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Report on Azerbaijan's Presidential Election
Tuesday, December 01, 1998

On October 11, 1998, Azerbaijan held presidential elections. The contest pitted incumbent President Heydar Aliev, the former Communist Party leader who returned to power in 1993, against moderate opposition leader Etibar Mamedov, political maverick Nizami Suleimanov, and three other candidates with little recognition or following. While no one seriously expected Aliev to lose, the opposition candidates were hoping for a second round.

Five leading opposition politicians—Abulfaz Elchibey, Isa Gambar, Rasul Guliev, Ilyas Ismailov and Lala Shovket—boycotted the vote, unwilling to legitimize by their participation an election they believed would be unfair. Negotiations that took place in August between the government and the boycotting opposition over the most controversial aspect of the election—the composition of the Central Election Commission—proved unsuccessful, with the authorities rejecting the opposition’s demand for equal representation on the CEC. The five leaders, joined by numerous other parties and groups in the Movement for Electoral Reform and Democratic Elections, urged voters not to go to the polls. The authorities minimized the boycott’s significance, arguing that the opposition leaders knew they had no chance in a fair election and therefore preferred to claim fraud and not participate.

Beginning August 15, the boycotting parties organized a series of rallies and demonstrations to pressure the government and call for fair elections. These were the first mass street actions in Azerbaijan in years. The authorities refused to let the opposition hold a demonstration in Freedom Square, in the center of Baku, offering alternative venues instead. On September 12, protesters clashed with police, resulting in arrests and injuries. Afterwards, authorities and opposition tried to reach agreement on the demonstrators’ route, and most pre-election rallies, some of which drew big crowds, were largely peaceful.

The increasingly tense relations between the government and boycotting opposition parties were one factor in the OSCE/ODIHR’s appraisal of the election.  In ODIHR’s view, these failings outweighed the positive aspects of the election, such as the election law, which all sides acknowledged as acceptable, the freedom for candidates to speak openly on television, the abolition of censorship and provisions for domestic observers. The OSCE/ODIHR assessment was that the election fell short of meeting international norms. With the OSCE assessment placing in question the official results, the CEC’s failure to publish election protocols until long after the stipulated time period heightens doubts about President Aliev’s standing. The election was largely a referendum on his five-year presidency. Since his return to power in 1993, he has not solved the major problems besetting the country. The NagornoKarabakh conflict remains unsettled; Azerbaijani territory is still under Armenian occupation and no refugees have returned to their homes. Living standards for the great majority of the population have declined precipitously, though it is widely known that a tiny stratum of corrupt officials and businessmen have become rich. Moreover, the predominance of people from Nakhichevan - Aliev’s home region - in positions of power exacerbates general discontent.

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  • Journalists Reporting from Ukraine to Speak at Helsinki Commission Briefing

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  • Protecting Ukrainian Refugees from Human Trafficking

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He stressed the need for governments and NGOs to coordinate in ensuring the care and safety of child refugees to avoid a crisis of missing children similar to the one that occurred in Europe in 2015. He said, “Not only do we need to ensure that children are safe and taken care of, but we must be able to reunite them with family after the war if possible.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) expressed his alarm over the humanitarian crisis occurring in Ukraine and condemned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s disregard for human life and spirit. “This flow of refugees caused by Putin’s war will cause us and require us to oversee as closely as possible the welfare of the women and children [to protect them from] people who have about the same consciousness and concern for others and human spirit as Vladimir Putin,” he said.  Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) advocated for further military support for Ukraine so that Ukraine can reclaim its territory and refugees can return home safely. “Evicting the murderous Putin from Ukraine is the only way to help Ukrainian civilians and allow refugees to return to Ukraine,” he said.  Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE Parliamentary Special Representative on Human Trafficking issues, thanked the witnesses for their leadership in the fight against human trafficking and called for increased international cooperation in protecting women and children from traffickers. Senior Official and Principal Deputy Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department Dr. Kari Johnstone described the dire situation refugees face as they flee. Many are further endangered and exposed to human trafficking by extenuating circumstances, such as being unable to access information in their language or belonging to an already marginalized group such as Roma. 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Mykola Kuleba, director of the NGO Save Ukraine, shared a firsthand account of the horrific conditions on the ground in Ukraine that he has witnessed while evacuating children from the war zone, emphasizing that the first step to protect Ukrainian refugees is to help Ukraine defend itself so its people don’t become refugees. He also highlighted the need for more humanitarian assistance, including food, water, and medicine. “Millions of Ukrainian children are now refugees wandering around the world.  The world must help this great democratic country that has faced unprecedented evil.  Each of you has the ability to aid in the rescue.  Each of you can resist this evil,” Kuleba said. Nic McKinley, founder and CEO of DeliverFund, described the importance of disrupting the human trafficking market on the demand side by deterring potential buyers and attacking traffickers’ ability to profit from the exploitation of vulnerable populations. He also discussed how traffickers use social media to lure victims through advertisements for housing and employment for refugees. “You cannot have a human trafficking victim,” he said, “without a human trafficker.” Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how best to distribute information on preventing human trafficking to refugees, to how government and NGO efforts can be coordinated to most effectively deliver assistance and provide protection for vulnerable populations. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Protecting Ukrainian Refugees from Human Trafficking to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

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  • Helsinki Commission Recognizes Key Contributions from Allies and Partners

    WASHINGTON—In light of Russia’s continued criminal war on the peaceful citizens of Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against the Ukrainian people has inspired global outrage and condemnation. Many countries have risen to the moment, especially our Baltic Allies, Poland, and Romania. We also recognize those other OSCE participating States that have taken particular risks and stepped up during this moment of great danger and clear moral purpose.  “We thank the Government of Turkey for its significant and robust support for Ukraine. Turkey has long been among Ukraine’s most ardent and consistent advocates, and its closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to warships from Russia and Ukraine, consistent with the Montreux Convention, effectively supports Ukraine and the cause of European security. Turkey plays an indispensable role as a NATO Ally and strategic linchpin in Europe. We look forward to working closely with our Turkish allies on additional steps to support Ukraine. “We also recognize Moldova for serving as a safe haven for refugees and for its strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To date, on a per capita basis, Moldova has welcomed more refugees than any other country. Despite limited resources and the unlawful presence of Russian troops on its soil, President Maia Sandu and the Government and people of Moldova have shown their mettle. We congratulate Moldova on its European Union application. We see your heroic efforts and will continue to work diligently towards supporting Moldova’s transatlantic aspirations. “In addition, despite initially concerning and confusing statements, we applaud the Government of Georgia for its increasingly robust support for the people of Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s threats and occupation of Georgia’s territory. We are grateful for Georgia’s co-sponsorship of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its participation in a call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes, and the strong statements of support by Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in particular. We congratulate Georgia on its application to the European Union and look forward to doing our part to reinvigorate our bilateral partnership and deepening our transatlantic bond. “We are moving to limit Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbors and will work closely with our friends to navigate this dangerous moment in history.” On February 28, the Turkish government exercised its authority as a custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, per the 1936 Montreux Convention, and closed their use to warring parties in the Black Sea. On March 2, Turkey provided the Ukrainian military with additional Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles. Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova was among the first to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees and hosts more refugees per capita compared to any other European state. Russia illegally maintains a garrison of approximately 1,500 troops on Moldovan territory in Transnistria and supports a separatist government. On March 2, the Government of Georgia co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Georgia joined 37 other countries formally calling for an International Criminal Court investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. 

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Ukrainian OSCE Mission Member During Russian Attack on Kharkiv

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine during a Russian attack, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are saddened and angered by the tragic death of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, during shelling in Kharkiv on March 1. We offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends. “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ruthless attack against the people of Ukraine is targeting men, women, and children; destroying homes, businesses, and cultural treasures; and forcing millions to flee for their lives. Putin’s unprovoked war is shredding the European security architecture that brought peace after the Second World War. Individuals like Maryna Fenina remind us of the terrible human toll of war. “Russia must cease its brutal and criminal invasion and withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.” Maryna Fenina was the second OSCE SMM member to die as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the SMM, was killed In April 2017 when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that has served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. On February 25, the SMM decided to withdraw its international mission members from Ukraine. Ukrainian national mission members remain in the country. 

  • Russia's Assault on Ukraine and the International Order

    Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct attack on settled international norms, including the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On February 2, 2022, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The hearing included testimony from three expert witnesses on the motives and intentions of the Kremlin, how the West can continue to support Ukraine, and the ramifications of Putin’s belligerence for Europe and the international order. Helsinki Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by highlighting the unity displayed between the United States and Europe in response to the threatened invasion. He commended the Biden administration on its efforts to enhance deterrence and reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, while ensuring a diplomatic path remains open to Russia should it wish to find areas of cooperation; he emphasized that the sovereignty of Ukraine and freedom of Europe would under no circumstance be bargained away. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) noted that Putin considers Ukraine’s evolution into a budding democracy “with its open market of ideas, vibrant media, and a strong civil society” as a threat to his regime and repeated the importance of a free and sovereign Ukraine for the security of Europe. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) highlighted Russia’s participation in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, saying, “Putin is now treading underfoot the principles at the heart of the Commission’s work, principles agreed to by Mr. Putin’s predecessors in Moscow.” He also underlined importance of ensuring passage of defense appropriations to our defense commitments abroad. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) praised the strong bipartisan stance exemplified by the hearing regarding the need to deter Russia; Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress, as well as Transatlantic allies, were “firmly united in support of the people of Ukraine” Dr. Fiona Hill, senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, testified on Putin’s motives and likely worldview, citing Russian interventions in Georgia, Armenia, and Belarus. “From Russia’s perspective, the United States played no significant role in addressing these upheavals,” she said. She noted that the 2024 presidential elections likely are influencing Putin’s need to act now. Dr. Hill closed by emphasizing the importance of definitively countering Putin’s narrative regarding Russia’s aggressive posture. “We need to reframe this crisis for what it is, as the administration has just done in the United Nations,” she said. “This is not a proxy conflict. This is not aggression by the United States or NATO. This is not a righteous effort to counter some great historic wrong, as President Putin says. This is an act of post-colonial revisionism on the part of Russia.” Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, testified on the current needs of the Ukrainian army, as well as potential countermeasures Ukraine’s Western partners can take to address Russian aggression. He highlighted President Zelensky’s request for funds to support a significantly larger Ukrainian army, as well as continued diplomatic support from the West. General Hodges also underlined that a common approach among NATO Allies, including and especially Germany, would be necessary to prevent a new Russian offensive. “We need to take the initiative instead of always reacting to whatever the Kremlin does. But we have to do this in unity with our allies,” he said. Lieutenant General Hodges closed by urging NATO to remain clear-eyed about the nature of diplomacy with the Kremlin. “They are not boy scouts. They use chemical weapons, poison and murder against their own opposition, and they use cyber and disinformation to destroy lives and trust in our democratic system,” he noted. “We should talk, but we need to understand with whom we are talking.” Ambassador (Ret.) William Taylor, Vice President, Russia and Europe at the United States Institute of Peace, commended the resolve and unity shown by President Biden and President Zelensky, suggesting that this had been surprising to the Kremlin. He surmised that the effectiveness of the Western response had, to date, successfully deterred a full-scale invasion and there was reason to believe that Putin currently remains engaged on a diplomatic track. Ambassador Taylor underlined the stakes in the current confrontation and their relevance to U.S. interests, describing Ukraine as “the frontline of the battle between democracy and autocracy. We should support them. With that support, they will prevail. Putin will lose.” Members raised a broad range of concerns with witnesses, questioning them on issues ranging from the influence of public opinion and oligarchs on Putin’s thinking, to the most efficient timing of sanctions. Witnesses were united in their praise for the bipartisan consensus on countering Russian aggression demonstrated by Congress, and adamant in their call for continued resolve and determination in the support of Ukraine. Related Information Witness Biographies Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It - Dr. Fiona Hill  NATO Must Help Ukraine Prepare for War - Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges  After U.S.-Russia Talks, Risk of War in Ukraine Still High - Ambassador (Ret.) William B. Taylor

  • Russia’s Assault on Ukraine and the International Order to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S ASSAULT ON UKRAINE AND THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER Assessing and Bolstering the Western Response Wednesday, February 2, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct assault on settled international norms. These include the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Witnesses will examine the latest developments in the Kremlin-driven crisis in and around Ukraine and the urgency for the United States to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and deter further Russian aggression. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dr. Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair, Center for European Policy Analysis Ambassador (Retired) William B. Taylor, Vice President, U.S. Institute of Peace

  • Half Measures Are Worse Than Nothing in Ukraine

    Europe begins the new year on the brink of major war. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops and heavy equipment along Ukraine’s border and issued an ultimatum to the West demanding it trade Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its peace. Such demands are a strategic nonstarter, but the seriousness of the Kremlin’s threats appear all too real. To stop this war before it begins, muddling through is not an option; this demands immediate and bold action. Russia claims its 100,000-plus troops at Ukraine’s doorstep is a response to NATO enlargement and its infrastructure in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. These arguments are unconvincing. The Kremlin has used NATO as a straw man for its grievances, yet Russian disquiet has little to do with NATO itself, which has no immediate plans to expand anywhere near Russia and would not threaten Russia if it did. Although the United States and its European partners have provided material and technical military assistance to Ukraine, it has not changed the region’s balance of power. Instead, Russia’s demands evince anxiety over global status and the possibility that its borderlands may be able to escape from its grip. In particular, Ukraine has the size and industrial capacity to make it a credible economic and military power regardless of whether it joins NATO. For Russia, a strong and hostile Ukraine is intolerable, even though Russian aggression husbanded Ukraine’s pro-West turn. By supporting Donbass separatism and annexing Crimea, the Kremlin stoked patriotism in Ukraine, lanced Ukraine’s most Russia-friendly population, and earned Kyiv’s hostility. Ukraine is not the only country for which this applies, but it may be the most significant given its size, geography, and symbolic position in official Russian neoimperial mythology. War should be avoided at all reasonable costs. Another invasion would risk tens of millions of lives and further undermine Europe’s increasingly fragile security. The United States and Europe should be willing to negotiate in good faith to avoid wider conflict—so long as Ukraine, Georgia, and Eastern Europe’s sovereignty are preserved. However, acceding to Russia’s maximalist demands would strip Ukraine of its already battered sovereignty and invite a new Iron Curtain over Europe—consigning many millions of people to generations of domination and conflict. History and international relations theory may offer some guidance in this crisis. In the runup to the Peloponnesian War between the sprawling Athenian league and Sparta’s opposing empire, Athens faced a dilemma between its ally Corcyra and Corinth, a powerful member of the Spartan alliance. As chronicled by classical historian Donald Kagan in his On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, Corcyra called on Athens for protection, but Athens was anxious to intervene lest it precipitate a ruinous great-power war with Sparta, which was increasingly fearful that Athens, the rising force in Greece, would eclipse Spartan power. Yet Athens worried that abandoning Corcyra would undermine its alliances and invite Spartan aggression. As a compromise, Athens deployed a mere 10 ships out of its vast 400-ship fleet to join the Corcyraeans in the hopes that it would be enough to deter Corinth’s advancing 150-ship armada. However, as Kagan notes, Athens’s symbolic deployment was not strong enough to deter Corinth—much less defeat it—but too aggressive to completely assuage Spartan fears about Athenian ambitions. In the ensuing Battle of Sybota, the Corinthian armada destroyed the combined Corcyraean-Athenian fleet, launching a spiral of events that led to the devastating Peloponnesian War. As the United States deliberates with its partners and allies to craft countermeasures against Kremlin aggression, the West should avoid its own 10-ship trap. In some ways, NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit decision is an example, where the alliance promised eventual membership to Georgia and Ukraine without a concrete pathway. This compromise left Georgia and Ukraine vulnerable while stoking the Kremlin’s strategic anxieties. The recently departed Columbia University political scientist Robert Jervis considered such problems in his international relations theory classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Jervis weighed deterrence against a “spiral” model, which posited that counterescalating in response to perceived escalation could provoke the opposite of the intended response. An attempt at deterrence could instead be viewed as further provocation. While deterrence preaches strength and resolution, the spiral model generally counsels conciliation. However, Jervis theorized that while the deterrence and spiral models are often presented as opposing, generalizable theories, their usefulness varies with the circumstances. He surmised that deterrence is applicable between two powers with genuinely incompatible positions, and the spiral model best applies to disputes between status quo powers where their perceived incompatibility is mostly illusory. One exercise Jervis suggests is to interrogate evidence that the second power is not engaged in revisionist aggression. In this case, a charitable reading of Russian actions suggests that Russia’s grievances are oriented to the security situation on its borders—the “belt of Russia’s vital interests.” In this interpretation, Russia’s historical influence along its borders need not be a cause for alarm on its own, much less for war. Indeed, if arms limitations and codes of conduct represent an acceptable compromise to defuse the present crisis without sacrificing the freedom or sovereignty of the states on Russia’s border, this is worth pursuing. However, which vital interests necessitate Russian dominion over its periphery? Although Russia’s perceptions of insecurity may be real, it is demonstrably not materially insecure, with a large, full-spectrum, and sophisticated military that is arguably the most powerful in Europe. Russia’s neighbors are far weaker, Western states largely disarmed after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and remnant Allied forces remained in Western Europe in compliance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act, even as Russia has significantly militarized. And Russia’s economic fortunes are far better served by peace and integration with the West, not conflict. However, the stability and integrity of European security architecture as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act remain fundamental to U.S. national security. Any countenance of the Kremlin’s broader abrogation of that framework and the restoration of a new Yalta Conference would reverse decades of peace and prosperity—and likely drive continental militarization that would only compound Russian security anxieties and conflict. It appears the West and the Russian regime’s positions are indeed incompatible. In response, the United States and its allies must be wary of the 10-ship trap. Although caution is often a virtue in national security and foreign policymaking, a moderate response to the enormity and notoriety of Russia’s belligerence would likely neither protect Ukraine nor satisfy Russian imperial appetites. Broad economic sanctions on their own are likely to be sufficient to forestall an invasion; and token, light deployments behind NATO’s high walls while Ukraine burns will inflame Kremlin paranoia without arresting or appreciably punishing Russian militarism. Negotiations and diplomacy should be given the time to work, and any kind of durable solution is unlikely to completely satisfy either party. However, the United States and its allies should undergird these talks with serious and significant measures to prevent another, greater war in Ukraine before it begins. As in Corcyra, half measures are unlikely to ameliorate the crisis and may only exacerbate them. What, then, do full measures look like? The critical factors here are speed and plausibility: steps that not only can be taken quickly but that Russia will believe Washington will carry through. Although economic sanctions have been broadly regarded as useful tools in this regard, most measures being envisioned are likely already baked into Russian calculations or may not have an immediate effect. In addition, the United States—and Europe, if it is willing—should significantly curtail Russian energy imports and aim to wean Russian hydrocarbons from European markets entirely—perhaps even going so far as to employ Defense Production Act authorities to stockpile and potentially surge liquefied natural gas and other fuel alternatives to Central and Eastern Europe. Boosting other energy sources on a strategic scale could also accompany this approach. Moscow must be convinced that military aggression will only dramatically increase and complicate what it believes are its existing security vulnerabilities. Toward that end, the United States and Europe could begin studying withdrawal from the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and planning can begin in earnest for repositioning heavy forces in Europe in the event of a wider Russian war. NATO can signal that new European applications for NATO membership would be welcomed and expediently ratified (perhaps even pre-ratified in some form), particularly from Sweden and Finland, should Russia go through with its militaristic gambit. Washington could also consider scenarios to provide aspirants—Ukraine, Georgia, and potentially the Nordics—with bilateral treaty guarantees prior to NATO accession. In Corcyra, the compromise of 10 Athenian ships only served to anger Corinth and Sparta as well as fed beliefs that war was not only necessary but an urgent enterprise. Against the colossal coercive symbolism and military reality posed by the Russian buildup—and the even greater weight of the Kremlin’s demands—the United States and Europe should prepare responses to match the moment. Michael Hikari Cecire is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. 

  • Defending Ukraine, Deterring Putin

    The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission, including Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Commissioner Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33),  convened a virtual briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty.  Panelists included Dr. Andrew Bowen of the Congressional Research Service, Robert Lee of Kings College London, Dr. Mary Vorotnyuk of the Royal United Services Institute, and Katsiaryna Shmatsina of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. The discussion was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire. Cecire began the discussion by describing the apparent urgency of the situation on Ukraine’s border, noting that more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy offensive equipment had amassed in a potential war footing, in addition to thousands more troops already in states of high readiness and propositioned in and around Ukrainian territory. Dr. Andrew Bowen described the strategic environment in which the buildup is occurring, and noted that Russian political leadership has asserted that it regarded the presence of NATO and Western military and political influence on its border as a red line. Although Ukraine has no immediate likelihood of joining NATO, the Russian regime may regard Ukraine’s growing independent capabilities and partnerships with the West as indicative of a graduate deterioration of its own relative security position. As such, its military buildup may be intended to either compel a diplomatic accommodation with the West to forestall Ukraine’s continued Western path, or, if necessary, launch military operations to do so through the use of force. Dr. Bowen noted that Congress has played a significant role in supporting activities to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including through the provision of lethal aid, and has also supported efforts to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank in response to Russia’s aggressive actions. Robert Lee focused on Russian military capabilities currently arrayed at Ukraine’s border. He noted that tens of thousands of troops had been mobilized from Russia’s other geographic combatant commands and deployed to Ukraine’s border, including significant heavy offensive weaponry and specialized assets. According to some assessments, total Russian deployments may represent as much as two-thirds of its total combat power to in and around the Ukraine theater, suggesting a nationwide military mobilization and all the preparations for a major invasion. While the preponderance of Russian offensive assets suggests that it may have the capabilities in place for any number of offensive scenarios, including a move on Kyiv, it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the Kremlin has any intent to seize and hold territory. The Kremlin’s intent may be just to destroy or significantly degrade Ukraine’s military and undermine its broader strategic situation to achieve its aims. However, Russia also has activated some 100,000 additional reserve forces, which may be employed for a number of scenarios. Responding to a question from Co-Chairman Cohen, Lee observed that it was hard to determine the likelihood of a renewed Russian invasion, but that the risk is certainly greater than it has been at any point since the conflict began in 2014, and that the capabilities are all in theater for war. Co-Chairman Cohen also asked if the buildup today was proportionally similar to past buildups in 2014-2015, which was the last time Russian forces semi-overtly invaded Ukraine in large numbers. Lee replied that the current buildup is much more significant, though it is also true that the Ukrainian military is more capable today than it was in the past. Co-Chairman Cohen then inquired about past Russian casualties, which Lee described as being in the “hundreds” at least, though exact figures were not made publicly available. Co-Chairman Cohen then reiterated the gravity of the situation, and the seriousness with which he and the U.S. government was taking the issue. Cecire then introduced Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, who also made the point that the Russian regime’s full intentions were obscure, and not entirely knowable. However, she noted that the array of capabilities that the Kremlin has assembled on Ukraine’s border is suggestive, as are the demands the Kremlin has made in combination with the military buildup. On the latter point, she noted that there was an internal logic to Moscow linking its threatening posture over Ukraine with its demands with the West, because Russia’s war on Ukraine could be regarded as a kind of proxy war against the West as a whole. In a more comprehensive way, Russian demands seek a revised security architecture that would effectively undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as other non-NATO states like Georgia, giving Russia free rein over its periphery. While this may be a nonstarter for the West, Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that Russia likely would settle for an accommodation from the West that would reduce Western involvement in the region and leave Ukraine and other countries weak and vulnerable to Russian pressure. While some may find such a route appealing, she noted, such a response would not likely lead to a more constructive Russia, and could even invite more aggression as Moscow’s intent was never solely about or limited to Ukraine. As such, it is important for the West to remain resolute in defending and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Katsiaryna Shmatsina spoke about Belarus’ role in the broader calculus. She recalled how, after Belarusian protests were being crushed by the regime, EU diplomatic leaders asked how Belarus might be used as an appendage of Russian strategic power. She noted that this appears to be the case in the ongoing episode with Ukraine, with the hybrid migrant crisis at the Belarusian border, the mooted possibility that Russian forces might use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine, and the solidarity Russia has showed with the regime in Minsk through the flights of nuclear-capable bombers—suggesting that Belarus is not merely a side act, but a key element of Russian strategy in the region. For his part, Belarusian President Lukashenko has been severely weakened by the protests and his subsequent reliance on Russian support, leaving him nowhere else to turn and cementing Belarus’s place in the Kremlin’s alliance system and regional strategy. Shmastsina counseled that the situation in Belarus should merit greater international attention, particularly from the West, because it is inseparable from the ongoing military buildup in and around Ukraine and another aspect of Russia’s broader campaign against the West. Rep. Veasey noted that in a past visit to Ukraine, the assessment was that Russia was not necessarily interested in taking and holding territory and asked whether this view was still accurate. Dr. Vorotnyuk replied that this was very likely the case, but ultimately that the likely Russian aim was to permanently weaken Ukraine and be able to “veto” its alignments with the West. Particular territorial objectives could also be under consideration, such as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea—both of which Russia already holds—or a particular city, such as Odesa, and its port access to the Black Sea. Rep. Veasey then asked why Ukraine, but not Georgia, was being targeted in this way. Lee responded that Georgia no longer threatens to retake the Russia-held separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and that Ukraine is a much larger country with a more capable military and economic capacity, which holds a unique place in Russia’s historical narrative. Rep. Veasey then raised the issue of corruption, which continues to be seen as a major issue in Ukraine as compared to, for example, Georgia, and asked whether this is a serious problem. Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that it was a major issue, but that it is not a justification for Russian aggression, and that Western assistance with Ukraine is very much helping to address issues like corruption and democratic governance. Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Russian Military Buildup to be Scrutinized at Helsinki Commission Briefing

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

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

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

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS JOIN OSCE PA MEETING ON AFGHANISTAN, DEBATE POLICY RESPONSES

    On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries. The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region.  This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely. OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern. “Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications. The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

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

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

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