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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    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

  • Bosnian Elections III: Representatives of Bosnian Political Parties

    Robert Hand led the discussion on the upcoming Bosnian elections, which were scheduled for mid-September later that year.  He was joined by representatives of political parties from Bosnia-Herzegovina, a rather diverse group of individuals - some of them represented parties in powers and others that are not and from various ethnic constituencies. The witnesses - Ljilana Bubic of the Republican Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; Adnan Jahic, President of the Party for Democratic Action in Tuzla; Hasib Salkic, Secretary General of the Liberal Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; Zdenko Kubicek of the Executive Board of the Croatian Party of Rights; Mirjana Malic of the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Zoran Tomic of the Croatian Democratic Union - introduced their parties’ histories, issues, and goals. They then focused more specifically on how they see the Bosnian elections unfolding and their thoughts about having them in the upcoming fall.

  • Russia’s Election: What Does It Mean?

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and others discussed the outcome and the implications of the Russian presidential election of 1996, which, at the time of the hearing, had just happened. The winner of the election was Boris Yeltsin, who was re-elected with a margin of thirteen percentage points over Communist Party Chairman and challenger Zyuganov. The hearing also incorporated discussion concerning the conflict in Chechnya and the circumstances under which the election transpired (i.e., fairness, media coverage).

  • Bosnia: Should the OSCE Certify Conditions Exist for Free and Fair Elections?

    The Helsinki Commission is focusing on what it considers one of the most important international events of this year, the elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Commission has held several briefings on this topic already with election experts from the United States, with members of the Provisional Election Commission from Bosnia, with representatives of political parties from that country, and most recently, with persons close to the situation in Banja Luka. Human rights organizations and others following the situation in Bosnia have warned that conditions for a free and fair election simply do not exist; and yet, the U.S. Government and some European governments have pressured the OSCE to certify nonetheless. A robust discussion on curbing rampant political gerrymandering and obstructions to free and fair elections will be underscored in the hearing.

  • Albanian Parliamentary Elections

    Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission, addressed what he called the “most controversial elections held in recent times in [Eastern Europe]” and described his experiences observing Albania’s elections. Hand commented on the limited progress of the Albanian government since 1990 and specifically the corruption of the 1996 elections. The witnesses - Susan Atwood from the National Democratic Institute, Jim Swigert from Office of South the State Department, and Ambassador Dilja - spoke of their personal surprise at the elections and about the general confusion that surrounded them. Jim Swigert described his role in motivating members of the OSCE to observe the elections and take interest in Albania’s democratization.

  • The Albanian Parliamentary Elections

    The May 1996 parliamentary elections in Albania were the third such elections in that country, which beforehand had by far the most repressive communist regime. It has also been the poorest country in Europe. In March 1991, only four months after political pluralism was tolerated in the country, the commu- nists (Socialist Party) won a majority and maintained control, relying on a less than adequately free and fair electoral process and lingering support in the countryside. In March 1992, the opposition Democratic Party led by Sali Berisha was better able to get the message out to a still traumatized population, and took power as the Socialists conceded. Since that time, there have been incredible economic and political reforms, although since 1994 shortcomings in democratic development seem less the result of the lack of understanding of concepts like the rule of law than more the overbearing nature of the Democratic Party's core leadership, especially after splits within the party led to the departure of some of its earlier leaders. The Democrats received a significant setback in November 1994 when popular resentment led to the defeat in a referendum of a new constitution for the country. The situation is exacerbated by an only partly reformed Socialist opposition, which has been inclined more to obstruct and provocate than anything else. The elections were for 140 seats in the unicameral Assembly, 115 of them contested on the basis of majority races in electoral zones, with second-round runoffs, and 25 on the basis of a proportional division of parties achieving at least 4 percent of the vote. This gave the electorate two votes, one for a specific candidate and one for a political party. Members of several opposition parties complained that the greater preference given to the majority system favored the ruling party, or larger parties which would only include the Socialists. Democratic Party leaders argued that this is not necessarily the case, and that the majority system permits direct contact between a candidate and a constituency, thus strengthening democratic development. From the viewpoint of the election observer, either system or combination thereof is legiti- mate as long as it was approved through democratic means. A recently adopted law -- called the Genocide Law -- and a commission established to implement it had an impact on the eligibility for candidacy. The law prohibited those who "collaborated" with the com- munist regime from holding office until 2002. Given the severity of the repression during the communist era, it is not surprising that such a prohibition would be popular, but the commission which made the decisions was under government control and did not act in a transparent matter. Indeed, some opposition members called it unconstitutional because it was acting as a court when it was not. A total of 139 people were declared ineligible to compete in the elections, 57 of whom appealed decisions, seven successfully. Only three of the 139 people prohibited came from the ruling party, although it was claimed that the Democratic Party had told people who would probably also have been prohibited not to run as a candidate in the first place. The campaign period began in April, allowing a reasonable amount of time for political parties to get their message across. In fact, as these elections were required by the expiration of the mandate of the previously elected Assembly, the political parties were generally preparing for the elections months before- hand. The print media in Albania is almost all completely biased in favor of one party or another, allowing all points of view to be expressed but with little objective analysis available. The broadcast media is state controlled and had a definite but not overwhelming bias in its coverage of the campaign. However, the election law stipulated time frames for each political party in the campaign to present itself to the voters on television, and this was advantageous to the party in power. Many of the political parties campaigned by holding mass rallies. Opposition parties complained that the police in some towns prevented party leaders from traveling to attend rallies, and the Socialists were denied the ability to hold a final rally on the central (Skenderbeg) square of the capital city, Tirana, because it would disrupt traffic. A Democratic Party rally, on the other hand, was permitted because it was technically scheduled as an official address by Sali Berisha as the Albanian President.

  • Violence in Slovakia

    Mr. Speaker, I am alarmed by recent violence in Slovakia that may be part of a larger pattern of politically motivated violence. During the weekend of May 4-5, a device that may have been a hand-grenade exploded in front of the home of Bela Bugar. Mr. Bugar is not only a member of the Hungarian minority's opposition coalition, he is also, according to opinion polls, its most popular member. Shortly before that incident, Robert Remias, a former policeman who has been questioned in connection with the kidnaping of President Michal Kovac's son last year, died when his propane-fueled BMW exploded. Although it is not yet certain who is responsible for these acts, it is clear that violence coincides with politics in Slovakia at a suspiciously high rate. I also recall, for example, that Frantisek Miklosko, the opposition leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, was assaulted by unknown attackers near his home last August; Peter Toth, a journalist investigating the Kovac case, has also been assaulted; last April, a bomb went off in the car of Arpad Matejka, a member of the Prime Minister's party. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, is no stranger to Slovakia. We were a close observer of developments there well before the breakup of the Czechoslovak Federation in 1992 and have issued two major reports on that country. Since last summer, I have been joined twice by Senator Alfonse D'Amato, the Commissions' cochairman, and the Commission's ranking minority members, Representative Steny H. Hoyer and Senator Frank Lautenberg, in sending letters to Slovak Ambassador Lichardus regarding continuing challenges to the democratization process in his country. Although the Commission has raised a number of serious concerns in these letters, we have, remained generally optimistic about developments in Slovakia. Last week, for example, I hosted a conference in New Jersey on business opportunities in Central Europe, where I discussed some of the positive economic changes in Slovakia that are creating new opportunities for Slovak society as a whole. I appreciate the willingness of the Slovak Parliament to consider the views of a number of international interlocutors regarding draft legislation and note the active and constructive role of the President and the Constitutional Court in guiding the passage of legislation consistent with democratic values and human rights norms. I commend Prime Minister Meciar for his decision last week to seek, in his words, a wider democratic discussion of the draft law on the protection of the Republic. Most of all, I have been greatly heartened by the increasing involvement of Slovak citizens in all areas of public life. The message sent by the most recent developments in Slovakia, therefore, is all the more discouraging. And that message is dangerous: take on a high political profile, and you are possibly a more visible--and more likely--target of violence. I welcome the May 9 statement of the Government of Slovakia condemning acts of violence and promising a thorough investigation of these matters. I believe it is particularly important that the death of Robert Remias be examined in an open and transparent manner, in a manner that makes information available to all those concerned with this case, and in a manner that will foster credibility in its results. Mr. Speaker, the Helsinki Commission will continue to follow closely developments in this case, and I expect to report further to this body as information becomes available.

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