Flawed Elections in the Caucasus

Flawed Elections in the Caucasus

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
108th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Friday, November 21, 2003

Mr. Speaker, as we approach the end of session, I would like to take note as Helsinki Commission Chairman of a very disturbing trend in the Caucasus republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. At this very moment, thousands of Georgians are engaging in a campaign of civil disobedience in the wake of the November 2 parliamentary elections. Georgian and international monitors registered large-scale falsification and ballot stuffing, not to mention the exclusion of many thousands of eligible voters. When the Central Election Commission gave the largest tallies to President Shevardnadze's party and the nominally-opposition but Shevardnadze-allied Revival Party, opposition leaders organized large demonstrations in Tbilisi's main street. There, in the rain and cold, protesters spent days demanding the President's resignation and new elections.

Their efforts, born of rage and despair, have been peaceful and the authorities have so far acted with restraint. But Georgia faces a genuine crisis, make no mistake. After ten years of growing frustration at official incompetence and corruption, the country's impoverished public has begun to resist business as usual. Eduard Shevardnadze, still lionized in the West for helping to end the Cold War as Soviet Foreign Minister, has long been deeply unpopular at home. Demands by successive U.S. administrations and international financial institutions to curb pervasive corruption have gone unheeded. And the November 2 election was a harbinger of the presidential race in 2005, when Shevardnadze will not be eligible to run. All participants and analysts agree that the outcome of this year's parliamentary contest will influence the coming succession.

How the Georgian drama will play itself out is hard to predict. But it is clear that Georgia is not alone in suffering through a crisis of trust and legitimacy. On October 17, Azerbaijan held presidential elections that, according to OSCE observers, did not meet international norms. Serious clashes between opposition backers and the authorities erupted in which at least one person was killed and hundreds were injured. Law enforcement agencies arrested hundreds of opposition activists; though most have since been released, according to human rights groups, many were beaten in detention. The Azerbaijani election, moreover, marked the transfer of power from President Heydar Aliev to his son, establishing the first family dynasty in the former Soviet Union. But Ilham Aliev has begun his term under a shadow, tainted by an election seen as unfair inside and outside the country and marred by the accompanying violence.

Earlier this year, Armenia held presidential elections in February and parliamentary elections in May that also fell short of OSCE standards. In February, thousands of protesters marched in the snowy streets of Yerevan; perhaps their numbers kept President Robert Kocharian from claiming a first round victory and forced him into a runoff, a first for a sitting president in the Caucasus. Between the two rounds, however, the authorities detained some 200 opposition campaign workers and supporters. On election day, they did whatever was necessary to win in a landslide. The final judgement of the OSCE election observation mission was that "the overall process failed to provide equal conditions for the candidates. Voting, counting and tabulation showed serious irregularities, including widespread ballot box stuffing." The Armenian Assembly of America on March 18 noted that "the people of Armenia deserved nothing less than the declared aim of their government for free, fair and transparent presidential elections. As reported in depth by the OSCE, this achievable standard was not met."

There was some improvement in the May parliamentary contest, concluded the OSCE, especially in the campaign and media coverage. Nevertheless, the election "fell short of international standards...in a number of key respects, in particular the counting and tabulation of votes."

In sum, Mr. Speaker, a discouraging and disturbing record for all three countries, marked by a consistent pattern of election rigging by entrenched elites who have learned that they can "get away with it." The international community is prepared to register disapproval, by proclaiming these elections, in diplomatic language, to be sure, short of OSCE norms. But there have never been any other consequences for subverting the democratic process. Nor have opposition parties anywhere been able to annul or change the official results of a falsified electoral process, or even compel governments to negotiate with them.

Perhaps Georgia, where the state is relatively weak and discontent widespread, will prove the exception, although it is alarming that President Shevardnadze has sent his sometime rival Aslan Abashidze, who runs the region of Ajaria like a Central Asian potentate, north to gain Moscow's support. The prospect of Russia propping up a shaky, illegitimate Georgian Government should send shivers down the spine of any American. But until and unless an opposition movement registers some tangible success, the men in charge of the destinies of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have no reason to change course. What they are doing works and it benefits them, even if it harms their countries' chances of developing democracy.

Even worse, there is little reason to expect changes for the better. For years, optimists maintained that however discouraging things were, time and constant pressure from Washington and the international community would bring gradual change. As we approach 2004, the 13th year of independence for the former Soviet republics, that prognosis seems increasingly Pollyannaish. The consolidation of ruling groups, determined to remain in power, in control of the state's law enforcement and judicial agencies, and disposing of significant wealth, makes gradual evolution towards a genuinely democratic mentality and practices ever less plausible. Instead, we see evolution towards what some analysts call "semi-authoritarian" states and others, with reference to the Middle East, term "liberal autocracies."

Mr. Speaker, this admittedly depressing analysis leads to several worrisome conclusions. First, political opposition and publics in the Caucasus have concluded that electoral processes are hopelessly corrupted and offer no prospect of fairly competing for power or even trying to influence policymaking. Accordingly, they are increasingly inclined to mobilize against their leaders and governments. Even though victories have thus far eluded them, this turn to the "street" bespeaks a perennial politics of resentment instead of compromise and consensus-building. Second, the gulf between rulers and ruled has obvious implications for stability and democracy. Ruling elites will try to tamp down actual protest and curb society's organizing capability, infringing on their basic liberties; this, in turn, will upset the delicate balance between state and society. Change, when it comes, may be violent.

Steadily losing hope, many Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians will likely opt out of politics altogether. Many others will emigrate if they can. This trend has been marked for years in all three countries; Armenians often try to come to the United States; while Azerbaijanis and Georgians find it easier to move to Russia. But the departure of these highly motivated individuals and their families, who often find ways to prosper in their adopted homes, weakens their homelands.

Washington has observed these tendencies with concern but little action. Democracy-building programs may help develop civil society but have little impact on leaders who pursue their own interests and are quite prepared to dismiss the State Department's criticism of yet another rigged election, even if, as happened yesterday, the Department, in unprecedentedly strong language, said the Georgian election "results do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people, but instead reflect massive vote fraud in Ajara and other Georgian regions." And while we are preoccupied with Iraq and the war on terrorism, Moscow has been steadily rebuilding its assets in these countries, buying up infrastructure in equity-for-debt deals and offering all possible support to those in power.

Under these circumstances, Mr. Speaker, our chances of influencing political evolution in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia may not be very great. But they will diminish to zero unless we recognize the problem, and soon.

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

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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. 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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.    

  • Helsinki Commission Deeply Concerned Over Latest Electoral Reform Initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and  Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today expressed deep concern about an effort by the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia to impose changes on the country’s electoral system barely two months prior to general elections in early October. They issued the following joint statement: “We share the concerns of members of civil society, academia, and the political community in Bosnia and Herzegovina about the current proposal of the international community’s High Representative to make changes to Bosnia’s electoral system shortly before the upcoming general elections.  These changes effectively only benefit the leading ethnically-based political party among Bosnia’s Croats and further entrench the divisive force of ethnicity in Bosnian politics as a whole.  They fail to tackle the broader issues of citizen-based democracy that so obviously need to be addressed for the country to overcome destabilizing impasse and move forward. The timing of their introduction also is problematic. “The Helsinki Commission has long supported electoral reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina that remove ethnicity from governance. Such reforms should be designed to give citizens a wider range of truly democratic choices, an ability to hold their elected official accountable, a deserved sense of stability, and needed hope for European integration.  We also have supported a more assertive role for the international community and its representatives in the country, including the Office of the High Representative, in responding to the lack of democracy and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, we believe that this specific action, if imposed now, will not represent the true progress Bosnia needs and may effectively make things worse.”

  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Convenes Historic Black Sea Security Summit, Demonstrates Bipartisan Support for European Security

    WASHINGTON—From June 29 – July 9, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led a bipartisan, bicameral congressional delegation to Romania, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden to consult with senior officials across Europe about Russia’s war on Ukraine, security in the Black Sea region, and Finland and Sweden’s plans to join NATO. On the shores of the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania, Sen. Wicker and Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu co-chaired the first-ever congressionally-organized Black Sea Security Summit to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. “Given Russia’s monstrous war on Ukraine and its wider aggression in the region, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Black Sea is currently the epicenter of Euro-Atlantic security and global peace,” said Sen. Wicker. “Ukraine must be successful in this war…Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against a neighbor cannot stand.” “Over the last 25 years, a key objective of our bilateral strategic partnership has been to act as partners in enhancing our joint security and promoting the democratic and economic development of the Black Sea region.  The continuation of common decisive action in this regard at the bilateral and multilateral level is more relevant than ever,” said Minister Aurescu. “All along the Black Sea coast lies the first line of defense for the Euro-Atlantic community and the first line of support for our partners in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia.” Prior to the summit, members of the Congressional delegation visited Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, where they received briefings from U.S., Romanian, and other NATO personnel and met with American troops. Delegation members then traveled to Birmingham, UK, for the Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) was Head of the U.S. Delegation to the PA and spearheaded U.S. efforts to forge a strong, unified response from international legislators to Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and its people. “All OSCE parliamentarians must stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues as they battle the Kremlin’s vicious, intolerable war on Ukraine,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “We must do all in our power—through this forum and all others—to ensure that Ukraine is victorious against Russian aggression.” During the Annual Session, parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved a resolution introduced jointly by Sen. Wicker and the heads of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian delegations, responding to Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people and the greater Russian threat to European security. The document “condemns resolutely and unequivocally the ongoing, intensified, clear, gross and still uncorrected violations of Helsinki Principles as well as of fundamental principles of international law by the Government of the Russian Federation in its war of aggression against Ukraine, as well as the complicity of Belarus in this war of aggression, and calls on the governments of OSCE participating States to do the same.” Several members of the U.S. Delegation successfully introduced more than two dozen amendments, designed to keep the focus on Russia’s current aggression, to an array of other resolutions. In Birmingham, the delegation also co-hosted an event highlighting the growing problem of political repression in Russia and Belarus, especially in the context of protesting the war on Ukraine; met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky to discuss his organization’s work to support political prisoners and democracy in Russia; and held bilateral meetings with the UK’s parliamentary leadership, OSCE officials, parliamentarians from other OSCE countries. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) was re-elected to his post as chair of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Following the Annual Session, the congressional delegation stopped in Finland and Sweden to welcome the historic decision of both countries to join the NATO Alliance. In Finland, members met with President Sauli Niinistö, and Finnish parliamentarians including First Deputy Speaker Antti Rinne and OSCE PA Vice President Pia Kauma. In Sweden, they met with Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Deputy Defense Minister Jan Olof-Lin, and a group of members of the Swedish parliament, led by Speaker Andreas Norlén and OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt. In addition to Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Hudson, the Congressional delegation included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. John Garamendi (CA-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. August Pfluger (TX-11) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).

  • Black Sea Security Summit

    On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, convened its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners came together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation.   Co-chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, the summit featured a timely and collaborative exchange exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: confronting Russian aggression and the relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security. The co-chairs were joined by senior-level regional government officials and a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, including Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Joe Wilson, Rep. Richard Hudson, Rep. Ruben Gallego, Rep. John Garamendi, Rep. Robert Aderholt, and Rep. August Pfluger. Other participants included: Romania Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania MP Pavel Popsescu, Member of the Romanian Parliament; Chair, Defense Committee MP Ana Cătăuță, Member of the Romanian Parliament Ukraine Deputy Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Bulgaria Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Georgia First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Ambassador Nikoloz Nikolozishvili, Ambassador of Georgia to Romania Turkey Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO U.S. European Command Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security During the summit, participants underscored the importance of security in the Black Sea littoral in the face of Russian aggression. Deputy Secretary General of NATO, General Mircea Geoanӑ, emphasized the importance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security, stating that the region reflects “broader competition between revisionist and brutal and aggressive Russia and our democratic world.” According to General Geoanӑ, NATO is committed to supporting Ukraine through military, financial, and humanitarian means and providing security in the Black Sea littoral that reestablishes freedom of movement, shipping, and navigation. Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Defense, Yordan Bozhilov noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “has far-reaching destabilization implications at the regional level and beyond,” including the resulting energy and food crises. Georgian First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lasha Darsalia, emphasized the political, economic, and security importance of the Black Sea region to Georgia and highlighted increased security in the region as an opportunity to increase “international cooperation and connectivity.”  He recalled Georgia’s support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, characterizing the invasion of Ukraine as another step in Russia’s malign attempt to control the Black Sea region. U.S. Representative August Pfluger stressed the importance of the Black Sea region to energy security in the pursuit of decreasing dependence on Russian energy. Confronting Russian Aggression Throughout the summit, participants called for increased unity to confront Russian aggression. Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Alexander Goncharenko, requested a stronger NATO and US presence in Ukraine, after powerfully highlighting Ukrainian bravery in the face of Russian hostility. In reference to Russia’s weaponization of Ukrainian grain supply and the expansion of NATO, Gonchareko stated, “It is very good that the free world is finally uniting, but we must show strength. The first place we must show strength is in the Black Sea, as a humanitarian mission, to save millions of people. Thousands are killed in Ukraine, but millions will die from starvation.” Turkish Ambassador to Romania Füsun Aramaz underscored her country’s support of Ukrainian sovereignty. She acknowledged the common security goals of all participants at the summit and desires close alignment with NATO, but warned against over-militarization of the region, citing a potential to violate the Montreux Convention. “More vessels at sea or more fighter aircraft in the air alone do not mean more deterrence or stronger defense,” she stated. U.S. Major General Jessica Meyeraan of the United States European Command explained that the United States is supporting Ukraine by increasing understanding of Ukrainian security assistance requirements and “collaborating across over 40 nations to understand how we can quickly and effectively satisfy those security cooperation requirements.” Minister Aurescu explained that the projects that maintain regional security structures are the result of bilateral relationships between the United States and various littoral states and are essential in the face of Russian aggression and illiberalism that has resulted in regional and global crises. He also called to “increase the scale and visibility of the U.S. presence in the region,” beyond just a military presence through the creation of a multifaceted strategy based on strategic resilience. Rep. Hudson noted that “NATO stands ready” in the face of increasing threats in the region. In addition, Rep. Gallego emphasized the importance of deterrence by denial, clarifying that this sort of offensive is only possible through a completely integrated defensive approach.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • Helsinki Commission to Convene Black Sea Security Summit in Constanta, Romania

    WASHINGTON—On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, will convene its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners will come together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. BLACK SEA SECURITY SUMMIT A Roundtable Dialogue Hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Friday, July 1, 2022 1:00 p.m. (UTC+3) Constanța Art Museum Constanța, Romania Watch Live: https://youtu.be/DZskl6-k6No The Black Sea Security Summit plenary will feature a timely and collaborative exchange across two sessions exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: Session 1: Confronting Russian Aggression Session 2: Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security The Black Sea Security Summit will be chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), who will be joined by a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Regional participants include: Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defense of Ukraine First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Members of the media must email stuparsa@state.gov in advance to attend this event. Preregistration closes Thursday, June 30, at 12:00 p.m. (UTC+3).

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Helsinki Commission Applauds European Commission Recommendation to Grant Ukraine and Moldova Candidate Status

    WASHINGTON—Following the European Commission’s recommendation that Ukraine and Moldova be granted EU candidate status, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We applaud the historic decision of the European Commission to recommend EU candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova. All countries have the sovereign right to choose their own alliances and determine their own foreign policies. The people of Ukraine and Moldova have long cherished the dream of integration with the Euro-Atlantic West. The European Commission’s recommendation rewards their persistent efforts to pursue these aspirations, even in the face of relentless Russian aggression.  “The people of Georgia also have sacrificed much for their European identity over several decades, despite Russian warmongering and the challenges of painful reforms. They have demonstrated that they can rise to the challenge if and when the path is clear.  We believe they too should be offered an equally concrete roadmap to EU membership.  “Ahead of this week’s European Council meeting, we encourage our European friends to grant all three countries candidate status. The path to liberal democracy is never without occasional setbacks and detours, and always in need of vigilance, careful effort, and compromise. We believe candidate status will give all three countries a fighting chance in their common European dream.” On June 17, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia be provided pathways to EU membership and that Ukraine and Moldova be conferred candidate status with conditions. On June 23 – 24, the European Council will make its final decision regarding the three countries’ pending applications for EU membership.

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Welcomes Conclusion of First Round of French Presidential Elections

    WASHINGTON—Following the first round of presidential elections in France on April 10, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “As co-chairman of the bipartisan U.S. Helsinki Commission, I congratulate the French people for making their voices heard on Sunday during the first round of their presidential elections. France is among the world’s most long-standing democracies, America’s oldest ally, and a vital voice in Europe and around the world for our common liberal values. “Those same values are under unprecedented and brutal assault by Russia in Ukraine. As we look ahead to the second round of elections later this month, I am confident that the French people will choose their leaders based on the strength of their principles, and reject apologia and disinformation on behalf of dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “Putin has no principles beyond conquest and banditry, as Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine and its uncivilized campaign of atrocity there attest. The Kremlin’s imperial war in Ukraine is inseparable from the totalitarian regime it has erected at home, along with the destruction of the last vestiges of civil society and press freedom, and its efforts to undermine trust in Western governments—including in great democracies like France. “I have faith in France’s powerful democracy, and offer my warmest wishes to the French people as we continue our rich friendship based on common values and in defiance of tyrants and demagogues.”

  • Helsinki Commission Calls on Russia to Release 'True Patriot' Kara-Murza

    A U.S. human rights monitor is calling for the release of journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition figure who has spoken out against what he has called his government's crackdown on dissent. The U.S. Helsinki Commission on Monday raised alarm over the detention of Kara-Murza in Moscow a month after he outlined the Kremlin's increased use of propaganda and censorship. His arrest is the latest report of authorities attempting to silence critics since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February. "We are alarmed to learn that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Moscow. Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people," the commission said in a statement. "He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately." The commission, a U.S. government agency comprised of members of Congress and representatives from federal agencies, heard testimony from Kara-Murza who described how the Russian government has used disinformation and the growing struggles of independent media outlets. The Russian government in March enacted new restrictions, criminalizing media from using the word "invasion" to describe the conflict in Ukraine. Those who violate them could face up to 15 years in prison. Speaking before the commission, Kara-Murza said that following the invasion, Putin moved swiftly against "what remained of independent media in Russia." Kara-Murza said that within days, authorities shuttered independent outlets, including Echo of Moscow, a radio station where he hosted a weekly program. He also pointed to how the Russian government has blocked access to social media networks. Other news outlets, such as highly respected Novaya Gazeta, ceased publication because of censorship, he said. Calling many Russians "brainwashed," he said many are not even aware of potential war crimes their government is alleged to have committed in Ukraine. "Today, most Russians are in an Orwellian parallel reality created by the Kremlin propaganda machine," Kara-Murza told the commission. "And I mean, Orwellian in the literal sense, what's being said on Russian state television might as well have come out of George Orwell's 1984: 'War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.'" Since Russia's new censorship laws have gone into effect, reports have emerged of students or parents turning in teachers who spoke disapprovingly of the war. Nobel Prize laureate and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, was attacked on a train. Russian authorities have also threatened Wikipedia with a nearly $50,000 fine for refusing to delete "illegal information." Kara-Murza, an author and politician who was repeatedly poisoned, has continued speaking out despite his arrest, making an appearance on MSNBC on Sunday.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest March 2022

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Biden to Designate Ukraine, Georgia as Major Non-NATO Allies

    The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe, has called on the Biden administration to upgrade the United States’ defense relationship with Ukraine. The commission seeks to help facilitate military and economic assistance to Kyiv as Russian forces move to encircle the Ukrainian capital. In a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden obtained by Foreign Policy, the commission urged the administration to designate Ukraine and Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008, as major non-NATO allies (MNNA) and to reinvigorate U.S. support for the NATO accession of both countries.  “Although the United States has consistently supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership, Russia’s occupations and ongoing invasion expose the tragedy of long-stalled Euro-Atlantic enlargement,” wrote the commission, which is led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen. “Absent strong and proactive U.S. backing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to take ample advantage in his aspirations to upend security and cooperation in Europe and his neocolonial agenda,” the letter said. Both Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership to the defense alliance during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008. But despite extensive reform efforts, neither country has been offered a timetable for accession.  The United States has provided billions of dollars of military assistance to Ukraine since it was first invaded by Russia in 2014, with more than $1.2 billion approved over the past year. “This designation is a fair reflection of our current bilateral defense relationships and does not commit the United States to military action,” the commission letter said, which also recommended that the administration consider extending the status to other non-NATO members along Europe’s eastern flank: Finland, Moldova, and Sweden. Much of U.S. military aid for Ukraine has been approved through a range of ad hoc government funding mechanisms. Granting the country MNNA status would open a variety of established channels to facilitate arms transfers, financial assistance, and information sharing, smoothing the way for further cooperation. It would also send a powerful signal of support for both Kyiv and Tbilisi. Unlike NATO membership, MNNA status does not entail any mutual security and defense obligations. On Thursday, the White House announced it would designate Colombia and Qatar as major non-NATO allies, bringing the total number of countries to receive the title up to 19.  The title has usually been reserved for countries with no ambitions or prospects of joining NATO, which prompted the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to express wariness about the designation last year. “MNNA is a status for countries that do not plan/can not force political or geographical reasons to join NATO. This is definitely not about us,” she wrote in a Facebook post.  NATO accession is decided between the 30 members of the alliance, and an MNNA designation by the United States would not necessarily impede Ukraine’s membership prospects.  The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was founded in 1976 as an independent government agency to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a major Cold War-era diplomatic agreement that sought to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West as well as establish human rights and security norms. The commission is made up of 18 members of U.S. Congress drawn from both parties and representatives from the U.S. departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

  • Helsinki Commission Recognizes Key Contributions from Allies and Partners

    WASHINGTON—In light of Russia’s continued criminal war on the peaceful citizens of Ukraine, 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: “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against the Ukrainian people has inspired global outrage and condemnation. Many countries have risen to the moment, especially our Baltic Allies, Poland, and Romania. We also recognize those other OSCE participating States that have taken particular risks and stepped up during this moment of great danger and clear moral purpose.  “We thank the Government of Turkey for its significant and robust support for Ukraine. Turkey has long been among Ukraine’s most ardent and consistent advocates, and its closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to warships from Russia and Ukraine, consistent with the Montreux Convention, effectively supports Ukraine and the cause of European security. Turkey plays an indispensable role as a NATO Ally and strategic linchpin in Europe. We look forward to working closely with our Turkish allies on additional steps to support Ukraine. “We also recognize Moldova for serving as a safe haven for refugees and for its strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To date, on a per capita basis, Moldova has welcomed more refugees than any other country. Despite limited resources and the unlawful presence of Russian troops on its soil, President Maia Sandu and the Government and people of Moldova have shown their mettle. We congratulate Moldova on its European Union application. We see your heroic efforts and will continue to work diligently towards supporting Moldova’s transatlantic aspirations. “In addition, despite initially concerning and confusing statements, we applaud the Government of Georgia for its increasingly robust support for the people of Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s threats and occupation of Georgia’s territory. We are grateful for Georgia’s co-sponsorship of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its participation in a call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes, and the strong statements of support by Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in particular. We congratulate Georgia on its application to the European Union and look forward to doing our part to reinvigorate our bilateral partnership and deepening our transatlantic bond. “We are moving to limit Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbors and will work closely with our friends to navigate this dangerous moment in history.” On February 28, the Turkish government exercised its authority as a custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, per the 1936 Montreux Convention, and closed their use to warring parties in the Black Sea. On March 2, Turkey provided the Ukrainian military with additional Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles. Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova was among the first to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees and hosts more refugees per capita compared to any other European state. Russia illegally maintains a garrison of approximately 1,500 troops on Moldovan territory in Transnistria and supports a separatist government. On March 2, the Government of Georgia co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Georgia joined 37 other countries formally calling for an International Criminal Court investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. 

  • Helsinki Commission Supports Invocation of OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism in the Face of Sustained Human Rights Crisis in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the invocation of the OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism to address the mounting human rights crisis in Belarus, 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: “One year after the release of a comprehensive, unbiased, and damning report detailing human rights abuses by the Lukashenko regime, Lukashenko has not simply failed to act on the report’s recommendations—he has intensified his brutal crackdown on those in Belarus who continue to fight for their fundamental freedoms. “Among its other commitments as an OSCE participating State, Belarus is bound to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections. By invoking the Vienna Mechanism, the United States and 34 other countries demand that the authorities in Belarus finally address the violations raised in the 2020 report and inform the international community about the steps the Lukashenko regime is taking to investigate those serious allegations. Ensuring human rights violators are held to account is of importance to us all.” In September 2020, 17 OSCE participating States, including the United States, invoked the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism to investigate credible accounts of widespread human rights violations perpetrated in the aftermath of Belarus’ fraudulent August 2020 elections. The Moscow Mechanism allows a group of OSCE participating States to appoint independent experts to investigate a particularly serious threat to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in a participating State. On November 5, 2020, the Moscow Mechanism report substantiated numerous allegations of torture and repression and included recommendations and advice for the Government of Belarus, the OSCE, and the international community. Lukashenko’s government failed to cooperate with the investigation. On November 4, 2021, as a follow-up to the 2020 report, 35 OSCE participating States posed detailed questions to the Lukashenko regime via OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism, which obliges participating States to respond to formal requests for information from other States about serious human rights concerns. The commission convened a hearing on human rights in Belarus on September 21, 2021.

  • Experts raise alarm bells in Congress over ‘Europe’s most contested domain’

    With a handful of frozen conflicts, hybrid warfare, rising autocracy, and political instability, the Black Sea region may be Europe’s most volatile and most overlooked. This week, policy experts are testifying in Congress and calling for the United States to step up its involvement in the Black Sea region, a critical geopolitical crossroads where U.S. allies and adversaries coexist. “The region is Europe’s most contested domain,” said Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO who testified to Congress on Wednesday. “It’s where you have the most intense confrontation and the most violent conflict in Europe in the last decade and a half. It’s high time we start addressing what needs to be done to bring greater peace and stability to that region,” Brzezinski told National Journal. Last week, Russian fighter jets intercepted two U.S. bombers over the Black Sea while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Romania, a member of the European Union and a NATO ally that hosts nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemembers. During his trip, Austin also visited two other Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine, a move many saw as a sign that the U.S. was beginning to focus on the region ahead of a key NATO ministerial meeting. High on the agenda during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, however, was the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the West. Despite being part of the Western military alliance, Turkey has consistently opposed strengthening NATO’s presence in the Black Sea and courted Russia, opting to purchase a Russian missile-defense system that military experts say poses a risk to NATO equipment. “We have got to repair our relationship with Turkey. It’s not impossible. Erdoğan is a deal-maker,” said Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant Defense secretary European and NATO policy, who also testified Wednesday. Over the weekend, Erdoğan ordered the country’s Foreign Ministry to declare 10 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, persona non grata after they called for the release of an imprisoned civil-society leader named Osman Kavala. Erdoğan later walked back the statement, but the incident highlighted the volatility of Turkey’s relationship with the West. “Because Turkey is pursuing its own Russia-friendly policy and is often antagonistic towards the U.S., that makes our Black Sea policy so much more difficult,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who argues that NATO allies should be more active in the region. Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the Helsinki Commission, said the U.S. and Turkey share many interests in the Black Sea region but that shouldn’t stop Washington from speaking out on human rights. “Mr. Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist, has been in detention for four years despite being acquitted by a Turkish court," Cardin said in an email. "In their joint statement, the ambassadors simply asked that Turkey adhere to its international obligations and domestic law. “This kind of straight talk is important among NATO allies and did not warrant such a disproportionate response.” Despite the tensions with Turkey, Russia is the primary adversary in the region. Many lawmakers note that Moscow has trampled the rules-based international order by invading its neighbors and propping up separatists to prevent countries along the Black Sea from forming closer ties with the West. Russian forces currently occupy around 20 percent of Georgian territory and support separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in large part to maintain access to the Black Sea—and support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, said she convened Wednesday’s hearing to learn how lawmakers can holistically approach the region to address patterns of Russian encroachment. “Over the last two decades, the Black Sea has become an increasingly important region for Russia, which has repeatedly disregarded international norms to expand control of the region, waging war and deploying illegal and belligerent tactics to secure these goals,” Shaheen told National Journal. “Russia has made it clear that it is willing to exert economic, military, and political power to thwart NATO expansion and expand its control in the Black Sea.” Experts are arriving in Congress with a laundry list of recommendations, including building up Bulgaria's and Romania’s navies, sending brigade combat teams to both countries, investing in initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, and providing Ukraine with more lethal weaponry. Some are advocating for the creation of a NATO readiness action plan for the Black Sea, and for moving forward with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are angling to join the Western military alliance. Still, the alliance’s commitment to collective defense prevents countries already in a state of conflict from entering, a fact that Russia exploits. Because Georgia is not yet a NATO member, the U.S. recently renewed a six-year security pact with Tbilisi designed to bolster the defense capabilities of the country’s military. The U.S. is moving away from training battalions in Georgia and will focus instead on building sustainable institutional capabilities at the executive levels of the military. Still, experts warn that nearly all the countries in the region are dealing with political instability, Russian interference, or both. Georgia, heading for a second round of local elections on Saturday, has been accused of Democratic backsliding. Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members, are also in contentious election cycles and debates over government formation that will determine their future political trajectories. Ruslan Trad, an author researching Russian influence in Bulgaria, told National Journal there are several popular pro-Russian political movements in Bulgaria. Russian spies are active in the country and allegedly monitored European Union leaders during their visits. There’s also an urgent need to counter Russian disinformation and anti-NATO propaganda in the country, Trad said. What’s most important, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to have a robust strategy for the entire region. “Having a strategy for the region has to be the first priority because then you can develop the right policies for each of the countries in the region,” Hodges said. The Biden administration is now working on a global-force-posture review, which should shed light on U.S. policy towards the region, and the State Department is also developing a Black Sea strategy. Alina Polyakova, the president of CEPA and another witness in Wednesday’s hearing, said it would be important to pinpoint the specific areas in which each partner country in the region can contribute to broader security. “The Black Sea region is critical to broader transatlantic stability,” Polyakova told senators. “It is where Russia, Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus come together, and it’s also the locus of the Kremlin’s test of the alliance’s credibility and resolve.”

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

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