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.

Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • The Milosevic Regime Versus Serbian Democracy and Balkan Stability

    This hearing, presided over by the Hon. Chris Smith, then Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, was held on the fiftieth anniversary of Human Rights Day, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in Paris by 56 members of the United Nations. Regarding the atrocities of Slobodan Milosevic and his regime, then, this hearing’s date was perfectly apropos. The storied crimes by the Milosevic Regime are world renowned. The hearing was held in the wake of actions by the regime taken against Serbia’s independent media. Earlier on, Milosevic refused to acknowledge the results of municipal elections in Serbia, and, of course, the violent conflicts that the regime was culpable for.  

  • The Ombudsman in the OSCE: An American Perspective

    This briefing assessed the role of ombudsmen institutions in the countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from an American perspective. The ombudsman institution was described as a flexible institution; adaptable to national and local government structures in a wide variety of countries, and a brief evaluation of the evolution of this institution was presented. Dean M. Gottehrer, a consultant on ombudsmen in human rights institutions for the United Nations Development Program, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE, and the United States Information Agency, presented a personal analysis of the role of ombudsmen institutions in protecting human rights in OSCE participating states.

  • Report on Azerbaijan's Presidential Election

    On October 11, 1998, Azerbaijan held presidential elections. The contest pitted incumbent President Heydar Aliev, the former Communist Party leader who returned to power in 1993, against moderate opposition leader Etibar Mamedov, political maverick Nizami Suleimanov, and three other candidates with little recognition or following. While no one seriously expected Aliev to lose, the opposition candidates were hoping for a second round. Five leading opposition politicians—Abulfaz Elchibey, Isa Gambar, Rasul Guliev, Ilyas Ismailov and Lala Shovket—boycotted the vote, unwilling to legitimize by their participation an election they believed would be unfair. Negotiations that took place in August between the government and the boycotting opposition over the most controversial aspect of the election—the composition of the Central Election Commission—proved unsuccessful, with the authorities rejecting the opposition’s demand for equal representation on the CEC. The five leaders, joined by numerous other parties and groups in the Movement for Electoral Reform and Democratic Elections, urged voters not to go to the polls. The authorities minimized the boycott’s significance, arguing that the opposition leaders knew they had no chance in a fair election and therefore preferred to claim fraud and not participate. Beginning August 15, the boycotting parties organized a series of rallies and demonstrations to pressure the government and call for fair elections. These were the first mass street actions in Azerbaijan in years. The authorities refused to let the opposition hold a demonstration in Freedom Square, in the center of Baku, offering alternative venues instead. On September 12, protesters clashed with police, resulting in arrests and injuries. Afterwards, authorities and opposition tried to reach agreement on the demonstrators’ route, and most pre-election rallies, some of which drew big crowds, were largely peaceful. The increasingly tense relations between the government and boycotting opposition parties were one factor in the OSCE/ODIHR’s appraisal of the election.  In ODIHR’s view, these failings outweighed the positive aspects of the election, such as the election law, which all sides acknowledged as acceptable, the freedom for candidates to speak openly on television, the abolition of censorship and provisions for domestic observers. The OSCE/ODIHR assessment was that the election fell short of meeting international norms. With the OSCE assessment placing in question the official results, the CEC’s failure to publish election protocols until long after the stipulated time period heightens doubts about President Aliev’s standing. The election was largely a referendum on his five-year presidency. Since his return to power in 1993, he has not solved the major problems besetting the country. The NagornoKarabakh conflict remains unsettled; Azerbaijani territory is still under Armenian occupation and no refugees have returned to their homes. Living standards for the great majority of the population have declined precipitously, though it is widely known that a tiny stratum of corrupt officials and businessmen have become rich. Moreover, the predominance of people from Nakhichevan - Aliev’s home region - in positions of power exacerbates general discontent.

  • The Status of Human Rights in Russia

    This briefing addressed the recent changes in the Russian government and what they might portend for human Rights in Russia. Specifically, economic troubles that led to the emergence of extremist politics and subsequent human rights abuses were the main topic of discussion. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch; Mark Levin, Executive Director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry; and Lauren Homer, President of Law and Liberty Trust – evaluated the status of human rights abuse in Russia resulting from a mix of repression, corruption, inertia, and neglect. Freedom of speech, freedom of information, and freedom of religion were especially emphasized as aspects of human rights that Russia needs to improve in the future

  • Report on Parliamentary and Municipal Elections in Montenegro

    On May 31, 1998, Montenegro held elections for the 78 seats in the republic’s parliament as well as for seats in the local councils of its 21 municipalities. These elections took place in a political environment marked by tension between Montenegro and Serbia, the only two of the six former Yugoslav republics which have established a new federal relationship. At issue was whether the Serbia-dominated federation created in 1992 and controlled by the authoritarian Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would permit Montenegro to develop economically and politically on its own and, if not, whether Montenegro would make its own move toward outright independence. Milosevic seems unwilling to concede Montenegro’s de jure autonomy within the federation and would likely resort to some use of force to maintain control over what is, in fact, Serbia’s only access to the sea. Moreover, Montenegro’s relationship with Serbia is a divisive issue internally, pitting those ethnic Montenegrins with pro-Serb inclinations, especially in the north, against those who stress the republic’s distinctness from Serbia and are supported in their position by the sizable Bosniac (Muslim) and Albanian communities. Those favoring a close relationship with Serbia rallied around former Montenegrin President and current Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic, while those advocating a more independent course strongly supported the current President, Milo Djukanovic. Both came to power under the auspices of the former Communist party, now called the Democratic Party of Socialists, but Djukanovic was able to wrestle control of the party and oust his one-time mentor Bulatovic in presidential elections in 1997. Differences have been so strong in Montenegro in support of one or the other since that time that many predicted the parliamentary elections would be accompanied by civil violence. The elections were carried out in a relatively free and fair manner. The campaign period was marked by openness to differing points of view and a growing independent media. The results of the elections were clearer than anticipated, with the election coalition surrounding Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists winning 42 of the 78 seats compared to Bulatovic’s Socialist People’s Party, which won 29 seats.

  • Report on Elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina

    On September 12 and 13, 1998, elections were held in Bosnia-Herzegovina for offices ranging from the collective state presidency to several local counsils. These elections were the latest in what have been an angoign series of elections since the Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian conflict in December 1995. Like those in 1996 and 1997, these elections were also administered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) through a Provisional Election Council (PEC). Continuous elections, if held in as free and fair a manner as possible, have been viewed by the international community as a means to bring stability and recovery to a country divided by extreme nationalist political leaders, particularly among the Serb population, many of whom remain in positions of power or influence. There were few of disruptions during the two days of voting. Unfortunately, in what were otherwise well administered elections, there were major, albeit unintentional, flaws in the OSCE-prepared voter registration lists, preventing or making it difficult for many citizens to vote and encouraging local suspicions of international manipulation. Nevertheless, international observers deployed by the OSCE concluded that the will of the people was generally reflected in the results. These results did not bring any major change in Bosnia's political leadership, which remains largely in the handes of political parties representing the three major ethnic groups - the Bosniacs, Serbs, and Croats. They did, however, continue the trend of previous elections in bringing greater diversity to Bosnian politics. Among the Bosniac population in the Bosnian Federation, the opposition which promoted a multi-ethnic Bosnian society did make some gains, while among Bosnian Croats there was an advance in the simple fact that some serious alternatives existed. In Republika Srpska, however, nationalist sentiment showed a resiliency which the international community found disappointing given the major effort over the past year to promote political moderation. This was especially reflected in the defeat of the incumbent President of Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic. Overall, the 1998 elections may represent one small but definite step toward eventual political reunification of Bosnia's two entities and social reintegration after the devastating conflict. On the other hand, such incremental change may be insufficient to counter the solidification of the country's division. It is uncertain whether time is working for, or against, Bosnia's future as state. The elections have made certain, however, that structural change in the electoral and even the political process - promoting a social consensus across ethnic lines - is now needed. Within the next year, the international community must work to see if the Bosnian people themselves are prepared for such a step.   

  • Deteriorating Religious Liberty in Europe

    Senior Advisor to the Commission, E. Wayne Merry, chaired this briefing which was part of a series by the Commission on the subject of religious liberties within the OSCE region. This series was prompted by a perceived developing problem of restrictions on religious liberties in several participating states to the OSCE. At the time, the Commission was devoting most of its attention to the countries that that traditionally had a much more tolerant view toward religious minorities, such as those in Western and Central Europe. Participants in this briefing included Francesca Binda, Karen Gainer, and Paul Rowland, all with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) personnel Eric Jowett and Kent Patton.

  • Deterioration of Religious Liberty in Europe

    This briefing addressed the persisting question of problems of religious liberty and the patterns of discrimination against religious minorities and other belief groups that had developed in a number of countries in the OSCE region in the aftermath of the Cold War. Efforts of improving religious liberty in former communist countries were discussed, as well as the need for spending time and attention on countries farther west, like France, Belgium, and Austria, in which concern for religious minorities was also expressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Willy Fautre, Director of Human Rights without Frontiers and James McCabe, Assistant General Counsel of Watchtower Bible and Tract Society – examined the multi-tiered system that European countries employ regarding religion, and the different statuses and treatment of citizens based on where their religion falls within this system. The issues faced by minority religious associations, like being targeted by fiscal services, were also topics of discussion.

  • Report on Moldova's Parliamentary Elections

    On March 22, 1998, Moldova held its second multi-party elections to the 101-member parliament since achieving independence in August 1991. The Communist Party, which had been under legal prohibition until 1994, won just over 30 percent of the vote, translating into 40 seats out of 101. The results were a rejection by the voters of the previously powerful Agrarian Democrats, who did not cross the 4 percent threshold required for entry as a party into the new parliament. The election law required that a party/bloc or individual candidate garner 4% of the votes cast before being eligible for a seat in Parliament. Other big losers were the protocommunist Socialist-Unity bloc, which had taken second place in the 1994 parliamentary elections. There were no significant irregularities or major election law violations observed by Commission staff or reported by other Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCEPA) observers. A major exception to the OSCEPA judgment was the situation in Transdniestria “where neither candidates nor voters had even close to adequate conditions for exercising their civil rights.” The new Moldovan parliament opened its session on April 21, 1998.  Deputies are elected for a four year term.  

  • Belarus Opposition Leaders

    The Commission examined Belarus’ political situation under President Lukashenka, who, on the day of the briefing, had locked the diplomatic corps out of their residences. The briefing explored the development of what some call a dictatorship in Belarus after the fall of the Soviet Union that brought Soviet sentiment back into the political scene. The witnesses - Professor Yury Khadyka and Professor Stanislav Bogdankevich - highlighted the struggle for human rights in Belarus after 1991, when anti-communist rhetoric became a popular national value and during which personal freedom did not was excluded. They also addressed the lack of economic progress under Lukashenko, which goes unnoticed by Western governments.  

  • Report on Armenia's Presidential Election

    On March 30, 1998, Armenians went to the polls to choose a president in a runoff between Robert Kocharian—Armenia’s Prime Minister, Acting President and former President of Nagorno-Karabakh—and Karen Demirchian, former Communist Party leader of Armenia. The election followed first round voting on March 16, in which none of the 12 candidates managed to win the necessary 50 percent of the ballot. According to Armenia’s Central Election Commission, in the second round, Kocharian won 59.48 percent to Demirchian’s 40.52 percent, to become Armenia’s second president. Reported turnout was 68.14 percent. After two flawed elections in 1995 and 1996, the March 1998 vote offered Armenia, under different leadership,  an opportunity to redeem its image as a democratizing state. Most observers concurred that the campaign was better than in earlier elections: no candidate was excluded from the race, there were no serious impediments to campaigning, and the candidates received their allotted air time. But the preliminary statement of the OSCE/ ODIHR observation mission, issued after the first round, emphasized violations and warned that the recurrence of such problems during the second round might place the election’s legitimacy in doubt. The Council of Europe and the CIS Parliamentary Assembly, however, gave the March 16 voting good grades and openly disputed the assessment of the OSCE/ODIHR. Armenian-American groups accused the OSCE/ODIHR of anti-Armenian bias, reflecting a purported tendency to pressure Armenia into accepting the OSCE’s allegedly pro-Azerbaijani proposals on Nagorno-Karabakh. Helsinki Commission monitoring of both rounds yielded a mixed picture. The most serious problem observed during first-round voting was disorganization in small polling stations swamped by large numbers of voters, and the vote count went well in a precinct where numerous violations took place in 1996. But the vote count observed during the second round featured blatant fraud: the ballot box was tampered with during the vote; extra ballots were present in the box in large and obvious packets; the vote count made no effort to distinguish valid from improper votes; the precinct committee was in direct contact with Kocharian headquarters throughout the count; and the precinct protocols were falsified to make the numbers add up—in the direct view of the foreign observers. All the falsified votes were for Kocharian, who was openly supported by most members of the precinct committee. At least one fifth —and maybe as many as half— of the votes counted in this precinct were false. Subsequently, at the district election level, the box containing the ballots’ detachable “coupons” (a mechanism designed to prevent fraud) arrived over an hour late with the lid ripped open.  Based on these observations, and the accounts of many ODIHR observers at their debriefing, there is reason to harbor grave doubts about the reliability of the officially-reported results.  

  • Repression and Violence in Kosovo and Hearing on Kosovo: The Humanitarian Perspective

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Alfonse D’Amato, discussed the dire circumstances in Kosovo, specifically Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanian majority population. In this hearing, D’Amato called for the U.S. to step up and prevent another outbreak of ethnic cleansing and achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis. More specifically, to facilitate a lasting peace, the Commissioner called on U.S. leadership to make Slobodan Milosevic believe that the world would not stand by while the atrocities in Kosovo and Serbia continued. In addition, any settlement reached between Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanian leadership, D’Amato, continued, must be respected and protect the human rights of all individuals in Kosovo, without preconditions. Witnesses in this hearing discussed these human rights violations and the predicament of the Kosovar Albanians.

  • Report on Ukraine's Parliamentary Election

    Ukraine’s March 1998 parliamentary elections resulted in a parliament similar in composition to the previous parliament, albeit with a somewhat more Communist tilt. The left constituted about 40 percent of parliament’s membership, with the remainder a mix of centrists, independents and national democrats. The new parliament included many new faces - only 141 deputies from the old parliament were in the new one. The parliamentary elections were held under a new election law which replaced the majoritarian system, introducing a mixed electoral system where half of the 450 deputies are elected from single-mandate districts and half from national party lists. While there were violations, transgressions and irregularities during the campaign and voting, Ukrainian voters generally were able to express their political will freely, and the results of the elections do appear to reflect the will of the electorate. The elections were conducted under a generally adequate legal and administrative framework, but the late passage of laws and regulations relating to the election–as well as late decisions regarding the Crimean Tatars—led to confusion and uncertainty about the electoral process. The campaign was generally peaceful in most of the country. However, it was marred by some tension, including incidents of violence, especially in Odesa and Crimea. The failure to allow non-citizen Crimean Tatar returnees the opportunity to vote, in contrast to arrangements that allowed them to vote in the 1994 elections, also tainted the elections. The state apparatus did not always display neutrality, and there were instances of harassment and pressure on opposition media.

  • Bosnia

    During this briefing, Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission, led a discussion regarding Bosnia and its different regions. He spoke of the situation in Bosnia in 1998 and the power of ethnically-based political parties, retained through nationalism, corruption, and control of the media. Reconstruction in Bosnia has slow and challenging due to poor economic conditions and the continued displacement of certain populations. The witnesses - Luke Zahner, Candace Lekic, Jessica White, Roland de Rosier, Kathryn Bomberger, Brian Marshall - have served in regions all over Bosnia and gave valuable input on the differences between regions and their rehabilitations processes after the Dayton Accords. They also spoke of the influence of Republica Srpska and the Bosnian Federation on said regions.  Paying attention to these differences, they state, is important in that the United States wants to support only those that successfully implement the Dayton Accords.

  • Status of Religious Liberty for Minority Faiths in Europe and the OSCE

    The purpose of this hearing, which the Hon. Christopher H. Smith chaired, was to discuss the reality of disturbing undercurrents of subtle, but growing, discrimination and harassment of minority religious believers, as opposed to discussing the widespread documentation of torture and persecution of practitioners of minority faiths. In a number of European countries, government authorities had seemed to work on restricting the freedoms of conscience and speech in much of their governments’ actions. For example, in Russia, on September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed the law called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” which blatantly violated agreements of the OSCE which the former U.S.S.R. helped to initiate. Through use of witnesses, then, attendees of this hearing, namely commissioners, gained a deeper understanding of the religious liberty violations within OSCE member countries and insight into how to best influence governments to adhere more closely to internationally accepted human rights standards.

  • What's Next, Mr. Prime Minister? Democracy Hangs in the Balance in Slovakia on Constitution's Fifth Birthday

    Mr. President, 5 years ago, the speaker of the Slovak Parliament, Ivan Gasparovic, described his country's new constitution as `an expression of centuries-old emancipation efforts of the Slovak people to have a sovereign state of their own.' He also spoke of its `supreme binding force.' Since then, the people who present themselves as the guardians of Slovakia's statehood have undermined Slovakia's constitution. This is what they have done. This May, the Ministry of Interior ignored the Constitutional Court's ruling and altered an important referendum on NATO and on the direct election of the President, effectively denying the people of Slovakia their constitutionally guaranteed right to register their views through a referendum. Defending its actions, members of the Prime Minister's party insisted that they acted in conformity with the constitution--as they interpreted it--and that they were justified in placing their views ahead of the ruling of the highest court in the land. The actions of the ruling coalition in the case of Frantisek Gaulieder makes clear that the Meciar government has a profound and fundamental disregard for the constitution of Slovakia. Then there is the case of Frantisek Gaulieder. Frantisek Gaulieder is a member of the Slovak Parliament who was removed from office because he renounced his membership in Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. On July 25, the Constitutional Court confirmed that the ruling coalition's action which deprived Gaulieder of his seat was unconstitutional and violated Gaulieder's rights. But members of the Prime Minister's coalition again claimed that they, and not the Constitutional Court, have the right to determine what the constitution means, and have declined to act to restore Gaulieder to his seat in Parliament. In short, the `supreme binding force' that Ivan Gasparovic spoke of 5 years ago no longer flows from the constitution, but from the will of Vladimir Meciar. When there are differences of opinion as to what a constitution means, whether those differences arise between branches of government or between the government and its citizens, in a state operating under the rule of law, it is the job of a constitutional court to interpret what the constitution means, not the Prime Minister or Parliament. Although this principle is taken for granted in many parts of Europe, and was established early in American history by the famous Supreme Court case of Marbury versus Madison, it has apparently not yet been accepted in Slovakia. Mr. President, the Slovak Democratic Coalition has moved, four times, to convene a special session of the Parliament in order to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court and restore Frantisek Gaulieder to his seat. Four times, however, Prime Minister Meciar's coalition has boycotted their own Parliament rather than face the following dilemma: restore Gaulieder to his seat--consistent with the Constitutional Court's decision--and risk the chance that others will follow Gaulieder's example and defect from the Prime Minister's party, or vote down the Slovak Democratic Coalition's proposal to restore Gaulieder to his seat and confirm that whatever form of government exists in Slovakia, it is not constitutional democracy, at least not as we understand it. Sooner or later, the Slovak Parliament will reconvene. When it acts, or fails to act, on the Gaulieder question, we will know whether Slovakia is committed to becoming a functioning constitutional democracy. If it is not, what it will become is an isolated State under constant international pressure and scrutiny, cut off from a promising and prosperous future by the arrogance and greed of its own leaders. As Vladimir Meciar is asked in his weekly news show, what next, Mr. Prime Minister?

  • Report on Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement

    The Commission held a series of three public hearings on “Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement” in anticipation of the summit of Heads of State and Governments of Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be held in Madrid, Spain, on July 8 and 9, 1997. The emergence of new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and the demise of the Warsaw Pact created a security vacuum in the territory between the current eastern frontier of NATO and the Russian border. The first attempt to address the new security realities in the region occurred at the end of 1991 with the establishment of NATO’s North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) as a forum for the evolution of a new relationship based on constructive dialogue and cooperation. In early 1994, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was launched with the aim of providing a practical program to transform the relationship between NATO and states participating in PfP, moving beyond dialogue and cooperation to forge a genuine security partnership. (All 27 states of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) are OSCE participating States.) Simultaneously, NATO began to consider the possibility of enlarging the Alliance. The result was the 1995 Study on NATO Enlargement which addressed practical steps and requirements candidates for membership would have to satisfy. In December 1996, NATO foreign ministers called for a NATO summit at which one or more countries that wanted to join NATO would be invited to begin accession negotiations. The U.S. Congress was instrumental in stimulating the debate through several legislative initiatives. The NATO Participation Act of 1994 (PL 103-447) provided a reasonable framework for addressing concerns about NATO enlargement, consistent with U.S. interests in ensuring stability in Europe. The law lists a variety of criteria, such as respect for democratic principles and human rights enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, against which to evaluate the suitability of prospective candidates for NATO membership. The Act stipulates that participants in the PfP should be invited to become full NATO members if they... “remain committed to protecting the rights of all their citizens....” Under section 203, a program of assistance was established to provide designated emerging democracies with the tools necessary to facilitate their transition to full NATO membership. The NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act of 1996 (PL 104-208) included an unqualified statement that the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights are integral aspects of genuine security. The law also makes clear that the human rights records of emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe interested in joining NATO should be evaluated in light of the obligations and commitments of these countries under the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Helsinki Final Act.  

  • Report on the April 1997 Parliamentary, County, and Municipal Elections in Croatia

    On April 13, 1997, Croatia held its fifth set of elections since political pluralism was introduced in the former Yugoslav republic in 1989, and the fourth since achieving independent statehood in 1991. These were the first elections, however, held throughout the entire country in 7 years, signaling Croatia’s normalization after years of conflict, displacement and uncertainty. Seats were contested for the upper chamber House of Counties of the parliament, or Sabor, and for municipal and county councils. The very holding of elections in Eastern Slavonia—the one region forcibly taken by Serb militants in 1991 and yet to be reintegrated into the country—produced positive signs for reintegration through peaceful means and without another tragic mass exodus of ethnic Serbs. The results countrywide set the stage for presidential elections later in the year, and indicate Croatia’s overall political trends as the country moves beyond the turmoil associated with Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration, including the massive displacement of the population as territory was taken in 1991 and then retaken in 1995. The turmoil served to narrow the country’s overall political spectrum with a nationalist tinge, and the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has relied on this situation to enhance its power. The fundamental question now is whether the party will accept defeat at the ballot box if the support of the population shifts as priorities change. As with previous elections in Croatia, the degree to which these elections could be considered free and fair was limited by the clear bias of the state-run broadcast media in its news coverage and by the effect of regular attempts to limit the diversity of the print media. Some administrative decisions regarding the elections seemed to be designed to benefit the ruling party, although the nature of these elections precluded the blatant stretching of what is legally permissible which had been evident in earlier elections. One decision prevented a domestic, civic-oriented non-governmental organization (NGO) from observing the polling, even from outside the confines of the polling station. People were generally permitted to vote freely and privately throughout Croatia on election day, except in Eastern Slavonia. There, a surprisingly strong turnout combined with the inadequate delivery of ballots and documents to polling stations, among other problems, causing the voting to be extended for an extra day. While there were some improvements over prior elections, these elections fell short of Croatia’s potential, especially as the country should now move more rapidly toward democracy. As more critical elections approach, it remains unclear whether the Croatian authorities will permit elections that could be considered free and fair if the result threatens their rule. The HDZ did retain its comfortable majority in the House of Counties and won most of the county and town councils, but opposition coalitions won outright, or at least enough to challenge the HDZ, in some of the bigger cities. The results in Eastern Slavonia, meanwhile, produced victories for a Serb coalition in just over one third of the municipalities, with the HDZ taking the remainder, a fairly predictable result that advances the issue of the region’s reintegration into the rest of Croatia. Croatia’s willingness to reconcile with its Serb population and to respect the human rights of its members, however, remains an open question.    

  • The Present Situation in Albania

    This briefing, moderated by the Honorable Eliot Engel, Co-Chairman of the Albanian Issues Caucus, examined the international response to the crisis in Albania since the collapse of the pyramid schemes in the beginning of the year, which led to protests, rebellion, and political stalemate.  The need for free and fair elections was emphasized in light of a political impasse over the holding of elections in June. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Julius Varallyay, Principle Country Officer for East Central Europe for the World Bank, Stefano Stefanini from the Italian Embassy, and Avni Mustafaj, former Director of Open Society Foundation for Albania – discussed the previous efforts that had been made to encourage political reforms and steps that needed to be taken in the future. The need for a comprehensive donor assistance program to complement international assistance was specifically address, as was the political reform on which this program would depend.

  • Slovakian Human Rights Issues

    Mr. President, I rise today to call to my colleagues' attention to human rights developments in Slovakia. These developments point Slovakia in the opposite direction from the road their neighbors have been traveling. Their neighbors accept western values and seek integration into western institutions, developments leading to individual freedom, political democracy, and economic prosperity in a free market system. In stark contrast, Slovakia is not in compliance with some important Helsinki process commitments and is showing signs of regression toward authoritarian, if not totalitarian relations between the state and its citizens.   This country, which showed so much promise upon gaining independence in 1993, has failed to press ahead with vitally needed democratic reforms, in contrast with so many other countries in the region, including other newly independent countries. While the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have worked hard to qualify for EU membership and NATO accession, Slovakia has lagged behind. While states like Lithuania and Slovenia have emerged from repressive empires to bring prosperity and hope to their peoples, Slovakia has not. Even Romania, which has struggled profoundly with the transition from totalitarianism, has managed to undertake significant reforms in the past few months.   From the outset, members of the Helsinki Commission have supported the democratic transformation in Slovakia. We believe that a strong, democratic Slovakia will enhance stability and security in Europe. Unfortunately, human rights and democratization in Slovakia have taken a severe beating, both literally and figuratively, in recent months. The hopes raised by free and fair elections and by the passage of a democratic constitution have been dashed. Last month, I understand some officials in Bratislava criticized a congressional report on NATO enlargement and complained that the discussion of Slovakia's progress toward democracy was too superficial. Well, I will provide a little more detail for those who genuinely want to know what worries us here in Washington.   Parliamentary democracy in Slovakia took a bullet in late November, when parliamentarian Frantisek Gaulieder, after announcing his resignation from the ruling coalition's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, was stripped of his parliamentary mandate through antidemocratic means that are unheard of anywhere else in Europe. His removal has been protested by the European Union and the United States at OSCE meetings in Vienna, but, so far, to no avail. Even more outrageously, there was a bomb attack against Mr. Gaulieder's home, while he and his family were present. This is a tactic that reminds me of the Communists, fascists, and other similarly bloody and ruthless groups.   The 1995 kidnaping of President Kovac's son is not only still unsolved, but the manner in which this matter has been investigated has fueled speculation that the government's own security forces were directly involved in this crime. The murder last year of Robert Remias, who may have had key evidence in this case, and the ineffectual investigation of that case has deepened these suspicions. Adding to this disturbing pattern, questions are already being raised about the official investigation of the December bomb attack on Frantisek Gaulieder's home: Mr. Gauliedier has reported that some of his testimony regarding the attack is missing from his police file, that the first investigator was removed after only 3 days on the case, and that the Slovak Minister of Interior has, shockingly, suggested that Mr. Gaulieder may have planted the bomb himself, the same `he-did-it-himself' story that no one believes regarding the kidnaping of Mr. Kovac, Jr. I am now informed that this investigation, like the Kovac and Remias cases, has been `closed for lack of evidence.' For a country supposedly seriously committed through its OSCE obligations to the establishment of a `rule of law' state, this is a damagingly poor performance.   In addition to these acts of violence, it has been reported that the President, the President's son, and members of the Constitutional Court have been subjected to death threats. In fact, in early December the Association of Slovak Judges characterized the anonymous, threatening letters addressed to Milan Cic, the Chair of the Slovak Constitutional Court, as an attack against the court as a whole and a means of political intimidation. It has also been reported that on February 24 an opposition political figure in Banska Bystrica, Miroslav Toman, was attacked by four assailants.   We see a country where politically motivated violence is on the increase, where public confidence in the government's intent to provide security for all Slovaks has plummeted, and where acts of violence and threats of violence have brought into question both the rule of law and the very foundations of democracy. The ruling coalition has continued to pursue an openly hostile agenda toward a free and independent media and free speech in general. During the course of the past year, two newspapers, Slovenska Republika and Naroda Obroda, have seen a total of 21 editors quit over alleged political interference with their work. Defamation suits launched by public officials appear to be a common vehicle for harassing one's political opponents. Most recently, on November 19, the government barred four journalists from attending a regular press conference after the weekly cabinet meeting because the journalists were believed to be unsympathetic to the government. Although this decision was ultimately rescinded after a public outcry, including a protest from the journalists' union, it was further evidence of the government's relentless efforts to curb any reporting it doesn't like. In fact, in one of the more shocking episodes of the battle for free speech in Slovakia, it has been reported that Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister of the country and, not insignificantly, a former boxer, warned journalist Dusan Valko just a few weeks ago that `I will punch you so that your own mother will not recognize you.' So much for Mr. Meciar's tolerance for other points of view and nonviolence.   The Slovak Government continues to pursue a minorities policy that would be laughable if it were not so wrong and harmful. This policy has included everything from banning the playing of non-Slovak national anthems last year to the more recent decision to bar the issuance of report cards in the Hungarian language, reversing long-standing practices. Such petty gestures are beneath the dignity of the Slovak people, whose heritage has survived more than a thousand years of foreign, and often markedly repressive, rule. The Slovak language and culture, now protected in an independent Slovakia, are not so weak that they can only flourish at the expense of others. More seriously, it should be noted that past repressive crackdowns on minorities, for example, in Cluj, Romania, and in Kosovo, Serbia, began by whittling away at the minority language opportunities that had traditionally been respected by the majority community. Accordingly, these seemingly small restrictions on the Hungarian minority in Slovakia may very well be the harbinger of more repressive tactics ahead. With this in mind, the failure of the Slovak parliament to adopt a comprehensive minority language law, and the recommendation of the Ministry of Culture that such a law is not even necessary, defy common sense. Current laws on minority-language use in Slovakia do not provide adequate or satisfactory guidance regarding the use of Hungarian for official purposes, as the recent report-card flap shows. Much harm can be done until a minority language law is passed based on a genuine accommodation between the majority and minority communities.   Finally, recent reductions in government-provided cultural subsidies have had a disproportionately negative effect on the Hungarian community. The Slovak Government's defense, that all ethnic groups have been equally disadvantaged by these cut-backs, is unpersuasive in light of the Culture Minister Hudec's stated intent to `revive' Slovak culture in ethnically mixed areas and to make cultural subsidies reflect that goal. While Hungarians suffer from a more direct form of government intolerance, other ethnic groups suffer more indirectly. Put another way, it is not so much government action which threatens Romani communities in Slovakia, it is government inaction. According to the most recent State Department report on Slovakia, skinhead violence against Roma is a serious and growing problem; three Roma were murdered as a result of hate crimes last year, and others have been severely injured. Some Roma leaders, in response to their government's inability or unwillingness to protect them, have called for the formation of self-defense units. Obviously, the Slovak Government is just not doing enough to address the deadly threats they face. Moreover, the repugnant anti-Roma statements that have repeatedly been made by Jan Slota, a member of the ruling coalition, have fostered this climate of hatred.   The fact that the Czech Republic, Germany, and other European countries also confront skinhead movements in no way relieves Slovakia of its responsibility to combat racism, just as Slovakia's skinhead problem does not relieve the other countries of their responsibilities. It is time and past time for Prime Minister Meciar to use his moral authority and political leadership to set Slovakia on the right course. He must make clear, once and for all, that Jan Slota, who also called the Hungarian minority `barbarian Asiatic hordes', is not his spokesman, and that the Slovak National Party's unreconstructed fascists do not represent the majority of the people of Slovakia.   Mr. President, the leadership of the Helsinki Commission, including my co-chairman, Representative Christopher H. Smith, and ranking members Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Steny Hoyer, have raised our concern about developments in Slovakia with Slovak officials on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, all we hear from the Slovak leadership is one excuse after another, and all we see is a search for one scapegoat after another: it's the Hungarians, it's the Czechs, it's the Ukrainian mafia, it's the hostile international community seeking to destroy Slovakia's good name, it's a public relations problem abroad, not real problems back home: in short, there is always somebody else to blame besides the people that are, in fact, running the country.   I don't mean to suggest that there have been no positive developments in Slovakia over the past 4 years. In fact, I have been especially heartened by the emergence of a genuine civil society that is increasingly willing to express its views on a broad range of issues. But positive initiatives by the Government have been too few and too far between. I make this statement today in the hope that the leadership in Bratislava will start to make real reforms, like their colleagues in Romania, and begin to restore the promising future that the people of Slovakia deserve. Their present policies are leading down a path toward international isolation, increasing criticism, and economic deprivation for their people. One Belarus is enough.

Pages