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Tajikistan's Presidential Election Falls Short
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

By Kyle Parker and Knox Thames

On November 6, 2006, Tajikistan held its fourth presidential election, in which incumbent President Emomali Rahmonov easily won over four other competitors. The conduct of the campaign and the Election Day itself provided the international community with an opportunity to gauge Tajikistan’s commitment to democratization – the result was a mixed picture that displayed fundamental problems that must be addressed before Tajikistan can meet OSCE standards of free and fair elections.

The final results released by the Central Commission for Election and Referenda (CCER) of Tajikistan showed that President Rahmonov defeated four other candidates with 79 percent of the vote, based on approximately 3 million ballots representing 91 percent of the electorate. The nearest competitor garnered just over five percent. The OSCE’s Election Observation Mission (EOM) reported in its preliminary findings that the elections “did not fully test democratic electoral practices… due to a lack of genuine choice and meaningful pluralism,” and concluded that “the election process also revealed substantial shortcomings.”

Tajikistan in Context

Tajikistan is located at the heart of the ancient Silk Road traversing the Eurasian landmass, bordering Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. With about seven million people, Tajikistan has a young, growing population that is largely Sunni Muslim and speaks Tajik, a language closely related to Farsi. Tajikistan has one of the lowest GDP’s of the former Soviet republics; up to one million Tajik citizens are migrant workers abroad, mostly in the Russian Federation.

Landlocked and home to the tallest mountains in the post-Soviet space, Tajikistan possesses abundant fresh water resources from glacial runoff. However, only six percent of Tajikistan is arable. Tajikistan also hosts one of the largest and most polluting aluminum smelters in the world. Additionally, since the fall of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in 2001, the cross-border drug trade has dramatically increased, fueling corruption, drug addiction, and HIV/AIDS among the local population.

Following the dissolution of the USSR, Tajikistan was the only former Soviet republic to experience a protracted civil war that claimed the lives of at least 40,000 people and displaced nearly a million. Despite extreme poverty, the country has made notable gains since the peace agreement signed almost 10 years ago that ended the civil war. The accord created a power-sharing agreement among the warring parties, including the only legal Islamic party in post-Soviet Central Asia.

President Rahmonov was first elected in 1994 and re-elected in 1999. The Constitution of Tajikistan sets a presidential term of office at seven years. In 2003, a referendum amended the constitution to limit the number of consecutive terms an individual could be elected president to two, but allowed him to run again. As a result, President Rahmonov may seek another term in 2013, potentially serving until 2020.

Pre-Election Climate

As elsewhere in Central Asia, Tajikistan’s political system features top-down rule by the president, whose control of the state apparatus and state-run media greatly enhance his privileged position in any election. Pre-election decrees by the CCER did address some inequities in the election system, and the government provided opposition parties free air time on state television. However, the ability of independent media outlets to operate freely was restricted. And while multiple candidates did participate, the major opposition leaders experienced significant harassment from authorities and did not or could not run.

For instance, Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, the former head of the Democratic Party, was sentenced to 23 years in prison in October 2005 under questionable circumstances. This year, authorities repeatedly threatened criminal penalties against the Chairman of the Socialist Democratic Party, Rahmatullo Zoyirov, for statements made regarding the number of alleged political prisoners in Tajikistan. Before his death in August, charges of slander were brought against the late Said Abdullo Nuri, Chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party, who was arguably the only opposition presidential candidate with a national following. Of these three parties, only the anti-Iskandarov “Vatan” faction of the Democratic Party entered a candidate. Their bid was unsuccessful, as they could not obtain the necessary petition signatures in time to qualify for ballot inclusion.

The CCER registered five candidates out of six nominees who submitted signatures for the election: Olimjon Boboev (Party of Economic Reform of Tajikistan); Abdukhalim Gaffarov (Socialist Party); Amir Karakulov (Agrarian Party); Emomali Rahmonov (Peoples’ Democratic Party of Tajikistan); and Ismoil Talbakov (Communist Party of Tajikistan).

To run, candidates had to collect signatures representing five percent of registered voters, or approximately 160,000 names. Individuals could not sign more than one petition, and yet remarkably, the six applicants reportedly collected over 1.5 million signatures, equaling roughly half of the electorate in just 20 days. Considering that the pro-government Agrarian and the Economic Reform Parties were both established this year, their ability to set up a network to collect the required signatures was remarkable and implausible. Although roughly one of every two voters signed a petition (based on the claims of the parties), Commission staff did not meet any individual voter who had signed a petition nor did staff hear of any other OSCE observer that met a voter who also signed a petition.

Each candidate had up to 30 minutes of free air time on state television and radio. Nevertheless, the OSCE EOM described the campaign period as “largely invisible,” with party platforms that were “similar,” and concluded that “none of the four candidates running against the incumbent offered a credible political alternative.” Furthermore, there was “little media coverage of the election campaign and a high media profile of the incumbent, raising doubts whether voters received sufficient information to make an informed choice.”

Violations on Election Day

The November 6 election was the first presidential election in Tajikistan observed by the OSCE, as minimum conditions for democratic elections were not in place for previous presidential contests. The EOM deployed 12 experts and 13 long-term observers to the capital city of Dushanbe and five other cities. The Mission was headed by Mr. Onno van der Wind of the Netherlands. Mr. Kimmo Kiljunen, a parliamentarian from Finland, led the observation delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which was integrated into the EOM.

On Election Day, the EOM deployed 123 short-term observers representing 31 OSCE participating States. OSCE observers visited approximately 500 of 3,042 polling stations throughout Tajikistan and observed the closing procedures and tabulations in 47 District Election Commissions.

Helsinki Commission staff members were accredited as OSCE observers and visited 15 polling stations in the Dushanbe area, ranging from large urban stations to smaller semi-suburban stations and two military precincts. They witnessed the opening and closing of a polling station, as well as tabulation at the District Electoral Commission level. Commission staff witnessed some type of violation in approximately three quarters of the polling stations visited. The most common problem was the appearance of identical signatures on the voter registry, possibly indicating proxy voting. However, proxy voting was only witnessed in one station. Family voting was widespread. In the vast majority of precincts, ballot boxes were not adequately sealed, but there was no visible evidence of tampering. There were no observed instances of voters being denied the opportunity to cast a ballot, nor were any such complaints raised with Commission staff.

Commission staff did encounter teams of observers accredited by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China. None of these teams appeared to operate under any kind of election observation methodology, in clear contrast to OSCE observers. As in past elections, the CIS observers drew starkly different conclusions about the electoral conditions than the conclusions of the OSCE EOM.

Of the irregularities observed throughout the day, none appeared to be deliberate attempts to skew the final tally in favor of, or against any particular candidate. The infractions appeared to stem from a lack of proper training, old Soviet habits, and/or a general lackadaisical attitude to what was largely seen as an exercise with a foregone conclusion.

Still, the vote count monitored by Commission staff at polling station 10 in Dushanbe’s Second District raised questions about the motives of the precinct workers, who appeared determined not to allow a credible observation. Initially, Commission staff were not permitted to enter the station. Once inside, they were not allowed to come within 15 feet of the table where election officials were counting the ballots. In addition, election officials stood in such a way as to block observers from having any view of the tabulations. Precinct staff did not follow closing procedures – counting the blank ballots last rather than first; results were not entered into the protocol as they were established, but rather at the end of the entire count. Staff questions about these concerns directed to the Precinct Election Commission head were unsatisfactorily answered.

The EOM preliminary report echoed these findings. Of the polling stations visited by OSCE observers, proxy voting was cited in 19 percent of the stations and identical signatures were observed in 49 percent of the stations. The report cited incidents of security officials interfering in the work of the observers. In addition, the report found that “counting procedures necessary to ensure integrity and transparency of the process were generally not followed.”

The report did note some areas of progress, such as the peaceful nature of the voting; CCER training for electoral commissions; provision of free air time for candidates; voter education efforts; ballots in multiple languages; and the availability of polling stations abroad.

However, the EOM report concluded that overall the election “did not fully test democratic electoral practices” because of a “lack of genuine choice and meaningful pluralism.” The findings went on to state that “the election was characterized by a marked absence of real competition. Parties that determined themselves as political opposition to the incumbent chose not to contest the election. Thus, voters were presented with a choice that was only nominal.” Other issues of concern were: significant shortcomings in the election legislation; lack of transparency by the CCER; a government-controlled media environment; and an unusually high signature threshold for candidate participation.

Post-Election Tajikistan

The outcome of Tajikistan’s presidential contest was never in doubt – the only question was whether President Rahmonov’s final tally would be in the 80th percentile (as in Kyrgyzstan last July) or the 90th percentile (typical for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and recently equaled in Kazakhstan). By that standard, the 79 percent that Rahmonov received could be considered modest for Central Asia.

Nevertheless, the international community was able to assess Tajikistan’s commitment to democratization through its conduct before and during the election. Overall, the campaign and election presented a mixed, but generally frustrating, picture – while the electoral code reform, the lack of Election Day violence, and the participation of multiple candidates was positive, the prevalence of irregularities and the intimidation or arrest of major opposition leaders call into question President Rahmonov’s commitment to democratic reform. Although there was little question he would win a fair contest, the deck was carefully stacked anyway.

Problems with Tajikistan’s electoral conduct are not new, as the OSCE observed their 2000 and 2005 parliamentary elections and found significant violations in both. The conclusions of the 2000 observation mission stated that Tajikistan must do more to “meet the minimum democratic standards for equal, fair, free, secret, transparent and accountable elections.” Despite OSCE engagement in the pre-election period last year, the 2005 parliamentary elections remained problematic, with the OSCE mission stating they “failed to meet many key OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” Against that background, the 2006 presidential election was disappointing for not having achieved more and deeper systemic reforms.

President Rahmonov, now safely reelected, has consolidated his position. The next real test of his commitment to electoral reform will be the 2010 parliamentary election, specifically, whether independent opposition parties can operate and organize freely. Many observers believe that the electorate’s vivid memory of the civil war has created an appreciation for the stability he represents, despite the country’s democratic shortcomings. However, 60 percent of the population is reportedly under 35 years old and if serious democratic reforms are not entrenched, and the 2010 parliamentary election again falls short of international standards, the political gains achieved since the end of the war may be jeopardized.

As Rakhmonov begins a new seven-year term of office, it is critical that reform efforts move forward. A good sense of his government’s direction could come early in his new administration, if problematic draft NGO or religion laws, are reintroduced, since previous versions fell short of OSCE commitments. In addition, continued governmental efforts to close or harass independent media outlets will also indicate whether old policies will hold sway during the new term of office.

Conclusion

The United States should continue to find ways to help this impoverished nation develop economically and democratically, lending assistance when appropriate, while continuing to hold Tajikistani authorities to the OSCE commitments they freely undertook. The United States would do well to continue to actively encourage those laboring for a stable and open society in this country that has the potential to be a key partner in battling regional threats to U.S. interests. In addition, the growth of democracy and respect for human rights would enable Washington and Dushanbe to deepen their engagement, while cementing the stability and progress achieved in Tajikistan.

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    WASHINGTON—Following the first round of presidential elections in France on April 10, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “As co-chairman of the bipartisan U.S. Helsinki Commission, I congratulate the French people for making their voices heard on Sunday during the first round of their presidential elections. France is among the world’s most long-standing democracies, America’s oldest ally, and a vital voice in Europe and around the world for our common liberal values. “Those same values are under unprecedented and brutal assault by Russia in Ukraine. As we look ahead to the second round of elections later this month, I am confident that the French people will choose their leaders based on the strength of their principles, and reject apologia and disinformation on behalf of dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “Putin has no principles beyond conquest and banditry, as Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine and its uncivilized campaign of atrocity there attest. The Kremlin’s imperial war in Ukraine is inseparable from the totalitarian regime it has erected at home, along with the destruction of the last vestiges of civil society and press freedom, and its efforts to undermine trust in Western governments—including in great democracies like France. “I have faith in France’s powerful democracy, and offer my warmest wishes to the French people as we continue our rich friendship based on common values and in defiance of tyrants and demagogues.”

  • 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.

  • Ahead of OSCE PA Winter Meeting, Co-Chairman Cohen Reiterates Support for Ukrainian Sovereignty

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today issued the following statement: “Over the upcoming Congressional recess, I am proud to be leading a bipartisan, bicameral delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. In today’s climate of global uncertainty, engagement between foreign officials and members of Congress offers reassurance to U.S. allies about the commitment of the United States to peace, security, and prosperity in Europe and beyond. “Our delegation also will take the opportunity to visit other NATO Allies to consult with government officials in light of the unprecedented number of Russian forces deployed in and around Ukraine. While we originally planned to stop in Kyiv, the relocation of embassy staff necessitated the unfortunate cancellation of that portion of our itinerary. However, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Government of Ukraine of the steadfast support of Congress for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression. Rest assured we will bring up support for your nation’s security at the OSCE PA meetings.”

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Senator Bob Dole

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of Senator Bob Dole, 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: “Senator Dole, who served as the co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission from 1981 to 1985, will be remembered for his efforts to elevate the role of the Senate in the work of the Helsinki Commission and for his support for peace, security, democracy, and human rights for all. “As a participant in early meetings of the Helsinki diplomatic process, he helped develop a tradition of frank and direct exchanges of views between participating countries on human rights concerns, particularly the incarceration of Helsinki human right monitors in the Soviet Union and crackdowns on dissent in Eastern Europe. In the early 1990s, he worked closely with commission leadership advocating for a decisive international response, led by the United States, to the aggression and ethnic cleansing taking place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After leaving the Senate, Senator Dole traveled to Kosovo in 1998 to document atrocities occurring there and subsequently testified about his findings at a Helsinki Commission hearing.  “We will always be grateful for Senator Dole’s enormous contribution to the Helsinki Commission and to its mission.”

  • 30 Years After Ovcara

    By Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor On November 20, 1991, after the fall of the city of Vukovar in Croatia, militant Serb forces removed 265 ill and injured Croats from a hospital. They were taken to the nearby Ovčara farm southeast of Vukovar, where they were abused before being shot and killed, with their bodies dumped in a mass grave. In addition to wounded members of the Croatian armed forces were civilians, including some women and children.   The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the international effort to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, including those most responsible for the crime at Ovčara, which took place early in a series of conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s disintegration throughout the 1990s.  Many obstacles stood in the way, but after years of persistent effort justice prevailed. However, malicious acts supporting territorial aggression continue in the OSCE region and elsewhere. When remembering Ovčara, it is important to acknowledge the brave few in Serbia—civil society advocates, political activists, journalists, lawyers and judges, and everyday citizens—who consistently have refused to associate themselves with the terrible crimes committed in their name in the 1990s, and seek to this day not only justice but a needed acknowledgement of reality in the face of continued denial and revisionism. A wider acknowledgement led by those holding power today will mean a better future for Serbia and its neighbors tomorrow.

  • 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 Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Colin Powell

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, 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: “We mourn the loss of a thoughtful leader, respected diplomat, and dedicated public servant. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell actively supported the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its comprehensive definition of security, which includes respect for human rights. In 1990, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his leadership of the U.S. delegation to a seminar in Vienna on military doctrine demonstrated that when Moscow was serious about overcoming differences through the Helsinki Process, the United States was ready to collaborate, as is true today. “Secretary Powell’s subsequent work in the OSCE on fighting anti-Semitism and championing election observation proved that he was not only a warrior and a diplomat, but also a steadfast advocate for human rights and a defender of the most vulnerable.” Secretary Powell was one of the most active U.S. Secretaries of State in OSCE history, personally attending Ministerial Council meetings in 2001, 2003, and 2004. In 2001, he said: “We see our membership in the OSCE as complementing and reinforcing our strong bilateral ties with European and Eurasian countries, our membership in NATO, and our relationship with the European Union. This organization embraces a wide-range of ethnicities, traditions and histories. More importantly, it reflects our common embrace of democratic and market principals and our common commitment to peace and stability. In short, the OSCE encompasses the hopes that all of us share for a Europe that is fully whole and free.”

  • A Tribute to Ambassador George S. Vest, III

    Mr. CARDIN.  Mr. President, I would like to bring to the attention of colleagues the recent passing of long-time U.S. diplomat George Southall Vest, III, a long-time resident of Bethesda, Maryland.  He was 102 years old.  His career with the State Department spanned the Cold War era, from 1947 to 1989.  As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I want to draw particular attention to Ambassador Vest’s representation of the United States at the initial multilateral discussions of 35 countries that led to an historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, from July 30 to August 1, 1975, where the Helsinki Final Act was signed. An all-European summit was not a priority for the United States in the early 1970s.   Indeed, it was a long-standing Soviet proposal, and Washington was wary of its use to confirm the division of Europe, give added legitimacy to communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and provide an opportunity for Moscow to divide the United States from its European allies.  Washington agreed to engage but saw little value in the effort.   As Ambassador Vest himself was quoted as saying, “This was the first time after World War II where all the Eastern European countries, all the Western European countries, together with Canada and the United States, sat down to talk about security and cooperation…   I had very, very few instructions.  I was left pretty much to feel my own way.” The early work of Ambassador Vest and his team, and that of his immediate successors, led to the Helsinki Final Act, which included 10 principles guiding relations between states that serve as a basis, to this day, of our response to events in Europe, including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and other neighbors.  The Final Act provided a comprehensive definition of security that includes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the basis for us to address today’s brutal crackdown on dissent in Belarus and authoritarianism elsewhere.  It also provided for a follow-up to the Final Act with regular reviews of implementation and development of new norms, a multilateral effort now represented by today’s 57-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its important institutions and field missions. Ambassador Vest, left pretty much to feel his own way, may not have intended to make such an impact on European security.  Keep in mind that he represented the United States in these negotiations during the tumultuous time of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, an oil crisis on the horizon, the growing Watergate scandal at home, and a rising Soviet threat across the globe.  Nevertheless, his initial efforts contributed to an end of the Cold War division of Europe rather than a confirmation of it.  That is quite a turnaround.  I should add that the Congress later played a major role in shaping the U.S. contribution to this result when it created the Helsinki Commission in 1976.  While things have changed since then, the Commission does now what it did in the late 1970s: ensure that human rights considerations are central to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with other countries. Given the challenges we face today, I hope it is useful to remind my colleagues of Ambassador Vest’s legacy as a diplomat.   Both before and after the negotiations, he served in positions in which he worked to strengthen ties with Europe, including through the NATO alliance and dialogue with a growing European Union.  He was also a mentor to new generations of American diplomats.   All of this followed his combat service as a forward artillery observer in Europe during World War II. George Vest joined the Foreign Service in 1947, after using the G.I. Bill to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Virginia (U-Va), where he had received his B.A. in 1941.  He served as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs under President Carter and as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union from 1981 to 1985.  His last assignment at the State Department was as Director General of the Foreign Service.  He retired in 1989 as a “career ambassador,” a rank requiring a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. George Vest’s father was an Episcopal priest and Vest graduated from the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, before attending U-Va.  He was as dedicated to his church as he was to our Nation.  He served on the vestry at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and volunteered in its Opportunity (thrift) Shop, both located on the Close of Washington National Cathedral.  He also tutored students in D.C. public schools.  Two sons, George S. Vest, IV of Fairfax, Virginia, and Henry Vest of Broomfield, Colorado, and two granddaughters survive him.  I send my condolences to his family and thank them for his life of service.  Let us be inspired by Ambassador George Vest and plant our own seeds for a better world tomorrow.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes New Senior State Department Advisor, Senior Policy Advisors

    WASHINGTON—The leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is pleased to welcome Edward A. White, Michael Hikari Cecire, and Bakhti Nishanov to the Helsinki Commission staff. White has been appointed as the commission’s senior State Department advisor, and Cecire and Nishanov join the commission as senior policy advisors. “On behalf of the entire bipartisan, bicameral commission, I am delighted to welcome Ed, Michael, and Bakhti to the Helsinki Commission team,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD). “They each bring extensive experience and expertise to their assignments at the commission. I am confident that their contributions will be invaluable to the commission as we work to promote human rights, justice, and security across the OSCE region.” Edward A. White, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor, serves as the Helsinki Commission’s senior State Department advisor. From 2019 to 2021, he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau. Immediately prior to his Pentagon assignment, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Beirut. Earlier assignments included the State Department’s Office of Levant Affairs; the United States Mission to NATO in Brussels; and U.S. Embassies in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, and Caracas. Since the Helsinki Commission was founded in 1976, career foreign service officers have been assigned to the agency to help foster contact between Congress and the State Department, and to provide political and diplomatic counsel in areas related to the monitoring and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. Michael Hikari Cecire most recently served as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Previously he was a policy advisor, strategic researcher, and Eurasia regional analyst supporting the Department of Defense and other U.S. Government agencies. Cecire also has served as an international security fellow at New America, a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and as a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. At the Helsinki Commission, Cecire is the senior policy advisor specializing in the Caucasus, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and the conflict in Ukraine. Bakhti Nishanov joins the Helsinki Commission from the International Republican Institute where, as Deputy Director for Eurasia, he helped oversee a portfolio of democracy and governance programs. His previous experience includes roles with Freedom House, the World Bank, and USAID. At the Helsinki Commission, he is the senior policy advisor covering Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and the OSCE’s Mediterranean Partners.

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