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On the Road to Inclusion
Wednesday, December 04, 2019

From November 18 to November 22, 2019, the State Department’s Strategic Religious Engagement Unit and the U.S. Consulate in Milan, in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, launched a new transatlantic democracy program for youth, “On the Road to Inclusion.” The program empowers young people to collaborate across diverse social, cultural, religious, and generational differences to promote positive change through democratic practices. 

The first iteration of the program took place in the northern Italian cities of Milan, Turin and Vicenza: cities with populations that have been at the heart of increased demographic change, economic decline resulting in high levels of youth unemployment, and political tensions that have increased societal divisions, including a rise in anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiments, xenophobia and racism. 

The program brought together more than 250 youth leaders and 50-plus organizations to tackle societal challenges at the local and national levels, engage and build coalitions with their peers across differences, and contribute to their communities effectively through advocacy and education. Participants included representatives of diverse populations – voices traditionally lost within the democratic process – as well as organizations working on migrant and refugee integration, social inclusion, youth engagement, and leadership. During the program, American experts Christin “Cici” Battle, Executive Director of Young People For, and Rebecca Lenn, a strategic communications consultant, led workshops to promote civic engagement and leadership with a focus on building community, strengthening interreligious and intercultural cooperation for action, advancing integration, and boosting traditional and digital media literacy.

Battle helped participants develop concrete skills and advocacy tools in coalition building. These means of engagement included joining forces with groups who have different approaches in order to make a movement more powerful.

Lenn led participants in discussions on how to recognize and counter hate speech, disinformation, and cyber bullying. 
In an interview with Giornale di Vicenza about the program, she outlined challenges young people face with social media, and underscored the importance of media in facilitating social change.

Extensions of the program will include opportunities for alumni of the program to engage with U.S. youth and organizations to exchange civic engagement practices, and the Helsinki Commission will continue to work closely with the Department to expand “On the Road to Inclusion” in other Western European cities in the coming year.

The Helsinki Commission has long worked with the State Department to support strategic investment in young and diverse leaders to enhance democratic development and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies across the OSCE region though programs like the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network. A December 2019 commission hearing focused on the role public diplomacy leadership programs for emerging and established leaders can play in sustaining western democracies and the transatlantic partnership for the future. 

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    WASHINGTON— The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing:     CROWDSOURCING VICTORY Inside the Civil Society Campaign to Improve the Lethality and Survivability of the Ukrainian Military   Wednesday, December 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. The hearing will examine logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front and will identify policy options for Washington and Brussels to declutter and harmonize an export framework that was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. It will also seek to answer the question of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation   Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Putin's Attacks on Civilians and Declaration of Martial Law

    WASHINGTON—In light of Vladimir Putin’s continuing terror attacks on 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: “Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin has no right, or military ability, to claim swathes of Ukraine’s territory as part of Russia, including areas that Ukrainian forces have recently liberated. Attempting to declare martial law in these areas is a cynical ploy to legitimize the illegitimate, to make real the unreal, and paves the way for further Russian terror and genocide against the Ukrainian nation. “This month’s widespread and deadly strikes on civilian targets—including apartment buildings, playgrounds, and energy facilities and other critical infrastructure—demonstrate a desperate effort to conceal the Kremlin’s ongoing military collapse and to break the will of the Ukrainian people. But Ukrainians’ resolve will not waver, nor will our commitment to their freedom. “We will continue to support Ukraine in every way we can so that they can defend themselves and the democratic ideals we share. And we will call this war what it is—Russia’s genocidal, imperial conquest against a free people.”

  • Decolonizing the Russian Empire

        Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine has shocked the world for its brutality and aggression. But the Kremlin’s violent designs in Ukraine, and other military adventures in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, are part of a larger and longer legacy of Russian imperialism that directly threaten its neighbors and imprison a multitude of nations within its authoritarian empire. This side event explores the destructive effects of Russian imperialism and how the unfolding genocide in Ukraine is a natural outgrowth of these colonial policies. Drawing on regional perspectives of those victimized by Russia’s brutal empire, the panel will highlight the realities of Russian colonialism and what a process of decolonization—elevating marginalized voices and providing for their full political and civic self-expression—would mean for Russia and for its neighbors.

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERS

    WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment.  Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Long Shadow of Russian Money Raises Tricky Questions for Swiss Bankers

    January used to be a big month for Swiss bankers and their Russian clients. Many of the Moscow elite had made a tradition of coming to the Alps for the orthodox new year, skiing with their families, then catching up with their financial consiglieri. In St Moritz, one banker recalls how he would book blocks of rooms for his clients. He would entertain them with snow polo, rolling out the charm as they clinked champagne glasses and watched horses charge across a frozen lake. This year he couldn’t tempt a single one. For the best part of a decade, Russian money has coursed through the Swiss banking world. But, as Russia’s relationship with the west has soured in recent years, what was once a source of bumper new profits for Switzerland’s banks has become a financial and reputational risk. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many wealthy Russians were moving to better safeguard their money from political interference, putting assets in the names of relatives or shifting them to less closely scrutinised jurisdictions, such as Dubai. In its wake, a vast sanitisation operation is under way at Swiss banks, to try and wind down relationships with sanctioned individuals. Neutral Switzerland has matched all of the EU’s punitive financial measures against Russia. More than 1,100 of the Russian elite — including figures such as coal and fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and banker Petr Aven, both regular visitors to Switzerland — have become financial personae non gratae in a country many had assumed would keep their fortunes safe. The biggest banks, such as the publicly listed trio of UBS, Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have declared they will cease all new business in Russia. For critics, though these are weasel words. It is their existing Russian clients that are the problem. No one is expecting many new fortunes to be minted in Russia any time soon. “Switzerland has a terrible history when it comes to Russian dirty money,” says Bill Browder, a longstanding Kremlin critic and a former Russian investor. He is sceptical of how much commitment there is among Swiss bankers to enforcing sanctions. “The Swiss want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t actually want to do anything,” he says. The US Helsinki Commission, an independent US government agency that observes human rights and the rule of law in Europe, agrees. In a report issued in May, it labelled the alpine state and its banks “a leading enabler of Vladimir Putin and his cronies”. The Swiss government responded by calling US secretary of state Antony Blinken in protest. A spokesperson for the Swiss government said president Ignazio Cassis “rejected the [report] in the strongest possible terms”. Like their counterpart in St Moritz, Swiss bankers the FT interviewed for this story all declined to be identified. Many more refused to speak at all. Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws are draconian — talking about clients can earn a lengthy jail term — and talking about Russian clients is even more taboo. “When we were onboarding a lot of these clients [in the 2000s], the entire approach was just very different. And you can’t really say that publicly now,” says one former banker who handled eastern European and Russian clients until retiring two years ago. “These [Russians] were people who had earned so much money, so quickly, that they didn’t know what to do with it. They were basically ideal clients. As long as you had no questions about where that money had come from . . . and, basically, we didn’t.” Quite how much Russian money there is in Switzerland is open to question. In March, the industry body representing Switzerland’s banks, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), caused a stir when it released details of a study estimating there was SFr150bn-SFr200bn ($154bn-$205bn) held in accounts for Russian citizens. At the end of last year, the total cash held on behalf of customers by Switzerland’s banks was SFr7,879bn, more half of which was wealth from abroad, according to the SBA. The disclosure prompted hand-wringing in the Swiss media. Commentators, even at conservative outlets such as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked whether Switzerland should do business with autocratic regimes anywhere in the world any more. But others in the country have defended its economic relationships with Russia. The outspoken finance director of the canton of Zug, an important low-tax centre, said in March it was not his job to “act like a detective” and make judgments on Russian assets. In April, he announced that Zug, home to 37,000 companies, had no sanctioned assets to report back to Bern. Nevertheless, by April, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that it had frozen SFr9.7bn of Russian assets. Authorities have insisted that the amount is proportionate to the scale of asset freezes in other leading financial centres. But Bern has been forced to row back in some cases, and in May it announced it was unfreezing SFr3.4bn of funds. Switzerland cannot freeze funds “without sufficient grounds”, says Erwin Bollinger, a SECO official, who adds that the government has received data on sanctioned accounts at more than 70 of the country’s banks. Direct disclosure by the banks has been patchy. Credit Suisse chief executive Thomas Gottstein told a conference in March that about 4 per cent of assets in his bank’s core wealth management business were Russian — a proportion that would equate to roughly SFr33bn. Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. Switzerland’s banks have moved dramatically from the freewheeling approach of previous years, when there was “a run on Russia”, says Thomas Borer, a former leading Swiss diplomat turned consultant, who has worked with prominent Russian clients. He now supports Switzerland’s sanctions policy. “Being militarily neutral does not mean being economically indifferent,” he says. But he argues that Swiss banking culture is still very different from elsewhere in the west. Even the biggest banks, he says, were clinging to relationships with Russian clients as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. The Financial Times revealed that, as late as March, Credit Suisse was asking investors to destroy documents that might expose Russian oligarchs it had done business with to legal risks. One senior relationship manager at a Zurich-based bank agrees. Even as sanctions came in, he says, the dominant approach was to ask, “how can we make this work for the client?” rather than “how do we do this for the government?”. But he defends the approach, saying: “Doing everything you can for your client is a Swiss commitment to excellence. If I was a watchmaker I would want to make the best watches with many complications. And if I was a policeman, then maybe I would want to be the best at catching Russian criminals. But I’m a banker.” There is still legal ambiguity in Switzerland over whether sanctions apply to family members and friends of listed individuals. This has provided a loophole bankers have helped at-risk clients to actively exploit in recent years. Swiss banks have seen “billions” of assets transferred to the names of spouses and children of Russian clients, in a trend that accelerated in the run-up to the war, says one banker. One bank chief executive admitted recently to the FT that there were many “grey areas” in applying sanctions. Part of the problem, he said, was that bank legal departments were struggling to obtain clarity from Bern on which asset transfers were deemed to be evading sanctions and which were not. Many who have been in the industry for a long time decry the new rules they must follow around taking new clients and being certain of the source of their wealth. “Know your customer used to mean just that: do you know the person? Now it is supposed to mean: do you know every little thing about their financial and private life?” says one Geneva-based banker. Many Russians themselves knew the banks were no longer safe havens, particularly since 2018 when Swiss banks began making significant concessions to information sharing on client accounts with other governments. Swiss residency did not protect billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2018, for example, when he was targeted by US sanctions; both Credit Suisse and UBS moved to terminate loans with him. The SBA says its members adhere to the highest international standards. Chief executive Jörg Gasser, argues Swiss banks have “no interest in funds of dubious origin” and have rigorous procedures in place to rapidly screen for sanctioned assets. “Swiss banks have been — and still are — very careful and diligent when it comes to accepting client funds,” he says, adding it is important to recognise the huge amount of legitimate business done with Russian entrepreneurs who are not subject to sanctions. For Mark Pieth, emeritus professor of criminal law at the University of Basel and a specialist in white-collar crime, the real story of the past decade is how Switzerland’s lawyers, rather than its bankers, have become the facilitators of hidden foreign money. “Swiss bankers were extremely cosy with Russians in the past,” he says. “Alongside London, this country was the porch for Russians into the west . . . but now I wouldn’t say the problem is so much with the banks — it is all the other intermediaries.” Swiss law gives remarkable sweep to attorney-client privilege, says Pieth, meaning lawyers can refuse to disclose almost anything to the authorities about their clients. The Swiss Bar Association strongly rejects this. “Professional secrecy does not protect against criminal acts,” it says. “Lawyers know the law and know what to do.” One senior industry figure defends the banks’ position unapologetically. He says everybody now wants to know the origins of their luxury jackets. But 10 years ago nobody was asking where they were made, by whom and with what materials. In banking, as in fashion, things have changed, he says, but nobody is haranguing the fashion world in the same way they are criticising banks. Fashion companies, though, have moved with the times and opened up, whereas Switzerland’s banks, for all their insistence on change and compliance, still want to maintain as much of the secrecy surrounding their clients as possible — even at a time of international crisis.  

  • European Energy Security Post-Russia

    Russia is weaponizing energy to prolong its unlawful invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, the sanctions that Europe and the United States have put in place have not been enough to curb Russian aggression thus far and the European Union pays Russia almost a billion euros a day for energy resources—mostly gas— that fund the Russian war machine.  Germany, in particular, has struggled to move away from its dependence on Russian gas. At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany imported 55 percent of its gas from Russia. As of June 2022, Russian gas imports had decreased to 35 percent, with a goal to decrease to 10 percent by 2024, but progress is slow and buying any energy from Russia means that Germany continues to fund their unlawful invasion. Dr. Benjamin Schmitt, Research Associate at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, pointed to the resurgence of Ostpolitik, a German diplomatic theory which seeks to build relationships and spread good governance through trade. First introduced in the Cold War era, Ostpolitik was put into action once more in the early 2000s by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who became infamous for lobbying for Kremlin-backed projects in office and for sitting on the board of the Russian state-owned energy company, Gazprom, after leaving office. However, Russia attempted to leverage such projects, including the Nord Stream 1 project and its ultimately bankrupted predecessor, Nord Stream 2, to increase the vulnerability of Western Europe toward Russia. According to Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, domestic political will exists in Germany to diversify energy sources, even if most are wary of making those changes immediately. German polling shows that one-third of Germans are willing to cut off Russian gas immediately, while two-thirds would prefer a slow gradual decrease in gas. Dr. Stelzenmüller explained that if Germany were to immediately cut off Russian gas supplies, it is likely that a recession would affect not only Germany, but also many surrounding Eastern European countries, most of which have less capacity to manage a recession. She stated, “Much of [Germany’s] manufacturing supply chains go deep into Eastern Europe. So, a recession in Germany would absolutely produce a massive, and perhaps worse, recession in our neighboring economies.”  Any actions taken against Russia should ensure that sanctions hit Russia harder than those countries imposing the sanctions. Mr. Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO of Naftogaz Ukraine, and Dr. Schmitt also emphasized the importance of the following recommendations outlined in the REPowerEU plan, the European Commission’s plan to make Europe independent from Russian energy before 2030, and the International Working Group on Russia Sanctions Energy Roadmap: Full European/US embargos on Russian gas. Creation of a special escrow account that will hold net proceeds due to Russia until the Kremlin ceases all hostilities. Diversification of energy dependance away from Russia through energy diplomacy that identifies other potential suppliers, like Qatar. Funding and construction of energy infrastructure around Europe. Termination of Gazprom ownership of all critical energy infrastructure in Europe. Designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would automatically trigger secondary sanctions on any country that imports Russian goods. Sanctioning of all Russian banks. Strengthening of Ukrainian capacity to participate in the energy sector through the creation of modern energy infrastructure during the post-war reconstruction period. Pass the Stop Helping America’s Malign Enemies (SHAME) Act, banning former U.S. government officials from seeking employment by Russian state-owned-enterprises, or Schroederization. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest May 2022

  • Why I’m Sad to Be on Russia’s All-Purpose Payback List

    Reading Russia’s latest sanctions list, permanently banning travel to the country by 963 people, saddened me — and not just because my name is on it. It’s a catalogue of hurt from a nation that seems ready to blame everybody but its leaders for its current troubles. The list is very long indeed, running to nearly 100 pages in my printout. Reading so many names, you sense that Russia is deliberately burning nearly all its bridges to the United States. Russia’s ruling elite feels abused by American politicians, business leaders, journalists, judges, think tanks — nearly everyone, it seems. Donald Trump can still visit Moscow, but scores of Republican members of Congress can’t. The list of excluded GOP senators ranges from moderates such as Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mitt Romney of Utah to hard-right stalwarts Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The GOP doesn’t fare much better in the House. Moderates Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin can’t tour the Kremlin anymore, but neither can Jim Jordan of Ohio or Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. As for Democrats, forget about it. The sanctions list includes the Democratic House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. The Congressional Progressive Caucus can save its rubles, too. The members of “the Squad” are all banned. So are Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California. It’s the same on the Senate side. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois: Nyet, nyet.

  • Helsinki Commission on Sanctions Extended by Russia on Commissioners and Staff

    WASHINGTON—After Saturday’s announcement by the Russian foreign ministry that the latest list of Americans permanently banned from traveling to Russia includes all members of Helsinki Commission leadership, the overwhelming majority of commissioners, and nearly 20 current and former commission staff members, 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: “The Helsinki Commission and our professional staff have worked consistently throughout our history to ensure that all OSCE participating States—including Russia—live up to their commitments to human rights and the rule of law. Clearly our work has made a significant impression on Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies, if even staff who left the commission years ago are being sanctioned by the regime. With these actions to bar travel to Russia by experts on the country, Putin continues his campaign to isolate Russians from the international community. “We will continue to hold Russia to account for its clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of the Helsinki Final Act, including the war crimes committed during its invasion of Ukraine, its suffocation of free media and civil society domestically, and its egregious attempts to undermine democracy across the OSCE region.”   While this latest list is one of the largest issued by Russia, Chairman Cardin and many other members of the Helsinki Commission had previously been barred from traveling to Russia.

  • Swiss Release Some Frozen Russian Assets

    The Swiss government on Thursday reported 6.3 billion Swiss francs ($6.33 billion) worth of Russian assets frozen under sanctions to punish Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, a drop from early April as around 3.4 billion francs in provisionally blocked assets were released. The figure marked a decrease from roughly 7.5 billion Swiss francs in funds the government reported frozen on April 7. Government official Erwin Bollinger pointed to fewer funds -- 2.2 billion francs -- newly frozen than those that had been released. read more "We can't freeze funds if we do not have sufficient grounds," Bollinger, a senior official at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) agency overseeing sanctions, told journalists. Pressure has increased on Switzerland -- a popular destination for Moscow's elite and a holding place for Russian wealth -- to more quickly identify and freeze assets of hundreds of sanctioned Russians. read more The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government-funded independent commission which looks at security, cooperation and human rights issues in Europe, in early May called Switzerland "a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies", who the commission said used "Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes". The Swiss government rejected the accusations "in the strongest possible terms", while Swiss President Ignazio Cassis had requested the U.S. government "correct this misleading impression immediately" during a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Swiss banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth, Switzerland's bank lobby estimates, with its two largest lenders UBS (UBSG.S) and Credit Suisse (CSGN.S) each holding tens of billions of francs for wealthy Russian clients. read more Credit Suisse alone froze some 10.4 billion Swiss francs of that money through March under sanctions imposed in connection with the invasion. read more Credit Suisse's reporting did not make clear how much of that money was frozen in Switzerland. While banks and asset managers can provisionally freeze funds, SECO officials on Thursday said funds needed to be released if they could not establish the assets were directly owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. "The amount of assets frozen is not a measure of how effectively sanctions are being implemented," Bollinger said, adding asset freezes were "by far" not the most important measure in a wide-ranging packet of sanctions. ($1 = 0.9948 Swiss francs)

  • Jewish Democratic Lawmakers Unite in Condemnation of Lavrov's Hitler Remark

     All 25 Jewish Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Tuesday issued a rare but sharp joint condemnation of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over his comments comparing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Adolf Hitler. "The blatant antisemitism in recent comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is appalling but sadly not surprising. Lavrov, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian regime are doing everything they can to divert attention from their unprovoked, unlawful invasion of Ukraine and the failings of their military in the face of a heroic Ukrainian response," 24 of the 25 Jewish lawmakers said in a joint statement after the Russian foreign minister said that Hitler also 'had Jewish blood', referring to Zelenskyy's Jewish origins, adding that "the wise Jewish people said that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews." "Defaulting to antisemitic tropes, including blaming the Jews for the Holocaust and using the Holocaust to cover their own war crimes, reflects the gutless depravity of the Russian regime," they continued, adding that "Lavrov’s remarks on Italian TV were an affront to the memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, the survivors of the Holocaust, their families and the entire world Jewish community.” Rep. Steve Cohen, who co-chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission that monitors human rights and international cooperation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, issued his own statement, where he decried Lavrov's "stooping to the basest antisemitism." The Tennessee Democrat charged that Lavrov and Russia are "clearly disconnected from reality, morality, humanity and sensitivity," adding that "this level of depravity is consistent with the reprehensible, repugnant and reptilian conduct of Putin's government." The statement is the second such rare showing of joint unity amongst the Jewish House Democrats, who rest across the political spectrum, in the past two months. Their comments follow senior Israeli officials, leading U.S. officials and Jewish leaders offering their own rejection of Lavrov's comments. Russia has since doubled down, with its foreign ministry accusing Israel of supporting neo-Nazis in Ukraine

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Lavrov’s Antisemitic Comments

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's recent antisemitic comments regarding Ukraine’s president and the people of Ukraine more generally, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “In a despicable attempt to justify Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, including well-documented indiscriminate murders of civilians, including children; torture; and rape of women, children and also men, Lavrov stooped to the basest antisemitism by claiming that Hitler had Jewish heritage and President Zelensky, although Jewish, can still be a Nazi and Ukraine a Nazi state. “By outrageously restating the false and offensive tropes of Holocaust denial and claiming that Jews are the worst antisemites—all while Russian forces commit genocide against the Ukrainian people at the behest of Vladimir Putin—Lavrov and the state he represents show that they are clearly disconnected from reality, morality, humanity, and sensitivity, and that they have no problem embracing the very ideology they claim to rebuke so long as it serves their propaganda. “Comparing President Zelensky to Hitler should be shocking. Unfortunately, this level of depravity is consistent with the reprehensible, repugnant, and reptilian conduct of Putin’s government. Such comments are no longer surprising as we witness Putin’s bloody attempt to destroy the people of Ukraine.” Co-Chairman Cohen, in his capacity as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), along with other Helsinki Commission leaders, recently urged the OSCE PA to adopt a declaration by the parliament of Ukraine that recognizes Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide.

  • Following in the Footsteps of Tsar Nicholas II

    As Vladimir Putin attempts to turn back the clock to the Russian Empire of the pre-Soviet era, he also adopts a tool of political manipulation used in Imperial Russia—fostering violent extremist organizations as a means to a political end. Tsar Nicholas II used this technique with terrorist organizations like the Union of the Russian People and the Black Hundreds, and Putin follows his example today with the Russian Imperial Movement and Imperial Legion. The Russian Imperial Movement Putin advances his political agenda by allowing the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM)—a white supremacist extremist organization based in St. Petersburg—to freely exist and operate in Russia and beyond. RIM holds ultranationalist and monarchist views and believes in two pillars of authority: the political power of the tsar and the spiritual power of the Russian Orthodox Church. The U.S. State Department labeled RIM a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity in April of 2020, making them the first white supremacist extremist organization to receive the title. RIM received the designation due, in part, to their paramilitary training course, Partizan. The course—ostensibly teaching survival skills, marksmanship, and hand-to-hand combat—functions as RIM’s citizen-to-terrorist pipeline. Attendees have gone on to join RIM’s paramilitary unit, the Imperial Legion, and fight alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. And Russians are not the only ones enrolling. In 2016, two members of Sweden’s largest neo-Nazi organization, the Nordic Resistance Movement, bombed a café and a migrant center and attempted to bomb a refugee center in Gothenburg, Sweden. The subsequent investigation discovered that the bombers were trained at Partizan. RIM has attempted to broaden its network beyond Europe. American neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach, former head of the Traditionalist Workers Party, met with RIM representatives, and RIM offered paramilitary training to organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are also reports that members of the Imperial Legion fought in conflict areas in Syria and Libya. The Russian Imperial Movement is vocally anti-Putin, decrying him and his regime. Despite this criticism and RIM’s monarchist beliefs, Putin has been lenient toward the group and allows it to operate as long as its attention remains turned away from domestic politics. Though reinstatement of a tsar remains a foundational pillar of RIM’s doctrine, it is not their main selling point. Dr. Anna Kruglova, a lecturer in Terrorism Studies at the University of Salford, finds RIM’s large web following surprising “since the group has a relatively narrow agenda—monarchist ideas are not particularly popular in Russia as only 8 percent of Russian people would want monarchy restored, according to one poll.” RIM’s appeal for potential members and Putin himself lies in its vicious ethno-nationalism. RIM demands that Russia maintain influence over all territories where ethnic Russians reside, particularly in Ukraine. For instance, Partizan-trained Russians fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine in 2014 as members of the Imperial Legion. In the words of Denis Gariev, an instructor at Partizan, “We see Ukrainian-ness as rabies. A person is sick. Either quarantine, liquidation, or he’ll infect everyone.” Putin also values RIM as a tool to sow discord in the West. RIM supports and collaborates with other white supremacist extremist organizations, even in the United States, and trains individuals like the Swedish NRM bombers. RIM is convenient for Putin: it poses no real threat as a monarchist organization yet benefits his attempts to colonize Ukraine and destabilize the West. The Union of the Russian People The Union of the Russian People (Soyuz russkovo naroda, or SRN) was a right-wing, fanatically anti-Semitic political movement active in the 1900s. They came to prominence in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war. After the Russian Empire’s devastating defeat, there was such discontent and domestic unrest that strikes and mutinies flooded the empire, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to enact constitutional reforms. This moment, known as the 1905 Revolution, left the Russian Empire shaken and greatly polarized. Fears that the imperial system would collapse led to a rise in reactionary extreme right-wing ideologies and groups, one of which was SRN. Members of SRN and its paramilitary branch, the Black Hundred, were fervent monarchists and bore the colors of the Romanov family—the reigning imperial dynasty in Russia from 1613 to 1917—as their insignia. They also had deep ideological connections with the Russian Orthodox Church and identified Jews as the source of all evil in Russia. From 1905 to 1906, the Black Hundred carried out relentless pogroms, killing hundreds of Jews across the Russian Empire. The ruling class at the time held mixed opinions on SRN, ranging from hesitance to fanaticism. Lower-ranking officials viewed the Black Hundred’s pogroms as a convenient way to keep Jewish and ethnic minority populations in their place. The tsar called them a “shining example of justice and order to all men.” SRN was a convenient political tool for the tsar. Tsar Nicholas II believed anti-Semitism united people behind the government, and that Jewish capitalism and Jewish socialism were revolutionary forces that threatened his regime. In this way, SRN and the Black Hundred, while too radical for many members of the Duma and the public, served the tsar’s political interests. Utilizing extremism as a political weapon is not a new tool in Russia’s repertoire. As Putin harkens back to a grand Imperial history and conducts brutal military invasions into former Soviet states, like Ukraine, and political invasions of others, like Belarus, he demands comparison to the power-grasping techniques of the past. As Tsar Nicholas II’s grip on power loosened with civil unrest in the Russian Empire, he supported extremism to preserve his regime. Putin repeats this pattern today as he lets the Russian Imperial Movement and the Imperial Legion train neo-Nazis to wreak havoc and terror in the West.

  • Debunking “Denazification”

    By Worth Talley, Max Kampelman Fellow​ On February 24, 2022, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine—in reality, a Russian invasion designed to subjugate the democratic, peaceful people of Ukraine. When the news broke, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen immediately decried the statement. “Like Mr. Zelensky, I am Jewish; Nazis kill Jews,” he said. Putin’s claim of “denazification,” not only patently false, borders on incoherent to a Western audience, which immediately links Nazism with antisemitism and the Holocaust and thus understands the “denazification” of a country led by a Jewish president to be impossible.   The real nature of Putin’s claim is clear: it is a fallacious attempt to drum up domestic support for his war of aggression in Ukraine designed to resonate with a Russian audience. Putin draws on the Soviet myth of the Great Patriotic War in an attempt to validate his invasion and to obscure the true nature of his war—an attack on Ukrainian identity—under the guise of a mission against Nazism. Within this historical footing, Russians can accept the “denazification” of Ukraine precisely because the myth, like other holdovers from Soviet policy, deemphasizes antisemitism’s connection to Nazism and reimagines Nazism primarily as an attack on Soviet and Russian identities, not Jewish ethnicity. The Great Patriotic War World War II occupies a central place in Russian historical memory. The Russian conception of the Great Patriotic War has existed in multiple formulations since the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it consistently centers the role of the Soviet people in defeating Nazism, placing equal emphasis on Soviet victory and on the suffering and sacrifices of the Soviet people. In fact, the Great Patriotic War begins in 1941—rather than 1939—with Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR under Operation Barbarossa. The fact that the Great Patriotic War is the term commonly used for World War II by Russians obscures the nature of Russian involvement in the war prior to 1941. This state-sponsored narrative eschews a nuanced understanding of Soviet participation in the Second World War, particularly of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and of the Soviet atrocities committed in Poland and the Baltics during that period of non-aggression between the 1939 pact and the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The Law Against the Rehabilitation of Nazism, signed into law by Putin in 2014, effectively criminalizes speech regarding these Soviet actions. As the Great Patriotic War emphasizes Soviet anguish, it glosses over the suffering of Jews and other minorities and even the Holocaust itself. Soviet policy historically downplayed the centrality of the Holocaust by centering a collective, Soviet suffering over a particular, Jewish one. Furthermore, denouncing the antisemitic core of Nazism would have directly contradicted the Soviet Union’s own state-sponsored antisemitism. The Holocaust, particularly the millions of deaths that occurred in Soviet territory, was written off in Soviet historical narratives as a crime against the (ethnically ambiguous) Soviet citizenry. For example, the Soviet memorial at Babyn Yar—a site in Kyiv, formerly in the Soviet Union, where 33,000 Jews were murdered by Nazi troops and Ukrainian collaborators over the course of two days—featured an inscription to the “peaceful Soviet citizens” that died there, insinuating that the site formed part of a collective, Soviet suffering rather than acknowledging it as a site of antisemitic genocide. The myth of the Great Patriotic War thus classifies the actions of Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis—such as Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists—primarily as a crime against the Soviet people, with the antisemitic actions and beliefs of these Ukrainians nationalists occupying a secondary—or altogether irrelevant—level of importance. Nonetheless, the collaboration of some Ukrainian nationalists with Nazis during World War II has allowed the Kremlin, through a peculiar melding of myth and reality, to conflate Nazism with the very development of Ukrainian national identity (though, of course, Ukrainian national identity is not synonymous with Nazism, nor did it only begin to develop during the Second World War). Language Laws and Russian Rhetoric As Ukraine has distanced itself from Russian political influence, establishing a distinct national identity has become of a question of greater importance—particularly considering the stifled development of such an identity under the Soviet Union. Putin’s current, baseless, claims of genocide against Russian speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk occur against the backdrop of Ukrainian language laws, which make Ukrainian the country’s sole official language and set forth requirements for the use of Ukrainian in education and media. The most recent of these laws, passed in 2019, was met with harsh criticism from Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who termed it “a law of forced Ukrainization,” and with skepticism from Volodymyr Zelensky, then the president-elect of Ukraine and himself a native Russian speaker. In an earlier reaction to such legislation, Zakharova claimed that “Ukraine uses language genocide on a state level,” echoing the rhetoric of genocide now used by the Kremlin to justify its invasion. Zakharova’s statements recall Soviet policy against Ukrainian national identity. Her use of the term “Ukrainization” echoes the use of the same term under Stalin in a 1932 decree to combat the growth of Ukrainian language and culture (i.e. “Ukrainization”). This decree was issued during the beginning of Holodomor—the genocide against Ukrainians, which began as an unintentional famine yet was retooled by Stalin to deliberately kill millions of Ukrainians. In this sense, contemporary Kremlin claims of “Ukrainization” and “language genocide” toward Russian speakers in Ukraine recall Stalin’s policies of both cultural and literal genocide directed at Ukrainians and Ukrainian national identity. Now, through the distorted lens of the Great Patriotic War and other Soviet policy, the Kremlin misrepresents the development of Ukrainian national identity as a crime against Russian speakers. Analysis of this historical manipulation, however, lays bare the reality of the war as an act of flagrant aggression committed against Ukrainians intended to destroy their culture and identity.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls on Russia to Release 'True Patriot' Kara-Murza

    A U.S. human rights monitor is calling for the release of journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Russian opposition figure who has spoken out against what he has called his government's crackdown on dissent. The U.S. Helsinki Commission on Monday raised alarm over the detention of Kara-Murza in Moscow a month after he outlined the Kremlin's increased use of propaganda and censorship. His arrest is the latest report of authorities attempting to silence critics since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February. "We are alarmed to learn that Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Moscow. Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people," the commission said in a statement. "He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately." The commission, a U.S. government agency comprised of members of Congress and representatives from federal agencies, heard testimony from Kara-Murza who described how the Russian government has used disinformation and the growing struggles of independent media outlets. The Russian government in March enacted new restrictions, criminalizing media from using the word "invasion" to describe the conflict in Ukraine. Those who violate them could face up to 15 years in prison. Speaking before the commission, Kara-Murza said that following the invasion, Putin moved swiftly against "what remained of independent media in Russia." Kara-Murza said that within days, authorities shuttered independent outlets, including Echo of Moscow, a radio station where he hosted a weekly program. He also pointed to how the Russian government has blocked access to social media networks. Other news outlets, such as highly respected Novaya Gazeta, ceased publication because of censorship, he said. Calling many Russians "brainwashed," he said many are not even aware of potential war crimes their government is alleged to have committed in Ukraine. "Today, most Russians are in an Orwellian parallel reality created by the Kremlin propaganda machine," Kara-Murza told the commission. "And I mean, Orwellian in the literal sense, what's being said on Russian state television might as well have come out of George Orwell's 1984: 'War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.'" Since Russia's new censorship laws have gone into effect, reports have emerged of students or parents turning in teachers who spoke disapprovingly of the war. Nobel Prize laureate and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, was attacked on a train. Russian authorities have also threatened Wikipedia with a nearly $50,000 fine for refusing to delete "illegal information." Kara-Murza, an author and politician who was repeatedly poisoned, has continued speaking out despite his arrest, making an appearance on MSNBC on Sunday.

  • Helsinki Commission Remembers Late Chairman Alcee Hastings

    WASHINGTON—On the anniversary of the death of former Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee Hastings of Florida, 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: “Alcee Hastings was a giant in foreign affairs, knowledgeable on all issues relating to security in Europe. As the only American to serve as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, he led that organization in cementing its members’ commitment to peace, security and human rights. Wherever he traveled on OSCE business, he was universally respected and liked. A year after his passing, he remains a revered figure and world-renowned leader.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

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