Human Rights Concerns in Kazakhstan

Human Rights Concerns in Kazakhstan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Friday, June 21, 2002

Mr. Speaker, I rise to introduce a resolution that expresses deep concern about ongoing violations of human rights in Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the authoritarian leader of this energy-rich country, has been flagrantly flouting his OSCE commitments on democratization, human rights, and the rule of law, and thumbing his nose at Washington as well.

In the 106th Congress, there was a near unanimous vote in the House for a resolution I introduced voicing dismay about general trends in Central Asia. We sent a strong signal to leaders and opposition groups alike in the region about where we stand.

Since then, the overall situation has not gotten better--throughout the region, super presidents continue to dominate their political systems. But their drive to monopolize wealth and power while most people languish in poverty is finally producing a backlash. Today in Central Asia, things are stirring for the first time in a decade.

Even in quasi-Stalinist Turkmenistan, an opposition movement-in-exile led by former high ranking government officials has emerged which openly proclaims its intention of getting rid of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. In Kyrgyzstan, disturbances in March, when police killed six protesters calling for the release of a jailed parliamentarian, were followed by larger demonstrations that forced President Akaev in May to dismiss his government. The iron-fisted Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, under considerable pressure from Washington, has made some limited concessions to domestic and international public opinion, sentencing policemen to prison terms for torturing detainees and formally lifting censorship.

In Kazakhstan, however, President Nursultan Nazarbaev has reacted differently to domestic pressure and to Washington's calls for reforms to keep repression from breeding terrorism. Since last fall, Nazarbaev has cracked down hard, when his position became a little shakier. First we saw squabbles within the ruling--or should I say, "royal''?--family burst out into the open when Nazarbaev demoted his powerful son-in-law. Then a new opposition movement emerged, headed by former officials who called for urgent reforms. Two of the leaders of that movement are now in prison. Subsequently, Kazakhstan's prime minister had to acknowledge the existence of $1 billion stashed in a Swiss bank account under Nazarbaev's name. Some of the few opposition legislators allowed into parliament have demanded more information about the money and about any other possible hoards in foreign banks.

This would be a scandal in any country. But with a consistency worthy of a nobler goal, Nazarbaev's regime has for years stifled the opposition and independent media. And as detailed in a recent Washington Post story, which I ask to be inserted for the Record, Kazakh authorities have recently intensified their assault on those few remaining outlets, employing methods that can only be described as grotesque and revolting. In one case, the editor of an opposition newspaper found a decapitated dog hanging outside her office. Attached to a screwdriver stuck into its body was a message that read "there won't be a next time.'' On May 23, the State Department issued a statement expressing "deep concern'' that these assaults "suggest an effort to intimidate political opposition leaders in Kazakhstan and the independent media and raise serious questions about the safety of the independent media in Kazakhstan.'' That statement did not have the desired effect--last week, someone left a human skull on a staircase in the building where the editorial office of another newspaper is located.

Mr. Speaker, after September 11, the U.S. Government moved to consolidate relationships with Central Asian states, seeking cooperation in the battle with terrorism. But Washington also made plain that we expected to see some reform in these entrenched dictatorships, or we would all have to deal with consequences in the future. Nursultan Nazarbaev has ignored this call. Increasingly nervous about revelations of high-level corruption, he is obviously determined to do anything necessary to remain in power and to squelch efforts to inform Kazakhstan's public of his misdeeds. But even worse, he seems convinced that he can continue with impunity as his goons brutally threaten and assault the brave men and women who risk being journalists in a country so hostile to free speech.

Mr. Speaker, against this backdrop, I am introducing this resolution, which expresses concern about these trends, calls on Kazakhstan's leadership to observe its OSCE commitments and urges the U.S. Government to press Kazakhstan more seriously. I hope my colleagues will support this resolution and I look forward to their response.

[Washington Post Foreign Service, Mon., June 10, 2002] NEW REPRESSION IN KAZAKHSTAN

JOURNALISTS TARGETED AFTER PRESIDENT IMPLICATED IN SCANDAL (By Peter Baker) ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN.

"There won't be a next time.''

The dog's missing head was left along with a similar note at Petrushova's house. Three nights later, someone threw three molotov cocktails into her office and burned it to the ground.

The political climate in this oil-rich former Soviet republic has taken a decidedly ominous turn in recent weeks, ever since the revelation that the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, secretly stashed $1 billion of state money in a Swiss bank account 6 years ago. As the scandal blossomed, opposition leaders were suddenly arrested, newspapers and television stations shut down, and critical journalists beaten in what foes of the government consider a new wave of repression.

What inspectors and regulators have not accomplished, mysterious vandals have. One of the country's leading television stations was knocked off the air when its cable was sliced in the middle of the night. Shortly after it was repaired, the cable was rendered useless again when someone shot through it.

"Everything that's been achieved over the last 10 years, it's been wiped out,'' Petrushova lamented.

"This political system we have is still Soviet,'' said Yevgeny Zhovits, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law. "By its spirit, by its nature, by its attitude toward personal freedom, it's still Soviet.''

The tale of intrigue emerging in Kazakhstan, while familiar across the former Soviet Union, takes on special significance in Central Asia, a region that has become far more important to the United States as it fights a war in nearby Afghanistan. The case also sheds some light on the tangled world of oil, money and politics in a country with massive energy reserves.

The U.S. Embassy and the State Department have issued statements condemning the pattern of events and fretting about the state of democracy in a country still run by its last Communist boss. But many reformers in Kazakhstan worry that the West has effectively turned its eyes away from human rights abuses to maintain the international coalition against terrorism.

"All this is happening with the silent consent of the West,'' said Assylbeck Kozhakhmetov, a leading figure in Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan, an opposition party founded last year. Until Sept. 11, Nazarbayev's government worried about offending the West, he noted, but not anymore. "The ostrich party of Western democracies actually unties the hands of dictators.''

Nazarbayev, a burly, 61-year-old former steel mill blast-furnace operator, has run this giant, dusty country of 17 million people with an authoritarian style. Nazarbayev was a former member of the Soviet Politburo who took over as head of the republic in 1990, became president after independence in 1991, and continued to dominate Kazakhstan through uncompetitive elections and a referendum extending his term.

His relationship with oil companies has prompted investigations in Switzerland and the United States as prosecutors in both countries probe whether an American lobbyist helped steer millions of dollars in oil commissions to him and other Kazakh leaders.

The long-brewing questions about such transfers and rumors of foreign bank accounts erupted into a full-blown scandal in April when Nazarbayev's prime minister admitted to parliament that the president diverted $1 billion to a secret Swiss bank account in 1996. The money came from the sale that year of a 20 percent stake in the valuable Tengiz offshore oil fields to Chevron.

The prime minister, Imangali Tasmagambetov, said that Nazarbayev had sent the money abroad because he worried that such a large infusion of cash into Kazakhstan would throw the currency into a tailspin. Although he never disclosed the secret fund to parliament, Nazarbayev used it twice to help stabilize the country during subsequent financial crises, Tasmagambetov said.

In an inter-view last week, a top government official dismissed the significance of the revelation and the resulting furor.

"The so-called Kazakh-gate, the government officially explained this,'' said Ardak Doszham, the deputy minister of information. "There was a special reserve account set up by the government. It's a normal account that can be managed by officials appointed by the government. It's not managed by individuals. The money that goes into it is state money, and it's supposed to be used to meet the needs of the state.''

Asked who knew about it, Doszham could identify only three men, Nazarbayev, the prime minister and the chairman of the national bank. Asked why lawmakers were never informed, he said, "It was impossible to raise this issue before parliament because it would have elicited many questions.''

But opposition leaders and journalists said Nazarbayev finally revealed the account this spring only after they pushed Swiss prosecutors for information. The opposition and journalists said they believe the president announced the $1 billion fund only as a smoke screen to obscure other matters still under investigation by the Swiss and U.S. prosecutors.

"All around there is bribe-taking and stealing and mafia,'' said Serikbolsyn Abdildin, the head of the Communist Party and one of two parliament deputies whose information request to prosecutors preceded the announcement. "There's corruption in the top echelon of power.'' The disclosure of the $1 billion Swiss fund was designed to "fool public opinion,'' he said.

The disclosures have coincided with an escalating series of troublesome incidents for those who do not defer to the government.

Just days before Tasmagambetov's speech to parliament, Kazakh authorities arrested opposition politician Mukhtar Abilyazov, while his colleague, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, avoided a similar fate only by fleeing into the French Embassy here in Almaty, the former capital, two days later.

After assurances from Kazakh authorities, he left the embassy, and promptly was also taken into custody. The government insisted it was pursuing embezzlement charges against the two, both founding members of Democratic Choice. The opposition called it blatant harassment.

Other opposition figures began to feel the heat as well. While independent media in Kazakhstan have often experienced difficulty in the decade since independence, a string of frightening episodes convinced many journalists that they were being targeted.

The government began enforcing a five-year-old law requiring television stations to ensure that 50 percent of their broadcasts were aired in the native Kazakh tongue, a language that in practice remains secondary to Russian here. Most television stations cannot afford to develop such programming and prefer to buy off-the-shelf material from Russia, including dubbed Western television shows and movies. As government agents swarmed in and began monitoring channels this spring, they began seizing licenses of those stations that did not comply.

Similarly, inspectors showed up at newspaper offices demanding to see registration papers and suspending those publications that did not have everything in order. Some that did not list their addresses properly were abruptly shut down. Printing houses began refusing to publish other papers, and one printing house was burned down in unclear circumstances.

Tamara Kaleyeva, president of the International Foundation for Protection of Speech here, said about 20 newspapers have been forced to stop publishing and about 20 television stations have been shut down or face closure.

"It appears the Swiss accounts are the reason for a terrible persecution against free speech,'' she said. Added Rozlana Taukina, president of the Central Asia Independent Mass Media Association, "The country is turning into an authoritarian regime.''

Doszham, the deputy minister, denied any political motivations behind the recent actions. Television stations had been flouting the language law, he said, and the government has suspended about seven or eight, and gone to court to recall the licenses of another six or seven. Similarly, he said, newspapers had been violating requirements. "The law is harsh,'' he said, "but the law is the law.''

Even more harsh, however, has been an unofficial but often violent crackdown. It is not known who is orchestrating it. Bakbytzhan Ketebayev, president of Tan Broadcasting Co., whose Tan TV station was among the best known in Kazakhstan, has been off the air for two months following repeated attacks on his cable. Even after it was repaired following the gunshots, it was damaged yet again when someone drove three nails in it. "Once it's an accident, twice it may be an accident,'' he said. "But three times is a trend.''

At the newspaper Soldat, which means soldier in Russian but is also a play on words in Kazakh meaning "that one demands to speak,'' the assault was more personal. One day in late May, four young men burst into the newspaper office and beat two workers there, bashing one woman's head so hard she remains in the hospital. They also took the computer equipment.

Ermuram Bali, the editor, said the attack came the day before the weekly was to run the second of two installments reprinting a Seymour Hersh piece from the New Yorker about oil and corruption in Kazakhstan. "This is the last warning against you,'' he said the assailants told his staff. Other journalists have been physically attacked as well.

And then there was Petrushova and the headless dog. Like Soldat, her newspaper, the Republic Business Review, had written about the scandal. Then the mutilated animal was found May 19, and finally the newspaper office was set aflame on May 22.

Petrushova suspects state security agencies were behind the incidents but cannot prove it. "The throne started to waver, and in order to hold it in place, all sorts of measures are being used,'' she said. Now she works out of borrowed offices at Tan TV headquarters, putting out the newspaper on her own typographical machine and stapling each issue. "It's just like it was in the time of the Soviet Union.''

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My friend, the distinguished senior senator from Maryland, Senator Cardin and I, along with Congressman Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, are the four House and Senate leaders of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and former Soviet countries. We recently sent a joint letter to President Biden calling on the administration to name and sanction all of those who have been involved in the arrest, detention and persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. I issue that call again today, and I invite my colleagues from both parties to stand with Vladimir Kara-Murza and work for his release. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.  

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

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

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERS

    WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment.  Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.

  • Switzerland, Playground of Russian Oligarchs, Emerges as Sanctions Weak Link

    ZUG, Switzerland—After Switzerland said in February it was joining European Union sanctions against Russian oligarchs, this quiet Alpine getaway seemed like an obvious place to hunt for targets. The streets are clustered with the offices of companies founded by Russia’s wealthiest men, along with the headquarters for landmark natural-gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 and the energy-trading department of Gazprom PJSC. So many Russian billionaires have homes or businesses here that the local opposition party had begun taking sightseers on an Oligarch’s Tour. Swiss newspapers nicknamed Zug “Little Moscow” and joked that local leaders wanted to build a Kremlin wall around the town. It didn’t seem so easy to the six local officials charged with helping implement sanctions. Working from a fifth-floor conference room, the team had a hard time identifying homes or local businesses officially owned by any of the hundreds of Russian oligarchs on the Swiss government’s list of sanctioned people. They struggled with Cyrillic names and often couldn’t make sense of the 300-page list, said Heinz Tännler, the financial director for the Canton, or state, of Zug. They also struggled with the implications for the local economy, added Mr. Tännler, who worries that sanctions have jeopardized his canton’s reputation as a safe place for foreign investment. “This is a very difficult time, especially for the Canton of Zug,” he said. In the end, the officials found exactly one company out of the roughly 30,000 registered in Zug that they believed was owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. Zug’s slow start is emblematic of the country as a whole. Switzerland has pledged to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. So far, that promise hasn’t triggered much action against Russian companies doing business there, bolstering concerns in world capitals that the Alpine financial hub isn’t doing enough to forestall the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies. Eighty percent of Russia’s commodities are traded through Switzerland, mostly through Zug and the lakeside city of Geneva. Swiss banks manage an estimated $150 billion for Russian clients, according to the country’s banking association. Thirty-two of the oligarchs closest to Mr. Putin have property, bank accounts or businesses in Switzerland, according to Zurich-based transparency group Public Eye. In the four months since Swiss authorities began sanctions, $6.8 billion in Russian financial assets have been frozen, alongside 15 homes and properties, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, or SECO. By contrast, EU countries have collectively frozen $14 billion in alleged oligarch assets spanning funds, boats, helicopters and real estate, in addition to over $20 billion in Russian central-bank reserves. EU countries have also blocked around $200 billion in financial transactions. Authorities on the U.K. island of Jersey alone froze over $7 billion in assets they said are linked to oligarch Roman Abramovich, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. U.S. senators have privately petitioned Swiss officials to do more to locate Russian money and property. “Instead of enabling Russia’s abuse of the global financial system, they should stand against it,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation, which promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation. Switzerland’s government has rejected that kind of criticism, stressing that its adoption of EU sanctions marks a historic shift and that it is doing everything possible to hunt down blacklisted assets. “It is clear that the sheer volume of the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, as well as the speed with which they were adopted, creates certain challenges for implementing authorities, in Switzerland and elsewhere,” said a SECO spokeswoman. Western sanctions have increasingly been used to squeeze Russia since 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Since then, Mr. Putin and a tight circle of allies have been exploiting gaps in the global financial system to evade blacklists and hide wealth overseas. Despite Switzerland’s status as a global financial hub, the country’s regulators are hamstrung by limited resources—SECO had just 10 officials fully dedicated to sanctions until recently, when the government hired five more. Their work is also frustrated by an old structural problem: The business of registering companies remains a hive of secrecy, making it difficult to identify ultimate ownership of assets, according to Western diplomats. Swiss bankers and transparency campaigners say billions of dollars of Russian clients’ assets have been transferred to the names of spouses and children in recent years—a phenomenon that accelerated in the run-up to the war, they say. The Gateway The Putin regime’s presence in Zug can be traced to the early days of his presidency, and a ceremony in the canton’s sprawling art nouveau palace, Theatre Casino. While Russia’s military was bombing the restive republic of Chechnya, Mr. Putin was awarded the 2002 “Zug Peace Prize” by the Nuclear Disarmament Forum, an organization of influential local businessmen that has since disbanded. The meeting, attended by business and political leaders close to the Kremlin and serenaded by the Russian National Orchestra, heralded the flourishing of Russian commodity trading in the town, according to local politicians. Many oligarchs have businesses in Zug that remain untouched by sanctions. They include Mr. Abramovich, the largest shareholder of Evraz PLC, a Russian steelmaker and mining company that has a trading arm in the canton. Evraz was sanctioned in the U.K., where it traded on the London Stock Exchange, but hasn’t been sanctioned in Switzerland or the EU, even though Mr. Abramovich has. Not far from Zug, in Winterthur, is the headquarters of Sulzer AG , an engineering company that is 48.8%-owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who is sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.K. When Poland sanctioned Sulzer’s operations, the Swiss embassy in Warsaw unsuccessfully lobbied the Polish government to reverse the move, according to a Polish government official and the Swiss department of foreign affairs. Sulzer said Poland’s decision was wrong given that Mr. Vekselberg is just a minority shareholder and neither owns nor controls the company. Sulzer isn’t sanctioned anywhere else, a spokesman said. Representatives for Mr. Abramovich and Evraz didn’t reply to requests for comment. The SECO spokeswoman said the agency is in close contact with the U.K. authorities about sanctions, but “is not bound by their assessment.” A spokesman for the department of foreign affairs said that under Swiss law the government can assist Swiss companies abroad, and that sanctioning Sulzer’s Polish subsidiaries threatened jobs and hurt Sulzer clients. U.S. and European officials say they are counting on the Swiss government to find which companies and homes in Switzerland belong to sanctioned Russian oligarchs and freeze them. Switzerland’s history of financial secrecy, enshrined in its law, can make it exceedingly difficult to identify who owns what. Under Swiss legal precedent, lawyers can still open a company on behalf of a client and claim attorney-client privilege to block authorities from uncovering that person’s identity. That, officials say, hinders them from finding more companies whose accounts should be frozen under sanctions. It is also an obstacle for banks with small compliance teams. Swiss business registries don’t require firms to list true owners, which are often hidden by opaque companies in Switzerland held by trusts in financial havens, a loophole exploited by businessmen from Russia and elsewhere eager to mask the true ownership of their assets, according to Swiss opposition politicians and advocates for financial reform. “A Swiss lawyer hides the name of the beneficial owner in his vault, and there’s no way the Swiss authorities can get to the name,” said Mark Pieth, a former head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s bribery division now at the Basel Institute on Governance. “The government has deliberately tied its own hands behind its back.” EuroChem Trusts came into play earlier this year when Switzerland, following the EU’s lead, sanctioned Andrey Melnichenko, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and a longtime Swiss resident. On March 9, the EU added Mr. Melnichenko’s name—No. 721—to its blacklist, describing him as part of the “closest circle of Vladimir Putin ” and involved in businesses vital to the government. It mentioned a meeting he attended in Moscow with Mr. Putin in the first hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with 35 other oligarchs. In Italy, police seized his sailing yacht, the world’s largest. Left untouched was EuroChem AG, a company founded by Mr. Melnichenko in 2001 that grew into one of the world’s top producers of fertilizer, with revenue last year of $10.2 billion. Based in a small glass tower in Zug nicknamed the Dallas Building, the company is deeply entwined in the supply chains of Europe’s largest chemical giants. The day before the sanctions were announced, the tycoon disclaimed his interest in a Cyprus trust that held the company, according to a document signed by EuroChem’s chief financial officer. That left Mr. Melnichenko’s wife, Aleksandra, a former Serbian pop star, as the trust’s sole beneficiary. “Given that Mr. Melnichenko no longer owns, holds or controls any funds and economic resources of EuroChem Group…neither EuroChem Group nor any member of EuroChem Group are subject to EU asset freeze measures,” stated a document viewed by The Wall Street Journal. EuroChem lawyers also wrote to SECO that the company wouldn’t provide economic resources to Mr. Melnichenko or pay dividends to his wife. On March 28, SECO rendered its judgment: EuroChem didn’t need to have its assets or bank accounts frozen. Officials in Zug followed suit. Mr. Tännler, the canton’s financial director, bridled at criticism that local officials aren’t looking hard enough. “I think people know that we did a good job, that we did what we can do,” he said. He washed his hands of the EuroChem decision. “SECO made a determination that EuroChem is clean,” Mr. Tännler said. The European Commission in June countered that decision, ruling that Ms. Melnichenko was unduly benefitting from her husband and should be sanctioned. Switzerland then followed suit, blacklisting her but leaving EuroChem untouched. Credit Suisse, which needs to answer to tougher U.S. regulators because of its U.S. dollar business, has frozen the accounts EuroChem held at the bank. A spokesman for the couple said Mr. Melnichenko considers the sanctions against him unjust. “The formal justifications are nonsense,” said the spokesman, who denied that Mr. Melnichenko is a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle or provides substantial revenue to the Russian government. Ms. Melnichenko has appealed to the Council of the European Union, saying the sanctions against her have complicated EuroChem’s ability to sell fertilizer, “leading to the famine and death of millions of people.”

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

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

  • Long Shadow of Russian Money Raises Tricky Questions for Swiss Bankers

    January used to be a big month for Swiss bankers and their Russian clients. Many of the Moscow elite had made a tradition of coming to the Alps for the orthodox new year, skiing with their families, then catching up with their financial consiglieri. In St Moritz, one banker recalls how he would book blocks of rooms for his clients. He would entertain them with snow polo, rolling out the charm as they clinked champagne glasses and watched horses charge across a frozen lake. This year he couldn’t tempt a single one. For the best part of a decade, Russian money has coursed through the Swiss banking world. But, as Russia’s relationship with the west has soured in recent years, what was once a source of bumper new profits for Switzerland’s banks has become a financial and reputational risk. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many wealthy Russians were moving to better safeguard their money from political interference, putting assets in the names of relatives or shifting them to less closely scrutinised jurisdictions, such as Dubai. In its wake, a vast sanitisation operation is under way at Swiss banks, to try and wind down relationships with sanctioned individuals. Neutral Switzerland has matched all of the EU’s punitive financial measures against Russia. More than 1,100 of the Russian elite — including figures such as coal and fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and banker Petr Aven, both regular visitors to Switzerland — have become financial personae non gratae in a country many had assumed would keep their fortunes safe. The biggest banks, such as the publicly listed trio of UBS, Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have declared they will cease all new business in Russia. For critics, though these are weasel words. It is their existing Russian clients that are the problem. No one is expecting many new fortunes to be minted in Russia any time soon. “Switzerland has a terrible history when it comes to Russian dirty money,” says Bill Browder, a longstanding Kremlin critic and a former Russian investor. He is sceptical of how much commitment there is among Swiss bankers to enforcing sanctions. “The Swiss want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t actually want to do anything,” he says. The US Helsinki Commission, an independent US government agency that observes human rights and the rule of law in Europe, agrees. In a report issued in May, it labelled the alpine state and its banks “a leading enabler of Vladimir Putin and his cronies”. The Swiss government responded by calling US secretary of state Antony Blinken in protest. A spokesperson for the Swiss government said president Ignazio Cassis “rejected the [report] in the strongest possible terms”. Like their counterpart in St Moritz, Swiss bankers the FT interviewed for this story all declined to be identified. Many more refused to speak at all. Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws are draconian — talking about clients can earn a lengthy jail term — and talking about Russian clients is even more taboo. “When we were onboarding a lot of these clients [in the 2000s], the entire approach was just very different. And you can’t really say that publicly now,” says one former banker who handled eastern European and Russian clients until retiring two years ago. “These [Russians] were people who had earned so much money, so quickly, that they didn’t know what to do with it. They were basically ideal clients. As long as you had no questions about where that money had come from . . . and, basically, we didn’t.” Quite how much Russian money there is in Switzerland is open to question. In March, the industry body representing Switzerland’s banks, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), caused a stir when it released details of a study estimating there was SFr150bn-SFr200bn ($154bn-$205bn) held in accounts for Russian citizens. At the end of last year, the total cash held on behalf of customers by Switzerland’s banks was SFr7,879bn, more half of which was wealth from abroad, according to the SBA. The disclosure prompted hand-wringing in the Swiss media. Commentators, even at conservative outlets such as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked whether Switzerland should do business with autocratic regimes anywhere in the world any more. But others in the country have defended its economic relationships with Russia. The outspoken finance director of the canton of Zug, an important low-tax centre, said in March it was not his job to “act like a detective” and make judgments on Russian assets. In April, he announced that Zug, home to 37,000 companies, had no sanctioned assets to report back to Bern. Nevertheless, by April, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that it had frozen SFr9.7bn of Russian assets. Authorities have insisted that the amount is proportionate to the scale of asset freezes in other leading financial centres. But Bern has been forced to row back in some cases, and in May it announced it was unfreezing SFr3.4bn of funds. Switzerland cannot freeze funds “without sufficient grounds”, says Erwin Bollinger, a SECO official, who adds that the government has received data on sanctioned accounts at more than 70 of the country’s banks. Direct disclosure by the banks has been patchy. Credit Suisse chief executive Thomas Gottstein told a conference in March that about 4 per cent of assets in his bank’s core wealth management business were Russian — a proportion that would equate to roughly SFr33bn. Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. Switzerland’s banks have moved dramatically from the freewheeling approach of previous years, when there was “a run on Russia”, says Thomas Borer, a former leading Swiss diplomat turned consultant, who has worked with prominent Russian clients. He now supports Switzerland’s sanctions policy. “Being militarily neutral does not mean being economically indifferent,” he says. But he argues that Swiss banking culture is still very different from elsewhere in the west. Even the biggest banks, he says, were clinging to relationships with Russian clients as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. The Financial Times revealed that, as late as March, Credit Suisse was asking investors to destroy documents that might expose Russian oligarchs it had done business with to legal risks. One senior relationship manager at a Zurich-based bank agrees. Even as sanctions came in, he says, the dominant approach was to ask, “how can we make this work for the client?” rather than “how do we do this for the government?”. But he defends the approach, saying: “Doing everything you can for your client is a Swiss commitment to excellence. If I was a watchmaker I would want to make the best watches with many complications. And if I was a policeman, then maybe I would want to be the best at catching Russian criminals. But I’m a banker.” There is still legal ambiguity in Switzerland over whether sanctions apply to family members and friends of listed individuals. This has provided a loophole bankers have helped at-risk clients to actively exploit in recent years. Swiss banks have seen “billions” of assets transferred to the names of spouses and children of Russian clients, in a trend that accelerated in the run-up to the war, says one banker. One bank chief executive admitted recently to the FT that there were many “grey areas” in applying sanctions. Part of the problem, he said, was that bank legal departments were struggling to obtain clarity from Bern on which asset transfers were deemed to be evading sanctions and which were not. Many who have been in the industry for a long time decry the new rules they must follow around taking new clients and being certain of the source of their wealth. “Know your customer used to mean just that: do you know the person? Now it is supposed to mean: do you know every little thing about their financial and private life?” says one Geneva-based banker. Many Russians themselves knew the banks were no longer safe havens, particularly since 2018 when Swiss banks began making significant concessions to information sharing on client accounts with other governments. Swiss residency did not protect billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2018, for example, when he was targeted by US sanctions; both Credit Suisse and UBS moved to terminate loans with him. The SBA says its members adhere to the highest international standards. Chief executive Jörg Gasser, argues Swiss banks have “no interest in funds of dubious origin” and have rigorous procedures in place to rapidly screen for sanctioned assets. “Swiss banks have been — and still are — very careful and diligent when it comes to accepting client funds,” he says, adding it is important to recognise the huge amount of legitimate business done with Russian entrepreneurs who are not subject to sanctions. For Mark Pieth, emeritus professor of criminal law at the University of Basel and a specialist in white-collar crime, the real story of the past decade is how Switzerland’s lawyers, rather than its bankers, have become the facilitators of hidden foreign money. “Swiss bankers were extremely cosy with Russians in the past,” he says. “Alongside London, this country was the porch for Russians into the west . . . but now I wouldn’t say the problem is so much with the banks — it is all the other intermediaries.” Swiss law gives remarkable sweep to attorney-client privilege, says Pieth, meaning lawyers can refuse to disclose almost anything to the authorities about their clients. The Swiss Bar Association strongly rejects this. “Professional secrecy does not protect against criminal acts,” it says. “Lawyers know the law and know what to do.” One senior industry figure defends the banks’ position unapologetically. He says everybody now wants to know the origins of their luxury jackets. But 10 years ago nobody was asking where they were made, by whom and with what materials. In banking, as in fashion, things have changed, he says, but nobody is haranguing the fashion world in the same way they are criticising banks. Fashion companies, though, have moved with the times and opened up, whereas Switzerland’s banks, for all their insistence on change and compliance, still want to maintain as much of the secrecy surrounding their clients as possible — even at a time of international crisis.  

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest May 2022

  • Why I’m Sad to Be on Russia’s All-Purpose Payback List

    Reading Russia’s latest sanctions list, permanently banning travel to the country by 963 people, saddened me — and not just because my name is on it. It’s a catalogue of hurt from a nation that seems ready to blame everybody but its leaders for its current troubles. The list is very long indeed, running to nearly 100 pages in my printout. Reading so many names, you sense that Russia is deliberately burning nearly all its bridges to the United States. Russia’s ruling elite feels abused by American politicians, business leaders, journalists, judges, think tanks — nearly everyone, it seems. Donald Trump can still visit Moscow, but scores of Republican members of Congress can’t. The list of excluded GOP senators ranges from moderates such as Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mitt Romney of Utah to hard-right stalwarts Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The GOP doesn’t fare much better in the House. Moderates Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin can’t tour the Kremlin anymore, but neither can Jim Jordan of Ohio or Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. As for Democrats, forget about it. The sanctions list includes the Democratic House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. The Congressional Progressive Caucus can save its rubles, too. The members of “the Squad” are all banned. So are Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California. It’s the same on the Senate side. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois: Nyet, nyet.

  • Helsinki Commission Slams Legislation in Belarus that Would Extend Use of the Death Penalty to Pro-Democracy and Anti-War Activists

    WASHINGTON—Following the approval of legislation in Belarus that would apply the death penalty to pro-democracy activists and those opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine, and ahead of the May 21 commemoration of the Day of Political Prisoners in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “With these amendments to the criminal code, Aleksandr Lukashenko and other senior officials in his regime seek to frighten brave Belarusian citizens into silence. These craven attempts to mute pro-democracy and anti-war activists are doomed to fail. Belarusians have demonstrated time and again that they are stronger than those who seek to oppress them, and that they will not cower even in the face of outright death threats from authorities. “The real criminals here are Lukashenko and his henchmen who attempt to muzzle political opponents, civil society, and the free press. We demand that all political prisoners in Belarus be released, and that Belarusian authorities cease their attempts to terrorize those who freely speak their minds.” Earlier this week, Lukashenko approved changes to the Belarusian criminal code that would extend the use of the death penalty against those convicted of “attempted acts of terrorism.” According to the U.S. Department of State, the Lukashenko regime “has levied politically motivated charges of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ against many of [Belarus’] more than 1,100 political prisoners and used such labels to detain tens of thousands more.”  

  • Putin's Bribetakers and Warmongers

    The Helsinki Commission was briefed on 6,000 bribetakers and warmongers identified by Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

  • Chairman Cardin, Colleagues Introduce Resolution Calling for Release of Russian Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and colleagues introduced a resolution Monday honoring Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza and his work for “freedom, democracy and human rights for the people of the Russian Federation.” Kara-Murza was detained in Moscow outside of his home one month ago, just days after testifying before the Helsinki Commission. The resolution calls for his release and urges calls for the U.S. Government to support the cause of democracy and human rights in Russia. Sens. Marco Rubio (FL), Dick Durbin (IL), Jim Risch (ID), Bob Menendez (NJ), Roger Wicker (MS), Ron Johnson (WI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Dan Sullivan (AK) and Chuck Grassley (IA) also are original cosponsors. “Vladimir Kara-Murza is a genuine hero, speaking truth to power in Russia, and mobilizing the world to support the Russian people,” said Chairman Cardin, who also is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Without his leadership, several countries in Europe would not have enacted their versions of the U.S. Global Magnitsky laws that have broadened the impact of our own sanctions program.  We call for his immediate release form unjust imprisonment in Russia.” Last week, Chairman Cardin led a bipartisan letter calling on the Biden administration to sanction publicly “every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza.” The full text of the resolution follows. It is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. Calling for the immediate release of Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was unjustly detained on April 11, 2022. Whereas Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza (referred to in this preamble as “Mr. Kara-Murza”) has tirelessly worked for decades to advance the cause of freedom, democracy, and human rights for the people of the Russian Federation; Whereas, in retaliation for his advocacy, two attempts have been made on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life, as— (1) on May 26, 2015, Mr. Kara-Murza fell ill with symptoms indicative of poisoning and was hospitalized; and (2) on February 2, 2017, he fell ill with similar symptoms and was placed in a medically induced coma; Whereas independent investigations conducted by Bellingcat, the Insider, and Der Spiegel found that the same unit of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation responsible for poisoning Mr. Kara-Murza was responsible for poisoning Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and activists Timur Kuashev, Ruslan Magomedragimov, and Nikita Isayev; Whereas, on February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched another unprovoked, unjustified, and illegal invasion into Ukraine in contravention of the obligations freely undertaken by the Russian Federation to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the Minsk protocols of 2014 and 2015, and international law; Whereas, on March 5, 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a law criminalizing the distribution of truthful statements about the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation and mandating up to 15 years in prison for such offenses; Whereas, since February 24, 2022, Mr. Kara-Murza has used his voice and platform to join more than 15,000 citizens of the Russian Federation in peacefully protesting the war against Ukraine and millions more who silently oppose the war; Whereas, on April 11, 2022, five police officers arrested Mr. Kara-Murza in front of his home and denied his right to an attorney, and the next day Mr. Kara-Murza was sentenced to 15 days in prison for disobeying a police order; Whereas, on April 22, 2022, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged Mr. Kara-Murza with violations under the law signed on March 5, 2022, for his fact-based statements condemning the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation; Whereas Mr. Kara-Murza was then placed into pretrial detention and ordered to be held until at least June 12, 2022; and Whereas, if convicted of those charges, Mr. Kara-Murza faces detention in a penitentiary system that human rights nongovernmental organizations have criticized for widespread torture, ill-treatment, and suspicious deaths of prisoners: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate— (1) condemns the unjust detention and indicting of Russian opposition leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, who has courageously stood up to oppression in the Russian Federation; (2) expresses solidarity with Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, his family, and all individuals in the Russian Federation imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and belief; (3) urges the United States Government and other allied governments to work to secure the immediate release of Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and other citizens of the Russian Federation imprisoned for opposing the regime of Vladimir Putin and the war against Ukraine; and (4) calls on the President to increase support provided by the United States Government for those advocating for democracy and independent media in the Russian Federation, which Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza has worked to advance.

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