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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  • Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Represents US at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Also Visits Ukraine, Czech Republic

    Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act established the precursor to today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Helsinki to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Led by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), the bicameral, bipartisan delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission included Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ- 04); House Commissioners Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Alan Grayson (FL-09); and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Michael Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-07). Before attending the Annual Session from July 5 to 7, several members of the delegation also visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic. A central concern to the delegation throughout the trip was Russia’s restrictions on democracy at home and aggression in Ukraine, along with Russia’s threat to European security.

  • Foreign Fighters: The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia

    This hearing focused on ISIL and their wave of violence that has swept brutally through northern Iraq and across Syria- many of those who took part in the offensive were foreign fighters. The hearing looked into the Nations Security Council recent estimation that at least 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 100 countries have joined ranks with this brutal terrorist organization. The hearing explores key economic and social factors to determine what may be incentivising international fighters to join such a brutal group. Also the Commissioners and witness examined measures in which the U.S. government and OSCE member states can take to contain ISIL, including counteracting radicalization of potential foreign fighters, inhibiting the travel of recruits and volunteers to the Middle East, disrupting financial support to fighters and their families and preventing their return to their home countries.

  • Rep. Smith Chairs Helsinki Commission Hearing on Armenian Genocide

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers examined denialism of the Armenian Genocide by the Government of Turkey and the decades-long effort to seek accountability.  “The Armenian genocide is the only genocide of the 20th century in which a nation that was decimated by genocide has been subject to the ongoing outrage of a massive campaign of genocide denial, openly sustained by state authority,” said Smith, who called today’s hearing and chaired Congress’s first-ever hearing on the Armenian Genocide in 2000. “Sadly, the Turkish government has driven this campaign of denial, and has done so over a course of decades.” Smith continued, “I must respond to President Obama. On Tuesday his aides met with Armenian leaders and made it clear that once again he will not recognize the Armenian genocide. This is in direct contradiction to the promises he made before becoming president—and in order to become president.  “While a candidate, in 2008 the President made passionate statements in support of genocide recognition… these are beautiful words which echo hollowly today,” Smith said. “The president’s abandonment of this commitment is unconscionable and cynical. With Germany and the EU lining up to do the right thing, our government needs to do likewise. Sadly, after the President’s powerful promise, he is following, not leading – or rather, we are not even following.” Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the sustained campaign of the Turkish government to deny the Armenian genocide and its impact on Armenian-Turkish relations and foreign policy in the region. “Turkey’s denialism of its past and making it an essential part of its foreign policy is not simply a moral abomination; it represents a threat to democracy, stability and security, not only in Turkey but in the region too,” testified Dr. Taner Akçam, a Turkish scholar who holds the chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University. “The refusal [of the U.S.] to recognize past injustices is fundamentally undemocratic and contributes to the destabilization of Turkey and the region. How can the United States, which prides itself on its exceptionalism in supporting liberal values and human rights at home and across the world, justify a position at odds with its own democratic values?” “Far too often, over the past several decades, under Turkey's arm-twisting here in Washington, DC, official discussions of the Armenian Genocide were framed in denialist terms, on the basis of Ankara's artificially contrived ‘debate’ about whether there was an Armenian Genocide,” said Kenneth Hachikian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America. “Turkey's denial of truth and justice for the Armenian Genocide remains the central issue between Turks and Armenians, the one that must be openly acknowledged, honestly discussed, and fairly resolved for there to be real, sustained progress in relations between these two nations.”  “How did denial start and how did it last as long as it has?  The answer is simple—successive Turkish governments have used the issue to instill fear, promote racism, distract their population from the truth, and avoid progress,” said Van Krikorian, co-chairman of the board of trustees of the Armenian Assembly of America. “Having re-written their own history, they are now afraid to tell the truth as they will lose votes and risk power. Tragically, this pattern has found accomplices, as Turkish leaders have openly threatened countries which do not deny the Armenian Genocide.  Those who bend to bullying continue to be bullied. Those who do not, show honor and backbone.” Additional witnesses who testified at the hearing, “A Century of Denial: Armenian Genocide and the Ongoing Quest for Justice,” included Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, visiting associate professor of conflict resolution at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, and Mrs. Karine Shnorhokian, representative of the Genocide Education Project.

  • A Century of Denial: The Armenian Genocide and the Ongoing Quest for Justice

    At this hearing, Chairman Chris Smith and other lawmakers examined denialism of the Armenian Genocide by the Government of Turkey and the decades-long effort to seek accountability. The hearing also provided an opportunity to assess potential countercurrents in Turkish society that could move the Government of Turkey toward recognition, and explore what the United States and other countries can do to help bring about recognition and eventually, reconciliation. Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the sustained campaign of the Turkish government to deny the Armenian genocide and its impact on Armenian-Turkish relations and foreign policy in the region. Turkey’s denialism of its past and making it an essential part of its foreign policy was identified as a threat to democracy, stability, and security in the entire region.

  • Smith: U.S. Must End Its Denial of Armenian Genocide

    Genocide is the most terrible crime a people can undergo, or another people can commit. It must never be forgotten. To forget it would be to dull our consciences and diminish our own humanity. It must never be denied, but fully acknowledged. Otherwise, any meaningful attempt at reconciliation will be thwarted. Brookdale College, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (Chhange), and everyone who contributed to making exhibits the center unveiled April 12 a reality, has performed a great service to our community, not only to Armenian-Americans, but to everyone, including those who deny the genocide. They are opening paths to the truth, and therefore to a better future. In September 2000, I had put together and chaired a hearing on the Armenian genocide and legislation to finally put the United States on record officially acknowledging it. It was a four-hour hearing, the first hearing the House of Representatives ever held on it. The testimony I heard that day, and accounts of the atrocities I have read in the articles and books over the years, have shocked me deeply. A related resolution on the genocide, H. Res. 398 — vigorously opposed by the Clinton administration — never got a vote. But just as shocking then is what we still see today: a completely political and callous campaign to deny the Armenian genocide. In 1915, there were about 2 million Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire. They were living in a region that they inhabited for 2,500 years. By 1923, well over 90 percent of these Armenians had disappeared. Most of them, as many as 1.5 million were dead. The remainder had been forced into exile. There is no lack of historical record. In fact, we only have to listen to the words of the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgenthau, who called it a "campaign of race extermination." We only have to listen to the British, French, and Russian governments who said the Young Turks committed a "crime against humanity," the first time in history that charge was ever made by one state against another. And we only have to listen to the government of Turkey itself, which tried and convicted a number of high-ranking Young Turk officials for their role in what the Turkish government's indictment called, "the massacre and destruction of the Armenians." When the term genocide was invented in 1944 to describe the systematic destruction of an entire people, its author Raphael Lemkin explained the term by saying it was "the sort of thing Hitler did to the Jews and the Turks did to the Armenians." The campaign to deny this genocide, often driven by the Turkish government, is repulsive. It is a slap in the face to Armenians everywhere. It is this denial that keeps the Armenian genocide a burning issue and prevents much needed healing of old wounds. Armenians are unfortunately not alone in suffering the hurt and pain that stems from the denial of truth. The international community failed the victims of the Holocaust, China, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bosnia, DRC, Darfur and Syria, to name a few. That means that we here in the United States, and that means not only the Congress but also the president, have the responsibility to speak truthfully and to speak boldly about the past in order to secure our future. We must write and speak the truth so that generations to come will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Only 20 nations around the world have recognized the Armenian genocide. That includes Canada as well as eleven EU countries including France, Germany Italy, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Greece and Cypress. Conspicuously absent from the list of nations that have officially recognized it is the United States. For my part, I am preparing to chair a congressional hearing on April 23 — the day before Armenian Remembrance Day (April 24) — which this year marks the 100th anniversary of the genocide. When political leaders fail to lead or denounce violence, the void is not only demoralizing to the victims but silence actually enables the wrongdoing. Silence by elected officials in particular conveys approval — or at least acquiescence —and can contribute to a climate of fear and a sense of vulnerability. History has taught us that silence is not an option. We must do more. Chris Smith is a Republican congressman representing New Jersey's 4th District, which includes portions of Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties.

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