Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Benjamin L. Cardin
Chairman - Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe


Ladies and Gentleman, good morning and welcome to the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Russia’s human rights record entitled, “The Medvedev Thaw: Is it Real? Will it Last?”

This is a timely discussion as President Obama will soon travel to Moscow for a summit with Russia’s leaders. As this is his first visit to Russia as president many people around the world will be paying extra attention to the coverage of this historic meeting.

Our bilateral relations in recent years have, unfortunately, been cool at best. Some of this is the result of failed policies of the Bush administration but, to be fair, the Russian government shares in the blame. The rollback of Russia’s fledgling democracy, the erosion of the rule of law, the deadly attacks on independent journalists, and the recent war in Georgia are just a few of the many examples of hard-line policies emanating from the Kremlin. In Russia’s quest to regain great power status, it appears that relevance counts more than popularity.

The new administration has been quite active in reaching out to Russia and there have already been a number of high-level meetings. I am hopeful that we are beginning a new and fruitful partnership with Russia. Although our two great countries may not see eye to eye, being best friends need not be the measure of successful relations. There are many issues of mutual concern that we cannot afford to ignore and restoring trust and mutual respect with Russia will allow us to pursue common security, while fully upholding our OSCE commitments.

Some in the human rights community, here and in Russia, are concerned that the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations may lead to less attention being paid to traditional concerns such as religious freedom, media freedom, and the rule of law. Today’s hearing is intended to send the message that the laudable goals of improving relations with Russia and taking Russia’s compliance with human rights commitments seriously need not be mutually exclusive.

When General Secretary Brezhnev signed the Helsinki Final Act, or the Helsinki Accords, on August 1, 1975 on behalf of the USSR, Soviet officials believed that they had gained an important foreign policy victory. Indeed, there were some provisions that Soviet diplomats had sought assiduously during the negotiations among the thirty-five nations of Europe and the United States and Canada. However, the West, for its part, had insisted on certain provisions in the area of human rights and humanitarian affairs, including the right of citizens “to know their rights and to act upon them.”

In this context, it is worth reminding everyone that since the 1991 “Moscow Declaration” raising human rights concerns in the OSCE context is the legitimate prerogative of participating States and cannot be construed as interference in another countries internal affairs as the OSCE States have a recognized right and obligation to monitor and comment on the fulfillment of human rights commitments in any OSCE country.

As Chairman of this commission, I take seriously my responsibility to monitor implementation of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements throughout the expansive OSCE region, including in my own country. Governments, including parliamentarians, have an important role to play in candidly raising human rights concerns and cases as part of their ongoing engagement. As the late Soviet human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov once observed, “The whole point of the Helsinki Accords is mutual monitoring, not mutual evasion of difficult problems.”

The Helsinki Commission, and the OSCE, is fully committed to the development of democracy, civil society, the rule of law and free markets in the Russia Federation. We trust that Russian President Medvedev shares that commitment when he proclaims that “my most important task is to further develop civil and economic freedoms.”

Yet we see evidence that Russian authorities continue to selectively prosecute and harass human rights advocates, religious communities, prominent business leaders, and journalists by employing arbitrary and extralegal means to achieve political ends. This is often accomplished through a manipulated court system, thus denying citizens and foreign investors the impartial application of the rule of law and equal justice.

To help us examine these complex issues, we have before us four witnesses. Normally, we like to include an administration witness, but Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon, the most appropriate person, is travelling and today’s subject matter is just too important to wait any longer.

On our first panel we have Mr. Sergey Cherepanov who is a leader of the Jehovah’s Witness community in Russia and who traveled all the way from St. Petersburg to be with us today. And then we have Mrs. Musa Klebnikov, widow of American journalist Paul Klebnikov, who was murdered in Moscow almost five years ago. Mrs. Klebnikov is currently the Executive Director of the New York-based Paul Klebnikov Fund which is active in supporting excellence in journalism and civil society in Russia. We are also happy to have Mr. William Browder, CEO of Heritage Capital Management and a leading global shareholder rights activist and an outspoken fighter for better corporate governance in Russia, who has travelled from London to appear at this hearing.

Finally, on panel two we have Dr. Sarah Mendelson, Director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. As I understand, Dr. Mendelson is quite involved in President Obama’s upcoming trip to Moscow.

More detailed bios on our witnesses are available on the table outside.

I thank you all for being here today and look forward to your presentations.