Russian Support for the Syrian Regime

Russian Support for the Syrian Regime

Hon.
Sam Brownback
United States
Senate
109th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Mr. President, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held a hearing last week that examined the close relationship between Russian Federation and Syria. The Commission heard testimony detailing their intricate financial and military dealings that began in the earliest days of the Cold War and continue to this day. This relationship allows Syria to continue to support numerous terrorist groups, groups that have terrorized Lebanon for the past three decades and fuel the insurgency in Iraq. In addition, we heard details about Syria's support of terrorist organizations who operate around the world. Finally, we heard from both Lebanese and Syrians committed to freedom and democracy who have become victims of the Assad regime and are now languishing in the prison cells of Damascus. 

The Commission's concern regarding Russia's involvement with Syria--a country that has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 by the State Department--rises from the Helsinki commitments that Russia has freely accepted as a participating State of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe OSCE. The OSCE Charter on Preventing and Combating Terrorism was agreed to at the Porto Ministerial in 2002. Russia then committed to refrain from instigating or providing active or passive support or assistance to, or otherwise sponsoring terrorist acts in another state. Russia also committed to reducing the risk of terrorists gaining access to weapons and materials of mass destruction and their means of delivery. 

Russia's support for the terrorist regime in Damascus flies in the face of these commitments. Russia is an active enabler of the Assad regime, whose Ba'ath Party was described by one of our witnesses as the richest terrorist organization in the region. The Syrian regime has received untold amounts of military hardware, much of which are currently being used by terrorists in Iraq against our American troops and our allies. Additionally, Syrian intelligence supports terrorist units in Iraq, composed not only of Syrians, but including Egyptians, Sudanese, Moroccans, and other Islamic mujahidin. 

Even more alarming is Russia's plan to sell an unknown number of Igla SA-18 shoulder-held missiles to Syria. Such a sale to this terrorist state is more than criminal. This sale will put in the hands of terrorists some of the most sophisticated shoulder-held missiles in the Russian inventory, and increases the likelihood that they will get into the arsenals of other terrorist organizations around the world. Despite Russia's denials, indicators are that this sale will go forward soon, putting at risk every airline flight, every military flight, with the potential for massive loss of life and the shutting down of modern transportation around the world. 

We must focus on the fact that, while there is no apparent direct Russian involvement in Iraq, this direct support of Syrian military and intelligence operations, coupled with Syria's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the long list of evil deeds coming out of Damascus, cast Russia as a suspicious party to these terrorist activities. We should not sit idly by and allow this to transpire without comment. We must call upon President Bush and Secretary Rice to reiterate U.S. demands that Russia disengage from its support of Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism. It is not enough to stop the sale of the missiles. Complete cessation of financial and military support to this rogue regime is necessary. 

On the eve of the Helsinki Commission hearing, a courageous group of human rights activists and pro-democracy reformists held a demonstration in Damascus, a daring display of dissent quickly broken up by the security forces. One of the protesters held up at banner that read: “Freedom for Prisoners of Opinion and Conscience.” According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee, the Assad regime in Damascus has executed nearly 17,000 Syrian and Lebanese prisoners. Additionally, there are over 600 prisoners of conscience in Syrian jails, champions of human rights, accountability and transparency who are still languishing under horrible conditions. 

I would like to highlight a few of these prisoners of conscience whose names were submitted to us by one of the witnesses and call for their immediate release: Riad Seif, member of parliament; Aref Dalilah, economist; Maamun al-Homsi, member of parliament; Abdul Aziz al-Khayer, physician; Habib Issa, lawyer; Walid al-Bounni, physician; Mohammad Bashir al-Arab, student leader and doctor; Muhanad al-Debs, student leader; Mahmoud Ammo, activist; Mahmoud Abou Sader, activist; Mazid Ali Al-Terkawi, businessman; and Fawaz Tello, engineer. 

I was pleased to hear of Syria's promise to a U.N. envoy to withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, but as the counter-demonstrations yesterday against Syria demanded, Damascus must follow through with actions as soon as possible. I am hoping that details of the withdrawal plan from U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen after his talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud will allow the people of Lebanon to hold their parliamentary elections in May without any interference from the Syrians and to do so in a manner that is free, timely, and transparent. 

What would be unacceptable is the kind of warning issued by Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami that polls may have to be postponed if the country's political opposition fails to enter a dialogue with the government. Such an effort will surely ignite the kind of violence that the Lebanese people have been yearning for so many years to avoid. 

It is time for the international community to lend support for the slogan that defines the people's revolution in Lebanon and in the region: “Kifaya,” which means "enough." Let's listen to what the people in Lebanon are saying for what they are saying is now being heard not only in Beirut but in Damascus, in Cairo, and in Riyadh: enough of autocrats, enough of the corruption, and enough of the repression. 

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He focused on Ukraine due to the severity of the country’s conflicts, while also acknowledging those in other areas of the OSCE region such as Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, for which Co-Chairman Wicker emphasized the need for the OSCE to “strengthen the process of democratic reform, fight against corruption, and fight against regional instability.” The minister emphasized that his goal will be to focus on a list of nine concrete measures that would “bring about small, but concrete, results and improvement [in Ukraine] for the people on the ground,” such as humanitarian demining and repairing civilian infrastructure. He asserted that repairing Stanytsoa Lukanska, a bridge which serves as a key piece of transportation infrastructure in the Luhansk area, is the most important of these measures. The minister also emphasized the need to ensure a safer future, especially for young people, by countering cyberterrorism and its (mis)use in organized crime and human trafficking. He emphasized the importance of educating youth in matters related to cybersecurity, including emerging threats such as cyberterrorism. To that end, Slovakia’s chairmanship will use its convening authority “to call attention to new trends and explore potential collaborative impact.” Chairman Hastings optimistically remarked that “young people know a hell of a lot more about [cyber security and technology] than we do” and Commissioner Moore commended Mr. Lajčák for focusing on the youth – “it is a quintessential strategy for preventing chaos.” Finally, the Slovak Chair-in-Office focused on multilateralism, considered by Minister Lajčák as a “fundamental problem-solving and war-preventing” tool both in and outside of the OSCE. Furthermore, Minister Lajčák emphasized the importance of “working together on multilateral platforms [which] is inevitable if we want to safeguard peace and prosperity to our people,” calling the OSCE “the platform to do just that.” He affirmed this priority of co-operation between OSCE participating States in response to a concern raised by Commissioner Moore regarding certain participating State’s “violations [of all] the Helsinki principles” which would undermine multilateralism within the OSCE: “We have to […] look eye-to-eye and talk about issues […] that is what makes the OSCE unique.” Throughout the hearing, the Chair-in-Office stressed an intent to counter terrorism in his priorities. Part of the minister’s first conference to encourage youth education involved “promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, and the best practices in combating modern-day anti-Semitism,” to stem terrorism. Furthermore, a second conference, held a week before the hearing, “focused on preventing and countering terrorism as well as violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism.” The minister asserted that “terrorism and violent extremism pose as grave a threat as ever” and that “we, at the OSCE, need to continue updating and adapting our toolbox” to be prepared for the future. Despite specific victories, such as the recent destruction of the remaining Daesh strongholds, the minister advised that “this is not a time to get comfortable,” and that “we need to address the root causes [of terrorism] and stay one step ahead.” The OSCE Chair-in-Office also addressed regional challenges including Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. However, Chairman Hastings is optimistic about the capability of the OSCE to advance the rule of law, human rights, and non-discrimination its participating States. Minister Lajčák expressed confidence that providing concrete measures to improve the daily lives of those living in conflict, educating youth, and encouraging multilateral engagement on their behalf will lead to positive developments throughout the OSCE region.

  • First Person: A Divided Island’s Long Road to Peace

    By Mark Toner, Senior State Department Advisor There are two images seared into my brain from my visit to Cyprus during a recent congressional delegation led by Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The first was a darkened, underground garage filled with the rusting hulks of mid-1970s Toyotas.  They were once the sparkling-new inventory of a car dealership situated in the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital. Following the 1974 incursion by Turkish forces in the wake of a failed coup attempt, the dealership became part of a buffer zone that runs like a scar across the length of Cyprus, separating the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The dealership’s owner fled when the fighting erupted and never returned. The cars sit frozen in time, waiting for customers who will never come. Abandoned vehicle in Nicosia, Cyprus. The second was both jarring and moving: at the Committee on Missing Persons, we entered a clean, cavernous room full of long tables on which an array of partially-reconstructed skeletons were arranged—the remains of some of the more than 2,000 people who disappeared during the outbreak of violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1963-64, as well as during the later 1974 conflict. Located in a compound in the United Nations Protected Area near the old Nicosia airport, the Committee is an organization established by both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities that recovers, identifies, and ultimately returns these remains to their still-grieving families and loved ones, using state-of-the-art DNA technology and an exhaustive scientific process. These were just two of the places we visited during our two-day stay on the island as part of a bipartisan, bicameral delegation on its way to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. As part of our jam-packed schedule, the delegation met with the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-Cypriot leadership, and toured the UN buffer zone with the hardworking and good-natured UN peacekeepers who police the 112-mile ceasefire line. Cyprus is among the world’s oldest and most intractable frozen conflicts, and the social, political, and economic tensions the conflict created still feel fresh today. Since the island was effectively split in two in 1974, there have been repeated UN-led attempts to broker a settlement and reunify the island, but all have ended in failure. It is also a tale of two realities. While Greek Cypriots enjoy the benefits of EU and Eurozone membership and seek to exploit the potential of untapped hydrocarbon reserves located in an Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the island, those who live in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remain politically and economically isolated from the rest of Europe and rely heavily on their big brother to the north, Turkey, for security and economic assistance. Our visit to Cyprus was a stark reminder of the difficulty of moving past an unresolved conflict, in a place where grievances are often passed from generation to generation, and the ghosts of the past remain as tangible as the neglected shell of a crumbling 15th-century church in the UN buffer zone or the rusting hulks of airplanes still sitting on the runway of the abandoned Nicosia International Airport. Our brief visit to the Committee on Mission Persons, however, was a poignant reminder of the vital importance of civil society in restoring a sense of normalcy once the fighting ends.  It is a calming place, where dedicated people from both sides of the conflict work together to bring a sense of closure to those who lost loved ones in the fighting; it speaks to the fierce resiliency of the people of Cyprus and the enduring hope that old wrongs can yet be overcome.       

  • Slovakian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SLOVAKIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities and Challenges Wednesday, April 3, 2019 3:30 p.m. Senate Visitor Center Room 201-00 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2019, Slovakia holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization: the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which stretches from North America through Europe, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Regional challenges include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. At the same time, recent developments in Armenia and Central Asia hold some of the best hopes for positive change in the region. At his first congressional hearing, Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Lajcak, will discuss the chairmanship’s priorities for the OSCE in 2019 and its plans for progress.

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

  • Remembering Boris Nemtsov

    Madam President, on Sunday, February 24, thousands of people marched in Moscow and in cities across Russia to remember Boris Nemtsov, a Russian statesman and friend of freedom who was gunned down in sight of the Kremlin walls 4 years ago. These people were honoring a Russian patriot who stood for a better future--a man who, after leaving the pinnacle of government, chose a courageous path of service to his country and his fellow Russians. Boris Nemtsov was a man who walked the walk. When others were silent out of fear or complicity, he stood up for a future in which the Russian people need not risk jail or worse for simply wanting a say in how their country is run. Sadly, since Mr. Nemtsov's assassination, the risks of standing up for what is right have grown in Russia. With every passing month, ordinary citizens there become political prisoners for doing what we take for granted here in the United States--associating with a political cause or worshipping God according to the dictates of one's conscience. Last month alone, in a high-profile case, a mother was jailed for the crime of being a political activist in Russia. She was kept from caring for her critically ill daughter until just hours before her daughter died. Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to years behind bars for practicing their faith. Also, a leader of a small anti-corruption organization was beaten to death with metal rods on the outskirts of Moscow. This was all just in February, and it is not even a comprehensive account of the Russian state's using its powers not against real enemies but against its own people--peaceful citizens doing what peaceful citizens do. As for the Nemtsov assassination, 4 years later, justice has yet to be served. It appears that President Putin and his cronies have little interest in uncovering and punishing the masterminds behind Russia's highest profile killing in recent memory. While a few perpetrators who had been linked to the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, were convicted and sent to prison, Mr. Nemtsov's family, friends, and legal team believe the organizers of his murder remain unidentified and at large. I understand that Russia's top investigative official has prevented his subordinates from indicting a close Kadyrov associate, Major Ruslan Geremeyev, as an organizer in the assassination, and the information linking Geremeyev to Mr. Nemtsov's murder was credible enough for a NATO ally to place Geremeyev on its sanctions list. Yet there has still been no indictment. Russian security services continue to forbid the release of footage from cameras at the site of the assassination. Russian legal authorities refuse to classify the assassination of a prominent opposition leader and former First Deputy Prime Minister as a political crime. Despite all of this, they have declared the case solved. Given this pattern of deliberate inaction on the part of Russian authorities, the need for some accountability outside of Russia has grown more urgent. Russia and the United States are participating States in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the OSCE, and have agreed that matters of justice and human rights are of enough importance to be of legitimate interest to other member states. Respect for these principles inside a country is often a predictor of the country's external behavior. So countries such as ours have a reason to be involved. At the recent meeting of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, we began a formal inquiry into Mr. Nemtsov's unsolved murder and have appointed a rapporteur to review and report on the circumstances of the Nemtsov assassination as well as on the progress of the Russian investigation. As the chair of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I supported this process from its conception at an event I cohosted last July in Berlin. Yet, as the United States of America, there is more we can do. To that end, I am glad to cosponsor a resolution with my Senate colleagues that calls on our own government to report back to Congress on what we know of the circumstances around Boris Nemtsov's murder. This resolution also calls on the Treasury Department to use tools like the Magnitsky Act to sanction individuals who have been linked to this brutal murder, such as Ruslan Geremeyev. We hear constantly from Russian opposition figures and civic activists that personal sanctions, such as those imposed by the Magnitsky Act, have a deterrent effect. Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear that these sanctions, based on personal accountability, are more of a threat to his regime than blunter tools, such as sectoral sanctions, that often feed his propaganda and end up harming the same people we are trying to help in Russia—innocent citizens. To its credit, the Trump administration has done a better job than had the previous administration in its implementing of the new mandates and powers Congress authorized in both the Russia and Global Magnitsky Acts. We are in a much different place than we were when these tools were originally envisaged nearly 10 years ago. The administration is mandated to update the Magnitsky Act's list annually, with there being a deadline in December that sometimes slips into January. Now it is already March, and we have yet to see any new designations under the law that the late Mr. Nemtsov himself called the most pro-Russian law ever adopted in a foreign legislature. While the law has been lauded by Russian democrats, it is rightly despised by those like Vladimir Putin who abuse and steal from the American people. Recall that it was at the Helsinki summit late last summer between the leaders of Russia and the United States of America—perhaps the grandest stage in U.S.-Russian relations in a decade—where Mr. Putin himself requested that his investigators be able to depose U.S. officials most closely associated with passing and implementing the Magnitsky law, as if they were criminals. We need to show the Russian dictator that this sort of bullying will not stand and that we will continue to implement the Magnitsky Act thoroughly and fairly. A year ago, I participated—along with many of my colleagues in the House and Senate—in the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy here in Washington, DC—the first official memorial to Boris Nemtsov anywhere in the world. One day, I hope there will be memorials to Boris Nemtsov all across Russia, but the best tribute to his memory will be a Russia he wanted to see, a just and prosperous Russia, at peace with its neighbors and a partner with the United States. I yield the floor.

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Defends Human Rights, Regional Security at OSCE PA Winter Meeting in Vienna

    Led by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), 12 members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Winter Meeting in Vienna in late February to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to security, human rights, and the rule of law in the 57-nation OSCE region. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Sen. Bob Casey (PA), Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), Sen. Mike Lee (UT), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). The bipartisan, bicameral delegation was one of the largest U.S. delegations to a Winter Meeting in OSCE PA history. During the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security, Sen. Wicker criticized the Russian Federation for its interference in U.S. elections, as well as in elections held by other OSCE countries. “It is indisputable that the Russian Government seeks to attack and even undermine the integrity of our elections and of our democratic processes,” he said. “We must all be more aware of—and proactive in countering—Russia’s efforts to undermine the democratic process throughout the OSCE region.” In the same session, Rep. Hudson lamented Russian non-compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, underlining that “an INF Treaty with which all parties comply contributes to global stability; an arms control treaty that one side violates is no longer effective at keeping the world safer.”  Rep. Hudson further stressed that “in light of our six-months’ notice of withdrawal, the Russian Government has one last chance to save the INF Treaty by returning to full and verifiable compliance. We hope and pray Russia will take that step.” In the meeting of the Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, Rep. Hudson also noted the danger that the Nord Stream II pipeline poses to Europe. “Simply put, we cannot allow Russia to dramatically increase its stranglehold on European energy,” he said. “We must look for alternatives and make sure our democratic institutions cannot be held hostage over energy supply as Nord Stream II would promote.” Later in the same session, Rep. Moore advocated for the adoption of beneficial ownership transparency to combat globalized corruption. “Anonymous shell companies are the means through which much modern money laundering occurs,” she said. “We in Congress are working hard to plug the loopholes in the U.S. financial system that have enabled anonymous shell companies to proliferate.” In a debate on restrictions on human rights during states of emergency during the meeting of the Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Rep. Jackson Lee argued, “A state of emergency is not a free pass to dismantle a free press,” nor to threaten academic freedom or freedom of religion. She called on Turkey to release local U.S. Consulate employees Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, as well as American physicist Serkan Golge. At the closing session, participants reviewed reports submitted by Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Rep. Moore encouraged other delegations to share with Sen. Cardin their efforts to implement their commitments to address violence and discrimination, while Rep. Zeldin called for legislative action and enforcement to make “every community in the OSCE region trafficking-free.” While in Vienna, Rep. Jackson Lee also attended a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, of which she is a member, while Rep. Hudson took part in a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, where he serves as a vice chair. Prior to attending the Winter Meeting, most members of the delegation also attended the Munich Security Conference, the world’s leading forum for debating international security policy. On the margins of the conference, the group met with leaders including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, INTERPOL Secretary General Jurgen Stock, and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. The delegation was briefed by NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Curtis Scapparotti and Commander, U.S. Army Europe Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli. Members also visited Cyprus, where they met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss opportunities to advance U.S.-Cyprus relations, resume reunification negotiations on the island, and counter the threat of money laundering to Cyprus’ banking sector. Major General Cheryl Pearce of Australia, Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, briefed the delegation on UNFICYP’s mission and the status of conflict resolution efforts. Following her briefing, the delegation toured the UN Buffer Zone to examine the work of the UN’s peacekeeping force and the physical separation that afflicts the island.

  • Wicker, Cardin Condemn Detention of Russian Activist Nastya Shevchenko

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today issued the following statements on the detention of Anastasia (Nastya) Shevchenko, a human rights activist with the Open Russia organization, who was placed under house arrest on January 23: “No one should face jail time for peaceful advocacy,” said Sen. Wicker. “The callous and cruel treatment of Nastya Shevchenko by Russian authorities is a disturbing tactic to silence a citizen-activist.” “The Russian authorities must release Nastya Shevchenko,” said Sen. Cardin. “It should not be a crime to advocate for the best interests of one’s country and fellow citizens.” Shevchenko is the first Russian to face criminal charges under Russia’s 2015 “undesirable organizations” law, which is intended to prevent NGOs based outside of Russia from operating within the country. A single mother, she was prevented from visiting her critically-ill special needs daughter until shortly before her daughter’s death at the end of January. Open Russia is a Russian-led, Russia-based organization that advocates for greater government transparency and accountability. Amnesty International has declared Shevchenko a prisoner of conscience.

  • Unorthodox?

    By Thea Dunlevie, Max Kampelman Fellow “The Russian Federation is a secular state,” according to Chapter 1, Article 14 of the Russian constitution. Adopted two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which systematically repressed religious activity, Article 14 created a framework for a religious resurgence in Russia, namely the Russian Orthodox Church’s optimistic emergence from the Soviet era. However, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a battlefield of choice for the Russian government as it seeks status as the religious and regional hegemon. President Vladimir Putin’s vision for a “Russian world” has in many ways negated the country’s constitutional commitment to a religiously neutral government, particularly in relation to former Soviet Bloc countries. Vladimir Putin has coupled violent encroachments such as the 2014 invasion and illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and its 2008 invasion and illegal occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia with subtler maneuvers to establish strongholds in foreign countries, including through religious interventions. The latter activities rest under the umbrella term “soft power,” which Putin identified as a foreign policy strategy in his 2017 Foreign Policy Concept. According to political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term, “Soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.” Rooted in Russian History and Culture The Russian Orthodox Church, which has deep roots in Russian identity, history, and culture, was revived under President Boris Yeltsin and has since been increasingly employed as a tool of soft power. The RAND Institute reports that the Russian Orthodox Church has been rated “the most-trusted institution in [Russia]”—surpassing the president and parliament. Consequentially, the Kremlin’s interconnectivity with the Russian Orthodox Church lends the state legitimacy by proxy. Capitalizing on this perceived legitimacy, the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy lists “preserving and developing culture and traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” as one of six “National Interests and National Strategic Priorities.” Religion has been instrumentalized by Russian diplomatic missions with goals beyond proselytizing or constructing churches. Putin sent Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia as a Kremlin emissary to solidify international ties under the auspices of religious, humanitarian outreach. For example, Putin has characterized Russia as the defender of persecuted Christians in the Middle East by supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government. Patriarch Kirill and Putin also vowed to rebuild churches in the region, positioning Russia as the great defender, reconstructor, and regional power. However, not all these efforts have been successful. Patriarch Kirill’s 2013 visit to the politically volatile region of Transnistria, Moldova—where 1,400 Russian troops are stationed—was met by local protests suggesting an unwelcome link between the Russian Orthodox Church’s presence and the Kremlin’s. The Russian Orthodox Church has also helped the Government of Russia maintain regional influence in former Soviet Bloc countries and the Balkans and expand its influence in Asia. The Russian government commemorated 50 years of cooperation with Singapore by building an Orthodox church there, and Patriarch Kirill’s delegation visited North Korea to establish an Orthodox church in Pyongyang alongside North Korean government officials. However, current debates primarily focus on Ukraine because it contains an estimated one-third of the Moscow Patriarchate’s churches. Russia has approached the OSCE with concerns about “Ukrainization,” alleging that 50 Russian Orthodox churches had been illegally seized by the government since 2014. Ukraine Fights Back The Russian Orthodox Church’s Kremlin-driven influence has been of particular concern to Ukraine, which struggles to maintain its political sovereignty as Russia encroaches militarily. To counter this influence, in 2018 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sought autocephaly (independence) under the auspices of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the governing body of the Orthodox Church. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko justified the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s pursuit of autocephaly before the United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council as “a matter of national security and [Ukraine’s] defense in a hybrid war, because the Kremlin views the Russian Orthodox Church as key instruments of influence on Ukraine.”  However, the Russian Orthodox Church condemned Ukraine’s autocephaly efforts for blasphemously entangling religion and politics. Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, characterized the Ukrainian church’s move as a “pre-election political project.” The Russian Orthodox Church severed tied with the Ecumenical Patriarch in mid-October. In December, Metropolitan Epifaniy was elected head of the nascent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Prior to his election, the U.S. State Department said the United States “respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs.” Immediately after his election, the State Department issued a congratulatory statement and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with him by phone.   After the January 6th announcement of autocephaly for an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Secretary described the outcome as an “historic achievement.” All of these U.S. statements explicitly referenced U.S. support for religious freedom as the context. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine now sidesteps Russian religious authority and submits to the Ecumenical Patriarch and Holy Synod alone.  The Russian government, however, maintains that Ukraine is “territory of the Russian church” and vows to “defend the interests of the Orthodox.” Ongoing Power Struggles Russia’s religious intervention has also instigated ecclesiastical divisions within the other Orthodox churches and between churches and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian meddling has created opposing teams: Ukraine and its allies, like the Ecumenical Patriarch and U.S. Government, versus the Russian Government and regional churches which pledged loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the wake of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod decision on the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Putin awarded the Metropolitan of Moldova “Russia’s Order of Friendship,” perhaps  to encourage Moldovan sympathy to the Russian Orthodox Church’s cause amid the “schismatic” behavior of Ukraine. In November of 2018, St. Andrew’s Church in Ukraine was attacked with Molotov cocktails, following  the transfer of its ownership to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This attack has been interpreted by some Ukrainians as a symbolic attack on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukraine’s religious makeup is exceptionally diverse. However, the Kremlin’s political meddling into the inter-orthodox religious conflict raises larger concerns about how government can support or suppress certain beliefs for primarily political purposes. This phenomenon threatens the religious liberty of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and potentially the freedom of the country’s minority religious groups like Greek Catholics. All 57 participating States of the OSCE have committed to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which includes the statement that  “the participating States will respect (...) the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion… participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”  The participating States have repeatedly recommitted themselves in subsequent agreements. The Ukrainian government and leadership of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine must be vigilant for infringements on the religious rights of Moscow Patriarchate adherents in Ukraine after the Holy Synod’s decision. As priests, imams, and pastors did during Euromaidan in 2013, so should the Ukrainian Government, the Russian Government, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church condemn violence, protect freedom of religion and belief, and promote inter-faith peace.

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