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Helsinki Commission Staff Observe Farcical Belarus Elections
Belarus Democracy Act Becomes Law
Tuesday, November 09, 2004

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.

 

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    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. The briefing, held on March 18, 2022, explored the various military strategies available to the West in its defense of Ukraine. Panelists examined Ukraine’s militaristic capabilities, as well as the various risks associated with implementing military recommendations, such as humanitarian air corridors or NATO-enforced no-fly zones. Panelists at the briefing included General Wesley Clark, founder of Renew America Together and senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations; Dr. Stacie Pettyyjohn, senior fellow and director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security; and Dr. Matthew Kroenig, director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire moderated the briefing. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by reaffirming his support for the facilitation of transferring Polish fighter jets to Ukraine, as well as his confidence in the strength and capability of the Ukrainian military. “The Ukrainian army has proven to be [pretty good] at knowing what they can do with their equipment,” he said. “It’s a conflict between rule of law and rule of gun.” Mr. Cecire explained that despite Russia’s obvious military advantages, the Ukrainian military has thus far successfully stymied Russian aggression. Unfortunately, as Russian forces grow frustrated with their lack of military progress, they have become increasingly indiscriminate in their attacks, targeting innocent Ukrainian civilians, and bombarding critical infrastructure, such as shelters and hospitals. General Clark advocated for a humanitarian airlift, implemented with U.N. approval, and a no-fly zone, as requested by Ukraine. He asserted that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin will eventually strike NATO territory with missiles, and that Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation should not deter Western states from defending a rules-based international order. “There’s a fallacy here, that somehow NATO inaction will translate into Putin’s refusal to escalate. This is a logical fallacy,” he said. “Putin will escalate as necessary to obtain his objectives. So I’m trying to find a third course of action between Ukrainian defense and Russian escalation, which is to provide the firebreak of a humanitarian rescue mission assigned into various locations that puts a firebreak into the fighting that could lead to a ceasefire, that could lead eventually to, coupled with the sanctions, a Russian pullback and withdrawal.” Dr. Pettyjohn discussed the risks of implementing humanitarian no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, deeming them potentially escalatory and ineffective. A better alternative, she argued, would be for the international community to arm the Ukrainian people with mobile short-, medium-, and long-range air defenses, and to continue to provide precision standoff weapons. “The international community should help Ukraine, but not by following the post-Cold War playbook of implementing a no-fly zone,” she stated. “Against Russia, a no-fly zone would be even more difficult to implement and may not succeed… and it raises the potential for limited, or even more extensive than that, nuclear use, which is not something that I ever want to see in my lifetime.” Dr. Kroenig addressed the risk of nuclear escalation, arguing that although Russia’s threat of utilizing nuclear weapons in Ukraine should not be dismissed, the United States and NATO can enhance military support to Ukraine without escalating the risk on nuclear war. He advocated for the creation of humanitarian corridors, while cautioning against the establishment of a no-fly zone. “When it comes to no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, I think I might split the difference between Dr. Pettyjohn and General Clark. I do think a no-fly zone would run a real risk of escalation,” he said. “But I think something like a humanitarian corridor could work, supported by ground convoys.” Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Options to Contain Russia to Be Explored at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: CONTAINING RUSSIA Opposing Russian Imperialism in Ukraine and Beyond Wednesday, March 23, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe.  Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them.  At this hearing, military experts and strategic thinkers will explore options for curtailing Moscow’s ability to wage war on Ukraine and neighboring states, especially those outside the protective umbrella of NATO. The hearing will begin with brief remarks by Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova. The following witnesses also are scheduled to testify: General (Ret.) Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Distinguished Professor of the Practice and CETS Senior Fellow, Georgia Tech  Dr. Michael Kimmage, Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S, Department of State; Professor of History, The Catholic University of America; Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States  Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy   

  • Experts to Explore Options to Further Assist Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DOING MORE Assessing Ukraine’s Defensive Needs Friday, March 18, 2022 10:30 a.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. This briefing will convene military and strategic experts to discuss ways to further assist the people of Ukraine as they resist Russia’s invasion. The discussion will examine air defense strategies, the feasibility and implications of no-fly zones, and other forms of materiel support. Expert statements and a brief, moderated Q&A will be available live to the public. This will be followed by an informal, off-the-record discussion for congressional staff and U.S. Government personnel. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: General (Ret.) Wesley Clark, Senior Fellow, UCLA Burkle Center; Founder, Renew America Together Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security Dr. Matthew Koenig, Professor of Government, Georgetown University; Deputy Director, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security Director, Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council  

  • "Game-Changer"

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the international framework that has kept the peace in Europe since 1945, at a time when Baltic states Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia already faced complex and evolving security challenges. Beyond Putin’s existential threats, the Baltic states now must deal with a Belarus that has become little more than a staging area for Moscow to wage war on its peaceful neighbors. China’s economic and diplomatic pressures also continue to weigh heavily. Yet these three relatively small countries nevertheless are demonstrating courageous, principled, and effective leadership on the international stage. On March 17, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard from the chairs of the foreign affairs committees of the national parliaments of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. The three witnesses offered views on opportunities to address the deteriorating security situation in Europe, including and especially through partnership with the United States. Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) opened the hearing by acknowledging the vulnerable position the Baltic States are in as they face security challenges from Russia, Belarus, and China. He also praised the economic, military, and moral support the Baltic States have provided to Ukraine. “Once again, in this crisis the three Baltic countries are punching above their weight,” he said. “And I have every expectation they will continue to do so.” Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) emphasized the longstanding bonds between the Baltic countries and the United States, particularly throughout the era of Soviet occupation. “I suspect if the three Baltic countries were not members of NATO, you might have already met Vladimir Putin’s armies… we want to assure you that we are with you.” Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) underscored the deep and bipartisan commitment of the United States to Article 5 of NATO. “We stand with you on your sovereignty and will be there to protect the sovereignty of your countries against any attempt by Russia to interfere with that,” he said. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) expressed appreciation for the commitment Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have shown to promoting independence and freedom in Europe, and to their NATO membership. “The Baltic allies have been on the forefront of trying to stop the advance by Putin,” he said. He also praised the support the Baltic states are providing to Belarussian dissidents, activists, and opposition politicians. Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07) stressed the importance of the current moment for Baltic security and highlighted the Baltic Security Initiative, which bolsters the defense capabilities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in areas including air defense, maritime situational awareness, ammunition, C4ISR, and anti-tank capabilities. He said, “If we draw any lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s that we need to ensure our allies and our partners are too prickly for any adversary or competitor to swallow.” Laima Andrikiene, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Seimas of Lithuania, testified that the global democratic order has been ravaged and called on the United States to position permanent combat forces in Lithuania in order to build credible defense against Russian military threats. She also urged international allies not to forget the threat China poses. “The case of Lithuania is a test for the entire democratic world of our ability to withstand economic coercion and to deter China from using coercion as a regular foreign policy tool to advance its goals,” she said. Marko Mihkelson, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu of Estonia, warned of the brutality and ruthlessness of the Russian war machine, referencing his prior career as a journalist, when he reported on the Chechen War. “Russia’s blatant aggression and military invasion in Ukraine has caused a fundamental shift in the European security architecture and threatens the peace and stability of democratic nations, not only in Europe but worldwide,” he said. “The future of our common security will be decided in Ukraine.” Rihards Kols, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saeima of Latvia, described the hybrid warfare tactics Russia is employing and the importance of supporting a well-educated and informed society in order to counter hybrid threats. Kols advocated for decisive action against Putin and warned against hesitance. He said, “Nothing is more provocative to a dictator than the weakness of free nations.” Members asked the three witnesses a range of questions on how best to defeat Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and deter further aggression by Putin’s regime against the Baltic states and elsewhere. Related Information Witness Biographies Press Release: Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting; Delegation Also Travels to Lithuania to Support Crucial NATO Ally.  Field Hearing: Baltic Sea Regional Security

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Biden to Designate Ukraine, Georgia as Major Non-NATO Allies

    The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe, has called on the Biden administration to upgrade the United States’ defense relationship with Ukraine. The commission seeks to help facilitate military and economic assistance to Kyiv as Russian forces move to encircle the Ukrainian capital. In a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden obtained by Foreign Policy, the commission urged the administration to designate Ukraine and Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008, as major non-NATO allies (MNNA) and to reinvigorate U.S. support for the NATO accession of both countries.  “Although the United States has consistently supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership, Russia’s occupations and ongoing invasion expose the tragedy of long-stalled Euro-Atlantic enlargement,” wrote the commission, which is led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen. “Absent strong and proactive U.S. backing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to take ample advantage in his aspirations to upend security and cooperation in Europe and his neocolonial agenda,” the letter said. Both Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership to the defense alliance during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008. But despite extensive reform efforts, neither country has been offered a timetable for accession.  The United States has provided billions of dollars of military assistance to Ukraine since it was first invaded by Russia in 2014, with more than $1.2 billion approved over the past year. “This designation is a fair reflection of our current bilateral defense relationships and does not commit the United States to military action,” the commission letter said, which also recommended that the administration consider extending the status to other non-NATO members along Europe’s eastern flank: Finland, Moldova, and Sweden. Much of U.S. military aid for Ukraine has been approved through a range of ad hoc government funding mechanisms. Granting the country MNNA status would open a variety of established channels to facilitate arms transfers, financial assistance, and information sharing, smoothing the way for further cooperation. It would also send a powerful signal of support for both Kyiv and Tbilisi. Unlike NATO membership, MNNA status does not entail any mutual security and defense obligations. On Thursday, the White House announced it would designate Colombia and Qatar as major non-NATO allies, bringing the total number of countries to receive the title up to 19.  The title has usually been reserved for countries with no ambitions or prospects of joining NATO, which prompted the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to express wariness about the designation last year. “MNNA is a status for countries that do not plan/can not force political or geographical reasons to join NATO. This is definitely not about us,” she wrote in a Facebook post.  NATO accession is decided between the 30 members of the alliance, and an MNNA designation by the United States would not necessarily impede Ukraine’s membership prospects.  The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was founded in 1976 as an independent government agency to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a major Cold War-era diplomatic agreement that sought to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West as well as establish human rights and security norms. The commission is made up of 18 members of U.S. Congress drawn from both parties and representatives from the U.S. departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

  • Helsinki Commission calls on Biden administration to push for Russia's expulsion from Interpol

    An independent US government agency is calling on the Biden administration to push for Russia to be permanently expelled from Interpol — a step further than the suspension the administration has already sought — citing the invasion of Ukraine and previous abuses by Russia, according to a letter obtained by CNN. Earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland joined justice ministers from several allied countries to demand that Interpol immediately suspend Russia from accessing its systems, according to Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley.   Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, is a global agency which facilitates police across its 195 member countries to collaborate on criminal investigations. Interpol issues what are known as Red Notices to request the location and arrest of an individual pending their extradition. Friday’s letter from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe commended the steps the US has taken so far, but added that the administration should call for the permanent suspension of Russia. “We urge you to use the U.S. position in Interpol (and in particular Interpol's Executive Committee and its Advisory Group on Financial Matters) to make it clear that any failure to act against Russia's abuse of lnterpol will have grave consequences for the U.S. contribution to Interpol's budget and Interpol's legal immunities in the United States,” the letter, directed to Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reads. The commission — also known as the US Helsinki Commission — was created by Congress in 1976 with a focus on human rights, military security, and economic cooperation. It is led by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Steve Cohen. If Russia is suspended from Interpol, it would bar the country from continuing to participate and therefore put in requests for Red Notices, but it would not remove Red Notices that are already in the system, said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an expert in Interpol.

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