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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Last month, I understand some officials in Bratislava criticized a congressional report on NATO enlargement and complained that the discussion of Slovakia's progress toward democracy was too superficial. Well, I will provide a little more detail for those who genuinely want to know what worries us here in Washington.   Parliamentary democracy in Slovakia took a bullet in late November, when parliamentarian Frantisek Gaulieder, after announcing his resignation from the ruling coalition's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, was stripped of his parliamentary mandate through antidemocratic means that are unheard of anywhere else in Europe. His removal has been protested by the European Union and the United States at OSCE meetings in Vienna, but, so far, to no avail. Even more outrageously, there was a bomb attack against Mr. Gaulieder's home, while he and his family were present. This is a tactic that reminds me of the Communists, fascists, and other similarly bloody and ruthless groups.   The 1995 kidnaping of President Kovac's son is not only still unsolved, but the manner in which this matter has been investigated has fueled speculation that the government's own security forces were directly involved in this crime. The murder last year of Robert Remias, who may have had key evidence in this case, and the ineffectual investigation of that case has deepened these suspicions. Adding to this disturbing pattern, questions are already being raised about the official investigation of the December bomb attack on Frantisek Gaulieder's home: Mr. Gauliedier has reported that some of his testimony regarding the attack is missing from his police file, that the first investigator was removed after only 3 days on the case, and that the Slovak Minister of Interior has, shockingly, suggested that Mr. Gaulieder may have planted the bomb himself, the same `he-did-it-himself' story that no one believes regarding the kidnaping of Mr. Kovac, Jr. I am now informed that this investigation, like the Kovac and Remias cases, has been `closed for lack of evidence.' For a country supposedly seriously committed through its OSCE obligations to the establishment of a `rule of law' state, this is a damagingly poor performance.   In addition to these acts of violence, it has been reported that the President, the President's son, and members of the Constitutional Court have been subjected to death threats. In fact, in early December the Association of Slovak Judges characterized the anonymous, threatening letters addressed to Milan Cic, the Chair of the Slovak Constitutional Court, as an attack against the court as a whole and a means of political intimidation. It has also been reported that on February 24 an opposition political figure in Banska Bystrica, Miroslav Toman, was attacked by four assailants.   We see a country where politically motivated violence is on the increase, where public confidence in the government's intent to provide security for all Slovaks has plummeted, and where acts of violence and threats of violence have brought into question both the rule of law and the very foundations of democracy. The ruling coalition has continued to pursue an openly hostile agenda toward a free and independent media and free speech in general. During the course of the past year, two newspapers, Slovenska Republika and Naroda Obroda, have seen a total of 21 editors quit over alleged political interference with their work. Defamation suits launched by public officials appear to be a common vehicle for harassing one's political opponents. Most recently, on November 19, the government barred four journalists from attending a regular press conference after the weekly cabinet meeting because the journalists were believed to be unsympathetic to the government. Although this decision was ultimately rescinded after a public outcry, including a protest from the journalists' union, it was further evidence of the government's relentless efforts to curb any reporting it doesn't like. In fact, in one of the more shocking episodes of the battle for free speech in Slovakia, it has been reported that Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister of the country and, not insignificantly, a former boxer, warned journalist Dusan Valko just a few weeks ago that `I will punch you so that your own mother will not recognize you.' So much for Mr. Meciar's tolerance for other points of view and nonviolence.   The Slovak Government continues to pursue a minorities policy that would be laughable if it were not so wrong and harmful. This policy has included everything from banning the playing of non-Slovak national anthems last year to the more recent decision to bar the issuance of report cards in the Hungarian language, reversing long-standing practices. Such petty gestures are beneath the dignity of the Slovak people, whose heritage has survived more than a thousand years of foreign, and often markedly repressive, rule. The Slovak language and culture, now protected in an independent Slovakia, are not so weak that they can only flourish at the expense of others. More seriously, it should be noted that past repressive crackdowns on minorities, for example, in Cluj, Romania, and in Kosovo, Serbia, began by whittling away at the minority language opportunities that had traditionally been respected by the majority community. Accordingly, these seemingly small restrictions on the Hungarian minority in Slovakia may very well be the harbinger of more repressive tactics ahead. With this in mind, the failure of the Slovak parliament to adopt a comprehensive minority language law, and the recommendation of the Ministry of Culture that such a law is not even necessary, defy common sense. Current laws on minority-language use in Slovakia do not provide adequate or satisfactory guidance regarding the use of Hungarian for official purposes, as the recent report-card flap shows. Much harm can be done until a minority language law is passed based on a genuine accommodation between the majority and minority communities.   Finally, recent reductions in government-provided cultural subsidies have had a disproportionately negative effect on the Hungarian community. The Slovak Government's defense, that all ethnic groups have been equally disadvantaged by these cut-backs, is unpersuasive in light of the Culture Minister Hudec's stated intent to `revive' Slovak culture in ethnically mixed areas and to make cultural subsidies reflect that goal. While Hungarians suffer from a more direct form of government intolerance, other ethnic groups suffer more indirectly. Put another way, it is not so much government action which threatens Romani communities in Slovakia, it is government inaction. According to the most recent State Department report on Slovakia, skinhead violence against Roma is a serious and growing problem; three Roma were murdered as a result of hate crimes last year, and others have been severely injured. Some Roma leaders, in response to their government's inability or unwillingness to protect them, have called for the formation of self-defense units. Obviously, the Slovak Government is just not doing enough to address the deadly threats they face. Moreover, the repugnant anti-Roma statements that have repeatedly been made by Jan Slota, a member of the ruling coalition, have fostered this climate of hatred.   The fact that the Czech Republic, Germany, and other European countries also confront skinhead movements in no way relieves Slovakia of its responsibility to combat racism, just as Slovakia's skinhead problem does not relieve the other countries of their responsibilities. It is time and past time for Prime Minister Meciar to use his moral authority and political leadership to set Slovakia on the right course. He must make clear, once and for all, that Jan Slota, who also called the Hungarian minority `barbarian Asiatic hordes', is not his spokesman, and that the Slovak National Party's unreconstructed fascists do not represent the majority of the people of Slovakia.   Mr. President, the leadership of the Helsinki Commission, including my co-chairman, Representative Christopher H. Smith, and ranking members Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Steny Hoyer, have raised our concern about developments in Slovakia with Slovak officials on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, all we hear from the Slovak leadership is one excuse after another, and all we see is a search for one scapegoat after another: it's the Hungarians, it's the Czechs, it's the Ukrainian mafia, it's the hostile international community seeking to destroy Slovakia's good name, it's a public relations problem abroad, not real problems back home: in short, there is always somebody else to blame besides the people that are, in fact, running the country.   I don't mean to suggest that there have been no positive developments in Slovakia over the past 4 years. In fact, I have been especially heartened by the emergence of a genuine civil society that is increasingly willing to express its views on a broad range of issues. But positive initiatives by the Government have been too few and too far between. I make this statement today in the hope that the leadership in Bratislava will start to make real reforms, like their colleagues in Romania, and begin to restore the promising future that the people of Slovakia deserve. Their present policies are leading down a path toward international isolation, increasing criticism, and economic deprivation for their people. One Belarus is enough.

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    This briefing evaluated the signs of serious deterioration in the political and economic situation as growing authoritarianism and repression of human rights that had become the subject of increasing concern both within and outside Belarus. The violation of Belarus' freely undertaken commitments under the OSCE in regards to basic rights and freedoms, freedom of expression, assembly, and association was also addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Zyanon Paznyak, Chairman of the Belarus Popular Front; Jack Segal, Director of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Moldovan Affairs for the State Department; Jan Zaprudnik, Former Editor of Radio Liberty, Belarus; and Antti Korkeakivi, CIS Legal Advisor for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – examined the role of President Lukashenko in the formation of the lawless regime in Belarus. Numerous violations of human rights were cited by all witnesses, and the role of Russian support for these types of policies was also discussed.

  • Hungary's Relations with her Neighbors

    Mr. Speaker, I want to bring to the attention of my colleagues the joint declaration adopted in Budapest on July 5 by representatives of the Hungarian Government and by representatives of Hungarian communities abroad- the so-called Hungarian-Hungarian summit declaration. The status of the various and sizable Hungarian minority communities in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia are of considerable interest to many in Congress. How governments treat their minority communities is often a significant barometer of how they will treat their citizens as a whole, and a strong indicator of the progress of democratization in countries in transition. In fact, I remain concerned about the minority situation in each of these countries, and, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, have raised such concerns on a number of occasions.   Many hoped the Hungarian-Hungarian summit document would provide some useful insight into the concrete concerns of Hungarian minorities. Unfortunately, the summit document adopted in Budapest does not address the kind of specific and concrete issues that are usually raised with the Commission, such as minority language schooling or electoral districting. Instead, the declaration stands as a broad and somewhat ambiguous endorsement of `autonomy' and `self-government.' Those terms, guaranteed to alarm those already afraid of alleged Hungarian irredentism, were unfortunately left undefined, fostering the perception in some quarters that the declaration represents only a thinly veiled effort by Budapest to extend its influence beyond current Hungarian borders and, implicitly, to turn back the clock to the days when Hungarians were united in a single country.   I appreciate the Hungarian Embassy's willingness to clarify for the Commission the underlying intent of his declaration. In particular, the Embassy asserted that the word `autonomy' was in no way intended to signal `territorial autonomy.' I also believe the declaration's positive emphasis on the importance of the accession of all Hungary's neighbors into NATO and the European Union should not be overlooked and, indeed, is especially important in light of the recent congressional debate on NATO expansion. Nevertheless, I believe that the declaration, through the use of wording that is ambiguous at best and, at worst, predictably inflammatory, stands in contradiction to Hungary's stated goal of pursuing `good neighbor' policies. Surprisingly, Hungary implies that its goal of gaining admission to NATO and other European organizations should be dependent on `the fundamental interests of Hungarian national communities abroad'--a message that suggests a qualified interest in accession to NATO.   Finally, I must note that concerns about this declaration were only heightened by the statement of the Hungarian representative to the OSCE in Vienna, Ambassador Martin Krasznai. In defending the use of the word `autonomy,' Ambassador Krasznai presented the Basques, Catalans, and South-Tyroleans as positive examples of Europe's experience with autonomous movements. The irony of these particular references was probably not lost on the representatives of Italy or Spain--especially in the wake of the numerous terrorist bombings attributed to Basque separatists last month. Mr. Speaker, while a rare opportunity for discussion about real minority concerns may have been missed, I also see the Hungarian-Hungarian summit declaration as an aberration from the current government's usually constructive approach. I will continue to follow the situation of minority communities in central Europe and the inseparable issue of the progress of democratization in general. As I do so, I hope that Hungarian representatives will join with the Commission in seeking to promote democracy for all the citizens of all the countries of the OSCE.

  • Serbia and Montenegro: The Prospects for Change

    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

  • Albanian Parliamentary Elections

    Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission, addressed what he called the “most controversial elections held in recent times in [Eastern Europe]” and described his experiences observing Albania’s elections. Hand commented on the limited progress of the Albanian government since 1990 and specifically the corruption of the 1996 elections. The witnesses - Susan Atwood from the National Democratic Institute, Jim Swigert from Office of South the State Department, and Ambassador Dilja - spoke of their personal surprise at the elections and about the general confusion that surrounded them. Jim Swigert described his role in motivating members of the OSCE to observe the elections and take interest in Albania’s democratization.

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