcast: Agents of the Future

    The creation of the Moscow Helsinki Group was announced on May 12, 1976, a day that Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin has called, “One of the major events in the struggle for human rights around the globe.” The 11 founding members, including legends of the human rights movement like Yuri Orlov and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, came together as what was formally named the Public Group to Assist in the Implementation of the Helsinki Final Act in the USSR. Their mission was to monitor the Soviet government’s implementation of the human rights provisions of the historic 1975 Helsinki Accords. In this episode, Dmitri Makarov, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and historian Sarah B. Snyder discuss the history and impact of the Helsinki monitors, as well as the important work the Moscow Helsinki Group continues to do today. The Helsinki Commission is indebted to Cathy Cosman for her input and contributions to the development of this episode.  "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America.   Transcript | Episode 16 | Agents of the Future: The 45th Anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group

  • Podcast: In the Beginning

    In the inaugural episode of "Helsinki on the Hill," the Helsinki Commission's first staff director, Spencer Oliver, shares how the Helsinki Commission evolved from its beginnings in the 1970s to become an organization that reflects the overarching commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe, and that has played a vital role in introducing and promoting the concept of human rights as an element in U.S. foreign policy decision-making globally. He also shares details about the role he played in the creation of today's OSCE, and his service as the first secretary general of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from 1992 to 2015. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 1: In the Beginning | Helsinki on the Hill

  • Podcast: Russian Intention, Russian Aggression

    From September 10 – 16, ZAPAD 2021—a major Russian military exercise that includes thousands of troops—will take place in and around Belarus. The exercise follows months of reports that the Russian military has been involved in actions that potentially could spark a major and violent confrontation between Russia and other countries, including a March deployment by Moscow of some 100,000 new troops in and around Ukraine and a June incident in the Black Sea in which Russian forces seemingly faced off against the British destroyer HMS Defender.  In this episode, Lt. General Ben Hodges (Ret.) analyzes whether these developments represent a major escalation and imminent conflict with Russia; whether they are part of a deliberate, coordinated strategy by the Kremlin; and what, if any, guardrails could prevent Russian aggression against its neighbors or a direct conflict with NATO. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 18 | Russian Intention, Russian Aggression

  • The Helsinki Process and the OSCE

    The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has its origins in the early 1950s, when the Soviet Union first proposed the creation of an all-European security conference. In the mid-1960s the Warsaw Pact renewed calls for such a conference. In May 1969, the Government of Finland sent a memorandum to all European countries, the United States and Canada, offering Helsinki as a conference venue. Beginning in November 1972, representatives from the original 35 nations met for nearly three years to work out the arrangements and the framework for the conference, concluding their work in July 1975. On August 1, 1975, the leaders of the original 35 participating States gathered in Helsinki and signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Also known as the Helsinki Accords, the Final Act is not a treaty, but rather a politically binding agreement consisting of three main sections informally known as "baskets," adopted on the basis of consensus. This comprehensive Act contains a broad range of measures designed to enhance security and cooperation in the region extending from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Basket I - the Security Dimension - contains a Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations between participating States, including the all-important Principle VII on human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also includes a section on confidence-building measures and other aspects of security and disarmament aimed at increasing military transparency. Basket II - the Economic Dimension - covers economic, scientific, technological and environmental cooperation, as well as migrant labor, vocational training and the promotion of tourism. Basket III is devoted to cooperation in humanitarian and other fields: freer movement of people; human contacts, including family reunification and visits; freedom of information, including working conditions for journalists; and cultural and educational exchanges. Principle VII and Basket III together have come to be known as the "Human Dimension." Since 1975, the number of countries signing the Helsinki Accords has expanded to 57, reflecting changes such as the breakup of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Institutionalization of the Conference in the early 1990s led to its transformation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, effective January 1995. Today, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is engaged in standard setting in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of preventive diplomacy initiatives designed to prevent, manage and resolve conflict within and among the participating States. The OSCE has its main office in Vienna, Austria, where weekly meetings of the Permanent Council are held. In addition, specialized seminars and meetings are convened in various locations and periodic consultations are held among Senior Officials, Ministers and Heads of State or Government.

  • Podcast: Damocles' Sword

    The upcoming Tokyo Olympics, slated to take place late July after a one-year postponement, will be the first international athletic event since the passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA) in December 2020, which established criminal penalties on individuals involved in doping fraud conspiracies affecting major international competition. The law, named after Russian doping whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, empowers the U.S. Department of Justice for the first time to investigate and prosecute these rogue agents who engage in doping fraud, provide restitution to victims, and protect whistleblowers from retaliation. In his first public interview since RADA became law, Dr. Rodchenkov speaks about the impact of the legislation that bears his name, as well as the blatant corruption that exists in the world of international sport, the vital role of whistleblowers, and more. He is joined by Helsinki Commission policy advisor Paul Massaro, who sheds light on the game-changing new tools created by the legislation and its importance to the U.S. fight against corruption worldwide. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 15 | Damocles’ Sword: The Impact of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act

  • Podcast: Parliamentary Diplomacy in Action

    Through participation in parliamentary assemblies, national legislators can wield global influence on issues ranging from counterterrorism to climate change. Roberto Montella, Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and Ruxandra Popa, Secretary General of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, peel back the curtain on activities of their institutions and underscore the value of parliamentary diplomacy in promoting security, prosperity, and human rights worldwide. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 9 | Parliamentary Diplomacy in Action

  • Podcast: Disappeared in Turkmenistan

    In Turkmenistan, detainees serving long-term prison sentences often literally “disappear” into the notorious Ovadan Depe prison outside of Ashgabat. Disappeared prisoners have no access to medical care or legal assistance; no information is provided to their families about their well-being. Current estimates indicate that more than 120 individuals are currently disappeared in Ovadan Depe, including Turkmenistan’s former foreign minister and former ambassador to the OSCE Batyr Berdiev, who disappeared into the Turkmen prison system in 2003. Kate Watters of the Prove They Are Alive! Campaign joins Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Janice Helwig to discuss the tragedy of those who have been disappeared, as well as the current situation in Turkmenistan and the steps that are being taken to encourage the Government of Turkmenistan to halt the practice and live up to its international commitments to human rights. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 7 | Disappeared in Turkmenistan

  • Podcast: Toward a Sustainable, Enduring, Democratic Peace

    The work of the Helsinki Commission aligns closely with that of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security organization. The United States supports the work of the OSCE through not only the Helsinki Commission, but also through funding—generally contribution between 11 and 14 percent of the OSCE’s operating costs—and through the deployment of individuals who carry out the activities of the OSCE across its vast geographic expanse, who do the day-to-day work of trying to make the principles on which the OSCE is based into a reality on the ground. In this episode, Kavya Rajan, Director of Human Rights and Communities at the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, and Kelsey Harris-Smith, Political-Military Officer in the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Program at the OSCE Mission to Moldova, describe how the work they and other Americans—as well as staff from other OSCE participating States—do contributes to a sustainable, enduring, democratic peace in the OSCE region. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 17 | Toward a Stable, Enduring, Democratic Peace

  • OSCE Election Observation

    In 1990, OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. Elections observation has since been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States (Azerbaijan, Croatia, Georgia, Iceland, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Monogolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the United States).* History of OSCE Election Observation All OSCE participating States have committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella. Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even these countries can benefit from consideration of the objective conclusions of those with an outside, comparative perspective.  Perhaps more important, observation across the OSCE region removes any sense of stigmatization associated with the repeated hosting of election observation missions as well as any argument against hosting by those political leaders in some countries who continue to resist holding even reasonably free and fair elections. As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Election Observation Methodology ODIHR's election monitoring methodology takes account of the situation before, during, and after an election. All aspects of the electoral process are considered, to include a review of the legal framework; the performance of elections officials; the conduct of campaigns; the media environment and equitable media access; the complaints and appeals process; voting, counting, and tabulation; and the announcement of results.  Recently, ODIHR has further expanded its methodology to explore the participation of women and national minorities. Election Observers OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). A typical election observation mission comprises around 12 core team members, as well as several dozen long-term observers and several hundred short-term observers. The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers commit to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Election Observation, Reporting, and Recommendations Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and legislative framework; election administration; voter and candidate registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. Impact The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help document whether elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike.  Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today.  Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. More broadly speaking, the United States support OSCE observation efforts, to include deployment of civilian, parliamentary, and diplomatic observers abroad, but also supporting OSCE’s observation of domestic elections, with a focus on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.

  • Justice at Home

    Promoting human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption abroad can only be possible if the United States lives up to its values at home. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, even under the most challenging circumstances. However, like other OSCE participating States, the United States sometimes struggles to foster racial and religious equity, counter hate and discrimination, defend fundamental freedoms, and hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions. The Helsinki Commission works to ensure that U.S. practices align with the country’s international commitments and that the United States remains responsive to legitimate concerns raised in the OSCE context, including about the death penalty, use of force by law enforcement, racial and religious profiling, and other criminal justice practices; the conduct of elections; and the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

  • Justice Overseas

    Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption;  protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.

  • Our Impact by Country

  • Decoding the OSCE

    The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization with 57 participating States representing more than a billion people. Its origins trace back to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which contains a broad range of measures focused on politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects designed to enhance comprehensive security and cooperation in the region, and the decades of multilateral diplomacy that followed. The OSCE operates coordinated efforts, adapted to the needs of each participating State, to protect democracy, promote peace, and manage conflict. The organization focuses on creating sustainable change through shared values, and decisions are taken by consensus. Learn more about the OSCE’s operations and institutions below. The Helsinki Process and the OSCE: On August 1, 1975, the leaders of the original 35 OSCE participating States gathered in Helsinki and signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Also known as the Helsinki Accords, the Helsinki Final Act is not a treaty, but rather a politically binding agreement consisting of three main sections informally known as "baskets," adopted on the basis of consensus. The Security Dimension The Economic Dimension The Human Dimension Four Decades of the Helsinki Process: The gatherings following the Final Act became known as the Helsinki Process. The process became a diplomatic front line in the Cold War and a cost-effective diplomatic tool to respond to the new challenges facing Europe during the post-Cold War era. Since its inception over forty years ago, the Helsinki Process and the OSCE continue to provide added value to multilateral efforts enhancing security and cooperation in Europe. OSCE Institutions, Structures, and Meetings: The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. The OSCE also undertakes a variety of preventive diplomacy initiatives designed to prevent, manage and resolve conflict within and among the participating States. The Consensus Rule: The OSCE operates using a consensus decision-making process. Consensus fosters ownership of decisions by all OSCE participating States, enables them to protect key national priorities, and creates an important incentive for countries to participate in the OSCE.  It also strengthens the politically binding nature of OSCE commitments. The Moscow Mechanism: The OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. OSCE Election Observation: Election observation is one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Parliamentary Diplomacy of the OSCE: The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The OSCE PA debates current issues related to OSCE commitments; develops and promotes tools to prevent and resolve conflicts; supports democratic development in participating States; and encourages national governments to take full advantage of OSCE capabilities. Non-Governmental Participation in the OSCE: One of the advantages of the OSCE is that it is the only international organization in which NGOs are allowed to participate in human dimension meetings on an equal basis with participating States. NGOs—no matter how small—can raise their concerns directly with governments. 

Pages