1999: A Critical Year for Belarus

1999: A Critical Year for Belarus

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, February 09, 1999

Mr. Speaker, last month, a Congress of Democratic Forces was held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The Congress demonstrated the resolve of the growing democratic opposition to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the determination by the opposition to have free, democratic elections consistent with the legitimate 1994 constitution.

 

Earlier last month, on January 10, members of the legitimate Belarusian parliament, disbanded by Lukashenka after the illegal 1996 constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16. According to the 1994 constitution, Lukashenka's term expires in July. Not surprisingly, Lukashenka rejects calls for a presidential election. Local elections are currently being planned for April, although many of the opposition plan not to participate, arguing that elections should be held only under free, fair and transparent conditions, which do not exist at the present time. Indeed, the law on local elections leaves much to be desired and does not provide for a genuinely free and fair electoral process.

 

The local elections and opposition efforts to hold presidential elections must be viewed against the backdrop of a deteriorating economic situation. One of the resolutions adopted by the Congress of Democratic Forces accuses Lukashenka of driving the country to “social tensions, international isolation and poverty.” As an example of the heightening tensions, just last weekend, Andrei Sannikov, the former deputy minister of Belarus and a leader of the Charter '97 human rights group, was brutally assaulted by members of a Russian-based ultranationalist organization. Additionally, Lukashenka's moves to unite with Russia pose a threat to Belarus' very sovereignty. Thus, Mr. Speaker, this year promises to be a critical year for Belarus.

 

Recently, a staff delegation of the (Helsinki) Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which I chair, traveled to Belarus, raising human rights concerns with high-ranking officials, and meeting with leading members of the opposition, independent media and nongovernmental organizations. The staff report concludes that the Belarusian Government continues to violate its commitments under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and that at the root of these violations lies the excessive power usurped by President Lukashenka since his election in 1994, especially following the illegitimate 1996 referendum. Although one can point to some limited areas of improvement, such as allowing some opposition demonstrations to occur relatively unhindered, overall OSCE compliance has not improved since the deployment of the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) almost one year ago. Freedoms of expression, association and assembly remain curtailed. The government hampers freedom of the media by tightly controlling the use of national TV and radio. Administrative and economic measures are used to cripple the independent media and NGOs. The political opposition has been targeted for repression, including imprisonment, detention, fines and harassment. The independence of the judiciary has been further eroded, and the President alone controls judicial appointments. Legislative power is decidedly concentrated in the executive branch of government.

 

The Commission staff report makes a number of recommendations, which I would like to share with my colleagues. The United States and OSCE community should continue to call upon the Belarusian Government to live up to its OSCE commitments and, in an effort to reduce the climate of fear which has developed in Belarus, should specifically encourage the Belarusian Government, inter alia, to: (1) Immediately release Alyaksandr Shydlauski (sentenced in 1997 to 18 months imprisonment for allegedly spray painting anti-Lukashenka graffiti) and review the cases of those detained and imprisoned on politically motivated charges, particularly Andrei Klymov and Vladimir Koudinov; (2) cease and desist the harassment of opposition activists, NGOs and the independent media and permit them to function; (3) allow the opposition access to the electronic media and restore the constitutional right of the Belarusian people to free and impartial information; (4) create the conditions for free and fair elections in 1999, including a provision in the election regulations allowing party representation on the central and local election committees; and (5) strengthen the rule of law, beginning with the allowance for an independent judiciary and bar.

 

With Lukashenka's term in office under the legitimate 1994 Constitution expiring in July 1999, the international community should make clear that the legitimacy of Lukashenka's presidency will be undermined unless free and fair elections are held by July 21. The United States and the international community, specifically the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, should continue to recognize only the legitimate parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, abolished by Lukashenka in 1996, and not the post-referendum, Lukashenka-installed, National Assembly. At the time, the United States, and our European allies and partners, denounced the 1996 referendum as illegitimate and extra-constitutional. The West needs to stand firm on this point, as the 13th Supreme Soviet and the 1994 Constitution are the only legal authorities. The democratically oriented opposition and NGOs deserve continued and enhanced moral and material assistance from the West. The United States must make support for those committed to genuine democracy a high priority in our civic development and NGO assistance.

 

I applaud and want to encourage such entities as USIS, the Eurasia Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, ABA/CEELI and others in their efforts to encourage the development of a democratic political system, free market economy and the rule of law in Belarus. The United States and the international community should strongly encourage President Lukashenka and the 13th Supreme Soviet to begin a dialogue which could lead to a resolution of the current constitutional crisis and the holding of democratic elections. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) could be a vehicle for facilitating such dialogue. The Belarusian Government should be encouraged in the strongest possible terms to cooperate with the OSCE AMG. There is a growing perception both within and outside Belarus that the Belarusian Government is disingenuous in its interaction with the AMG. The AMG has been working to promote these important objectives: an active dialogue between the government, the opposition and NGOs; free and fair elections, including a new election law that would provide for political party representation on electoral committees and domestic observers; unhindered opposition access to the state electronic media; a better functioning, independent court system and sound training of judges; and the examination and resolution of cases of politically motivated repression.

 

Mr. Speaker, there is a growing divide between the government and opposition in Belarus, thanks to President Lukashenka's authoritarian practices, a divide that could produce unanticipated consequences. An already tense political situation is becoming increasingly more so. Furthermore, Lukashenka's efforts at political and economic integration with Russia could have serious potential consequences for neighboring states, especially Ukraine. Therefore, it is vital for the United States and the OSCE to continue to speak out in defense of human rights in Belarus, to promote free and democratic elections this year, and to encourage meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition.

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    Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption;  protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.

  • OSCE Election Observation

    In 1990, OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. Elections observation has since been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States (Azerbaijan, Croatia, Georgia, Iceland, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Monogolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the United States).* History of OSCE Election Observation All OSCE participating States have committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella. Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even these countries can benefit from consideration of the objective conclusions of those with an outside, comparative perspective.  Perhaps more important, observation across the OSCE region removes any sense of stigmatization associated with the repeated hosting of election observation missions as well as any argument against hosting by those political leaders in some countries who continue to resist holding even reasonably free and fair elections. As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Election Observation Methodology ODIHR's election monitoring methodology takes account of the situation before, during, and after an election. All aspects of the electoral process are considered, to include a review of the legal framework; the performance of elections officials; the conduct of campaigns; the media environment and equitable media access; the complaints and appeals process; voting, counting, and tabulation; and the announcement of results.  Recently, ODIHR has further expanded its methodology to explore the participation of women and national minorities. Election Observers OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). A typical election observation mission comprises around 12 core team members, as well as several dozen long-term observers and several hundred short-term observers. The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers commit to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Election Observation, Reporting, and Recommendations Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and legislative framework; election administration; voter and candidate registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. Impact The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help document whether elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike.  Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today.  Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. More broadly speaking, the United States support OSCE observation efforts, to include deployment of civilian, parliamentary, and diplomatic observers abroad, but also supporting OSCE’s observation of domestic elections, with a focus on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.

  • Decoding the OSCE

    The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization with 57 participating States representing more than a billion people. Its origins trace back to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which contains a broad range of measures focused on politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects designed to enhance comprehensive security and cooperation in the region, and the decades of multilateral diplomacy that followed. The OSCE operates coordinated efforts, adapted to the needs of each participating State, to protect democracy, promote peace, and manage conflict. The organization focuses on creating sustainable change through shared values, and decisions are taken by consensus. Learn more about the OSCE’s operations and institutions below. The Helsinki Process and the OSCE: On August 1, 1975, the leaders of the original 35 OSCE participating States gathered in Helsinki and signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Also known as the Helsinki Accords, the Helsinki Final Act is not a treaty, but rather a politically binding agreement consisting of three main sections informally known as "baskets," adopted on the basis of consensus. The Security Dimension The Economic Dimension The Human Dimension Four Decades of the Helsinki Process: The gatherings following the Final Act became known as the Helsinki Process. The process became a diplomatic front line in the Cold War and a cost-effective diplomatic tool to respond to the new challenges facing Europe during the post-Cold War era. Since its inception over forty years ago, the Helsinki Process and the OSCE continue to provide added value to multilateral efforts enhancing security and cooperation in Europe. OSCE Institutions, Structures, and Meetings: The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. The OSCE also undertakes a variety of preventive diplomacy initiatives designed to prevent, manage and resolve conflict within and among the participating States. The Consensus Rule: The OSCE operates using a consensus decision-making process. Consensus fosters ownership of decisions by all OSCE participating States, enables them to protect key national priorities, and creates an important incentive for countries to participate in the OSCE.  It also strengthens the politically binding nature of OSCE commitments. The Moscow Mechanism: The OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. OSCE Election Observation: Election observation is one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Parliamentary Diplomacy of the OSCE: The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The OSCE PA debates current issues related to OSCE commitments; develops and promotes tools to prevent and resolve conflicts; supports democratic development in participating States; and encourages national governments to take full advantage of OSCE capabilities. Non-Governmental Participation in the OSCE: One of the advantages of the OSCE is that it is the only international organization in which NGOs are allowed to participate in human dimension meetings on an equal basis with participating States. NGOs—no matter how small—can raise their concerns directly with governments. 

  • Our Impact by Country

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