Sen. Leahy's Opening Statement at State Dept. and Foreign Operations Subcommittee Hearing On Civil Society Perspectives On Russia

Mr. Chairman, I want to make one observation before we begin, which is that for the past month or two our staffs have been working daily with their House counterparts to finalize our Fiscal Year 2017 bill.  They are on track to resolving all but the most contentious issues this week.

Then late last Friday we learned that the White House may be proposing a $2.8 billion cut to our 2017 allocation, as part of an $18 billion transfer of funding for non-defense operations and programs to the Pentagon.

The proposed cuts are not only arbitrary and indefensible, they suggest that whoever came up with many of them has little idea of what these programs do or what these cuts would mean for our ability to remain engaged as the world’s super power. 

Three weeks ago we heard testimony from officials of five former Soviet republics that have been subjected to an intensifying pattern of threats, extortion, and, in the cases of Ukraine and Georgia, military invasion and occupation by the Russian Government.

At that hearing I remarked that while we have long condemned Russia’s attempts to intimidate its neighbors, we have come to appreciate the challenges those countries face even more since we learned of Russia’s actions to influence our own presidential election.

Vladimir Putin, that “strong leader” who President Trump admires, has used his power not only to extend Russia’s sphere of influence in violation of international law, but to create a kleptocracy that has enabled him and his closest friends to amass enormous personal wealth. 

That has been possible because he has simultaneously and systematically sought to silence his critics.  Human rights activists and independent journalists have been arrested, physically abused, and sentenced to years in prison on fabricated charges. 

Civil society organizations have been harassed, their offices vandalized, their leaders imprisoned and tortured or assassinated. 

Even those who were once close to Putin’s inner circle have been tracked down and killed, when they exposed corruption and became a liability.  The recent assassination of Denis Voronenkov in Ukraine is widely suspected of being the work of the Russian Government.

Over the years, we have supported programs to assist civil society organization in Russia, as we have in many countries.  We have done so because we recognize the dangers they face, and we know from our own experience the indispensable role that civil society plays in holding governments accountable – the thing President Putin is most afraid of.

Frankly, it is amazing to me that, knowing that the Russian Government can imprison or kill anyone it wants to with impunity, that people like Mr. Kara-Murza have the courage – not only to speak out about corruption – but to come here today after barely surviving an attempt on his life. 

It is easy for us to criticize from the safety of where we sit.  It is an entirely different thing for people in Russia, Belarus, or Uzbekistan – or in Turkey, Egypt, Cambodia, and so many other countries, where critics of corruption and dictatorship pay with their lives. 

The fact that they are willing to risk – and in some cases give – their lives in defense of freedom of speech and democratic, accountable government compels us to do what we can to support and defend them.

Our ability to do so depends, in part, on the example we set. 

It does not help when our own president extols the virtues of someone like Vladimir Putin, who has murdered his political opponents and rules like an authoritarian dictator. 

It does not help when our own president, who has bragged about his business dealings in Russia – a place where doing business is often synonymous with bribery – refuses to release his tax returns. 

It does not help when every week brings new revelations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government, at a time when Russia was, according to the FBI and our national intelligence agencies, actively seeking to influence our election in favor of candidate Trump. 

Nor does it help when many in Congress act as if Russia’s interference in our elections is not important, or that falsely accusing President Obama of illegal wiretapping can be treated as a joke. 

So at the same time that we provide a forum – like this hearing – for human rights and democracy advocates in Russia and other corrupt, repressive societies, let’s set an example for the way governments should act.

By doing so we would not only provide civil society activists in countries like Russia a model to point to, we would strengthen our own democracy.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses, particularly the difference our support makes to them and their organizations and what more we can do.

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