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Who's Afraid of Civil Society?
Thirty Years after the Prague Anniversary of Anniversaries
Sunday, November 11, 2018

By Erika Schlager,
Counsel for International Law

“How will you mark the anniversary?”

That’s what Timothy Garton Ash asked dissident playwright Vaclav Havel 30 years ago, prior to the 70th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state.

The answer? A symposium on the incidence of the number “eight” in Czechoslovak history: 1918 (the creation of the modern Czechoslovak state), 1938 (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czech lands), 1948 (the Communist takeover), 1968 (the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring) . . . and 1988.

As a junior Helsinki Commission staffer, I attended that symposium. It was my first solo trip for the Commission.

At the time, the 35 signatories of the Helsinki Final Act were meeting in Vienna to review the implementation of the Final Act, negotiate new commitments, and schedule future meetings. Czechoslovakia—the Czechoslovak Socialist Federal Republic, to be more precise—had proposed holding a future meeting in Prague as part of the Helsinki process work on economic cooperation. And why not? Budapest, the capital of another one-party communist state, had managed to become the host for a cultural forum in 1985. In Vienna, the Soviet delegation had boldly proposed holding a follow-up meeting on human rights in Moscow.

However, Czechoslovakia—unlike Hungary, Poland or even the Soviet Union under Gorbachev—remained a firmly hardline communist regime through the 1980s, with significant restrictions on civil society.  According to the U.S. Department of State at the time, freedom of assembly was severely restricted. Efforts to hold independently organized meetings or demonstrations systematically resulted in arrests, criminal prosecutions, assaults on persons attempting to hold such events, sometimes using water cannon, dogs, tear gas and truncheons.  Nevertheless, as the Prague symposium approached, the United States had still not taken a position in Vienna on the Czechoslovak proposal.

Earlier in the year, authorities in Czechoslovakia disrupted efforts by independent peace activists to hold a meeting in Prague by refusing to allow foreigners to enter the country to participate. If Czechoslovakia was unwilling to allow openness and access at such meetings, was it fit to serve as the host of a Helsinki process follow-up meeting? The November meeting would be kind of a test.

My handler from the U.S. Embassy welcomed to my visit. The United States had recently declared a Czechoslovak diplomat in Washington persona non grata for actions inconsistent with his diplomatic status, a euphemism for spying. The U.S. Embassy, then led by Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, assumed it was only a matter of time before the Czechoslovak regime would kick an American out of Prague in retaliation. The embassy thought it might avoid that outcome if it cut off ties with dissidents. My visit gave the embassy’s political officer an opportunity to resume those ties.  Still, he warned me, I might be the convenient target of retaliation.

Czechoslovakian authorities allowed foreign participants to attend the symposium, but by the time my plane landed, the principal organizers of the event, including Vaclav Havel, had been arrested. I was deposited at the Hotel Jalta, along with  others who had come from abroad to participate. The small black and white television in my room had a neatly typed card in front of it that said in English, “Do not attempt to change the station.” I spun the dial at every opportunity. 

This is where I first met Max van der Stoel, the former Dutch Foreign Minister and man of inestimable integrity who later became the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. 

Eventually, Vaclav Havel was released, and I met with him and other dissidents before heading to a “parallel” symposium on “8s” organized by exiles in Vienna. In Vienna, I also reported to the head of the U.S. delegation to the Vienna Follow-up Meeting, Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, about the events in Prague.

On November 15, 1988, Ambassador Zimmerman announced the U.S. position on the Czechoslovak bid to host a follow-up meeting, noting that the lack of openness and access made U.S. endorsement impossible:

. . . [T]he pattern of repression in Czechoslovakia, together with the persistent efforts of the Czechoslovak delegation to secure approval for Prague as host of an economic follow-up, lead me to state for the record the U.S. position on the candidacy of Czechoslovakia . . .  [A] prospective host should reflect commitment to openness and access, for its visitors and for its own citizens, that has been so well exemplified by the government of Austria at the Vienna meeting. By this simple and reasonable standard, the government of Czechoslovakia fails – and fails abysmally. For that reason, the United States will not join any proposal that any post-Vienna meeting be held in Czechoslovakia. That decision is irrevocable; it will not be subject to review or change during the life of the Vienna meeting.

In June 1989, an American diplomat – my control officer for the November symposium – was declared persona non grata by the Czechoslovak authorities, in retaliation for the U.S. expulsion of another Czechoslovak diplomat from Washington, and expelled one-month short of the end of his three-year tour.

In November 1989, the communist police violently broke up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration and brutally beat many student participants. They also planted a false story in the opposition that a student demonstrator had been beaten to death. The secret police thought they would be able to reveal that the opposition report of a fatality was false and thereby discredit the growing dissident movement.

Their plan backfired.

Instead, as journalist Mary Battiata wrote, “a half-baked secret police plan to discredit a couple of dissidents apparently boomeranged and turned a sputtering student protest into a national rebellion.”

The United States continues to advocate for openness and access for civil society at meetings organized in the Helsinki process.  Hopefully, it will continue to do so with the same firmness and determination it did 30 years ago.

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  • 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

  • European Energy Security Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: EUROPEAN ENERGY SECURITY POST-RUSSIA Tuesday, June 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The United States and European allies have largely cut Russia out of the global economy following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, given European reliance on Russian natural gas and oil, sweeping energy sanctions have lagged. The European Union spends nearly a billion euros a day on Russian energy, and several EU Member States are struggling to wean themselves off Russian resources in order to implement a full embargo. This hearing will examine plans to create a Europe that is wholly free from Russian oil and gas. Witnesses will discuss the importance of a robust energy embargo to starving the Russian war machine; options to ensure that Ukraine’s energy needs are met; alternative sources of energy for Europe; and the perspective of Germany, which plays an outsize role as the most powerful economy in Europe and a primary consumer of Russian natural resources. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO, Naftogaz Ukraine Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution Benjamin Schmitt, Research Associate, Harvard University; Senior Fellow, Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis

  • 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.

  • Helsinki Commission Slams Legislation in Belarus that Would Extend Use of the Death Penalty to Pro-Democracy and Anti-War Activists

    WASHINGTON—Following the approval of legislation in Belarus that would apply the death penalty to pro-democracy activists and those opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine, and ahead of the May 21 commemoration of the Day of Political Prisoners in Belarus, 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: “With these amendments to the criminal code, Aleksandr Lukashenko and other senior officials in his regime seek to frighten brave Belarusian citizens into silence. These craven attempts to mute pro-democracy and anti-war activists are doomed to fail. Belarusians have demonstrated time and again that they are stronger than those who seek to oppress them, and that they will not cower even in the face of outright death threats from authorities. “The real criminals here are Lukashenko and his henchmen who attempt to muzzle political opponents, civil society, and the free press. We demand that all political prisoners in Belarus be released, and that Belarusian authorities cease their attempts to terrorize those who freely speak their minds.” Earlier this week, Lukashenko approved changes to the Belarusian criminal code that would extend the use of the death penalty against those convicted of “attempted acts of terrorism.” According to the U.S. Department of State, the Lukashenko regime “has levied politically motivated charges of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ against many of [Belarus’] more than 1,100 political prisoners and used such labels to detain tens of thousands more.”  

  • 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)

  • 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 Digital Digest January 2022

  • Helsinki Commission Marks One-Year Anniversary of Navalny’s Imprisonment

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Alexei Navalny’s arrest on January 17, 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 statements: “In the past year, while Alexei Navalny has remained unjustly imprisoned, the Kremlin has doubled down on its absurd persecution of his anti-corruption organizations as ‘extremist,’” said Chairman Cardin. “Nevertheless, Mr. Navalny’s colleagues, friends and allies, in the face of grave threats, continue to risk their own freedom to expose Putin’s thuggery across Russia.” “Putin would not have gone to the trouble to imprison Alexei Navalny unless he perceived a serious threat to his power,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Mr. Navalny and his team across Russia were instrumental in revealing the ill-gotten gains of Putin and his cronies. This tells you all you need to know about why they are a target.” “During his imprisonment, Alexei Navalny has used his own suffering to call attention to the plight of the hundreds of other political prisoners in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “We have not forgotten him or others who are persecuted for their beliefs, and we look forward to a Russia in which they finally are free.” “Despite the Kremlin’s attempts to push Alexei Navalny out of public view and prevent him from challenging Putin, we will not stop calling for his release,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russians who challenge Putin should not have to fear for their safety in their own country.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by the FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and was arrested at the airport. In February, a Russian judge sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. Previous time served under house arrest reduced his prison time to two years and eight months. In June, the Moscow City Court ruled that Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional networks would henceforth be considered “extremist” organizations, essentially outlawing these groups and criminalizing their activity. In September, Russian authorities opened a new probe against Navalny and his closest associates for creating and directing an “extremist network.” This, combined with other ongoing criminal investigations, could lead to additional jail time for Navalny and threaten those associated with his organizations, many of whom have been forced to flee Russia.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Peaceful Solution in Kazakhstan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the violent clashes between protesters and authorities in Kazakhstan, 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 are deeply concerned about the situation in Kazakhstan and condemn the violence that has accompanied widespread protests across the country. The reported deaths of both protesters and police are extremely disturbing. “We call on President Tokayev and Russian troops not to use disproportionate force against protesters. At the same time, we call on protesters to cease any violent attacks against police, public buildings, or private property. “We urge both sides to find a peaceful way to resolve this crisis. We also urge President Tokayev to ensure respect for human rights, especially freedom of the media and the right to due process for those who have been arrested in connection with the protests.” A wave of protests began on January 2 in the western part of the oil- and gas-rich country in response to a sharp increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The unrest spread quickly to other parts of Kazakhstan and grew increasingly violent. Authorities deployed tear gas and stun grenades against protesters and blocked internet access in an effort to quell the unrest, while demonstrators attacked government offices. There are reports of deaths among both law enforcement and protesters, as well as of widespread looting. Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a nationwide state of emergency on January 5, accepted the resignation of his cabinet, and reduced LPG prices, but protests continued. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance among select former Soviet states including Russia, is sending Russian troops at the request of President Tokayev. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already strained economic and social disparities, and demonstrators are demanding increased political liberalization and accountability for government corruption. OSCE observers concluded that the 2021 parliamentary elections “lacked genuine competition” and underscored the need for political reform.

  • 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.

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