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Belarus

Belarus, a country of about 9.5 million people which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has a troubled record on human rights that has complicated its relationships with the U.S. and the EU for almost all its independence. Since his election as president in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees.  Under his rule, all presidential and parliamentary elections have been neither free nor fair and have fallen well short of international standards. The government restricts fundamental civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association. The democratic opposition operates in an exceedingly difficult environment. 

The Commission has been outspoken in championing democracy and human rights in Belarus, having held the overwhelming majority of Congressional hearings, public briefings, and meetings that have taken place on Belarus. A Congressional delegation (CODEL) to the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly summer meeting, hosted by Minsk, met with both President Lukashenko and the democratic opposition, and was the largest CODEL ever to visit Belarus. Commission staff has observed all elections in Belarus in the last two decades with only one exception.

Staff Contact: Rachel Bauman, policy advisor

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  • Remarks by the Hon. Alcee L. Hastings at the Conference on 21st Century Threats to Media Freedom

    Ladies and Gentlemen, As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I appreciate this opportunity to address threats to media freedom in the expansive OSCE region stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. While the now 56 signatories to the Helsinki Final Act have accepted a series of specific commitments on media and working conditions for journalists, the difficulty remains translating words on paper into deeds in practice. Before turning to concerns of the 21st century, let me recall Thomas Jefferson’s observation from 1787: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” In a subsequent elaboration, he explained why: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.” You don’t have to be one of our own Founding Fathers to grasp the idea. Leaders the world over who are determined to remain in office by any means necessary understand perfectly the power of the press. That is precisely why they and their associates strive so vigorously to control the media. In Aleksandr Lukashenka's Belarus, for example, media freedoms are systematically stifled and have deteriorated over the past few years. Investigations of suspicious deaths of two journalists in 2004 and 2005 have gone nowhere. And just a month ago opposition activist Andrei Klimau was arrested under a vague article of the Criminal Code. Meanwhile, the Lukashenka regime maintains a virtual monopoly on television and radio broadcasting. Last November, Lukashenka himself unabashedly admitted to reporters that his government uses “serious pressure” to control the media and that he is in charge of this process. In another context, that acknowledgment might be described as admirable candor – and certainly more than could be had in Russia. I’m sure all of you have read the obituaries for the late Boris Yeltsin. Russia’s first freely elected president made many mistakes. But all commentators have stressed that throughout his two terms, he protected the media. You may recall a TV show in Russia called Kukly which satirized politicians with hand-puppets. The show’s writers savaged their targets, including the head of state, and this in a country where the Tsar or the General Secretary could never be criticized. Yet Boris Yeltsin, who must have been chagrined, did not order Kukly off the air. That was left to his successor, whose minions made sure that Kukly never again darkened the airwaves. In fact, contrast the era of Kukly to the situation in Russia today: According to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report last year, 79 percent of the population gets its news from the three national TV networks, which are either directly or indirectly controlled by the government. And it shows. You have to look long and hard for criticism of President Putin. You all saw, I suspect, the press report that employees of Russia’s largest independent radio news network have been told that at least 50 percent of the reports about Russia must be “positive,” that opposition political leaders may not be mentioned on the air and that “the United States was to be portrayed as an enemy.” The first impulse is to laugh at this absurdity of such policies. But journalism in Russia is a very serious business. Even before the assassination of prominent investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya last October and the mysterious death of reporter Ivan Safronov earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists cited Russia as the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, with 42 journalists killed since 1992. The vast majority of these crimes remain “unsolved.” Only last week we learned that a former Kremlin reporter has felt it necessary to seek political asylum in the United Kingdom. Russia tends to be a trendsetter for its neighbors. But there are various degrees of media freedom in the former USSR. In Ukraine, since the 2004 Orange Revolution, media freedom has opened up and the egregious government instructions to the media are a thing of the past. Yet even in Ukraine, anonymous threats and attacks against journalists, especially those in the regions who expose corruption, still occur too frequently, and the 2000 murder of prominent journalist Georgiy Gongadze remains “unresolved.” Elsewhere, freedom of the press is only a cherished dream of human rights activists. Soviet-era censorship survives in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which, not coincidentally, ban all political opposition. The death of a Radio Free Europe journalist while in custody in Turkmenistan demonstrates starkly how dangerous the journalist’s profession can be. In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, electronic media are tightly controlled. Print media enjoy more latitude but their grounds for maneuver are also limited. A reporter in Kazakhstan who wrote articles implicating local officials and businessmen in the recent clashes between Kazakhs and Chechens has been missing for about a month. Kyrgyzstan is more difficult to characterize, because the state has been weaker than elsewhere in Central Asia and less capable of asserting its control of the media. But since the Tulip Revolution, restrictions on the free flow of information have loosened and I would say that free media have developed farther in Kyrgyzstan than anywhere else in Central Asia. Still, it is very disturbing that Kyrgyz authorities raided publishing houses last week, as the confrontation between the government and protesters heated up. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to reports by the State Department and OSCE’s Representative on the Media, the government seeks to control free media, especially television. In Armenia, for example, independent TV station A1+ has never been allowed back on the air since it was closed down. As for Azerbaijan, just last week, the State Department criticized Baku for the jailing of a journalist on libel charges and expressed concern about the deteriorating media situation. The use of criminal defamation and insult laws has long been used against those who criticize the government or officials, and I commend the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media for his consistent, principled focus on this area of abuse. Georgia is a particularly interesting case. Throughout the 1990s, leaders of most former Soviet states reined in the media that had blossomed under glasnost. A historic turning point came in fall 2003, when the Rose Revolution was gathering force in Georgia. Opposition leaders who refused to accept another rigged election led throngs of protesters against Eduard Shevardnadze’s government. You will recall that at a crucial moment, the Rustavi-2 TV station aligned itself with the opposition Troika and played a critical role in galvanizing the public to reject the official election results. In short order, this resistance movement mushroomed into peaceful regime change that sparked similar events in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The lesson was not lost on leaders of other post-Soviet states. Shevardnadze’s counterparts in other CIS capitals were determined to avoid his fate and they resolved that no analogue to Rustavi-2 would arise on their turf. For the most part, I must say, they have pulled it off: outside Ukraine and to some degree Kyrgyzstan, nothing of the sort is permitted. In Georgia today, opposition figures maintain that Rustavi-2 has become a pro-government station. But other TV stations air broadcasts critical of President Saakashvili. Today, Russian and Uzbek media excoriate the United States for allegedly plotting more “color revolutions.” To stem the tide, a broad panoply of tactics has been deployed. Prominent among them have been the expulsion of democracy-promoting NGOs, including many U.S.-based organizations, and the throttling of media outlets. What lessons should we draw from this state of affairs? The first is that most governments of the post-Soviet states understand Thomas Jefferson quite well. They see freedom of the media as a threat which they are determined to neutralize. Second, they have been rather too successful in this endeavor. Even outside the extreme cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, certain topics remain taboo in most countries, specifically criticism of the head of state or revelations about high-level corruption. This is particularly true of electronic media, and first and foremost TV. However, there is some reason for hope. I believe that pressure exerted by outside forces, including foreign capitals and international organizations, including the OSCE, can have an impact. For example, last week, Kazakhstan’s Culture and Information Minister announced that in response to OSCE criticism, the government has withdrawn a bill that would have imposed licensing requirements on publishing houses. Proposed legislation to regulate the Internet has been withdrawn and he said the authorities are ready to introduce a moratorium for “distorting the truth,” to free journalists from criminal persecution. At least under certain circumstances, then, and over the longer term, outside pressure and suasion can have a positive impact – even if gradually. But this also strengthens my conviction that now is not the time cut back on U.S. broadcasting to the post-Soviet republics. Freedom of the media is in real danger there, and those seeking alternative sources of information need our help. I am determined to make sure they get it. Let me conclude by quoting a heroic Russian journalist who understood the real meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s words over two centuries ago: Anna Politkovskaya. “My job is simple: to look around and write what I see.” That is how she described her task in accepting the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 2003 Prize for Journalism and Democracy for her investigative reporting on developments in war-torn Chechnya. Last October, an assassin’s bullet brought her brilliant career and life to a sudden end. Anna knew the risks, given the death threats against her, but this courageous professional would not be deterred. Her murder is a reminder of the tremendous risks journalists take for daring to look and report on events that others prefer remain hidden.

  • Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006

    Mr. Speaker, today I am introducing the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006, a bipartisan measure to provide support for the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Republic of Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus' sovereignty and independence. I am pleased to be joined by my colleagues, Representatives Lantos and McCotter, as original cosponsors.  Three years ago, I introduced the Belarus Democracy Act which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming support and was signed into law by President Bush in October 2004. At that time, the situation in Belarus with respect to democracy and human rights was already abysmal. Belarus continues to have the worst rights record of any European state, rightly earning the country the designation as Europe's last dictatorship. Bordering on the EU and NATO, Belarus is truly an anomaly in a democratic, free Europe.  The need for a sustained U.S. commitment to foster democracy and respect for human rights and to sanction the regime of Belarus' tyrant, Alexander Lukashenka, is clear from the intensified anti-democratic policies pursued by the current leadership in Minsk. Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to note that the United States is not alone in this noble cause. Countries throughout Europe have joined in a truly trans-Atlantic effort to bring hope of freedom to the beleaguered people of Belarus. Prompt passage of the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 will help maintain the momentum sparked by adoption of the 2004 law and the further deterioration of the situation on the ground in Belarus. Indeed, with the further deterioration in Belarus with the massive arrests of recent weeks, this bill is needed now more than ever.  One of the primary purposes of the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 is to demonstrate sustained U.S. support for Belarus' independence and for those struggling to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus despite the formidable pressures and personal risks they face from the anti-democratic regime. The bill authorizes $20 million in assistance for each of fiscal years 2007 and 2008 for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, including youth groups, independent trade unions and entrepreneurs, human rights defenders, independent media, democratic political parties, and international exchanges.  The bill also authorizes $7.5 million for each fiscal year for surrogate radio and television broadcasting to the people of Belarus. While I am encouraged by the recent U.S. and EU initiatives with respect to radio broadcasting, much more needs to be done to break through Lukashenka's stifling information blockade.  In addition, this legislation would impose sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, and deny senior officials of the regime, as well as those engaged in human rights and electoral abuses, including lower-level officials, entry into the United States. In this context, I welcome the targeted punitive sanctions by both the Administration and the EU against officials, including judges and prosecutors, involved in electoral fraud and other human rights abuses.  Strategic exports to the Government of Belarus would be prohibited, except for those intended for democracy building or humanitarian purposes, as well as U.S. Government financing and other foreign assistance, except for humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products. The U.S. Executive Directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance that serve humanitarian needs. Furthermore, the bill would block Belarus Government and senior leadership and their surrogates' assets in property and interests in property in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of United States persons. To this end, I welcome the Treasury Department's April 10 advisory to U.S. financial institutions to guard against potential money laundering by Lukashenka and his cronies and strongly applaud President Bush's June 19 “Executive Order Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus.”  Mr. Speaker, I want to make it absolutely clear that these sanctions are aimed not at the people of Belarus, whose desire to be free we unequivocally support, but at a regime that displays contempt for the dignity and rights of its citizens even as the corrupt leadership moves to further enrich itself at the expense of the people.  Mr. Speaker, Belarus stands out as an even greater anomaly following Ukraine's historic Orange Revolution and that country's March 26th free and fair parliamentary elections which stand in glaring contrast to Belarus' presidential elections held just one week earlier. The Belarusian elections can only be described as a farce. The Lukashenka regime's wholesale arrests of more than one thousand opposition activists, before and after the elections, and violent suppression of post-election protests underscore the utter contempt of the Belarusian authorities toward the people of Belarus.  Illegitimate parliamentary elections in 2004 and the recently held presidential ``elections'' in Belarus brazenly flaunted democratic standards. As a result of these elections, Belarus has the distinction of lacking legitimate presidential and parliamentary leadership, which contributes to that country's self-imposed isolation.  Lukashenka, the Bully of Belarus, has repeatedly unleashed his security thugs to trample on the rights of their fellow citizens. Indeed, they demonstrated what Lukashenka truly thinks about his own people. Nevertheless, courageous peaceful protesters on Minsk's central October Square stood up to the regime with dignity and determination. Almost daily repressions constitute a profound abuse of power by a regime that has blatantly manipulated the system to remain in power.  Albeit safely ensconced in power, Lukashenka has not let up on the democratic opposition. On July 17, in a particularly punitive display against those who dare oppose Lukashenka, former presidential candidate Aleksandr Kozulin was sentenced to an obviously politically motivated 5 1/2 years' term of imprisonment for alleged "hooliganism" and disturbing the peace. Democratic opposition leaders such as Anatoly Lebedka and Vincuk Viachorka have been arbitrarily detained and sentenced to jail terms which have been as much as 15 days. Last month, opposition activists Artur Finkevich received a two-year corrective labor sentence and Mikalay Rozumau was sentenced to three years of corrective labor for allegedly libeling Lukashenka. Other opposition activists, including Syarhey Lyashkevich and Ivan Kruk have received jail sentences of up to six months.  In a patent attempt to discourage domestic observation of the fraudulent March 19 presidential elections, authorities arrested activists of the nonpartisan domestic election monitoring initiative “Partnerstva”, Tsimafei Dranchuk, Enira Branitskaya, Mikalay Astreyka and Alyaksandr Shalayka. They have been in pre-trial detention since February 21, charged with participation in an unregistered organization.  Lukashenka's pattern of anti-democratic behavior began a decade ago, and this pattern has only intensified. Through an unconstitutional 1996 referendum, he usurped power, while suppressing the duly-elected legislature and the judiciary. His regime has repeatedly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion. In its May 3 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included Belarus on its watch list, as Belarus appears to be adopting tougher sanctions against those who take part in unregistered religious activity. The democratic opposition, nongovernmental organizations and independent media have been subject to intimidation and a variety of punitive measures, including closure. Political activists and journalists have been beaten, detained and imprisoned. Independent voices are unwelcome in Lukashenka's Belarus and anyone who, through their promotion of democracy, would stand in the way of the Belarusian dictator puts their personal and professional security on the line. Their courage deserves our admiration, and, more importantly, our support. Moreover, we have seen no progress on the investigation of the disappearances of political opponents--perhaps not surprisingly, as credible evidence points at the involvement of the Lukashenka regime in their murders. I welcome President Bush's decision to personally meet with two of the widows in the Oval Office to discuss the situation on Belarus. An Administration report mandated by the Belarus Democracy Act and finally issued on March 17 of this year reveals Lukashenka's links with rogue regimes such as Iran, Sudan and Syria, and his cronies' corruption. Despite efforts by the U.S. Government, working closely with the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other European organizations, and non-governmental organizations, the regime of Lukashenka continues its grip on power with impunity and to the detriment of the Belarusian people.  Colleagues, it is my hope that the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 and efforts by allies in Europe will help put an end to the pattern of clear, gross and uncorrected violations of OSCE commitments by the Lukashenka regime and will serve as a catalyst to facilitate independent Belarus' integration into democratic Europe in which democratic principles and human rights are respected and the rule of law is paramount. The Belarusian people deserve better than to live under an autocratic regime reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and they deserve our support in their struggle for democracy and freedom.

  • Advancing the Human Dimension in the OSCE: The Role of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

    This hearing, led by the Helsinki Chairman the Hon. the Hon. Sam Brownback, Co-Chairman the Hon. Christopher H. Smith Office, and ranking member the Hon. Alcee L. Hastings, examined the role that Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has played over the last fifteen years. ODIHR’s role in advancing human rights and the development of democracy in the OSCE participating States was noted and agreed to be particularly important. ODIHR is engaged throughout Western Europe and the former Soviet Union in the fields of democratic development, human rights, tolerance and non-discrimination, and promotion of the rule of law and has set the international standard for election observation. Within the hearing, the challenges that ODIHR faces were examined, specifically those instigated by the Russian Federation, Belarus and a small minority of the OSCE participating states seeking to undermine the organization under the guise of reform.  ODIHR has earned an international reputation for its leadership, professionalism, and excellence in the area of election observation.  That being said, ODIHR’s mission is much broader, encompassing a wide range of human rights activities aimed at closing the gap between commitments on paper and the reality on the ground in signatory countries.    

  • Tools for Combating Anti-Semitism: Police Training and Holocaust Education

    The Helsinki Commission held a briefing on Holocaust education tools and law enforcement training programs undertaken by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Co-Chairman Smith cited the vicious murder of Ilan Halimi as a reminder of the need to redouble efforts to combat anti-Semitism and to speak out when manifestations of related hatred occur.  The briefing highlighted specific programs which promote awareness of the Holocaust and provide law enforcement professionals with the tools to investigate and prosecute hate-inspired crimes.   Paul Goldenberg, a Special Advisor to ODIHR who designed the law enforcement training program which assists police to recognize and respond to hate crimes, stressed that law enforcement professionals must be recognized as an integral part of the solution.  Dr. Kathrin Meyer addressed the challenges presented by contemporary forms of anti-Semitism and highlights ways to address the subject in the classroom. Other witnesses – including Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee; Stacy Burdett, Associate Director of Government and National Affairs, Anti-Defamation League; and Liebe Geft, Director, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance also presented testimony at this briefing.

  • The Legacy of Chornobyl: Health and Safety 20 Years Later

    This hearing, chaired by Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Chris Smith marked the 20th anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Chornobyl, Ukraine. This is not only significant because of the long-term effects that the catastrophe had in the area, but also because of the circumstances under which it took place. More specifically, as Smith did not fail to point out at the hearing’s start, the explosion took place under the veil of secrecy brought to the world by the Soviet Union. The nuclear reactor at the Chornobyl site was part and parcel of U.S.S.R. property, so the Soviet Union was able to conceal what transpired from the outside world. This hearing emphasized much needed work to be done for the residents of Chornobyl, including aid by the United States.  

  • From the Maidan to Main Street: Ukraine's Landmark Democratic Parliamentary Elections

    By Commission Staff While pundits attempt to sort out the political meaning of Ukraine’s March 26th parliamentary elections to fill the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, the significance of the conduct of the elections should not be missed.  “Free and fair” was the resounding assessment of the OSCE-led International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) that also included observers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the OSCE Office of Democratic Elections and Human Rights (ODIHR).  This unqualified positive appraisal – a first among the 12 former Soviet republics outside the Baltics that have conducted scores of elections since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union – underscores the consolidation of democratic gains made in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution following years of political stagnation. These clean March 26th elections stood in stark contrast to the fatally flawed first rounds of the Ukrainian presidential elections that ushered in popular revolt sixteen months earlier.  Coming on the heels of the blatantly undemocratic presidential “elections” in neighboring Belarus a week earlier, comparisons were inevitable.  The Rada elections also followed a series of recent electoral contests elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which to varying degrees fell short of international standards.  The OSCE assessment in Ukraine returns the “free and fair” formulation to the lexicon of international election observations, departing from the heavily nuanced appraisals that have become common in recent years.  This development has potentially significant implications for future OSCE observations, especially with parliamentary and presidential elections expected in Russia in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, current President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, was appointed by the OSCE Chair-in-Office to serve as Special Coordinator for short-term observers.  Commission staff observed on Election Day, as part of the IEOM deployment of 914 observers coming from 45 OSCE countries including Russia.  In all, the group examined voting and the vote count in nearly 3,000 polling stations.  The Commission contingent observed balloting throughout the Kiev and Cherkasy regions. The Ukrainian Government declined to invite observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an entity discredited in the eyes of many for its effusive praise of fundamentally flawed elections elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including Belarus’ undemocratic March 19 presidential contest.  The CIS stood out for its sharply critical evaluation of Ukraine’s December 26, 2004 presidential elections that resulted in Victor Yushchenko’s victory in elections widely considered to have met democratic standards.  Ukraine has refused to participate further in CIS monitoring missions.  The two dozen Russian Duma observers present offered tempered, mixed opinions about the conduct of Rada elections.   Whatever shortcomings there were in these elections – and no undertaking of this scale is perfect – they appear to have resulted from late or otherwise poor planning.  Among these were delays in the formation of some district and precinct election commissions, the absence of a functioning Constitutional Court, long lines and crowding at some polling stations, and lingering inaccuracies in voter lists.  On the positive side of the balance sheet were the significantly freer media and decidedly more balanced media coverage; no systematic use of administrative resources; the transparent, consensual and professional administration of the elections at all levels; inclusion of domestic, non-partisan observers; and an overhaul of voter lists.        Election day began early with polling stations opening at 7:00 a.m.  There were over 34,000 polling stations.  Adding to the vibrancy of the elections was the large number of domestic observers, an indication of buy-in on the part of Ukrainians young and old alike with many affiliated with particular parties or candidates and others representing NGOs.  Upon entering the polling stations, one was struck by walls plastered with informational bulletins on candidates and parties.  Forty-five parties and blocs vied for seats in parliament.  While the international community was mainly focused on the parliamentary balloting, voting was also underway for regional and local government.  Voters were thus presented with four lengthy ballots: national and regional as well as local councils and mayoral races.  While some older voters were befuddled by this collection of papers, most voters seemed to take it in stride.  Election commission poll workers seemed attentive to their duties.  This was put to the test in the complicated tabulation process that began, once polling stations closed at 10:00 p.m., typically involving the sorting and counting of thousands of papers.  Processing the Rada results alone went into the wee hours of morning, with the three remaining stacks of ballots from other contests proceeding well past daybreak. The undeniable success of the domestic observation in these elections, buttressed by years of investment in training and support by the United States and others, raises obvious questions about the need for future international observations in Ukraine.  Has the time come to “graduate” Ukraine from such scrutiny and leave that necessary task to Ukrainian stakeholders themselves?  Many believe the March 26th elections confirm that that time has come, especially if Ukraine continues on its increasingly democratic trajectory.  The greater and more prominent role of domestic observers, also reinforces the notion that the time for Ukraine’s “graduation” has come.  Indeed, the OSCE should continue to encourage domestic stakeholders to prove themselves to their own people. The Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square that featured so prominently in the massive demonstrations by orange-clad protesters in November 2004 and the jubilant crowds following Yushchenko’s victory a few weeks later, was calm on the Monday following the Rada elections.  Strolling past this bustling area, Ukrainians were going about their routines, perhaps an indicator that the politics of democracy has moved from the Maidan to the Main Streets of cities and towns throughout the country. Whatever the pundits may declaim regarding the election results or the continuing strength of the Orange Revolution, what seemed palpable was a keen appreciation for the business of governing.  Neither a democratic revolution nor a single “free and fair” election are guarantees that the resulting government will be in a position to immediately deal with the basic needs of its people.  Overcoming these obstacles will have a profound impact on how the next government meets the political and economic challenges Ukraine faces at home and abroad.                   What we can say with confidence is that the March 26th elections were a further essential step in the process of overcoming the legacy of the past – a history marred by foreign domination, genocidal famine, denial of political and cultural freedom, and more recently political stagnation.  Today, the people of Ukraine are removing the overgrowth of thorns – an image alluded to by the great poet Taras Shevchenko – that prevented them for so long from pursuing their own pathway to a brighter and more prosperous future.

  • Congratulating the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I congratulate the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund on the launch of the Chornobyl 20 Commemorative airlift.  This feat builds upon the Fund’s impressive record of having sent 31 airlifts and 16 sea shipments to Ukraine, delivering humanitarian aid valued at over $53 million.  The airlifts are just one aspect of CCRDF’s vital and far-reaching work over the last 15 years in helping the most vulnerable in Ukraine – her children.  And, as a Congressman from New Jersey, I’m proud of the work of CCRDF and its supporters in the Cherry Hill-Marlton, Trenton area.   Ten years ago, I chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing on the 10th anniversary of Chornobyl, at which CCRDF Executive Director Alex Kuzma and other witnesses, including then Ukrainian Ambassador Yuri Shcherbak offered compelling testimony addressing the health and demographic consequences of the word’s worst nuclear disaster.  I’m pleased that Ambassador Shamshur has accepted the Helsinki Commission’s invitation to testify at our Chornobyl 20th anniversary hearing which will be held on April 25th.   As a strong advocate of the health of all children, including the unborn, Chornobyl is of special concern.  In Ukraine and Belarus, there is growing evidence of a steep increase in birth defects, especially an alarming 4-fold increase in spina bifida that has been documented by the Ukrainian-American Association for the Prevention of Birth Defects.  Many other forms of birth defects have doubled since Chornobyl, including cataracts, deformed limbs and fingers and cleft palates.  Recent Israeli-Ukrainian studies have shown that children born to Chornobyl liquidators have a seven-fold increase in chromosome damage as compared to their siblings born prior to the Chornobyl disaster.   Last year, I authored language that was included in the State Department Authorization Act authorizing funding for assistance to improve maternal and prenatal care, especially for the purpose of helping prevent birth defects and pregnancy complications.  The monies would be for individuals in Belarus and Ukraine involved in the cleanup of the region affected by the Chornobyl disaster.  We need to make sure that Chornobyl health studies and efforts to prevent birth defects through the distribution of folic acid and better prenatal care receive sufficient funding.  These are funding priorities that I will continue to pursue.   The public health research community was caught off guard by the massive 80-fold increase in thyroid cancer among Chornobyl children in Belarus in 1993, and the world community needs to remain vigilant for other forms of cancer that may begin to emerge now that the 20-year latency period has ended.   We need to remember that the half-life of radioactive cesium is 30 years.  Thousands of children are still being exposed to dangerously high levels of radionuclides in contaminated areas of southern Belarus and northern Ukraine, as well as far-flung areas in Scandinavia and Central and Eastern Europe that also suffered from radioactive fallout.  There is still much that remains to be done to overcome the devastating effects of Chornobyl, and it is important for the international community – both governments and non-governmental organizations – to remember that Chornobyl is not just a Ukrainian, Belarusian or Russian problem.  The fallout will require continued international attention and commitment.   We also need ongoing support for organizations like CCRDF that have worked for 16 years to provide state-of-the-art medical technology, physician training and humanitarian aid to give Ukrainian children a fighting chance to overcome cancer and leukemia. Clearly, there is much work that remains to be done.  Again, I commend the devoted leadership, staff, volunteers and supporters of CCRDF for your tireless work and deep commitment to a most noble cause.   

  • Freedom Denied: Belarus on the Eve of the Election

    Presidential elections in Belarus are scheduled to be held March 19, against the backdrop of stepped up repression by the regime of Alexander Lukashenka. The Belarusian strongman's power grab, begun a decade ago, has included liquidation of the democratically elected parliament, a string of fundamentally flawed elections and manipulation of the country's constitution to maintain power. A climate of fear following the disappearance of leading opposition figures in 1999 has continued with the harassment and arrests of opposition activists and the forced closure of independent newspapers. Rights violations in Belarus have intensified in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine, as the regime seeks to squelch dissent. The repressive environment has made it difficult for opposition candidates to engage in normal campaign activities. Meanwhile, administration of the elections at all levels remains firmly in the hands of Lukashenka loyalists.

  • Democracy in Belarus

    Ronald J. McNamara led a lively discussion regarding Belarus’s, at the time, upcoming presidential elections in the spring of 2006. The briefing centred around Belarus’s “decade of dictatorship” under Aleksander Lukashenko, a ruler who has disposed of past opposition, silenced independent voices and manipulated the political system to illegally maintain his hold on power in Belarus. In lieu of the upcoming presidential elections, repression in Belarus intensified. Aldis Kuskis, Barbara Kudrycka, and Harald Gunther commented on the significant common ground in policy toward Belarus on both sides of the Atlantic.  Kuskis and Kudrycka described the European Parliament’s most broadcasting initiative regarding Belarus while Gunther spoke on behalf of the presidency of the European Union. The briefing addressed interferences with the signature collection process candidates need to register. Authorities harassed activists gathering signature for opposition candidates, making the pre-election environment less conducive to a free and fair election process. 

  • Riding Roughshod Over Rights in Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, as co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission and the sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act, I remain deeply concerned about the violations of human rights occurring every day in Lukashenka's Belarus.   During a recent news conference, the autocratic Belarusian leader expressed confidence in his victory in the presidential election scheduled for next year, rhetorically asking why should he be rigging this election. Given his intensified assault on civil society, his dismal human rights record, and penchant for rigged elections, Mr. Lukashenka's statements ring hollow. Yet, Lukashenka's actions against democratic forces, non-governmental organizations and the independent media belie his stated confidence regarding electoral victory.   Last week, the lower chamber of Lukashenka's pocket parliament passed a law endorsing tougher new penalties for activities “directed against people and public security,” a proposal submitted to the parliament only days before passage. These changes to the Criminal Code increase penalties for participation in organizations that were liquidated or warned to stop their pro-democratic activities, or for the training and other preparations for unauthorized demonstrations or other civic actions.   Mr. Speaker, to cite just one of the draconian provisions, the Code now gives authorities the leeway to jail an individual for up to 2 years for “providing a foreign country, a foreign or international organization with patently false information about the political, economic, social, military, and international situation of the Republic of Belarus.” Putting aside the matter of such a provision violating free speech norms, if the past is any guide, it is clear who would be the arbiter of what constitutes “false information.” There can be no doubt that the law aims to stifle the democratic opposition, and the head of the KGB (yes, in Belarus it is still called the KGB) himself recently admitted that the reasons for the law is to discourage street protests during the upcoming presidential race.   This law, while particularly blatant, is part and parcel of other actions designed to strengthen the regime's control and deny the Belarusian people any alternative voices as the presidential election campaign unfolds. Last month, a new law further controlling political parties came into force. A recent Council of Ministers decree clamps down on organizations that conduct public opinion polls. A Lukashenka decree further discriminates against independent trade unions, stipulating that only trade unions belonging to the pro-governmental federation are granted the right to premises at no cost. Yet another decree considerably limits students' opportunities to travel abroad.   Meanwhile, opposition activists are routinely beaten up or detained. Just last week, for instance, Ales Kalita was detained and at the hands of the police suffered a dislocated arm for merely distributing the independent newspaper “Narodna Volya.” Viktor Syritsya, a lecturer at Baranavichi College was fired for organizing a meeting of students with presidential opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich. Belarusian State Economic University in Minsk expelled fourth-year student Tatsyana Khoma because she took a brief trip to France, where she was elected to the executive committee of the Brussels-based National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), an umbrella organization of 44 national student unions from 34 countries. The police beat activist Mikita Sasim. They detained youth activists Yauhen Afnagel and others. Other repressive actions include frequent arrests of activists of democratic youth movements such as ZUBR, a ban on worship by some religious congregations and other repressive actions against selected religious minorities, and continued harassment of members of the Union of Poles in Belarus.   Moreover, there is an emerging pattern of the regime putting obstacles in the way of Mr. Milinkevich. Recently, a public meeting he held in Borbuisk was disrupted by the authorities, with participants being told by the authorities to go home and threatened with tax inspections. During a press conference, the electricity in the room was cut off, as well as a “hot-line” phone with town residents.   Especially egregious has been the regime's intensification of the war against the already repressed and struggling independent media. Newspaper closures, suspensions, threats, and exorbitant and absurd libel fines, pressures on advertisers and other forms of harassment have become routine. Outright police confiscations of independent newspapers are also not uncommon. A seemingly more subtle tactic, implemented just a few weeks ago, involved the decision by Belarus' monopoly state postal service to stop delivery to subscribers of a dozen private periodicals. Meanwhile, the suspicious murder in 2004 of journalist Veronika Charkasova has not been resolved. Authorities have refused to open a criminal investigation into journalist Vasil Hrodnikau's death. Lukashenka himself recently admitted to Russian journalists that his regime applies very serious pressure on the media, somewhat incongruously adding that ``this does not mean I am crushing them.''   Mr. Speaker, what I have cited is by no means an exhaustive list of abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime, merely a sampling of the types of repressive actions employed on a daily basis by Europe's last dictator. As Helsinki Commission Co-Chair, I will continue to monitor closely and speak out forcefully regarding these and other violations of Belarus' freely undertaken OSCE commitments. I urge the Bush Administration to step up efforts to break the Lukashenka regime's near monopoly over the country's information space and provide timely assistance to pro-democracy forces in Belarus.   It is clear that Mr. Lukashenka and his minions are laying the groundwork for yet another un-free and unfair election--similar to the 2001 presidential elections and the 2000 and 2004 parliamentary elections--that will fall far short of OSCE standards. Lukashenka is once again showing that, despite his confident rhetoric, he fears his own people and profoundly fails to respect their dignity as citizens and as human beings.

  • Slovenia’s Leadership of the OSCE

    This hearing examined the challenges facing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2005. New and emerging threats from external actors, including terrorist organizations and rogue regimes, have led the organization to take a greater look at its periphery and seek multilateral responses to issues ranging from terrorist financing to arms proliferation. Issues related to OSCE work were on the agenda of the recent Bush-Putin summit in Bratislava and could impact the organization’s future activity. The testimony of His Excellency Dimitrij Rupel, Foreign Minister of Slovenia and this year’s OSCE Chairman, presented an overview of the wide array of initiatives undertaken by the OSCE regarding issues like human trafficking, organized criminal activity and official corruption, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, human rights violations in countries of Central Asia, and areas of tension or conflict in the Caucasus, the Balkans and elsewhere in the expansive OSCE region. Strategies for continuing to pursue these issues were discussed.

  • Belarus: Outpost of Tyranny

    Mr. President, over the course of the last few months, we have witnessed dramatic events in one of Europe's largest countries, Ukraine. The Orange Revolution has clearly shown that people power can bring about peaceful democratic change some thought was not possible in a former Soviet state. As a result, and with the support of the United States, Europe and international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE, Ukraine is on the path to freedom and democracy. Notwithstanding the formidable challenges that remain to overcome the legacy of the past, Ukraine now has a real chance at consolidating its democracy and further integrating into the Euro-Atlantic community.   Unfortunately, the news out of Belarus, Ukraine's neighboring fellow eastern Slavic country to the north stands in stark contrast to the encouraging news coming out of Ukraine. Secretary Rice, in her confirmation testimony, characterized Belarus, along with North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Burma, and Zimbabwe as an outpost of tyranny and asserted that America stands with oppressed people on every continent. Belarus, under Alexander Lukashenka's now 10-year repressive rule, has the worst human rights record of any country in Europe. Lukashenka's regime has increasingly violated human rights and freedoms and has made a mockery of commitments that Belarus freely undertook when it joined the OSCE in 1992.   Nothing has changed for the better since last October's fundamentally flawed parliamentary elections and rigged referendum allowing Lukashenka unlimited terms as president. In November, Lukashenka appointed Viktor Sheiman as head of the powerful Presidential Administration, despite credible evidence linking Sheiman to the disappearances of opposition leaders and a journalist in 1999 and 2000.   The harassment and persecution of civil society has intensified. A top opposition figure, Mikhail Marinich, was sentenced in late December on the charge of stealing, of all things, U.S. government property, in this case, computers, despite the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Minsk makes no claims against Marinich. Clearly, Lukashenka wants to eliminate Marinich as a potential candidate for the 2006 presidential elections.   Other opposition leaders, Valery Levaneuski and Alyaksandr Vasilyeu, continue to serve terms in a minimum security colony after having been found guilty of “public slander” of the Belarusian leader. Their crime? Distributing leaflets urging people to take part in an unauthorized rally. The leaflets contained a satirical poem about Lukashenka. Another example of Belarus' reluctance to promote human rights is the recent refusal to grant a visa to former OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Chairman and Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Severin, who now serves as the UN Human Rights Commission's Special Rapporteur on Belarus. The Belarusian regime has also clamped down on independent NGOs and prodemocracy political parties with Kafkaesque legal requirements and has mounted a full-fledged assault on independent trade unions. Problems are being experienced by religious communities attempting to operate freely.   As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, charged with monitoring and encouraging compliance by all 55 participating States with OSCE agreements, I call upon the Belarusian authorities to live up to their freely-undertaken commitments with respect to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Last October, President Bush signed into law the Belarus Democracy Act, which had been introduced in the Senate by then Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Campbell and in the House by commission co-chair Christopher Smith, stating:   We welcome this legislation as a means to bolster friends of freedom and to nurture the growth of democratic values, habits, and institutions within Belarus. The fate of Belarus will rest not with a dictator, but with the students, trade unionists, civic and religious leaders, journalists, and all citizens of Belarus claiming freedom for their nation.   It is essential that we in the Congress, together with the administration and the OSCE, keep faith with the courageous people of Belarus struggling to ensure freedom and democratic values for their long-suffering country.

  • Resolute in Russia

    A month after delivering his visionary inaugural address on the commitment of the United States to foster freedom and democracy, President Bush sat down yesterday at the Bratislava summit in Slovakia with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the architect of post-Soviet "managed" democracy. The Bush-Putin summit comes at a time when the Kremlin is on the offensive. It is moving to contain the burgeoning democracy in the former Soviet Union and to cement Russia's ties with those among the former Soviet republics which have the poorest human rights records. Russia is attempting to distance the United States from those countries. Of particular interest to us as chairman and co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Russian rhetoric assailing the democracy-promoting activities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has intensified. Moscow is now threatening to paralyze the OSCE by holding its budget hostage. Russia reportedly will not give consent to the budget unless a committee is created to review the electoral commitments of the OSCE. The committee would attempt to revisit and water down the longstanding commitments using the pretext of setting "minimum standards" for judging whether elections are indeed free and fair. Russia appears determined to undermine the democratic commitments that are at the very heart of the OSCE, the power of the ideals behind OSCE commitments Russia has agreed to support, including that the will of the people is the basis of legitimate government. Russia and its allies -- particularly the outpost of tyranny, Belarus -- have responded to the pro-democracy developments in Georgia and Ukraine by attacking the commitments of the OSCE. Russia, the other former Soviet states and all OSCE countries have formally agreed that a democracy based on the will of the people and expressed regularly through free and fair elections, is the only acceptable form of government for our nations. While claiming to observe the voluntary commitments accepted when their countries joined the OSCE in 1992, most leaders within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have remained in control by rigging elections and excluding potential rivals, sometimes using criminal means, which is in contradiction to the commitments. Since the late 1990s, Russian-led observer delegations from the CIS routinely approved of elections in CIS countries, which OSCE-led observers overtly criticized or damned with quiet condemnation. We understand that some members of the OSCE in Vienna are inclined to pursue a policy of engaging Russia on the issue, in the hopes of finding some common ground. While we are not adverse to engagement with the Russians, the fundamentals of democratization and elections must not be fodder for appeasement or used as bargaining chips. Indeed, we have already found common ground: the considerable body of existing OSCE commitments on democracy that our countries have signed and that Mr. Putin and his shrinking circle of allies seem intent on scuttling. We must not ignore the fact that human rights, civil and religious liberties and media freedom have been gravely undermined on Mr. Putin's watch. The deteriorating human-rights trends give cause for serious concern. As Mr. Bush directly declared in his inaugural address, "we will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people." The Bratislava summit will provide a timely opportunity for the president to underscore this point face to face with his Russian counterpart. It is also essential that Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice respond resolutely to this challenge, insisting that there be no retreat from OSCE commitments and principles to placate Mr. Putin. Moscow may be intent on precipitating a crisis in the OSCE, or even threatening its very existence. Nevertheless, having stood firm against rigged elections in Ukraine, the United States must not be bullied into concessions. Watering down the democratic content of the OSCE would not only undermine the organization's reason for being, but would undercut the very people struggling to be free.

  • Democratic Change in Ukraine Provides a Backdrop of Success at the 12th OSCE Ministerial

    By Elizabeth Pryor, Senior Advisor The twelfth Ministerial Council Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) took place in Sofia, Bulgaria, December 6-7, 2004.  The United States Delegation was led by Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, who is a Helsinki Commissioner, headed the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in his role as President of that body.  Secretary Powell noted that the United States “bases its faith in the OSCE’s future not just on past successes, but on the significant contributions this pioneering organization is making today,” citing among other achievements the preparation of landmark elections in Georgia and Afghanistan. Congressman Hastings spoke of the important work of the Parliamentary Assembly in promoting democracy, in fighting terrorism and in election monitoring, and called for more OSCE involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia.  He concluded:  “The OSCE has enormous potential to help Europe and the world to become places of peace, stability and co-operation….the world will be more dangerous without it.” During the meeting ministers strengthened their commitment to use the organization to fight terrorism, taking several decisions that make it more difficult for terrorists to operate in the region.  They also encouraged OSCE participating states to adopt measures to fight corruption, including ratification of the UN Convention against Corruption.  They underscored the important political role of the OSCE Secretary General, gave impetus to the implementation of earlier decisions on promotion of equal opportunity for women and men, and reiterated their commitment to combat racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. They also pushed for quicker and better implementation of OSCE methods of eliminating stockpiles of conventional armaments and ensuring proper export documents for small arms and light weapons. New agreements to protect child victims and more vigorous attention to penalizing sex tourists, and other individuals who prey on children, enhanced earlier OSCE actions to counter human trafficking.  Ministers also agreed to augment activities that would address economic instability, through the organization’s Economic Forum. In addition, ministers welcomed the intention of the OSCE Chairman to appoint three distinguished personal representatives to combat discrimination and promote tolerance. This decision stemmed from significant meetings during the previous years which registered OSCE concern at growing instances of intolerance, some of them acts of violence.  The Bulgarian chairmanship subsequently appointed Anastasia Crickley of Ireland as the special representative to combat racism, xenophobia and discrimination; Gert Weisskirchen of Germany as the special representative to combat anti-Semitism; and Ömür Orhun of Turkey to be special representative to combat intolerance and discrimination against Muslims.      The measures taken to reduce the ability of terrorists to function in the region are especially significant. Ministers pushed to complete an agreement on comprehensive and uniform standards for border security; new methods of information exchange about the use of the Internet by terrorists–including an international meeting by experts; strong coordination with other international organizations to ensure the security of shipping containers; and a harmonized method for relaying and compiling information on lost and stolen passports through Interpol.  If agreed within the next year, as ministers hope, and implemented vigorously, collectively these decisions can dramatically curb the ability of terrorists to move people and weapons easily and change identities without detection. Texts of all of the decisions can be found at www.osce.org. *   *   *   *   * Negotiation at Sofia was difficult.  A U.S. proposal to extend and augment the provisions of a June 2004 NATO anti-trafficking plan failed to be agreed.  A Russian-proposed text that would have changed the perimeters of OSCE election monitoring was also blocked. No joint statement of the ministers could be concluded.  An important decision to extend the mandate of the OSCE Border Monitoring Operation in Georgia was not agreed. In all of these negotiations, the Russian Federation was isolated, either in its demands, or in its refusal to join consensus. Secretary of State Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly disagreed in their interventions about the validity of OSCE operations in the former Soviet Union.  Secretary Powell took issue with Lavrov’s assertion that OSCE’s focus on the region was disproportionate, pointing out that the United States has used the organization to discuss its own difficulties, including the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq.  There is a long history of such disagreements within the OSCE. One need only look at the negotiating record of the original Helsinki Accords to note the seemingly insurmountable gulf that existed in 1975. At that time negotiations were complicated by disputes between the West and the then-powerful neutral and non-aligned nations, as well as between East and West. Those talks took place in an atmosphere of a near-zero diplomatic interaction between many of the countries. Yet skillful negotiation and a larger vision won the day.  Over the years the Helsinki process has witnessed stand-offs over the status of fixed–wing aircraft in the negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE); over development of new standards for media freedom; on the creation of the field missions for which it is now so celebrated; on the division of roles in election monitoring and hundreds of other issues. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the organization is that it assumes strong disagreement among the participating States. The glory of the OSCE is that it has not seen this as an obstacle to progress, but has always kept its dialogue open and lively and found creative ways to search for common ground.  Those debating today’s issues should find the successful negotiations of the past both encouraging and instructive. In the wake of Russian intransigence, a number of newspaper comments and internal accounts of the ministerial meeting have been unduly pessimistic, with some commentators even extrapolating about the near demise of the OSCE. The disappointment seems to center on the inability of the 55-nation organization to agree to the joint statement that traditionally concludes these meetings. The fate of the highly effective Border Monitoring Operation is of real concern and should be the object of concerted, expert diplomacy by all OSCE States.  But the vitality of the OSCE is not in question, and it is striking that such an array of senior observers has limited its definition of relevancy to an almost invisible statement, the kind that in today’s diplomatic world has decreasing impact or shelf-life.  Perhaps it would have been better if those in Sofia had agreed to a joint statement, but it is largely irrelevant that they did not. For, over the past few years, the OSCE has seen stunning proof of its true relevance:  the influence of its agreed standards of conduct and its continuing ability to inspire those who are courageous enough to fight for democracy and then make it stick. This year’s Sofia meeting was dominated by Ukraine’s remarkable democratic ferment.  In Sofia, negotiations took place against a backdrop of the Ukrainian people embracing systems of liberty and justice.  Just as evident was the ineffectiveness of the oligarchs, petty tyrants and reactionary ideologues who had tried to stifle this heady movement.  The excitement and optimism were palpable as the news reports – first of the crowds in Independence Square, then the courageous actions in the parliament and courts – came filtering into Sofia’s old communist Hall of Culture, itself a symbol of the OSCE’s ability to effect positive change. There is no doubt that the events of these historic weeks owed much to three decades of the OSCE’s tireless and patient work.  First, the Helsinki process eroded the bulwark of communism; then through its mission in Ukraine and its support of many valiant NGOs, it persistently promoted the rule of law and free processes over the false security of re-emergent authoritarianism.  If it all seemed a little familiar, it was because the 2003 Maastricht ministerial meeting was colored by a similar public demand for democracy in Georgia, also a product of OSCE’s influence and persistence. And, four years ago, we welcomed another electoral surprise as Serbia’s citizens demanded the right to a valid election and a future that they themselves would determine. All of these developments are very heartening.  They attest to the indomitable will of people everywhere to live in freedom and of the important way OSCE principles support them.  The continuing quest for democracy in Europe is the true measure of the OSCE’s success.  No anodyne statement, no “family photo” of beaming foreign ministers, could possibly illustrate the OSCE’s importance as have these real and hopeful events. That the OSCE remains the major player in promoting European unity and security is also apparent in the rhetoric of some leaders who want to sabotage its work.  Notable among them are Alexandr Lukashenko, the autocrat in Belarus, who openly resists fulfilling the commitments made freely by his country, and Sparmurat Niyazov, who holds Turkmenistan under dictatorial rule. Unfortunately, others are following in this path, Vladmir Putin among them.  These increasingly authoritarian leaders see that the high principles of the Helsinki Accords can motivate people to demand their rights and thus discourage selfish governmental policies and foreign adventurism.  They want to thwart OSCE influence precisely because it stands in the way of backsliding toward the uncontrolled exercise of personal power.  Ironically, their refusal to cooperate on OSCE policies that continue the forward momentum toward freedom only serve to point up just how successful the organization has become. As it moves to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Accords the OSCE has much to be proud of.  But it also has a great deal of work ahead of it.  The participating States of the organization must be certain that they continue to stabilize both borders and the democratic institutions of Georgia.  Unresolved conflicts continue to fester in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the situation in Kosovo remains fragile and tense.  Human rights are jeopardized in much of Central Asia, with the OSCE often the lone voice in their defense.  Several states have crossed the line into totalitarianism.  Well-established democracies, including the United States, need to be eternally vigilant, lest we take our fundamental freedoms for granted and allow our high ideals to be eroded.  None of this is evidence of OSCE ineffectiveness, but of our continuing need for its guidance.  The process of promoting human rights is continual.  It is essential that the OSCE is there to remind us that we must never become complacent. Among the most important decisions the OSCE took at Sofia was the reassertion of the important political role of the organization’s Secretary General.  The Helsinki Commission hopes that this year, when a new Secretary General will be selected, participating States will choose a strong individual, a person of proven and inspirational leadership and managerial excellence.  OSCE ministers also chose to appoint a panel of eminent persons to advise on any directional adaptation that may help strengthen the organization.  Once again, members of the Helsinki Commission trust that people with innovative ideas and recent expertise will be chosen.  One fitting recommendation that could be made by the panel would be to call a review conference to evaluate the vitality of organizational structures and the commitment of its participating States.  There is a long tradition of this kind of self-assessment at the OSCE and such a move would be especially appropriate in the anniversary year.  It would also address the call made by several states to take a comprehensive look at the future work of the OSCE. All European institutions play important roles for ensuring the security of the region.  Yet, OSCE remains the most agile instrument for promoting our dearest and most enduring values.  It is not about quick fixes or flashy actions, but works slowly over the long term to create true stability and cooperation.  Other institutions may also help motivate nations to take a path compatible with democracy.  But only the OSCE has the inclusivity, the agreed values and the presence on the ground to get them over the finish line. Sofia a failure for lack of a joint communiqué?  No, not at all.  If you are looking for a “statement” of the OSCE’s vitality, read it in the faces on Independence Square in Kiev; in the recent history of Slovenia, its incoming Chairman; and in the fear with which it is regarded by those who would wield disproportionate power over their citizens.

  • Ukraine’s Presidential Election: The Turning Point?

    This briefing examined the pre-election conditions in Ukraine ahead of the country’s presidential election run-off set for November 21. The contest, pitting democratic opposition leader Victor Yushchenko against Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych in a November 21 run-off, represented a potential turning point for Ukraine. The OSCE Election Observation Mission, with more than 600 international observers, concluded that the October 31 first round, in which no candidate garnered the required majority, did not meet a considerable number of OSCE standards for democratic elections, representing a step backward from the 2002 elections. Both the election campaign and vote were seriously flawed. Panelists who spoke at this briefing identified violations that included, but by no means were limited to, overwhelming media bias against Yushchenko; the abuse of administrative resources; obstruction of opposition campaign events; and untoward pressures on state employees, students, and voters to support government candidates. Voting day itself saw significant problems with voter lists, pressure on election commissions and even outright ballot stuffing. The consequences of a bad election process were addressed.

  • Europe's Largest Annual Human Dimension Meeting Closes With Appeal from NGOs

    By Erika Schlager CSCE Counsel on International Law From October 4-15, 2004, the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met in Warsaw, Poland, for a Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.  Each year, the OSCE convenes a forum to discuss the participating States’ compliance with the full range of their OSCE human dimension commitments agreed on the basis of consensus. The United States Delegation was headed by Larry C. Napper, former Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Latvia.  He was joined by Ambassador Stephan M. Minikes, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; Ambassador Edward O'Donnell, Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues; J. Kelly Ryan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration; and Matthew Waxman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs.  Members of the staff of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe also participated in the delegation. In the tradition of engaging accomplished individuals from the private sector with human rights expertise, the U.S. Delegation included several public members:  Gavin Helf and Catherine Fitzpatrick, both experts on the countries of the former Soviet Union; Frederick M. Lawrence, Anti-Defamation League; and Mark B. Levin, Executive Director, NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. Broad Range of Issues Reviewed During the first week of the meeting, formal sessions were devoted to a review of the implementation by participating States of the full range of their human rights and fundamental freedom commitments.  During the second week, three days were devoted to topics chosen by the Chair-in-Office, in consultation with the participating States.  This year, the special topics were: the promotion of tolerance and non-discrimination (following up on extra-ordinary conferences held earlier this year on anti-Semitism and on racism, xenophobia and discrimination); freedom of assembly and association; and “complementarity and co-operation between international organizations in promoting human rights.” At the meeting’s mid-way plenary session, the United States expressed particular concern about the deteriorating situation in Turkmenistan.  In 2003, ten OSCE participating States took the unusual step of invoking the "Moscow Mechanism" for the first time in a decade.  They were prompted to do so after Turkmenistan authorities reacted to an attack on President Saparmurat Niyazov's motorcade on November 25, 2002, with a widespread human rights crackdown marked by torture, disappearances, and an escalation of Stalin-era practices.  Turkmenistan refused to cooperate with the mission established under the mechanism and, in 2004, refused to renew the accreditation of the Head of the OSCE Office in Ashgabat, Parachiva Badescu.  Although Turkmenistan again declined to send representatives to participate in the HDIM, the United States argued to the participating States that sustained OSCE engagement on these matters is necessary to counter Turkmenistan’s increasing self-isolation. "Why is it that only the United States helps democracy in Belarus?  Where is Europe?" --Human rights activist from Belarus The need to protect human rights while countering terrorism was a strong theme throughout this year’s meeting.  In addition, the deteriorating situation for human rights defenders in much of the former Soviet region, concern about the elections in Belarus and Ukraine, the failure to implement meaningful reforms in Uzbekistan, and the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons, including Roma from Kosovo, were other issues raised.  In the second week session devoted to tolerance, the United States argued that the Chair-in-Office should appoint two personal representatives to address the problems of anti-Semitism as well as racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. As at past human dimension meetings and meetings of the OSCE Permanent Council, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among other OSCE participating States. At present, the only other OSCE countries that still officially apply the death penalty are Belarus and Uzbekistan. A U.S.-based nongovernmental organization repeatedly criticized the United States for failing to provide citizens of the District of Columbia the right to voting representation in the Congress.  Belarus issued even more sweeping criticism of U.S. electoral practices. Coming just days before Belarusian elections that the OSCE Election Observation Mission subsequently concluded “fell significantly short of OSCE commitments,” the rebuke by Belarus appeared to be a cynical move to preempt or deflect criticism of its own shortcomings. The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was condemned by both governmental and non-governmental speakers.  In addition, some participants criticized the United States for the use of military commissions to try alleged terrorists and for a 2002 Department of Justice memorandum that outlined legal defenses and loopholes that might be used to evade statutory and international legal prohibition against torture. Side Events Add Substance One of the striking features of this year’s meeting was the significant increase in the quality and quantity of side events held in conjunction with the formal sessions.  Side events may be organized at the site of the meeting by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States.  They augment the implementation review by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth.  Like the “corridor” discussions and informal meetings that are part and parcel of any OSCE meeting, side events are also a vehicle for discussing and promoting OSCE action or decisions.  In some instances, side events have presaged the deeper engagement of the OSCE participating States with a particular subject – for example, side events organized by non-governmental organizations on the problem of hate propaganda on the Internet prompted a more in-depth focus on this issue at an OSCE meeting hosted by France earlier this year.   Side events can also help fill gaps in the implementation review process. This year, in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, most governments were reluctant to raise the problem of human rights violations in Chechnya.  Nongovernmental groups, however, organized a side event to provide a forum to focus on these issues.  They argued that, while the problems in Chechnya may seem intractable, human rights abuses do diminish when they are raised with the Russian Government. In an effort to respond to concerns about detainee abuse, the United States organized a side event on the subject of detainee issues.  Department of Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Waxman, head of a newly-created DOD office for detainee affairs, discussed steps taken by the United States to address the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere and to prevent such incidents from reoccurring.  The event was open to all participants in the HDIM and, following the presentation of his remarks, Waxman opened the floor for questions. Azerbaijani officials prevented one human rights defender and religious freedom activist from attending the Warsaw meeting.  On October 6, authorities at the Baku airport blocked Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu from boarding his Warsaw-bound flight.   Ibrahimoglu was set to attend the HDIM session on religious freedom and speak out against the forcible seizure of his congregation’s mosque earlier this year.  (Similarly, two Kazakhstani human rights activists, Amirzahan Kosanov and Ermurai Bapi, were prohibited from leaving their country last year in an apparent attempt to prevent them from participating in the HDIM.)  On a more positive note, the meeting may have contributed to a favorable decision by the Armenian Government to approve a long-standing application by Jehovah’s Witnesses to be officially registered as a religious organization.  During the meeting, the U.S. House of Representatives and the United States Senate passed the Belarus Democracy Act (on October 4 and 7 respectively). NGOs Rebut “Astana Declaration” At the closing session of the HDIM, 106 human rights advocates from 16 countries presented a declaration countering criticism by several former Soviet states of the OSCE’s human rights work.  (On July 3, 2004, nine OSCE countries – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan – issued a statement criticizing the human dimension activities of the OSCE.  A subsequent document signed in Astana, Kazakhstan by eight of the above signatories claimed that there are double standards in fulfillment of OSCE commitments concerning democracy and human rights.)  An NGO spokesperson also urged the OSCE participating States to continue to focus on the issue of freedom of assembly. "The most important principle of international affairs ingrained in international legal documents--'respect for human rights is not an internal affair of a state'--must remain unshakable and must be defended." -- Statement signed by human rights advocates and presented at the closing session of the 2004 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting In a press release issued on October 14, 2004, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) welcomed the NGO declaration.  “While many of the men and women who signed this document engage in human rights advocacy at considerable personal sacrifice and risk, they have clearly stated – in their words – their ‘categorical disagreement with the negative evaluation of OSCE activity.’” This year’s HDIM drew record attendance by 220 nongovernmental organizations from across the region.  This is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where non-governmental organization representatives and government representatives may speak with equal status. As at past meetings, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives.  In many instances, the focus and scope of those meetings reflected the presence of experts from capital cities.  Additional meetings were held with OSCE officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.  In the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from the OSCE countries also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern. Looking Ahead With a view to the 2005 calendar of human dimension activities, the United States suggested that there are several subjects that deserve focused attention next year.  These include: migration and integration; protection of religious freedom in the fight against terrorism; the challenges of new election technologies, such as electronic voting; and the role of defense lawyers.  The United States also welcomed the Spanish offer to host a follow-up event on tolerance next year in Cordoba and recommended that next year’s HDIM should include another special topic day on the fight against anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination.  The United States proposed that at least one of the Supplementary Human Dimension Implementation Meetings next year be held outside of Vienna, in order to make the meeting more dynamic and allow participants to take part who might not normally be able to travel to Vienna.  (Since 1999, three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings have been held each year.  Existing modalities allow for them to be convened in various locations but, so far, all have been held in Vienna.) During the closing session, the Dutch Delegation, on behalf of the 25 European Union member states and four candidate countries, noted that there had been insufficient time to address the agenda items during the first week of the HDIM and, during the second week, more time than some subjects warranted.  For example, there was insufficient time to accommodate all those who wished to take the floor during the discussion of national minorities and Roma; the session on freedom of speech and expression was held to standing-room capacity.  By contrast, the session mandated to discuss the OSCE’s “project work” closed early – as it has every year since the subject first appeared on the meeting agenda – when the speakers’ list was exhausted before the end of the allotted time.  Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Christian Strohal agreed that "we should adapt our time management." Changes might also, conceivably, be made to the process of compiling a summary of the “recommendations” made at the meeting, a process that grew out of a desire to have a more substantive record of the meeting (in addition to the little-known but publicly available Journals of the Day).  In fact, these summaries have generally turned out to be an unsatisfactory product, notwithstanding the considerable effort of those tasked with producing them.  By definition, summaries must leave a great deal out, and both governments and nongovernmental organizations have complained when their particular recommendations are among those omitted.  Moreover, the summary of recommendations is usually scrubbed of any country-specific recommendations, leaving only anodyne boilerplate language.  In its opening statement at this year’s HDIM, the Netherlands, on behalf of the European Union and four candidate countries, argued that the process of compiling ever longer recommendations had become “non-productive and counter-productive.” At this year’s meeting, the ODIHR launched a highly effective new documents distribution system.  Through a bank of computers on site, participants were able to print copies of any document submitted for circulation.  (This replaced a paper system of distributing all copies of all statements to all participants.)  Moreover, this system allowed participants to email any document, making targeted distribution much more efficient and environmentally friendly.  With the full texts of interventions and additional written material so easily available, the rationale for creating a written summary of recommendations for the benefit of those who were not able to attend the meeting is less compelling. 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.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Observe Farcical Belarus Elections

    By Orest S. Deychakiwsky and Ronald J. McNamara CSCE Staff On October 17, Belarus held fundamentally flawed parliamentary elections and a referendum allowing Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka unlimited terms as president.  Lukashenka’s current “term” expires in 2006.  The rigged referendum certainly did nothing to legitimize Lukashenka's now ten-year repressive rule.  Likewise, the new National Assembly will lack legitimacy because of the fundamentally flawed nature of these elections. The entire electoral process from beginning to end was marred by abuses, including a profound lack of a level playing field especially with respect to media access, an intimidating electoral environment, arbitrary candidate de-registration, breaches in pre-electoral early voting, and serious misconduct in balloting and the count. Not one opposition candidate officially won a seat to the 110-member National Assembly, the Belarusian parliament.  The handful of independent-minded parliamentarians from the previous National Assembly will be replaced by Lukashenka loyalists, eliminating even that modest reformist element.  While the official results of the referendum asserted that the measure had passed with 77 percent of the vote, an independent Gallup Organization exit poll indicated only 48.4 percent support.     The OSCE International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) consisted of nearly 300 election observers.  Helsinki Commission staff members were part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly component of the OSCE effort, observing balloting in the Minsk , Mogilev and Gomel oblasts.  The IEOM concluded that Belarus ’ elections fell significantly short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections and that “the Belarusian authorities failed to ensure the fundamental conditions necessary for the will of the people to serve as a basis for authority of government.” The United States , with other Western nations and institutions concurring, expressed dismay over the systematic, egregious violations of numerous OSCE commitments in the lead up to and during the elections.  On October 21, Ambassador of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Stephan M. Minikes stated: “In light of the damning reports from the OSCE IEOM, of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and of independent domestic and international NGOs about the intimidating electoral environment, the deficient and abusively implemented legal electoral framework and misconduct during actual voting and vote counting, the Government of Belarus has called into question its own democratic authority and legitimacy and that of its constitution.” The international media slammed the referendum and elections.  On October 19, The New York Times called the elections a “sham” while The Washington Post titled its lead editorial “The Rape of Belarus.”  Not surprisingly, only the contingent of observers from the “Commonwealth of Independent States,” a dubious group yet to issue a critical assessment of an election in a member state, gave its ringing endorsement of the elections. Commission observers concluded that the regime's domination over the media and constant assault on the independent press together with the authorities’ near-total control of all facets of the electoral apparatus resulted in a referendum and parliamentary election that were neither free nor fair.  There was a stark absence of any kind of a level playing field and a profound lack of transparency in the electoral process.  The Government of Belarus has repeatedly failed to address the four OSCE criteria for free and fair elections in Belarus established more than four years ago.  It was evident throughout the electoral period that a chilling climate of fear remains in Belarus . Commission staff were particularly struck by the extent of the domination and shameless bias of state-run news media, especially Belarusian Television One which, in its post-referendum coverage, evoked pre-glasnost, Soviet-era television in addition to other forms of agitation and propaganda.  The struggling independent media has faced escalating pressures. The courage, determination and resourcefulness of the independent media, as well as that of NGOs and the democratic opposition was impressive.  Each persists in providing alternative viewpoints and perspectives in the face of overwhelming odds.  Lukashenka’s crackdown has swept other independent institutions, such as schools and independent trade unions.  Last month, for instance, a U.N. International Labor Organization (ILO) Commission of Inquiry report found evidence of severe workers’ rights violations in Belarus . It did not take long for Lukashenka’s true colors to re-emerge following his referendum “victory.”  Commission staff observed approximately 2,000 people peacefully protesting against the falsified referendum results the day after the October 17 vote.  Security forces showed restraint, perhaps because of the presence of international media and observers.  However, during an October 19 demonstration, security forces viciously beat United Civic Party leader Anatoly Lebedka, causing him to be hospitalized.  Some 40 individuals were beaten, arrested and detained for peacefully protesting the “official results” of the elections and referendum.  Both Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), who met with Lebedka on several occasions in Washington and in Europe during meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, condemned the violence. “The violence perpetrated by the authorities only serves to further expose the nature of Lukashenka’s dictatorial regime,” said Chairman Smith.  “One would think that with his referendum ‘victory,’ Lukashenka would have enough confidence to allow peaceful expression of views without resorting to brutal force,” added Co-Chairman Campbell. The farcical October 17 elections underscore the importance of the Belarus Democracy Act, with its strong commitment to democracy, human rights and rule of law in Belarus. The Belarus Democracy Act Despite the widespread belief both within and outside Belarus that the passage of the Belarus Democracy Act was linked with the referendum, it was actually the result of the exigencies of the congressional calendar, as the 108th Congress moved toward adjournment.  The Belarus Democracy Act (BDA), sponsored by Chairman Smith, unanimously passed the House of Representatives on October 4 and the United States Senate on October 6.  The original measure was introduced in the Senate by Co-Chairman Campbell. Passage of the BDA provoked harsh reaction from Minsk.  Lukashenka derided Members of Congress as “dumb asses” for passing the bill.  The Belarusian Foreign Ministry resorted to worn-out accusations of “interference in internal affairs.” On October 21, President George W. Bush signed the BDA into law stating, “At a time when freedom is advancing around the world, Aleksandr Lukashenka and his government are turning Belarus into a regime of repression in the heart of Europe, its government isolated from its neighbors and its people isolated from each other.” “The Belarus Democracy Act will help us support those within Belarus who are working toward democracy,” Bush added.  “We welcome this legislation as a means to bolster friends of freedom and to nurture the growth of democratic values, habits, and institutions within Belarus.  The fate of Belarus will rest not with a dictator, but with the students, trade unionists, civic and religious leaders, journalists, and all citizens of Belarus claiming freedom for their nation.” The BDA promotes democratic development, human rights and the rule of law in Belarus, and encourages the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus’ sovereignty and independence.  The bill authorizes assistance for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, independent media – including radio broadcasting into Belarus – and international exchanges. The BDA also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections; supports imposition of sanctions on Lukashenka’s regime; and requires reports from the president concerning the sale or delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to rogue states and reports on Lukashenka’s personal wealth and assets as well as those of other senior Belarusian leaders. 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.  

  • Supporting Democracy in Belarus

    Mr. President, I welcome the unanimous passage of the Belarus Democracy Act, BDA, by the United States Senate last night following similar action by the House of Representatives earlier this week. As co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I am particularly pleased at timely adoption of this important legislation. I thank Chairman Lugar and Senator Biden for their assistance in facilitating consideration of this bill by the full Senate.   Repression and stagnation have been the hallmarks of the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenka, the leader of Belarus who increasingly tightened the noose around those who express independent views. A series of fundamentally flawed elections have left Belarus without legitimate executive and parliamentary leadership. Against this backdrop, preparations are underway for parliamentary elections and a referendum later this month. The elections take place in an environment in which the regime has intensified its repression of the remaining independent media and vilification of the opposition and their supporters. Lukashenka is also seeking to manipulate the situation to extend his rule by eliminating constitutional term limits for president, possibly paving the way for him to become a ``president-for-life.''   As co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I have maintained a strong interest in Belarus and have tried to inform my Senate colleagues about the increasingly troubling developments in that strategically located country, whose 10 million people have suffered cruelty at the hands of czars, Nazis, Communists and now, Aleksandr Lukashenka. During my service on the Commission, I have met and come to know many of the courageous individuals, who often at personal risk have spoken out in support of democracy in the face of Europe's last dictatorship, including the spouses of opposition leaders and a journalist who disappeared in 1999 and 2000 because they dared speak to the truth.   Belarus, under Lukashenka, has the worst human rights record in Europe. His regime has increasingly violated basic human rights and freedoms. The goal of the Belarus Democracy Act is to help put an end to repression and human rights violations in Belarus and to promote Belarus' entry into a democratic Euro-Atlantic community of nations following years of self-imposed isolation.   The Belarus Democracy Act authorizes additional assistance for democracy-building activities such as support for NGOs, independent media, including radio broadcasting to Belarus, and international exchanges. It also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections, which have been notably absent in Belarus and which look to be highly problematic when they are held on October 17, judging by the pre-election environment and the regime's tight control over the electoral process.   The BDA includes sense of the Congress language that would prohibit U.S. Government financing, except for humanitarian reasons and U.S. executive directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance for humanitarian needs. The bill also requires a report from the President concerning the sale of delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to rogue states and on the personal wealth and assets of Lukashenka.   Nearly 2 years after the introduction of the Belarus Democracy Act the situation in that country has spiraled downward. Adoption and implementation of the Belarus Democracy Act will offer hope that the current period of political, economic and social stagnation will indeed end. It shows our concrete support for the courageous individuals, non-governmental organizations, independent media and independent trade unions struggling mightily against the machine of repression. And it shows our support for the people of Belarus, who deserve a chance for a brighter future.

  • Belarus Democracy Act of 2004

    Mr. Speaker, I rise to urge passage of H.R. 854, the Belarus Democracy Act. With important parliamentary elections in Belarus scheduled for October 17, it is essential that we pass the Belarus Democracy Act. This Congress must demonstrate its strong support for pro-democracy forces in Belarus and advance U.S. interests in the region. Now is the time to send a strong signal. Since his election in 1995, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka has steadily undermined democratic institutions through a series of unfair elections and a seriously flawed constitutional referendum. The U.S. State Department, Helsinki Commission which I Chair, as well as the OSCE, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union and other international entities have all chronicled the appalling state of human rights and democracy there. Located in the heart of Europe, Belarus is juxtaposed to our NATO allies and will soon border the European Union. The Lukashenka regime has repeatedly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion. Since I introduced the Belarus Democracy Act last year, the situation in Belarus has only become more difficult. Just within the last few months, the independent media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), independent trade unions, religious groups, and democratic opposition leaders have faced increased harassment, arrest, detentions, and even violence. Opposition leaders have been imprisoned and beaten. NGOs have been closed down with increasing frequency. Independent media outlets continue to feel the wrath of the powers-that-be, including closures, defamation lawsuits, exorbitant fines, confiscations of newspapers or the suspension of their distribution, censorship and the deportation of an independent journalist from Ukraine who had lived in Belarus since 1990. Independent trade unions are subject to a pattern of obstruction, harassment and intimidation by the authorities. In short, the situation in Belarus continues its downward spiral with daily reports of growing repression and human rights violations. Here in Washington and at various OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meetings, I've had occasion to meet with the wives of the disappeared. The cases of their husbands, Yuri Zakharenka, Victor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky, and journalist Dmitri Zavadsky who disappeared in 1999 and 2000 and are presumed to have been murdered, are a stark illustration of the climate of fear that pervades in Belarus. I am pleased that just last week the United States, together with the European Union, has decided to restrict admission to four top Belarusian officials implicated in these politically motivated disappearances. Reports of arms and weapons deals between the Belarusian regime and rogue states continue to circulate. Lukashenka and his regime were open in their support of Saddam Hussein. On August 24, the Treasury Department charged that Infobank of Belarus has been involved with money laundering involving fraudulent transactions pertaining to Iraq, where funds laundered by Saddam Hussein's regime were derived from schemes to circumvent the UN Oil-for-Food program. PROVISIONS OF BDA Mr. Speaker, the main purpose of the BDA is to demonstrate U.S. support for those struggling to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus despite the onerous pressures they face from the anti-democratic regime. This bill authorizes necessary assistance for democracy-building activities such as support for NGOs, independent media, including radio and television broadcasting to Belarus, and international exchanges. The bill also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections, conducted in a manner consistent with international standards, in sharp contrast to the 2000 parliamentary and 2001 presidential elections in Belarus which flaunted democratic standards. As a result of those elections, Belarus has the distinction of lacking legitimate presidential and parliamentary leadership, which contributes to its self-imposed isolation. Parliamentary elections now have an added dimension, with Lukashenka's September 7 announcement of a referendum to take place on the same day, that would pave the way to extend his rule beyond 2006, when his tenure is due to expire, to potentially join the ranks of "presidents for life" like President Niyazov in Turkmenistan and others in Central Asia. As matters stand now, the deck appears to be stacked in Lukashenka's favor, as the Belarusian Government has almost total control of the electoral process. Opposition parties have been allocated a negligible percentage of seats on district and precinct election commissions, and many candidates proposed by Belarusian democratic opposition parties have been denied registration. To their credit, the embattled opposition and non-governmental organizations have not given up. I have met with the leaders of the Belarusian opposition and have been impressed with their determination to participate in the coming elections and their courageous work to advance democracy, human rights and the rule of law, despite all of the obstacles placed in their way by the Lukashenka regime. In addition, this bill includes “sense of Congress” language that would impose sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. U.S. Government financing would be prohibited, except for humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products. The U.S. Executive Directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance that serve humanitarian needs. This bill also requires reports from the President concerning the sale or delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to rogue states and on the personal assets and wealth of Lukashenka and other senior leadership in Belarus. I hope that the Belarus Democracy Act will help support those who desire a genuinely independent, democratic Belarus and serve as a catalyst to facilitate Belarus' integration into democratic Europe. The measure is designed to be a counterweight to the pattern of clear, gross and uncorrected human rights violations by the Lukashenka regime. The Belarusian people, who have suffered so much both under past and present dictatorships, deserve to live in a society where democratic principles and human rights are respected. We must stand firmly on the side of those who long for freedom.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Delivers Remarks on Belarus, Ukraine Elections

    * Conference on the Implications of the East European Elections: Ukraine and Belarus The Heritage Foundation Thank you for inviting me to participate in your important and timely session. Both Ukraine and Belarus face important elections in the coming month.  Both are societies burdened by the Soviet communist legacy of the past.  Both were “Captive Nations” and both, albeit to varying degrees,  are vulnerable to Russia’s political and economic influence, especially  as all too many among the Russian political elite have not yet reconciled themselves to the loss of empire.  Both now border on NATO and the EU.   Both face serious challenges to democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration. There are many other similarities.  There are also important distinctions. Belarus is ruled by a dictator who controls the levers of power and increasingly all facets ofBelarusian society.  Given the level of control and repression, there are few counterweights to Lukashenka’s rule.  The parliament, the National Assembly lacks real powers and Members have little power to be independent of Lukashenka’s strong-arm tactics.  Civil society, including NGOs and independent media, is under a tight lid.  Fundamentally flawed elections have left that country lacking a legitimate president and legislature. Ukraine, for all of the backsliding, scandals, and problems with respect to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, has institutions that act at least somewhat as a check on the powers-that-be, despite the ruling regime’s attempts to control and, in some instances, stifle genuine democratic development and civil society.  Civil society is tolerated to a greater extent than in Belarus, and independent media, while under severe pressure, is more widespread.  There are competing centers of power and many diverse economic, political and social interests in Ukraine.  In the case of Ukraine, despite the progress in many areas since independence, there have been significant problems with respect to implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, including in the areas of media freedoms, freedom of association and assembly, corruption, the rule of law and elections.  The largest faction in the Rada is that of democratic opposition and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine.  The pro-presidential parliamentary majority has disintegrated, with the defection earlier this month of the party led by Rada Speaker Lytvyn.  Genuine political competition exists, and, of course, there is competition among the oligarchs.  In Belarus, there is only one oligarch.  Although the Kuchma regime might be tempted, thus far, they have not been able to act with the same degree of impunity that Lukashenka exhibits. International attention is rightly now focused on ensuring free, fair, open and transparent presidential elections on October 31 with a second round likely in late November.  These elections are critically important to the future of Ukraine, yet we see on a daily basis an election campaign that calls into question Ukraine’s commitment to OSCE principles.  Without exaggeration, Ukraine is facing a critical presidential election – a choice not only between Euro-Atlantic integration versus reintegration into the former Soviet Eurasian space, but a choice between further development toward a European-style democracy, such as in Poland or Hungary,  versus the increasingly authoritarian system that prevails in Russia today. Many analysts and organizations, including the Helsinki Commission, have chronicled the numerous election campaign violations taking place inUkraine.  We continue to maintain our strong interest and concern.  Along with Chairman Henry Hyde, I joined him in introducing H.Con.Res. 415, calling on the Government of Ukraine to ensure a democratic, transparent, and fair election process for the presidential campaign.  We make clear the expectation that Ukrainian authorities should – consistent with their own laws and international agreements – ensure an election process that enables all of the candidates to compete on a level playing field.   We urge the Ukrainian Government to guarantee freedom of association and assembly, ensure full transparency of the election process, free access for Ukrainian and international election observers, and unimpeded access by all candidates to the media on a non-discriminatory basis. Unfortunately, the pre-election environment in Ukraine gives great cause for concern.  Ukrainian voters clearly are not receiving balanced and objective information about all the candidates in the race, independent media providing Ukrainians with objective information about the campaign – including channel 5 – is being shut down in the regions, and journalists who don’t follow the infamous secret instructions from the presidential administration, or temnyky, are harassed and even fired.  Ukraine’s state-owned television channels are blatantly anti-Yushchenko.  Given the stakes in these elections, we should not be surprised that the ruling regime has launched an all-out campaign against the free media and against the opposition, the most recent of numerous examples being the highly suspicious poisoning of Victor Yushchenko.  To its credit, the Rada last week overwhelmingly approved a resolution creating a special commission to investigate this alleged assassination attempt.  We will be eager to see if the investigation will get underway.  Four years have passed since the killing of independent journalist Georgi Gongadze, and the case remains unresolved.  As you know, Gongadze was bravely exposing high-level corruption in Ukraine. The Rada has also created an ad-hoc committee to monitor the upcoming election.  Prime Minister Yanukovych, the presidential candidate of the ruling regime, instead of welcoming this move, called the Rada move “disloyal”.  This speaks volumes.   The independence exhibited by the Rada in Ukraine would be unthinkable in Belarus.  There, serious and persistent violations have been committed in most human dimension areas, including freedom of speech, association and assembly, media freedoms, religious liberties, elections and the rule of law.  Thanks to Lukashenka’s iron rule, Belarus has the worst human rights record in Europe today, although Russia under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Putin appears to be catching up, and, perhaps, even emulating Mr. Lukashenka.  Regrettably, the Belarusian authorities have disregarded the four democratic benchmarks established by the OSCE in 2000 – ending repressions and the climate of fear, permitting a functioning independent media, ensuring transparency of the elections process, and strengthening the functions of parliament. Lukashenka has flaunted shamelessly his 1999 Istanbul OSCE Summit declaration commitments for a political dialogue, with OSCE participation which stressed the necessity of removing "all remaining obstacles in Belarus to this dialogue by respecting the principles of the rule of law and the freedom of the media.” Lukashenka has pointedly ignored this commitment and the situation with respect to the rule of law and media freedoms has only continued its steady deterioration.  At the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Bucharest in 2000, I offered language to continue to deny the seating of the illegitimate Lukashenka parliament.  We won.  I continued to fight this battle until 2003, when the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly abandoned this position and seated the Members of the National Assembly.  Since that time, I’ve continued to be an outspoken critic of the dismal human rights record of the Lukashenka regime. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in Belarus for October 17, and they now have an added dimension, with Lukashenka’s September 7 announcement of a referendum that would pave the way to extend his rule beyond 2006, when his ten-year tenure is due to expire, to potentially join the ranks of “presidents for life,” like President Niyazov in Turkmenistan and others in Central Asia.   The fact that, according to the Belarusian electoral code, a referendum cannot contain any questions related to presidential elections will certainly not deter him.  Interestingly, opinion polls suggest that most Belarusians are against extending Lukashenka’s rule, and the threshold for passage of the referendum is high, as at least 50 percent of all eligible voters – and not merely those casting ballots – have to vote “yes” for the referendum to pass.  We will see how they manipulate that one. Nevertheless, to say that the deck is stacked in favor of Lukashenka is an understatement.   The Belarusian Government has almost total control over the electoral process and considerable experience in conducting elections that, to put it mildly, do not meet international democratic standards.  For example, opposition parties have been allocated a mere two percent of seats on the district election commissions, and an appalling 0.2 percent of the 7,000 precinct commissions.  One-third of the candidates proposed by Belarusian opposition parties were reportedly denied registration. Ladies and gentlemen, to their credit, Belarus’ repressed and embattled opposition and NGOs have not yet given up.  We need to continue to support these brave men and women and all those struggling for democracy and human rights in Belarus.  I am the sponsor of the BelarusDemocracy Act, which is waiting for consideration by the full House.  The BDA is intended to promote democracy, human rights and rule of law inBelarus, including assistance for democracy building activities such as support for NGOs, independent media, international exchanges and international broadcasting.  We want to stand firmly on the side of those who long for freedom.  As President Bush noted at Madison Square Garden earlier this month [on September 2], “The story of America is the story of expanding liberty:  an ever-widening circle, constantly growing to reach further and include more. Our nation’s founding commitment is still our deepest commitment:  In our world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom.” We are eager to have governments and parliaments in both countries with whom we can join forces to combat the scourges of our day, such as human trafficking, HIV/AIDS which has reportedly infected one percent of Ukraine’s population, or corruption and cooperation on movement towards common security and Euro-Atlantic integration.  We know that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Belarusian women and children have been trafficked mostly to Europe and the Middle East over the course of the last decade.  The problem is especially acute in Ukraine – one of the largest source countries in Europe.  Ukraine is also a major transit country.  Both Ukraine and Belarus have been designated in the most recent State Department report as Tier II countries (there are three tiers), meaning that these governments do not yet fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.  As the lead author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and its reauthorization which became law in 2003, I am pleased that our government, the OSCE and other international organizations and NGOs are devoting resources to combat this modern day slavery, but much more remains to be done. For both Ukraine and Belarus, the best guarantee for their survival as independent countries is the full establishment of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, including, very importantly, democratic elections.  In short, the best guarantee is their implementation of commitments both nations freely undertook when they joined the OSCE.  Standing in solidarity with the courageous pro-democracy in both countries and with the people of Belarusand Ukraine, we must continue to encourage compliance with these commitments. END REMARKS

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