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Human Rights and Democratization in Bulgaria
Wednesday, September 01, 1993

The Helsinki Commission's last comprehensive report on Bulgarian CSCE implementation was published in 1988. (The Commission also published a report in 1991 on the ethnic Turkish minority in Bulgaria). At that time, Bulgaria was in violation of many of its CSCE commitments. Its human rights record was among the worst
of the Helsinki signatory states. Clearly, much has changed since then. Since the fall of communism in November 1989, Bulgaria has made impressive strides towards becoming a democratic state based on the rule of law.

Bulgaria is experiencing a rare historical opportunity in which it can genuinely forge its own fate. Unshackled from the external Soviet empire of communist rule with which it had especially close links, Bulgaria is developing a democratic, rule of law state where the rights of all of its citizens are being met with greater respect.

While Bulgaria faces considerable problems in its post-communist transition, and will continue to in the foreseeable future, it is doing much better than most of its Balkan neighbors. Moreover, it is exceeding the expectations of those who until recently viewed Bulgaria through the prism of being the Soviet Union's “16th
republic” and the home of papal assassination plots and forcible assimilation campaigns. Despite its very real problems, Bulgaria is indicating that it is more tolerant, pluralistic, democratic and stable than many would have
supposed.

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  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act (H.R.6239) to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. “Numerous challenges are putting western democracies and the transatlantic partnership at risk, including disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice that lead citizens to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must find new and better ways to help democratic leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies.”  LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship.  Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in western democracies.  In 2019, Helsinki Commission held hearings featuring European lawmakers, and focusing on global leadership, democracy, and public diplomacy.  In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.6240, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations,” said Chairman Hastings. “Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning to recruit, hire, promote, retain, and support workers representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.” The introduction of the bill follows the February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  Advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. The commission supports programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities and strives to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies.

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Chairman Hastings on Anniversaries of Sumgait Pogrom and Khojaly Massacre

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday issued a floor statement on the anniversaries of the Sumgait Pogrom and the Khojaly Massacre, two pivotal tragedies in the in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The statement reads in part: “Although separated by four years and 200 miles, the Sumgait Pogrom in 1988 and Khojaly Massacre in 1992 both demonstrated the heinous potential of interethnic hatreds to tear apart communities and trample human dignity. The commemoration of these horrific events is an opportunity to reflect on the innocent lives lost in this ongoing conflict as well as a chance to affirm the need for urgent steps to heal these wounds and sue for peace once and for all… “I strongly encourage the political leadership in Yerevan and Baku to use these solemn commemorations of Sumgait and Khojaly this week to turn a new page in this terrible conflict. The most fitting way to honor the lives of those lost would be through words of reconciliation and steps toward peace. Together, the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan can ensure such atrocities are never be repeated and that future generations will know a life of secure and prosperous coexistence.” Download the full statement.  

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Election Observation 101

    On January 22, 2020, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Mark Veasey (TX-33) moderated a roundtable at the Texas A&M School of Law titled “Election Observation 101: Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century.”  Rep. Veasey—who also is a co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a former member of the Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives—and expert panelists discussed the importance of election observation missions across the OSCE region. Rep. Veasey was joined at the roundtable by veteran election observer Lindsay Lloyd, director of the human freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute; Amanda Schnetzer, chief operating officer of Pointe Bello; and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson.  Law school dean Robert Ahdieh offered a warm welcome and reflected on his fondest memories of the Helsinki Commission as a young man living in Moscow, Russia. Rep. Veasey then set the stage with the 30-year celebration of the 1990 Copenhagen Document which established the international standards for “free and fair elections”, while Mr. Lloyd explained the dynamics of how teams are assembled. Mr. Johnson further clarified the role of observers as strict watchers or objective examiners, and never interventionists, and Ms. Schnetzer shared how her experience observing elections in Tunisia forever shaped her passion for civic engagement and democratic values.  “[In 2011], the people of Tunisia were voting... To see the looks on the faces of women, grandparents coming to poles for the first time, casting a vote, and bringing a grandchild in tow, to say ‘I have waited all my life to do this’ was simply inspirational,” Ms. Schnetzer said. “I saw the stark comparison in the United States because few get excited on the first day they get to vote… I wish that we could find a way to positively spark that enthusiasm here [in the U.S.].” Looking ahead to the U.S. elections in November 2020, all panelists agreed that more could be done to inform the American public about foreign observers and the benefits of international election observation. Election observers from both the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are expected to be invited by the United States Government to observe the 2020 elections. The OSCE was first invited to observe U.S. elections by the Bush Administration in 2002 and has been invited to observe every midterm and general election since (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) by the administration in office. However, the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system means some states prohibit or greatly restrict foreign observers. A few states explicitly permit foreign observation, or at least a sufficiently public observation to include those from other countries.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

  • Chairman Hastings Urges Ukraine to Grant Akhmetova Political Asylum

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Tuesday’s trial to determine whether journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmetova will be granted political asylum in Ukraine or face extradition to her home country of Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “By granting asylum to Zhanara Akhmetova, the Government of Ukraine can demonstrate its commitment to protecting the fundamental freedoms of those who peacefully express political dissent. Her request for asylum clearly is motivated by real and dangerous political persecution in her home country. Ukraine must stand firmly on the side of human rights and allow Ms. Akhmetova to remain safely in the country.” Akhmetova fled to Ukraine in 2017 after she was targeted by authorities in Kazakhstan for her reporting and for peacefully expressing her political opinions through the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) movement, an opposition party associated with the main political opponent of former President Nazarbayev. Later that year, Ukrainian authorities detained her following a request by the Government of Kazakhstan, which previously has misused Interpol mechanisms to target opposition figures. In the past, Ukrainian authorities sometimes have cooperated with requests by the authorities of Central Asian states to return persecuted individuals. Persons affiliated with the DCK have previously faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of Kazakh authorities, suggesting that Akhmetova’s extradition would seriously endanger her safety. Ukrainian migration authorities have twice denied Akhmetova’s request for asylum, although Ukraine’s Supreme Court has ordered that the case be reconsidered as political.

  • First Person: Nothing Unusual

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor Election day began like every November day in Belarus: black. Without the time change that makes a late-autumn morning in DC bearable, darkness enveloped Belarus until almost 9:00 a.m. We would be rising much earlier than that to observe the opening of the polls for the November 17 parliamentary election. This was my second election observation, after the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019. That election was widely considered free and fair—a great achievement for a new democracy plagued by a Soviet legacy. In Belarus, the last election generally considered free and fair was the 1994 election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who remains in power, with essentially complete control over the government, 25 years later.   Most Belarus-watchers suspected that much of the number-fudging was done before the arrival of election day observers. Early voting took place throughout the week before election day, providing an opportunity to inflate turnout numbers. Multiple opposition candidates could not even make it on the ballot due to selectively-imposed restrictions and technicalities applied to stamp out the competition well before voting took place. Neither I nor the other members of my election observation team (two diplomats already in Minsk: one from the U.S. Embassy, and one from the Swedish Embassy), expected many surprises from the conduct and outcome of the elections. The day started smoothly enough, with a standard, albeit sparsely attended, opening. As we moved on to other polling stations throughout the day, the conditions were mainly the same: observers registered with the chair of the election commission for that precinct and were seated at a table specifically for observers, both national and international. Sign directing voters to polling sites in Belarus. Because the vast majority of OSCE PA observers remained in the Minsk region, and we had traveled a few hours northeast to Vitebsk, we came across only Belarusian observers, whether from trade unions, political parties, or other groups. The observer tables were far enough away from the action that in most cases we could not see much of the voter sign-in and identification check process. When we asked to see the voter lists, we were denied in multiple instances. This was startling for me; in Ukraine, we wandered freely throughout polling stations and had access to everything. Nevertheless, the mood was festive and the people friendly. Music—from disco to Soviet favorites to patriotic tunes—played in the background at several polling places. We received candies in one location and a proud explanation of the region’s main industry in another. A few photos were taken with us, and at one polling place a neighboring observer remarked how interested she was that I had come all the way from the United States just for the election in Belarus! Despite the fun and frivolity, it became clear to us by the end of the day that, though we had seen no gross violations in conduct, the whole process lacked the transparency I had witnessed in Ukraine, or that should be expected in any OSCE country committed to democratic norms.   Nowhere was this more apparent than during the count. As usual, we were confined to the observers’ table just far enough from where the action was taking place to limit real observation. The mobile voting, early voting, and election day ballots were collected and counted in one pile, silently. Because we could not fully see or hear the count, there was no way of knowing whether it was accurate, even though the precinct chairwoman came over occasionally to riffle through the marked ballots for us. By only 9:15 p.m.—the polls had closed at 8—the count was finished and a winner declared. Votes being counted at a polling site. Our next step was to follow our companions from the polling station to the District Election Commission, where they would deliver the results protocol and election materials. After watching a few deliveries from around the area and encountering many familiar faces from earlier in the day, we decided to head back to the hotel, arriving at a remarkably early 10:30 p.m. Though it was still a long and exhausting day, many such elections, including the one I’d observed in Ukraine, had counts lasting long into the night. The next morning’s results were both surprising and unsurprising. It was no great shock to see that the reported turnout was over 77 percent—suspiciously high for elections to a body with no real power. According to the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, the OSCE International Election Observation Mission noted that early voting turnout in particular (35.77 percent) seemed inflated compared to the reports of observers. More disturbingly, not a single opposition candidate was elected (there had been two in the previous parliament). That Lukashenko would not permit even a semblance of pluralism calls into question the seriousness of his seeming attempts to court the West when faced with a revanchist and controlling Russia—a topic which the U.S. Helsinki Commission explored in a hearing held shortly after the election. Observers would be wise to watch the trajectory of the country as Lukashenko navigates his tricky relationships with the West and Russia. Ultimately, stability—in large part the stability of his own job—will be first in his mind as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election swiftly approaches. A major political upheaval is not likely in the cards. When my colleague stationed in Grodna asked a young independent observer if he’d seen anything interesting or unusual during election day, the observer responded, “Unusual? No. Nothing unusual. This is Belarus. There has been nothing unusual for 25 years.”

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Introduces Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in Senate

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) yesterday introduced the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S. 3064) in the Senate. The legislation would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) introduced a bipartisan companion bill in the House of Representatives last week. “The Kremlin’s illegal land grab is accompanied by a brutal crackdown on religious freedom in Crimea and the Donbas,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “This legislation would combat persecution of faith communities in Ukraine and ensure that Russian authorities are held responsible for their actions.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill would clarify that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it controls or occupies illegally, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or other commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to occupy it illegally. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities under its command. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Introduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) in the House of Representatives. The legislation combats Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week. “For more than five years, Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and controlled part of the Donbas with the armed groups it commands. Kremlin personnel and proxies abduct, imprison, and torture people in those regions for their faith,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russian officials are culpable, and this bill helps ensure they are held accountable.” “The Kremlin persecutes peaceful religious communities in occupied Crimea and crony-controlled eastern Donbas even more brutally and broadly than it does in Russia,” said Rep. Cleaver. “The Russian Government is violating international humanitarian law and its international commitments to respect and protect religious freedom. Creating consequences for the Kremlin for this lawlessness will mean justice for the people of Ukraine.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the President of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill clarifies that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it occupies illegally or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Marc A. Veasey (TX-33), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11), Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Daniel W. Lipinski (IL-03), Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01), and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) are also original co-sponsors.

  • Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership

    For more than a century, the United States has advanced shared human rights, economic, and security policy goals in the transatlantic relationship by cultivating people-to-people ties through public diplomacy initiatives.  As democracies around the world face new challenges emanating from demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats, the need for public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance, grows more relevant. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on U.S.-led public diplomacy international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.”  In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.”  He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries.  Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department.    Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.   

  • Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • Not-So-Good Neighbors

    As a new generation of political leaders in Belarus seeks to forge closer ties with the West, the Kremlin has stepped up influence and disinformation campaigns designed to erode Belarusian sovereignty and exploit the strong historical, cultural, and economic ties between the two nations. Expert witnesses examined how Russia most effectively penetrates Belarusian society, and the extent to which Russia’s disinformation and hybrid tactics are influencing the political landscape at a pivotal moment. Speakers also decoded Russia’s tactics in Belarus and explored how the United States can help promote the sovereignty of Belarus.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russian Influence in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: NOT-SO-GOOD NEIGHBORS Russian Influence in Belarus Wednesday, November 20, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As a new generation of political leaders in Belarus seeks to forge closer ties with the West, the Kremlin has stepped up influence and disinformation campaigns designed to erode Belarusian sovereignty and exploit the strong historical, cultural, and economic ties between the two nations. Expert witnesses will examine how Russia most effectively penetrates Belarusian society, and the extent to which Russia’s disinformation and hybrid tactics are influencing the political landscape at a pivotal moment. Speakers will decode Russia’s tactics in Belarus and explore how the United States can help promote the sovereignty of Belarus. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Sofya Orlosky, Senior Program Manager for Eurasia, Freedom House Franak Viačorka, Research Media Analyst (Contractor), U.S. Agency for Global Media Brian Whitmore, Senior Fellow and Director of the Russia Program, CEPA Andrei Yeliseyeu, Head of Monitoring Unit, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS); Research Director, EAST Center  

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Hosts Staff Briefing on World’s Biggest Data Set of Hate Crime Statistics

    On Wednesday, October 23, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted a congressional staff briefing on addressing hate crimes in Europe and the United States. The event was moderated by Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy and Innovation at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The Commission’s guest speaker, Cristina Finch, the Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided an overview of hate crimes statistics in Europe and North America. She described the efforts that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has made to address hate crimes and hate incidents in the region. Finch also discussed the commitments made by the 57 OSCE participating States to document, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes, as well as the tools and best practices available to assist countries in meeting their commitments. ODIHR’s Annual Report on Hate Crime combines official government reports submitted by 33 OSCE participating States with an additional 108 reports from 135 civil society organizations. In 2018, 5,258 hate crime incidents were reported to ODIHR. As Finch described it, this volume of information makes the report “the world’s biggest data set on hate crime.” The full 2018 Hate Incidents data set will be published on November 15, 2019. According to Finch, accurate recording of hate crimes by the police remains a serious issue. “In many countries police do not record hate crimes as a specific category in a systemic way,” she noted. “This means that information is missing, which impedes investigation, prosecution, prevention and policy making.” Other serious obstacles to publishing accurate data exist. For example, estimates indicate that 90 percent of hate crimes are not reported by victims to the police at all. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe.  Additionally, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and has called for increased efforts to address hate crimes in the region.

  • At What Cost?

    Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. The Helsinki Commission convened this hearing to discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Expert witnesses at the hearing reviewed prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also evaluated President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. Presiding over the hearing, Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson affirmed that as co-chair for the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans he supports the people of Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance. He cautioned, however, that President Erdogan’s actions threaten to undermine that alliance and damage the security of the region. Rep. Marc Veasey noted that Turkey is being “torn between two worlds”: one of democracy and one of autocracy. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Cohen were also present at the hearing. The Commission heard testimony from Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED); Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University; Eric Schwartz, the President of Refugees International; and Talip Kucukcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University. Dr. Tol testified that “most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed” but counseled that Turkey “is not a fullblown dictatorship.” The Turkish government has targeted activists, journalists, and opposition politicians with “trumped-up terrorism charges and “largely criminalized Kurdish political expression.” She highlighted the opposition’s recent victories in mayoral elections as “a testament to the peoples of Turkey, the great majority of whom refuse to give up on the idea of democratic rule.” Dr. Tol further urged the United States to view “the Kurdish question…[as] a matter of democratization and human rights” for the Turkish state. Ms. Tahiroglu explained the deterioration of the rule of law under Erdogan’s government. According to her testimony, Erdogan’s administration has politicized the judiciary and rendered it “a main weapon against government critics and opponents” through repressive laws and false terrorism charges. She noted key judicial cases against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, professors, U.S. citizens, and employees of U.S. consulates in the country. Ms. Tahiroglu testified that the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey matters for U.S. interests because it has swept up U.S. citizens, “fuels anti-Americanism,” and “embolden[s] Turkey’s aggressive policies abroad by suppressing dissenting voices.” Dr. Barkey focused his testimony on the Turkish government’s suppression of the struggle for recognition of Kurdish social and political identity. Barkey explained the significance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s second largest opposition party—in providing an opportunity for Turkey’s Kurdish population to participate in Turkish politics. “From that perspective, they have been very, very successful,” Barkey assessed. “It may have been far too successful for its own good.” Dr. Barkey detailed President Erdogan’s “relentless campaign to dismantle and delegitimize the HDP.” Mr. Schwartz spoke about the humanitarian implications of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are cause for deep concern, he said. He criticized the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria instead of implementing a strategic departure. Schwartz concluded with a recommendation for the United States to support locally based NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to populations by the Turkish operation. Dr. Kucukcan reminded the audience that Turkey’s incursion occurred with President Donald Trump’s consent. The incursion, he noted, serves to protect Turkey’s national security and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.  Dr. Kucukcan disputed that Turkey plans “ethnic cleansing” or “demographic engineering in places where [military] operations took place.”

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