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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  • What’s Washington’s role in Belarus?

    The United States should lift up Belarusian civil society, according to experts, and slap tougher sanctions on mid-level government officials abusing protestors. The Trump administration should widen sanctions against human-rights abusers in Belarus and ramp up support for civil-society groups monitoring president Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown, according to former State and Treasury department officials. Lukashenko purged his political opponents from the ballot in mid-August and unleashed security forces against civilians protesting the election. The crackdown has not cowed Lukashenko’s opponents, who have called for his ouster every weekend for the past two months. Over 100,000 people protested in Minsk on Sunday. The United States penalized senior members of Lukashenko’s inner-circle last week in an effort to push the embattled leader to negotiate. The State Department announced in September that the United States no longer recognizes Lukashenko’s government, and coordinated the sanctions with wider penalties from Europe. Both the Trump administration and European Union officials could be doing more to support the protestors, experts told National Journal. “I think both the U.S. and the EU need to go much further than they have so far, in terms of the number of people that they sanction,” said Michael Carpenter, director at the Penn Biden Center, who called for sanctions against “mid-level” Belarusian officials directly responsible for the human-rights abuses. Belarus-specific sanctions date to the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, and a Bush-era executive order that sets out guidelines for penalizing officials responsible for undermining democracy. Lawmakers added further penalties in 2011. The Trump administration targeted eight people Friday, including the head of Belarus’s elections and the chief of Belarus’s security forces, and the European Union sanctioned 40 people. The United Kingdom and Canada also announced sanctions over the weekend, including against Lukashenko himself. The sanctions are only one part of Belarus policy, experts stressed, which is ultimately supposed to push Lukashenko to negotiate. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mediate the negotiations on Tuesday. Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, predicted that Merkel would take up the challenge—but would have to act quickly. Russian President Vladimir Putin might accuse the EU of meddling in Belarus’ government should the talks drag, Dempsey told National Journal. “If Merkel does take on this mediating role, it’s got to be incredibly sophisticated and it’s got to be very fast,” said Dempsey. The United States may not play a direct role in mediating the talks, but the Trump administration might put more pressure on Lukashenko by targeting mid-level officials inside his government. Former State Department sanctions coordinator Daniel Fried told National Journal that the State Department and OFAC could craft an executive order to authorize “status-based” penalties: those which authorize Treasury to target specific people based on their employment. Officials could then work with Belarusian civil society to identify targets, like “the plainclothes cops roughing up dissidents.” “Putting this into legislation is hard as hell, and then it’s not as flexible,” said Fried. “It’s far better to let OFAC do it, in coordination with the State Department.” Lawmakers have remained largely hands-off on Belarus, besides offering statements in support of those protesting against Lukashenko. In July, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the arrest of opposition candidates and political protesters. The chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee separately called out Lukashenko’s handling of the election in early August, and later in the month issued a joint statement calling for sanctions against those responsible for human-rights abuses. The upper chamber might support Belarus policy by advancing Trump’s ambassadorial nominee to Belarus, several former officials and experts told National Journal. The United States and Belarus haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2008. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced career State Department official Julie Fisher favorably out of committee in late September. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy voted against the nomination, and argued that sending the ambassador to Belarus during the crackdown would reward Lukashenko. Some experts disagreed, and said having an ambassador in Minsk could help the United States coordinate policy with civil-society groups and would send an important signal to domestic opposition. Sen. James Risch told Murphy that the State Department believed having an ambassador to Minsk was “the best way to help the Belarusian people.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not respond to emailed questions about Fisher’s nomination; Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesperson Suzanne Wrasse told National Journal that McConnell has “a number of priorities,” and that ambassadorial nominations were “on the list.” While former officials agreed that ramping up support for civil society groups and sanctioning mid-level Belarusian officials could be effective at prodding Lukashenko to negotiate, they disagreed over whether also to target large state-owned firms that form the backbone of the Belarusian economy. Carpenter, Fried, and other former Obama administration officials suggested that penalizing the companies could end up hurting protestors, many of whom work on the factory floors. The Lukashenko government has close ties with heavy industry, however, and a few lawmakers told National Journal they support lifting waivers granting them access to the U.S. market. Rep. Alcee Hastings asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in mid-August to cancel sanctions waivers for several Belarusian companies. Hastings led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election-monitoring mission for Belarus’s 2006 presidential election, and now heads the Helsinki Commission, a congressionally-created agency that coordinates OSCE policy on Capitol Hill. The Treasury Department has not responded to Hastings’ letter. “Providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system is unacceptable, and the sanctions announced on individuals last week by the Treasury Department are a step in the right direction,” said Hastings in a statement to National Journal. “However, Lukashenko himself has long been a prime candidate for Global Magnitsky sanctions, and failing to include him among the sanctioned individuals is a severe oversight.” Last fall, the state-owned Belarusian oil company Belneftekhim retained lobbyist David Gencarelli to push for the continuation of a licensing exemption allowing the company to purchase “crude oil with delivery to the refineries in the Republic of Belarus.” The Treasury Department extended relief to Belneftekhim and other heavy-industry players, giving them continued access to the American market until April 2021. “What we’ve seen over the years with Lukashenko is he’s a very skillful player juggling between the U.S. and Europe, which is a natural market for Belarus, and Russia,” said Sofya Orlosky, senior program manager for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. The EU has similarly sought to keep Lukashenko from sliding into Putin’s orbit, periodically lifting and reimposing sanctions on his government for human-rights abuses. The bloc suspended financial penalties in 2016 after Lukashenko granted “amnesty” to a number of political prisoners, which Orlosky said normalized Lukashenko’s undemocratic behavior. “There’s been, as it were, a limit to the severity of sanctions in the past, because the argument was made at least implicitly that we don’t want to alienate Belarus too much or throw them into Russia’s arms,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus. The Trump administration has pursued normalization with Minsk for the past several years, prior to Lukashenko’s crackdown. The State Department’s top political official, David Hale, met with Lukashenko in Minsk in September 2019, and stated afterward that the U.S. was ready to exchange ambassadors “as the next step in normalizing our relationship.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February for the same purpose. The difference now, according to Gould-Davies: The legitimacy of Lukashenko’s regime “is basically broken.” Very few people support the government, aside from people working directly for the state, which undercuts calls for moderation in the West. “He enjoys no significant support outside of those who actually work for the state,” said Gould-Davies.

  • U.S., EU Sanction Belarus in Coordinated Western Action

    Lukashenko government lashes out, saying no ‘self-respecting’ state would agree to demands posed by the West. The U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus officials on Friday, part of a coordinated effort by Western allies to censure the authoritarian regime over accusations of political repression and rigging elections. The EU reached an early morning deal to advance a sanctions package against more than three dozen Belarusian individuals deemed responsible for suppressing protests and for election fraud. Hours later, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted eight senior figures in longtime President Alexander Lukashenko’s government or associated with his rule. Among those blacklisted were Interior Minister Yuriy Khadzymuratavich Kareau and top election commission officials. The EU’s action against Belarus, together with a joint statement reprimanding Turkey for drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece, was meant as a broader message of mounting concern that Europe’s eastern periphery, a region that once held hopes for a spread of democracy, is increasingly turning back to its authoritarian past. Divisions within the EU stymied an attempt to sanction Turkey during a summit this week, but officials said the bloc could approve punitive actions in the future. The EU was able to move forward with its Belarus sanctions package, originally promised in August, after Greece and Cyprus secured the statement calling for Turkey to halt its drilling. While the U.S. sanctioned Mr. Lukashenko in 2006, the EU declined for now to include the Belarussian leader himself in their action. Officials said the president, who previously was the subject of EU sanctions that were lifted in 2016, still could be targeted again later. The EU sanctions came into effect Friday afternoon. Mr Lukashenko’s interior minister was also one of the highest-profile names on the EU sanctions list. The Belarus foreign ministry condemned the sanctions and said the government also enacted its own sanctions list, which won’t be made public. It said it may also reconsider its participation in joint programs with the EU and could cut diplomatic ties if further EU sanctions are levied. “The sanctions were introduced as a punitive measure…for the fact that Belarus did not comply with a set of ultimatum requirements that no self-respecting sovereign state would satisfy,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. The statement didn’t address the specific allegations of election-rigging and violent political repression. The U.S. and EU sanctions follow the imposition of sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko and seven senior figures in his government by the U.K. and Canada on Tuesday, a sign of widening discontent in the West over ongoing repression of peaceful protests against his purported victory in a disputed election. Western officials have accused Mr. Lukashenko and his allies of multiple human rights violations in detaining and allegedly torturing protesters following the Aug. 9 vote, which Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents and Western governments say was rigged in his favor to extend his more than a quarter-century in power. The EU has called for a rerun of the presidential elections with international supervision. It has warned it could add additional sanctions if Mr. Lukashenko refuses to enter dialogue with the opposition. The U.S. sanctions targeted officials the Treasury Department said run government offices responsible for the political repression, human rights abuses and election fixing. Besides the top two Interior Ministry officials, the Treasury also blacklisted the two leaders of Interior’s Internal Troops, Yuriy Henadzievich Nazaranka and Khazalbek Bakhtsibekavich Atabekau. “The Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations to choose their own leaders and peacefully exercise their rights have been met with violence and oppression from Belarusian officials,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The Trump administration declined for now to revoke a special license giving the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus access to the U.S. financial system, as urged by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a government body that advises administrations on sanctions. While the EU’s Belarus sanctions had broad support, the bloc has been deeply split over how to respond to Turkey’s increasingly frequent flexing of military muscle in the region, including its unilateral moves to explore and drill for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey says it has the right to seek energy resources in the region. With respect to Turkey, the EU leaders settled on diplomacy for now, issuing the joint statement but threatening sanctions if Ankara didn’t show willingness to improve ties. Western diplomats said tensions between Ankara and Athens this summer rose to levels not seen since the 1970s, when Turkey and Greece came close to a direct military conflict over Cyprus. Greece and Turkey are North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. However, Turkey has for now suspended its energy activities in waters claimed by Greece but not by Cyprus. Separately, Turkey and Greece reached an agreement Thursday, mediated by NATO, to take measures to avoid an air or naval clash in the eastern Mediterranean, including a hotline between the two countries. European diplomats have also grown alarmed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to send troops into Libya and Syria, its unconditional support for Azerbaijan in renewed fighting with Armenia and its acquisition of advanced weaponry from Russia. On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said France had clear evidence that jihadist fighters were leaving Syria to go to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh via Turkey. Mr. Macron had earlier criticized Ankara for what he called its bellicose comments against Armenia over its conflict with Azerbaijan. —Ann Simmons in Moscow contributed to this article.

  • Hastings, Wicker, and Hudson Call For De-Escalation of Nagorno-Karabakh Fighting

    WASHINGTON—After a major outbreak of violence between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces Sunday in Nagorno-Karabakh, Helsinki Commission leaders Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) deplored the loss of life on both sides and called for the immediate cessation of violence and resumption of negotiations. “I am deeply concerned about the resumption in fighting between the sides, and the needless suffering it is once again inflicting on civilians,” said Chairman Hastings. “The sides must immediately cease hostilities and return to the positions held prior to Sunday’s events, in order to de-escalate the situation.” “This renewed outbreak of hostilities is a serious threat to regional stability. I hope it will not spark a broader confrontation,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Outside parties should not exacerbate the situation by intervening in the violence.” “The sides must use the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group to find a solution to this conflict,” said Rep. Hudson, who also chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “There is no alternative to a peaceful negotiated solution of the conflict. We in the United States intend to maintain our efforts to work with the sides to settle the conflict peacefully and sustainably.” Heavy fighting broke out Sunday between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the line of contact separating the sides in the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The exchange of air strikes, rocket attacks, and artillery fire killed dozens of soldiers and civilians and injured more than a hundred, marking the worst fighting since 2016. Armenian forces occupy most of Nagorno-Karabakh and all or part of seven surrounding Azerbaijani provinces, all within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized boundaries. The sides fought a war in the early 1990s over the fate of the historically Armenian-majority enclave following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending in a 1994 ceasefire that governs the conflict today. Since the late 1990s, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the OSCE Minsk Group process, the international format dedicated to facilitating a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

  • ONGOING TRANSATLANTIC ENGAGEMENT THROUGH THE OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY

    Mr. HUDSON. Madam Speaker, I rise today to highlight my recent efforts to engage with our allies across Europe to address the current political turmoil in Belarus and seek a way forward. On September 23, I joined a video call of the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), where I serve as Chairman the Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Joining us for the discussion were the Head of the Belarusian delegation to the OSCE PA, Mr. Andrei Savinykh, and the leader of the Belarusian opposition and former presidential candidate, Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Ms. Tikhanovskaya shared with us the long struggle of the people of Belarus for their rights under President Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year authoritarian rule. The fraudulent presidential election on August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed he ``won'' with over 80 percent of the vote, led thousands of Belarusians across the country to come out into the streets. They risk physical harm and imprisonment to demand free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. Unfortunately, these individuals have been met with brute force from the authoritarian regime. They continue to injure and detain protestors, journalists, and even bystanders on a massive scale. Instances of torture in detention have been reported, and some have been killed. Lukashenko is clearly afraid for his political future. In another desperate move, he recently held an illegal, early "inauguration'' in an attempt to consolidate his illegitimate power. I strongly condemned Lukashenko's violent repression of Belarusians and express solidarity for their desire to choose their own leadership in a democratic and transparent manner and to exercise their fundamental freedoms without fear of violent repercussions or harassment. During our meeting, I noted two particular cases that we in the United States are watching closely. U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov, who was in Belarus visiting family, was unjustly detained in July and languishes in a Belarusian prison since the end of July. We are concerned for his welfare and I called for his release. I also mentioned that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mogilev, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, has been denied re-entry to Belarus after a visit abroad, even though he is a citizen. He has openly criticized the government's use of violence against peaceful people, including the detention of priests and clergy, and we fear that this too is a political act on the part of Lukashenko and an infringement on religious freedom. The future of Belarus belongs to its people, and, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized, this path should be ``free from external intervention.'' Indeed, my colleagues in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly understand that it is not our place to choose the leadership of Belarus, but to use the unique role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as a representative body to foster authentic dialogue, prevent and resolve conflict, and hold each other accountable. As an OSCE participating State, Belarus has an obligation to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, including those on human rights and fundamental freedoms. I am pleased that 17 participating States of the OSCE, including the United States, have invoked the Moscow Mechanism, which will establish a mission of independent experts to look into the particularly serious threats to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in Belarus. The report that the mission issues will hopefully offer us greater insight into the situation in Belarus and recommendations for future actions. It is a privilege, through the U.S. Helsinki Commission, to represent the United States Congress in the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. The Parliamentary Assembly provides Members of Congress with a unique, bipartisan opportunity to work with our friends and allies to help resolve pressing global issues while promoting our shared values. Because the Parliamentary Assembly includes representatives of Belarus and our European allies, it is uniquely suited to address the human rights and security implications of the moment in Belarus. Madam Speaker, please join me today in calling for an end to violence and mass detentions in Belarus and recognizing the importance of continued Congressional engagement with the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE.

  • Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: ALBANIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Responding to the Multiple Challenges of 2020 Thursday, September 17, 2020 1:00 p.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2020, Albania holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—with a multi-dimensional mandate and a 57-country membership stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. This year, the OSCE has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic and the clear urgency of action against racism, while maintaining its necessary focus on other longtime concerns often impacted by these developments.  These concerns include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine and threats to other nearby or neighboring countries; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and political leaders in Belarus as well as in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and other OSCE countries seeking to undermine democratic institutions and stifle dissent in every sector.  Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Vulnerable communities, including migrants, are targets of discrimination and violence.  Uncertainties in the Western Balkans and Central Asia remain.  The recent decision of some countries to block reappointments of senior officers at key OSCE institutions undermines the organization at a time when effective contributions to security and cooperation across the region are so deeply needed. The Helsinki Commission regularly holds a hearing allowing the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to present its priorities for the year and to exchange views on current issues. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who holds his country’s foreign affairs portfolio, will appear at this hearing to discuss the performance of the OSCE thus far in 2020 and to share his views in advance of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting scheduled for early December.

  • Chairman Hastings Asks Treasury Secretary to Revoke Access to U.S. Financial System for Largest State-Owned Companies in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. The letter, which follows the violent suppression of peaceful protests in Belarus after the country’s fraudulent presidential election on August 9, reads in part: “As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime… “Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to [Belarus’] March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action.” During the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, Chairman Hastings led the OSCE’s short-term international election observation mission of more than 500 observers; its report noted that the “arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition.” The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, I request that you revoke General License No. 2G with respect to Executive Order 13405, which authorizes access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus.  As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime. For the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, I served as Special Coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chair-in-Office, where I led the international election observation mission of more than 500 observers and declared that those elections were not free and fair.  At that time, President Lukashenko failed to live up to international commitments by arbitrarily preventing 19 international observers from joining the mission, enforcing a pattern of intimidation against voters and opposition candidates, as well as manipulating state media.  I am sad to see that nothing has changed in more than a decade and the reach of President Lukashenko’s regime has consequently done even more irreparable damage to the Belarusian people. Ahead of Belarus’ presidential election on August 9, Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has once again authorized crackdowns on opposition protestors, journalists, and civil society activists.  Over 1,300 people were arbitrarily detained in the course of the campaign.  Still more are being detained in protests following the election.  The president disqualified or jailed his top three competitors, hoping to ensure victory.  Belarus also failed to extend a timely invitation to international observers, preventing impartial monitors from the OSCE from observing the election process, which increases the likelihood of large-scale fraud. Lukashenko underestimated, however, how much the public would rally around the wife of an intended presidential candidate who was unjustly imprisoned.  As an opposition candidate and everyday citizen concerned for the future of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has mobilized thousands across Belarus to demand change in their country, starting with free and fair elections.  Tikhanovskaya and her family are now safely in refuge under the protection of the Lithuanian government for fear of what might become of them now that the fraudulent election results have been announced. Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to the aforementioned March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action. The people of Belarus have demonstrated through these protests their deep desire for democracy and their refusal to be silenced.  It is incumbent upon us to stand with them.  At the very least, this means that we should not be inadvertently providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system. Sincerely, Alcee L. Hastings Chairman

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

    As we mark the 45th anniversary of the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ideals of democracy that had been advanced by that pact—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and civil liberties—are under threat. In 1975, Soviet totalitarianism was the great threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms; today, authoritarianism poses a growing threat to human dignity and rights in the region. Authoritarianism is a fact of life in much of Eurasia, a reflection of the actual worldwide tension between countries defending universal human rights obligations and countries attempting to undermine trust in democratic institutions and promote an authoritarian model. This is true not only in repressive nations like Russia; even among some U.S. partner countries, there are warning signs. Some nations have also taken it upon themselves to block vital leadership roles in international institutions during a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in a century. The ultimate outcome of this conflict is up to us. Liberty and human rights will prevail, but only if freedom-loving people everywhere join together to defend and preserve human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Many international institutions dedicated to freedom and human rights were founded with U.S. support in the wake of World War II, in which more than a million U.S. citizens were either killed or wounded and trillions of dollars spent on the effort to defeat fascism. Democratic ideals are ingrained in the founding charters that established those organizations. For nearly 75 years, such institutions have consistently served as a bulwark against totalitarianism, communism, terrorism, and other forms of tyranny; limited conflict among nations; helped raise millions out of poverty; and spread democratic values throughout the world. The OSCE grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 political agreement among the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and other European nations. Signed by both democratic and communist regimes, the Final Act acknowledged openly that respect for human rights within states is crucial to security among states, and that human rights concerns could legitimately be raised among signatories. Today, the OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization, encompassing 57 countries in Europe, as well as the United States and Canada.  It includes Russia, Ukraine, and many other successors of the former Soviet Union, reaching as far east as Central Asia and Mongolia, and north beyond the Arctic Circle. The phrase “Vancouver to Vladivostok” accurately describes the organization’s reach. With its “comprehensive concept of security,” the OSCE addresses military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and takes steps to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among its members. The OSCE also supports the democratic development of nations that gained or regained independence in the post-Cold War period and are still finding their footing, often torn between corruption and the promise of a democratic future. Thirteen OSCE field missions operate in member countries seeking assistance in developing their democratic institutions. The OSCE recognizes and supports the important role played by civil society and the media in holding governments to account for blatant human rights violations and abuses of power. Unprecedented Gap in OSCE Leadership OSCE institutions—including its assembly of national legislators—foster an essential defense against the spread of authoritarianism. However, despite its comprehensive vision, we are now faced with an unprecedented gap in leadership at the OSCE due to the block on the extension of mandates for four senior leaders, including the Secretary General. Each week, the OSCE Permanent Council—comprising ambassadors to the OSCE from each participating State—meets in Vienna, Austria. In this forum, the United States seeks to shine a light on contraventions of States’ OSCE tenets and violations of international law. The OSCE independent institutions, like the field missions, carry those messages forward.  In addition to the organization’s other work defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) manages the OSCE’s election observation missions, internationally recognized as the “gold standard” for their methodology. Other independent offices lead the OSCE’s work on Freedom of the Media and rights of national minorities. Unfortunately, in July, these vital institutions were deprived of strong and consistent leadership by countries—including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—that seem intent on attempting to weaken the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermining the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are partners in bringing American leadership to support the OSCE’s work. Several times each year,  members of Congress—including lawmakers serving on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which monitors implementation of the Helsinki Accords  —gather at meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where they secure political commitments and build mutually beneficial relationships among legislators from the OSCE’s participating States to help push back against anti-democratic actions by national governments. Unfortunately, several OSCE participating States—countries that have repeatedly committed to upholding the principles and values enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act— are exhibiting a troubling slide toward authoritarianism. The United States and our democratic allies have criticized efforts to restrict and persecute journalists, human rights defenders, civil society, members of the political opposition, and members of ethnic and religious minorities. We also have jointly criticized efforts to stifle media freedom and limit political pluralism in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as raised concerns about media consolidation in Hungary, and limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press elsewhere. Russia’s Destabilizing Actions No OSCE participating State bears more responsibility for fomenting mistrust, insecurity, corruption, and human rights violations and abuses in this region than the Russian Federation. Russia’s destabilizing actions contravene all 10 Helsinki Final Act principles, ranging from respect for human rights to the prohibition of military incursions into neighboring countries. Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including its purported annexation of Crimea. The proxy forces Russia arms, trains, leads, and fights alongside in eastern Ukraine make it dangerous for the unarmed OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to fulfill its Permanent Council-approved mandate to monitor the conflict. Russia uses its resources—economic, political, informational, and military—to defeat freedom and democracy. Russia does not rely on military force alone to threaten democratic governance; it also uses hybrid tactics daily, ranging from cyber intrusions to influence campaigns — aimed at undermining democratic elections. We hope that someday, authoritarian countries like Russia will start behaving again according to the rules of international law. Unfortunately, these countries currently reject the values of democracy, liberty, and human rights. The authoritarian regimes view democracy as an existential threat—hence the actions some of them have taken to restrict the OSCE’s ability to do its work.  The struggle today is between those who believe authoritarianism is the right way forward and those of us who still believe that Thomas Jefferson was right in his declaration that the desire for freedom exists within the heart of every human being. In a hyper-connected modern world in which disinformation becomes an ever more powerful weapon and the divisions within free societies are exploited by malign actors, U.S. membership in organizations like the OSCE emphasizes clearly, openly, and emphatically that America will not cede the field to the authoritarian regimes. We will not allow them to be the ones to dictate what is truth and what is fiction. Human Rights and Ideals Just as Valid in 2020 Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy. By raising our voices, we remind allies and adversaries alike that the United States remains engaged and committed to what is fair, what is right, and what is true. Together, our U.S. Mission to the OSCE and the U.S. Helsinki Commission remind allies and adversaries alike that America will not ignore regimes that are actively hostile to our values and see our liberty as an existential threat. We will always prioritize respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defend the principles of liberty, and encourage tolerance within societies, because such efforts are vital to the promotion of democracy and to U.S. national security. We reject the authoritarian notion that our fundamental freedoms are a weakness. They are our greatest strength. The United States and other like-minded countries use the power of the OSCE to show that human rights and ideals are just as valid in 2020 as they were in 1975, when the Helsinki Accords were signed. These rights not only ensure the physical, economic, and mental wellbeing of all our populations, they make the countries’ governments stronger by building legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. America’s unwavering support of these values through multilateral organizations like the OSCE remains vital. As noted in the Trump administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy, “Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens.  If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.” The OSCE deserves to be recognized by the people of both the United States and our allies and partners as a valuable tool in the fight against autocracy. We must not abandon it by leaving its most important institutions without leadership beyond its 45th anniversary. Instead, through our efforts, and those of our allies and partners in the OSCE, we must continue to defend liberty and human rights in our region and provide a beacon of hope for citizens everywhere who aspire to a free and democratic future.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Condemns Fraudulent Election Results, Violence Against Protesters In Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the August 9 presidential election in Belarus and ongoing violence against protesters across the country, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “From the earliest stages of campaigning, Alexander Lukashenko has ruthlessly suppressed his political opponents, independent media, and ordinary citizens advocating for change. This electoral 'victory' was accomplished through blatant manipulation and fraud, as well as threats and violence. The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” In June and July 2020, longtime president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested in the lead-up to the election. Belarus’ Central Election Commission stated on August 9 that more than 80 percent of voters voted for Lukashenko, with opposition candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies, receiving about 10 percent of the vote. Experts consider these numbers to be highly inaccurate. Following the election, protests across Belarus have been marked by mobile internet shutdowns, police violence, and mass arrests. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994.

  • Hastings: Petty Parochialism Denies OSCE Vital Leadership During Global Crisis

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s failure of OSCE representatives to renew the mandates of four leadership positions—the OSCE Secretary General, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “We are in trouble when petty parochialism denies us vital leadership in the midst of a global crisis. Now more than ever, reliable multilateral institutions are needed to forge solutions during and after the current pandemic.  “Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and other OSCE participating States who have blocked consensus on extending dedicated public servants should be ashamed of themselves. History will show the folly of abandoning essential leadership for cooperation.” Negotiations to renew each mandate collapsed in part in response to the written objections of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey, and the subsequent withholding of consensus by other participating States. Even efforts to devise interim extensions failed, leaving vital OSCE leadership positions vacant during an unprecedented global crisis. The failure highlights the unwillingness of some OSCE participating States to live up to their stated commitments to democratic institutions, the rule of law, media pluralism, and free and fair elections. Leaving key leadership roles unfilled drastically weakens the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermines the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. It spans 57 participating States reaching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Corrosive Impact of Disinformation on the Electoral Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DISINFORMATION, COVID-19, AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS Thursday, May 21, 2020 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Register to attend. Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many countries still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of the year, the stakes cannot be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing will examine the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explore opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program; author of “How to Lose the Information War” Sophia Ignatidou, Academy Associate, International Security Programme, Chatham House

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Hastings and Wicker Troubled By Mounting Harassment of Opposition Members, Activists, and Journalists by Government of Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the Government of Azerbaijan’s mounting harassment of Azerbaijani opposition members, activists, and journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “During this pandemic, public health precautions do not excuse politically-motivated repression. We are deeply troubled by reports that the Government of Azerbaijan is further squeezing its people’s access to free expression, media, and information through arrests, fines, harassment, and possibly torture. Authorities should cease exploiting this global crisis to limit the speech of members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and other activists and reporters.” In recent weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have detained, questioned, jailed, fined, and, in one case possibly tortured opposition members and journalists affiliated with the country’s main opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and opposition-aligned media outlet Azadliq. Since the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the Azerbaijani Government has intermittently cut off internet and phone access to PFPA Chair Ali Karimli, preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including conducting interviews with media. Last week, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of torturing PFPA activist Niyameddin Ahmedov while in custody. Other PFPA affiliated activists and writers, including Aqil Humbatov, Faiq Amirli, and Saadat Jahangir, have been detained for allegedly violating quarantine rules after speaking or reporting critically about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning COVID-19 Emergency Responses

    OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue.  Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid.  Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need.  And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news.  A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience.  Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time.  I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE.  As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders.  Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency.  I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.”  “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.”  We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections.  But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments.  Thank you.

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic

    WASHINGTON—To mark the occasion of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “This year, we sadly must put aside many of the annual celebrations of Romani art, culture, music, and heritage that usually mark International Roma Day, and instead address the urgent concerns exposed by a global pandemic. “This health crisis has spotlighted many of the consequences of systemic racism long faced by Romani communities. Unequal access to care—or in some cases even basic sanitation and clean running water—puts not only Roma but also other socially excluded groups in great danger of infection. Now more than ever, governments must ensure that all members of society have permanent access to healthcare, functioning sanitation facilities, and clean water. “In addition, around the world—even in our own country—there are those who seek to use this crisis to fan the flames of bigotry. We must not tolerate or excuse such discrimination on the basis of fear. Stoking racism and xenophobia will not make us healthier or stronger. It will only divide and weaken us at a time when unity is most needed. “To successfully counter COVID-19, OSCE participating States must work with local community representatives to build trust, enhance the transparency of national initiatives, and bolster participation in critical public health efforts. Roma and other marginalized groups must not be forgotten. To quote from the OSCE Action Plan, ‘for Roma, with Roma.’” In the April 2020 episode of the Helsinki Commission’s “Helsinki on the Hill” podcast, Romani scholar and activist Dr. Margareta Matache discussed the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage.   In April 2019,  Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Ranking Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage.  In 2003, OSCE participating States adopted an “Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.” These guidelines—recommendations for participating States and OSCE institutions—are intended to combat racism and discrimination; ensure equal access and opportunities in education, employment, housing, and health services; enhance Romani participation in public and political life; and address issues relating to Roma in conflict and post-conflict situations.

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