Advocacy

Baltic Americans Converge (Virtually) on Congress

The Joint Baltic American National Committee (JBANC) held its first virtual Baltic Advocacy Week from March 8th to 12th.  JBANC has been holding annual in-person advocacy events for several years but missed last year because of the coronavirus.  Adapting the event to the circumstances of the pandemic turned out to be a successful endeavor.  The Estonian American National Council (EANC) was fully integrated into the planning team and played a key role in the event’s execution.

Over sixty Baltic Americans from sixteen states signed up to take part in constituent meetings with their Members of Congress (MoC).  At least fifteen meetings were held via video conference or conference call with staffers that handle foreign affairs or legislative issues for their MoC.  For at least three meetings, the actual Senator or Representative joined the call.  The meetings proved to be welcomed by all parties and effective in sharing the message that U.S. investment in Baltic security and support to the broader region are vital to ensuring transatlantic security.

The MoCs who tuned in were all co-chairs of their chamber’s Baltic caucus.  Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) co-chair the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus, and Representative Don Bacon (R-NE) recently took over as Republican co-chair of the House Baltic Caucus after Representative John Shimkus retired at the end of the 116th Congress.  All three were very supportive of the issues and legislation that were discussed.  As a retired U.S. Air Force General, Representative Bacon has extensive experience in the European theater and a clear understanding of the threats Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania face, and will be a valuable ally in Congress.

The JBANC team meeting with new House Baltic Caucus co-chair Representative Don Bacon

The meetings focused on three main topic areas.  Continued U.S. funding to the Baltic defense forces was the top priority.  Participants asked Congress to support the Baltic Security Initiative, which was introduced in the fiscal year 2021 budget to provide funding for ongoing development of Baltic air defense and interoperability with NATO and other partners.  $169 million was allocated in FY 2021 and the same amount or higher for FY 2022 was requested in the meetings.  Foreign Military Financing is an established program that provides grants and loans to help the nations purchase defense equipment produced in the U.S.  The Baltic countries received $30 million in FY 2021 and similar funding levels were requested for FY 2022.

The next topic dealt with energy security and regional development.  Sanctions to halt construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany is the most urgent issue in this area.  The pipeline is 90% complete and is estimated to be finished sometime this summer unless measures are taken to persuade the companies involved to stop work.  If the pipeline is finished, the Kremlin will have a powerful tool of political influence over Germany and other European nations that will depend on it for fuel.  Event participants asked their MoCs to enforce the bipartisan sanctions legislation that was passed last year to stop the pipeline.  Participants also called for U.S. participation in the Three Seas Initiative collaboration among 12 European Union nations located between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas to develop infrastructure projects for energy, transportation and digital interconnectivity.

The final topic area shined a light on corruption, human rights violations, and nations struggling to establish democracy.  The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to counter Kremlin corruption has led to sanctions against almost 250 individuals in 33 countries since it was passed in  2016.  Since it is due to expire in 2022, event participants advocated for the Senate bill that would reauthorize and strengthen the original bill’s sanctions and repeal its sunset clause. The Crimea Annexation Non-Recognition Act was also on the list of priority legislation, especially with its ties to the Welles Declaration of 1940 that established the U.S. policy of non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states.

EANC thanks all of the participants and Congressional offices that supported this Baltic Advocacy Week.  JBANC intends to continue holding the events annually, whether in-person, virtually, or in some combination of both.  We look forward to helping our constituents take part in future events, and to supporting anyone interested in contacting Congress in the meantime on these and other important issues relevant to Baltic security.  Please email our Washington, DC Director, Karin Shuey at karinshueyeanc@gmail.com if you’d like to get involved.

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Advocacy

Belarus Focus of Central and East European Coalition Policy Discussion

Belarus, its current political situation, and the United States’ response were among the topics discussed at the Central and East European Coalition’s (CEEC) panel discussion on February 24t,h titled Belarus’s Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy.  The event was organized in coordination with the office of Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), who also made remarks. 

Speakers noted the continued instability of the political situation in Belarus since the fraudulent elections that took place in August 2020.  President Alexander Lukashenka remained in power despite clear evidence that the election results were falsified.  Protests continue by Belarusian citizens who are determined to bring change and the regime has run out of options to quell the demonstrations; only brute violence is left.  The most important goal of the demonstrators is to force a new, transparent, free and fair presidential election to determine rightful leadership of the country.  Meanwhile, opposition leader, and Lukashenka’s opponent in the August elections, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been living in exile in Lithuania until it is safe for her to return to Belarus.  It is good that the West didn’t recognize the August 2020 elections, but nations are also not ready to recognize Tsikhanouskaya as the elected leader, making new elections a necessity for democracy to take hold.

Panelists from the event as Representative Kaptur gives her remarks.

The United States has imposed sanctions on the government in response to election irregularities and violent crackdowns against citizens.  The panel called for action beyond sanctions, to include more effective involvement by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  The OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism was invoked in September 2020 to conduct an independent investigation of human rights violations in Belarus but has so far not been fully employed.  Concern was expressed over Russian President Putin’s support of Lukashenka and capitalizing on the Belarusian leader’s weakness while strengthening the Kremlin’s control over Belarus’s government and economy. 

Panelists stated the importance of consistent support by Western nations.  If Western support waivers, Putin will manipulate the cracks.  They deemed the U.S. to be in the best position to unite the West in solidarity with the freedom fighters in Belarus and ensure the momentum toward democracy remains strong.  Some practical ways this can be done include increasing levels of assistance to political prisoners and to facilitate the democratic transition, and debunking disinformation campaigns that paint the opposition as an exercise of influence by the U.S. or the West.  Members of the Belarusian diaspora and other concerned parties can help by ensuring their communities are informed, advocating in Congress to keep attention on the issue, and engaging in political action to encourage more resolute policies. 

Washington, DC Estonian community members supporting the Freedom Way rally for Belarus on August 23, 2020

Congresswoman Kaptur expressed her deep concern regarding the oppression that peaceful protesters are facing bravely.  She also acknowledged the important role that women are playing in Belarus’s quest for democracy.  She stated strong Congressional support for the people of Belarus to choose their own future and noted the leadership of the House of Representatives in the drive for freedom and democracy everywhere.  House Resolution 124, cosponsored by herself and Representative William Keating (D-MA), was introduced the day after the policy event.  The resolution aims to support the people of Belarus and their democratic aspirations and to condemn election rigging and violent crackdowns in Belarus.

The panelists were Valery Kavaleuski, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Representative on International Affairs; Jonathan Katz, Senior Fellow and Director, Democracy Initiatives, The German Marshall Fund of the United States; and Vytis Jurkonis, Project Director, Freedom House – Vilnius.  The discussion was moderated by Michael Sawkiw, Director, Ukrainian National Information Service and CEEC member.

The full video of the event and biographies of the speakers are available on the CEEC website at ceecadvocacy.org.  The Estonian American National Council (EANC) fully supports the efforts of the freedom fighters in Belarus and U.S. government policies to facilitate their success.  EANC invites readers to bring the issue to the attention of Congress and to ask their Representatives to support H.Res.124.

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