By Orest S. Deychakiwsky and Ronald J. McNamara
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.