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Belarus

Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people which gained its independence in 1991, has a troubled record on human rights that has complicated its relationships with the U.S. and the EU for much of the past 20 years. 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, including the most recent parliamentary election held in September 2016, 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, association, and religion. The democratic opposition and NGOs operate 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. Most notably, Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith has authored three public laws on Belarus – the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006, and the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011.  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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  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • The Current Situation in Belarus

    This briefing evaluated the signs of serious deterioration in the political and economic situation as growing authoritarianism and repression of human rights that had become the subject of increasing concern both within and outside Belarus. The violation of Belarus' freely undertaken commitments under the OSCE in regards to basic rights and freedoms, freedom of expression, assembly, and association was also addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Zyanon Paznyak, Chairman of the Belarus Popular Front; Jack Segal, Director of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Moldovan Affairs for the State Department; Jan Zaprudnik, Former Editor of Radio Liberty, Belarus; and Antti Korkeakivi, CIS Legal Advisor for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – examined the role of President Lukashenko in the formation of the lawless regime in Belarus. Numerous violations of human rights were cited by all witnesses, and the role of Russian support for these types of policies was also discussed.

  • The Legacy of Chernobyl

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) presided over this hearing, which marked the tenth anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the worst of its kind. Ten years out, what transpired had grave implications for Ukraine and Belarus. More specifically, according to Smith, “The explosion of the reactor at Chornobyl released 200 more times more radioactivity than was released by the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” Likewise, thyroid cancer in Belarusian children was extremely entrenched. Perhaps most worryingly, at the time of this hearing, the obliterated fourth nuclear reactor’s “sarcophagus” had developed serious cracks, which, if uncontained, could have released tons of radioactive dust into the environment.

  • Summary of the OSCE Rule of Law Seminar

    From November 28 to December 1, 1995, the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened a seminar on the rule of law. The meeting was organized by the Warsaw-based OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Thirty-eight of the 53 fully participating States attended, along with representatives from two Non-Participating Mediterranean States, six international organizations, and 25 non-governmental organizations. Over the course of two days, a number of emerging democracies described the constitutions and other legislative provisions that had been adopted in their countries to provide for the rule of law, at least on paper. Western participants, for their part, generally spoke of the specific and concrete challenges faced in their countries in actually implementing safeguards for the rule of law. In general, the participation of East-Central European and former Soviet countries—most of which attended this meeting—was more active than at the 1991 Oslo meeting, and Western participants, for their part, avoided the West-West bickering that marred the earlier seminar. At the end of the meeting, the rapporteurs produced summaries of the discussions.

  • Religious Liberty: The State Church and Minority Faiths

    Samuel G. Wise, Director for International Policy at the US Helsinki Commission, presented the second briefing in a series focusing on religious liberty in the participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This particular discussion was intended to evaluate the relationship between state churches or traditional religious and freedom of religion for minority faiths in the OSCE region through an analysis of the effects of certain historical legacies on individual states. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Father Kishkovsky, Ecumenical Officer of the Orthodox Church in America; Father George Papaioannou, Pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church; Gerard Powers, Foreign Policy Advisor for the U.S. Catholic Conference; Lauren Homer, Founder of Law and Liberty Trust; and Lee Boothby, Vice President of the Council on Religious Freedom – focused on the issue of minority and majority in society as it relates to religion and the potential for this issue to result in conflict. The historical origins of these tensions, especially in Eastern Europe, were particularly emphasized. 

  • Religious Liberty in the OSCE: Present and Future

    Speaking on behalf of Congressman Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman and co-chairman of the Helsinki Committee, the Committee’s Director for International Policy, Samuel G. Wise, addressed the improvements made by the countries of the OSCE in religious liberty since the demise of communism. Observed deficits in this particular subject were also evaluated, including acts of OSCE governments perpetrating religious intolerance and discrimination against people of faith by passing laws favoring certain religions, turning a blind eye to harassment, and establishing bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent religious minorities from practicing their faith. Each panelist – including Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow of Political Theory for the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow for the Institute for International Studies; and Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke to the overall factors affecting religious freedom in the OSCE, including: respect for other freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion, ethno-cultural tensions, and the relevance of old prejudices. These ideas were presented in the context of moving towards a more comprehensive respect for religious freedom among OSCE member states in the future.

  • Trade and Investment in Central Europe and the NIS

    This briefing was the tenth in a series of briefings covering topics such as U.S. assistance to Central and East Europe and the NIS, and free trade unions. Topics of discussion included the economic aspects of efforts to develop institutional networks between the Central and Eastern European countries and the OSCE and the Western European multilateral structures and the progress that has been made by countries in developing association agreements with the European Union. Witnesses testifying at this briefing – including Harriet Craig Peterson, President of Cornerstone International Group and Thomas Price, Coordinator for OSCE Affairs for the State Department – evaluated regional issues associated with infrastructure, environment, energy, and border procedures that needed to be addressed to produce a smoother flow of goods from an economic perspective.

  • U.S. Assistance to Central and Eastern Europe and the NIS: An Assessment

    This briefing discussed the successes achieved and the difficulties encountered on the road to democratic reform and stabilization are reflected throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and evaluated the impact of these factors in the scope and tenor of U.S. assistance programs. Such programs involve assistance to countries throughout the region in democratic institution building, market reform and restructuring, health care improvement, energy efficiency, environmental policy, and housing sector reform. Witnesses testifying at this briefing addressed the relevance of the crisis in Chechnya, continued conflict in the Balkans, and tensions in various parts of East-Central Europe to United States Interests in the region. They focused on the goals of U.S. assistance to the NIS and East-Central Europe and the effectiveness of current programs in furthering those goals.

  • Report: The Belarusian Presidential Election

    Belarus, with an area of over 80,000 square miles, is located in east central Europe, between Latvia, Lithuania and Poland on'the West and Northwest, with Russia on the East and Northeast, and Ukraine to the South. Of the approximately 10.3 million population, 78 percent are Belarusian, 13 percent Russian, 4 percent Polish, and 3 percent Ukrainian. A small Lithuanian population is concentrated near the Lithuanian border. Part of the Russian Empire since the second and third partitions of Poland in the latter half of the 18th century, Belarus enjoyed brief independence following the Bolshevik revolution. In November 1918, the Red Army entered Minsk and established the Belarussian SSR. During the Cold War era, Belarus was a quiescent, almost completely Russified Soviet republic. Popular discontent was stirred up in 1986 by the radioactive winds of the Chemobyl nuclear reactor disaster in neighboring Ukraine. and Moscow's incompetence in dealing with the· crisis. A year later, exposure of the mass graves of Stalin's victims at Kuropaty added to anti-Moscow .feelings. Unexpected and uncharacteristic mass strikes and public protests met President Gorbachev's April 1991. prices increases -- only a month after the March 1991 "Referendum on the Union," in which 83 percent of Belarusian voters favored preservation of the USSR.

  • CSCE to Examine Repression against Evangelicals in Former Soviet Union

    Chris Smith, ranking Republican on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, addressed both the opportunities for democratic, economic, and social reforms in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the difficulties of achieving these reforms presented by renewed tensions based on nationality and religion. The rise of extreme nationalism was cited as a key factor in the rise of religious intolerance in this region. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Boris Pechatkin and Edward Zawistowski of the Russian-American Institute for Adaption, and Lauren Homer, Director of Law and Liberty Trust – addressed the difficulties that have been encountered in ending religious prosecution following the fall of the Soviet Union. The impact of a breakdown of law and order in the countries of Eastern Europe was evaluated as a mechanism for religious injustice.

  • Staff Delegation to Moscow, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus

    Each country visited by the delegation has its own particular problems, as they all cope with their newly acquired independence. Their implementation of CSCE commitments naturally reflects the political circumstances obtaining in the country at large. Belarus exhibits little evidence of ethnic conflict (the situation of the Polish minority, while worrisome, is unlikely to become a state-threatening crisis) and Belarus has historic and ethnic reasons to cleave to Russia, despite the breakup of the USSR. As in Turkmenistan, Belarus's post-Soviet "stability" appears to mean relatively little organized political activity and the survival in power of the renamed Communist Party elite. On the other hand, such "stability" retards growth away from Soviet reality. By contrast, Georgia and Moldova are far more unstable. They share the unhappy reality of ethnic war, exacerbated in Georgia by a bitter rift between supporters of the current and former authorities. As states without Slavic majorities and with historic reasons to fear Russian domination, their efforts to create a non-Soviet personality and structure have been accompanied by major disruptions and bloodshed, while their relations with Russia -- an important factor in their hopes to achieve stability -- have been stormy. Georgia is engulfed in bloody ethnic disputes (particularly in South Ossetia, where a multilateral peacekeeping force has restrained the violence, and Abkhazia) and a political conflict (between backers of ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze). Gamsakhurdia's removal by force last January is the key to Georgian politics today, as it determines the legitimacy -- or lack of legitimacy -- of the current government and the battle between adherents of the opposing sides. Whether stability can be attained under such circumstances, even after the scheduled October parliamentary election, is unclear. Consequently, prospects are uncertain in Georgia for resolving ethnic tensions and establishing a law-based state which observes human rights and protects national minorities. The chief concern in Moldova is the carnage of the civil war in Transdniestria. President Snegur and other officials emphasized their wish to find a just solution to the issue but were clearly concerned about the aggressive position of Russia, while two major political groups charged that the Snegur administration had gravely mishandled the crisis. Parliamentarians and government representatives outlined other areas in which Chisinau was attempting to reconcile various claims and interests of the ethnic Moldovan Romanophone majority with those of the many other ethnic groups in the country. The editor of the major Jewish newspaper in Chisinau reported a significant rise in Jewish cultural activities, but also detected signs of an increase in "day-to-day anti-Semitism." Evangelical Christian leaders reported that their churches were carrying on an extensive program of evangelization, despite what they considered a noticeable tilt in Moldovan "freedom of conscience" legislation toward the "national" Orthodox church. In Belarus, democratization has made relatively little progress. The Belarusian Popular Front and its allies have secured enough petition signatures to force a referendum on establishing a new parliament, but the Front fears that the old-line majority in the parliament will delay holding the referendum until it can reinforce its grip on power. The press is entirely subsidized by the government, limiting the opposition's ability to get its message out. There are at least four "secrecy" refuseniks in Belarus, and although a new "exit and entry" law is being drafted, OVIR officials defended the present practice of detaining emigration applicants for up to five years on the basis of their access to "secrets." The leader of the Belarus Baptist community was enthusiastic about the new freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by the church, and praised Supreme Soviet Chairman Shushkevich for his positive attitude toward believers in Belarus. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk and Mogilev charged that Minsk was delaying the return of churches and church property to the church, apparently out of fear that the predominantly Polish-language church was part of a Polish irredentist movement in Western Belarus.

  • The New Commonwealth of Independent States: Problems, Perspectives, and U.S. Policy Implications

    This hearing discussed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a series of succeeding states. The hearing covered the theme of regional and ethnic divisions as key elements in the unpredicted dissolution of the Soviet Union. The witnesses covered the particular challenges of securing peaceful independence from the “commonwealth of former Soviet Republics” and the democratization process. The conversation centered on the human rights dimension and the process of newly created states signing on to several international treaties and obtaining memberships in international organizations.

  • Vienna Review Meeting of the CSCE - Phase III and IV

    The main activity of the Vienna Meeting throughout Phases III and IV was the presentation and negotiation of proposals for inclu sion in the concluding document of the meeting. The number (more than 160), complexity and controversial nature of many of these propos­als led to the extension of the Vienna Meeting well beyond its target closing date of July 31. These factors, along with other ele­ments such as continuing major shortcomings in the implementa­ tion of existing commitments, are largely responsible for the con­tinuation of the Vienna Meeting into 1988. The slow pace of progress already evident in Phase II continued through the next phase. Each side defended its own proposals but showed little disposition to begin the process of compromise which could lead to the conclusion of the meeting. The main procedural development during this phase was the appointment of coordina­tors from the neutral and non-aligned states to guide the work of the drafting groups. This development provided greater order and structure for the proceedings but did little to advance the drafting work or to induce compromises. Other major developments during this phase were the introduc­tion of the long-awaited Western proposal on military security and the tabling of a comprehensive compromise proposed in Basket III by two neutral delegations, Austria and Switzerland. Both propos­als were put forth at the very end of the phase and thus did not have much impact until the next phase. The Western (NATO) proposal on military security questions was designed as a response to the Eastern proposal which envisioned two main objectives: another round of negotiations on confidence­ and security-building measures (CSBMs) to build upon the success­ful Stockholm meeting and the initiation of negotiations on conven­tional disarmament, both within the same CSCE forum. The West­ern response to this proposal was delayed primarily because of United States and French differences over the connection between the conventional arms negotiations and the CSCE process, the French arguing that the negotiations should be an integral part of the process and the U.S. insisting that they be independent. The issue was resolved by agreement that the negotiations would be "within the framework of the CSCE," but should remain autono­mous.

  • List of Organizations Involved in Exchange Programs with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

    The Commission developed this report to help in­terested persons and organizations participate in exchange pro­grams with the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. It lists organizations which conduct exchange programs and other contacts with these countries. The parties to the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe declared their intention to expand cooperation in security, economic, humanitarian, information, culture, and education affairs and to respect and put into practice certain basic principles, including those of human rights. The Final Act was signed in Helsinki on August 1, 1975, by 35 heads of state or govern­ment, including the United States, Canada, and every state in Europe except Albania. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsin­ki Commission) was created as an independent government agency in 1976 to monitor compliance with the Final Act and to encourage U.S. governmental and private programs to expand East-West eco­nomic and cultural cooperation and exchange of people and ideas. In the Final Act, the signatories express the view that cultural exchanges and development of relations in education and science contribute to the strengthening of peace, better mutual under­ standing, and enrichment of the human personality. In the Com­ mission's view, exchange programs with the Soviet bloc countries break down barriers and lessen distrust. They help Americans learn about the views and goals of these societies. Such programs help expose the peoples of these countries to the values and goals of our pluralistic society. Critical to such programs is that Americans are given the opportunity to tell the Soviets and their allies on a personal level about their concern for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

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