On October 21, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which is tasked with promoting human rights, democracy, and economic cooperation around the world, held a hearing to examine flagrant violations of the rule of law in Russia. Four witnesses gave testimony at the hearing, including Open Russia coordinator Vladimir Kara-Murza, about issues including political prisoners and the Kremlin’s confiscation of assets from Yukos Oil.


Open Russia coordinator Vladimir Kara-Murza speaking about human rights abuses perpetrated by the Russian government at a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on October 21.


The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, held a hearing on October 21 to examine violations of the rule of law in Russia. The commission heard testimony from a panel of four witnesses: Vladimir Kara-Murza, coordinator of the Open Russia organization; Ambassador Alan Larson, former U.S. under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs; Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the former holding company of Yukos Oil; and Stephen Rademaker, former assistant secretary of state for arms control and international security and nonproliferation. Testimony by the panelists focused on three elements of security policy established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security, economic and environmental security, and human rights and fundamental freedoms.


Breaking Helsinki Principles

Helsinki Commission chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ) opened the hearing together with co-chairman Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Smith read a statement in which he questioned Russia’s commitment to the rule of law. “The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails,” Smith said. “Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act.”

Smith argued that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbass region of Ukraine violated “every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act,” the agreement between Western powers and the Communist bloc that laid the foundation for the OSCE. Smith said that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were not isolated instances: he said Russia had violated binding arms-control agreements, and he questioned the country’s “OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms.” Russia has also committed flagrant violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, Smith said, including the unlawful harassment and imprisonment of innocent people.


Human Rights Violations

Kara-Murza focused his testimony on human rights issues, saying that Russia had “treat[ed] the human rights commitments undertaken under the Helsinki process as a dead letter” in recent years. According to Kara-Murza, the current situation in Russia is similar in several key ways to the conditions seen in the Soviet Union in 1975. One obvious similarity, he said, is the current Russian government’s infringement on the freedom of expression, which is guaranteed under the Copenhagen Document and other OSCE statutes.

Kara-Murza also addressed the Kremlin's control of the country’s television networks, which he said have been “turned into transmitters for [state] propaganda.” Another OSCE principle that remains out of reach for Russian citizens, he said, is the right to free and fair elections: the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago, in March 2000. Since that time, numerous cases of fraud and unequal treatment of candidates and political parties have been reported in every major election across the country.

The Kremlin’s political opponents are not only barred from competing in elections—they are also frequently put in prison, Kara-Murza said. According to human rights organization Memorial, there are currently 50 political prisoners in Russia, including Oleg Navalny, the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; Alexei Pichugin, “the remaining hostage of the Yukos case”; and opposition activists jailed as part of the Bolotnaya case. Kara-Murza also mentioned the prominent cases of fighter pilot Nadia Savchenko and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, both Ukrainians jailed by Russia amid the conflict between the two countries in the Donbass.

Despite certain similarities between the Putin regime and Soviet government, some of their characteristics are quite different, Kara-Murza said. “Brezhnev, Suslov, Andropov, and the like did not have bank accounts in the West,” he explained. “They did not send their kids to study in the West. They did not buy yachts and villas in the West. The leaders of the current regime do all that. They want to rule over Russia in the manner of Zimbabwe or Belarus, but [at the same time] enjoy all the privileges that the free world has to offer.”

Kara-Murza said the Russian people must work to improve the country’s adherence to the rule of law, but that “[i]t is important that fellow member states, including the United States, remain focused on Russia’s OSCE commitments.” He called on the U.S. to implement the Magnitsky Act “to its full extent and going after high-profile violators,” arguing that the legislation is effective at curbing human rights abuses in Russia.


Arms Control Rollbacks

Stephen Rademaker focused his testimony on military security issues, particularly Russia’s compliance with five arms control agreements. According to Rademaker, the Russian government has violated or disregarded the provisions of the agreements in one or more instances:

(1) The Budapest Memorandum (1994). Russia's annexation of Crimea violated its commitment to respect the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine enshrined in the Budapest Memorandum, Rademaker said. The memorandum stipulated that Ukraine give up its nuclear arsenal—the third-largest in the world at the time the agreement was signed—in exchange for security assurances from world powers, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. The signees committed to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

(2) Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (1990). Rademaker said Russia had became “increasingly uncomfortable” with the treaty over the course of the 1990s, and President Vladimir Putin told the treaty’s fellow signees in 2007 that Russia was suspending its implementation of the agreement. In March 2015, Russia announced that it was formally halting its participation in the treaty, citing alleged violations by NATO.

(3) Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987). Signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987, the treaty banned all U.S. and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Rademaker said Russia had grown dissatisfied with the terms of the treaty over the years and currently does not comply with its obligations, according to the U.S. State Department.

(4) Treaty on Open Skies (1992). According to Rademaker, Russia complies with this treaty, which established a program of regular unarmed surveillance flights for participants, but it has “adopted a number of measures that are inconsistent” with it.

(5) The Vienna Document (1990). Rademaker said Russia has been selective in its implementation of the Vienna Document, which is a set of regularly updated security- and confidence-building measures in force throughout the OSCE “zone of application,” which includes all the territory of participating European and Central Asian nations and the area west of the Ural Mountains in Russia. The periodic failure by Moscow to comply with the treaty has resulted in a loss of transparency about the country’s military activities, Rademaker said.


Yukos and Economic Security

Tim Osborne testified about the economic dimension of the Helsinki process, using the situation surrounding Yukos Oil Co. as a case study. Osborne said the Russian government “clearly demonstrated its attitude to international legal obligations and the rule of law” in the Yukos case, which resulted in Russian state oil company Rosneft acquiring most of Yukos’s assets and former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky being imprisoned on fabricated charges until 2013. According to Osborne, Russia “is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process.”

The Yukos affair resulted in two multi-billion-dollar law suits, one brought by former Yukos shareholders at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and the other brought by former managers of Yukos at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The Hague court ruled that Russia had violated the Energy Charter Treaty and ordered the government to pay $50 billion for seizing Yukos assets. Russia has refused to pay the damages, leading Yukos shareholders to ask several countries to enforce the decision by seizing Russian assets. Russia has also refused to comply with a ruling of the ECHR that awarded Yukos shareholders 1.9 billion euros ($2.6 billion). According to Osborne, Russia has said it has no plan in place to compensate Yukos shareholders. “Russia cannot be trusted in international matters, and even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best,” Osborne said.

Ambassador Alan Larson said Russia had engaged in the “uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company. American investors, who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation, have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law.”


Policy Responses

Larson also argued that Russia had not adhered to the Helsinki framework in recent years and failed to respect the rule of law. In light of Russia’s behavior, Larson recommended that Congress and the White House take the following steps:

  • Recognize that respect for the rule of law is a strategic objective that lies at the heart of the security, economic, and commercial dimensions of the Helsinki framework.
  • Ensure that Russia is held accountable for its actions in Ukraine, including its occupation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine.
  • Pressure Russia to implement the rule of law principles for business as stipulated in Section 202 of the Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) bill before Congress.
  • Make clear that American shareholders in Yukos Oil must be fully compensated.
  • Seriously engage Russia on the anti-corruption agenda.
  • Strongly urge the Kremlin to open up more political space for civil society to operate in Russia.
  • Maintain a common approach with the European Union and other allies on sanctions related to Ukraine.
  • Demonstrate that the United States is seriously committed to leading by example.

At the hearing’s conclusion, Rep. Smith said that members of the commission were prepared to address the discussed issues and to mobilize other members of the House, the Senate, and the Obama Administration. The commission plans to hold a second hearing on related topics in the near future.

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