By Orest Deychakiwsky
CSCE Staff Advisor
and Ronald McNamara
CSCE Deputy Chief of Staff
United States Helsinki Commission staff met with a wide variety of opposition party members, non-governmental organization representatives and independent media journalists during an October 11-15 visit to the west Belarusian city of Hrodna and the capital city, Minsk.
While the repressive apparat of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka has mounted a full-fledged assault on civil society over the last few months, pro-democracy forces remain committed to the creation of an independent, sovereign and democratic Belarus.
In meetings with representatives from civil society throughout the visit, discussions inevitably turned to the Belarus Democracy Act of 2003, introduced earlier this year by United States Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO). The Belarus Democracy Act would authorize increased assistance for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, independent media--including radio broadcasting to Belarus, and international exchanges.
In a clear effort to consolidate his firm hold on power, Lukashenka has further tightened his grip on independent elements of Belarusian society, using the full force of the state to repress dissent. This comports with his new "state ideology” which has as its aim to further his rule by eliminating any vestige of pluralism in Belarus. Non-governmental organizations have been "de-legalized," or threatened with closure, often on petty pretexts. Increasingly, spouses and relatives of activists are being used as pawns with threats of dismissal or other forms of retribution.
The media are especially facing pressure, with the electronic media under the control of the authorities and the independent media increasingly subject to systematic reprisals. Dozens of independent publications have been closed or threatened with closure. State printing houses have refused to print even previously registered editions and the state's distribution system refuses to circulate independent media material. Even Russian television is getting pushed out. A proposed new media law threatens to further erode freedom of media. Independent trade unions are becoming further circumscribed.
The Government of Belarus has made no substantive progress in meeting the criteria for democratization established more than three years ago by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe:
End repression and the climate of fear;
Permit a functioning, independent media;
Ensure transparency of the election process; and
Strengthen the functioning of the parliament.
No progress has been made to investigate the cases of four opposition figures who disappeared in 1999-2000. The four are presumed dead. Attempts by Belarusian democrats and the international community to engage in a dialogue with the powers-that-be on amending the electoral code have thus far been unsuccessful. Belarusian authorities refuse to cooperate with the OSCE, even within the framework of its limited mandate.
In both Hrodna and Minsk, Commission staff met with a wide gamut of representatives from leading non-governmental organizations, independent media, national and local leaders of democratic opposition political parties, wives of the disappeared, leaders of independent trade unions, dissident members of the National Assembly, various religious leaders, and human rights and cultural organizations.
On the official Belarusian side, Commission staff met with the Governor of Hrodna and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, raising a wide range of concerns with respect to Belarus' refusal to implement its OSCE commitments, including those pertaining to the deepening assault on civil society. In Hrodna, the issues surrounding Jewish cemeteries were raised with the Governor Vladimir Savchenko.
On the U.S. side, staff held constructive meetings with newly installed Ambassador George Kroll, Embassy staff and officials of the United States Agency for International Development.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.