WASHINGTON -- One of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer's congressional duties is little-known among Marylanders, but it has brought the 5th District Democrat a good deal of recognition among international human rights advocates.
As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, a government-funded human rights agency, Mr. Hoyer has held midnight meetings with political dissidents and helped reunite dozens of divided families.
Vaclav Havel, now president of Czechoslovakia, was arrested on his way to meet Mr. Hoyer when Czechoslovakia still was under Communist rule -- and released several hours later as the commission's departing plane taxied down the runway.
Mr. Hoyer also was the driving force behind Russian President Boris Yeltsin's first visit to Washington -- when the White House would not host him for fear of offending then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Although Mr. Hoyer's commission work does not receive much attention in the United States, "it's one of the most satisfying roles I've played in Congress," he said recently,
The commission is the human rights arm of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 52 nations that have signed the Helsinki Final Act. The act, although not enforceable, spells out areas of agreement on military, economic and humanitarian issues.
It was signed in 1975 by most European countries, the Soviet republics, the United States and Canada.
The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was founded in 1976 to keep the U.S. government apprised of human rights abuses by conference members. It also was mandated to lobby
offending governments on behalf of political dissidents and persecuted religious and ethnic minorities.
With the fall of Communist governments in Europe, the commission's role has broadened. While it continues to monitor human rights issues, it also has helped oversee elections in most of the formerly communist nations.
Mr. Hoyer, who joined the commission in 1985, said he was concerned at first that people might be endangered by meeting with visiting delegations. But he soon learned the high profile afforded by the meetings was safer than anonymity.
"Governments realized it is detrimental [to them] if an individual known to Congress is treated badly," he said.
Mr. Hoyer has gone on research missions to most of the Communist (and now formerly Communist) countries.
Reports stemming from those visits are circulated to members of Congress and are read widely by scholars, foreign governments, and other human rights organizations.
One of the commission's best-known efforts was the release from the Soviet Union of Yuri Balovlenkov, whose wife, Elena, is from Maryland. The Balovlenkovs met and married in the Soviet Union in 1978, but Yuri was not allowed to leave for nearly 10 years.
"Steny was very instrumental in terms of meeting with Soviet diplomats, interceding with the minister of foreign affairs, and talking to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow to make sure we remained a high priority," said Elena Balovlenkov, who now lives with her family in Baltimore.
Yuri Balovlenkov is studying business at a community college and Elena, a registered nurse, works at a Baltimore hospital. Their daughters, Katya and Masha, are 11 and 8.
"I think the Helsinki Commission is an incredibly important organization and people don't realize just how much work they do," said Elena Balovlenkov. "A lot of their work is done quietly, persistently, and at personal risk to themselves. I think they deserve a lot of recognition for that."