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.

Relevant countries: 
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The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. 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We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

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    On April 27, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. In particular, this hearing was used as a platform to raise awareness for Oleg Sentsov, a political prisoner being held in Siberia. Sentsov was honored by PEN America this year with their 2017 Freedom to Write award for his work exposing Russian human rights violations. Panelist included Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and campaigner for his freedom, and journalist in Kiev; Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament and former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests; and Halya Coynash, spokesperson for Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The panelists provided much context and background detailing Sentsov and others’ cases. Natalya Kaplan spoke to the audience about the terrible conditions her cousin faces in Siberia, including torture, while Mustafa Nayyem spoke about the need to pressure Russia publically to end these human rights abuses. Halya Coynash reminded the audience of the severity of this case by highlighting that Sentsov was the first Ukrainian to be so brazenly imprisoned after the Russian occupation of Crimea; in her eyes, this was the first time the full force of Russian government had been used to fabricate charges and host a show trial against a Ukrainian. The panelists agreed that the media freedom situation in Russian-occupied territory is dire and only growing worse. Of greatest concern was the length to which Russia is willing to go in their efforts to arrest and prosecute journalists. Russia also sets a dangerous precedent with its recent attempts to foist Russian citizenship onto Ukrainians in Crimea, in efforts to undermine international court rulings and give legitimacy to its actions. When it comes to monitoring the human rights situation in Ukraine, the panelists expressed concerns with the lack of access to political prisoners and the inability to target individual Russians involved in creating the sham trials. The panelists believed that the ability to target individuals involved in these trials would be extremely helpful in de-escalating the situation, and they made many references to the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Overwhelmingly, the response to these issues was a desire to work with Congress to strengthen and update the Magnistky Act, as well as broaden civil society and NGO engagment. Mustafa Nayyem expressed hope that NGOs, such as PEN America, would play a more pivotal role in helping prevent future repression. News articles following the briefing expressed hope that there would be work within Congress to better address issues involving Ukrainian political prisoners.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

  • Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight

    The U.S Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Wednesday on “Democracy and Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight.”  It was the first hearing in the 115th Congress focused on internal human rights repression in Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of pro-reform movement Open Russia; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, testified about the crisis of Russian democracy and the country’s worsening human rights record under President Vladimir Putin. In his opening statement, Mr. Kara-Murza underscored the necessity for the OSCE participating States to give an honest assessment about what is happening in Russia, where the number of political prisoners now exceeds a hundred people (a number that has doubled in less than a year). Mr. Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of the Kremlin who has survived two poisoning attempts, estimated that more than 30 activists have been murdered by the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000. He also called for an end to impunity for human rights violations in Russia. “The U.S. does have a mechanism for such accountability in the Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. This law should continue to be implemented to its full extent,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. His concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who noted that today, “Russia is more repressive that it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.” At Chairman Wicker’s request, Ms. Denber provided detailed information about each of the Russian political prisoners who were featured on posters in the room, and also spoke at length about the repression of gay men in Chechnya. Dr. Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House highlighted the fact that Mr. Putin was the primary author of the modern authoritarian’s playbook, which has subsequently been replicated by many autocratic rulers in the region.  “His methods for suppressing civil society and political opposition have inspired other dictators, and his media manipulation has impacted most of Eurasia directly and extended to Europe and the United States,” Dr. Calingaert said. However, despite the grim situation, Mr. Kara-Murza voiced some optimism about the future. “Increasingly, the young generation in Russia – the very generation that grew up under Vladimir Putin – is demanding respect and accountability from those in power,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza pointed to a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that took place in dozens of cities across Russia in late March, with tens of thousands of people, mostly young protesters, taking out to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev. “This movement will continue. And these growing demands for accountability are the best guarantee that Russia will one day become a country where citizens can exercise the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled,” he added.  

  • Helsinki Commission To Hold Briefing on Russia’s Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: OLEG SENTSOV AND RUSSIA’S HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AGAINST UKRAINIAN CITIZENS Thursday, April 27, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 210 In May 2014, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – an outspoken opponent of Russia’s takeover of his native Crimea – disappeared from his hometown of Simferopol only to resurface in Russian custody in Moscow. Convicted on charges of terrorism that the human rights community has condemned as fabricated, Sentsov is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony. His case not only stands as a marker for Russia’s reach in silencing dissent abroad, but also illuminates broader issues of Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present three perspectives on this disturbing situation and its broader context: from Sentsov’s cousin and chief champion; from a human rights defender investigating cases in the region; and from a member of the Ukrainian parliament. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and journalist in Kiev Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament; former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests Halya Coynash, Spokesperson, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

  • Human Rights Abuses in Russia Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced a hearing to examine the grim state of human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation. DEMOCRACY & HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN RUSSIA: NO END IN SIGHT Wednesday, April 26, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce042617 Russia’s overt external aggression against countries such as Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and its efforts to disrupt western democracies are made possible by the internal repression of its own people.  For example, Russia has not had a free and fair election since March 2000. Opposition activists are routinely assaulted or even murdered, giving rise to a new term: “Sudden Kremlin Death Syndrome.” Political prisoner numbers now match those of the late Soviet era, and on March 26, tens of thousands of people in cities across 11 time zones protested widespread government corruption, with more than 1,000 arrested. More nationwide protests are expected on June 12, the national holiday of the Russian Federation. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman, Open Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President, Freedom House

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • Wicker, Cardin Support Territorial Integrity of the Nation of Georgia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD) today introduced a Senate resolution supporting the territorial integrity of the nation of Georgia. “The Russian government has tried to undermine Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity for far too long,” said Chairman Wicker. “It is time for the United States to make it clear once again that we do not recognize Russian land grabs within its neighbors’ borders. Russia should adhere to the cease-fire agreement it signed in 2008, withdraw its troops from Georgia, and allow international monitors and aid workers access to occupied regions.” S.Res.106 condemns the ongoing military intervention and occupation of Georgia by the Russian Federation, as well as Russia’s continuous illegal activities along the occupation line in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia). The bill also urges Russia to live up to its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act, which calls upon signatories to respect the territorial integrity of each of the other participating States of the Organization of the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  “Russia’s violation of the territorial integrity of Georgia is a blatant breach of one of the guiding principles of the Helsinki Final Act by Russia. This reflects a broader pattern of disregard by Putin’s regime for transatlantic security norms and democratic values, which the United States and our allies must stand against with resolve,” said Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Georgia is a strong partner of the United States and continues to take important steps to further integrate with the transatlantic community. Georgia recently concluded an agreement on visa free travel with the European Union, for example. This significant development shows that constructive interaction is possible and welcome.” This resolution mirrors a similar measure introduced in the House (H.Res. 660) in September 2016, and demonstrates that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia enjoy bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders to Azerbaijan: Release All Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—On the traditional holiday of Nowruz, Helsinki Commission leaders called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and honor its OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. “It is disappointing that President Aliyev released only a small number of political prisoners among several hundred pardons he issued prior to Nowruz,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “OSCE participating States commit to respecting freedom of expression, including the freedom to exchange information and views without interference from public authorities. The Government of Azerbaijan should uphold this commitment by releasing opposition figures, civil rights activists, journalists, and religious leaders who are currently in jail for peacefully exercising their rights. This is particularly true in the case of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, who recently entered his fifth year in prison on politically-motivated charges.”  “President Aliyev’s pardons left dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents languishing in prison and subject to mistreatment,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “I call on President Aliyev to respect human rights and democracy in his country and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.” In 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan pardoned 148 inmates in the days leading up to Nowruz, including more than a dozen people identified as political prisoners by leading human rights organizations. This year, the Government issued pardons to more than 400 prisoners, but only four political prisoners were freed.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Wicker Comments on Poisoning of Pro-Democracy Russian Activist, Fighting in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON–Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement regarding the recent acts of aggression perpetrated by the Russian government: “In today’s Russia, there is a disturbing trend of violence that targets members of the political opposition. I am particularly concerned about Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital after being poisoned.  Mr. Kara-Murza has appeared at multiple Helsinki Commission events and is a tireless advocate for restoring democratic freedoms to the Russian people. The United States should have no illusions about the nature of the Russian regime. “Meanwhile, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues to spread.  Last week, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported the heaviest fighting since combined Russian-separatist forces captured Debaltseve in January 2015.  The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly condemned Russia’s ‘clear, gross, and uncorrected’ violations of OSCE principles with respect to Ukraine. “I stand with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in condemning the escalation of violence.  Russia should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Vladimir Kara-Murza has a longstanding relationship with the Helsinki Commission. He first appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing in 2011. He testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing on Russia in 2015 and briefed Commission staff before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.

  • Co-Chairman Smith Expresses Support for Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Responding to reports that Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, currently in a coma in a Russian hospital, was diagnosed with “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance,” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) released the following statement: “I am deeply concerned by reports that, just as in 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned in Russia. Kara-Murza has been a champion of free and fair elections in Russia, and has fought bravely to hold Russian officials accountable for human rights violations.  Vladimir and his family are in my thoughts and prayers. We all hope that he recovers quickly–and I call upon the Russian government to take all measures to investigate this incident, and to bring those responsible to justice.” Kara-Murza testified before Smith at a Helsinki Commission hearing in October 2015, several months after a suspected poisoning earlier that year. Kara-Murza was also the target of death threats before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.  

  • Smith Denounces Azerbaijan Law Criminalizing Online ‘Insults’ To President

    WASHINGTON—Following the amendment of Azerbaijan's criminal code last week, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) made the following statement: “Make no mistake, anyone imprisoned under the new provisions of Azerbaijan’s criminal code – which make online ‘insults’ of the president a punishable offense – will be a political prisoner.  These new provisions clearly violate international human rights standards and Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitments. I urge the government of Azerbaijan to repeal these provisions and to release political prisoners, including Ilgar Mammadov, Seymur Haziyev, and Abdul Abilov, who have been wrongly jailed for criticizing the government.” Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

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