Chairman Cardin and Senator Wicker Colloquy on Russia

Chairman Cardin and Senator Wicker Colloquy on Russia

Hon.
Benjamin L. Cardin & Hon. Roger F. Wicker
United States
Senate
111th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Monday, June 21, 2010

Mr. WICKER. Mr. President, I am appreciative that I am able to join today with my friend and colleague, Senator Cardin. I appreciate his joining me today to discuss an issue of great concern to both of us and to human rights advocates around the world. That is the ongoing trial in Russia of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev. In June of last year, Senator Cardin joined me in introducing a resolution urging the Senate to recognize that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been denied basic due process rights under international law for political reasons. It is particularly appropriate, I think, that Senator Cardin and I be talking about this this afternoon because in a matter of days, Russian President Medvedev will be coming to the United States and meeting with President Obama. I think this would be a very appropriate topic for the President of the United States to bring up to the President of the Russian Federation. 

I can think of no greater statement that the Russian President could make on behalf of the rule of law and a movement back toward human rights in Russia than to end the show trial of these two individuals and dismiss the false charges against them. 

Since his conviction, Khodorkovsky has spent his time either in a Siberian prison camp or a Moscow jail cell. Currently, he spends his days sitting in a glass cage enduring a daily farce of a trial that could send him back to Siberia for more than 20 years. Amazingly, Mikhail Khodorkovsky remains unbroken. 

I think it appropriate that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have committed to resetting relations with the country. I support them in this worthwhile goal. Clearly, our foreign relations can always stand to be improved. I support strengthening our relations, particularly with Russia. However, this strengthening must not be at the expense of progress on the issue of the rule of law and an independent judiciary. The United States cannot publicly extol the virtues of rule of law and an independent judiciary and at the same time turn a blind eye to what has happened to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. 

I urge President Obama and Secretary Clinton to put the release of these two men high on the agenda as we continue to engage with Russia, and high on the agenda for President Medvedev's upcoming meeting here in Washington, DC. 

Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I thank Senator Wicker for taking this time for this colloquy. He has been a real champion on human rights issues and on bringing out the importance for Russia to move forward on a path of democracy and respect for human rights. He has done that as a Senator from Mississippi. He has done that as a very active member of the Helsinki Commission. I have the honor of chairing the Helsinki Commission, which I think is best known because of its fight on behalf of human rights for the people, particularly in those countries that were behind the Iron Curtain—particularly before the fall of the Soviet Union, where we were regularly being the voices for those who could not have their voices heard otherwise because of the oppressive policies of the former Soviet Union. 

So in the 1990s, there was great euphoria that at the end of the Cold War, the reforms that were talked about in Russia—indeed, the privatization of many of its industries—would at last bring the types of rights to the people of Russia that they so needed. But, unfortunately, there was a mixed message, and in the 1990s, I think contrary to Western popular opinion at the time, Russia did not move forward as aggressively as we wanted with freedom and democracy. 

It is interesting that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was part of the Communist elite, led the country into privatization in the right way. He took a company, Yukos Oil Company, and truly made it transparent and truly developed a model of corporate governance that was unheard of at the time in the former Soviet Union and unheard of in the Russian Federation, and he used that as a poster child to try to help the people of Russia. He started making contributions to the general welfare of the country, which is what we would like to see from the business and corporate community. He did that to help his own people. But he ran into trouble in the midst of the shadowy and violent Russian market, and his problems were encouraged many times by the same people who we thought were leading the reform within the Russian Federation. 

By 1998, with the collapse of the ruble, the people of Russia were disillusioned; they found their prosperity was only temporary. The cost of imports was going up. The spirit of nationalism, this nationalistic obsession, became much more prominent within the Russian Federation, and the move toward privatization lost a lot of its luster. 

The rise of Mr. Putin to power also established what was known as vertical power, and independent companies were inconsistent with that model he was developing to try to keep control of his own country. Therefore, what he did under this new rubric was to encourage nationalization spirit, to the detriment of independent companies and to the detriment of the development of opposition opportunity, democracy, and personal freedom. We started to see the decline of the open and free and independent media. 

All of this came about, and a highly successful and independent company such as Yukos under the leadership of Mikhail Khodorkovsky was inconsistent with what Mr. Putin was trying to do in Russia. As a result, there was a demise of the company, and the trials ensued. My friend Senator Wicker talked about what happened in the trial. It was a miscarriage of justice. It was wrong. We have expressed our views on it. And it is still continuing to this day. I thank Senator Wicker for continuing to bring this to the Members' attention and I hope to the people of Russia so they will understand there is still time to correct this miscarriage of justice. 

Mr. WICKER. I thank my colleague. 

I will go on to point out that things started coming to a head when Mr. Khodorkovsky started speaking out against the Russian Government, led by President Putin, and his company that he headed, Yukos, came into the sights of the Russian Federation. 

Mr. Khodorkovsky visited the United States less than a week before his arrest. He was in Washington speaking to Congressman Tom Lantos, the late Tom Lantos, a venerated human rights advocate from the House of Representatives, who had seen violations of human rights in his own rights. Mr. Khodorkovsky told Congressman Lantos that he had committed no crimes but he would not be driven into exile. He said: "I would prefer to be a political prisoner rather than a political immigrant." And, of course, a political prisoner is what he is now. 

Shortly after his arrest, government officials accused Yukos Oil of failing to pay more than $300 billion in taxes. At the time, Yukos was Russia's largest taxpayer. Yet they were singled out for tax evasion. And PricewaterhouseCoopers had recently audited the books of Yukos, and the government tax office had approved the 2002 to 2003 tax returns just months before this trumped-up case was filed. 

The Russian Government took over Yukos, auctioned it off, and essentially renationalized the company, costing American stockholders $7 billion and stockholders all around the country who had believed Russia was liberalizing and becoming part of the market society. A Swiss court has ruled the auction illegal. A Dutch court has ruled the auction illegal. But even more so, they tried these two gentlemen and placed them in prison. Mr. Khodorkovsky apparently had the mistaken impression that he was entitled to freedom of speech, and we discovered that in Russia, at the time of the trial and even today, he was not entitled, in the opinion of the government, to his freedom of speech. 

A recent foreign policy magazine called Khodorkovsky the "most prominent prisoner" in Vladimir Putin's Russia and a symbol of the peril of challenging the Kremlin, which is what Mr. Khodorkovsky did. 

I would quote a few paragraphs from a recent AP story by Gary Peach about the testimony of a former Prime Minister who actually served during the Putin years: 

A former Russian prime minister turned fierce Kremlin critic came to the defense of an imprisoned tycoon on Monday— 

This is a May 24 article— 

-- telling a Moscow court that prosecutors' new charges of massive crude oil embezzlement are absurd. 

What we now find is that when Mr. Khodorkovsky is about to be released from his first sentence, new charges have arisen all of a sudden. After years and years of imprisonment in Siberia, new charges have arisen. 

Mikhail Kasyanov, who headed the government in 2000-2004, told the court that the accusations against Khodorkovsky, a former billionaire now serving an eight-year sentence in prison, had no basis in reality. 

This is a former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. 

Prosecutors claim that Khodorkovsky, along with his business partner [who is also in prison] embezzled some 350 million tons—or $25 billion worth—of crude oil while they headed the Yukos Oil Company. 

That's all the oil Yukos produced over six years, from 1998 to 2003. I consider the accusation absurd. 

He said that while Prime Minister, he received regular reports about Russia's oil companies and that Yukos consistently paid its taxes. Kasyanov, who served as Prime Minister during most of President Putin's first term, said that both the current trial and the previous one, which ended with a conviction, were politically motivated. So I would say this is indeed a damning accusation of the current trial going on, even as we speak, in Moscow. 

Mr. CARDIN. Senator Wicker has pointed out in I think real detail how the dismantling of the Yukos Oil Company was done illegally under any international law; it was returning to the Soviet days rather than moving forward with democratic reform. As Senator Wicker has pointed out, the personal attack on its founders—imprisoning them on charges that were inconsistent with the direction of the country after the fall of the Soviet Union—was another miscarriage of justice, and it is certainly totally inconsistent with the statements made after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

The early Putin years were clearly a return to nationalism in Russia and against what was perceived at that time by the popular Western view that Russia was on a path toward democracy. It just did not happen. And it is clearly a theft of a company's assets by the government and persecution, not prosecution, of the individuals who led the company toward privatization, which was a clear message given by the leaders after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

This cannot be just left alone. I understand the individuals involved may have been part of the elite at one time within the former Soviet Union. I understand, in fact, there may have been mixed messages when you have a country that is going through a transition. But clearly what was done here was a violation of their commitments under the Helsinki Commission, under the Helsinki Final Act. It was a violation of Russia's statements about allowing democracy and democratic institutions. It was a violation of Russia's commitments to allow a free market to develop within their own country. All of that was violated by the manner in which they handled Mr. Khodorkovsky as well as his codefendant and the company itself. And it is something we need to continue to point out should never have happened. 

The real tragedy here is that this is an ongoing matter. As Senator Wicker pointed out, there is now, we believe, an effort to try him on additional charges even though he has suffered so much. And it is a matter that—particularly with the Russian leadership visiting the United States, with direct meetings between our leaders, between Russia and the United States—I hope can get some attention and a chance for the Russian Federation to correct a miscarriage of justice. 

Mr. WICKER. Indeed, the second show trial of Mr. Khodorkovsky has entered its second year. We have celebrated the anniversary of the second trial. 

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record an editorial by the Washington Post dated June 9, 2010, at this point. 

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: 

[From the Washington Post, June 9, 2010] 

Show Trial: Should Ties to Russia Be Linked to Its Record on Rights? 

Russia's government has calculated that it needs better relations with the West to attract more foreign investment and modern technology, according to a paper by its foreign ministry that leaked to the press last month. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently made conciliatory gestures to Poland, while President Dmitry Medvedev sealed a nuclear arms treaty with President Obama. At the United Nations, Russia has agreed to join Western powers in supporting new sanctions against Iran. 

Moscow's new friendliness, however, hasn't led to any change in its repressive domestic policies. The foreign ministry paper says Russia needs to show itself as a democracy with a market economy to gain Western favor. But Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have yet to take steps in that direction. There have been no arrests in the more than a dozen outstanding cases of murdered journalists and human rights advocates; a former KGB operative accused by Scotland Yard of assassinating a dissident in London still sits in the Russian parliament. 

Perhaps most significantly, the Russian leadership is allowing the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil executive who has become the country's best-known political prisoner, to go forward even though it has become a showcase for the regime's cynicism, corruption and disregard for the rule of law. Mr. Khodorkovsky, who angered Mr. Putin by funding opposition political parties, was arrested in 2003 and convicted on charges of tax evasion. His Yukos oil company, then Russia's largest, was broken up and handed over to state-controlled firms. 

A second trial of Mr. Khodorkovsky is nearing its completion in Moscow, nearly a year after it began. Its purpose is transparent: to prevent the prisoner's release when his first sentence expires next year. The new charges are, as Mr. Putin's own former prime minister testified last week, absurd: Mr. Khodorkovsky and an associate, Platon Lebedev, are now accused of embezzling Yukos's oil production, a crime that, had it occurred, would have made their previously alleged crime of tax evasion impossible. 

Mr. Khodorkovsky, who acquired his oil empire in the rough and tumble of Russia's transition from communism, is no saint, but neither is he his country's Al Capone, as Mr. Putin has claimed. In fact, he is looking more and more like the prisoners of conscience who have haunted previous Kremlin regimes. In the past several years he has written numerous articles critiquing Russia's corruption and lack of democracy, including one on our op-ed page last month. 

Mr. Obama raised the case of Mr. Khodorkovsky last year, and the State Department's most recent human rights report said the trial "raised concerns about due process and the rule of law." But the administration has not let this obvious instance of persecution, or Mr. Putin's overall failure to ease domestic repression, get in the way of its "reset" of relations with Moscow. If the United States and leading European governments would make clear that improvements in human rights are necessary for Moscow to win trade and other economic concessions, there is a chance Mr. Putin would respond. If he does not, Western governments at least would have a clearer understanding of where better relations stand on the list of his true priorities. 

Mr. WICKER. The editorial points out that Russia's Government is trying to think of ways to attract more foreign investment, and it juxtaposes this desire for more Western openness and investment with the Khodorkovsky matter and says that this trial has become a showcase for the Russian regime's cynicism, corruption, and disregard for the rule of law. 

It goes on to say: The new charges are, as Mr. Putin's own Prime Minister testified last week, absurd. Mr. Khodorkovsky and his associate, Platon Lebedev, are now accused of embezzling Yukos Oil's production—a crime that, had it occurred, would have made their previously alleged crime of tax evasion impossible.

So the cynicism of these charges is that they are inconsistent with each other. Yet, in its brazenness, the Russian Federation Government and its prosecutors proceed with these charges. 

The article goes on to say: Mr. Khodorkovsky is looking more and more like a prisoner of conscience who haunted the previous criminal regime. 

It says: 

Mr. Obama raised the case of Mr. Khodorkovsky last year, and the State Department's most recent human rights report said the trial "raised concerns about due process and the rule of law." 

I will say they raised concerns. 

Let me say in conclusion of my portion—and then I will allow my good friend from Maryland to close—this prosecution and violation of human rights and the rule of law of Lebedev and Khodorkovsky has brought the censure of the European Court of Human Rights that ruled that Mr. Khodorkovsky's rights were violated. A Swiss court has condemned the action of the Russian Federation and ruled it illegal. A Dutch court has said it is illegal. It has been denounced by such publications as Foreign Policy magazine, the Washington Post, a former Prime Minister who actually served under Mr. Putin. It has been denounced in actions and votes by the European Parliament, by other national parliaments, by numerous human rights groups, and by the U.S. State Department. 

I submit, for those within the sound of my voice—and I believe there are people on different continents listening to the sound of our voices today—it is time for the Russian President to step forward and put an end to this farce, admit that this trial has no merit in law, and it is time for prosecutors in Moscow to cease and desist on this show trial and begin to repair the reputation of the Russian Federation when it comes to human rights and the rule of law. 

Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I thank Senator Wicker for bringing out the details of this matter. It has clearly been recognized and condemned by the international community as against international law. It is clearly against the commitments Russia had made when the Soviet Union fell. It is clearly of interest to all of the countries of the world. Originally, when Yukos oil was taken over, investors outside of Russia also lost money. So there has been an illegal taking of assets of a private company which have affected investors throughout the world, including in the United States. It has been offensive to all of us to see imprisoned two individuals who never should have been tried and certainly should not be in prison today. All that is offensive to all of us. But I would think it is most offensive to the Russian people. 

The Russian people believed their leaders, when the Soviet Union collapsed, that there would be respect for the rule of law; that there would be an independent judiciary, and their citizens could get a fair trial. 

We all know—and the international community has already spoken about this—that Mikhail Khodorkovsky did not get a fair trial. So the commitment the Russian leaders made to its own people of an independent and fair judiciary has not been adhered to. This is not an isolated example within Russia. We know investigative reporters routinely are arrested, sometimes arrested with violence against them. We know opposition parties have virtually no chance to participate in an open system, denying the people a real democracy. But here with justice, Russia has a chance to do so. 

I find it remarkable that Mr. Khodorkovsky's spirits are still strong, as Senator Wicker pointed out. Let me read a recent quote from Mr. Khodorkovsky himself, who is in prison: 

“You know, I really do love my country, my Moscow. It seems like one huge apathetic and indifferent anthill, but it's got so much soul. . . . You know, inside I was sure about the people, and they turned out to be even better than I'd thought.”

I think Senator Wicker and I both believe in the Russian people. We believe in the future of Russia. But the future of Russia must be a nation that embraces its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act. It has to be a country that shows compassion for its citizens and shows justice. Russia can do that today by doing what is right for Mr. Khodorkovsky and his codefendant: release them from prison, respect the private rights and human rights of its citizens, and Russia then will be a nation that will truly live up to its commitment to its people to respect human rights and democratic principles. 

Again, I thank Senator Wicker for bringing this matter to the attention of our colleagues. It is a matter that can be dealt with, that should be dealt with, and we hope Russia will show justice in the way it handles this matter. 

Mr. WICKER. I thank my colleague and yield the floor. 
 

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  • Tribute to Robert Hand for Forty Years of Service at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

    Recognizing Robert “Bob” A. Hand for 40 years of service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Whereas Robert (Bob) Hand has given 40 years of faithful service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, making him the longest serving staff of the United States Helsinki Commission to date; Whereas he is a highly respected expert on the Western Balkans with his work being invaluable during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he was focused on holding accountable those responsible for atrocities such as the Srebrenica genocide in 1995 and the murder of the Albanian-American Bytyqi brothers in Serbia in 2001, and he kept Commissioners up to date on developments in the region, including in Albania, where he is also known for his expert analysis; Whereas having served on numerous United States delegations to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meetings, observed dozens of elections, and served as a mission member on one of the OSCE’s first field missions, the OSCE Missions of Long Duration in Kosovo, Sandjak, and Vojvodina while stationed in Novi Pazar in 1993, Bob’s institutional expertise and memory on the OSCE has been vital to both the Helsinki Commission and the Department of State; Whereas in his role as the Secretary of the United States delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), Bob deftly and tirelessly guaranteed that the delegation was always well-prepared to engage with our counterparts from other countries and that our proposals and resolutions had the best possible chance for adoption; Whereas his deep expertise on procedural matters and election monitoring, among other processes, made him an extraordinarily effective advocate and negotiator for United States interests and for human rights and democracy throughout his time as Secretary of the United States delegation; Whereas no major meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly could be considered “typical”, with an enormous variety of subjects discussed, new procedures created, and different Members of Congress participating on the United States delegation from meeting to meeting, Bob rose to a huge diversity of challenges as Secretary of the United States delegation, and he ensured that Members could meaningfully participate and contribute, and that the United States presence was impactful in every meeting he coordinated; Whereas during annual sessions in particular, Bob’s calm demeanor and deep knowledge of OSCE Parliamentary Assembly processes helped all members of the delegation, whether Commissioners or not, whether it was their 1st or 15th time at an OSCE PA meeting, to know where they were supposed to be, when they were voting, what issues were at stake, and when they were scheduled to speak; Whereas ahead of OSCE’s yearly gatherings, Bob skillfully collected signatures from other delegations for United States initiatives in the Parliamentary Assembly as well as secured support from Members for important supplementary items and amendments fielded by other delegations; Whereas at the 2022 OSCE PA Annual Session in Birmingham, Bob worked diligently with several other delegations to ensure that a critical resolution condemning Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was adopted with the strongest possible language; Whereas the United States delegation had a 100-percent success rate at the 2022 OSCE PA Annual Session with the joint Ukraine resolution submitted by the United States, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian delegations, and all United States amendments to committee resolutions and supplementary items adopted; Whereas over the years, Bob guided the United States delegation through elections for OSCE PA leadership and helped secure positions for United States Members as OSCE PA President, Vice Presidents, and committee Chairs to make up the OSCE PA Bureau as well as positions on ad hoc committees and appointments as Special Representatives on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, Human Trafficking Issues, and on Political Prisoners; Whereas Bob was instrumental in ensuring that the COVID pandemic in no way diminished the United States delegation’s consistent and meaningful impact, and that United States objectives were advanced at each and every opportunity despite the unprecedented shift to online formats spanning multiple time zones; Whereas Bob was always guided by a clear sense that what the United States says matters in a body such as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, he prioritized principles over dialogue for its own sake, and he served the Commission’s mandate faithfully and tirelessly; and Whereas his longstanding relationships with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly leadership, staff, and other parliamentarians mean his departure will be felt not only by the Commission but by many of our friends in the OSCE region who have worked with him over the years: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives— (1) recognizes Robert A. Hand’s 40 years of dedicated service to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (United States Helsinki Commission); (2) appreciates his sound policy guidance on the Balkans and other regions throughout his time with the Commission; (3) congratulates him on his successes as Secretary of the United States delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly; and (4) wishes him all the best in the next chapters of his personal and professional endeavors.

  • Decolonizing the Russian Empire

        Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine has shocked the world for its brutality and aggression. But the Kremlin’s violent designs in Ukraine, and other military adventures in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, are part of a larger and longer legacy of Russian imperialism that directly threaten its neighbors and imprison a multitude of nations within its authoritarian empire. This side event explores the destructive effects of Russian imperialism and how the unfolding genocide in Ukraine is a natural outgrowth of these colonial policies. Drawing on regional perspectives of those victimized by Russia’s brutal empire, the panel will highlight the realities of Russian colonialism and what a process of decolonization—elevating marginalized voices and providing for their full political and civic self-expression—would mean for Russia and for its neighbors.

  • My "Hell" in Russian Captivity

    Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine include the brutal and unlawful detention of thousands of Ukrainians. At this hearing, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, a well-known Ukrainian volunteer medic who was detained in Mariupol in March and held by the Russians for three months, testified about her capture, the deplorable conditions of her captivity, the plight of those who continue to be detained unlawfully, and her lifesaving work since 2014 providing medical assistance to those wounded by Russia’s war.   Taira outlined the daily experience of torture, psychological manipulation, and inhumane living conditions she and others were subjected to by their Russian captors. She explained that she was detained during a document check, and when a guard recognized her name, she was singled out for especially cruel treatment.    Held in the occupied territories but under the direct control of Russian forces, Taira spent three months in captivity. Her captors attempted to force a public confession from her for crimes she had not committed. Taira knew they would use this footage to drive the Russian propaganda narrative of Ukrainian cruelty and defend their own atrocities. She had seen footage of friends and colleagues admitting to crimes she knows they did not commit in order to escape the torture that she herself faced. Taira noted that the Russians spared no one, capturing and torturing civilians as well as soldiers.   After thanking the United States for all the support it has given to Ukraine, she asked for help fighting Russian propaganda. She believes that the world must challenge Russian narratives. Taira requested additional shipments of modern weapons from the United States, stating that Ukrainians have proved themselves as responsible stewards of American weaponry and will use them to continue fighting with honor. She also asked for American help in facilitating international access to prisons in occupied Ukraine, in order to ensure fair treatment of prisoners according to the Geneva Conventions. Finally, Taira requested that the United States designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, continue supporting Ukraine financially, and recognize the violence and oppression committed by Russia in Ukraine as a genocide.     

  • Helsinki Commission Slams Shutdown of Novaya Gazeta

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today condemned the shutdown of Novaya Gazeta in Russia, following the decision of a Moscow court to strip the outlet of its print media registration. They issued the following joint statement: “The Kremlin assault on the last vestiges of independent media in Russia confirms that Vladimir Putin is afraid of the truth. Novaya Gazeta has been a pillar of free Russian media since it was founded in 1993 by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, with the support of late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Putin has spent years attacking truth-tellers in Russia’s information space in order to build a country where lies and distortion of reality serve his interests. Russia’s horrific war against Ukraine, the atrocities committed by the Russian army, and the state-sponsored justification and praise of this violence are the terrible consequences of this dark and cynical manipulation. Russia needs independent journalism now more than ever.” In March 2022, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Putin’s War on Truth,” which examined Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on independent media in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission leadership lauded the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Russia’s Dmitry Muratov, longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova. In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.”  

  • Ukrainian Medic to Testify on “Hell” in Russian Captivity, War in Ukraine at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: MY “HELL” IN RUSSIAN CAPTIVITY Taira Paievska on Russia’s War in Ukraine Thursday, September 15, 2022 9:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine include the brutal and unlawful detention of thousands of Ukrainians. At this hearing, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, a Ukrainian volunteer medic who was detained in Mariupol in March and held by the Russians for three months, will testify about her capture; the deplorable conditions of her three-month captivity; the plight of those who continue to be detained unlawfully; and her lifesaving work since 2014 providing medical assistance to those wounded by Russia’s war. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Yuliia “Taira” Paievska, Ukrainian veteran and volunteer paramedic; Commander, “Taira’s Angels” Dr. Hanna Hopko, Co-Founder, International Center for Ukrainian Victory; Former Chair, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Parliament of Ukraine

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses Role as Special Representative for Political Prisoner

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep Steve Cohen (TN-09) today spoke at a virtual hearing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA)about his new role as the assembly’s special representative for political prisoners. Co-Chairman Cohen thanked OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden for naming him to the special representative role and expressed his disappointment at the increased need to call attention to attacks on human rights as conditions around the world continue to deteriorate. He spoke in particular on the cases of Russian politicians Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, as well as politicians, journalists and dissidents in Belarus, Egypt, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Co-Chairman Cohen said of Kara-Murza, arrested after returning home to Moscow: “I will not let him be forgotten.” He also said in part: “I appreciate President Cederfelt’s appointment and her faith in me to execute this position as special representative on political prisoners. I take it very seriously and have been working on it regularly, notifying through posts on social media, press releases and calling on governments to release political prisoners. Unfortunately, this role is becoming more and more significant as we have more and more political prisoners… “I’ve contacted Secretary Blinken to work with him and the State Department. We’ve brought attention to political prisoners not only in Russia and Belarus but also in Myanmar and Egypt and, unfortunately, in several of the OSCE countries there are political prisoners as well…Conditions all around the world are getting worse…and Russia is the worst.” See his entire remarks here.

  • Helsinki Commission Alarmed By Reported Transport of S-300 Missile Systems by Russia into the Black Sea

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Sparta II, a Russian cargo ship, transported S-300 missile systems through the Turkish Straits, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are alarmed by Russia’s reported transport of S-300 missile systems through the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea.  As Russia is waging a bloody, unprovoked war against Ukraine, it is critical that any supplies of arms to Moscow be cut off as quickly and efficiently as possible. Any additional weapon in the hands of the Kremlin would mean another Ukrainian who would lose his or her life to the aggressor. “As the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, Turkey must do everything in its power to stop the flow of arms to Russia. We are perplexed that while third parties were able to spot the ship as it was entering the straits, it appears the Turkish government failed to prevent it from delivering the missile systems to Russia. Such systems will inevitably be deployed to commit crimes against humanity. “We are sure that Turkey does not want to be complicit in this by failing to carry out its responsibilities. We urge Turkish authorities to clarify their role in allowing the Sparta II into the Black Sea.” 

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeniy Roizman

    WASHINGTON—Following the arrest of the Kremlin critic and former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeniy Roizman, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “The arrest and prosecution of Yevgeniy Roizman is another milestone in the Kremlin’s descent into a full-blown dictatorship. “Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine is what dishonors the Russian military. Mr. Roizman simply has reminded his fellow citizens of that truth. “As Mr. Roizman noted in a recent interview covered by the New York Times, ‘the worst thing is when you suddenly see that there is a lot of evil, that evil is winning, that evil is being supported. Evil can only win when it joins together with a lie.’ “Mr. Roizman also served as the mayor of Yekaterinburg, the same city where Brittney Griner played since 2014. “The Russian government should drop all the charges against Mr. Roizman and not put any restrictions on his work and activism, and I continue to call for the immediate release of other political prisoners including Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexey Navalny, and Ilya Yashin, as well as Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan, Marc Fogel, and other journalists, dissidents, and wrongfully detained individuals in Russia.”  

  • It’s Time to Throw NATO’s Door Wide Open

    NATO was meant to be a harbor for the weak and imperiled. It should be again. June’s NATO summit in Madrid was by every account a historic event. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine andbroader belligerence against Europe, NATO unveiled a muscular new strategic concept and invited Finland and Swedento join the alliance—an epochal moment for the two traditionally neutral countries and a major statement for thealliance’s “open door” policy. Yet looming over all of this are the uncertain fates of the two countries most suffering from Russian aggression: Ukraine and Georgia. Both nations were promised membership in the alliance during the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, yet bothremain outside of it. Now, the enormous human and material toll of Russia’s genocidal, neo-imperial war in Ukraine hasput NATO’s extended and unfulfi lled promises into sharp, indelible relief. Obscured by ambiguous technicalities, the alliance’s failure to provide Ukraine and Georgia with a concrete pathway to membership was clearly an unintentional but predictable invitation to Russian aggression. As Ukrainians desperately defend their homeland and count civilians and their children among those killed, the moraland strategic poverty of Ukraine’s deferred accession is laid bare. NATO and its members must now reckon with thewages of a passive approach and rethink the alliance’s founding purpose. The bloc was never meant as an exclusive country club of the rich and strong but rather a harbor for the weak and imperiled. It should be again. In April, while observing the Hungarian parliamentary elections, I saw for myself the heartrending humanitarian crisis on Ukraine’s borders with Hungary and Slovakia. I saw children who had traveled great distances with their families, clutching the meager mementos of home; I met Ukrainians who traveled back and forth across the borders, bringing supplies from the European Union into western Ukrainian cities; and I saw the humanity of volunteers giving some measure of comfort and welcome to weary refugees who had, at long last, reached the promise of safety at the European Union’s frontiers. But what I didn’t see were any great barriers or edifices of geography to suggest the line where, on one side, NATO would risk nuclear war in the people’s defense and on the other side—in Ukraine—it would not. In the United States and Europe, discussions about the borders between NATO and the rest of Europe are treated like immutable features of geography or acts of god, as though certain states and people are afforded divine predestination into the Euro-Atlantic’s rarefied elect. Decisions in the run-up to the war to withhold crucial assistance or provide security guarantees were often justified based on Ukraine’s non-membership in NATO, even though concrete pathways into the alliance have never been offered despite the 2008 declaration. The idea that Ukraine and Georgia were somehow unready or unable to meet NATO’s technical criteria has always been a problematic argument. At no point has NATO established hard, technical benchmarks for membership—clear, achievable standards for entry—and doing so might have risked Ukraine and Georgia passing muster, potentially embarrassing the countries that were categorically opposed to their accession. Realistically, NATO enlargement has always been a political decision. More recent fixations on technical “readiness” and process were introduced after the Cold War to amplify NATO’s turn from a Cold War bulwark to a carrier of Euro-Atlantic values and to manage booming Eastern European demand for membership. But today, Moscow’s threat to Europe’s peace is all too apparent again—and devastatingly so in Ukraine as well as in Georgia. In response, NATO should change with the strategic landscape—not with “retrenchment,” in which it builds its walls higher while Ukraine and other threatened partners burn, but with aggressive enlargement. NATO is generally considered something of a walled garden—a protected redoubt of relative peace, prosperity, and predictability. However, this reputation elides the seismic strategic revolution that founding and early expansion represented. Firmly in the nuclear age and facing Soviet expansionism after two horrific continental wars in the first half of the 20th century, the United States sought to create structures to arrest Europe’s ruinous cycles of great-power war. Against thevery real risk of Soviet imperialism and a potential third World War, NATO created a protected sanctuary around Europe’s most threatened, impoverished, and war-torn countries. “I am sure,” then-U.S. President Harry Truman said just a year before NATO’s founding, “that the determination of the free countries of Europe to protect themselves will be matched by an equal determination on our part to help them.” To create the rules-based paradise of modern Europe, the United States and its closest allies drew a line in the face of Soviet expansionism and said: No further. Despite war weariness and the steep task of reconstruction, the North Atlantic founders pooled their military power and political determination as well as risked a third World War in Europe’s defense. The countries that joined were hardly all first-rate military powers, economic dynamos, or stable democracies—manywere politically unstable, militarily sapped, and economically broken. Several, such as Portugal and Spain, were military dictatorships. The principal continental combatants in World War II—Germany, France, and Italy—were quite literally ruined by the war and took decades to recover. Yet the United States and the other original NATO members didn’t quibble interminably over the vagaries of a threatened partner’s democratic credentials or its uptake of various technical or military reforms, and they generally accepted European states that sought Washington’s protection and a Western orientation. This wasn’t because of Western indifference to democracy but rather a recognition that democratization under the shadow of an imminent Soviet threat was essentially impossible and that a country swallowed by Moscow’s imperial agenda had no chance of true self-determination—much less democracy. Speaking of NATO’s purpose, then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson described it as “designed to contribute to thestability and well-being of the member nations by removing the haunting sense of insecurity” posed by Soviet expansionism. It took time, but the strategy paid off. Under NATO and the United States’ nuclear umbrella, great-power war was avoided, Europe democratized and prospered, and the Soviet Union and its brand of colonialism was dismantled, freeing tens of millions of people. With Russia again in the throes of despotism and expansionist militarism, the conditions that accompanied NATO’s founding are all too familiar. Russian aggression in the heart of Europe is an incontrovertible reality—as Ukraine’s blood-soaked lands so clearly attest—and there is no reason to believe or expect Moscow to stop until and unless it is stopped. NATO must meet the moment. Dithering over peacetime technicalities defi es NATO’s original purpose to secure Europefrom the specter of Moscow’s violently imperial agenda. This is not a return to the Cold War, but it is no less a civilizational struggle against a military dictatorship in Moscow. This threat is particularly plain and present for the millions of Ukrainians and Georgians who have had no choice but to suffer on the wrong side of the geopolitical train tracks. NATO should return to its roots and fling open its doors to all those in Europe at risk of Russia’s predations. How can this be done? NATO decisions, including membership, require consensus. Transitioning to a wartime open door policy will require a major shift in thinking. For one, the United States, as the ultimate underwriter of NATO’s military might, should take steps to provide robust security assistance and assurances to threatened partners—such as those promises it has given Finland and Sweden until their accession is complete—and encourage other like-minded allies to do the same. Similarly, NATO handwringing over outstanding territorial disputes—almost always created or supported by Moscow—should officially become a nonissue. Russia should not be rewarded for cultivating and backing violent separatist movements that inoculate the parent countries from NATO accession. If anything, Russian meddling and aggression evinces the necessity of NATO’s protection. This is simple in principle but admittedly difficult in policy amid hot war. How can Ukraine join NATO without triggering a global conflict? First, the United States and its allies can all do more to ensure that Ukraine has military dominance overits own territory and win its war of independence. Mystifying gaps that undermine Western sanctions policies demand attention—such as continued European dependence on Russian energy, U.S. imports of Russian steel, and the growing role of China and other countries in the Middle East, Eurasia, and Asia (including friends and partners) to bypass or ease the impact of international trade sanctions. Likewise, U.S. hesitance over delivering heavy arms and munitions to Ukraine must end. The delivery of U.S. artillery and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) platforms have completely changed the momentum of the conflict in recent weeks; more longer-range munitions and Western fast-jet capabilities could help Ukraine expand the initiative against Russia’s high-mass but low-morale attacking force. Second, the United States could consider extending its nuclear umbrella over Ukraine to erase Russia’s nuclear advantage and any temptation it may have to use nuclear weapons as Russian conventional losses mount. Doing so would only be a stronger and clearer statement of current U.S. policy that Russia’s use of weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and “entail severe consequences,” as U.S. President Joe Biden has already said. Against such a horrifying possibility, the West could stand to be much clearer on the evident downsides of such a strategy, which would itself violate Russian nuclear doctrine. And third, the United States can and should have discussions about certain security guarantees for free areas of Ukraine, such as via the provision of the most advanced Western arms or direct Western air defense coverage. For Georgia, and even for a country like Moldova should it so choose, it is even clearer: Provide support and security guarantees over non-occupied regions. Finally, democratic principles should remain a core requirement for NATO. Although the exigencies of the moment maynot allow the luxury of waiting for perfect democratization to develop before entry, NATO can and should create more robust and independent internal mechanisms to monitor and highlight vulnerabilities, advise and assist all members with undertaking difficult reforms, and hold members accountable for sustained and significant democratic backsliding. As Ukraine’s brave people fight for survival and every inch of their homeland against Russia’s overwhelming and genocidal war, it is impossible not to wonder what might have been had NATO understood in 2008 in Bucharest or in 2014 in Wales what horrors could have been prevented if Ukraine had been spirited into the alliance, along with Georgia. Ukraine will win this war, and Russia will lose—but in many ways, it is already too late for Ukraine and Georgia, having been so thoroughly and persistently victimized by Russian aggression. Yet each moment they are left to fend for themselves only compounds the error—and the shame.

  • NATO Refocused, Europe Reinforced

    By Jessika Nebrat, Max Kampelman Fellow​ Following the escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is playing a role it has not filled in years. Forced to reconcentrate its attention to Europe’s defense, NATO allies are demonstrating persistent resolve in countering Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. In doing so, NATO returns to a core facet of its founding mission: the defense against Moscow’s militarism. While NATO represents just one facet of the Euro-Atlantic security infrastructure, it is perhaps the most robust organization bound by formal agreements, dedicated to peacekeeping, and capable of enforcement. Its mission to “guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means” echoes the first dimension principles outlined by the Helsinki Final Act, and aligns NATO with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. Helsinki Commission. In supporting each other’s work, these institutions mutually reinforce their shared values and bolster European security. History of NATO In the aftermath of the second World War, the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations sought to boost European economic reconstruction and protect themselves from Soviet domination. The 1947 Treaty of Dunkirk predated NATO in promoting Atlantic alliance and mutual assistance between France and the United Kingdom. The agreement was expanded in March 1948 as the Treaty of Brussels to engage Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in military, economic, social, and cultural cooperation. In the same month, the United States hosted talks intended to unite both North American and Western European allies; as a result, NATO was officially signed into existence on April 4, 1949. The 12 founding member nations derived their legitimacy from United Nations (UN) Charter Article 51, which affirmed the right to collective defense. The foundational NATO Treaty mentioned collective defense only after declaring the parties’ commitments to finding peaceful resolutions of disputes, upholding UN principles, strengthening free institutions, and promoting economic collaboration. The Alliance formally defined its principal objectives to deter Soviet expansionism, oppose nationalist militarism on the continent, and bolster European political integration. Though it sought to deter military aggression, NATO’s original treaty did not provide any means of enforcing the agreed-upon principles. It was not until after the USSR’s 1949 detonation of an atomic bomb and the 1950 start of the Korean War that NATO approved a military command structure. In response, the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Though neither of the two ideologically opposed organizations used force during the Cold War, they engaged in an arms race that persisted until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. NATO after the Cold War Once NATO no longer had to defend against Soviet expansionism, the Alliance broadened the scope of its peacekeeping and security enforcement missions. In the 1990s, NATO forces were deployed: to Turkey during the Gulf Crisis; upon request to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States nations as part of a humanitarian mission after the fall of the USSR; to enforce a UN arms embargo and no-fly zone over former Yugoslavia; and in the Central Mediterranean during a period of tension with Libya. In the 21st century, NATO forces were also deployed during: the Second Gulf War; to the US and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the only Article 5 invocation in NATO history; to mitigate rising ethnic tensions in North Macedonia; to counter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean; as counter-piracy escorts to UN World Food Programme ships transiting the Gulf of Aden; to train Iraqi security forces; to enforce a no-fly zone after the popular uprising in Libya; for peacekeeping in Sudan; and to provide disaster relief throughout Europe, the Middle East, and in the United States. NATO currently maintains active operations in Kosovo, the Mediterranean, Iraq, and throughout the African Union; it recently ramped up air policing as part of a peace-keeping response to the Russian Federation’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the escalation against Ukraine this past February. Kremlin Narrative against NATO Over the years, Moscow has repeatedly resisted NATO enlargement – especially for countries it claims within its sphere of influence. Putin asserts that during a 1990 summit between President George H. W. Bush and President Gorbachev, the United States promised no further expansion of NATO; civil servants present at that meeting have refuted this claim, as has Mr. Gorbachev himself. In his conversation with Bush, Gorbachev repeatedly affirmed that nations have the right to make their own alliances. Though internal U.S. analyses of the 1990s suggested that expansion eastward may not be politically expedient, such positions never became official policy. The United States has remained resolute in its recognition of sovereign choice, and expansion has been driven by requests from former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states wary of Russian revanchism. The Kremlin has deployed an opposing narrative to justify Russian military engagements in Georgia in the early 2000s, and more recently in Ukraine. Putin sees the inclusion of either nation in NATO, and the political and economic liberalization that go with it, as threats to his regime’s stability. NATO membership would limit Russian interference in the internal affairs of either state. Additionally, if Russia’s neighbors and fellow post-Soviet states can become true democracies, provide higher quality of living, and ensure the rule of law, then why can’t Putin’s Russia? Any argument that NATO expansion threatens Russia misrepresents the organization, which is a diverse coalition dedicated to mutual defense and development. Moreover, such an assertion overlooks the efforts NATO has made to include and collaborate with Russia in the pursuit of cooperative security. NATO Back to its Roots By illegally and brutally invading Ukraine in February 2022 – a dramatic escalation of the grinding conflict started in 2014 – Putin has galvanized European and Western unity. Hearkening to its origins and returning attention to Eastern Europe, NATO is recommitting itself to “counter Russia’s attempts to destroy the foundations of international security and stability.” The international community is largely on board. In its collective attention beyond security, NATO – alongside other organizations – highlights not only the potential for, but the responsibility of the international community to condemn human rights violations, uphold the rule of law, and pursue economic health, all efforts that further challenge the Kremlin’s narrative that it can lead (or that there even needs to exist) an opposing bloc. Alarmed by Moscow’s renewed expansionism, Sweden and Finland have abandoned decades of neutrality in favor of NATO membership. They are on track towards the fastest accession process in history, and anticipate a smooth integration. Both already engage in the wider European community through membership in such organizations as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Their force structures are robust, and well-versed in NATO procedures following decades of partnership; their accession will secure northeast Europe, expand NATO’s border with Russia, and reinforce NATO presence in the Arctic and Baltic Sea. Although the Kremlin initially vowed “military and political repercussions” were Finland and Sweden to join NATO, such threats have dulled to warnings about the installation of NATO military infrastructure nearer Russia’s borders; as Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership neared finalization, Putin even expressed “no problem” with these states joining the Alliance. It remains to be seen how this change will play out. After decades of orientation towards international stabilization, humanitarian, and counterinsurgency mission sets, NATO has been refocused on European deterrence and defense following the Kremlin’s violent assault on Ukraine. In addition to condemning Russia’s invasion and supporting Ukraine via such measures as the Comprehensive Assistance Package, NATO plays a critical role in championing European collective defense and discouraging any expansion of conflict.    

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Calls for the Release of Political Prisoners in Belarus

    Washington – On the second anniversary of the sham presidential election in Belarus, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Two years ago today, Belarus’s autocrat Aleksander Lukashenko put up a show of an election that he had hoped would legitimize his unconstitutional power grab. Despite the many and well-documented cases of election abuse, the people of Belarus did not fall for the tricks of the one-man ruler of Belarus. They voted Lukashenko out, but, predictably, he refused to leave. He ignored the will of the people and chose vicious violence to suppress the peaceful dissent. “In the year following the unprecedented in scale peaceful rallies against the 2020 election results, Lukashenko’s troops arrested, tortured and imprisoned a reported 35,000 Belarusians for the simple act of demanding the government respect their choice and rights. He personally presided over the largest ever domestic repression that saw thousands behind bars and tens of thousands flee the country, including the opposition leader and likely legitimate winner absent election fraud, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been welcomed by neighboring countries. “Since that time, Lukashenko has continued a crackdown on civic participation in Belarus with arrests of civilians protesting the Russian war in Ukraine, changes to Belarus’s non-nuclear status, and the ongoing Lukashenko regime during last year’s March 25th anniversary of Belarus’s ‘Freedom Day,’ adding to the already sizeable number of politically motivated detainments in the country. “There are now close to 1200 individuals languishing in Belarusian prisons for speaking out against authoritarianism, corruption and war. Included among the political prisoners are: Syarhey Tsikhanouski, husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and potential candidate against Lukashenko detained in May 2020; Roman Protasevich, journalist and opposition figure accused of inciting mass protests and detained after a false bomb threat forced the landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 destined for Lithuania in Belarus in May 2021; Sofia Sapega, Russian citizen and girlfriend of Protasevich who also was aboard Ryanair flight FR4978; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarus Service journalists Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Kruzdzilovic; and Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna Human Rights Centre, a human rights organization based in Minsk that provides financial and legal support to political prisoners. These are but a few names representing political candidates, oppositionists, activists, journalists and other Belarusian and non-Belarusian citizens detained by Lukashenko’s regime. “Lukashenko must immediately order the release of all political prisoners and wrongfully detained individuals and stop the systematic violations of human rights.  I call on the U.S. Department of State and our allies abroad to work together during this time of heightened tension with Belarus and Belarus’s benefactor, Russia, to ensure the unjustly imprisoned Belarusians are released at the earliest date possible.”

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest July 2022

  • Wicker Stands in Solidarity With Russian Dissident

      WASHINGTON – Mr. President, I rise this afternoon to make sure that the plight of Russian leader Vladimir Kara-Murza is not forgotten. That the outrageous imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza by the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is not forgotten. We remember three decades ago what hope we had for a new Russia. Russia entered a new age of possibility some three decades ago, after more than 70 years of communist repression, the Soviet order had collapsed, and with it the Iron Curtain that kept freedom away from millions was torn down. As the red flags came down in Moscow, the free world watched with anticipation, hoping that democracy and the rule of law might finally take root in a free Russia. Regrettably, that has not happened. Instead of democracy and freedom, the Russian people got Vladimir Putin, a man who has used his office to murder, imprison, and force into exile anyone who threatens his grip on power -- all the while, enriching himself beyond anyone's wildest imagination while ordinary Russians, especially out in the countryside of Russia, live in squalid conditions. One of his latest victims is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian patriot and a friend I had the privilege of hosting in my office just four months ago. As a matter of fact, I have hosted him several times. Today, Vladimir Kara-Murza spends his days in a prison cell, where the only thing you can see through the window is a barbed wire fence. What was his crime? He simply spoke the truth about Putin's war on Ukraine. His trial, if it can even be called a trial, was held in secret. No journalists, no diplomats or spectators of any kind were allowed to be there. And for his offense of talking about the Russian war against Ukraine, he now faces up to 15 years in prison. This is not the first time the Russian dictator has tried to silence him. Mr. Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, and almost died in both cases. Since then, his wife and three children have had to live abroad, though he himself has chosen to spend most of his time in Russia. In a recent interview with National Review, his wife, Evgenia explained why he insists on working in Russia: “He believes that he would not have the moral right to call on people to fight if he were not sharing the same risks.” Or as Mr. Kara-Murza put it in a recent CNN interview the day of his arrest. He said, “The biggest gift we could give the Kremlin would be to just give up and run. That's all they want from us.” What a contrast in character to the man currently running the Kremlin. The National Review's story goes on to describe Mr. Kara-Murza's courageous work for democracy through the eyes of his wife of Evgenia, as well as the costs that he and his family have endured along with so many other Russian dissidents. And, Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent at this point to insert the National Review story that I referred to into the record. Mr. Kara-Murza’s imprisonment is part of Mr. Putin's larger assault on what remains of political freedom in Russia. In Mr. Kara-Murza’s words, Putin's regime has gone, “from highly authoritarian to near totalitarian almost overnight.” In March, Russian officials passed a new censorship law, forbidding all criticism of Mr. Putin's war in Ukraine. That law has been the basis for more than 16,000 arrests since the war began in February, including that of Mr. Kara-Murza. Another 2,400 Russians have been charged with administrative offenses for speaking out against the war. Meanwhile, Putin's propaganda machine is ramping up. Independent Russian media outlets have all but vanished, having been blocked, shut down, or forced out of the country by the Kremlin. The last embers of freedom in Russia are going cold. Putin's crackdown on domestic freedom began in 2003, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on trumped up charges of tax fraud after he simply criticized the government. A former member of the elite, Mr. Khodorkovsky, had successfully led the Yukos Oil Company through privatization after the Iron Curtain fell. And contrary to the Kremlin's claims, the company consistently paid its taxes. But that didn't stop Vladimir Putin from plundering its assets, throwing Mr. Khodorkovsky in jail, where he stayed for ten years. I would note that just before his arrest, Mr. Khodorkovsky displayed the same courage and patriotism that we now see in Vladimir Kara-Murza. Like Mr. Kara-Murza, he knew very well he could go to jail for speaking out against the government. But Mr. Khodorkovsky did so anyway and refused to flee the country, saying, “I would prefer to be a political prisoner rather than a political immigrant.” Of course, by then, Mr. Putin had already shown himself willing to violate the international laws of war, having leveled the Chechen capital of Grozny in his own Republic of Russia in 1999. In 2008, he launched a new assault on international law with the invasion of Georgia. In 2014 he started a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, and in 2016, Soviet Russian dictator Putin and his forces attacked the Syrian city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Putin ramped up his attacks on domestic freedom as well. In 2015 Boris Nemtsov, leader of the democratic opposition, former deputy prime minister of Russia, was shot to death in broad daylight just yards away from the Kremlin. Three months later, Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned for the first time. More recently, in 2020, Alexei Navalny, the current leader of the opposition, was himself poisoned and had to seek treatment in Berlin. This is Vladimir Putin's Russia today. When Navalny recovered, he chose to return to Moscow, knowing the risks, and immediately upon landing, he was arrested. This is the deplorable state of Russia and freedom under Vladimir Putin. Time and again, he has shown that he is bent on stamping out the aspirations of his people for freedom and the rule of law. As leader of the free world, America must continue to condemn Putin's lawless acts and stand in solidarity with our Russian friends, who are courageously fighting against all odds for a better future in Russia -- and are suffering as a result. These are modern day heroes: Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and we should not forget them. My friend, the distinguished senior senator from Maryland, Senator Cardin and I, along with Congressman Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, are the four House and Senate leaders of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and former Soviet countries. We recently sent a joint letter to President Biden calling on the administration to name and sanction all of those who have been involved in the arrest, detention and persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. I issue that call again today, and I invite my colleagues from both parties to stand with Vladimir Kara-Murza and work for his release. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.  

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Administration to Work to Free Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter urging the Biden Administration to “use every instrument in our toolbox” to free Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza. The letter read in part: “The United States has a proud history of standing up for political prisoners and working relentlessly to help them return to freedom. We stared down the Soviet Union, Communist China, military regimes in Latin America and South-East Asia, and succeeded in helping secure the release of those who deserved freedom the most – innocent and peaceful activists and freedom fighters representing a vision for better governments in those countries. Mr. Kara-Murza represents a hope for a democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and own citizens, and now is someone who the U.S. should advocate for his release… “The Helsinki Commission continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, and other countries across the OSCE region, and specifically Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case…Now, we call on your Administration to use every instrument in our toolbox to secure the release of Mr. Kara-Murza. This is in the interest of our national security, his well-being, and importantly, the well-being of his incredibly brave children and spouse. Mrs. Kara-Murza and their three children reside in the U.S and despite the distance, the Kremlin has been poisoning – literally and figuratively – their lives for decades now. We should do everything in our power to help free Vladimir Kara-Murza and reunite him with his family.” On April 12, Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in Russia on charges of disobeying police orders when he allegedly “changed the trajectory of his movement” upon seeing Russian police officers at his home. This carried a 15-day sentence in jail. With five days remaining in his sentence, new charges were levied against him for spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine.  He now faces up to 15 years in prison. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said. The Helsinki Commission has a long tradition of advocating on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. Earlier this month, Co-Chairman Cohen was appointed the first-ever OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners.

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