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Property Restitution Efforts Examined
Thursday, October 10, 2002

By Maureen T. Walsh,
CSCE General Counsel

On July 16, 2002, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe held a public hearing titled “Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe: The State of Affairs for American Claimants” on the status of property restitution, with a particular focus on claims in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania. This was the Commission’s third hearing on the issue of property restitution; previous hearings were held in 1996 and 1999.

In his opening statement, Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) acknowledged that “Central and East European governments have done much regarding property restitution that is commendable.” Smith noted that “governments seeking membership in Western institutions want to be perceived as reform governments by passing a private property restitution law. . Upon closer examination, however, one finds lackluster the implementation of the laws” as well as serious rule of law problems and discriminatory citizenship requirements that continue to impede restitution and compensation efforts.

Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) expressed the need for countries addressing problems created by the legacies of fascism and communism to “address all pertinent issues and cases, including claims of those individuals or families who may fall between the cracks of current laws.”

According to Commissioner Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), barriers to restitution and compensation dealt the survivors of the Holocaust a second tragedy. In response, he made clear that “we will not stop until all the OSCE states treat property restitution in a serious way by having effective laws to compensate for illegally confiscated property.”

Commissioner Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) expressed a need “to constantly be creating an atmosphere in which these claims are viewed as appropriate, legitimate, and justiciable.” She stressed “the rapid restitution of assets that were stolen during that horrible period is a critical step towards achieving some measure of fairness.” “As the countries of Eastern and Central Europe consider reforming their property restitution laws, they can look to the United States as a leader in considering the restitution of World War II era property,” Senator Clinton concluded.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), a member of the House International Relations Committee, urged the Bush Administration to ensure that progress on property restitution claims be considered as a component for European Union membership. Rep. Crowley’s remarks focused on the lack of a private property restitution law in Poland where he stated “as many as 170,000 property owners and their heirs still wait for legislation that will restore their rights.” He also noted that “the protection of property rights is a basic requirement for all democratic governments that operate under the rule of law.”

Witnesses reiterated two themes throughout the hearing: the protection of property rights as a requirement of democratic governments and the need for states to recognize their responsibilities to resolve outstanding restitution claims.

The first witness, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues at the U.S. State Department, Randolph Bell, said the U.S., in its diplomatic relations, emphasizes that restitution processes must be clear, straightforward and non-discriminatory. Countries are encouraged to adopt broad legislation that provides restitution for the variety of claims which are being made.

Mr. Bell remarked, “in joining the Euro-Atlantic mainstream and applying for membership in organizations, [Central and East European states] are seeking to join a community of values.” He outlined the following principles that these states should bear in mind when addressing property restitution:

  • Restitution laws should govern both communal property owned by religious and community organizations, and private property owned by individuals and corporate entities.
  • To document claims, access to archival records frequently requiring government facilitation is necessary. Reasonable alternative evidence must be permitted if archives have been destroyed.
  • Uniform enforcement of laws is necessary throughout a country.
  • The restitution process must be non-discriminatory, there should be no residence or citizenship requirement.
  • Legal procedures should be clear and simple.
  • Privatization programs should include protections for claimants.
  • Governments need to make provisions for current occupants of restituted property.
  • When restitution of property is not possible, adequate compensation should be paid.
  • Restitution should result in a clear title to the property, not merely the right to use the property.
  • Communal property should be eligible for restitution or compensation without regard to whether it had a religious or secular use. Some limits on large forest or agricultural holdings may be needed.
  • Foundations managed jointly by local communities and international groups may be appropriate to aid in preparation of claims and to administer restituted property.
  • Cemeteries and other religious sites should be protected from desecration or misuse before and during the restitution process.

Mr. Bell emphasized the common goals of the legislative and executive branches in pursuing these issues. He recommended Congress and the Administration continue to encourage Central and East European states to enact addition legislation to allow greater property restitution and to hold the governments of those states accountable to the public declarations they have previously made.

The second panel of witnesses was comprised of Israel Singer, President of the Conference on Jewish-American Claims against Germany and Co-Chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization; Yehuda Evron, U.S. President of the Holocaust Restitution Committee; Mark Meyer, attorney and Chairman of the Romanian-American Chamber of Commerce; and Olga Jonas, economist and member of several non-governmental organizations addressing issues in the Czech Republic. These witnesses’ statements revealed broad dissatisfaction with the current status of restitution efforts.

Israel Singer reported that many East European states had “enacted restitution legislation with cut-off dates with the effect, whether intended or not, of restricting the rights of Jewish communities and others with legitimate claims to reclaim their property.” He emphasized the critical importance of timeliness in resolving restitution claims by stating that Holocaust survivors are dying at a rate of 15 percent per year. Singer urged the Commission to pursue three goals: first, to follow his “report card” on countries’ efforts toward restitution and to insist on greater accountability for any shortcomings. Second, to question why NATO allies allow property restitution to be used as an excuse for anti-Semitism within their borders. And third, to reiterate to these allies that resolution of property restitution issues is not only a material obligation, but also a moral obligation.

Yehuda Evron’s testimony focused on restitution in Poland where, Evron said, “Efforts to return property to former owners have been uneven, and often unsuccessful or worse, discriminatory.” Like Mr. Singer, he reiterated the dire need for resolution of these claims and declared the efforts thus far to resolve American claims in Poland a failure. Evron noted the law on restitution which the Polish Government is currently crafting will reportedly offer a symbolic monetary compensation to the rightful owners rather than actual return of confiscated property. Describing why Holocaust survivors will not be satisfied with symbolic compensation, Mr. Evron explained, “We survivors lost all of our families. The homes that are left are the only thing left from our family. There is no money in the world that can compensate for this house, and we don't want any money.”

Mark Meyer described the property restitution situation in Romania. Mr. Meyer, an attorney with extensive experience representing property claimants, acknowledged Romania’s efforts in passing a restitution law, but criticized the law for having “so many exceptions to the overall principle of in-kind restitution that in fact it is not providing very much in the way of in-kind restitution at all. Instead it offers restitution in the equivalent.” Meyer described the claims process as a “procedural morass” and a “bureaucratic meltdown” because of the multiplicity of obstacles facing claimants. Meyer recommended that Romania broaden in-kind restitution. When in-kind restitution is not feasible, he suggested that long-term bonds be issued rather than cash compensation. He also argued for the inclusion of personal property restitution in any amendments to the Romanian restitution law. Meyer noted the importance of Romania rescinding Law 112 of 1995 which currently allows tenants of seized property to purchase that property, thus further complicating return of the property to the original owner.

Olga Jonas testified concerning property restitution in the Czech Republic. Ms. Jonas criticized Czech policy on the return of confiscated properties as being intended “to directly benefit communist and former communist functionaries who have acquired these properties or who hope to acquire them in privatization.” Ms. Jonas enumerated several particularly egregious restrictions on property restitution including the disallowance of restitution to “all persons who are not considered Czech citizens by the Czech Government, to legal persons, and to those victims whose Nazi-confiscated assets were to be returned by the 1945 restitution laws but [which were not actually returned] before the communist takeover.” She noted the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s multiple rulings that by denying U.S. citizens the right to restitution of confiscated property the Czech Government has violated the non-discrimination requirement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Two days after the hearing, Co-Chairman Smith hand-delivered a letter to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski during a meeting with congressional leaders in Washington, stressing the urgent need for a non-discriminatory law governing restitution or compensation of private property confiscated from individuals by the Nazi or communist regimes in Poland. In response, President Kwasniewski underscored Poland's good will in tackling this problem, which he characterized as more difficult in Poland that some other countries because of post-World War II border changes. He said he expected to have a draft law ready by the beginning of next year — one that would not include any citizenship restrictions.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission intern Georgianna Gaines contributed to this article.

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The OSCE PA, consisting of 323 legislators from the 57 countries of the OSCE, has been particularly useful in defending democracy and promoting security in the face of numerous threats and challenges across the OSCE region.  The Winter Meeting, held in a hybrid format due to ongoing but easing COVID restrictions, allows parliamentarians an opportunity to engage OSCE officials and diplomatic representatives, as well as to initiate work for the coming year.  Prior to the Winter Meeting, the delegation visited Lithuania to demonstrate the strong U.S. support for this close NATO ally, which not only faces security threats on its borders but also provides refuge to independent voices from Russia and Belarus. OSCE PA Winter Meeting The 2022 Winter Meeting coincided with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, a horrific escalation of a conflict that began with Russia’s illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and ongoing aggression in the eastern portion of Ukraine. Ahead of the Winter Meeting, the OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella and members of OSCE PA leadership (including Sen. Wicker as a Vice President and Rep. Hudson as Chair of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security) met in an emergency session and issued a statement condemning the Kremlin invasion as a “clear and gross violation of the most basic norms of international law as well as OSCE principles and commitments.” The group also issued a subsequent statement standing “in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and its elected government” and noting the “extraordinary courage” exhibited by “civilians, the armed forces and national leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky.” Statements condemning Vladimir Putin for the deliberate assault of Russian forces on Ukraine dominated the formal sessions of the meeting, despite an agenda originally designed to consider ongoing OSCE PA work on a wide range of issues. Co-Chairman Cohen spoke for the United States, decrying Putin’s claim that the Ukrainian government is led and run by Nazis. In a poignant end to the Standing Committee’s second session, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation, Mykyta Poturaiev, reported on violence in his neighborhood of Kyiv and bid farewell as he sought to return to his family in Ukraine. The 2022 Polish Chair-in-Office of the OSCE for 2022 outlined Poland’s priorities in an utterly transformed era in European security. During the general debate, nominally on the topic of “security guarantees and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” delegations resumed their near-universal condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Rep. Hudson opened the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security by denouncing the invasion of one participating State by another, in total opposition of Helsinki principles. He also underlined the committee’s particular relevance in the context of the security crisis precipitated by Russia, a view reinforced by a panel of senior OSCE officials present as guest speakers.  Finally, Rep. Hudson moderated a debate on “heightened tensions in the OSCE area and the need for inter-parliamentary dialogue.” The debate focused heavily on the attack on Ukraine, with Sen.Wicker remotely joining those in Vienna condemning Russia’s outrageous behavior, and Rep. Jackson Lee forcefully urging members to recall the role of the Belarusian government in the events leading to the invasion. In the economic and environmental affairs committee, Rep. Smith spoke alongside OSCE official Valiant Richey about their efforts as special representatives on human trafficking issues of the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, respectively. They specifically discussed supply chains as they relate to human trafficking matters. Representative Wilson spoke for the United States in the subsequent debate. In the committee dealing with democracy and human rights, Rep. Wilson condemned Russian human-rights violations in occupied Ukraine and in Russia itself, as well as ongoing repression in Belarus. Rep. Aderholt defended free media in his statement to the committee following presentations by recent Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitriy Muratov and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro. On the margins of the Winter Meeting, the U.S. delegation gathered key parliamentarians from a range of participating States over dinner, fostering an opportunity for frank and candid exchanges of views on important topics confronting the OSCE. The event emphasized the depth of the U.S. commitment to European security, going beyond diplomatic representatives to include elected Members of Congress. The delegation also was briefed by diplomats representing the United States in the OSCE, including Ambassador Michael Carpenter, and held bilateral meetings with the heads of the Azerbaijani and Mongolian OSCE PA Delegations. Visiting Lithuania The delegation’s presence in Europe also afforded an opportunity to visit Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, the delegation met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. Officials emphasized to the delegation the game-changing nature of recent developments, especially the total capitulation of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus to Moscow. These actions resulted in a dramatically more challenging situation on Lithuania’s border, leaving the country essentially no warning should Putin choose to act against the Baltic states.  The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area, a Lithuanian initiative which provides facilities for U.S. and Allied military activities in the region. Members also met with Belarusians and Russians who had fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Chairman Cardin, OSCE participating States Commit to Countering Anti-Semitism at Annual Conference in Warsaw

    By Ryn Hintz, Paulina Kanburiyan, and Worth Talley, Max Kampelman Fellows, and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On February 7 – 8, 2022, the OSCE’s Polish Chair-in-Office organized a high-level conference in Warsaw on Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region with the support of OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR). During the event, government officials, experts, civil society organizations, and the private sector underscored the ongoing threat that anti-Semitism poses not only to Jewish communities, but to democracy everywhere, and the shared responsibility to fight it. In a series of exchanges with experts over two days, more than 100 participants from over 25 countries unilaterally condemned anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, discriminatory prohibition of religious practices, and other manifestations of prejudice against the Jewish community. They also discussed innovative history education, youth engagement, and legislative responses to foster Jewish life. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, opened the event by underscoring the need for sustained, coordinated action to end the pervasive anti-Semitism plaguing the OSCE region. “Although recalling the Holocaust is painful, it seems as if we have not fully learned our lesson,” he said. Law Enforcement: A Partner in Combating Hate Speech and Scapegoating OSCE Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Rabbi Andrew Baker led a session where panelists highlighted the rise in anti-Semitic hate speech, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories since the onset of the global pandemic. Participating States then shared effective national policies and strategies, including best practices of partnering with law enforcement. Addressing Anti-Semitism Online: A Shared Responsibility OSCE Advisor on Combating Anti-Semitism Mikolaj Wrzecionkowski moderated a discussion on steps the private sector, civil societies and governments can take to combat the spread of anti-Semitism online, including actively challenging anti-Semitic algorithms and hashtags, appointing points of contact to address concerns about anti-Semitic content, and promoting educational initiatives among young people, educators, and companies to increase media literacy. The United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, Rt. Honorable Lord Eric Pickles, again underscored the importance of joint action. “At a time of distortion and contempt for our fellow human beings, we need to be able to see our own faces in the faces of strangers,” he stated. Beyond Combatting Anti-Semitism: The Need to Actively Foster Jewish Life Dr. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, led a discussion on the challenges and successes of states, cities, and societies in fostering vibrant Jewish communities to both resist the spread of anti-Semitism and uplift Jewish history, culture, and tradition. Panelists shared examples of initiatives to restore cemeteries and monuments, open museums, and compile educational and cultural resources online. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, illustrated the interconnectivity between fostering Jewish life and democracy by discussing recent legislative backlash against Jewish religious practices like circumcision and kosher preparation of meals, further stressing that regulations on these practices must not be prohibitive and should be formed in collaboration with Jewish communities. The Centrality of Education to Address Anti-Semitism and Anti-Roma Discrimination A session moderated by Kishan Manocha, ODIHR’s Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, highlighted the importance of new and innovative education initiatives to address root causes of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination. Panelists highlighted the need for cross-cultural exposure to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Roma attitudes and build greater connections between those inside and outside Jewish and Roma communities. Policymakers noted the ability to use interactive and digital tools to address histories of discrimination, related not only to the Holocaust but also to Jewish history and contributions to culture and the world. Despite advancements, participants acknowledged that challenges remain: online courses suffer from low completion rates and some curricula address the subject of anti-Roma discrimination only tangentially.  Panelists agreed that addressing anti-Roma discrimination also requires a holistic, inter-curricular approach that builds upon knowledge both of the genocide of Roma and Sinti, and of their histories and cultures. To close the conference, Plenipotentiary of Poland’s Ministry Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Paweł Kotowski called on participants to continue their important work to defeat anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination.

  • Poland's Leadership of the OSCE in a Time of Crisis

    Poland has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—at a time when it will need to do its utmost to uphold fundamental tenets increasingly under attack. The region is facing serious challenges, ranging from the real possibility of a renewed Russian assault on Ukraine to the repercussions of COVID-19. Other regional challenges include protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, as well as the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, 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. Anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric are on the rise, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. Combating human trafficking and countering terrorism and corruption also are high on the OSCE agenda. At this hearing, Polish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Zbigniew Rau discussed Poland’s priorities in the OSCE and how it will address the challenges it will likely face in 2022. Related Information Witness Biography

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau 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: POLAND’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE IN A TIME OF CRISIS Thursday, February 3, 2022 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Poland has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—at a time when it will need to do its utmost to uphold fundamental tenets increasingly under attack. The region is facing serious challenges, ranging from the real possibility of a renewed Russian assault on Ukraine to the repercussions of COVID-19. Other regional challenges include protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, as well as the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Meanwhile, 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. Anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric are on the rise, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. Combating human trafficking and countering terrorism and corruption also are high on the OSCE agenda. At this hearing, Polish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Zbigniew Rau will discuss Poland’s priorities in the OSCE and how it will address the challenges it will likely face in 2022.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest November 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  

  • Experts raise alarm bells in Congress over ‘Europe’s most contested domain’

    With a handful of frozen conflicts, hybrid warfare, rising autocracy, and political instability, the Black Sea region may be Europe’s most volatile and most overlooked. This week, policy experts are testifying in Congress and calling for the United States to step up its involvement in the Black Sea region, a critical geopolitical crossroads where U.S. allies and adversaries coexist. “The region is Europe’s most contested domain,” said Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant Defense secretary for Europe and NATO who testified to Congress on Wednesday. “It’s where you have the most intense confrontation and the most violent conflict in Europe in the last decade and a half. It’s high time we start addressing what needs to be done to bring greater peace and stability to that region,” Brzezinski told National Journal. Last week, Russian fighter jets intercepted two U.S. bombers over the Black Sea while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Romania, a member of the European Union and a NATO ally that hosts nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemembers. During his trip, Austin also visited two other Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine, a move many saw as a sign that the U.S. was beginning to focus on the region ahead of a key NATO ministerial meeting. High on the agenda during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, however, was the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the West. Despite being part of the Western military alliance, Turkey has consistently opposed strengthening NATO’s presence in the Black Sea and courted Russia, opting to purchase a Russian missile-defense system that military experts say poses a risk to NATO equipment. “We have got to repair our relationship with Turkey. It’s not impossible. Erdoğan is a deal-maker,” said Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant Defense secretary European and NATO policy, who also testified Wednesday. Over the weekend, Erdoğan ordered the country’s Foreign Ministry to declare 10 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, persona non grata after they called for the release of an imprisoned civil-society leader named Osman Kavala. Erdoğan later walked back the statement, but the incident highlighted the volatility of Turkey’s relationship with the West. “Because Turkey is pursuing its own Russia-friendly policy and is often antagonistic towards the U.S., that makes our Black Sea policy so much more difficult,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who argues that NATO allies should be more active in the region. Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the Helsinki Commission, said the U.S. and Turkey share many interests in the Black Sea region but that shouldn’t stop Washington from speaking out on human rights. “Mr. Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist, has been in detention for four years despite being acquitted by a Turkish court," Cardin said in an email. "In their joint statement, the ambassadors simply asked that Turkey adhere to its international obligations and domestic law. “This kind of straight talk is important among NATO allies and did not warrant such a disproportionate response.” Despite the tensions with Turkey, Russia is the primary adversary in the region. Many lawmakers note that Moscow has trampled the rules-based international order by invading its neighbors and propping up separatists to prevent countries along the Black Sea from forming closer ties with the West. Russian forces currently occupy around 20 percent of Georgian territory and support separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in large part to maintain access to the Black Sea—and support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, said she convened Wednesday’s hearing to learn how lawmakers can holistically approach the region to address patterns of Russian encroachment. “Over the last two decades, the Black Sea has become an increasingly important region for Russia, which has repeatedly disregarded international norms to expand control of the region, waging war and deploying illegal and belligerent tactics to secure these goals,” Shaheen told National Journal. “Russia has made it clear that it is willing to exert economic, military, and political power to thwart NATO expansion and expand its control in the Black Sea.” Experts are arriving in Congress with a laundry list of recommendations, including building up Bulgaria's and Romania’s navies, sending brigade combat teams to both countries, investing in initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, and providing Ukraine with more lethal weaponry. Some are advocating for the creation of a NATO readiness action plan for the Black Sea, and for moving forward with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are angling to join the Western military alliance. Still, the alliance’s commitment to collective defense prevents countries already in a state of conflict from entering, a fact that Russia exploits. Because Georgia is not yet a NATO member, the U.S. recently renewed a six-year security pact with Tbilisi designed to bolster the defense capabilities of the country’s military. The U.S. is moving away from training battalions in Georgia and will focus instead on building sustainable institutional capabilities at the executive levels of the military. Still, experts warn that nearly all the countries in the region are dealing with political instability, Russian interference, or both. Georgia, heading for a second round of local elections on Saturday, has been accused of Democratic backsliding. Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members, are also in contentious election cycles and debates over government formation that will determine their future political trajectories. Ruslan Trad, an author researching Russian influence in Bulgaria, told National Journal there are several popular pro-Russian political movements in Bulgaria. Russian spies are active in the country and allegedly monitored European Union leaders during their visits. There’s also an urgent need to counter Russian disinformation and anti-NATO propaganda in the country, Trad said. What’s most important, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to have a robust strategy for the entire region. “Having a strategy for the region has to be the first priority because then you can develop the right policies for each of the countries in the region,” Hodges said. The Biden administration is now working on a global-force-posture review, which should shed light on U.S. policy towards the region, and the State Department is also developing a Black Sea strategy. Alina Polyakova, the president of CEPA and another witness in Wednesday’s hearing, said it would be important to pinpoint the specific areas in which each partner country in the region can contribute to broader security. “The Black Sea region is critical to broader transatlantic stability,” Polyakova told senators. “It is where Russia, Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus come together, and it’s also the locus of the Kremlin’s test of the alliance’s credibility and resolve.”

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