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Elections

The 1990 OSCE/CSCE Copenhagen Document states that ”the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government.” Elections conducted according to OSCE commitments and standards yield political representatives accountable to their electorates. Pluralistic, democratic societies are underpinned by free and fair elections. Elections genuinely reflecting the will of the people are essential for a healthy, functioning democracy.

While the vast majority of OSCE participating States generally conduct free and fair elections, in some (notably Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and most Central Asian countries), elections consistently fall short of international democratic standards, and in some cases, are a farce.   

The OSCE has been involved in election observation throughout the region, including the United States, and represents the “gold standard” in international election observation. Since 1989, the Commission has observed well over 100 elections in the OSCE region – the vast majority of them as members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegations to the larger OSCE-led international observation missions.

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  • Democracy in Albania: the Pace of Progress

    Prior to 1991, Albania was ruled by one of the communist world’s most repressive regimes and was the only country in Europe refusing to participate in the Helsinki process.  In the two decades following, the country made enormous strides to become a democratic state where human rights are respected and to become an active participant in European affairs, and became a member of the NATO Alliance in 2009. Despite this progress, Albania continues to struggle in building its democratic institutions and practices, including respect for the rule of law.  As Albania prepared for parliamentary elections in June 2013, this hearing assessed the degree to which progress has begun to fall short of expectations at home and abroad, and what could be done to accelerate the pace of further reforms related to good governance.

  • Georgia’s Parliamentary Election: How free and fair has the Campaign been, and how should the U.S. Government Respond?

    Georgia’s upcoming election will be a critical moment in the country’s development of democratic governance. An energized opposition coalition has posed the first serious challenge in years to the ruling party. The opposition has accused the government of harassment and skewing the playing field, while the government has denied these allegations and charged opposition with violating campaign laws. The atmosphere of the campaign and contending claims has been unusually heated, with both sides employing lobbyists to make their case in foreign capitals, especially Washington. The focus of the hearing will be on the election’s fairness during the run-up to the vote and vote count, human rights issues connected to the election, and U.S. policy in response. The administration witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Melia, has just returned from leading an interagency delegation to Georgia to assess the pre-election environment.

  • Ukraine's Upcoming Elections: A Pivotal Moment

    This hearing focused on concerns of democratic backsliding in Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych.  In particular, the witnesses and commissioners discussed their concerns with the October 2010 local elections, the March 2012 mayoral elections. The witnesses, including the representative from several different non-governmental organizations working on democratic development in Ukraine, spoke about the impact of corruption, controls over the media and harassment of NGOs on the electoral process.  Evheniya Tymoshenko, the daughter of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, also spoke about her mother’s case.

  • Kazakhstan: As Stable As Its Government Claims?

    This hearing was led by Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and Benjamin L. Cardin following the shooting of protesters by security forces in Kazakhstan. The implication for this was less certainty concerning the stability of Kazakhstan’s repressive government. The hearing examined was whether Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record factored into the country’s instability.

  • The OSCE 2011 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    By Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law Overview From September 26 to October 7, 2011, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights gathering and provides a venue for participating States and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to review the implementation of the full range of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. In 2011, those subjects were: 1) “Democratic elections and electoral observation,” 2) “Freedom of movement,” and 3) “Enhancing implementation of OSCE commitments regarding Roma and Sinti.” U.S. Delegation The U.S. Delegation was headed by Ambassador David Johnson. Other members of the delegation included Ambassador Ian Kelly, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Cynthia Efird, Senior State Department Advisor to the Helsinki Commission; Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Thomas Melia. Helsinki Commission staff participated in all aspects of the delegation’s work. Patrick Merloe, National Democratic Institute, Kathleen Newland, Migration Policy Institute, and Ethel Brooks, Rutgers University, served as Public Members of the delegation, addressing democratic elections, freedom of movement, and the situation of Romani people in the OSCE region respectively. Public Members have traditionally been included in U.S. delegations to OSCE human dimension meetings as a means of bringing special expertise to the U.S. delegations and to promote greater knowledge of the OSCE process in civil society. Highlights of This Year’s Meeting The severe crackdown in Belarus which followed elections last December was a focus of attention throughout the two-week meeting, both in formal sessions and special side events. During the final session, the United States delivered a statement focused on the use of the Moscow Mechanism regarding Belarus -- an OSCE tool used in exceptional circumstances to conduct fact-finding regarding extreme human rights concerns. The mechanism had been invoked in April by 14 participating States and a report was presented to the OSCE Permanent Council by the Mechanism Rapporteur, Professor Emmanuel Decaux, on May 28. NGOs also demonstrated throughout the meeting on behalf of Belarusian political prisoner Alex Bielatskiy. The United States also raised issues which remain unresolved following the 2003 invocation of the Moscow Mechanism regarding Turkmenistan. In particular, Ambassador Johnson drew attention to the continued disappearance of Ambassador Batyr Berdiev, the former representative of Turkmenistan to the OSCE. Although Turkmenistan officials did not to participate in the HDIM, human rights groups concerned with Turkmenistan were present and members of the opposition-in-exile made a statement expressing their willingness to return to Turkmenistan and participate in the February 2012 presidential elections. They also called for the OSCE to conduct a full election observation mission for those elections. In its opening statement, the United States observed that Kazakhstan had failed to fully implement the commitments on domestic reform it had made in 2007 in Madrid upon receiving the Chairmanship for 2010, that leading human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis remained in prison as a result of a trial that lacked due process, that Kazakhstan had adopted measures in a one-party parliament giving the current president continued power and immunity from prosecution for life and had held a poorly-conducted snap presidential election following an attempt to push through a referendum to obviate future elections for the incumbent. Although Kazakhstan protested the U. S. characterization of 2010 as “a year of missed opportunities for reform,” Kazakhstan’s adoption of a new restrictive religion law during the course of the human dimension meeting illustrated the very point the United States was making. In fact, of the topics restricted to three-hour sessions, the subject of religious liberties was the most oversubscribed, with Kazakhstan’s new religion law generating particular criticism. As at previous meetings, the allocation of time during the meeting was highly problematic, with speaking time at some of the sessions limited to only one or two minutes to accommodate dozens desiring the floor, while other sessions ended early with time unused. Other real-time developments during the HDIM also found their way into discussions. Following the outbreak of fighting on September 27 at a Kosovo border crossing with Serbia, Serbian representatives at the meeting engaged in a sharply worded exchange with Albanian officials. (Serbia's engagement at the meeting was of particular note in light of Belgrade's bid to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2014.) The outbreak of anti-Roma rioting in every major Bulgarian town or city during the HDIM underscored the urgency of addressing the chronic human rights problems affecting Roma as well as the acute and escalating crises. Many participants also raised concern regarding continuing human rights abuses against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in the wake of widespread violence last year and in advance of Kyrgyzstani elections in October. During the formal sessions, NGOs demonstrated on behalf of Kyrgyzstani political prisoner Azhimzhon Askarov. The United States engaged fully in all aspects of the meeting, holding bilateral meetings with other OSCE participating States and extensive consultations with NGOs. The United States also organized two side events. The first focused on on the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Professor Louise Teitz from the Hague Permanent Bureau (an intergovernmental organization that administers this and other Hague Conventions), and Corrin Ferber from the Department of State, made presentations, with additional comments provided by Consul General Linda Hoover, U.S. Embassy Warsaw. The second event focused on fundamental freedoms in the digital age. DAS Thomas Melia moderated the discussion, which included comments by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic; Agata Waclik-Wejman, policy counsel for Google; and Nataliya Radzina, a Belarusian journalist who faces a lengthy prison sentence in Belarus. Conclusions The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting served as an important forum for the United States to raise issues of concern, both formally and informally, and to hold extensive consultations with governments, OSCE officials, and representatives of civil society. That said, this year's HDIM was somewhat diminished relative to past meetings. First, member states of the European Union appeared divided or preoccupied (or both). As a consequence, on a number of subjects – for example, the session that included migrant workers, refugees, and displaced persons -- there was neither a coordinated European Union statement nor statements by individual EU member states speaking in their national capacity. This voice was missed. Second, the level of participation on the part of governments as well as civil society was reduced. This may be in part due to economic factors. But it may also reflect other factors. Prior to the HDIM, for example, Belarus and Russia dragged out the adoption of an agenda until the last possible moment, making it especially hard for NGOs to plan their participation. In addition, OSCE has, in recent years, scheduled so many human dimension meetings throughout the year that it is difficult for government and non-governmental experts to cover them all. (In addition to the discussion of tolerance and non-discrimination at the HDIM, those issues have been or will be addressed at three different ad hoc meetings, as well as one of the Supplementary Human Dimension Implementation Meetings.) The Lithuanian Chairmanship also scheduled some meetings in Vienna during the HDIM, although the modalities call for all Vienna meetings to be suspended during the HDIM to facilitate participation by the representatives to the OSCE. Similarly, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly fall meeting overlapped with the final sessions of the HDIM. In fact, the modalities for the OSCE's human dimension activities were a dominant theme during the HDIM's closing session -- presaging the opening of discussions in Vienna on that issue held immediately after the HDIM at the insistence of Belarus. While many governments, including the U.S., believe the way in which the OSCE organizes its human dimension activities could be improved, the discussions themselves risk being held hostage by those countries inimical to the OSCE's human rights work.

  • U.S. Congressman Pledges to Push for ICC Indictment of Belarusian President Lukashenka

    The chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission has pledged to call on the Obama administration to push for the indictment of hard-line Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the chances of an indictment are unlikely, the pledge by Representative Chris Smith (Republican, New Jersey) was a clear sign that U.S. lawmakers have not forgotten the egregious human rights situation in the country ruled by the man some dub "Europe's last dictator." At a Helsinki Commission hearing that focused on Minsk's continuing crackdown on political opposition and civil society, Smith said he would send a letter to members of the Obama administration and the UN Security Council asking them to push for the indictment. In an interview with RFE/RL, he later said, "When you commit atrocities for 17 years, as [Lukashenka] has done, the time has come." "[Although] Belarus is not a signatory to the ICC, to the Rome Statute -- and nor are we, frankly -- we've done this before, and we did it with [President Omar al-] Bashir in Sudan. It will take a lot of work, but we need to begin that effort now to get the [UN] Security Council to make a special referral to begin that process," he said. "I'm sure China and Russia will object, but that's worth the fight, because this man commits atrocities on a daily basis against his own people," Smith added. The congressman made his pledge following the testimony of former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, who is in Washington for the first time since his release from a detention center in Minsk on February 19. Mikhalevich was one of seven opposition candidates and more than 600 people arrested during the regime's violent crackdown on protesters following Lukashenka's disputed reelection in December 2010. The official reaction to demonstrations drew widespread international condemnation and a coordinated sanctions program by Brussels and Washington. The financial and travel restrictions were accompanied by a boost in funding for the country's beleaguered civil society, journalists, and activists. As the one-year anniversary of the election approaches, watchdogs say the jailing and harassment of human rights defenders and protesters continues, while the independent media and judiciary face intense, often institutionalized, pressure. Mikhalevich says he had to sign agreement on collaborating with the Belarusian state security forces, which are still called the KGB, in order to secure his release. He has since been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic. Ahead of meetings with State Department officials and Washington-based NGOs, he told U.S. lawmakers that supporting Belarusian civil society -- and not holding out hope that Lukashenka will reform -- is the only way to effect change. "I'm absolutely sure that Lukashenka is ready to defend his power by all possible means. Unfortunately, we can compare Lukashenka with [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. So I urge the United States, the European Union, and the international community not to trust another game of liberalization badly played by the regime," he said. "Cooperate only with independent civil society in Belarus: nongovernmental organizations, both unregistered and registered, independent newspapers and media, and democratic activists." Analysts say Lukashenka has long employed the tactic of pledging to loosen to grip on the country in exchange for a reprieve from sanctions -- a tactic that has worked in the past. Observers say he has also sought to capitalize on rifts between the United States and the EU, as well as between neighboring Russia and the West, to inhibit united action against his regime. After testifying, Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he hoped the United States would more fully take on the role of "bad cop" if the EU, which borders Belarus and relies on it as a transit country for gas from Russia, hesitates to do so. "I'm absolutely sure than in order to succeed, the international community should have both the good cop and bad cop. Someone should play the role of the bad cop, and unfortunately, the European Union would not play this role. So I hope that the United States will be ready to do it," Mikhalevich said. Mikhalevich also offered a harrowing account of what he called "constant mental and physical torture" during his two months in custody, including being "stripped naked and forced to assume various positions." "Our legs were pulled apart with ropes and we could feel our ligaments tear," Mikhalevich said in his prepared remarks. Smith appeared visibly moved by account. "Rather than calling them the KGB, it ought to be called the KGB 'P' for 'perverts.' Masked men who strip other men naked, and women, presumably, as well -- those are acts of perversion that should not go unnoticed by the international community," said the Congressman. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill sponsored by Smith that would strengthen existing sanctions against Minsk. It is awaiting consideration in the Senate. Smith told RFE/RL that Western attention on the situation in Belarus had been "obscured" to some extent by the events of the Arab Spring, and especially by the global economic downturn. He said that pushing for ICC action would be a sign that human rights are not "taking a back seat." "I've been very much involved for years in the special [UN-backed] court that [U.S. prosecutor] David Crane oversaw for Sierra Leone, and what I learned from that, and from the Rwandan court, and of course from the Yugoslav court, which held [Slobodan] Milosevic and [Ratko] Mladic and [Radovan] Karadzic to account, is that these thugs are frightened by the fact that they may be held to account. And Lukashenka will fear it, I believe, if we make a very serious effort to hold him to account at the International Criminal Court," said Smith. Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he thinks the chances of ICC action against Lukashenka are slim, but that the prospect of such a move could help pressure the regime to release its political prisoners. "I think that definitely, it's very difficult to organize any [such] political process unless thousands of people are being killed, but still, it's necessary to do all attempts," he said. "And you never know how this regime will develop -- and how many victims we will have next year."

  • From Arab Spring to Coptic Winter: Sectarian Violence and the Struggle for Democratic Transition in Egypt

    On Sunday, October 9, 2011, 25 people were killed and more than 300 injured when the Egyptian military attacked a peaceful group of Coptic Christians protesting the burning of a church in Aswan. In what has been deemed the “Massacre at Maspero,” referring to the location of the demonstration, witnesses say the army fired on the demonstrators with live ammunition and plowed into the crowd with armored vehicles. The military denied the use of live ammunition and claimed that their soldiers were attacked by an armed mob. The military has arrested at least 28 people, almost all Copts, including prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, and brought them before military prosecutors. The hearing focused on violence perpetrated against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the implications of the events for that community and the current Egyptian leadership, and prospects for the consolidation of democracy in Egypt.

  • Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change

    Nearly one year after the brutal post-December 19, 2010, election crackdown, the human rights picture in Belarus remains bleak. Brave and committed individuals who attempt to promote a democratic future for Belarus continue to be crushed by the dictatorial Lukashenka regime. Civil society continues to be under assault, with NGOs facing ever greater constraints, and freedoms of assembly and expression are severely curtailed. Yet the ongoing economic turmoil has produced growing disaffection, as manifested in Lukashenka’s plummeting popular support, and a changing domestic and international environment. The hearing will focus on the extent and impact of the crackdown on the lives of its victims and on the larger society, and what more can be done by the U.S. and our European partners to promote democratic change in Belarus.

  • Russia’s Upcoming Elections and the Struggle for Public and Competitive Politics

    Mark Milosch, Chief of Staff of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, spoke on behalf of Congressman Chris Smith to address Russia’s upcoming Duma or parliamentary elections that were scheduled for early December. An evaluation of the potential outcomes of the coming round of Russian elections was presented, with particular concern that the elections would be significantly less free and fair than those of 2007 and 2008. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies for the American Enterprise Institute; Ariel Cohen, Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies for the Heritage Foundation; and Vladimir Kara-Murza, Member of the Federal Political Council of Solidarity – outlined the political, social, and economic contexts in which the elections would take place, and pointed to the role of Vladimir Putin as an influential actor in the elections.  

  • Spotlight on Bosnia – Obstacles to Progress and Recommendations for the International Response

    This briefing addressed how politics in Bosnia are marked by increased nationalist rhetoric, which sometimes threatens the country’s peace, stability and territorial integrity, and the parties’ unwillingness to work constructively with the representatives of the international community, and the difficulties that have been faces since the October 2010 elections. Possible sources of this political impasse and possible course of action for the international community were also examined. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Clifford Bond, former U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Vice President of the American University in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Kurt Bassuener, Senior Associate of the Democratization Policy Council; and Nida Gelazis, Senior Associate of European Studies Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars – provided several recommendations for improving the political situation in Bosnia, including a strong EU presence in the country, an emphasis on economic improvements, and basic reforms to improve the functionality of the Dayton state.

  • Local Elections and Political Instability in Albania

    Mark Milosch and Bob Hand addressed the Albania’s progress as a democracy and the implications of its upcoming local elections. They highlighted the polarization of Albania’s political system and the little respect that exists for the electoral system, as seen by the violence that broke out during Albania’s parliamentary elections earlier that year. Panelists - Jonathan Stonestreet, Robert Benjamin, and Januzs Mugajski - discussed Albania’s long recovery from the Yugoslav conflicts and its status as a NATO ally. They emphasized the importance of political stability in Albania for its successful accession into the European Union and general European integration.   

  • Belarusian Regime Resolutely Dashes Any Hopes for Democratic Liberalization

    By Orest Deychakiwsky, Ronald McNamara, and Josh Shapiro Commission Staff Hints of any democratic progress in Belarus came to a screeching halt on December 19, 2010, in the aftermath of the country’s most recent electoral exercise, the latest in a long line of fundamentally flawed elections. The brutal and bloody election-night crackdown against political opposition supporters, including mass arrests of demonstrators, as well as candidates, who challenged the 16-year rule of Alexander Lukashenka, was unprecedented. Even the prospects of inducements from the EU and others failed to restrain a regime bent on maintaining power. The strong-arm tactics employed on election night, and since, confirm the nature of Lukashenka’s rule – one that perpetuates a pervasive, albeit subtle, climate of fear to squelch dissent. The OSCE Election Observation Mission (EOM) post-election statement, issued on December 20, concluded that “Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments, although some specific improvements were made. Election night was marred by detentions of most presidential candidates, and hundreds of activists, journalists and civil society representatives.” The Helsinki Commission, the U.S. and European governments, as well as Western NGOs, condemned the regime’s violent campaign of repression and called for the release of jailed opposition presidential candidates, hundreds of peaceful protestors, and some two dozen journalists covering the demonstrations. Moreover, cyber police shut down numerous internet and social networking sites. Repressive actions have continued, including raids on opposition party offices, NGOs, individual residences of activists and journalists, and independent media outlets by police and the KGB. Displaying his displeasure with the OSCE’s negative assessment of the elections, Lukashenka refused to extend the expiring mandate of the organization’s office in Minsk, effectively ousting the OSCE. The only other leader to order such an expulsion was Slobodan Milosevic. The development comes as neighboring Lithuania assumes the chairmanship of the Vienna-based 56-nation organization. Helsinki Commission staff were part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s contingent to the EOM, headed by Tony Lloyd, a member of the British Parliament. We observed the balloting and vote count in Minsk and Polotsk, a historic city located 120 miles north of the capital. Our election-day observations were consistent with those of the 450 other OSCE observers representing 44 participating States deployed throughout the country. The voting process was assessed as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in the vast majority of observed polling stations, while the critical vote count was judged as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ in nearly half of the precincts observed, giving fresh currency to an adage attributed to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin: “It is not the votes that count, but who counts the votes.” The vote count in Novopolotsk was decidedly non-transparent as both international and domestic observers (virtually all of the latter appeared to be so-called GONGOs, or government organized non-governmental organizations) were kept far enough away from the table on which the votes were being counted, making it impossible to see how the ballots were marked. When queried several times by Commission staff as to the reason, the precinct chairman politely insisted that it was a decision that he and other members of the election commission had made on the pretext of preventing observers from “interfering” in the counting process. Meanwhile, at a polling station in Minsk, staff were allowed closer access to the vote count, though were prevented from seeing what was written on each ballot. With an ambiguous way of counting votes, those in attendance had little clue as to how the chairman of the election commission counted ballots. An outspoken domestic observer was subsequently voted out of the polling station by election commissioners because he was a “nuisance to the vote count.” While the run-up to the election had shown some procedural improvements and an easing of restrictions on normal political activity, the electoral machinery at every level remained firmly under the regime’s control. There were greater opportunities than in previous elections for candidates to speak on live television, and candidates were for the most part able to more freely meet with voters. This, however, did not translate into a level playing field for all candidates as the state-controlled media disproportionately favored Lukashenka. Very telling was the fact that only 0.26 percent of all precinct electoral commission members and 0.70 percent of territorial election commission members were from opposition political parties. Clearly, even the limited improvements did not lead to a free and fair outcome, with only the margin of Lukashenka’s victory to be announced. A December 20 statement issued by the White House, citing the critical OSCE assessment, stressed: “The United States cannot accept as legitimate the results of the presidential election announced by the Belarusian Central Election Commission” issued earlier the day. Even regime-sponsored exit polls contradicted the official CEC results, giving a lower percentage of the vote to Lukashenka and higher percentages to Andrei Sannikau and Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, the leading opposition candidates who were victims of violence by the authorities and remain incarcerated along with several other contenders. Independent pollsters and analysts also gave Lukashenka far less of the vote than the nearly 80 percent he officially garnered, with some giving him less than the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a second round against a single opposition candidate. Given the unconscionable crackdown and fraudulent elections, hopes and expectations for even limited progress with respect to democracy and human rights have been thwarted. Through his repressive and undemocratic actions, Lukashenka has shown that he will not tolerate meaningful reform and that he will do whatever it takes to maintain absolute power. This overarching imperative clearly trumps improved relations with the United States and especially the European Union which were in the offing prior to election day, and could have resulted in badly needed financial assistance. In a rambling two-and-a-half hour televised press conference the day after the election, Lukashenka belittled what he termed “mindless democracy” while boldly declaring his lack of fear. Despite his bravado, clearly the Belarusian leader fears the prospect of submitting to a vote in a genuinely free and fair electoral contest. Against the backdrop of a decade of rigged presidential and parliamentary elections and an illegal referendum, Belarus is regrettably no closer to restoring legitimacy to executive and legislative structures, and the prospects for meaningful change appear remote. To the detriment of the Belarusian people, the Lukashenka regime has, yet again, chosen the path of self-imposed isolation.

  • Parliamentary Elections in Kyrgyzstan Set the Stage for a New Political System; Ethnic Tensions Remain a Key Obstacle to Stability

    By Janice Helwig and Shelly Han The OSCE concluded that although the October 10, 2010 elections in Kyrgyzstan were conducted peacefully – no small feat following the April 2010 revolution – and demonstrated a significant increase in pluralism as compared to previous elections, there remains an “urgent need for profound electoral legal reform.” Two Helsinki Commission staff members traveled to Kyrgyzstan to observe the election as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation and were deployed in the Osh and Kara-suu region. Although the staff experience was not inconsistent with the overall OSCE conclusion, Osh and the surrounding region appear to have had more problems during the election than other areas of the country. In June, the constitution had been changed through a referendum to give the parliament a stronger role than the President. The improvement in the conduct of the election may have been partly a result of that change in that, because of the new parliamentary system and the relatively large number of parties competing, no one party or group could manipulate the election nationwide (which appeared to have been the case in the 2009 presidential elections). In fact, the close result which divided parliamentary seats among several main parties was a good indicator of an open competition. Nevertheless, there were some problems at the local level, where there may have been attempts to influence the outcome. In the Osh and Kara-suu region, there appeared to be problems particularly with the voters list, the inking process, and the counting process. For example, in almost all the polling visited by Commission staff, about a third of those who had voted had added themselves to the additional list with just their ID. Other international observers reported similar findings. This would indicate that either the main voters list was extremely inaccurate, or something more problematic may have been going on. In one polling station, a man tried to add himself to the additional list but was turned down while the staff was present; he clearly was not satisfied and went back in to try again as they left. Another international observer in the neighboring Uzgen area reported the same pattern, but, suspiciously, only in polling stations easily accessible from the main road. According to the election law, the registration of any voter on the additional list should have been counterchecked and signed by an adviser or observer in the polling station, but that did not happen during the day. At the closing in one polling station, the Chairwoman had a colleague counter sign all 225 additions to the list. The inking procedure also appeared to be a problem. In theory, anyone adding themselves to the additional list should not have been able to vote anywhere else because of the use of invisible ink sprayed on each voter’s thumb. However, spraying and checking for ink in the polling stations appeared to be haphazardly conducted. Domestic observers had to stay in their chairs across the room and could not see whether the ink checker was effective. Moreover, when Commission staff asked people who had been inked earlier it the day to put their thumb under the light, little or no ink was visible. The ink seemed not to work all of the time, or perhaps to have washed off easily. There also were significant problems in processing protocols during the counting process in the Kara-suu district. At the district counting station, the halls and stairways were lined with polling station chairpersons busily erasing and refilling in their protocols. Protocols and stamps were strewn around everywhere. It may have been that the chairpersons were simply trying to get their numbers to add up properly so they would be accepted by Shailoo, the computerized vote-counting system. On the other hand, the numbers also could have been in the process of being changed to influence the outcome. Regardless of intent, last minute changes to protocols made unilaterally by chairpersons should not have been allowed as no observers were present and there were no controls in place to prevent fraud. Official turnout figures said that Osh had the highest voter turnout in the country, at about sixty-six percent. However, Commission staff did not see polling stations with a turnout higher than forty-five percent, nor did other international observers in the area. Interestingly, the turnout in ethnic Uzbek areas appeared to be about the same as in ethnic Kyrgyz areas. Many ethnic Uzbeks said they were “voting for peace,” although it was not clear whether that meant that moving forward with any new parliament would be positive, or if it meant that voting for a certain party would benefit ethnic Uzbeks. Some ethnic Uzbek community leaders had said prior to election day that most political parties had offered their communities money and/or infrastructure improvements in exchange for their votes. Ethnic tensions remain a concern Prior to election day, Commission staff were able to visit several of the Osh neighborhoods destroyed in the June violence, as well as one tent camp. The scale and scope of the destruction in ethnic Uzbek areas was enormous. And in mixed neighborhoods – for example near Shark – the house-by-house, business-by-business singling out of Uzbek-owned structures for destruction was clear. All of the victims staff spoke with appeared to be still afraid and did not see any future in Kyrgyzstan. All wanted to leave but did not have the means to do so. None wanted to go to Uzbekistan; rather they wanted to go to Russia or anywhere else where they might find economic opportunities. While rebuilding of homes was clearly progressing, the question of earning a living in the long term was an overwhelming concern. The divide between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz is wide and seems to be growing. Many ethnic Kyrgyz seem to genuinely believe that ethnic Uzbeks were responsible for the violence, and even burned down their own houses in an effort to get international attention. Kyrgyz media and the government seem to be reinforcing this message. If the region is to move forward and avoid future violence, there needs to be some mechanism for accountability and reconciliation. However, so far only ethnic Uzbeks have been arrested and put on trial, and the trials appear to have been unfairly conducted. Ethnic Uzbek defendants have been routinely attacked by ethnic Kyrgyz mobs during the trials, as have media representatives trying to report on the proceedings. In general, journalists and human rights defenders fear retaliation if they report on abuses against ethnic Uzbeks; as a result, there have been few voices speaking out. Standing in the ruins of his home, a man shows Commission staff the photo of his sister, who was killed during the violence in June. This ethnic divide is likely to fester unless something is done to build confidence between the main ethnic groups and provide economic opportunities for all. Moreover, disenfranchised youth could be vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations. The new government will face many challenges, not least addressing continuing ethnic tension in the south. 

  • The Western Balkans: Developments in 2010 and Hopes for the Future

    This hearing focused on the Western Balkans: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The witnesses commended the enormous progress that the region has made in the 15 years since the Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian conflict and in the decade since Milosevic was ousted in Belgrade. The hearing discussed E.U. visa liberalization and U.S. democracy-building assistance programs to support further progress in the region. The Commissioners proposed that the U.S. government prioritize continuing the democratization effort in the Balkans.

  • OSCE 2010 Informal Ministerial: Kazakhstan Persistence Earns a Summit in Astana

    By Winsome Packer Policy Advisor Kazakhstan hosted its long-sought OSCE Informal Ministerial in Almaty July 16-17, 2010, the realization of a key aim of its Chairmanship. A second important objective of the Kazakh Chairmanship: a summit on Kazakh soil during 2010, came closer to realization during the meeting. An Astana Summit would be the OSCE’s first since the 1999 Istanbul Summit, which yielded the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces Treaty. Early and persistent calls for “substance before summit” by the U.S. Delegation and other participating States had put in doubt both the informal ministerial and the summit for months. However, a number of the participating States argued for the high level attention to wide-spread security challenges in the OSCE region and the erosion of OSCE values in some quarters. Ten years after the last OSCE summit, they argued, necessitated a meeting of heads of states and governments to reaffirm the participating States’ commitment to the organization’s values and agree on a way forward to tackle the challenges confronting the region today. Thus, six months of, at times, heated informal Corfu dialogue on security challenges in the OSCE region, which was mandated by the Athens Ministerial Declaration, yielded more than 50 “food for thought” papers from the participating States, the Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Secretariat, the Partners for Cooperation, think tanks and non-governmental organizations. The thematic papers evolved into an Interim Report during June, which incorporated the proposals submitted within the Corfu Process. It formed the basis for the agenda at the Almaty Informal Ministerial and for the Summit which will be held in Astana December 1-2, 2010. The Almaty Informal Ministerial saw the participation of more than forty foreign ministers, including from the Russian Federation, France, Germany, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Georgia, Turkey, Austria, and Ukraine. The Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation included President Petros Efthymiou, and Secretary General Spencer Oliver. The U.S. delegation was headed by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg who, in a bilateral meeting with the Kazakhstanis on July 16, affirmed U.S. support for an OSCE summit this year. The joining of consensus on the summit decision by the United States elicited private expressions of relief from many delegates, and heightened expectations for the summit which would reflect the outcome of the Corfu Process: a declaration and an action plan. The Chair-in-Office requested that the OSCE delegations work toward these aims throughout the summer. During the meeting, delegates voiced support for the summit, to be held in Astana. A majority of the participating States urged OSCE support for Kyrgyzstan, in particular, through the deployment of a police mission. The United States and many delegates stated that the substance of the summit should be based upon the four proposals put forward by the European Union to: (1) bolster the OSCE’s capabilities in all three dimensions to promote early warning, conflict prevention and resolution, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation, including in relation to the protracted conflicts; (2) strengthen implementation and follow-up of OSCE norms, principles and commitments in particular, human dimension commitments covering human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the media; (3) enhance the conventional arms control framework, including confidence and security building measures, through updating the 1999 Vienna Document and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty); and (4) increase attention to transnational threats in all three OSCE dimensions. Some delegates also called for a summit to: focus on instability in Afghanistan; intensify efforts to resolve protracted conflicts in the region, and address nuclear terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction. The United States called for greater military transparency, implementation of human dimension commitments and addressing inter-ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. delegation also expressed support for the expeditous deployment of a police force to Kyrgyzstan and for an action plan for the future work of the participating States. In addition to supporting the European Union’s four summit process proposals, the United States also expressed support for a focus on Afghanistan. A Chair’s Perception Paper, resulting from the informal ministerial, incorporated these concerns. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia’s support for the summit “this year.” He urged the involvement of other regional and sub-regional leaders in addressing the Kyrgyzstan situation. He expressed hope that action would be taken on Russia’s proposal for a European Security Treaty (EST) and that it would not merely remain a “subject for discussion.” Lavrov said that the summit document should reflect the post Cold War situation and the security system that emerges should be “free of dividing lines.” He said that Russia was studying NATO’s response to the EST proposal and underlined that the summit should give strong, political impetus for supporting Kyrgyzstan. Concurrent with the Informal Ministerial, draft decisions on the holding of an OSCE summit during 2010 and draft decisions on the agenda and modalities of the summit and agenda and modalities for a review conference were circulated. The review conference would be held in Vienna, Warsaw, and Astana. Negotiations on the draft decisions began on July 19.

  • Copenhagen Anniversary Conference

    By Orest Deychakiwsky, Policy Advisor Representatives from a majority of the 56 OSCE participating States and several dozen non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gathered in Copenhagen on June 10-11 to mark the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the 1990 Copenhagen Document and to assess implementation of key provisions of that landmark document. The anniversary conference, titled “20 years of the OSCE Copenhagen Document: Status and Future Perspectives,” was co-organized by the Kazakhstani OSCE Chairmanship and Denmark, and held at the Eigtveds Pakhus, Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Michael Haltzel led the U.S. delegation, which was joined by U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Ian Kelly and representatives from the OSCE Mission in Vienna, the State Department and the Helsinki Commission. Five substantive working sessions, reflecting some of the major themes of the groundbreaking Copenhagen Document, were held: Democratic processes – elections and human rights; Rule of Law; National Minorities; Freedom of Movement; and Measures to improve implementation of the human dimension commitments. Many speakers highlighted the historic importance of the Copenhagen Document, which offered a blueprint for pluralistic democratic development, rooted in the rule of law and protection of human rights, throughout the OSCE region – a revolutionary document at the time and one that remains highly relevant two decades later. The June 1990 Copenhagen Meeting came at a unique time in history when dramatic changes were taking place; the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of one-party regimes in Eastern Europe had taken place only months earlier. And the following year – 1991 -- witnessed the emergence of 15 independent states with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Truly, those were dynamic days during which sweeping new commitments -- which would have been impossible to garner consensus for years or even months prior -- received universal support. Indeed, it is questionable as to whether consensus to the Copenhagen agreement would be found today, given the democratic and human rights backsliding that has occurred in a number of participating States. The Copenhagen Document underlines the centrality of political pluralism, civil society and human rights as fundamental elements of functioning democracies. As Ambassador Max Kampelman, the head of the U.S. delegation to the 1990 conference summed it up, “In effect, the Copenhagen document represents the first formal proclamation, by the States themselves, of a Europe both whole and free.” It identified the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government and acknowledged that democracy is an inherent element of the rule of law. Among the achievements of the Copenhagen Document were the far-reaching commitments on democratic elections which laid the groundwork for the OSCE’s future activities with respect to election observation. Copenhagen also represented a significant step forward with respect to the protection of minorities, and for the first time there was a direct reference to Roma and to anti-Semitism. While participants at the anniversary meeting underscored the significant progress over the last 20 years, many also called for fuller compliance with the Copenhagen commitments, noting, for instance, backsliding in holding democratic elections in some participating States; suppression of civil society, including independent media, NGOs and human rights defenders; the deficit of impartial and independent justice; and the lack of separation of powers – especially the concentration of power in the executive. The last session of the conference discussed measures to improve implementation of human dimension commitments, including the prevention of human rights violations through the use of reporting before the violations occur; enhancement of standards and commitments; strengthened monitoring mechanisms, including a U.S. proposal to dispatch special representatives to investigate reports of egregious human rights violations and make corrective recommendations before the violations become entrenched; and improved cooperation with, and involvement of, civil society actors in advancing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Ultimately, however, compliance with existing standards enshrined in the Copenhagen Document, the Helsinki Final Act and all other OSCE commitments remains the primary responsibility of the participating State.

  • OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Session in Oslo

    Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I want to report on the activities of a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation I had the privilege to lead last week as chairman of the Helsinki Commission. The purpose of the trip was to represent the United States at the 19th Annual Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, otherwise known as the OSCE PA. The annual session this year was held in Oslo, Norway, and the U.S. delegation participated fully in the assembly's standing committee, the plenary sessions, the three general committees and numerous side events that included discussion of integration in multiethnic societies and addressing gender imbalances in society.  Although some last-minute developments at home compelled him to remain behind, our colleague from the other Chamber, Mr. Alcee Hastings of Florida, was present in spirit as the deputy head of the delegation. Mr. Hastings, who co-chairs the Helsinki Commission, was very active in the preparations for the trip, and his legacy of leadership in the OSCE PA--for over a decade--is tangible in the respect and goodwill afforded the United States during the proceedings.  Our assistant majority leader, Mr. Durbin of Illinois, joined me on the trip, as he did last year. Our colleague from New Mexico who serves as a fellow Helsinki Commissioner, Mr. Udall, also participated. Helsinki Commissioners from the other Chamber who were on the delegation include Mr. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, serving as the ranking member of the delegation, as well as Mrs. Louise McIntosh Slaughter of New York, and Mr. Robert Aderholt of Alabama. Although not a member of the Helsinki Commission, Mr. Lloyd Doggett of Texas has a longstanding interest in OSCE-related issues and also participated on the delegation.  As many of you know, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of over 300 Parliamentarians from virtually every country in Europe, including the Caucasus, as well as from Central Asia, and the United States, and Canada. The annual sessions are held in late June/early July as the chief venue for debating issues of the day and issuing a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development and the rule of law; economic cooperation and environmental protection; and confidence building and security among the participating states and globally.  This active congressional participation helps ensure that matters of interest to the United States are raised and discussed. Robust U.S. engagement has been the hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago.  The theme for this year's annual session was ``Rule of Law: Combating Transnational Crime and Corruption.'' In addition to resolutions for each of the three general committees, delegations introduced a total of 35 additional resolutions for consideration, a record number, including 4 by the United States dealing with:  Nuclear security , which followed up directly on the Nuclear Summit here in Washington in April;  The protection of investigative journalists, a critical human rights issue as those who seek to expose corruption are targeted for harassment or worse;  Mediterranean cooperation, building on the OSCE partnerships to engage important countries in North Africa and the Middle East; and  Combating the demand for human trafficking and electronic forms of exploitation, a longstanding Helsinki Commission issue requiring persistence and targeted action.  U.S. drafts on these relevant, important topics received widespread support and were adopted with few if any amendments.  Beyond these resolutions, the United States delegation also undertook initiatives in the form of packages of amendments to other resolutions. These initiatives addressed:  The needs of the people of Afghanistan in light of the smuggling and other criminal activity which takes place there. The struggle for recovery stability and human rights in Kyrgyzstan, which is an OSCE state in the midst of crisis. And  Manifestations of racism and xenophobia that have become particularly prevalent in contemporary Europe. A critical U.S. amendment allowed us generally to support a French resolution that usefully addressed issues relating to the closure of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. Still other amendments coming from specific members of the U.S. Delegation covered a wide range of political, environmental and social issues relevant to policymakers. My colleagues and I were also active in the successful countering of amendments that would have steered resolutions on the Middle East and on the future of the OSCE multilateral diplomatic process in directions contrary to U.S. policy.  Beyond the consideration of the resolutions which now comprise the Oslo Declaration, the annual session also handled some important affairs for the OSCE PA itself. These, too, had relevance for U.S. policy interests:  the American serving as OSCE PA Secretary General, Spencer Oliver, was reappointed to a new 5-year term; a modest--and for the third fiscal year in a row--frozen OSCE PA budget of about $3 1/2 million was approved that requires continued and unparalleled efficiency in organizing additional conferences, election observation missions, and various other activities that keep the Parliamentary Assembly prominently engaged in European and Central Asian affairs;  in addition to my continued tenure as a vice president in the Parliamentary Assembly, Mr. Aderholt of Alabama was reelected as the vice chair of the general committee dealing with democracy, human rights, and humanitarian questions which ensures strong U.S. representation in OSCE PA decision-making; and a Greek parliamentary leader defeated a prominent Canadian senator in the election of a new OSCE PA president, following a vigorous but friendly campaign that encouraged the assembly to take a fresh look at itself and establish a clearer vision for its future.  While the congressional delegation's work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, we tried to use our presence in Europe to advance U.S. interests and express U.S. concerns more broadly. The meeting took place in Norway, a very close friend and strong, long-time ally of the United States of America. In discussions with Norwegian officials, we expressed our sorrow over the recent deaths of Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan. We also shared our concerns about climate change and particularly the impact global warming has on polar regions  Indeed, on our return we made a well-received stop on the archipelago of Svalbard, well north of the Arctic Circle, to learn more about the impact firsthand, from changing commercial shipping lanes to relocated fisheries to ecological imbalance that make far northern flora and fauna increasingly vulnerable. The delegation also visited the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a facility that preserves more than 525,000 types of seeds from all over the world as a safeguard for future crop diversity, and took the opportunity to donate additional U.S. seeds to the collection.  Norway is located close to a newer, but also very strong, ally with close ties to the United States, Estonia. Since last year's delegation to the OSCE PA Annual Session went to Lithuania and included Latvia as a side trip, I believed it was important to utilize the opportunity of returning to northern Europe to visit this Baltic state as well.  While some remained in Oslo to represent the United States, others traveled to Tallinn, where we had meetings with the President, Prime Minister, and other senior government officials, visited the NATO Cooperative Cyber-Defense Center of Excellence and were briefed on electronic networking systems that make parliament and government more transparent, efficient and accessible to the citizen. Estonia has come a long way since it reestablished its independence from the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago, making the visit quite rewarding for those of us on the Helsinki Commission who tried to keep a spotlight on the Baltic States during the dark days of the Cold War.  During the course of the meeting, the U.S. delegation also had bilateral meetings with the delegation of the Russian Federation and a visiting delegation from Kyrgyzstan to discuss issues of mutual concern and interest.  U.S. engagement in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly sends a clear message to those who are our friends and to those who are not that we will defend U.S. interests and advance the causes of peace and prosperity around the world.

  • Global Threats, European Security and Parliamentary Cooperation

    From nuclear security to climate change, global terrorism to anti-corruption efforts, this hearing examined what parliamentarians can do to work together on some of the most significant challenges facing the world. Members addressed European and Central Asian security concerns, including unresolved conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere, and considered how international parliaments can cooperate to address challenges related to trafficking, tolerance, and democratic development, including elections and media freedom.

  • Ukraine: Moving Beyond Stalemate

    This hearing examined how the U.S. can best continue to encourage and assist Ukraine in developing democracy, rule of law, and a market economy.   The panel also discussed Ukraine’s relationships with its neighbors, the United States, and European states and organizations. The panel of witnesses explored the democratic developments and progress since the Orange revolution and U.S. policy implications of Ukraine’s interest in further integration with Europe.

  • U.S. Helsinki Group Slams Baku Court's Refusal of Bloggers' Appeal

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission has criticized a Baku court's rejection of appeals by two Azerbaijani bloggers against their prison sentences, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports. Emin Milli was sentenced in November to 2 1/2 years in prison and Adnan Hajizade to two years on charges of hooliganism arising from what the commission chairmen said "appeared to be a crude, government-arranged incident at a restaurant" in July 2009. Both bloggers were well-known for their satirical comments on Azerbaijani government policy. The Baku court rejected their appeal on March 10. Both men, and a number of rights groups, have insisted the incident behind the jailing was a provocation and the motives connected to their very public criticism of the government. Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), the U.S. Helsinki Commission chairman, said the bloggers' case "is the latest in a long series of setbacks for independent journalism and civil society in Azerbaijan." Commission Co-Chair Congressman Alcee Hastings (Democrat, Florida), said it "illustrates the lack of independence of Azerbaijan's judicial system." Congressman Robert Aderholt (Republican, Alabama) said the bloggers' conviction "seems to indicate a determination to stifle dissent before the parliamentary election later this year." The U.S. Helsinki Commission wrote in December to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressing concern about the convictions and calling for a fair appeal process. Azerbaijani authorities did not reply to that letter.

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