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: 
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    Madam SPEAKER, I rise to today to update my Congressional colleagues on continued discussions between members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly. I would also like to share the desire of our international friends and allies to remain engaged with the United States during these challenging times.  My colleagues who serve with me on the U.S. Helsinki Commission and remain active include Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama, Representative Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, as well as Senator Wicker of Mississippi and Senator Cardin of Maryland. As the United States Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, we recognize the importance of building partnerships with our counterparts from other countries especially during such unprecedented times. As the Chairman of the Committee on Security, I recognize multilateral diplomacy works to U.S. interests when we take the initiative. Parliamentarians have a special role to play as elected officials in this process, showing the depth of each of our country’s commitment to security and cooperation not only in Europe, but around the globe.   During our most recent video conference, Italian Minister for European Affairs, Vincenzo Amendola, joined to update us on Italy’s response to COVID-19.  He stressed the need for continued cooperation in response not only to the health threat but also to the economic havoc the pandemic has caused. Shortly after our video conference concluded, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the United States will provide an additional $225 million in health, humanitarian and economic assistance to boost response efforts worldwide. This is in addition to the $274 million already deployed to fight COVID-19.  In the past two decades, the Secretary noted, the United States has provided $140 billion in health assistance globally, helping to make us an undisputed leader in health and humanitarian aid. Some of this aide has been to countries in Europe, including Italy. I would add that this is not only a reflection of our country’s unmatched generosity over the decades, but our national interest as well. Many of the health threats we have faced come from beyond our borders, including COVID-19, and we have an interest in trying to respond effectively to those threats where they first develop, before they reach our shores. A final outcome of the recent video conference was endorsement of United Nation Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ recent call for a ceasefire regarding conflicts around the globe at this time when countries need to face a common pandemic threat. The Helsinki Commission provides Members of Congress with the opportunity to work with our friends and allies around the globe to promote our shared democratic values and work in a bipartisan fashion on core foreign policy issues. While our calls have been focused on fighting COVID-19 we are still tracking other international conflicts. For example, during the video conference I, along with other parliamentarians, raised the issue of the unwarranted Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia. I am encouraged by the level of engagement from my OSCE Parliamentary Assembly colleagues and will continue to work with them through this global pandemic. Madam SPEAKER, please join me today recognizing the importance of these discussions with our European allies and friends.  

  • Expressing the United States’ Solidarity with Friends and Allies in Europe

    Madam SPEAKER, I rise to report discussions I had last week during a video conference with members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly, and their response to COVID-19. Let me stress at the outset that our country has not only treaty-bound allies in Europe, but genuine friends. Our friends and colleagues abroad welcomed Senator Roger Wicker and my participation on behalf of the United States to discuss how we will continue our important duties amidst the dire situation facing the globe. I reported on the increasingly dire situation here in the United States and the efforts of the U.S. Congress to provide relief to our citizens. We all expressed solidarity with each other and a determination to move forward.    Every country in Europe is affected by this pandemic, Madam Speaker, just as every state in the United States is affected. The President of the Lombardy in Italy spoke about the particularly critical situation his region is facing. In a crisis like this, while we have our primary responsibilities here at home, it is imperative we continue to help our international friends and partners. I assured our partners that the United States will continue to support our allies and provide considerable assistance to public health worldwide.  Such expressions of transatlantic unity, in my view, are important in times like these. They give our European friends and allies the confidence they need to move forward. It also helps to counter the considerable amount of misinformation and misperception currently spreading and dispel the malign influence attached to offers of help and friendship from elsewhere around the globe. We cannot let ulterior motives divide and weaken our ties at this time of vulnerability. In spite of this crisis, other threats to European security have not gone away. Russian aggression against its neighbors, terrorist threats, and protracted conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus all still exist, requiring our continued attention. Much of our parliamentary conversation focused on how we can address these continual challenges we face while we are unable to meet and deliberate in person as scheduled.  Despite the uncertainty, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will find a way and with a little creativity, will continue having these important discussions. A final point made in the video conference is the need to defend our democratic principles and human rights in a time where restrictions and limits are imposed that could be abused. Our country defended Europe from tyranny last century, so it is rewarding to see our friends and allies determined to preserve those gains moving forward into this century. Madam Speaker, we have the capacity to address the ongoing threats to our security even as we address this unprecedented public health crisis amidst an economic downturn. The bicameral group of legislators who serve on the U.S. Helsinki Commission do so in a bipartisan way, and when we participate in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, we do so with our European friends and allies in this effort.  I concluded from my discussions last week that more difficult times may lie ahead, but by working together, we will persevere. Madam SPEAKER, please join me today recognizing the importance of these discussions with our European allies and friends.   Thank you, Madam SPEAKER. I yield back the balance of my time.

  • Chairman Hastings Denounces Unchecked Power Granted To Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Following the Hungarian Parliament’s decision on Monday to accept Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s request for unlimited power to rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Prime Minister Orban has taken gross advantage of the fear and uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic to secure the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Instead of focusing on the well-being of Hungarian citizens likely to suffer from the coronavirus, he has chosen to prioritize preserving his parliamentary majority and permanently consolidating his control of the Hungarian Government.  “At both the global and national levels, defeating the coronavirus will require extraordinary social solidarity, not unchecked executive power.  The further concentration of powers in Hungary will only pave the way for the further concentration of corruption.” Among other provisions, the new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for spreading false or distorted information regarding the fight against the coronavirus, which could be used against journalists reporting on the state of Hungary’s hospitals or health care delivery.  The law also suspends elections.  Hungary has recently completed a cycle of elections (parliamentary, European Parliament, and municipal) with no other major elections scheduled until 2022. In the meantime, by-elections and referenda are prohibited.  The law, which lacks a sunset clause, may only be repealed by a two-thirds vote of parliament, or terminated by the Prime Minister himself. In 1991, Hungary—along with all other OSCE participating States—adopted the Moscow Document in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Russia. The agreement includes specific provisions on states of emergency.  In particular, the OSCE participating States agreed to “in conformity with international standards regarding the freedom of expression, take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession other than those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”   On March 30, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir warned that emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region, including Hungary, must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight. Since 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing to explore developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.  

  • E.U. Tries Gentle Diplomacy to Counter Hungary’s Crackdown on Democracy

    European leaders were reluctant to pick a fight with Prime Minister Viktor Orban a day after he secured powers to rule by decree indefinitely. BRUSSELS — The European Union’s written response to Hungary’s effective suspension of democracy omitted one important word: Hungary. A day after the Hungarian Parliament passed sweeping emergency measures allowing the far-right populist leader Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus, the European Commission on Tuesday reminded its members to respect rights. But it was a muted first response from the one institution that can take on Mr. Orban, and it appeared aimed at balancing the political imperative of cooperation in the era of the coronavirus with the risk of emboldening him. “It’s of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Orban or Hungary. The European Commission is the European Union’s executive branch, and it often describes itself as “the guardian of the treaty” that created the bloc of 27 democracies. But Mr. Orban has long been in an open struggle with parts of that treaty. He has said frankly that he does not believe in liberal democracy — which the European Commission says is fundamental to the European Union’s values. The severe measures adopted Monday in Budapest may dramatically ratchet up the confrontation between the Orban government and European Union institutions in Brussels. Hungary’s new legislation suspends elections and also allows the prime minister to suspend existing laws and rule by decree. One vaguely worded section also says that people found to be spreading “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” that obstruct the authorities from protecting the public may be punished with prison sentences of up to five years. That new tool that may allow Mr. Orban to further curb the press freedoms long in his cross hairs. To be sure, in the face of the epidemic, European countries have all to lesser or greater extent adopted emergency measures curbing liberties, including measures that require citizens to register any movement and observe curfews. But Hungary’s new rules are the most far reaching. And rights experts, political analysts and academics say that, given Mr. Orban’s track record and espousal of “illiberal democracy,” the measures he says he is taking to fight the virus could become fixtures in Hungarian public life, used to crack down on opposition well after the threat of the virus passes. European Union officials believe that the statement issued Tuesday, which came from Ms. von der Leyen personally, sent a clear message to Mr. Orban — even without naming him. European Commission lawyers are now closely watching how he enforces Hungary’s new measures, the officials said. But they said that now — as Europe battles to stem the spread of the virus and mitigate its catastrophic economic damage, and with many nations suspending some liberties — was not the moment to pick a fight with just one member. That measured approach surprised some observers, despite the fact that the commission often takes a conciliatory stance toward wayward members in a bid to entice them to reform voluntarily. (That has never worked with Hungary.) “It is bizarre,” Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who belongs to the German Greens political party, said of Ms. von der Leyen’s statement. “The decision that the Hungarian Parliament took yesterday is a watershed moment,” Mr. Freund said. “Now you have to do something, or we really lose democracies.” Mr. Freund and other members of the European Parliament believe that even before the European Commission opens a formal investigation into Hungary’s new law, which would take months, it should use existing rules to put pressure on Mr. Orban. “If we end up after the crisis with a virus well fought but democracy lost in several member states, that’s an unacceptable situation,” Mr. Freund said. Daniel Kelemen, a professor European Union politics and law at Rutgers University, said the epidemic could prove an opportunity for the Hungarian leader. “Throughout his consolidation of power, Orban has counted on the European Union to be distracted with other crises,” he said. “But now,” Mr. Kelemen said, “the scale of this crisis does call for consolidation of power for the executive, so it gives him more effective cover for this next stage of escalation.” Mr. Orban’s hold on power was unparalleled by European Union standards well before Monday’s vote authorizing him to rule by decree. In practical terms, Mr. Orban and his allies already controlled the legislative and executives branches of government, and had stacked the Constitutional Court. With Mr. Orban’s parliamentary opposition unable to slow his political machine, the European Union has shown itself to be the only entity capable of curbing his power, but the results have been mixed. Lengthy and cumbersome European Union legal proceedings could not stop Mr. Orban and his allies from taking over the Hungarian media landscape, weakening the independence of the judiciary, levying a special tax on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding, or ejecting the Central European University from the country. In the end it may be Mr. Orban’s love for European financial aid, not freedoms, that acts as a brake on his government. “Aware that the European Union is watching, Orban is likely to tread modestly at first,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe at Eurasia Group consultancy. “He will not wish to put at risk the €5.6 billion windfall granted to Hungary by the European Parliament last week as its portion in the union’s efforts to battle the coronavirus." President Trump has warmly embraced Mr. Orban. Mr. Trump’s ambassador in Hungary has spoken glowingly about Mr. Orban’s grip on power and said that Mr. Trump would love to have the powers of his Hungarian counterpart. But Mr. Orban’s autocratic tendencies have long alarmed others in Washington, particularly lawmakers who serve on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. A congressional delegation visited Hungary last year to investigate democratic backsliding.

  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate Fifth Anniversary of Nemtsov Murder

    WASHINGTON—On the five-year anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “We must never forget the ultimate price Boris Nemtsov paid for seeking true democracy and political justice for the Russian people,” said Chairman Hastings. “Five years ago today, Russia lost one of its most fervent advocates, targeted for his activism and speaking truth to power.  Justice still has not been served in his case. I regret that Russian authorities clearly have chosen politics over finding and prosecuting those responsible for orchestrating Nemtsov’s death. International voices must keep Boris Nemtsov’s memory alive until—and after—we receive answers.” “The anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination is a reminder of the repression in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Nemtsov knew well the dangers he faced as a critic of Putin and as an advocate for real democracy and freedom for the people of Russia. He was gunned down in the middle of Moscow five years ago today, and still the Russian government has refused to conduct a thorough investigation into who ordered his murder. There is no doubt that Nemtsov’s death was a meticulously plotted political hit, and I hope that one day Nemtsov’s family, friends, and fellow Russian citizens will see justice delivered in his case. Until then, we honor his memory and salute those brave individuals who carry on his legacy.” On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Although various people have been arrested in connection with Nemtsov’s death, Russian authorities have failed to truly investigate who ordered and organized the murder. A recent report authored by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Rapporteur Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden is the most conclusive study of the case to this date; however, the Government of Russia did not cooperate with her requests for information. In 2018, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing to help to shed light on the circumstances of Nemtsov’s murder, the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia.

  • Congressional Delegation Led by Chairman Hastings Champions U.S. Leadership in Transatlantic Security, Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) last week led a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) 19th Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria. At the meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation engaged with OSCE officials, delegations from other OSCE participating States, and diplomats to advance U.S. interests while assuring friends, allies, and potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to security and cooperation in Europe.   The 11-member delegation was among the largest U.S. delegations ever to attend the annual gathering, which attracted more than 300 parliamentarians from 53 OSCE participating States. Chairman Hastings, a former president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) also joined the delegation, which benefited from the active support of Ambassador James Gilmore, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE.  In the Standing Committee, which oversees the OSCE PA’s work, Chairman Hastings highlighted recommendations resulting from a seminar for young parliamentarians on “Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region,” hosted in Washington in early February by the Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA. “We brought together some 35 young parliamentarians from 19 OSCE participating States and three partner States to learn from each other and incubate the solutions of the future,” Chairman Hastings said. “As I called on all of you at our last meeting in Marrakech, we must counter the economic and social despair afflicting our youth and we all have a role.”  At the same committee, Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice president of the assembly, shared his recent experience at the Munich Security Conference.  The committee also reviewed a written report submitted by former Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. In the committee focused on security issues, Rep. Hudson condemned Russia’s violations of Helsinki principles related to its aggression against Ukraine, while in the committee focusing on economic issues Rep. Harris cautioned Europe regarding the growing Chinese presence in the region.   During a special debate on confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE region, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered introductory remarks by video. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracies by speaking out and using our tools and voices as legislators against those who would divide our societies,” Sen. Cardin said. Later in the debate, Rep. Cohen urged participating States “to teach Holocaust history, which a fourth of the people in Europe or more don't understand or remember, and teach it so that the most horrific crime against humanity will be remembered so that it will not be repeated.” Rep. Cleaver linked anti-Semitism to broader trends of intolerance in society, and called OSCE participating States to action, stating, “There are many scary things in our world, but there is nothing quite able to generate fright like prejudice inspired by ignorance and nationalism manufactured by fear.” Rep. Hudson chaired a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Rep. Moore participated in a similar meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration. On the margins of the Winter Meeting’s official sessions, members of Congress met with the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE PA to discuss U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of unrelenting Russian aggression. Delegation members also met with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings Valiant Richey, and High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.

  • Transatlantic Network of Young Legislators Releases Joint Declaration on Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—Following a two-day seminar hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in early February, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States today issued the Joint Declaration on Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region. The declaration builds upon discussions among seminar participants—all national legislators from OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation—about the important role young people can and must play in addressing emerging human rights and security challenges worldwide. Each signatory resolves that the respective legislative bodies included in the declaration will empower young leadership and pursue goals including enhancing parliamentary diplomacy, promoting a declaration of a climate emergency in every OSCE participating State, and ensuring common security. The declaration reads in part: “Whereas, the role of young people in promoting human rights, peace, and security efforts in both national and international fora must not be underestimated or diminished at this critical juncture for democracies around the globe; “Whereas, comprehensive security, be it politico-military security, economic and environmental security, or human rights, faces more hybrid, malicious, and multiplying threats than we realize; “Whereas, multilateral institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the respective parliamentary assemblies, must maintain their stature and utilize its greatest asset for building a brighter future, the youth…” “Youth leadership driven by political inclusion is vital to combating the challenges of both today and tomorrow, including environmental degradation and democratic backsliding,” said U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), who chairs the Helsinki Commission. “This declaration is simply the first, welcome step toward developing a robust transatlantic network of young legislators who will work toward a secure, sustainable future for us all.” “This was an excellent opportunity to follow up on a call made by our Assembly during our Berlin Annual Session to establish a forum of young parliamentarians to foster greater mutual trust between OSCE participating States,” said OSCE PA President George Tsereteli. “Young people can play a crucial role in fostering a culture of peace, in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, in tackling current urgent issues such as climate change, the fight against terrorism and migration.” The declaration has been signed by 17 legislators from the OSCE region, including U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) and US. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Both representatives serve as commissioners on the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Download the declaration.

  • The Power and Purpose of Parliamentary Diplomacy

    While diplomats largely drive a nation’s foreign policy, elected members of national parliaments, including the U.S. Congress, also play a crucial role in influencing policy priorities, holding governments accountable, and providing a firmer democratic foundation to the advancement of peace, cooperation, and human rights across the globe. Through the parliamentary assemblies of organizations that play a critical role in international peace and security—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—parliamentarians can advance national interests on the international stage. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to encourage inter-parliamentary dialogue and examine the role parliamentary diplomacy can play in responding to current challenges facing the OSCE and NATO. The hearing also demonstrated bipartisan U.S. support for multilateral engagement based on shared principles and common goals.  Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commissioner Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Rep. Filemon Vela (TX-34), a member of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Chairman Hastings’ opening statement highlighted the value of effective parliamentary forums in contributing to security cooperation in Europe and around the world. Co-Chairman Wicker’s opening remarks emphasized that transatlantic dialogue has become even more important given continued Russian aggression.  “If diplomacy is war by other means, we should no more abandon the plenary hall than the battlefield,” he stated.”  George Tsereteli, a member of the parliament of the Republic of Georgia and President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and Attila Mesterhazy, a member of the parliament of Hungary and the Acting President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, both testified at the hearing Tsereteli discussed the necessity of active and visible international cooperation. He specifically acknowledged the advantages of parliamentary diplomacy in facilitating “public discussions,” “additional communication channels between conflict parties,” and “fact-finding missions.” Tsereteli also addressed Russia’s rogue actions in Russian-occupied territories. While he voiced support for maintaining pressure on the Putin regime, he upheld the importance of continued dialogue and compromise. Mesterhazy’s testimony focused on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s recent achievements and its role in shaping the future of NATO. He contended that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is a powerful complement to NATO because of the Assembly’s broad mandate, diverse membership, and utilization of majority voting. Mesterhazy also discussed Russian aggression in the region, asserting that “[the Ukraine War] is not a frozen conflict, it’s boiling” and commending the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for expelling the Russian delegation in 2014, following the illegal annexation of Crimea. The hearing provided insight on the parallels of multilateral engagement within the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Commissioners and panelists were able to address various issues facing transatlantic security and remain hopeful for the future of parliamentary diplomacy and cooperation.

  • Media Advisory: Chairman Hastings, OSCE PA President Tsereteli, and Commissioner Moore to Address International Gathering of Young Legislators on Capitol Hill

    WASHINGTON—To empower future leaders in the North America, Europe, Central Asia, and beyond, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and other partners will convene a seminar for young legislators on Capitol Hill on Monday, February 3 and Tuesday, February 4, 2020. During the two-day program, leading young legislators from OSCE participating States, along with members of Congress and select guests, will discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts in both national and international fora. Attendees also will engage with other political leaders to forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges. Members of the media are invited to attend the opening and closing sessions of the event. WHO:                      Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (opening and closing sessions)                                    Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (opening session)                                    OSCE PA President George Tsereteli (closing session)                                    Other Members of Congress to be confirmed                                    Nearly 50 young legislators from 25 countries   WHERE:                  U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-210 (opening session)                                    U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room SVC-200/201 (closing session)   WHEN:                    Monday, February 3, 2020 (opening session)                                    12:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.                                    Tuesday, February 4, 2020 (closing session)                                    1:15 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Members of the media must register in advance to attend the public sessions of the seminar by emailing csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov.

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Power of Parliamentary Diplomacy to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE POWER AND PURPOSE OF PARLIAMENTARY DIPLOMACY Inter-Parliamentary Initiatives and the U.S. Contribution Wednesday, February 5, 2020 9:30 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission While diplomats largely drive a nation’s foreign policy, elected members of national parliaments, including the U.S. Congress, also play a crucial role in influencing policy priorities, holding governments accountable, and providing a firmer democratic foundation to the advancement of peace, cooperation, and human rights across the globe. Through the parliamentary assemblies of organizations that play a critical role in international peace and security—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—parliamentarians can advance national interests on the international stage. This hearing will examine the concept of parliamentary diplomacy, review the activities of both the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and assess the ways in which they parallel and support the multilateral diplomatic efforts of governments to follow shared principles and reach common goals. Witnesses also will discuss the many current challenges facing the NATO alliance and the OSCE region, the role played by the United States Congress, and possibilities for similar parliamentary initiatives elsewhere. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: George Tsereteli, a member of the parliament of the Republic of Georgia and President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Attila Mesterhazy, a member of the parliament of Hungary and President (Acting) of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly

  • Election Observation 101

    On January 22, 2020, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Mark Veasey (TX-33) moderated a roundtable at the Texas A&M School of Law titled “Election Observation 101: Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century.”  Rep. Veasey—who also is a co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a former member of the Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives—and expert panelists discussed the importance of election observation missions across the OSCE region. Rep. Veasey was joined at the roundtable by veteran election observer Lindsay Lloyd, director of the human freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute; Amanda Schnetzer, chief operating officer of Pointe Bello; and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson.  Law school dean Robert Ahdieh offered a warm welcome and reflected on his fondest memories of the Helsinki Commission as a young man living in Moscow, Russia. Rep. Veasey then set the stage with the 30-year celebration of the 1990 Copenhagen Document which established the international standards for “free and fair elections”, while Mr. Lloyd explained the dynamics of how teams are assembled. Mr. Johnson further clarified the role of observers as strict watchers or objective examiners, and never interventionists, and Ms. Schnetzer shared how her experience observing elections in Tunisia forever shaped her passion for civic engagement and democratic values.  “[In 2011], the people of Tunisia were voting... To see the looks on the faces of women, grandparents coming to poles for the first time, casting a vote, and bringing a grandchild in tow, to say ‘I have waited all my life to do this’ was simply inspirational,” Ms. Schnetzer said. “I saw the stark comparison in the United States because few get excited on the first day they get to vote… I wish that we could find a way to positively spark that enthusiasm here [in the U.S.].” Looking ahead to the U.S. elections in November 2020, all panelists agreed that more could be done to inform the American public about foreign observers and the benefits of international election observation. Election observers from both the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are expected to be invited by the United States Government to observe the 2020 elections. The OSCE was first invited to observe U.S. elections by the Bush Administration in 2002 and has been invited to observe every midterm and general election since (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) by the administration in office. However, the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system means some states prohibit or greatly restrict foreign observers. A few states explicitly permit foreign observation, or at least a sufficiently public observation to include those from other countries.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

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