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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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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.  

  • 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)

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Welcomes Conclusion of First Round of French Presidential Elections

    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.

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