OSCE Representative Cites Threats to Free Media

OSCE Representative Cites Threats to Free Media

Hon.
Alcee L. Hastings
United States
House of Representatives
111th Congress
Second Session
Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Mr. HASTINGS of Florida. Madam Speaker, as Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I wish to draw the attention of colleagues to the timely and informative testimony of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, who testified earlier today at a Commission hearing on ``Threats to Free Media in the OSCE Region.'' She focused on various threats to journalists and independent media outlets, including physical attacks and adoption of repressive laws on the media as well as other forms of harassment. Most troubling is the murder of journalists because of their professional activities. According to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 52 journalists have been killed in Russia alone since 1992, many reporting on corruption or human rights violations. Ms. Mijatovic also flagged particular concern over existing and emerging threats to freedom on the Internet and other communications technologies. She also voiced concern over the use of criminal statutes on defamation, libel and insult which are used by some OSCE countries to silence journalists or force the closure of media outlets. With respect to the situation in the United States, she urged adoption of a shield law at the federal level to create a journalists' privilege for federal proceedings. Such a provision was part of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009, which passed the House early in the Congress and awaits consideration by the full Senate. 

As one who has worked to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the 56 countries that comprise the OSCE, I share many of the concerns raised by Ms. Mijatovic in her testimony and commend them to colleagues. 

 

ORGANIZATION FOR SECURITY AND CO-OPERATION IN EUROPE REPRESENTATIVE ON FREEDOM OF THE MEDIA 
(By Dunja Mijatovic) [From the Helsinki Commission Hearing on the Threats to Free Media in the OSCE Region, June 9, 2010] 

Dear Chairmen, Distinguished Commissioners, Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I am honored to be invited to this hearing before the Helsinki Commission at the very beginning of my mandate. I feel privileged to speak before you today. The Helsinki Commission's welcoming statement issued on the day of my appointment is a clear manifestation of the strong support you continuously show toward the work of this unique Office, and I assure you, distinguished Commissioners, that this fact is very much appreciated. 

It will be three months tomorrow since I took office as the new Representative on Freedom of the Media to the OSCE. Even though three months may sound short, it has proved more than enough to gain a deep insight, and unfortunately also voice concerns, about the decline of media freedom in many of the 56 countries that today constitute the OSCE. 

Although the challenges and dangers that journalists face in our countries may differ from region to region, one sad fact holds true everywhere: The freedom to express ourselves is questioned and challenged from many sides. Some of these challenges are blatant, others concealed; some of them follow traditional methods to silence free speech and critical voices, some use new technologies to suppress and restrict the free flow of information and media pluralism; and far too many result in physical harassment and deadly violence against journalists. 

Today, I would like to draw your attention to the constant struggle of so many institutions and NGOs around the world, including your Commission and my Institution, to combat and ultimately stop violence against journalists. I would also like to address several other challenges that I want to place in the center of my professional activities, each of which I intend to improve by relentlessly using the public voice I am now given at the OSCE. 

Let me first start with violence against journalists. 

Ever since it was created in 1997, my Office has been raising attention to the alarming increase of violent attacks against journalists. Not only is the high number of violent attacks against journalists a cause for concern. Equally alarming is the authorities' far too-prevalent willingness to classify many of the murders as unrelated to the journalists' professional activities. We also see that more and more often critical speech is being punished with questionable charges brought against the journalists. 

Impunity of perpetrators and the responsible authorities' passivity in investigating and failing to publicly condemn these murders breeds further violence. There are numerous cases that need to be raised over and over again. We need to continue to loudly repeat the names of these courageous individuals who lost their lives for the words they have written. I am sorry for all those whom I will not mention today; but the names that follow are on the list that I call ``the Hall of Shame'' of those governments that still have not brought to justice the perpetrators of the horrifying murders that happened in their countries. 

The most recent murder of a journalist in the OSCE area is the one of the Kyrgyz opposition journalist Gennady Pavlyuk (Bely Parokhod), who was killed in Kazakhstan in December last year. It gives me hope that the new Interim Government of Kyrgyzstan has announced to save no efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice, as well as those involved in the 2007 murder of Alisher Saipov (Siyosat). 

The Russian Federation remains the OSCE participating State where most members of the media are killed. Paul Klebnikov (Forbes, Russia), Anna Politkovskaya (Novaya Gazeta), Anastasia Baburova (Novaya Gazeta), are the most reported about, but let us also remember Magomed Yevloyev (Ingushetiya), Ivan Safronov (Kommersant), Yury Shchekochikhin (Novaya Gazeta), Igor Domnikov (Novaya Gazeta), Vladislav Listyev (ORT), Dmitry Kholodov (Moskovsky Komsomolets) and many others. 

We also should not forget the brutal murders of the following journalists, some remain unresolved today: 

Hrant Dink (Agos) Armenian Turkish journalist was shot in 2007 in Turkey. 

Elmar Huseynov (Monitor) was murdered in 2005 in Azerbaijan. 

Georgy Gongadze (Ukrainskaya Pravda) was killed in 2000 in Ukraine. 

In Serbia, Slavko Curuvija (Dnevni Telegrat) was murdered in 1999, and Milan Pantic (Vecernje Novosti) was killed in 2001. 

In Montenegro, Dusko Jovanovic (Dan), was shot dead in 2004. 

In Croatia, Ivo Pukanic (Nacional) and his marketing director, Niko Franjic, were killed by a car bomb in 2008. 

Violence against journalists equals violence against society and democracy, and it should be met with harsh condemnation and prosecution of the perpetrators. There can be no improvement without an overhaul of the very apparatus of prosecution and law enforcement, starting from the very top of the Government pyramid. 

There is no true press freedom as long as journalists have to fear for their lives while performing their work. The OSCE commitments oblige all participating States to provide safety to these journalists, and I will do my best to pursue this goal with the mandate I am given and with all professional tools at my disposal. 

We also observe another very worrying trend; more and more often the imprisonment of critical journalists based on political motivations including fabricated charges. Let me mention some cases: 

In Azerbaijan, the prominent editor-in-chief of the now-closed independent Russian-language weekly, Realny Azerbaijan, and Azeri-language daily, Gundalik Azarbaycan, Eynulla Fatullayev was sentenced in 2007 to a cumulative eight-and-a-half years in prison on charges on defamation, incitement of ethnic hatred, terrorism and tax evasion. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Azerbaijan in violation of Article 10 and Article 6, paragraphs 1 and 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, so there is only one possible outcome--Fatullayev should be immediately released. 

In Kazakhstan, Ramazan Yesergepov, the editor of Alma-Ata Info, is serving a three-year prison term on charges of disclosing state secrets. 

Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, bloggers from Azerbaijan, are serving two and a half years and two years in prison respectively since July 2009 on charges of hooliganism and infliction of light bodily injuries. 

In Uzbekistan, two independent journalists, Dilmurod Saiid (a freelancer) and Solijon Abdurahmanov (Uznews), are currently serving long jail sentences (twelve-and-a-half-years and ten years) on charges of extortion and drug possession. 

I will continue to raise my voice and demand the immediate release of media workers imprisoned for their critical work. 

I join Chairman Cardin for commending independent journalists in the Helsinki Commission's recent statement on World Press Freedom Day. These professionals pursue truth wherever it may lead them, often at great personal risk. They indeed play a crucial and indispensable role in advancing democracy and human rights. By highlighting these murder and imprisonment cases, by no means do I intend to neglect other forms of harassment or intimidation that also have a threatening effect on journalists. Let me just recall that, with the heightened security concerns in the last decade, police and prosecutors have increasingly raided editorial offices, journalists' homes, or seized their equipment to find leaks that were perceived as security threats. Suppression and restriction of Internet Freedom 

Turning to the problems facing Internet freedom, we can see that new media have changed the communications and education landscape in an even more dramatic manner than did the broadcast media in the last half century. Under my mandate, the challenge has remained the same: how to safeguard or enhance pluralism and the free flow of information, both classical Helsinki obligations within the OSCE. 

It was in 1998 that I read the words of Vinton G. Cerf in his article called ``Truth and the Internet''. It perfectly summarizes the nature of the Internet and the ways it can create freedom. 

Dr. Cerf calls the Internet one of the most powerful agents of freedom: It exposes truth to those who wish to see it. But he also warns us that the power of the Internet is like a two-edged sword: it can also deliver misinformation and uncorroborated opinion with equal ease. The thoughtful and the thoughtless co-exist side by side in the Internet's electronic universe. What is to be done, asks Cerf. 

His answer is to apply critical thinking. Consider the Internet as an opportunity to educate us all. We truly must think about what we see and hear, and we must evaluate and select. We must choose our guides. Furthermore, we must also teach our children to think more deeply about what they see and hear. That, more than any electronic filter, he says, will build a foundation upon which truth can stand. 

Today, this foundation upon which truth could indeed so firmly stand is under continuous pressure by governments. As soon as governments realized that the Internet challenges secrecy and censorship, corruption, inefficiency and bad governing, they started imposing controls on it. In many countries and in many ways the effects are visible and they indeed threaten the potential for information to circulate freely. 

The digital age offers the promise of a truly democratic culture of participation and interactivity. Realizing that promise is the challenge of our times. In the age of the borderless Internet, the protection of the right to freedom of expression ``regardless of frontiers'' takes on a new and more powerful meaning. 

In an age of rapid technological change and convergence, archaic governmental controls over the media are increasingly unjust, indefensible and ultimately unsustainable. Despite progress, many challenges remain, including the lack of or poor quality of national legislation relating to freedom of information, a low level of implementation in many OSCE member states and existing political resistance. 

The importance of providing free access for all people anywhere in the world cannot be raised often enough in the public arena, and cannot be discussed often enough among stakeholders: civil society, media, as well as local and international authorities. 

Freedom of speech is more than a choice about which media products to consume. 

Media freedom and freedom of speech in the digital age also mean giving everyone--not just a small number of people who own the dominant modes of mass communication, but ordinary people, too--an opportunity to use these new technologies to participate, interact, build, route around and talk about whatever they wish--be it politics, public issues or popular culture. The Internet fundamentally affects how we live. It offers extraordinary opportunities for us to learn, trade, connect, create and also to safeguard human rights and strengthen democratic values. It allows us to hear each other, see each other and speak to each other. It can connect isolated people and help them through their personal problems. 

These rights, possibilities and ideals are at the heart of the Helsinki Process and the OSCE principles and commitments that we share. We must find the best ways to spread access to the Internet, so that the whole world can benefit from what it can offer, rather than increasing the existing gaps between those who have access to information and those who do not. And to those governments who fear and distrust the openness brought along by the Internet, let me emphasize over and over again: 

The way a society uses the new communications technologies and how it responds to economic, political and cultural globalization will determine the very future of that society. Restrict access to information, and your chances to develop will become restricted. Open up the channels of free communication, and your society will find ways to prosper. 

I was delighted to hear Secretary of State Clinton speak about a basic freedom in her January speech on Internet freedom in the ``Newseum''. This freedom is the freedom to connect. Secretary Clinton rightly calls this freedom the freedom of assembly in cyber space. It allows us to come together online, and shape our society in fundamental ways. Fame or money is no longer a requisite to immensely affect our world. 

My office is rapidly developing a comprehensive strategy to identify the main problems related to Internet regulation in the 56 countries of the OSCE, and ways to address these issues. I will count on the support of the Helsinki Commission to advance the universal values that this strategy will attempt to extend to those countries where these values are still being questioned. 

Let me also mention the importance to protect the freedom of other new technologies. 

Only two weeks ago, my Office organized the 12th Central Asia Media Conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where media professionals from all five Central Asian countries adopted a declaration on access to information and new technologies. This document calls on OSCE governments to facilitate the freer and wider dissemination of information, including through modern information and communication technologies, so as to ensure wide access of the public to governmental information. 

It also reiterates that new technologies strengthen democracy by ensuring easy access to information, and calls upon state institutions with legislative competencies to refrain from adopting new legislation that would restrict the free flow of information. And only this spring my Office published a guide to the digital switchover, to assist the many OSCE countries where the switch from analogue to digital will take place in the next five years. The aim of the guide is to help plan the digitalization process, and help ensure that it positively affects media freedom, as well as the choice and quality available to the audience. 

Besides advocating the importance of good digitalization strategies, I will also use all available fora to raise attention to the alarming lack of broadcast pluralism, especially television broadcast pluralism, in many OSCE countries. As television is the main source of information in many OSCE regions, we must ensure that the laws allow for diverse, high-quality programs and objective news to easily reach every one of us. Only well-informed citizens can make good choices and further democratic values. Whether we talk about Internet regulation, inventive ways to switch to digital while preserving the dominance of a few selected broadcasters, attempts to limit access to information or broadcast pluralism, we must keep one thing in mind: No matter what governments do, in the long run, their attempts to regulate is a lost battle. 

People always find ways to obtain the rights that are denied to them. History has shown this over and over again. In the short run, however, it is very clear that I will intervene with governments which try to restrict the free flow of information. Defamation 

Similar to fighting violence against journalists, my Office has been campaigning since its establishment in 1997 to decriminalize defamation and libel in the entire OSCE region. 

Unfortunately, in most countries, defamation is still punishable by imprisonment, which threatens the existence of critical speech in the media. This is so despite the consistent rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, stating that imprisonment for speech offences, especially when committed by criticizing public figures, is a disproportionate punishment. 

Let us again remind ourselves of the journalists and bloggers I have mentioned above when discussing violence against journalists. They are currently in prison because their writing was considered defamatory. Their fate reminds us all of the importance of the right to freely speak our mind. 

This problem needs urgent reform not only in the new, but also in the old democracies of the OSCE. Although the obsolete criminal provisions have not been used in Western Europe for decades, their ``chilling effect'' remained. 

Furthermore, the mere existence of these provisions has served as a justification for other states that are unwilling to stop the criminalization of journalistic errors, and instead leave these offenses solely to the civil-law domain. 

Currently, defamation is a criminal offence in all but ten OSCE countries--my home country Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Last year, three OSCE countries decriminalized defamation, which I consider to be an enormous success: Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom; the last being the first among the Western European participating States to officially decriminalize defamation. 

Some other countries, such as Armenia, are currently reforming their defamation provisions, and I hope that I can soon welcome the next country that carries out this important and very long overdue reform.

 

Concluding remarks 

Dear Chairmen, 

Dear Commissioners, 

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

The above problematic areas--violence against journalists, restrictions of new media including the Internet, lack of pluralism and resistance to decriminalize defamation--are among the most urgent media freedom problems that need our attention and concentrated efforts today. However, we will also not forget about the many other fields where there is plenty of room to improve. Of course, I will not miss the excellent opportunity that we are here together today to raise your attention to the topic that my distinguished predecessor, Miklos Haraszti, has already raised with you: the establishment and the adoption of a federal shield law in the United States. 

As you know, my Office has been a dedicated promoter of the federal shield law for many years. If passed, the Free Flow of Information Act would provide a stronger protection to journalists; it could ensure that imprisonments such as that of Judith Miller in 2005, and Josh Wolf in 2006, could never again take place and hinder investigative journalism. But the passage of such legislation would resonate far further than within the borders of the United States of America. It could send a very much needed signal and set a precedent to all the countries where protection of sources is still opposed by the government and is still not more than a dream for journalists. 

I respectfully ask all of you, distinguished Commissioners, to continue and even increase your efforts to enable that the Free Flow of Information Act soon becomes the latest protector of media freedom in the United States. 

And of course I cannot close my speech without mentioning my home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. As you know, not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also most of the emerging democracies in the Balkans enjoy modern and forward-looking media legislation. We can openly say that they almost have it all when it comes to an advanced legal and regulatory framework enabling free expression to thrive. But it is not that simple. I use this moment to pose several questions: if there are good laws, then why do we still face severe problems in relation to media freedom, why do we stagnate and sometimes even move backward? Where does the problem lie? And, more importantly, how can we solve it and move ahead? 

What Bosnia and Herzegovina shows us is that good laws in themselves are not enough. Without their good implementation, they are only documents filled with unrealized potential. In countries that struggle with similar problems, we must stress over and over again: without the full implementation of valid legislation, without genuine political will, without a comprehensive understanding of the media's role in a functioning democracy, without the creation of a safe environment for journalists to do their work, and without true commitment by all actors, these countries risk falling far behind international standards. 

Apart from unmet expectations and disillusioned citizens, we all know that the consequences of politicized and misused media could be very serious. In conclusion, let me assure you, dear Commissioners, that I will not hesitate to openly and vigorously remind any country of their responsibilities toward implementing the OSCE commitments to the freedom of the media. 

I am also asking you to use this opportunity today and send a clear message to the governments of all OSCE countries to do their utmost to fully implement their media legislation safeguarding freedom of expression. The governments have the power to create an environment in which media can perform their unique role free of pressures and threats. Without this, no democracy can flourish. 

Thank you for your attention.

Leadership: 
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    Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson joined former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant James Vasquez and Lt. Colonel Ripley “Rip” Rawlings (USMC, Ret.) to discuss U.S. volunteers fighting for Ukraine. Mr. Vasquez is a volunteer soldier fighting in Ukraine who partnered with Lt. Col. Rawlings to provide on-the-ground support through an organization called Ripley’s Heroes.   At the beginning of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Vasquez decided to travel to Ukraine and fight alongside Ukrainians. For three months, Vasquez armed and trained Ukrainian soldiers to “fight like gentlemen.” Vasquez noted that Ukrainians are “warriors in spirit and in heart,” but require training and supplies to be most effective. After fighting alongside Ukrainians, Vasquez developed a comradery with his unit, and is returning to Ukraine this month to deliver more supplies and continue fighting. Lt. Col. Rawlings met Vasquez in Ukraine in the early weeks of war and the two decided to launch Ripley’s Heroes, an organization providing essential military support to Ukrainian soldiers. Ripley’s Heroes has Ukrainian partners on the ground, including the Kiev-based NGO Come Back Alive, who help ensure that soldiers receive necessary supplies as quickly as possible. When asked by Rep. Cohen what the United States should do moving forward to support a Ukrainian victory, Lt. Col. Rawlings noted that a key obstacle to providing Ukrainians with warfighting supplies are U.S. commercial regulations on the export of military equipment, such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). According to Lt. Col. Rawlings, rather than simply keeping U.S. military technology out of the hands of nefarious actors, ITAR prevents private U.S. citizens from supporting the war effort by providing simple, effective, non-lethal equipment, like night-vision goggles. Mr. Vasquez agreed that changing U.S. laws to remove the regulations that prevent private citizens from helping Ukraine could help them win the war.

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

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

  • 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 Briefing to Highlight U.S. Volunteers Fighting for Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: SHOULDER TO SHOULDER On the Front Lines with the Ukrainian Military’s Foreign Soldiers Thursday, July 14, 2022 2:00 p.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r6604c3bdc74d6eb2ff6c8bfa86784358 In Russia’s war on Ukraine, an unprovoked attack, unspeakable atrocities, and genocidal intent is juxtaposed against a valiant defense of hearth and home, a spirit of national unity, and grassroots mobilization. Not since the 1930s has a foreign war between a larger aggressor and a smaller but tenacious underdog so captivated the imagination of freedom-loving people. Answering the call of conscience, many American combat veterans are now fighting alongside Ukrainian servicemembers, applying their experience in combined arms maneuver and decentralized command to help Ukraine win the war. This briefing will examine the war in Ukraine through the eyes of two American volunteers: former U.S. Army staff sergeant James Vasquez and Lt. Colonel Rip Rawlings (USMC, Ret.). Vasquez fought in Ukraine in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion and soon plans to return to the battlefield. Rawlings is providing logistical support to the Ukrainian military through Ripley’s Heroes, a foundation he co-founded with Vasquez.

  • Black Sea Security Summit

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

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

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

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

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

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

  • Declare Putin’s War Genocide

    A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution characterizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as an act of genocide on Friday.  A draft of the resolution, seen by Foreign Policy, argues that atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the direct targeting of maternity hospitals and medical facilities, and the forcible transfer of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia and Russian-held territory meet the criteria laid out in Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  Congressional resolutions are commonly used by lawmakers to express strongly held sentiments by members of the House of Representatives or Senate. Although the resolution is not legally binding, it sends a strong message of condemnation of Russia’s actions and indicates ongoing efforts by members of Congress to provide continued support to Ukraine beyond military aid.  In April, U.S. President Joe Biden characterized Russian atrocities in Ukraine as an act of genocide. “We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” he said, speaking to reporters in Iowa. Biden’s remarks were echoed by the Canadian and British prime ministers while French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declined to use the term, underscoring long-standing differences within the international community as to what constitutes genocide.  As a crime, genocide is distinct from other mass atrocities, and it is defined in the United Nation Genocide Convention as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Since 1989, the U.S. State Department has recognized eight genocides, most recently declaring attacks on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as genocide. U.S. designations of genocide can take years of gathering and analyzing evidence, and senior Biden administration officials noted that the president’s remarks in April did not constitute a formal U.S. policy shift. Arguing that events in Ukraine could constitute genocide, the resolution points to statements made in Russian state media and by senior officials, including by Russian President Vladimir Putin, that undermine Ukrainian statehood and sovereignty; the congressional resolution alleges that the atrocities were carried out with a specific purpose. Proving that the crimes are carried out with deliberate genocidal intent can often be difficult to prove in law.  A number of Russian soldiers and units—which were accused of committing war crimes in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, specifically torture, rape, and summary executions of civilians—were awarded in April by Putin, who designated the 64th Motor Rifle Brigade as Guards and praised them for their “mass heroism and valor, tenacity, and courage.” The resolution is set to be introduced by Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen and is expected to be co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of House members who sit on the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe. In April, the commission wrote to the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to endorse a declaration passed by the Ukrainian parliament characterizing Russia’s actions as genocide and urging the assembly to pass a similar resolution.

  • Decolonizing Russia

    Russia’s barbaric war on Ukraine—and before that on Syria, Libya, Georgia, and Chechnya—has exposed the Russian Federation’s viciously imperial character to the entire world. Its aggression also is catalyzing a long-overdue conversation about Russia’s interior empire, given Moscow’s dominion over many indigenous non-Russian nations, and the brutal extent to which the Kremlin has taken to suppress their national self-expression and self-determination. Serious and controversial discussions are now underway about reckoning with Russia’s fundamental imperialism and the need to “decolonize” Russia for it to become a viable stakeholder in European security and stability. As the successor to the Soviet Union, which cloaked its colonial agenda in anti-imperial and anti-capitalist nomenclature, Russia has yet to attract appropriate scrutiny for its consistent and oftentimes brutal imperial tendencies. Related Information Witness Biographies

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

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

  • Decolonization of Russia to Be Discussed at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DECOLONIZING RUSSIA A Moral and Strategic Imperative Thursday, June 23, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r6c43d40f2b988be5e94f7614ea4a6768 Russia’s barbaric war on Ukraine—and before that on Syria, Libya, Georgia, and Chechnya—has exposed the Russian Federation’s viciously imperial character to the entire world. Its aggression also is catalyzing a long-overdue conversation about Russia’s interior empire, given Moscow’s dominion over many indigenous non-Russian nations, and the brutal extent to which the Kremlin has taken to suppress their national self-expression and self-determination. Serious and controversial discussions are now underway about reckoning with Russia’s fundamental imperialism and the need to “decolonize” Russia for it to become a viable stakeholder in European security and stability. As the successor to the Soviet Union, which cloaked its colonial agenda in anti-imperial and anti-capitalist nomenclature, Russia has yet to attract appropriate scrutiny for its consistent and oftentimes brutal imperial tendencies. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Fatima Tlis, Circassian journalist Botakoz Kassymbekova, Lecturer, University of Basel Erica Marat, Associate Professor, College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University Hanna Hopko, Chair, Democracy in Action Conference; former Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Casey Michel, Author, American Kleptocracy

  • 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 Disturbed by Navalny’s Transfer to Notorious Melekhovo Prison Colony

    WASHINGTON—Following the temporary disappearance of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his subsequent transfer to an infamously severe prison colony in Melekhovo, Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Alexei Navalny should have never been jailed in the first place. His disappearance—with no notification to his lawyers or his family—is a chilling reminder of the dangerous reality of being a political prisoner in Putin’s Russia. The Melekhovo prison colony is infamous for its history of abuse and torture, and we are concerned that Mr. Navalny is now at even greater risk of harm. We will never stop calling for his release and the release of all prisoners of conscience in Russia, including Russian patriot Vladimir Kara-Murza.” On June 14, Navalny’s lawyers unexpectedly were turned away from IK-2, the penal colony where he had been detained, and informed only that Navalny was no longer there. Russian state media later reported that he was transferred to a high-security penal colony in Melekhovo, in the same region. Inmates there report being beaten, raped, and tortured by guards and other inmates. In March, Russian authorities sentenced Navalny to nine years in prison, in addition to his original sentence of two and a half years. He has been jailed since January 2021. Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was arrested in April, remains in prison awaiting trial for spreading “false” information about the Russian military.

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