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Helsinki Commission Visit to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine
Friday, April 10, 1992

This Helsinki Commission delegation was the first to visit the "former Soviet Union" since its breakup in December 1991. It was also the first Commission delegation visit to any of the former republics in their new status as independent countries, and the first ever to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

Of particular significance was the fact that all the former republics are now full­ fledged members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), having been admitted during the meeting of the CSCE Council of Ministers in Prague in late January 1992. Their entry into the CSCE means that all the governments of these newly independent countries have obligated themselves to implement Helsinki commitments, providing a standard by which their progress towards democratization, observance of human rights and free market economic systems can be measured. Moreover, since at least two of these countries -- Armenia and Azerbaijan -- are, essentially, engaged in hostilities, if not actually a state of war, the CSCE's mechanisms for conflict mediation and resolution can be brought into play: a test both for the republics, and the CSCE, especially in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia crisis. The fact that the delegation's visit took place during the CSCE Follow-up Meeting in Helsinki (March-June 1992) offered an appropriate backdrop to this Commission fact-finding mission.

This mission had particular resonance in the Central Asian republics, which have long been neglected in the West. In fact, there had been much debate among CSCE participating States as to whether these republics should be admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, as they were manifestly not in Europe geographically, or, in many ways, culturally. Nevertheless, the CSCE's Council of Ministers was persuaded by the argument that the best way to bring Western democratic and free market ideas to the region was to include them in the process.

The visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan was motivated by obvious considerations: the increasingly bloody and alarming conflict between them over Nagorno-Karabakh. From an ethnic dispute that threatened to complicate Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program, the conflict has ballooned, with the dissolution of the USSR, into a larger regional conflict with international significance that threatens to involve neighboring states, one of which -­ Turkey -- is a NATO member.

From the CSCE perspective, this conflict brings to the fore the inherent contradiction between two equally valid principles of the CSCE: the right of peoples to self-determination, on the one hand; and territorial integrity, with only peaceful change of borders, on the other. Yugoslavia in 1991 had already presented the CSCE with the difficult problem of reconciling these principles; Armenia and Azerbaijan are offering the latest challenge. There is reason to believe -- or fear -- that this issue will resurface elsewhere on the territory of the former USSR, and the unhappy experience of these two Transcaucasian countries may prove an object lesson that has applicability to other situations.

Reflecting the concern of the CSCE member States about the situation, and in an attempt to resolve the crisis, a decision was taken at the March 1992 opening of the Helsinki Follow-up Meeting to organize a "Conference on Nagorno-Karabakh" which will meet soon in Minsk under CSCE auspices.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is embroiled in its own disputes as it develops its institutions as a newly independent country and CSCE state. Unlike its quarrel with Russia over division of the USSR's assets, especially the disposition of the Black Sea fleet, some issues have direct relevance to the CSCE. The Crimea, for example, may hold a referendum on its future status (remaining within Ukraine, autonomy, joining Russia, or opting for independence), which reflects the emphasis placed in the CSCE on democratic expression and fair balloting practices. Another area of critical importance is military security and arms control: the disposition of Ukraine's nuclear arsenal and compliance with the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) agreement, when Kiev has not yet reached agreement with Moscow and other capitals of former republics over a unified military that could implement the agreement. Finally, Ukraine's efforts to build a law-based state and overcome the legacy of 70 years of communism must overcome difficulties of personnel, "old thinking" (a term popular among Moscow's elite a few years ago), and bureaucratic resistance to change.

The United States recognized all the former Soviet republics as independent countries on December 25, 1991, but established diplomatic relations only with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the others was put off, pending satisfactory assurances of commitment to human rights, democracy, responsible arms control policies, and a free market economic system. This "two-tiered" approach drew criticism, however, for risking the alienation of the "second-tier" states and the potential loss of American influence, I especially with the January 1992 decision by the CSCE to admit the former Soviet republics as full members. In February, the Bush administration signalled its intention to establish diplomatic relations with all the former Soviet republics. The result was the speedy opening of U.S. Embassies in the newly independent countries, which was enthusiastically greeted by the leaderships and opposition forces. Effectively, therefore, the United States is the only Western country with fully-functioning Embassies in all the new countries visited by the Helsinki Commission.

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A 2014 police list of banned books [in Azerbaijan] includes Islamic texts by theologian Said Nursi, Jehovah's Witness texts, and the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible used by Christians and Jews. Police have long confiscated these texts and others during raids on Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, and Baptist private homes and meetings of people exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. There are many prisoners of conscience, especially human rights defenders and journalists. On July 3, 2017 Shia Imam Sardar Babayev was jailed for three years for leading mosque prayers because he was educated abroad.” “The reality of freedom of religion and belief violations by governments in these territories and the necessity of documenting them is why we were founded,” noting that they work to protect the freedom of everyone whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism). “Our founders and staff were and are totally convinced as a matter of Christian conviction that everyone with no exceptions – including people who would completely disagree with the Christian faith – must…be able to freely exercise the freedom of religion and belief, and related rights such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly…Our personal experience in the territories we monitor and other states (such as the former East Germany), as well as our own convictions, make us committed to Forum 18’s work of monitoring and analyzing governments’ violations of their international human rights law obligations.” In addition to its work on Azerbaijan, Forum 18 is also focusing on Uzbekistan’s raids, fines, jailing, and torture of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the increasing number of prisoners of conscience being jailed in Kazakhstan for exercising freedom of religion and belief, including alleged adherents of Muslim missionary movement Tabligh Jamaat, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov, and Seventh-day Adventist Yklas Kabduakasov. Kazakhstan has also banned all mosques outside state control; expressions of non-Sunni Hanafi Islam; and discussion of faith by people without state permission, or not using state-approved texts, or outside state-approved locations. Kazakhstan’s persecution of atheist writer Aleksandr Kharlamov is also of concern. In Russia, Forum 18 actively monitors the government’s “anti-extremist” nationwide ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as “anti-extremist” prosecutions, fines and jailing of Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, including cases like that of Muslim Yevgeny Kim, who in in June 2017 was sentenced to three years in prison. Forum 18 is also concerned about nationwide religious literature bans, with the possessors of such texts being liable to criminal prosecution. Accuracy and Objectivity Are Key “Our overriding editorial objective is to as accurately as possible present the truth of a situation, both implicitly and explicitly,” note the editors of Forum 18. “It is vitally important that we cross-check information with local people, including religious communities and other human rights defender organizations where these exist. It is equally vital that in our published articles we carry the views of local people and human rights organizations – this enables local people to make their views on human rights violations known.” “Similarly, we always seek the comments of relevant officials, such as public prosecutors, police and secret police officials, within the country being written about,” they continued. “Every article we publish includes information on all the sources used, even if some have to be described as remaining anonymous for fear of state reprisals.” According to Forum 18, the organization’s efforts have resulted in “significant respect and usage among victims of human rights violations, human rights defenders (including journalists), diplomats, intergovernmental organizations, academics and others.” “Accuracy is in itself an effective advocacy for human rights by countering with accurate information the false information presented by repressive regimes, who often seek to conceal their human rights violations,” the editors said. The Worst of the Worst? When asked which of the countries Forum 18 monitors should be considered the “worst of the worst,” the editors noted that developing such a ranking is difficult. “Territories where serious…violations take place are places where people have a strong incentive to not discuss the state’s violations, for fear of state reprisals, making any reliable ranking of territories difficult,” they observed. “Because in all the territories Forum 18 monitors governments violate individuals’, informal groups’, and communities’ freedom of religion and belief apparently as part of a declared or undeclared policies of increasing state control of society – even in states such as Georgia in the south Caucasus – we think it is best for readers to judge for themselves which countries are the worst violators of freedom of religion or belief at any one time,” the editors added. Similarly, Forum 18 finds it difficult to rank the individual cases monitored by the organization. “In our view, each one of these cases where a government has violated an individual’s or group’s freedom of religion and belief can fairly be described as compelling. We think this view is reinforced by the individual cases being part of a much broader pattern of intentional, systemic government violations of the human rights of everyone they rule.” One case Forum 18 has followed close is that of Protestant Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov in Tajikistan, who was jailed for three years for allegedly “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting ‘religious hatred.’” The regime has threatened family members, friends, and church members with reprisals if they reveal any details of the case, trial, or jailing. Cooperation is Key Cooperation is vital to the Forum 18 approach. “Cooperation in defense of human rights for all is both right in principle and more effective than competition,” the Forum 18 editors argue. “It is important to cooperate with others – including in our case providing accurate information – to help responses to violations of freedom of religion and belief and interlinked other fundamental freedoms to be as effective as possible. Our work with victims of freedom of religion and belief violations and other human rights defenders convinces us that this approach is the right one to follow.” Twitter: @Forum_18 Facebook: @Forum18NewsService

  • Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh

    Last year, the worst outbreak of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in more than two decades erupted as the so-called Four Day War in April 2016 claimed approximately 200 lives and demonstrated that the conflict is anything but “frozen.” The Line of Contact separating the parties sees numerous ceasefire violations annually and each one risks igniting a larger-scale conflict that could draw in major regional players, such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Since 1997, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the principal international mechanism aimed at reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict. The U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted two former United States Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group process as well as a renowned, independent expert on the conflict to assess the current state of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group format, and the prospects for achieving a lasting peace. Magdalena Grono, an expert from the International Crisis Group, underlined the serious potential for further flare-ups in the fighting, which could have severe humanitarian impacts and draw in regional powers. She contextualized the recent clashes and assessed that the conflict was among the most deadly, intractable and risky in Europe. According to her assessment, the conflict is beset by two worrisome trends: deteriorating confidence between the parties and in the settlement process itself as well as increasingly dangerous clashes due in part to the deployment of heavier weaponry. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh discussed the role of the Minsk Group in the settlement process while voicing his concern that positions have hardened on all sides. Growing tensions have created risks not only of intentional but also accidental conflict, he said. The Ambassador outlined the limits of the Minsk Group’s mandate, underscoring that it is charged with helping the sides find a solution rather than imposing one from the outside. He lamented that the recent meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents apparently failed to achieve agreement on certain confidence and security building measures (CSBMs). In order to stem further escalation, he noted the importance of implementing CSBMs and establishing a direct communication channel between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. He concluded by calling on the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan to demonstrate the political will to work toward a resolution, for instance by preparing their populations for the compromises that will inevitably be required to achieve peace. Ambassador James Warlick asserted that while this was a time of significant danger, peace remains within reach. He urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to engage together on principles that they know can lead to peace, saying that meetings without progress undermine confidence in negotiation efforts. Citing past negotiations, Ambassador Warlick laid out six elements that will have to be part of any settlement if it is to endure.  The Ambassador concluded by underlining that it is up to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the first step toward peace by considering measures, even unilateral ones, that will demonstrate their stated commitment to making progress, reducing tensions, and improving the atmosphere for negotiations. 

  • The Internal Enemy

    Ukraine’s struggle with corruption has prevented it from becoming a full, prosperous democracy and hinders its ability to respond effectively to Russian violations of its sovereignty. This Helsinki Commission staff report examines why corruption has been so persistent in Ukraine. It provides a historical analysis of corruption in Ukraine from its break with the Soviet system to today, reviewing the current state of reforms and providing recommendations in context. The resilience and influence of Ukraine’s oligarchs are at the heart of the country’s persistent corruption. Oligarchs have captured the Ukrainian state, crowding out non-corrupt political parties and competing with one another to steal Ukraine’s wealth. They are not so much businesspeople as courtiers, who transform political and personal connections into monopolies supported by the state. Two phenomena in particular have given rise to this system of oligarchic competition: (1) the lack of reforms in the early years of independent Ukraine, which resulted in incomplete economic liberalization, and (2) gas arbitrage, which has been uniquely devastating to reform attempts due to building so many oligarchic fortunes and providing a backdoor for Russia to influence Ukrainian politics for decades. Today’s Ukraine has implemented many important reforms that have helped to counter corruption, specifically in energy, finance, and economics. However, judicial reforms continue to lag behind. Commentators have observed that progress has slowed and frustration among civil society and the international community has increased. This report recommends that Ukraine move forward with remaining reforms, supported by both civil society and the international community. Most important is that Ukraine not allow backsliding to occur.  Ultimately, the oligarchs must be transformed from courtiers into entrepreneurs and businesspeople so as to finally end the pervasive institutionalized corruption. An empowered Ukrainian civil society—including independent media—will be paramount to such reforms, and has proven time and again that it is world class in its engagement. Key here is to condemn any attempt to hinder or harm civil society. The report makes numerous recommendations by sector, with an emphasis on the importance of reforming the judiciary. In particular, Ukraine should establish an anticorruption court as soon as possible, so as to provide the final necessary piece of Ukraine’s anticorruption architecture. Additional reform areas discussed include the safeguarding and further empowering of the anticorruption architecture; implementing privatization and additional regulatory and corporate governance reform as the next step for energy sector reform; pursuing consolidation and transparency as ideas for banking sector reform; and limiting parliamentary immunity. This report also discusses greater e-government and press freedom as mechanisms to empower Ukrainian civil society, including independent media, to monitor the reform process and prevent backsliding. Finally, it encourages the international community to continue its support for Ukraine and dig in for the long haul. Download the full report. This report was drafted by Helsinki Commission staff. Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor, served as lead author.  

  • Systematic Attacks on Journalists in Russia and Other Post-Soviet States

    Representative Steve Chabot, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, opened the briefing with a statement highlighting the importance of a free and independent press in Russia and Eastern Europe, saying that it was more important now than ever to counter an increasingly bold Vladimir Putin and the spread of Kremlin-backed media. The Congressman affirmed support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and how their work helps foster a greater independent press in the region. Jordan Warlick, U.S. Helsinki Commission staffer responsible for freedom of the media, introduced the panelists: Thomas Kent, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Amanda Bennett, Director of Voice of America (VOA); Nina Ognianova, Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Karina Orlova, Washington correspondent for Echo of Moscow. Thomas Kent summarized the work and reach of RFE/RL in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He outlined the pressures that RFE/RL journalists face in the region covering the issues that matter to local people. Kent described the plight of several RFE/RL journalists who have been either attacked or detained due to their work, including Mykola Semena in Russian-occupied Crimea and Mykhailo Tkach in Ukraine. He added that reporting on corruption is often the most likely cause for attacks on journalists and that social media has expanded the reach of journalists work in the region. Amanda Bennett discussed the work of Voice of America in the region and its efforts to expand freedom of speech in the region. She outlined the vast audience of VOA broadcasting and emphasized that the Russian government has directly attacked VOA reporters. Bennett stated that VOA’s mission in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as with other regions around the world, was not only to provide high quality content to the audience and journalists alike, but also help foster an independent media, free from harassment. Representative Adam Schiff, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, gave remarks about the importance of an independent media in the former Soviet Union. He noted that journalists are often the first to suffer a backlash from authorities, as they investigate and report on issues that regimes do not want to draw attention to. Representative Schiff told the panel that he, along with then-Congressman Mike Pence, reestablished the House Freedom of the Press Caucus not long before the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. He thanked the panelists for the work to not only highlight attacks and harassment against journalists in the region, but also their efforts to protect and assist them and to further press freedom. Nina Ognianova highlighted numerous cases that the Committee to Protect Journalists had worked on in recent months with specific discussion of the situations in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. Ognianova detailed the case of the harassment and temporary flight of Russian reporter Elena Milashina following her work on the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. Also listed were the cases of Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in July 2016, the abduction and detention of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli for his investigation of President Ilham Aliyev’s assets in Georgia, and the concerning claims of slander against journalists by the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Providing the audience with a firsthand perspective, Karina Orlova described her decision to flee Russia due to her work as a journalist. Karina spoke of how her Radio Echo of Moscow talk show garnered unfavorable attention from Chechens, following discussion of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on 7 January, 2015, and the magazine’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Ramzan Kadyrov directly threatened her station and her editor, Alexey Venediktov, right after the show. She detailed threatening phone calls from self-described Chechens her that labeled her as an enemy of the state. Karina raised other incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists, such as the attack on Oleg Kashin, which was directly ordered by the Governor of Pskov, and a lack of action to bring the perpetrators to justice. She also spoke of censorship by the Russian authorities, particularly towards any journalists that refer to the annexation of Crimea. Karina emphasized that sanctions against the Russian state and elite are working, despite claims to the contrary. Although some journalists are unfortunately forced to self-censor due to safety concerns, Karina refuses to do so herself.

  • Helsinki Commission, House Freedom of the Press Caucus to Hold Briefing on Attacks on Journalists in Russia, Post-Soviet States

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the House Freedom of the Press Caucus today announced the following joint briefing: “SYSTEMATIC ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS IN RUSSIA AND OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES” Wednesday, October 4, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center SVC-208 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is an essential pillar of democracy, keeping governments accountable and citizens informed. Autocratic regimes seek to intimidate and silence the press by systematically targeting journalists. A muzzled independent media is powerless to prevent the domination of the state-driven news narrative and public misinformation. Today, journalists in Russia and post-Soviet states risk intimidation, harassment, arrest, and even murder for their work. Those who criticize the government or investigate sensitive issues like corruption do so at their own peril. More often than not, cases remain unresolved and victims and families do not see justice. This briefing will address key questions regarding journalists in Russia and other post-Soviet states: their important role and impact; concerns over their rights, safety, and protection; and future support and promotion of media freedom in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region. Opening remarks will be provided by the Co-Chairs of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Thomas Kent, President and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Amanda Bennett, Director, Voice of America Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists Karina Orlova, Washington DC Correspondent, Echo of Moscow

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