The Serbia and Montenegro Democracy Act of 1999

The Serbia and Montenegro Democracy Act of 1999

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Wednesday, March 10, 1999

Mr. Speaker, today I am introducing the Serbia and Montenegro Democracy Act of 1999, a bill which will target much needed assistance to democratic groups in Serbia and Montenegro. I am joined by Representatives Ben Gilman, Steny Hoyer, John Porter, Dan Burton, Eliot Engel, Dana Rohrabacher, Louise Slaughter and Jim Moran, all strong promoters of human rights worldwide and the original cosponsors of this Act.

It is fitting that this important piece of legislation be introduced today, as a high-level envoy for the United States is in Belgrade to seek the blessing of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for a political settlement which hopefully will restore peace to the troubled region of Kosovo. We are dealing directly with the man most responsible for the conflict in Kosovo, not to mention Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic has maintained his power from within Serbia throughout the 1990s at the cost of 300,000 lives and the displacement of 3 million people. He has relied on virulent Serbian nationalism to instigate conflict which will divide the people of the region for decades. The most fundamental flaw in U.S. policy toward the region is that it relies on getting Milosevic's agreement, when Milosevic simply should be forced to stop his assaults on innocent civilians. It relies on Milosevic's dictatorial powers to implement an agreement, undermining support for democratic alternatives. In short, U.S. policy perpetuates Milosevic's rule and ensures that more trouble will come to the Balkans. There can be no long-term stability in the Balkans without a democratic Serbia.

Moreover, we need to be clear that the people of Serbia deserve the same rights and freedoms which other people in Europe enjoy today. They also deserve greater prosperity. Milosevic and his criminal thugs deny the same Serbian people they claim to defend these very rights, freedoms and economic opportunities. Independent media is repeatedly harassed, fined and sometimes just closed down. University professors are forced to take a ridiculous loyalty oath or are replaced by know-nothing party hacks. The regime goes after the political leadership of Montenegro, which is federated with Serbia in a new Yugoslav state but is undergoing democratic change itself. The regime goes after the successful Serb-American pharmaceutical executive Milan Panic, seizing his company's assets in Serbia to intimidate a potentially serious political rival and get its hands on the hard currency it desperately needs to sustain itself. The regime also goes after young students, like Boris Karajcic, who was beaten on the streets of Belgrade for his public advocacy of academic freedom and social tolerance. Building a democracy in Serbia will be difficult, and it is largely in the hands of those democratic forces within Serbia to do the job. However, given how the regime has stacked the situation against them, through endless propaganda, harassment and violence, they need help.

This Act intends to do just that. It would allocate $41 million in various sectors of Serbian society where democratic forces can be strengthened, and to encourage further strengthening of these forces in neighboring Montenegro. It would ensure that this funding will, in fact, go to these areas, in contrast to the Administration's budget request which indicates that much of this funding could be siphoned off to implement a peace agreement in Kosovo. Another $350,000 would go to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly, which could provide assistance on a multilateral basis and demonstrate that Serbia can rejoin Europe, through the OSCE, once it moves in a democratic direction and ends its instigation of conflict. This Act also states what policy toward Serbia and Montenegro must be: to promote the development of democracy and to support those who are committed to the building of democratic institutions, defending human rights, promoting rule of law and fostering tolerance in society.

This funding, authorized by the Support for East European Democracy Act of 1989, represents a tremendous increase for building democratic institutions in Serbia and Montenegro. This fiscal year, an anticipated $25 million will be spent, but most of that is going to Kosovo. The President's budget request for the next fiscal year is a welcome $55 million, but, with international attention focused on Kosovo, too much of that will likely go toward implementing a peace agreement. Make no mistake, I support strongly assistance for Kosovo. I simply view it as a mistake to get that assistance by diverting it from Serbia and Montenegro. We have spent billions of dollars in Bosnia and will likely spend at least hundreds of millions more in Kosovo, cleaning up the messes Milosevic has made. The least we can do is invest in democracy in Serbia, which can stop Milosevic from making more problems in the future.

Building democracy in Serbia will be difficult, given all of the harm Milosevic has done to Serbian society. The opposition has traditionally been weak and divided, and sometimes compromised by Milosevic's political maneuvering. There are signs, however, the new Alliance for Change could make a difference, and there certainly is substantial social unrest in Serbia from which opposition can gain support. In addition, there are very good people working in human rights organizations, and very capable independent journalists and editors. The independent labor movement has serious potential to gain support, and the student and academic communities are organized to defend the integrity of the universities. Simply demonstrating our real support for the democratic movement in Serbia could convince more people to become involved.

Finally, Montenegro's democratic changes in the last year place that republic in a difficult position. A federation in which one republic is becoming more free and open while the other, much larger republic remains repressive and controls federal institutions cannot last for long, yet Montenegrins know they could be the next victims of Milosevic. It would be a mistake to leave those building a democracy in Montenegro out on that limb. They need our support as well.

In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I am today introducing the Serbia and Democracy Act of 1999 because I feel our country's policy in the Balkans has all too long been based on false assumptions about the region. Granted, social tensions, primarily based on ethnic issues, were bound to have plagued the former Yugoslavia, but it is an absolute fact that violence could have been avoided if Slobodan Milosevic did not play on those tensions to enhance his power. As we prepare to debate the sending of American forces to Kosovo to keep a peace which does not yet exist, we must address the root cause of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to today. This Act, Mr. Speaker, does just that, and I urge my colleagues to support its swift and overwhelming passage by the House. The Senate is working on similar legislation, and hopefully the Congress can help put U.S. policy back on the right track.

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While the preponderance of Russian offensive assets suggests that it may have the capabilities in place for any number of offensive scenarios, including a move on Kyiv, it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the Kremlin has any intent to seize and hold territory. The Kremlin’s intent may be just to destroy or significantly degrade Ukraine’s military and undermine its broader strategic situation to achieve its aims. However, Russia also has activated some 100,000 additional reserve forces, which may be employed for a number of scenarios. Responding to a question from Co-Chairman Cohen, Lee observed that it was hard to determine the likelihood of a renewed Russian invasion, but that the risk is certainly greater than it has been at any point since the conflict began in 2014, and that the capabilities are all in theater for war. Co-Chairman Cohen also asked if the buildup today was proportionally similar to past buildups in 2014-2015, which was the last time Russian forces semi-overtly invaded Ukraine in large numbers. Lee replied that the current buildup is much more significant, though it is also true that the Ukrainian military is more capable today than it was in the past. Co-Chairman Cohen then inquired about past Russian casualties, which Lee described as being in the “hundreds” at least, though exact figures were not made publicly available. Co-Chairman Cohen then reiterated the gravity of the situation, and the seriousness with which he and the U.S. government was taking the issue. Cecire then introduced Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, who also made the point that the Russian regime’s full intentions were obscure, and not entirely knowable. However, she noted that the array of capabilities that the Kremlin has assembled on Ukraine’s border is suggestive, as are the demands the Kremlin has made in combination with the military buildup. On the latter point, she noted that there was an internal logic to Moscow linking its threatening posture over Ukraine with its demands with the West, because Russia’s war on Ukraine could be regarded as a kind of proxy war against the West as a whole. In a more comprehensive way, Russian demands seek a revised security architecture that would effectively undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as other non-NATO states like Georgia, giving Russia free rein over its periphery. While this may be a nonstarter for the West, Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that Russia likely would settle for an accommodation from the West that would reduce Western involvement in the region and leave Ukraine and other countries weak and vulnerable to Russian pressure. While some may find such a route appealing, she noted, such a response would not likely lead to a more constructive Russia, and could even invite more aggression as Moscow’s intent was never solely about or limited to Ukraine. As such, it is important for the West to remain resolute in defending and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Katsiaryna Shmatsina spoke about Belarus’ role in the broader calculus. She recalled how, after Belarusian protests were being crushed by the regime, EU diplomatic leaders asked how Belarus might be used as an appendage of Russian strategic power. She noted that this appears to be the case in the ongoing episode with Ukraine, with the hybrid migrant crisis at the Belarusian border, the mooted possibility that Russian forces might use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine, and the solidarity Russia has showed with the regime in Minsk through the flights of nuclear-capable bombers—suggesting that Belarus is not merely a side act, but a key element of Russian strategy in the region. For his part, Belarusian President Lukashenko has been severely weakened by the protests and his subsequent reliance on Russian support, leaving him nowhere else to turn and cementing Belarus’s place in the Kremlin’s alliance system and regional strategy. Shmastsina counseled that the situation in Belarus should merit greater international attention, particularly from the West, because it is inseparable from the ongoing military buildup in and around Ukraine and another aspect of Russia’s broader campaign against the West. Rep. Veasey noted that in a past visit to Ukraine, the assessment was that Russia was not necessarily interested in taking and holding territory and asked whether this view was still accurate. Dr. Vorotnyuk replied that this was very likely the case, but ultimately that the likely Russian aim was to permanently weaken Ukraine and be able to “veto” its alignments with the West. Particular territorial objectives could also be under consideration, such as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea—both of which Russia already holds—or a particular city, such as Odesa, and its port access to the Black Sea. Rep. Veasey then asked why Ukraine, but not Georgia, was being targeted in this way. Lee responded that Georgia no longer threatens to retake the Russia-held separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and that Ukraine is a much larger country with a more capable military and economic capacity, which holds a unique place in Russia’s historical narrative. Rep. Veasey then raised the issue of corruption, which continues to be seen as a major issue in Ukraine as compared to, for example, Georgia, and asked whether this is a serious problem. Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that it was a major issue, but that it is not a justification for Russian aggression, and that Western assistance with Ukraine is very much helping to address issues like corruption and democratic governance. Related Information Panelist Biographies

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DEFENDING UKRAINE, DETERRING PUTIN Thursday, December 16, 2021 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3DHAGWu The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission will convene a briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty. The briefing will include U.S. and international experts on Russian military capabilities and Eurasian security. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Andrew Bowen, Analyst in Russian and European Affairs, Congressional Research Service Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, Expert on Black Sea security; Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Belarusian analyst on Eurasian politics and security; Visiting Fellow, European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague Robert Lee, Expert on Russian military capabilities; PhD candidate, Kings College London

  • Chairman Cardin Calls for Release of Osman Kavala, Welcomes Council of Europe Infringement Proceedings Against Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent ruling of a Turkish court that will keep philanthropist Osman Kavala jailed until his trial begins in January 2022 and the subsequent decision by the Council of Europe to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “Justice has been denied, once again, for Osman Kavala, whose only apparent crime is being a Turkish patriot. Despite earlier rulings from a Turkish court and the European Court of Human Rights requiring the state to release Mr. Kavala, Turkish authorities have already jailed him for more than four years—in clear violation of Turkey’s OSCE commitments. “The ongoing injustice against Mr. Kavala is not unique. Thousands of Turkish citizens have been victims of the arbitrary court system. It is welcome news that the Council of Europe will start infringement proceedings against Turkey. Although Turkey is an important NATO ally, its leaders repeatedly have failed to uphold its commitments to respect human rights and the rule of law. "I urge the Turkish government to comply with its international obligations and release Mr. Kavala.” Turkey’s failure to comply with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, of which the country is a member, prompted the Council of Europe to start infringement proceedings. The process has been used only once before in more than seven decades of the organization’s history and may result in Turkey losing its voting rights or being excluded from the Council. Osman Kavala is a Turkish entrepreneur and philanthropist who has for decades supported civil society organizations in Turkey. In 1990, he contributed to the establishment of The Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a democracy and human rights non-profit inspired by the Helsinki Final Act. In November 2017, Turkish authorities arrested Mr. Kavala, alleging that he attempted to overthrow the Turkish government. Mr. Kavala was acquitted of these charges in February 2020, only to remain in detention and be charged with a new offense in March 2020. The same month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Mr. Kavala should be released from pre-trial detention.  Domestic and international human rights watchdogs consistently report that the charges against Mr. Kavala are unsubstantiated and politically motivated. Recently, ambassadors from ten Western countries, including the United States, advocated for his release. These demands were rejected by the Government of Turkey. Mr. Kavala is a recipient of the 2019 European Archaeological Heritage Prize and the Ayşenur Zarakolu Freedom of Thought and Expression Award from the Human Rights Association’s Istanbul branch.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest November 2021

  • 30 Years After Ovcara

    By Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor On November 20, 1991, after the fall of the city of Vukovar in Croatia, militant Serb forces removed 265 ill and injured Croats from a hospital. They were taken to the nearby Ovčara farm southeast of Vukovar, where they were abused before being shot and killed, with their bodies dumped in a mass grave. In addition to wounded members of the Croatian armed forces were civilians, including some women and children.   The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the international effort to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, including those most responsible for the crime at Ovčara, which took place early in a series of conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s disintegration throughout the 1990s.  Many obstacles stood in the way, but after years of persistent effort justice prevailed. However, malicious acts supporting territorial aggression continue in the OSCE region and elsewhere. When remembering Ovčara, it is important to acknowledge the brave few in Serbia—civil society advocates, political activists, journalists, lawyers and judges, and everyday citizens—who consistently have refused to associate themselves with the terrible crimes committed in their name in the 1990s, and seek to this day not only justice but a needed acknowledgement of reality in the face of continued denial and revisionism. A wider acknowledgement led by those holding power today will mean a better future for Serbia and its neighbors tomorrow.

  • Helsinki Commission Alarmed by Attempted Liquidation of Memorial

    WASHINGTON—Following last week’s request by Russian prosecutors to liquidate the human rights group Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Center, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We continue to see an alarming increase in attacks on civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media in Russia. Now the Kremlin actively seeks to dismantle Memorial, a respected network of organizations dedicated to revealing and preserving the history of Soviet repression and fighting for political prisoners in Russia today. Memorial’s efforts to defend truth and human rights are essential and must be protected for generations to come.” In 2015, the Memorial Human Rights Center was designated a “foreign agent.” This label has been applied in a derogatory way to numerous human rights groups, independent media organizations, and related individuals to stifle or completely stop their work in the country. In 2016, Memorial International, the parent organization of the Memorial Human Rights Center, also was designated a “foreign agent.” On November 11, Russia’s Supreme Court notified Memorial International that the General Prosecutor’s office was suing to dismantle the organization for alleged violations of Russia’s “foreign agent” laws. The Supreme Court hearing is scheduled to take place on November 25. Memorial Human Rights Center will come before the Moscow City Court on November 23 to face liquidation for alleged “justification” of extremism and terrorism in its materials. Memorial, established in the final years of the Soviet Union by dissidents including Andrei Sakharov, is one of the most respected and enduring human rights groups in the region. Its local chapters focus on preserving the truth about Soviet repressions, particularly under Stalin, and honoring the memories of those lost. Memorial also maintains a comprehensive database of current political prisoners in Russia and continues to advocate for the rights of the people of Russia, especially in the North Caucasus. The Helsinki Commission has convened numerous events featuring Memorial representatives.

  • Helsinki Commission Supports Invocation of OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism in the Face of Sustained Human Rights Crisis in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the invocation of the OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism to address the mounting human rights crisis in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “One year after the release of a comprehensive, unbiased, and damning report detailing human rights abuses by the Lukashenko regime, Lukashenko has not simply failed to act on the report’s recommendations—he has intensified his brutal crackdown on those in Belarus who continue to fight for their fundamental freedoms. “Among its other commitments as an OSCE participating State, Belarus is bound to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections. By invoking the Vienna Mechanism, the United States and 34 other countries demand that the authorities in Belarus finally address the violations raised in the 2020 report and inform the international community about the steps the Lukashenko regime is taking to investigate those serious allegations. Ensuring human rights violators are held to account is of importance to us all.” In September 2020, 17 OSCE participating States, including the United States, invoked the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism to investigate credible accounts of widespread human rights violations perpetrated in the aftermath of Belarus’ fraudulent August 2020 elections. The Moscow Mechanism allows a group of OSCE participating States to appoint independent experts to investigate a particularly serious threat to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in a participating State. On November 5, 2020, the Moscow Mechanism report substantiated numerous allegations of torture and repression and included recommendations and advice for the Government of Belarus, the OSCE, and the international community. Lukashenko’s government failed to cooperate with the investigation. On November 4, 2021, as a follow-up to the 2020 report, 35 OSCE participating States posed detailed questions to the Lukashenko regime via OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism, which obliges participating States to respond to formal requests for information from other States about serious human rights concerns. The commission convened a hearing on human rights in Belarus on September 21, 2021.

  • Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. In this hearing, witnesses examined the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discussed the implications for U.S. foreign policy. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) began the hearing by addressing the need to help safeguard the freedoms that both Poland and Hungary have fought so hard for, and that form the basis of the OSCE. He then addressed the downward trajectory of democracies in both countries, emphasizing Hungary as a particular concern. In his opening remarks, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) emphasized the importance of democracy to all freedom loving people, and that while both Poland and Hungary are critical allies to the United States, the erosion of democratic norms in both countries is of serious concern. Co-Chairman Cohen highlighted the use of xenophobic, antisemitic and Islamophobic rhetoric as a mechanism to maintain political power in Hungary, and the collapse of the judicial system in Poland as examples of de-democratization in both countries. He concluded by stating that the United States should expect better of their allies and of members of the European Union. Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia at Freedom House, testified about the key differences between Poland and Hungary and their decline as democracies. She first noted that while Poland remains a democracy and Hungary is now reclassified as a hybrid regime, the democratic decline of Poland is occurring at a faster rate than that of Hungary. She suggested that state capture of the media, judiciary, civic sector, and elections play a key role in the democratic backsliding of both countries. Ms. Csaky then concluded that while any decisions on the governments of Hungary and Poland will be determined by their respective electorates, the United States should uphold strategic, long term commitments supporting the EU, and help to strengthen the civic and media sectors. In his testimony, Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed his concern over the authoritarian nature of the Hungarian and Polish governments. In particular, he called attention to the de-facto end of constitutional review, limited access to diverse media, and extraordinary rise in corruption in Hungary. Mr. Rohac closed by stressing the need for support from the United States to be bipartisan and narrow in focus. Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at CSIS and incoming President at the German Marshall Fund, began her testimony by maintaining that while democracy in Poland and Hungary are examples of foreign policy accomplishments, both Poland and Hungary should be held accountable for their governments’ behavior in undermining democracy at home and abroad.  Ms. Conley emphasized Hungary’s growing relationship with China, and the need to determine if Hungary is at the level of commitment too maintain the secrecy of a NATO member. She recommended that the United States remain engaged in its investment in both countries but do so through bipartisan and firm policy. Following the conclusion of the witness statements, Chairman Cardin acknowledged that Poland and Hungary are two separate countries with different priorities but addressed what the two have in common. While Poland and Hungary are different cases, he noted, there is a need to address disturbing trends in countries with which the United States has deep ties. “We have to look for way to strengthen the values that make our relationship so important,” he said. “I think America can play an important role here, and that Congress can play an important role.” Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: UPHOLDING OSCE COMMITMENTS IN HUNGARY AND POLAND Wednesday, November 3, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses will examine the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discuss the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia, Freedom House Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute  

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

  • Repression in Belarus Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SEEKING JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN BELARUS Tuesday, September 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than a year has passed since mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. In the meantime, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime cling to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. As Lukashenko lashes out at the West—even engineering the forced landing of an EU flight to abduct a journalist and sending overwhelming numbers of migrants into the EU via Belarus—the exiled leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been engaging the world on her country’s behalf, calling for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for the repressive regime. Expert witnesses will provide updates on the current situation in Belarus, including the state of media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Serge Kharytonau, Media Expert, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Tatsiana Khomich, Coordination Council Representative for political prisoners, Viktar Babaryka Team Coordinator, and sister of political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University Siarhej Zikratski, Representative on Legal Affairs, Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

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