Warsaw Human Dimension Conference Plenary Session 1: Democratic Institutions

Warsaw Human Dimension Conference Plenary Session 1: Democratic Institutions

Democracy at the National, Regional and Local Levels; Equal Participation in Political and Public Life

As prepared for delivery by Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, Head of Delegation
 Warsaw, October 3, 2023

The United States is working to strengthen democracy at home and abroad. As President Biden said, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” At the first Summit for Democracy in 2021, President Biden launched the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which continues to defend free and fair elections, fight corruption, and strengthen the building blocks of democracy globally, such as media freedom and civil society. We are also working domestically to improve our democracy. We are engaged in an ongoing endeavour to form a more perfect union that allows us to fix our flaws and renew our democracy from within. We do not hide our shortcomings or seek to silence those who expose them. We address them head-on. We believe the answer to improving democracy is more democracy, not less. We welcome OSCE scrutiny of our elections as we urge other participating States to open theirs to similar observation.

In contrast, the Russian Federation’s conduct at home and abroad stands in flagrant contravention of its OSCE commitments on democracy.

Russia interferes in elections and continues active measures against participating States to discredit democracy by sowing doubts about democratic processes and institutions.

In September, the Russian Federation staged sham “elections” in occupied areas of Ukraine concurrently with regional elections throughout Russia’s internationally recognized territory. This farce comes nearly one year after Russia’s sham referenda and purported annexation of Ukraine’s Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Luhansk, and Donetsk oblasts. These sham “elections” are a blatant propaganda exercise that Russia has used repeatedly to obscure its imperial ambitions, including in occupied Crimea as well as occupied parts of Georgia. The outcome was pre-determined and manipulated. Russia’s actions demonstrate blatant disregard for the principles of state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence enshrined in the UN Charter and Helsinki Final Act and that underpin international security and stability. The United States will never recognize Russia’s claims to any of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. We unequivocally condemn Russia’s continued occupation of parts of Ukraine. And we will never recognize the results of blatantly fake electoral processes as legitimate.

The Russian government for years has targeted members of the political opposition and others who peacefully exercise their civil and political rights with intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, poisoning, and even assassination, both at home and through acts of transnational repression. Russian authorities have prosecuted independent politicians, members of political parties, and civil society groups using an ever-growing list of vague and spurious charges, such as being “extremist,” “undesirable,” a “foreign agent,” or for “discrediting the military.” Leading pro-democracy opposition figures, including Aleksey Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Ilya Yashin, are serving lengthy prison terms following politically motivated convictions. After declaring the independent Russian election monitoring organization Golos a “foreign agent” in 2021, in August authorities arrested one of its leaders, Grigory Melkonyants, and raided the organization’s offices. According to independent election monitors, September regional elections held on Russia’s internationally recognized territory were marred by widespread irregularities and an environment of censorship and suppression of dissent.

In Belarus, since the fraudulent 2020 presidential election, the Lukashenka regime has ruled in contempt of the will of its citizens and, as a consequence, has become more dependent on its Kremlin puppet masters to the detriment of Belarus’s sovereignty. Belarusian authorities have engaged in a widescale campaign to thwart the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people and silence all independent voices. The May 2023 Moscow Mechanism Expert Mission Report found that the adoption and implementation of laws and other measures by the Lukashenka regime were designed to deprive Belarus’s people of their enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties, and that, taken together, they constitute “a politically motivated repression of Belarus’s people.” In August, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front Party and the United Civil Party. Earlier this year, the court shuttered the Conservative Christian Party and authorities forced the closure of another four parties. Imprisoned democratic opposition leaders Syarhey Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka, and Maria Kalesnikava are only a few of the over 1,500 political prisoners serving draconian sentences, while at least 100,000 others have been forced into exile for their safety.

The United States concurs with the OSCE’s assessment that Turkiye’s May national elections offered voters a genuine choice between political alternatives and featured high turnout, albeit in an atmosphere that gave ruling party candidates an unfair advantage. We remain concerned by Turkish authorities’ ongoing restrictions on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of political oppositionists, most notably the ongoing detention of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas and the prosecution of dozens of other politicians from his political party. We call on Turkiye to cease these politically motivated prosecutions.

Following Bosnia and Herzegovina’s “well organized and competitive” general elections in October, we urge Bosnia’s political leadership to repudiate the troubling rise in ethno-nationalism in national politics and to overturn ethnicity and residency-based restrictions on the right to stand as a candidate that, according to the OSCE, “continued to challenge the principles of universal and equal suffrage.”

The United States agrees with the OSCE’s assessment of Kazakhstan’s 2022 presidential election and March 2023 parliamentary election, including its observation that “further changes to the legal framework are needed to provide a sufficient basis for conducting democratic elections.” During these recent elections, the OSCE observed a lack of political competitiveness, as well as procedural irregularities and disregard for important safeguards during counting and tabulation that undermined transparency.

In Uzbekistan, the United States agrees with the OSCE assessment that the early presidential election “took place in a political environment lacking genuine competition.” Uzbekistan should work to address irregularities, including “large numbers of voters added to supplementary voter lists without proper safeguards,” “indications of ballot box stuffing as well as numerous observations of seemingly identical signatures on the voter lists,” and procedural errors during the tabulation process.

In its needs assessment for Turkmenistan’s parliamentary elections in March, ODIHR concluded that authorities have not implemented recommendations “including those related to freedom of the media and speech, access to information, the independence of the election administration, voter and candidate registration, and the freedom to campaign.” We urge the government of Turkmenistan to work with the OSCE to address these shortcomings.

Democracy at the subnational level of participating States is also important. Where provided for by law, regions should be able to exercise autonomy and self-governance. We note the conclusion of the first trials in connection with the 2022 protests in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region, which erupted following proposed constitutional amendments that would have ended Karakalpakstan’s status as an autonomous region and its right to secede from Uzbekistan via referendum. We encourage the government of Uzbekistan to continue to hold accountable everyone who committed violence, including members of law enforcement.

We remain deeply concerned about the government’s consistent targeting of civil society and forced liquidation of NGOs in Tajikistan, particularly in the Gorno-Badakhshon Autonomous region since March 2022. We continue to urge the Government of Tajikistan to ensure that law enforcement agencies uphold the rule of law and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Turning now to elections on the horizon in the OSCE region:

Next fall, Georgia will hold parliamentary elections which will determine its next government. Now is the time for Georgian authorities to establish an electoral environment fully conducive to a level playing field and other conditions necessary to the conduct of free and fair elections. We urge Georgia’s authorities to work transparently with all stakeholders, including civil society and opposition parties, to this end. We encourage the authorities to invite ODIHR and others to observe the elections.

In Azerbaijan, we are concerned about moves by the government to restrict opposition political parties. OSCE/ODIHR issued an opinion on February 20 that criticized a new law on political parties for having “a deterrent effect on pluralism.” In addition to highlighting issues with the membership minimums, the opinion found problems with the law’s excessive regulation of intra-party structures, excessive control by the Ministry of Justice over party activities, and the ban on party activities for unregistered groups.

Draft legislation in the Kyrgyz Republic would allow Constitutional Court decisions to be appealed by the President or the Chairman of the Court. Critics allege the law would further undermine the independence of the judiciary, an essential component of democratic governance.

In the lead-up to the local and parliamentary elections in Belarus scheduled for February 2024, we condemn the regime’s banning and refusing to register political parties. We call on the Lukashenka regime to allow genuine political competition, to invite OSCE/ODIHR in a timely manner to monitor the elections, and to create conditions in which they and other independent observers can carry out their work effectively.

In conclusion, we applaud ODIHR’s work in observing elections across the OSCE region and making its legal reviews, technical assistance, and other resources and expertise on democratic elections available to all participating States.

For our part, the United States welcomed an ODIHR limited election observation mission for our national mid-term elections in November 2022, which consisted of 17 core team members and 40 long-term observers, as well as 132 short-term observers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from more than 30 countries.