The Russian Government Violates Its Security, Economic, Human Rights Commitments and Agreements

The Russian Government Violates Its Security, Economic, Human Rights Commitments and Agreements

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
114th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mr. Speaker, yesterday I chaired a hearing of the Helsinki Commission that examined the Russian government’s repeated violations of its international security, economic, and human rights commitments. 

In accord with the three dimensions of security promoted by the OSCE and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the Commission looked at Russia’s respect for the rule of law through the lens of three ‘‘case studies’’ current to U.S.-Russian relations—arms control agreements; the Yukos litigation; and instances of abduction, unjust imprisonment, and abuse of prisoners. 

Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act. 

At stake is the hard-won trust between members—now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails. 

In respect of military security, under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Russia reaffirmed its commitment to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders. Russia also committed to refrain from the threat or use of force or economic coercion against Ukraine. There was a quid pro quo here: Russia did this in return for transferring Soviet-made nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil to Russia. 

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. It appears these are not isolated instances. In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments such as the Vienna Document and binding international agreements, including the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), and Open Skies treaties. 

In respect of commercial issues, the ongoing claims regarding the Russian government’s expropriation of the Yukos Oil Company are major tests facing the Russian government. In July 2014, GML Limited and other shareholders were part of a $52 billion arbitration claim awarded by the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). 

In response, the Russian government is threatening to withdraw from the ECHR and seize U.S. assets should American courts freeze Russian holdings on behalf of European claimants, while filing technical challenges that will occupy the courts for years to come. All of this fundamentally calls into question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms such as that of the Hague. 

I note that U.S. Yukos shareholders are not covered by the Hague ruling for their estimated $6 billion in losses. This is due to the fact that the United States has not ratified the Energy Charter Treaty, under which European claimants won their case, as well as the continued absence of a bilateral investment treaty with Russia. This has handicapped U.S. investors in Russia’s energy sector, leaving them solely dependent of a State Department espousal process with the Russian government. 

We were all relieved to learn that Mr. Kara-Murza is recovering from the attempt on his life—by poisoning—in Russia earlier this year. His tireless work on behalf of democracy in Russia, and his personal integrity and his love of his native country is an inspiration—it is true patriotism, a virtue sadly lacking among nationalistic demagogues. 

Sadly, the attempt on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life is not an isolated instance. Others have been murdered—most recently Boris Nemtsov—and both his and Mr. Kara-Murza’s cases remain unsolved. 

In other cases, such as the abductions, unjust imprisonments, and abuses of Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, and Eston Kohver, we are dealing the plain and public actions of the Russian government. Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot and elected parliamentarian, was abducted by Russian government agents, imprisoned, subjected to a humiliating show trial, and now faces 25 years in prison for allegedly murdering Russian reporters—who in fact were killed after she was in Russian custody.  Meanwhile, a Russian court has sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov on charges of terrorism. Tortured during detention, Sentsov’s only transgressions appear to be his refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and his effort to help deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers trapped on their Crimean bases by invading Russian soldiers. And the kidnaping and subsequent espionage trial against Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver demonstrates the Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders. 

The Magnitsky Act that I had the honor to co-sponsor was in part meant to address human rights abuses such as these. It sanctions those involved in the abuse, and works to discourage further human rights violations while protecting those brave enough to call attention to their occurrence. It troubles me greatly to hear that the Administration’s listings of sanctioned individuals has thus far only targeted ‘minor players,’ rather than those who pull the strings.  

Leadership: 
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  • Bosnia & Herzegovina

    Mr. President, it is important for this Senate and this country to once again be interested in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During my time in Congress, and particularly since joining the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which I now chair, the Western Balkans have been an ongoing concern of mine. Although our relationship with all of these countries of the Western Balkans is important, the United States has a specific interest, a particular interest, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We need to concentrate more on that. I had the opportunity in July to lead a nine-member bicameral delegation to Bosnia. The delegation sought to see more of the country and to hear from its citizens, rather than meet only in the offices of senior Bosnian officials. We visited the small town of Trebinje in the entity of Republika Srpska, and we visited the city of Mostar in the entity of the Federation. Then, we went on and visited in Sarajevo, the capital, engaging with international officials, the Bosnian Presidency, and citizens seeking a better Bosnia. Bosnia was a U.S. foreign policy priority when I came to the House in 1995. In less than a decade, Bosnia had gone from international acclaim while hosting the Winter Olympics to the scene of the worst carnage in human suffering in Europe since World War II. The conflict that erupted in Bosnia in 1992 was not internally generated. Rather, Bosnia became the victim of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the extreme nationalist forces this breakup unleashed throughout the region, first and foremost by Serbian leader and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. The carnage and tragic conflict that occurred in the early 1990s was more than about Bosnia. It was about security in a Europe just emerging from its Cold War divisions and the international principles upon which that security was based. For that reason, the United States, under President Bill Clinton, rightly exercised leadership when Europe asked us to, having failed to do so themselves. The Clinton administration brokered the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995 and enabled NATO to engage in peacemaking and peacekeeping to preserve Bosnia's unity and territorial integrity. That was the Bosnian peace agreement. Almost a quarter of a century later, after the expenditure of significant diplomatic, military, and foreign assistance resources, the physical scars of the conflict have been largely erased. As we learned during our recent visit, the country remains far short of the prosperous democracy we hoped it would become and that its people deserve. Mostar, a spectacular city to visit, remains ethnically divided with Bosniak and Croat students separated by ethnicity in schools, even inside the same school buildings. Bosnian citizens, who are of minority groups, such as Jews, Romanis, or of mixed heritage, still cannot run for certain political offices. This is 2018. They can't run for State-level Presidency, simply because of their ethnicity. Neither can Bosniaks and Croats in Republika Srpska or Serbs in the Bosnian Federation run for the Presidency because of their ethnicity, in Europe in 2018. Nor can those numerous citizens who, on principle, refuse to declare their ethnicity because it should not replace their real qualifications for holding office. This goes on despite repeated rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that this flaw in the Dayton-negotiated Constitution must be corrected. In total, well over 300,000 people in a country of only 3.5 million fall into these categories despite what is likely their strong commitment to the country and to its future as a multiethnic state. This is simply wrong, and it needs to end. In addition, youth employment in Bosnia is among the highest in the world, and many who can leave the country are doing so, finding a future in Europe and finding a future in the United States. This denies Bosnia much of its needed talent and energy. Civil society is kept on the sidelines. Decisions in Bosnia are being made by political party leaders who are not accountable to the people. They are the decision makers. The people should be decision makers. Corruption is rampant. Ask anyone in Europe, and they will tell you, Bosnia's wealth and potential is being stolen by corruption. General elections will be held in October with a system favoring the status quo and resistance to electoral reforms that would give Bosnians more rather than fewer choices. The compromises made two and a half decades ago in Dayton to restore peace and give the leading ethnic groups--Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats-- an immediate sense of security make governance dysfunctional today. Two-and-a-half-decades-old agreements make governance inefficient today in Bosnia. Collective privileges for these groups come at the expense of the individual human rights of the citizens who are all but coerced into making ethnic identity their paramount concern and a source of division, when so many other common interests should unite them. Ethnically based political parties benefit as they engage in extensive patronage and corruption. Beneath the surface, ethnic reconciliation has not taken hold, and resulting tensions can still destabilize the country and even lead to violence. Malign outside forces, particularly Vladimir Putin's Russia but also influences from Turkey and Gulf States, seek to take advantage of the political impasse and malaise, steering the country away from its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. As a result of these developments, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not making much progress, even as its neighbors join NATO and join the EU or make progress toward their desired integration. In my view, we should rightly credit the Dayton agreement for restoring peace to Bosnia. That was 25 years ago, but it is regrettable the negotiators did not put an expiration date on ethnic accommodations so Bosnia could become a modern democracy. As one of our interlocutors told us, the international community, which has substantial powers in Bosnia, has steadily withdrawn, turning over decision making to Bosnian officials who were not yet committed to making the country work and naively hoping the promise of future European integration would encourage responsible behavior. That has not happened. Of course, we can't turn back the clock and can't insert that expiration date on the Dayton agreement, but having made a difference in 1995, we can and should help make a difference again today. It is in our national security interest that we do so. I suggest the following. The United States and our European friends should state, unequivocally, that Dayton is an absolute baseline, which means only forward progress should be allowed. Separation or new entities should be declared to be clearly out of the question. Secondly, U.S. policymakers should also remind everyone that the international community, including NATO, did not relinquish its powers to Bosnia but simply has chosen to withdraw and exercise them less robustly. We should seek an agreement to resurrect the will to use these powers and to do so with resolve if growing tensions make renewed violence a credible possibility. Next, the United States and Europe should adopt a policy of imposing sanctions on individual Bosnian officials who are clearly engaged in corruption or who ignore the Dayton parameters, Bosnian law, and court rulings in their work. Washington has already done this regarding Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, and just recently, Nikola Spiric, a member of Bosnia's House of Representatives. However, the scope should be expanded, and European capitals need to join us in this regard. Senior U.S. officials, as well as Members of Congress, should make Sarajevo a priority. I hope more of our Members will visit Bosnia and increase our visibility, demonstrate our continued commitment, and enhance our understanding. Bosnia may not be ready to join NATO, but its Membership Action Plan should be activated without further delay. As soon as this year's elections are over in Bosnia, the international community should encourage the quick formation of new parliaments and governments at all levels, followed immediately by vigorous reform efforts that eliminate the discrimination in the criteria for certain offices, ensure that law enforcement more effectively serves and protects all residents, and end the corruption in healthcare and so many other violent areas of daily life. Our policy must shift back to an impetus on universal principles of individual human rights and citizen-based government. Indeed, the privileges Dayton accorded to the three main ethnic groups are not rights but privileges that should not be upheld at the expense of genuine democracy and individual rights. We, in my view, have been far too fatalistic about accepting in Bosnia what we are not willing to accept anywhere else. We also underestimate what Bosnians might find acceptable, and we should be encouraging them to support leaders based on credentials, positions, and personal integrity, not based on ethnicity. There should no longer be a reason why a Bosniak, Serb, or Croat voter should be prohibited by law from considering a candidate of another ethnicity or a multiethnic political party. All candidates and parties would do well to seek votes from those not belonging to a single ethnic group. This may take time and perhaps some effort, but it should happen sooner rather than later. Let me conclude by asserting that greater engagement is in the interest of the United States--the economic interest and the national security interest. Our country is credited with Bosnia's preservation after the country was almost destroyed by aggression, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Thank God our country was there for Bosnia. Our adversaries--notably, but not exclusively, Russia--would like nothing more than to make an American effort fail in the end, and they would ensure that its repercussions are felt elsewhere around the globe. Current trends in Bosnia make the country an easier entry point for extremism in Europe, including Islamic extremism. If we wait for discrimination and ethnic tensions to explode again, our engagement will then become a moral imperative at significantly greater cost. The people of Bosnia, like their neighbors throughout the Balkans, know they are in Europe but consider the United States their most trusted friend, their most honest friend. They want our presence and engagement, and given the tragedies they have experienced, they have earned our support and friendship

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  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Value and Hazards of Free-Trade Zones

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  • Condolence Letter from OSCE PA President to Helsinki Commission Leaders Following Death of Sen. John McCain

    This week, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli offered his condolences to Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) following the death of Sen. John McCain. The letter reads in part: “His departure will leave a large void in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol and in many capital cities, where so many of us appreciated his frequent visits and his staunch dedication to transatlantic co-operation … “More than anyone, he believed that a strong relationship between the U.S. and Europe is necessary to promote peace and stability across the OSCE area and throughout the world. This week, the OSCE lost a friend whose unwavering commitment to democratic principles made of him a critical voice in our transatlantic community. "Many of us remember fondly his participation in our 2012 Annual Session in Monaco, where he underlined U.S. efforts to sanction human rights offenders and when his words aligned our Assembly with a universal aspiration ‘for justice, for equal dignity under the law, and for the indominable spirit of human freedom.’” Sen. McCain was a longtime supporter of human rights and active in the OSCE region. In 2011, along with then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. McCain was an original co-sponsor of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act imposing sanctions on those responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and individuals who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders in Russia. The two also co-authored the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which gives the United States the power to deny travel and banking privileges in the United States to those who commit gross violations of human rights or acts of significant corruption. At the 2012 OSCE PA annual session, Sen. McCain spoke passionately in support of a resolution on the rule of law in Russia, which highlighted Magnitsky’s case.   “I believe that supporting the rule of law is pro-Russia. I believe that defending the innocent and punishing the guilty is pro-Russia. And ultimately, I believe the virtues that Sergei Magnitsky embodied—integrity, fair-dealing, fidelity to truth and justice, and the deepest love of country, which does not turn a blind eye to the failings of one's government, but seeks to remedy them by insisting on the highest standards—this too is pro-Russia, and I would submit that it represents the future that most Russians want for themselves and their country,” he said. “The example that Sergei set during his brief life is now inspiring more and more Russian citizens. They are standing up and speaking up in favor of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. They, like us, do not want Russia to be weak and unstable. They want it to be a successful and just and lawful country, as we do. Most of these Russian human rights and rule of law advocates support our efforts to continue Sergei's struggle for what's right, just as they are now doing … let us align this Assembly with the highest aspirations of the Russian people—Sergei's aspirations—for justice, for equal dignity under the law, and for the indomitable spirit of human freedom.”

  • What’s really behind Putin’s obsession with the Magnitsky Act

    Standing by President Trump’s side in Helsinki for their first bilateral summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made what Trump described as an “incredible” offer: He would help U.S. investigators gain access to Russian intelligence officers indicted for the 2016 election hacking, on one small condition. “We would expect that the Americans would reciprocate and they would question [U.S.] officials … who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia,” Putin said, producing the name to indicate what actions he had in mind: “Mr. Browder.” Bill Browder, an American-born financier, came to Russia in the 1990s. The grandson of a former general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Browder by his own admission wanted to become “the biggest capitalist in Russia.” He succeeded and was for a decade the country’s largest portfolio foreign investor. Whatever the sins of Russia’s freewheeling capitalism, Browder’s real crime in the eyes of the Kremlin came later, after he had been expelled from Russia in 2005. In 2008, his Moscow lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a tax scam involving government officials that defrauded Russian taxpayers of $230 million. He did what any law-abiding citizen would, reporting the crime to the relevant authorities. In return, he was arrested and held in detention without trial for almost a year. He was beaten and died on Nov. 16, 2009, at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison under mysterious circumstances. Officials involved in his case received awards and promotions. In a chilling act worthy of Kafka, the only trial held in the Magnitsky case was a posthumous sentencing of himself — the only trial against a dead man in the history of Russia. It was then that Browder turned from investment to full-time advocacy, traveling the world to persuade one Western parliament after another to pass a measure that was as groundbreaking as it would appear obvious: a law, commemoratively named the Magnitsky Act, that bars individuals (from Russia and elsewhere) who are complicit in human rights abuses and corruption from traveling to the West, owning assets in the West and using the financial system of the West. Boris Nemtsov, then Russia’s opposition leader (who played a key role in convincing Congress to pass the law in 2012), called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law in the history of any foreign Parliament.” It was the smartest approach to sanctions. It avoided the mistake of targeting Russian citizens at large for the actions of a small corrupt clique in the Kremlin and placed responsibility directly where it is due. It was also the most effective approach. The people who are in charge of Russia today like to pose as patriots, but in reality, they care little about the country. They view it merely as a looting ground, where they can amass personal fortunes at the expense of Russian taxpayers and then transfer those fortunes to the West. In one of his anti-corruption reports, Nemtsov detailed the unexplained riches attained by Putin’s personal friends such as Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk and the Rotenberg brothers, noting that they are likely “no more that the nominal owners … and the real ultimate beneficiary is Putin himself.” Similar suspicions were voiced after the publication of the 2016 Panama Papers, which showed a $2 billion offshore trail leading to another close Putin friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin. Some of the funds in his accounts were linked with money from the tax fraud scheme uncovered by Magnitsky. Volumes of research, hours of expert testimony and countless policy recommendations have been dedicated to finding effective Western approaches to Putin’s regime. The clearest and the most convincing answer was provided, time and again, by the Putin regime itself. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin tasked his foreign ministry with trying to stop; it was the Magnitsky Act that was openly tied to the ban on child adoptions; it was the Magnitsky Act that was the subject of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting attended by a Kremlin-linked lawyer; it is advocating for the Magnitsky Act that may soon land any Russian citizen in prison. It was the Magnitsky Act that Putin named as the biggest threat to his regime as he stood by Trump’s side in Helsinki. After the Trump-Putin meeting, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office released the names of U.S. citizens it wants to question as supposed associates of Browder. The list leaves no doubt as to the nature of the “crime.” It includes Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia policy at the Obama White House and later U.S. Ambassador in Moscow who oversaw the “compiling of memos to the State Department … on the investigation in the Magnitsky case.” It includes David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, who, as president of Freedom House between 2010 and 2014, was one of the most effective advocates for the Magnitsky Act. Perhaps most tellingly, it includes Kyle Parker, now chief of staff at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who, as the lead Russia staffer at the commission, wrote the bill that subsequently became the Magnitsky Act. Vladimir Putin has left no doubt: The biggest threat to his regime is the Magnitsky Act, which stops its beneficiaries from doing what has long become their raison d’être — stealing in Russia and spending in the West. It is time for more Western nations to adopt this law — and for the six countries that already have it to implement it with vigor and resolve.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Troubled by Continued Imprisonment of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s ruling by a Turkish court that U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson will remain jailed pending his next trial date in October, the four senior members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission—Helsinki Chairman Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Ranking Commissioner Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20)—released the following statements: “The cruelty of today’s decision is astonishing,” said Chairman Wicker. “By extending Pastor Brunson’s indefinite detention and setting his next trial date for mid-October, the Turkish government has declared its intention to keep this innocent man in jail past the two-year anniversary of his arrest without conviction or any credible evidence against him. There is no room in NATO for hostage-taking. Pastor Brunson should be freed immediately.” “Over the past 18 months, it has become clear that President Erdogan has the ability to end this injustice, but he refuses to do so,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “President Erdogan has put Pastor Brunson and his family through 649 days of enormous suffering. Pastor Brunson must be released immediately, otherwise this cruel abuse of a U.S. citizen should have serious consequences for our country’s relationship with the Turkish government.”   “I remain deeply concerned that Mr. Brunson remains in prison in Turkey,” said Sen. Cardin. “Today’s action represents yet another miscarriage of justice in this case. The Turkish government must drop its spurious charges and release Mr. Brunson immediately.” “Turkey’s persecution of Pastor Brunson has been characterized by conspiratorial charges, anonymous witnesses, and political agendas, and bears no resemblance to a credible judicial process,” said Rep. Hastings. “Even as the Turkish government prepares to lift its nearly two-year state of emergency, we should not be fooled into thinking that the rule of law is returning to Turkey. Pastor Brunson’s wrongful imprisonment proves that nothing is likely to change.” Pastor Brunson is one of several American citizens, including NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, who have been caught up in the sweeping purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Despite the efforts of the President of the United States, among many others, he has spent more than a year in jail on national security charges. Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with similar terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks. A third consulate employee remains under house arrest on dubious charges.   In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. A month earlier, Helsinki Commission leaders called on President Erdogan to lift the state of emergency imposed in July 2016 after the failed military coup against his government. The Turkish government has announced it will not seek to extend emergency rule when it expires tomorrow, but draft legislation introduced by Erdogan’s government would enshrine many of his controversial emergency decrees. Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders also urged President Trump to seek guarantees that U.S. citizens jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance.

  • Transatlantic Relations in Flux

    Following recent changes to the U.S. approach to economic and security policies in Europe, and a series of internal European developments—such as the recent influx of migrants and refugees, challenges to the rule of law, and Brexit—the transatlantic relationship is evolving rapidly. At the briefing, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) discussed current obstacles in the transatlantic relationship and identified opportunities to strengthen the relationship moving forward.    MEP Claude Moraes of the United Kingdom kicked off the conversation by remarking on the importance of the European Union’s relationship with the United States. Moraes outlined concerns shared by the EU and the United States, ranging from commercial and security data transfers to counterterrorism and cybersecurity. “It’s about ensuring that we protect our democracies, our elections from interference, as we’ve seen from Russia,” Moraes said. Moraes also discussed the importance of security cooperation and BREXIT’s impact on the transatlantic relationship. “The EU is a good thing,” he said, noting that the EU magnifies the U.K.’s global ability to work with other countries on security and counterterrorism issues. For example, following BREXIT the U.K. is likely to lose some of its access to Europol, an EU-wide law enforcement agency that coordinates the sharing of intelligence, data, and other resources between EU Member States. Noting that the original goals of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act were to promote and defend democracy, MEP Michał Boni of Poland highlighted obstacles on both sides of the Atlantic to an ideal transatlantic relationship. On the U.S. side, he cited trade wars, waning diplomacy, and political uncertainty and instability. On the EU side, he lamented the rise of “illiberalism” across the continent, including challenges to democratic principles in Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Italy.   If the transatlantic relationship is to advance into the future, “we need now to start and to fight for the democracy, freedoms, and rule of law on both sides of Atlantic,” Boni said. French MEP Nathalie Griesbeck observed that the United States is the EU’s most important partner in the fight against terrorism and praised the skills of the U.S. intelligence community, noting that transatlantic intelligence-sharing efforts had prevented terror attacks across Europe.  “The European Union and the United States should use all available channels of communication in order to strengthen the transatlantic relationship [and] use the full potential of that cooperation to preserve the democratic, liberal, and multilateral order to promote stability and continuity on the continents […] even if the winds are sometimes bad,” she said. Panelists also addressed the question of whether migration to Europe could be capitalized upon to address the EU’s shrinking workforce and the need to preserve Europe’s economic future. They agreed that with efforts to attract highly skilled workers falling short, Europe must juggle political pushback against increased migration with the reality of an aging population. The MEPs also discussed the recent EU-Japan trade agreement, the EU’s Eastern Partnership, Turkey, the Western Balkans, and EU enlargement.

  • Wicker Chairs Hearing on Russian Occupation of the Republic of Georgia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today hosted a hearing on Russia’s decade-long occupation of the Republic of Georgia. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and seized the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The war in Georgia set the stage for Vladimir Putin’s subsequent war in Ukraine, including the illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas. “The invasion of Georgia demonstrated that Vladimir Putin is ready and willing to use his military and intelligence services to redraw international borders and meddle in the internal affairs of a neighboring state,” Chairman Wicker said during his opening statement. “The Helsinki Commission is holding this hearing to make sure the American people and the international community do not lose sight of the continued illegal occupation of Georgia — as well as its costs and implications.” Senator Wicker’s full opening statement is below. Good morning and welcome to this hearing on “Russia’s Occupation of Georgia and the Erosion of the International Order.” As you know, the Helsinki Commission monitors the compliance of OSCE participating states to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  In recent years, we have been compelled to pay particular attention to Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all ten principles of the OSCE’s founding document. In August 2008, Russian armed forces invaded Georgia in direct violation of the territorial integrity and political independence of states.  This initial invasion has sadly led to ten years of occupation, affecting a fifth of Georgia’s sovereign territory and causing incalculable political, economic, and humanitarian costs. The invasion of Georgia demonstrated that Vladimir Putin is ready and willing to use his military and intelligence services to redraw international borders and meddle in the internal affairs of a neighboring state.  Moreover, Mr. Putin clearly sought to sabotage Georgia’s progress toward membership in NATO, contravening the principle that sovereign states have the right to freely join security alliances of their choosing. The response to the Kremlin’s aggression against Georgia was not enough to deter Mr. Putin from trying his hand again in Ukraine in 2014.  In fact, Georgia and Ukraine are only the two most egregious examples of Russian challenges to the integrity of our borders, our alliances, and our institutions over the past decade. The Helsinki Commission is holding this hearing to make sure the American people and the international community do not lose sight of the continued illegal occupation of Georgia — as well as its costs and implications.  The experts before us will help assess if the United States is doing everything possible to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and reverse Mr. Putin’s assault on the borders of a neighboring state and on the international order.   We also intend to ensure Georgia’s contributions to our common security are recognized and that we continue to help it advance along its path to Euro-Atlantic integration and full NATO membership. Under my chairmanship, Ranking Member Cardin and I have worked across the aisle to demonstrate the firm, bipartisan resolve of the United States Congress to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and see the alliance make good on its promise of membership. To that end, in March of last year, we introduced Senate Resolution 106 condemning Russia’s continuing occupation and urging increased bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia. More recently, ahead of last week’s NATO summit, Senator Cardin and I — along with Commissioners Tillis and Shaheen — introduced Senate Resolution 557, underscoring the strategic importance of NATO to the collective security of the United States and the entire transatlantic region. This resolution explicitly “encourages all NATO member states to clearly commit to further enlargement of the alliance, including extending invitations to any aspirant country which has met the conditions required to join NATO.”  I am especially looking forward to hearing how our panelists assess the outcomes of the NATO Summit. Ladies and gentlemen, we will hear testimony this morning from a distinguished panel who will provide valuable perspectives on the current state of the conflict in Georgia, prospects for its resolution, and recommendations for U.S. policy. I am particularly pleased to welcome Georgia’s Ambassador David Bakradze to testify before us this morning. In addition to his firsthand experience managing Georgia’s strategic bilateral relationship with the United States, Ambassador Bakradze has worked at senior levels of Georgia’s government to deepen Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic partnerships. Prior to his appointment to Washington in 2016, the Ambassador served as the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Next, we will hear from Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council. Mr. Wilson’s areas of expertise include NATO, transatlantic relations, Central and Eastern Europe, and national security issues. At the time of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Mr. Wilson was serving as special assistant to President George W. Bush and senior director for European Affairs at the National Security Council. In that capacity, he played a leading role at a critical time in managing interagency policy on NATO, the European Union, Georgia, Ukraine, the Balkans, Eurasian energy security, and Turkey. Finally, we will hear from Luke Coffey, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Coffey was named to his post in December 2015 and is responsible for directing policy research for the Middle East, Africa, Russia and the former Soviet Union, the Western Hemisphere, and the Arctic region. Before joining Heritage in 2012, he served at the UK Ministry of Defence as senior special adviser to the British Defence Secretary, helping shape British defense policy regarding transatlantic security, NATO, the European Union, and Afghanistan. 

  • Russia's Occupation of Georgia and the Erosion of the International Order

    August 2018 marks the ten-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. A decade on, one-fifth of Georgian territory remains under Russian occupation. During this hearing, expert witnesses explained what is occurring behind the Russian-imposed internal administrative boundary lines in occupied Georgia, as well as the implications of the continued occupation for U.S. interests and international security. The witnesses discussed potential actions and strategies that the United States and its allies can take to restore the territorial integrity of Georgia and respect for its sovereignty. Russia enforces its occupation through a large military deployment and, in concert, with de facto Ossetian and Abkhaz authorities, prevents NGOs and monitoring missions from entering the occupied regions. Despite the displacement of tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians as a result of the 2008 war, many thousands continue to reside in the territories where they face discriminatory policies aimed at marginalizing Georgian culture, including strict restrictions on Georgian language instruction in schools. Russian authorities continue to engage in what has been termed “creeping annexation” through the incremental advancement of the razor wire administrative line deeper into Georgian territory. Border crossings remain incredibly perilous for Georgians wishing to reach family, property, and communities on the other side of the occupation line. These travelers regularly face arbitrary detention, kidnapping, and sometimes death. De facto authorities do not launch credible investigations into the suspicious death of Georgians in their custody, contributing to an overwhelming climate of impunity. In their opening statements, U.S. Helsinki Commissioners affirmed the bipartisan, bicameral commitment in the U.S. Congress to Georgia’s territorial integrity and NATO. Commission Chairman Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Ben Cardin noted their joint introduction of Senate Resolution 106 that affirms the territorial integrity of Georgia and Senate Resolution 557, which expresses the strategic importance of NATO to U.S. security. All witnesses agreed that Georgia should be admitted to NATO as it has met or exceeded the benchmarks of a prospective member state. They recalled the alliance’s failure at its 2008 Bucharest Summit to extend membership invitations to Georgia and Ukraine that effectively signaled to Moscow NATO’s wavering commitment to the defense of these countries. Georgian Ambassador to the United States, David Bakradze, described his country’s readiness to join the alliance. In addition to its concrete commitment of troops to NATO missions, Georgia already spends more than 2% of its GDP on defense, he said. He further cited positive Georgian public opinion towards NATO as well as his government’s strategic orientation toward the West. Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council and Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation agreed in their assessment that Russia’s occupation of Georgia should not give the Kremlin a veto over Tbilisi’s accession to the alliance. They both recommended a change to NATO’s practice of not inviting states with ongoing territorial disputes.

  • The Russian Occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

    August 2018 marks 10 years of Russian occupation of approximately 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized sovereign territory. The Russian occupation, and the ensuing recognition by Moscow of the “independence” of South Ossetia (referred to in Georgia as the Tskhinvali region) and Abkhazia, represent material breaches of international law and an active disregard for the Charter of the United Nations, and the founding principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) embodied in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE commitments. This report offers a brief overview of the history of the outbreak of war in August 2008; the evolution of the unresolved conflict since that time; and an overview of the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s efforts to advance a resolution and restore Georgia’s territorial integrity. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor and Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor

  • Members of European Parliament to Assess Transatlantic Relations at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: TRANSATLANTIC RELATIONS IN FLUX Wednesday, July 18, 2018 10:00 a.m. Hart Senate Office Building Room 216 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Following President Trump’s recent trip to Europe, leading European policymakers will address the state of transatlantic relations. Members of the European Parliament will discuss the potential impact of changing U.S. economic and security policies in the region, the future of the EU following Brexit, and the toll that increased migration has taken on European political cohesion. Opening remarks will be provided by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The following Members of the European Parliament are scheduled to participate: MEP Nathalie Griesbeck (France), Chair, European Parliament Special Committee on Terrorism; Alliance of Liberals and Democrats MEP Claude Moraes (UK), Chair, European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs; Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats MEP Michal Boni (Poland), European People's Party Additional speakers may be added.  

  • The OSCE and Roma

    Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe and are present in most of the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Concentrated in post-communist Central and Southern Europe, the Romani population is estimated at over 12 million in EU countries, with significant numbers in former Soviet republics, the Balkans, and Turkey. Roma have been part of every wave of European immigration to North American since the colonial period.  There may be as many as one million Americans with Romani ancestry. Roma have historically faced persecution in Europe and were the victims of genocide during World War II.  In post-communist countries, Roma suffered disproportionately in the transition from command- to market-economies, in part due to endemic racism and discrimination. Over the past three decades, Helsinki Commissioners have led the effort in Washington to condemn racially motivated violence against Roma, including pogroms, murders, other violent attacks, and police abuse. The Helsinki Commission has also advocated for recognition of the enslavement and genocide of Roma and redress for sterilization without informed consent.  The Commission has addressed race-based expulsion of Roma, the denial of citizenship to Roma after the break-up of federative states, and the consequences of ethnic conflict and war in the Balkans. The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the first international agreement to specially recognize the human rights problems faced by Roma, adopted by OSCE participating States in 1990. Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Assess Russia’s Decade-Long Occupation of Georgia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S OCCUPATION OF GEORGIA AND THE EROSION OF THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER Tuesday, July 17, 2018 11:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce071718 In 2008—just months after a NATO summit in Bucharest where Georgia and Ukraine failed to secure a concrete roadmap to membership despite U.S. support—Russia invaded Georgia and seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Today, Russia’s occupation of one-fifth of Georgia’s sovereign territory remains a critical threat to U.S. interests and international security. Moscow’s invasion of Georgia demonstrated the Kremlin’s willingness to use military force to unilaterally re-draw European borders and challenge the right of its neighbors to choose their own futures. The war in Georgia set the stage for Vladimir Putin’s subsequent war in Ukraine, including the illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and the attempted annexation of Crimea. The human costs of the Russian occupation of Georgia have been tragic. Tens of thousands of Georgians remain internally displaced and face arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and even death if they attempt to visit their property and communities across the Russian-imposed internal administrative boundary. De facto authorities have also worked to eliminate Georgian language and culture from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Ten years after the invasion and the fateful 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, the Helsinki Commission will convene expert witnesses to assess the present state of the conflict and its implications for U.S. interests and international security. The hearing will explore the continued costs of the occupation, as well as steps U.S. policymakers can take to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and advance its full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. Witnesses scheduled to testify include: His Excellency David Bakradze, Ambassador of Georgia to the United States Luke Coffey, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Heritage Foundation Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council  

  • Inside the Turkish Election

    By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions. In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs. The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions. In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional. Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges. Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president. One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp. Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP. Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara. The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process. Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage. All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.    Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side. The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country. It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation. We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day. Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls. We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for.  The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.)  Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day. Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process. With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station.  An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow.  Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC. Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote.  This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials. Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities.  Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters. In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds. At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after. As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through.  Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room. After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time. Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.  The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.  Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.  Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.  Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots.  In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).  U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members. Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour.  The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process. Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary. Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.  A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.  After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.  Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square. It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level. The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.  Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote. Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”  The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance. During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system. In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.   The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.

  • Chairman Wicker Introduces Resolution Emphasizing Importance of NATO to Regional Security

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.557) emphasizing the importance of NATO to the collective security of the transatlantic region and urging its member states to work together to strengthen the alliance at the July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels.  “NATO remains the cornerstone of transatlantic and global security. This resolution underlines the need for our allies to boost their contributions to our collective defense. It also encourages practical steps at the upcoming NATO summit to bolster the alliance’s effectiveness against current and emerging threats,” said Chairman Wicker. “We must always work to strengthen the alliance if we want it to serve our collective security as well as it has in its first seven decades.”  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and ranking Senate commissioner, is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.557 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), who also co-chair the Senate NATO Observer Group. “NATO summits are important occasions to send messages of solidarity with our NATO allies and reaffirm our continued commitment to transatlantic principles, including democracy and the rule of law,” said Sen. Cardin. “This resolution underlines that NATO is rooted in a foundation of shared values, and that any backsliding on individual liberty, corruption, or human rights risks eroding that foundation.” S.Res.557 reaffirms the enduring commitment of the United States to NATO’s collective defense, enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and urges all NATO member states to be prepared to meet their respective Article 5 obligations.  It also pledges support for measures to deter Russian aggression against the territory of any NATO ally. The resolution underlines the need for NATO’s “open door policy” to remain in effect and for the alliance to extend an invitation to any aspirant country that has met the conditions required to join NATO. Finally, it urges leaders at the Brussels summit to ensure the alliance makes key changes to meet urgent security threats and counter new challenges. “As I stated when we re-established the NATO Observer Group, our alliance must be prepared to face a broad range of threats, including hybrid and cyber threats from Russia and other adversaries,” said Sen. Tillis. “A strong and committed NATO alliance remains vital as our community of democracies continues to expand and thrive.” “This resolution underscores the need for the United States to work closely with our allies to modernize NATO to respond to the ever-evolving threats facing western democracies, particularly from the Kremlin,” said Sen. Shaheen. “Continued cooperation with NATO allies will be integral to our efforts to safeguard our country’s national security and protect the United States.”

  • Roundtable on Illicit Trade

    Illicit trade—the transnational smuggling of illegal goods—has grown dramatically in the era of globalization thanks to modern technology, free trade zones, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Today, the shadow economy is booming and is estimated to account for up to 8 to 15 percent of world GDP. This roundtable brought U.S. government officials together with representatives of companies, associations, and organizations working to combat illicit trade. Participants discussed policy responses to the growing threat of illicit trade and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Officials from the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State discussed their agencies’ roles in the struggle to stem the tide of illicit trade. Click here to see the full list of participants.

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