Atmosphere of Trust Missing in Belarus

Atmosphere of Trust Missing in Belarus

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, May 01, 2001

Mr. Speaker, this fall, the Belarusian Government is planning to hold their second presidential elections since independence.  Judging by the continuing actions of the repressive regime of Aleksandr Lukashenka, free, fair, and transparent elections--consistent with Belarus' freely undertaken OSCE commitments--will be very difficult to achieve. Democratic elections require an all-encompassing atmosphere of trust and a respect for basic human rights. Unfortunately, recent actions in Belarus do nothing to encourage such trust.

Most recently, on March 25, Belarusian authorities cracked down on participants of the Independence Day march, arresting and beating several protestors, subsequently fining and jailing some, including Belarusian Popular Front Chairman Vintsuk Vyachorka, who received a 15-day sentence on March 29, Ales Byaletsky, head of the human rights center "Viasna", who received a 10-day sentence, and Yuri Belenky, acting chairman of the Conservative Christian Party, who also received a 10-day sentence. Also detained and beaten was 17-year-old Dmitri Yegorov, a photojournalist for a Grodno-based, non-state newspaper.

On the day of the march, Belarusian state television accused the opposition of “seeking to draw Belarus into some bloody turmoil", reflecting its increasingly shrill tone of late. Earlier this year, for instance, Belarusian television claimed the CIA was intensifying "subversive activity" as the presidential election draws nearer. On March 24, Belarus' KGB chief pledged on Belarusian television to intensify surveillance of foreigners in order to prevent them from interfering in the country's domestic matters.

On March 12, Lukashenka signed Decree #8, which essentially imposes restrictions from abroad offered to NGOs for democracy building and human rights, including election monitoring. Moreover, the Belarusian Government has claimed that the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group's (AMG) domestic election observation project does not conform with the Belarusian Constitution and

Mr. Speaker, I am also concerned about recent assaults on religious communities. Last month, the Council of Ministers restricted visits by foreign clergy for “non-religious" purposes--including contact with religious and other organizations, participation in conferences and other events, or charitable activities. Government officials are also refusing to register some Reform Jewish communities because they do not have “legal'' addresses. In February, state-controlled Belarusian television aired a documentary alleging Catholicism as a threat to the very existence of the Belarusian nation. And in January, leaders of Belarus' Protestant community alleged that state newspapers carried biased articles that present Pentecostals as “wild fanatics."

Religious freedom is not the only liberty in peril. Freedom of the press and of self-expression are also in jeopardy.

Editors of a variety of newspapers are being fined on fictitious and trumped-up charges for violating the Law on Press and Other Mass Media. Various periodicals are being confiscated and destroyed, and distributors of independent newspapers have been arrested. Youth organizations have been accused of engaging in activities that weaken the Belarusian statehood and undermining socioeconomic stability. Teenagers have been arrested for picketing and protesting, and others have been detained for distributing newspapers or pasting stickers advocating reform and calling on the authorities to solve the cases of political disappearances. Belarusian Television and Radio (BTR) has also canceled scheduled addresses to be made by potential presidential candidates or opposition leaders. The Deputy Minister of Education has ordered heads of the educational community to ban seminars conducted by the People's University.

Lukashenka has also undertaken repressive acts against the potential presidential candidates and their families in an attempt to thwart their campaign progress.

Family members of former Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir have become the target of persecution. Chigir's wife has been accused of interfering with the work of the police, and his son, Alexander, has been charged with large scale larceny. Chigir is not the only potential candidate whose actions have been thwarted by Lukashenka. Semyon Domash's meeting with potential voters at the Tourist Hotel was canceled on orders from the Mogilev authorities and a director of the clubhouse of the Brest Association of Hearing-Impaired People lost her job after hosting a February 3 voters' meeting with Domash. Vladimir Goncharik, a labor leader, has had to deal with newly state-created "unions" trying to muscle out unions supporting him. Two officials of a manufacturing plant were reprimanded by a Borisov city court for hosting a meeting between Chigir and employees at the plant.

When one looks at these and other recent actions of the Lukashenka regime, the inescapable conclusion is that the regime has created an unhealthy environment in advance of the elections. Mr. Speaker, the regime's behavior is obviously not conducive to the promotion of free and fair elections. A few weeks ago, President Lukashenka stressed the need to establish an atmosphere of trust in bilateral Belarusian-U.S. relations. I strongly encourage Mr. Lukashenka to translate his words into concrete deeds that will encourage this trust and lead to the emergence of Belarus from its self-imposed isolation from the Euro-Atlantic community of democracies.

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Riot police, deployed with dogs and armored personnel carriers, used excessive force against some peaceful demonstrators. Among those detained and beaten was democratic opposition leader Anatoly Lebedka, Deputy Chairman of the 13th Supreme Soviet. Many of my Senate colleagues met Mr. Lebedka last September when I introduced him right here on the Senate floor. Mr. Lebedka was just in Washington earlier this month to testify at a Helsinki Commission hearing about the deteriorating situation in Belarus. Based on information I obtained from the State Department, I am advised that Anatoly Lebedka was arrested by plainclothes police during the demonstration, kept in detention, and reportedly beaten over the course of two days. He spent most of Monday in a police van outside the courthouse awaiting trial, but was released at 5:00 p.m. His trial has been scheduled for April 4. Mr. President, the harsh overreaction by the authorities to this peaceful demonstration represents a clear violation of the freedom of association, assembly, and information guaranteed both by the Belarusian constitution and OSCE agreements. In addition, the Belarusian authorities detained a U.S. citizen who is an accredited diplomat and a member of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Belarus, and who was observing the demonstration in line with his official responsibilities. This action also violates international conventions. It appears that the green light for the most recent crackdown was given by Belarusian President Lukashenka, who praised the police for their actions. Reports indicate that earlier this month, he cautioned that the riot police will “beat the stuffing out” of any protestor who “gets out of line.” Unfortunately, the suppression by the Belarusian authorities of peaceful protest, along with the sentencing last week of a prominent member of the opposition, does nothing to encourage a constructive dialogue with the democratic opposition that can lead Belarus out of its continuing constitutional impasse and end its self-imposed international isolation. Mr. President, I call upon the Government of Belarus to thoroughly investigate reports of police brutality during the course of the demonstration and subsequent detentions and take measures to ensure that citizens are guaranteed their rights to engage in peaceful protests, keeping with that country's OSCE commitments. I was pleased to join Senator Durbin as an original cosponsor to Senate Concurrent Resolution 75 which we introduced last November. That resolution summarized many of the political problems facing the democratic opposition in Belarus expressing strong opposition to the continued egregious violations of human rights, the lack of progress toward the establishment of democracy and the rule of law in Belarus, and calls on President Lukashenka to engage in negotiations with the representatives of the opposition and to restore the constitutional rights of the Belarusian people. In light of the recent violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators last weekend, I urge my colleagues to support passage of the Durbin/Campbell resolution. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a news report from the Washington Post on this latest crackdown be printed in the Record. There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: [From the Washington Post, Mar. 26, 2000] Belarus Police Crack Down on Protest Minsk, Belarus.: “Hundreds of police beat back thousands of protesters at an opposition rally, sending armored personnel carriers into central Minsk and detaining 400 people in one of the country's harshest crackdowns on dissent in recent years. The rally was held to commemorate the founding of the Belarusian Popular Republic on March 25, 1918, when German forces were ousted from Minsk in the waning days of World War I. The independent state was short-lived and within a year, much of Belarus was part of the Soviet Union. Belarus' hardline government had said it would allow the rally to be held on the outskirts of Minsk, but several thousand demonstrators went instead to a central square in the capital.”

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As a journalist I was “registered”, as they say, only once. They have this procedure there. When a new detainee is being taken from his cell to the investigator he is made to crawl all the way under a rain of blows with rubber sticks. It hurts but one can survive it. This is a light treatment as compared with the tortures to which Chechens are subjected day and night, those who are suspected of collaborating with the illegal armed formations. There are also cases when some testimony is beaten out of detainees. Q. What is the prison population there? A. In my opinion ..... I was in cell No. 17 during the first three days. In that cell there were 13 inhabitants of the village Aberdykel (sp.--FNS). Most of them were young. Judging by their stories, I am not an investigator and I could not collect a sufficiently full database, but in such an atmosphere one very rarely doubts the veracity of what you are told. Mostly these were young men who had nothing to do with the war. 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I am not a medic but I believe that we all know what hysteria is. There were screams indicting that a person was experiencing unbearable pain, and for a long period of time.

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It may be too much, given the historical differences between our respective societies, to hope the post-Soviet states could find among their political leaders a George Washington, who could have been king but chose not to be, and who chose to leave office after two terms. But it is not too much to hope that other post-Soviet leaders might emulate Ukraine's former President Leonid Kravchuk or Moldova's former President Mircea Snegur, not to mention Lithuania's Algirdas Brazauskas, who all allowed a peaceful transfer of power. Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, Central Asian leaders give every indication of intending to remain in office for life. Their desire for unlimited and permanent power means that they cannot implement all OSCE commitments on democracy, the rule of law and human rights, as doing so would create a level playing field for challengers and allow the media to shine the light on presidential misdeeds and high-level corruption. The result has been an entire region in the OSCE space where fundamental OSCE freedoms are ignored while leaders entrench themselves and their families in power and wealth. To give credit where it is due, the situation is least bad in Kyrgyzstan. President Akaev, a physicist, is the only Central Asian leader who was not previously the head of his republic's Communist Party. One can actually meet members of parliament who strongly criticize President Akaev and the legislature itself is not a rubber stamp body. Moreover, print media, though under serious pressure from the executive branch, exhibit diversity of views and opposition parties function. Still, in 1995, two contenders in the presidential election were disqualified before the vote. Parliamentary and presidential elections are approaching in 2000. Kyrgyzstan's OSCE partners will be watching carefully to see whether they are free and fair. Until the mid-1990s, Kazakstan seemed a relatively reformist country, where various political parties could function and the media enjoyed some freedom. But President Nazarbaev dissolved two parliaments and single-mindedly sought to accumulate sole power. In the last few years, the regime has become ever more authoritarian. President Nazarbaev has concentrated all power in his hands, subordinating to himself all other branches and institutions of government. A constitutional amendment passed in October 1999 conveniently removed the age limit of 65 to be president. The OSCE judged last January's presidential elections, from which a leading opposition contender was barred as far short of OSCE standards. Last month's parliamentary election, according to the OSCE, was “severely marred by widespread, pervasive and illegal interference by executive authorities in the electoral process.” In response, President Nazarbaev has attacked the OSCE, comparing it to the Soviet Communist Party's Politburo for trying to “tell Kazakstan what to do.” Tajikistan has suffered the saddest fate of all the Central Asian countries; a civil war that killed scores of thousands. In 1997, the warring sides finally ceased hostilities and reached agreement about power-sharing, which permitted a bit of hopefulness about prospects for normal development and democratization. It seems, however, that the accord will not ensure stability. Tajikistan's Central Election Commission refused to register two opposition candidates for the November 6 presidential election. The sole alternative candidate registered has refused to accept the results of the election, which, according to official figures, current President Emomaly Rakhmonov won with 97 percent of the vote, in a 98 percent turnout. Those numbers, Mr. Speaker, say it all. The OSCE properly declined to send observers. Benighted Turkmenistan practically beggars description. This country, which has been blessed with large quantities of natural gas, has a political system that combines the worst traits of Soviet communism with a personality cult seen today in countries like Iraq or North Korea. No dissidence of any kind is permitted and the population enjoys no human rights. While his impoverished people barely manage to get by, President Niyazov builds garish presidential palaces and monuments to himself. The only registered political party in Turkmenistan is the Democratic Party, headed by President Niyazov. In late October he said the people of his country would not be ready for the stresses and choices of a democratic society until 2010, adding that independent media are “disruptive.” On December 12, Turkmenistan is holding parliamentary “elections,” which the OSCE will not bother to observe. Finally, we come to Uzbekistan. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held hearings on democratization and human rights in Uzbekistan on October 18. Despite the best efforts of Uzbekistan's Ambassador Safaev to convince us that democratization is proceeding apace in his country, the testimony of all the other witnesses confirmed the widely held view that after Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is the most repressive country in Central Asia. No opposition political activity is allowed and media present only the government's point of view. Christian denominations have faced official harassment. Since 1997, a massive government campaign has been underway against independent Muslim believers. In February of this year, explosions rocked Tashkent, which the government described as an assassination attempt by Islamic radicals allied with an exiled opposition leader. Apart from elections, a key indicator of progress towards democratization is the state of media freedom. On October 25-27, an International Conference on Mass Media in Central Asia took place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Not surprisingly, Turkmenistan did not allow anyone to attend. The other participants adopted a declaration noting that democratization has slowed in almost all Central Asian states, while authoritarian regimes have grown stronger, limiting the scope for genuine media freedom as governments influence the media through economic means. I strongly agree with these sentiments. The concentration of media outlets in pro-regime hands, the ongoing assault on independent and opposition media and the circumscription of the media's legally-sanctioned subject matter pose a great danger to the development of democracy in Central Asia. Official statistics about how many media outlets have been privatized cover up an alarming tendency towards government monopolization of information sources. This effectively makes it impossible for citizens to receive unbiased information, which is vital if people are to hold their governments accountable. Mr. Speaker, it is clear that in Central Asia, the overall level of democratization and human rights observance is poor. Central Asian leaders make decisions in a region far from Western Europe, close to China, Iran and Afghanistan, and they often assert that “human rights are only for the West” or the building democracy “takes time.” But delaying steps towards democracy is very risky in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious region of Central Asia, where many people are highly educated and have expectations of faster change. If it does not come, tensions and conflicts could emerge that could endanger security for everyone. To lessen these risks, continuous pressure will be needed on these countries to move faster on democracy. Even as the United States pursues other interests, we should give top priority to democracy and respect for human rights, or we may live to regret not doing so.

  • Crackdown in Belarus

    Mr. President, just a few weeks ago, many of my Senate colleagues met a young, dynamic parliamentarian from Belarus, Mr. Anatoly Lebedko, right here on the Senate floor. He impressed us with his dedication and commitment as he advocates for democracy and the rule of law in his home country currently being rule by a repressive regime. You can imagine how shocked and concerned I was to receive a call from the State Department this week informing me Mr. Lebedko had been picked up by the authorities as part of the latest crackdown in Belarus. I am sure my colleagues who met Mr. Lebedko share my concern for his well-being and for the safety of all of those struggling for democracy and freedom of speech.   Eight years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus finds itself increasingly isolated from the rest of Europe as a direct consequence of the authoritarian policies pursued by its present government which have stifled that country's fledgling democracy and market economy. The Helsinki Commission, which I co-chair, held a hearing a few months ago to assess democracy and human rights in Belarus. In July, a number of Commission members and I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Lebedko address the annual Parliamentary Assembly meeting of the Organization of Security and Corporation in Europe (OSCE ) in St. Petersburg, where he outlined developments in Belarus and the prospects for genuine political and economic reforms. Clearly, the cycle of political and economic stagnation in Belarus will only come to an end through genuine dialogue based on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.   The Helsinki Commission has called on Belarus to adopt meaningful political and economic reforms in keeping with that country's obligations as a participating State of the OSCE. On September 3, the government and opposition in Belarus began consultations at the office of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk. These talks, long urged by the international community and the Helsinki Commission could represent an important step in beginning the process of reversing the bleak human rights and democratization picture in Belarus.   Until recently I had been encouraged by what appeared to be the start of a dialog between the Belarusian Government and opposition. However, there have been a number of disturbing developments, including continued harassment of opposition members, a renewed crackdown on the independent media in recent weeks, and now the detainment of Mr. Lebedko.   We recently wrote to Secretary of State Albright voicing concern about the situation in Belarus and called on the State Department to intensify its work in this area. This most recent development underscores our concerns. I ask unanimous consent that copies of our letter to the Secretary of State, a letter we sent to the President of Belarus, along with recent news clips be printed in the Record. There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Washington, DC, October 15, 1999. Hon. Madeleine Korbel Albright, Secretary of State, Department of State, Washington, DC.   Dear Madam Secretary: We are writing to voice our growing concern over violations of the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Belarus under the authoritarian leadership of Aleksandr Lukashenka, who remains in power despite the expiration of his legal presidential mandate last July. The fledgling opposition in Belarus deserves both our moral and material support as they seek to overcome the legacy of Communism and authoritarianism and build a democratic society firmly rooted in the rule of law. Many of us recently had an opportunity to meet with Anatoly Lebedko of the United Civic Party of Belarus, a young political leader who, despite personal risk, continues to openly criticize the Lukashenka regime. His personal safety is of particular concern as he returns to Belarus following an intense crackdown against the opposition. In recent weeks, Lukashenka has reportedly authorized a series of measures designed to further suppress Belarus' already beleaguered opposition. Border controls have apparently been tightened and officials in Minsk and other large cities have been instructed to ban public protests and demonstrations. The few remaining independent opposition newspapers, including Naviny and Kuryer, have likewise come under increased pressure from the authorities. Lukashenka's campaign of harassment and intimidation of the political opposition has intensified. Former Premier Mikhail Chigir, arrested in March on politically-motivated charges, remains imprisoned. A number of other former government officials and political opposition figures continue to be subjected to lengthy pre-trial detention on similar changes. In a particularly disturbing development, several prominent opposition leaders, including Viktor Gonchar, Tamara Vinnikova, and Yuri Zakharenka, have simply disappeared. Madam Secretary, we urge you to intensify pressure on the Lukashenka regime for the immediate release of all political detainees in Belarus and a full accounting of those who have disappeared. We further urge you to ensure that adequate resources are made available on an urgent basis to support those programs aimed at strengthening independent media, human rights, civil society, independent trade unions and the democratic opposition in Belarus. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith, M.C., Chairman. Steny H. Hoyer, M.C., Ranking Member, House. William V. Roth, Jr., U.S.S. Benjamin L. Cardin, M.C. Alcee L. Hastings, M.C. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, U.S.S., Co-Chairman. Trent Lott, U.S.S. Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S.S. Frank R. Wolf, M.C. Jesse Helms, U.S.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Washington, DC, October 19, 1999.   His Excellency Alyaksandr Lukashenka, President, Republic of Belarus, Minsk, Belarus. Dear President Lukashenka: We are writing to express our serious and growing concerns about recent developments in Belarus. Until recently, we were becoming more hopeful that meaningful dialogue between the Belarusian Government and opposition would take place. Within the last month, however, violations of the principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law have come to our attention that, frankly, lead us to question your government's seriousness in finding a solution to the problems of democracy in Belarus. We were disturbed to learn of the arrest earlier today of democratic opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko, for allegedly participating in “an unsanctioned march.” Our concerns include the following: The continued imprisonment of former Prime Minister Mikhail Chygir, who was supposed to be released from investigative detention where he has been held for six months. The disappearances of former Central Election Commission Chairman Viktor Gonchar, his colleague Yuri Krasovsky, former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenka, and former National Bank Chair Tamara Vinnikova. Increased attempts to stifle freedom of expression, including the annulling of registration certificates of nine periodicals, and especially the harassment of Naviny through the use of high libel fees clearly designed to silence this independent newspaper. The denial of registration of non-governmental organizations, including the Belarusian Independent Industrial Trade Union Association. The police raid, without a search warrant, on the human rights organization Viasna-96, and confiscation of computers which stored data on human rights violations. Criminal charges against opposition activist Mykola Statkevich and lawyer Oleg Volchek and continued interrogation of lawyer Vera Stremkovskaya. The initial attack by riot police against peaceful protestors in last Sunday's Freedom March. Your efforts to address these concerns would reduce the climate of suspicion and fear that currently exists and enhance confidence in the negotiation process which we believe is so vital to Belarus' development as a democratic country in which human rights and the rule of law are respected. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith, M.C., Chairman. Steny H. Hoyer, M.C., Ranking Member.   From the Washington Post, Sept. 30, 1999: Belarus Opposition Paper to Close. Minsk, Belarus. A leading opposition newspaper in Belarus said it was shutting down following a court order to pay an exorbitant fine, to the minister of security over an article he said injured his reputation. The Naviny newspaper, which has come under frequent pressure from Belarus's authoritarian government, said in its last issue that “both the suit and the trial were a cover-up for a carefully planned campaign by the authorities seeking to close down our newspaper.”   From the Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1999 Belarusan Officials Blame West for Riots. Minsk, Belarus. Belarusan authorities accused the West of being behind street clashes between some 5,000 opposition demonstrators and police in which at least 92 people were arrested. But Dmitri Bondarenko of the opposition Khartiya-97 movement said police started the fighting and another opposition member said authorities have long provoked violence by repression. The fighting broke out Sunday in Minsk following an authorized rally by about 20,000 people. The demonstrators were protesting the disappearance of several leading opposition figures and President Alexander Lukashenka's drive to reunite Belarus, a former Soviet republic, with Russia.

  • Central Asia: The “Black Hole” of Human Rights

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today to introduce a resolution on the disturbing state of democratization and human rights in Central Asia. As is evident from many sources, including the State Department's annual reports on human rights, non-governmental organizations, both in the region and the West, and the work of the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, Central Asia has become the “black hole” of human rights in the OSCE space. True, not all Central Asia countries are equal offenders. Kyrgyzstan has not joined its neighbors in eliminating all opposition, tightly censoring the media and concentrating all power in the hands of the president, though there are tendencies in that direction, and upcoming elections in 2000 may bring out the worst in President Akaev. But elsewhere, the promise of the early 1990's, when the five Central Asian countries along with all former Soviet republics were admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, has not been realized. Throughout the region, super-presidents pay lip service to OSCE commitments and to their own constitutional provisions on separation of powers, while dominating the legislative and judicial branches, crushing or thwarting any opposition challenges to their factual monopoly of power, and along with their families and favored few, enjoying the benefits of their countries' wealth. Indeed, though some see the main problem of Central Asia through the prism of real or alleged Islamic fundamentalism, the Soviet legacy, or poverty, I am convinced that the essence of the problem is more simple and depressing: presidents determined to remain in office for life must necessarily develop repressive political systems. To justify their campaign to control society, Central Asian leaders constantly point to their own national traditions and argue that democracy must be built slowly. Some Western analysts, I am sorry to say, have bought this idea, in some cases, quite literally, by acting as highly paid consultants to oil companies and other business concerns. But, Mr. Speaker, building democracy is an act of political will above all. You have to want to do it. If you don't, all the excuses in the world and all the state institutions formed in Central Asia ostensibly to promote human rights will remain simply window dressing. Moreover, the much-vaunted stability offered by such systems is shaky. The refusal of leaders to allow turnover at the top or newcomers to enter the game means that outsiders have no stake in the political process and can imagine coming to power or merely sharing in the wealth only be extra-constitutional methods. For some of those facing the prospect of permanent exclusion, especially as living standards continue to fall, the temptation to resort to any means possible to change the rules of the game, may be overwhelming. Most people, however, will simply opt out of the political system in disillusionment and despair. Against this general context, without doubt, the most repressive countries are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan's President Niyazov, in particular, has created a virtual North Korea in post-Soviet space, complete with his own bizarre cult of personality. Turkmenistan is the only country in the former Soviet bloc that remains a one-party state. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has five parties but all of them are government-created and controlled. Under President Islam Karimov, no opposition parties or movements have been allowed to function since 1992. In both countries, communist-era controls on the media remain in place. The state, like its Soviet predecessor, prevents society from influencing policy or expressing its views and keeps the population intimidated through omnipresent secret police forces. Neither country observes the most fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion, or permits any electoral challenges to its all-powerful president. Kazakstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has played a more clever game. Pressed by the OSCE and Western capitals, he has formally permitted opposition parties to function, and they did take part in the October 10 parliamentary election. But once again, a major opposition figure was not able to participate, and OSCE/ODIHR monitors, citing many shortcomings, have criticized the election as flawed. In general, the ability of opposition and society to influence policymaking is marginal at best. At the same time, independent and opposition media have been bought, coopted or intimidated out of existence or into cooperation with the authorities, and those few that remain are under severe pressure. Tajikistan suffered a devastating civil war in the early 1990's. In 1997, war-weariness and a military stalemate led the disputants to a peace accord and a power-sharing agreement. But though the arrangement had promise, it now seems to be falling apart, as opposition contenders for the presidency have been excluded from the race and the major opposition organization has decided to suspend participation in the work of the National Reconciliation Commission. Mr. Speaker, along with large-scale ethnic conflicts like Kosovo or Bosnia, and unresolved low-level conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, I believe the systemic flouting of OSCE commitments on democratization and human rights in Central Asia is the single greatest problem facing the OSCE. For that reason, I am introducing this resolution expressing concern about the general trends in the region, to show Central Asian presidents that we are not taken in by their facade, and to encourage the disheartened people of Central Asia that the United States stands for democracy. The resolution calls on Central Asian countries to come into compliance with OSCE commitments on democracy and human rights , and encourages the Administration to raise with other OSCE states the implications for OSCE participation of countries that engage in gross and uncorrected violation of freely accepted commitments on human rights . Mr. Speaker, I hope my colleagues will join me, Mr. Hoyer, and Mr. Forbes in this effort and we welcome their support.

  • Report on Georgia's Parliamentary Elections: October 1999

    On October 31, 1999, Georgia held its third parliamentary election since gaining independence in 1991. President Eduard Shevardnadze’s ruling party, the Citizens Union of Georgia, scored a convincing victory. According to the Central Election Commission, in the first round, the CUG won 41.85 percent of the party list voting, or 85 seats, along with 35 single districts. The opposition Batumi Alliance, led by Ajarian strongman Aslan Abashidze, came in second, with 25.65 percent of the vote and seven districts, gaining 51 seats. Industry Will Save Georgia was the only other party to break the sevenpercent threshold for parliamentary representation, managing 7.8 percent and 14 seats. In second-round voting on November 14, the CUG increased its lead, picking up ten more seats, and then won another two in a November 28 third round, for a total of 132. The Batumi Alliance’s final tally was 59. Overall, the CUG has an absolute majority in Georgia’s 235-seat legislature, improving on the position it held from 1995-1999. The outcome did not indicate how tense the race had been between the CUG and the leftist, proRussian Batumi Alliance. A win by the latter threatened to move Georgia into Russia’s orbit and away from market reforms. The election also offered a foretaste of next year’s presidential contest, when Abashidze runs against Shevardnazde. With such high stakes and relations so confrontational between the contending forces, charges of widespread fraud dogged the elections. Of the Central Election Commission’s 19 members, only 13 signed the document announcing the results. Nevertheless, OSCE’s observation mission called the first round of the election a “step towards” compliance with OSCE commitments, adding that most of the worst violations occurred in Ajaria. OSCE’s verdict after the November 14 second round was more critical, noting violence at some polling stations and vote rigging and intimidation at others. OSCE’s initial cautiously positive judgement, however, allowed Eduard Shevardnadze to claim that democratization is proceeding in Georgia and that the country’s admission to the Council of Europe was well deserved.

  • Ukraine on the Eve of Elections

    Mr. Speaker, Ukraine's presidential elections will be held in a little over a month, on October 31. These elections will be an important indicator in charting Ukraine's course over the next 4 years. The stakes are high. Will Ukraine continue to move, even if at a slow and inconsistent pace, in the direction of the supremacy of law over politics, a market economy, and integration with the Euro-Atlantic community? Or will Ukraine regress in the direction of the closed economic and political system that existed during Soviet times? Clearly, the outcome of the elections will have significant implications for United States policy toward Ukraine. Despite the many internal and external positive changes that have occurred in Ukraine since its independence in 1991, including progress in creating a democratic, tolerant society and the significant role played in the stability and security of Europe, Ukraine still has a long way to go in building a sustainable democracy underpinned by the rule of law. Specifically, Ukraine needs to improve its judiciary and criminal justice system, reduce bureaucratic arbitrariness and rid itself of the stifling menace of corruption. Indeed, corruption is exacting a huge toll on Ukrainian institutions, eroding confidence in government and support for economic reforms, and discouraging domestic and foreign investment. Mr. Speaker, I am concerned about reports of violations in the conduct of the election campaign, including in the signature-gathering process and inappropriate meddling by officials, especially on the local level. I am also troubled by governmental actions against the free media, including the recent seizure of bank accounts of STB independent television and the suspension of four independent television stations in Crimea. The harassment of the print and electronic media is inconsistent with OSCE commitments. It undermines Ukraine's overall positive reputation with respect to human rights and democracy, including its generally positive record in previous elections. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, was in the forefront of supporting respect for human rights and self-determination in Ukraine during the dark days of Soviet rule. We have viewed, and still view, Ukraine's independence as a milestone in Europe's history. However, in order to consolidate its independence and reinforce internal cohesion, Ukraine needs to speed its transition to democracy and market economy. It needs to work toward greater compliance with OSCE standards and norms. The OSCE Office for Project Coordination in Ukraine can be a useful tool to assist Ukraine in this regard and I hope that the Ukrainian government will take advantage of and benefit from the OSCE presence. Despite frustrations with certain aspects of Ukraine's reality, it is important for both the Congress and the Executive Branch to continue to support an independent, democratic Ukraine, both in terms of policies designed to strengthen United States-Ukraine relations, as well as with assistance designed to genuinely strengthen democratic and free-market development. The key is to be patient, but persistent, in encouraging progress.

  • Human Rights in Russia

    This briefing focused on a report by the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews regarding human rights in 30 out of Russia’s 89 regions. The report, part of a project funded by USAID, was unprecedented in its scope and detail of coverage of human rights across Russia. At a previous hearing, the connection was drawn between the decline in Russia’s economic fortunes and the growing violations of human rights and civil liberties. Ludmilla Alexeeva and Micah Naftalin discussed how crime, corruption, and human rights violations combined to weaken democracy and rule of law in Russia and undermine the well-being of its people. They emphasized the vastness of these problems and the necessary collaboration of NGOs from different regions to obtain a thorough and accurate analysis of the country’s respect for human rights.

  • Report on Armenia's Parliamentary Elections

    On May 30, 1999, Armenia held its second parliamentary election since gaining independence. Twenty-one parties and blocs contested 56 seats set aside for party voting and over 700 individual candidates competed in 75 majoritarian races to fill the legislature’s 131 seats. According to official results, turnout was almost 56 percent. The big winner in the election was the Unity bloc, an alliance of the Republican Party, headed by Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkissian, and the People’s Party of Karen Demirchian, Armenia’s last Communist leader. OSCE observation missions had criticized Armenia’s parliamentary and presidential elections in 1995, 1996 and 1998, so Yerevan had to hold better elections to restore its damaged reputation. The May 30 election was also supposed to formalize the shift of power in early 1998, when the governing party—the Armenian National Movement (ANM)—collapsed as its leader, Levon Ter-Petrossyan, was forced out and Vazgen Sarkissian came openly to the fore. Though Armenia’'s May 30 election was a clear improvement over previous elections, concerns persist about overall political trends. Armenia is unique among former Soviet republics in that its president, despite broad constitutional prerogatives, is not the most powerful political actor. Vazgen Sarkissian, as Defense Minister, had already gained a remarkable hold on the military, the executive branch and even the legislature, while also heading a veterans’ organization that controls most local authorities. Such concentration of authority in the hands of one politician bodes ill for separation of powers and the development of civil society. Even more troubling, Sarkissian’s record does not inspire confidence in his commitment to democracy. He now has to overcome his reputation and manage his own transition to a democratic statesman. Following the lead of the OSCE, the U.S. State Department noted the improvements over past elections but emphasized the need for further progress to bring Armenia’s elections up to OSCE standards and raise public trust in the process. With the OSCE’s assessment having at least been better than in past elections, Yerevan can hope for the first official visit to Washington of President Kocharian this fall.  

  • Kazakstan's Parliamentary Elections

    The Helsinki Commission compiled a report on Kazakstan’s parliamentary election in 1999. It noted that the election did mark some forward movement; the registration of opposition political parties -- specifically the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and Azamat, along with the already registered Communist Party -- promised to give voters an opposition alternative on October 10 and to institutionalize the involvement of opposition parties in Kazakstan’s political life beyond the election. Other positive steps included the CEC’s lowering of the candidates’ deposit, the law’s provision for domestic observers and the sanctioned experiment with exit polling. The accreditation of over 2,500 non-partisan domestic observers throughout Kazakhstan was also a significant development. Even more important was an October 6 live, televised debate, which allowed voters to familiarize themselves with parties and candidates and gave some opposition figures who had not received free air time, such as Communist Party leader Serokbolsyn Abdildin, their only opportunity to campaign on television.

  • Uzbekistan's Litany of Violations

    Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I rise today to highlight the persecution of religious believers in Uzbekistan. The problem is worsening by the day, as the crackdown continues under the guise of “anti-terrorism.” While there is some justifiable threat of terrorism, the widespread violations of rule of law and human rights perpetrated by authorities are not defensible, especially in light of Uzbekistan's OSCE commitments. Under President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has been the second most repressive former Soviet republic, next to Turkmenistan. Karimov has used new constitutions and referendums extending his tenure to remain in office, where he seems determined to stay indefinitely. In mid-1992, he cracked down on all opposition parties, driving them underground or into exile, and all opposition or independent media were eliminated. In Uzbekistan today, human rights are systemically violated. Arbitrary arrests, abuse and torture of detainees are pervasive, and flagrantly politicized judicial proceedings are routine. According to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Watch, there are well over 200 individuals who are prisoners of conscience either for their religious or political activities. Defendants have been convicted of criminal offenses based on forced confessions and planted evidence. The regime has also refused to register independent human rights monitoring organizations (the Human Rights Society and the Independent Human Rights Society), while groups which cooperate closely with the government (Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Individual) have been registered without delay. On June 25, Uzbek police savagely beat Mikhail Ardzinov, one of the country's most prominent human rights activists. A key component of Uzbekistan's assault on human rights has been a thorough campaign against religious believers. Since 1997, hundreds of independent Muslim activists and believers associated with them have been arrested. In February of this year, bombs exploded in the capital, Tashkent, which killed sixteen bystanders and damaged government buildings, narrowly missing President Karimov and government officials. Karimov accused Muslim activists of having carried out a terrorist attack intended to assassinate him. The harassment and detention of Muslim activists has greatly intensified since then and an ongoing series of show trials had discredit them as dangerous religious extremists. Last month, six people were sentenced to death and another 16 received prison terms ranging from eight to 20 years in a trial that by no means met Western standards for due process. Since then, two arrested Muslims have died in prison, and there is no sign of a let up. President Karimov has argued that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia's most populous and traditional state necessitates a hard line, especially because Islamic radicals from neighboring Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan are determined to subvert Uzbekistan's secular, developing democracy. But the state's repressive policies are radicalizing Muslims and turning them against the regime. Non-Muslims faiths, particularly Christians, have also been subjected to harassment, imprisonment and violations of their religious liberty, especially those who share their faith and are actively meeting. According to Compass Direct, Ibrahim Yusupov, the leader of a Pentecostal church in Tashkent, was tried and sentenced last month to one year in prison on charges of conducting missionary activity. Another court in June sentenced Christian pastor Na'il Asanov to five years in prison on charges of possession of drugs and spreading extremist ideas. As with other cases mentioned below, witnesses attest that police planted a packet of drugs on Pastor Asanov and also severely beat him while he was in detention. Also in June, three members of the Full Gospel Church in Nukus were sentenced to long prison sentences. Pastor Rashid Turibayev received a 15-year sentence, while Parhad Yangibayev and Issed Tanishiev received 10-year sentences for “deceiving ordinary people” as well as possessing and using drugs. Their appeal was denied on July 13. Reports indicate that they have suffered severe beatings in prison, have been denied food and medical attention, and their personal possessions have been confiscated by the police, leaving their families destitute. Recently, the most senior Pentecostal leader in Uzbekistan, Bishop Leonty Lulkin, and two other church members were tried and sentenced on charges of illegally meeting. The sentence they received was a massive fine of 100 times the minimum monthly wage. The leaders of Baptist churches, Korean churches, the Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as many others, have also been subjected to harsh legal penalties. Although they have filed for registration, local authorities refused to sign their documents. Mr. Speaker, the State Department's report on Human Rights Practices for 1998 reported that the Uzbekistan law on religion “limits freedom of religion” with strict registration requirements which make it virtually impossible for smaller church organizations to gain legal status. The law passed in June 1998, “prohibits proselytizing, bans religious subjects in school curriculums, prohibits teaching of religious principles, forbids the wearing of religious clothing in public by anyone except clerics, and requires all religious groups and congregations to register or re-register.” Also approved last May was a second law establishing the penalties if one were convicted of violating any of the statutes on religious activities. The penalties can range anywhere from lengthy prison sentences, massive fines, and confiscation of property, to denial of official registration rights. On May 12 of this year, Uzbekistan tightened its Criminal Code, making participation in an unregistered religious group a criminal offense, punishable by a fine equivalent to fifty times the minimum monthly wage or imprisonment of up to three years. Mr. Speaker, these actions indicate that the policies of the Government of Uzbekistan toward religious groups are not moving in the right direction. In fact, these initiatives are in direct violation to Uzbekistan's OSCE commitments, including Article 16.3 of the Vienna Concluding Document which states that “the State will grant upon their request to communities of believers, practicing or prepared to practice their faith within the constitutional framework of their States, recognition of the status provided for them in the respective countries.” In the Copenhagen Concluding Document of 1990 Article 9.1, Uzbekistan has committed to “reaffirm that everyone will have the right to freedom of expression including the right to communication. This right will include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” Uzbekistan's current course of strangling all forms of religious discourse is a flagrant, deliberate, and unrelenting violation of these principles. Last year Congress overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Act of 1998 which reaffirmed the United States' commitment to supporting religious freedom abroad through U.S. foreign policy. Considering the litany of violations affecting religious liberty and the ongoing persecution of believers, it is time for Congress to consider our aid programs to Uzbekistan, including our military cooperation programs which cost about 33 million dollars in this year alone. Congress should also reconsider our trade relationship with Uzbekistan and scrutinize other programs such as Cooperative Threat Reduction where we can leverage our influence to help protect religious liberty and human rights.

  • Developments in Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, today marks the expiration of the term of office of authoritarian Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka under the 1994 Belarusian Constitution. To nobody's surprise, Mr. Lukashenka is not abandoning his office, having extended his term of office until 2001 using the vehicle of an illegitimate 1996 constitutional referendum.   Since Lukashenka was elected five years ago, Belarus has witnessed nothing but backsliding in the realm of human rights and democracy and a deterioration of the economic situation. 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. At the root of these violations lies the excessive power usurped by President Lukashenka since his election in 1994, especially following the illegitimate 1996 constitutional referendum, when he disbanded the Supreme Soviet and created a new legislature subordinate to his rule.   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. 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 Helsinki Commission, which I Chair, has extensively monitored and reported on the sad situation in Belarus, and has attempted to encourage positive change in that country through direct contacts with Belarusian officials, as well as through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in St. Petersburg earlier this month overwhelmingly supported a resolution encouraging democratic change in Belarus, including the conduct of free and fair elections next year.   As Chairman of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE PA, I urged my fellow parliamentarians to join me in calling for the release of ex-Prime Minister Mikhail Chygir and the guarantee of free access to the media by opposition groups. In addition, I joined 125 delegates representing 37 of the 54 participating States in signing a statement which offered more harsh criticism of the political situation in Belarus, condemned the use of violence against Supreme Soviet members and representatives of the democratic opposition, and protested their detention.   Within the last few days, there appears to be some glimmer of hope in the gloomy Belarusian predicament. According to a July 17 joint statement by the OSCE PA ad hoc Working Group on Belarus and the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Belarus: “The Belarusian President states his commitment to the holding of free, fair and recognizable parliamentary elections in Belarus next year, as well as his support for a national dialogue on elections to be held between the government and the opposition.” I agree with the Working Group and AMG's emphasis on the importance of “access to electronic media for all participants in the negotiations, and a political climate free of fear and politically motivated prosecution.” Mr. Speaker, while I welcome this statement, I remain guarded, given Mr. Lukashenka's track record. I very much look forward to its implementation by the Belarusian Government, which could be a positive step in reducing Belarus' isolation from the international community and the beginnings of a reversal in the human rights situation in that country.

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