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
  • Human Rights in Turkey

    Sam Wise, director for international policy at the Commission, led a discussion on the human rights situation in Turkey in 1995, specifically regarding Turkey’s Kurdish minority and the human rights implications of terrorism.  Wise highlighted the human costs of both terrorism itself and efforts to combat it, which has mainly affected civilians. Panelists Akin Birdal and Yavuz Onen spoke of the assassinations and disappearances of prominent human rights activists, journalists and others that unfortunately became routine by 1995. Those who publicize human rights violations in Turkey faced official harassment or jail for their efforts.

  • Report on the March 5, 1995 Parliamentary Election in Estonia and Status of Non-Citizens

    The election on March 5, 1995, for Estonia'’s national parliament, the Riigikogu, were conducted normally, without any serious violations of the election law or international standards. A seventeen-member delegation of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCEPA) concluded that the election was “free and fair.” The OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) reported that “[the election was] carried out in accordance with the principles contained in the electoral law and there are no major matters which the representatives wish to highlight.” ODIHR has submitted several suggestions to the Riigikogu and the National Electoral Committee for improving technical aspects of the process. Political party structures are noticeably undeveloped in the northeast, and in none of the polling stations were any local observers encountered. Discussions at the National Electoral Commission in Tallinn and with local precinct officials revealed some disagreement about the procedure for admitting local observers, around 700 of whom had registered with the National Electoral Commission prior to the election. In any case, the lack of local observers probably indicated general confidence by the citizenry that the government was capable of holding an orderly and honest election without the need for monitors. Checks with other international observers indicated that the only local observers noted were in Tallinn, and precious few of these.  

  • Genocide in Bosnia

    This hearing focused on determinig if the recent ethnic cleansing, the destruction of cultural sites, and war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia constituted genocide.  In particular, the witnesses and Commissioners discussed  how many of the war crimes were committed on orders from the military and the political leadership.

  • U.S. Assistance to Central and Eastern Europe and the NIS: An Assessment

    This briefing discussed the successes achieved and the difficulties encountered on the road to democratic reform and stabilization are reflected throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and evaluated the impact of these factors in the scope and tenor of U.S. assistance programs. Such programs involve assistance to countries throughout the region in democratic institution building, market reform and restructuring, health care improvement, energy efficiency, environmental policy, and housing sector reform. Witnesses testifying at this briefing addressed the relevance of the crisis in Chechnya, continued conflict in the Balkans, and tensions in various parts of East-Central Europe to United States Interests in the region. They focused on the goals of U.S. assistance to the NIS and East-Central Europe and the effectiveness of current programs in furthering those goals.

  • Electoral Reforms in Russia

    John Finerty from the Commission was joined by Richard Soudrette, representative of the International Federation for Electoral Systems, in leading a discussion on the possibility of reforming Russia’s electoral system.  Soudrette focused on the changes that were seen since the previous year’s parliamentary elections and future prospects for change. Panelists - Catherine Barnes, Robert Dahl, Terry Holcomb, Connie McCormack, and Richard Soudrette – spoke of their individual experiences with the Russian electoral system. The highlighted the successes of the International Federation of Electoral Systems programs in Russia, which focused on legal and institutional reform.

  • U.S. HELSINKI COMMISSION DELEGATION TO BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

    The Commission delegation travelled to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to assess the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina as the third winter of the conflict in that country approached. Specifically, the delegation was interested in local observations of the prospects for peace, international policies to enhance those prospects quickly and effectively, and the continuing humanitarian crisis that continues in the meantime. These objectives were part of a larger Commission effort to document the tragic events which had transpired in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of the former Yugoslavia since that federation began its violent disintegration, and to raise public awareness of the severe violations of CSCE principles and provisions that resulted. Following its visit to Sarajevo, the Commission delegation travelled to Albania at the invitation of President Sali Berisha. The visit offered the opportunity for the Commission to observe firsthand the vast changes which had taken place in Albania since the elections of 1992, which ousted the communists from power after nearly 50 years of ruthless repression and isolation. It also was intended to show support for Albania during a time of crisis and conflict in the Balkans and, at the same time, to encourage Albania to make continued progress and avoid making mistakes which could damage Albania's image abroad. During the last stop on the trip, the delegation visited Turkey to examine issues of mutual concern to the United States and Turkey, including human rights issues, the Kurdish situation, conflict in the Balkans and the Middle East peace process.  

  • Status of Media Freedom in Democracies

    This briefing detailed the progress of media freedom in newly democratic states, especially within Eastern Europe. The role of the media in the democratization process and methods for promoting freedom of the media were examined as well. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including David Webster, Chairman of the  Trans-Atlantic Dialogue on European Broadcasting and Sandra Pralong, President of Democracy Works – detailed several major values that a free media promotes in the democratic process, including peaceful social change, education of the democratic electorate, dissenting opinions about the government and society in general, and transparency of political corruption.

  • Report: Human Rights and Democratization in Romania

    Romania's ongoing journey toward democracy is generally viewed, even by the government of Romania, as slower and more circuitous than that of its neighbors. Romania has certainly had farther to go; Nicolae Ceausescu's regime was the most repressive and demoralizing of the Warsaw Pact countries. Yet Romania's gloomy distinctiveness carried into the post-Ceausescu era. The Romanian revolution of December 1989 was the bloodiest of the region. The early months of 1990 were marked by confusion and tension, including violent inter-ethnic clashes. The first free elections of May 1990 were tainted by serious irregularities in the campaign period; one month later, thousands of pro-government miners rampaged through Bucharest, bludgeoning anti-communist demonstrators and ransacking opposition party headquarters. This inauspicious outset led many observers to question the prospects for reform. Many doubted the democratic credentials of the new Romanian leadership, alleging that the revolution had been "hijacked" or "stolen" Reports of harassment and intimidation persisted, extreme nationalists secured positions of influence, and popular faith in democratic institutions was shaken by discrimination and corruption. Meanwhile, the economic situation deteriorated rapidly, and in September 1991 the miners returned to Bucharest, this time to. overthrow the government they once claimed to defend. Yet Romania today has made real and significant progress in the area ·of human rights and democratization. Local and general elections held in 1992 met international standards. A new constitution was adopted, as was legislation aimed at establishing a state based on the rule of law. Efforts were made to secure parliamentary oversight for internal security forces, steps were taken to improve inter-ethnic relations, and licenses were distributed for independent local television and radio stations. The aura of fear and intimidation has dissipated significantly, and a number of domestic human rights and civic organizations are actively working, sometimes with the cooperation of state authorities, to improve Romania's human rights performance.

  • Human Rights and Democratization in Romania

    Romania's ongoing journey toward democracy is generally viewed, even by the government of Romania, as slower and more circuitous than that of its neighbors. Romania has certainly had farther to go; Nicolae Ceausescu's regime was the most repressive and demoralizing of the Warsaw Pact countries. Yet Romania's gloomy distinctiveness carried into the post-Ceausescu era. The Romanian revolution of December 1989 was the bloodiest of the region. The early months of 1990 were marked by confusion and tension, including violent inter-ethnic clashes. The first free elections of May 1990 were tainted by serious irregularities in the campaign period; one month later, thousands of pro-government miners rampaged through Bucharest, bludgeoning anti-communist demonstrators and ransacking opposition party headquarters. This report examines the developments in the areas of human rights and democracy in post-Ceausescu Romania.

  • Report: The Belarusian Presidential Election

    Belarus, with an area of over 80,000 square miles, is located in east central Europe, between Latvia, Lithuania and Poland on'the West and Northwest, with Russia on the East and Northeast, and Ukraine to the South. Of the approximately 10.3 million population, 78 percent are Belarusian, 13 percent Russian, 4 percent Polish, and 3 percent Ukrainian. A small Lithuanian population is concentrated near the Lithuanian border. Part of the Russian Empire since the second and third partitions of Poland in the latter half of the 18th century, Belarus enjoyed brief independence following the Bolshevik revolution. In November 1918, the Red Army entered Minsk and established the Belarussian SSR. During the Cold War era, Belarus was a quiescent, almost completely Russified Soviet republic. Popular discontent was stirred up in 1986 by the radioactive winds of the Chemobyl nuclear reactor disaster in neighboring Ukraine. and Moscow's incompetence in dealing with the· crisis. A year later, exposure of the mass graves of Stalin's victims at Kuropaty added to anti-Moscow .feelings. Unexpected and uncharacteristic mass strikes and public protests met President Gorbachev's April 1991. prices increases -- only a month after the March 1991 "Referendum on the Union," in which 83 percent of Belarusian voters favored preservation of the USSR.

  • CSCE to Examine Repression against Evangelicals in Former Soviet Union

    Chris Smith, ranking Republican on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, addressed both the opportunities for democratic, economic, and social reforms in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the difficulties of achieving these reforms presented by renewed tensions based on nationality and religion. The rise of extreme nationalism was cited as a key factor in the rise of religious intolerance in this region. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Boris Pechatkin and Edward Zawistowski of the Russian-American Institute for Adaption, and Lauren Homer, Director of Law and Liberty Trust – addressed the difficulties that have been encountered in ending religious prosecution following the fall of the Soviet Union. The impact of a breakdown of law and order in the countries of Eastern Europe was evaluated as a mechanism for religious injustice.

  • Russia's Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum

    This report is based on a Helsinki Commission staff delegation to Russia to observe the December 12, 1993 parliamentary election and constitutional referendum. Because of the importance of the event, and because charges had been leveled of improprieties and unfair access to the media, the Commission sent five staff members to Russia to observe the process for a period of more than two weeks. Michael Ochs and Orest Deychak went to Russia two weeks before the voting to monitor the pre-election campaign. The Commission's Senior Advisor, David Evans, and staff members John Finerty and Heather Hurlburt, arrived subsequently and remained through December 12, when they monitored balloting in various cities and regions.  Despite a number of problems and irregularities, both during the campaign and the voting, the Helsinki Commission believes that the Russian voters were able to express their political will freely and fairly. The Russians have made genuine progress in bringing their electoral procedures into conformity with international standards, and the election itself represents a significant step in the ongoing process of democratization in Russia.

  • The Current State and Future Prospects of Democracy in Russia

    As its name suggests, this hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, dealt with the prospect for the implementation of democratic institutions in the former Soviet Union. In addition, though, part of the hearing focused on the Russian legislature’s dissolution after the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev (i.e. post-Communism), as well as, of course, Russia and its formerly incorporated countries’ courses for the future. Witnesses who attended this hearing were: Michael Dobbs, Resident Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Dr. Leon Aron, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Dr. Robert Krieble, Chairman of the Krieble Institute of the Free Congress Foundation.

  • Human Rights and Democratization in Bulgaria

    The Helsinki Commission's last comprehensive report on Bulgarian CSCE implementation was published in 1988. (The Commission also published a report in 1991 on the ethnic Turkish minority in Bulgaria). At that time, Bulgaria was in violation of many of its CSCE commitments. Its human rights record was among the worst of the Helsinki signatory states. Clearly, much has changed since then. Since the fall of communism in November 1989, Bulgaria has made impressive strides towards becoming a democratic state based on the rule of law. Bulgaria is experiencing a rare historical opportunity in which it can genuinely forge its own fate. Unshackled from the external Soviet empire of communist rule with which it had especially close links, Bulgaria is developing a democratic, rule of law state where the rights of all of its citizens are being met with greater respect. While Bulgaria faces considerable problems in its post-communist transition, and will continue to in the foreseeable future, it is doing much better than most of its Balkan neighbors. Moreover, it is exceeding the expectations of those who until recently viewed Bulgaria through the prism of being the Soviet Union's “16th republic” and the home of papal assassination plots and forcible assimilation campaigns. Despite its very real problems, Bulgaria is indicating that it is more tolerant, pluralistic, democratic and stable than many would have supposed.

  • Situations of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey

    This briefing focused on the Kurdish minority, the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East primarily concentrated in the States of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, a CSCE signatory state. The lack of institutional protection of human rights and individual freedoms that the Kurdish minority suffers from in each of these states was addressed. Additionally, the principles of territorial integrity, self-determination, and respect of human rights were explored in the context of the Middle East. Witnesses at the briefing – including Ahmet Turk, Chairman of the People’s Labor Party and Barham Salih, a Representative of the Iraqi Kurds – offered descriptions of the historical context and the political framework in which the issue of violations of the human rights of the Kurdish minority has arisen. Mr. Salih presented his personal experience as the evidence of the process of forced assimilation that Kurds were enduring in Turkey at the time.

  • Situation of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey

    The briefing, introduced by Mary Sue Hafner, was another chapter in the Commission’s ongoing examination of minority issues within the CSCE and focused on the issue of the Kurdish minority, who constitute the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East, of approximately 20 to 25 million, primarily concentrated in the states of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, in Syria. What is common to the Kurdish minority in all of the countries in which they live is the lack of institutional protection of human rights and individual freedoms. The witnesses - Dr. Mark Epstein, Ahmet Turk from the People’s Labor Party, and Barham Salih, the Iraqi Kurdish Representative - spoke of the need for recognition of human rights and self-determination for Kurdish people in the region. They provided the audience with a historical context and political framework in which the situation existed in 1993 and discussed the possibility for progress in recognizing Kurdish rights.

  • The Countries of Central Asia: Problems in the Transition to Independence and the Implications

    This was the first Helsinki Commission hearing held on the Central Asian republics. The Commissioners and witnesses discussed five countries' transitions to independence, which were  complicated by the presence of repressive regimes that maintained the old Soviet-style order and economic turmoil. Chairman DeConcini opened the hearing by noting that the presidents of four out of the five new Central Asian countries were former first secretaries of the Communist Party. Dr. Martha Olcott, professor of political science at Colgate University, expressed concern over the rise of extremist ideologies of nationalism and Islam in the region, which were fuelled by economic stagnation. Firuz Kazemzadeh, professor emeritus as Yale University, argued instead that the dominant threat in the region came from the projection of Russian influence. This was corroborated by Micah Naftalin, director of the Union Council for Soviet Jews, who detailed the KGB's role in silencing the press and repressing opposition in Turkmenistan, and the growth and diffusion of anti-semitism from Russia into Central Asia. A final testimony was offered by Adbumannob Pulatov, chairman of the Uzbekistan Society for Human Rights. Pulatov decried the lack of press freedom in Uzbekistan and urged Congress to continue its monetary support of Radio Liberty. In the end, all four witnesses cautioned that human rights concerns often take a back seat to other issues, and that doing so could jeopardize progress in the field.

  • Report: The CSCE Human Dimension Seminar on Tolerance

    The structure of the seminar was designed to maximize contact and dialogue among participants during the brief week in Warsaw. Modeled after a U.S. proposal, three discussion groups were designed to focus on: the role of educational and cultural institutions, as well as the media, in promoting tolerance; the role of local authorities; and legal issues and law enforcement. Two groups ran simultaneously at any given time, enabling even the smallest delegations to rotate reasonably efficiently among the different discussions. Moderators from Switzerland, the United States (Colonel Ronald Joe, Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, U.S. Army), and the United Kingdom were selected by the ODIHR to manage the three discussions respectively.

  • Report: Northern Ireland: Codel DeConcini Trip Report

    The Helsinki Commission was urged by several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to make a contribution to the public debate on Northern Ireland. Human rights reports by well-respected NGOs such as Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch have documented persistent human rights abuses by security and paramilitary forces. Serious questions have been raised about the administration of justice as well. And to this day, issues of social and economic justice dominate the political dialogue between the two communities of Northern Ireland. Prior to its visit, the Commission was warned that, given its complex realities and historic passions, Northern Ireland often defies understanding. Nevertheless, the delegation, which in. addition to Senator DeConcini, included Commission Deputy Staff Directors Jane Fisher and Mary Sue Hafner, as well as, Mary Hawkins of Senator DeConcini's personal staff, came away with a better perception of what drives this conflict. The delegation began its fact-finding trip on the premise that any evaluation of the situation in Northern Ireland must consider not only traditional human rights violations, bu he erosion of a democratic system by terrorist activity. Indeed, the delegation viewed errorist acts by paramilitary forces from both communities as one of the worst recurring auses of human rights violations. At the same time, the delegation agreed the root causes of that terrorism should also be examined. As local religious leaders admonished, "an valuation of Northern Ireland based upon CSCE standards and principles must addres he dangers it confronts.'' This view reflected the competing interests that challening Northern Ireland today: on the one hand, efforts by one of the world's oldest democracies to promote and protect human rights and the rule of law; on the other, the need to combat a vicious terrorist movement that has taken thousands of lives.

  • Report: Russians in Estonia: Problems and Prospects

    In summer 1991, the Helsinki Commission examined the situation of Russians in Estonia, in the form of a chapter of a larger report on national minorities in the CSCE context. The present report is essentially an update, and was occasioned by the most significant event affecting the status of Russians in Estonia since the country regained its independence in_ September 1991. In February 1992, Estonia passed a law that restored citizenship only to citizens of the interwar Estonian Republic and their descendants. Consequently, the great majority of Estonia's Russians, most of whom came to Estonia after its forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940, did not automatically becom citizens of Estonia and could not vote in the country's first: national election after the restoration of its independent, statehood, held on September 20, 1992. Estonia's citizenship law and the resultant exclusion of about 40 percent of the resident population from voting elicited from Russians, both inside and outside Estonia, charges of discrimination and human rights violations. Russian government officials and parliamentarians protested Estonia's treatment of Russians in international forums, in the media, and in Washington and other Western capitals. Considering their allegations of human rights violations, the Helsinki . Commission sent two staffers to Estonia to talk to Russians and Estonians and Study the situation on the ground before the election and on election day. Their primary mission was not to observe the election per se and this is not an election report; in fact, the Commission believed that the Estonian election authorities were quite capable of organizing free and fair elections. Rather, the Commission hoped to examine the reasons for, and possible consequences of, Estonia's deliberate decision not to giye citizenship and the vote to. some 40 percent of the population. The following is a report of the Commission staffs investigation. Their research and conclusions are based on interviews and discussions conducted in Tallinn, Kohtla-Jarve, Sillamae and Narva. The last three cities are in northeast Estonia and are mostly populated by Russians.

Pages