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
  • Turkmenistan's Referendum on Independence

    On October 26, 1991, Turkmenistan held a referendum on independence. Over 97 percent of eligible voters turned out to answer "Yes" or "No" to two questions, the first dealing with the republic's independence, the second seeking approval of President Saparmurad Niyazov's political and economic program. Over 94 percent of participants voted for independence; almost as high a percentage of voters voiced backing for Niyazov. On October 27, an extraordinary session of Turkmenistan's Supreme Soviet declared independence. Most republics of the former Soviet Union declared independence soon after the August 19, 1991 coup attempt. The much-delayed declaration by Turkmenistan's conservative government aimed at putting the republic on an equal footing with the other republics as negotiations among them and what remains of the center continue towards an uncertain conclusion. But Niyazov has made it quite clear that Turkmenistan's leaders will not countenance Baltic or Russian-style political pluralism on the road to independence. Equally clear from statements by the republic's official spokesmen and from the prominence of Iranian guests in Ashkhabad during the referendum is that Turkmenistan will pursue a regional foreign policy, oriented primarily towards developing good relations with its neighbors. Helsinki Commission staff traveled to Turkmenistan to observe the October 26 referendum. The Commission has been observing elections and referendums in the Baltic States and Soviet republics since February 1990. Except for monitoring the voting in the March 1991 All-Union referendum in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, however, the Commission has not been to Central Asia. The trip to Ashkhabad thus marks the beginning of a geographical expansion of Commission activity. U.S. policymakers have tended to neglect the region -- a habit that can no longer be afforded as the USSR dissolves and these republics become independent states and enter the world community. The trip's purposes were therefore not only to observe the balloting in the referendum but also to establish contact with the republic's leadership, to gain a sense of the leadership's plans, its attitude towards the CSCE and its commitments, and to meet with representatives of opposition groups. 

  • The Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE

    In accordance with the mandate of the Vienna Concluding Document, the 38 states participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Moscow from September 10 through October 4, 1991, for the third meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension (CHD, or CDH from the French acronym) of the CSCE. The first meeting of the Conference was held in Paris from May 20 through June 23, 1989, and the second was held in Copenhagen from June 5 through 29, 1990. The meetings of the CHD address the full range of human rights and humanitarian concerns associated with the Helsinki process.

  • Geneva Meeting on National Minorities and Moscow Meeting on the Human Dimension

    The hearing will focus on two important CSCE meetings, the Geneva Experts Meeting on National Minorities.   The Geneva meeting which recently ended was mandated to discuss national minorities, the meeting had three components: exchange of views on practical experience; review of the implementation of relevant CSCE commitments; and consideration of new measures. The distinguished speaker will outline the major points of the Geneva meeting and how the United States can best utilize its success while moving towards the upcoming human dimension meeting in Moscow.

  • Democratic Developments in Albania

    Beginning at the Copenhagen Human Dimension Meeting in June 1990, Albania has been granted observer status at CSCE meetings. Albania would like to move beyond its current observer status and become a full participant in the process. The Commission delegation had stated when it left after its first visit that it needed to see significant improvements in Albania s human rights performance before we could support Albania’s membership in the CSCE. There is no question that the situation has remarkably improved as of last year, a fact which we on the Helsinki Commission have welcomed and have even complimented the existing government for moving in what we consider the right direction. A key question now, in addition to that of CSCE membership, is how the United States can best develop these bilateral relations to the benefit of democracy in Albania.

  • Report: The Elections in Albania

    Taken as a whole, the Albanian elections cannot be considered free and fair. This does not mean, however, that the irregularities, intimidation and other problems encountered were necessarily sufficient to invalidate the results. The Party of Labor may well have won a majority of seats even if the election environment had been more free and fair, although it is questionable whether it would have still achieved the two-thirds benchmark critical for passing constitutional changes. Nevertheless, the very holding of these multi-party elections was a definite step forward. In the post-election period, the Democratic Party has refused to join the Party of Labor in any government coalition and has boycotted the Assembly until the perpetrators of a post-election crackdown on demonstrators which left several dead are identified. One of the most important and unanswered questions at present is the situation within the Party of Labor. Marty hard line leaders won election to the Assembly, but the current· President and Party First Secretary, Ramiz Alia, lost his seat, raising questions as to whether he can still lead the party and, if elected the new President as expected, will remain a powerful head of state. With or without further reform efforts, additional unrest can be expected in Albania. The country is now open to contact with the rest of the world and in dire need of foreign economic assistance. However, a slowdown in the pace of change -- let alone any rollback in the reforms undertaken to date -- will certainly be resisted by the population, the youth in particular, lead tonew waves of people seeking to leave the country and discourage foreign governments from extending any economic assistance other than purely humanitarian aid.

  • Referendum in the Soviet Union

    Mikhail Gorbachev's March 17, 1991 referendum on maintaining the USSR as a "renewed federation" was the first in Soviet, or Russian, history. As the following report makes clear, the referendum was not merely an exercise in public opinion polling or a guide to policymakers. It was intended to give Gorbachev a popular mandate for pressuring the newly elected legislatures of the Baltic States and Soviet republics seeking independence or greater sovereignty. In this light, the referendum amounted to an attempt to use democratic methods to undermine the results of democracy. Its other purposes aside, however, Gorbachev's referendum does represent an aspect of the democratization of Soviet politics that has taken place since 1985. The Helsinki Commission has carefully tracked this process through public hearings and extensive staff reports on perestroika and on the Baltic States. In 1990, in accordance with its mandate to monitor and promote compliance with the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent CSCE documents, the Commission sent staffers to observe parliamentary elections in the Baltic States and the Soviet republics. A compendium of their reports was published in December 1990. This year, Commission staffers monitored the March 3 "counter-referendums" on independence held in Latvia and Estonia, at the invitation of their parliaments and governments. The Commission also sent staffers to observe the conduct of the voting on March 17 in Latvia, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and on March 31 observed Georgia's plebiscite on independence. The following report reflects their on-site observations, supplemented by subsequent published reportage about the referendum, and contains as well an analysis· of the referendum's implications. In retrospect, perhaps the most striking thing about the referendum is how little notice the Soviet and international media now pay to an event depicted as "historic." To some extent, the fast pace of change in Soviet politics precludes lingering on last month's news. But the lack of attention also reflects the referendum's minimal impact: as a stategem, it was flawed; as policy, it was irrelevant, since the jurisdictional disputes in the USSR between center and republics had already gone too far for mere strategems to be effective. In fact, the failure of the March referendum to deliver what its initiators sought was its greatest contribution to Soviet politics, since it helped produce the "April Pact" between Gorbachev and leaders of nine republics. That agreement, if followed through sincerely, promises to be a watershed in the decentralization and democratization of the Soviet Union, and may prove genuinely "historic."

  • The USSR In Crisis: State of the Union

    This hearing centered the economic and political crisis in the Soviet Union. The Commissioners praised the diligent work of Gorbachev by positively changing the human rights dimension in Eastern Europe. From multi-party participation to higher freedoms of speech and assembly, the Soviet Union has pivoted to international standard of human rights. Despite the reforms made towards the advancement of human rights the economic situation has never been so pronounced in recent memory. The economic challenges facing the people of the Soviet Union is affecting the political atmosphere in very concerning way- increased powers to the KGB and arms deals that violate past international treaties. The hearing reviewed whether the economic crisis is causing the Soviet state to use military methods to save the Soviet power.

  • Soviet Crackdown in the Baltic States

    This hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, came at a time during which the United States’ time was occupied elsewhere in the world (i.e. the Middle East). Therefore, the running time of this hearing was expected to be an hour, with a more in-depth hearing to follow later on. In any case, attendees discussed, from the view of the U.S., anyway, that the Baltic States (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) had all been illegally absorbed into what was then the Soviet Union. Likewise, the Baltic States had raised the issue that enforcement of conscription laws of the Soviet Union in these countries is in and of itself legal within the framework of the Geneva Convention. The consensus of the hearing was that the attempt by Moscow to crush democracy in the Baltic States must be met by the U.S. with the same resolve that the U.S. took in meeting similar attempts in other parts of the world, including collaboration with other countries.

  • Supreme Soviet Elections in Azerbaijan

    After long delays and one official postponement, the elections to the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet finally went off as planned on September 30. The late date of the Azerbaijani election reflects the region-wide instability in Transcaucasia: voters in Armenia chose their legislature only on May 20 and Georgia's elections (the last ones scheduled) took place on October 28, having been postponed from March. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Azerbaijan was peculiarly charged, even by today's Soviet standards. Azerbaijan was the only Soviet republic to hold its Supreme Soviet elections with its capital city, Baku, and other regions, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), in a state of emergency. This dubious distinction indicates the level of unresolved tensions in Azerbaijan as well as the determination of the central authorities in Moscow, abetted by the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (CPA), to keep tight reins on this strategically and economically vital republic. 

  • Copenhagen Meeting on the Human Dimension

    This Hearing was convened by Chairman Dennis DeConcini and Co-Chairman Steny H. Hoyer to address the Human Dimension of the of the Helsinki Final Act. In attendance were Ambassador Max Kampelmann, Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Copenhagen CSCE Conference on the Human Dimension, Prof. Thomas Buergenthal, public member of the U.S. Delegation, and Prof. Hurst Hannum, public member of the U.S. Delegation. Those in attendence discussed the state of human rights in the OSCE region and various humanitarian causes that should be emphasized in the coming sessions.

  • Elections in the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic

    This report is based on the findings of a staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe to the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic from 6-11 June 1990. The staff met with representatives of several political parties and movements, as well as of the Electoral Commission. It also observed the voting and some aspects of the counting of ballots. The Commission wishes to thank the National Democratic and National Republican Institutes for International Affairs for allowing the staff delegation to be included in the activities of their international election observer mission to the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.

  • Parliamentary Elections in Bulgaria

    Bulgaria's first free and contested elections in over 40 years were held on June 10 and 17, 1990 to choose representatives to its new parliament. Although they were marred by instances of irregularities and intimidation, the Bulgarian parties have accepted the results of the elections. In the words of one opposition leader, the elections were "free and democratic, but not completely fair." Based on Commission staff election-day visits to over 30 polling places, the election process appeared to be calm, orderly and, considering the relatively brief period of time in which Bulgarians had to prepare for the elections, fairly well organized and efficient. Election procedures were consistent among precincts and problems appeared to be resolved quickly. This was consistent with the observations of other international observers. Representatives of different parties and independent observers monitored the majority of polling stations, thus helping to ensure the integrity of the voting process. Nevertheless, the elections were marred by numerous reports of irregularities and violations during the campaigning and in the elections themselves. The most serious problem appeared to be that of widespread intimidation of opposition supporters and especially voters.

  • Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in Romania

    Romania's first free elections in over 40 years were marred by a variety of irregularities, from the campaign through the course of the elections themselves, which cast significant doubt on their fairness. The Front for National Salvation (FSN), which took over power in Romania following the December revolution, won the elections with an overwhelming margin. FSN Presidential candidate Ion Iliescu won 85.07 percent of the votes, while the FSN gained 66.31 of the votes for the Chamber of Deputies and 67.01 percent for the Senate. The contestants to the election were competing on an uneven field, with unequal accessboth to resources and to the most far-reaching mass medium, television. FSN candidates enjoyed decided advantages in these areas. Inconsistent and faulty application of electoral procedures on election day, together with the absense in some polling places of opposition party representatives, likewise shifted the advantage to the Front.

  • The Supreme Soviet Elections in Estonia

    The March 18 elections to the Estonian Supreme Soviet were the first since 1940 in which many political groups and parties freely took part. The crucial issue in the election, in which everyone took for granted the participation of non-communist parties, was Estonian independence; the crucial question was whether pro-independence forces would win the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution and declare independence. Like the surrounding society, opinions on independence tended to divide along national lines: Estonians have generally backed "independence," through they differed about its meaning, while Russians have generally favored Estonia's remaining within the Soviet Union. The campaign and the results of the March 18 Supreme Soviet elections also broadly reflected this alignment of nationality and politics.

  • Parliamentary Elections in the Republic of Hungary

    After reading through Hungary's complex electoral law this winter, a Hungarian scholar concluded that if he did not yet fully comprehend the mechanics of Hungary's leap to democracy, at least he understood why it had to have been a Hungarian who invented the Rubik's cube. The law was a product of Hungary's first democratic exercise, the roundtable among the ruling Socialist Party, its allied social organizations, and the major opposition parties which together mapped out the transition to a multi-party system. It represented the first of many compromises Hungarian political leaders have made and will continue to make in the transition to democracy. Common wisdom holds that unlike the situation in other countries in the region, Hungary's reform was masterminded by the ruling Socialist Party. Yet the issues at stake in this election underlined the essential role of the opposition in the 1970s and 1980s in setting the agenda for Hungary's journey to democracy. If massive street demonstrations did not force the ruling party to bend, unrelenting discussion of Hungary's future among the Democratic Opposition, and its sustained impact on public opinion, did. During the past two years, reform-oriented Socialist Party leaders have hustled to get to the right side of the issues, and they have consequently found themselves playing the incongruous role of morticians for the ruling party they helped to nurture. One of the most remarkable transformations to be witnessed in Hungary over the past year was the new political engagement of people who had associated politics with dirty business all their lives. Candidates who entered the campaign with some ambivalence about the corrupting power of politics quickly shifted their attitudes. Voters who had been forced to participate in electoral charades in the past, or subjected as one Free Democratic representative put it, "to a life of unrelenting Communist Party campaigning," felt that their vote could make a difference this time. Yet some voters who had been forced to participate in electoral charades in the past, or subjected as one Free Democratic representative put it, "to a life of unrelenting Communist Party campaigning," felt that their vote could make a difference this time. Yet some voters objected bitterly to the divisive nature of the campaign, which they attributed to the "arrogance" of the vying parties. At a time when the country needed to pull together, they felt, the parties were tearing communities apart in the run-up to elections. Yet by the time election day arrived, the parties were pulling together after all. The major parties participated in orchestrating the country's transition with the current government. Rival party representatives staffed local electoral commissions, and worked together elbow-to-elbow to inform voters of procedures and collect and count the votes. The bitterness and personal acrimony between leaders of Hungary's two leading opposition parties, the Hungarian Democratic Forum and Alliance of Free Democrats, melted away -- at least for election day melted away -- at least for election day.

  • Germany Unification and the CSCE Process

    German unification is a critical issue to the future of Europe. The process of German unification will entail finding solutions to many of the problems the Eastern community will face as they work to integrate into the common European home. The unification process makes it necessary to devise a framework for the input of other nations. This hearing hopes to provide policies directed towards the easing the process of unification.

  • April and May 1990 Elections in Slovenia and Croatia

    This report is based on the findings of two Helsinki Commission delegations to Yugoslavia. First, Commission Chairman Dennis DeConcini led a congressional delegation to Ljubljana, Slovenia, from April 7-8, 1990. The delegation observed the voting at polling stations in Ljubljana as well as in nearby villages on April 8, and met with the President of Slovenia, the President of the Slovenian Assembly, the Slovenian Republic Election Commission, and representatives of the LCS-Party of Democratic Renewal, DEMOS­ United Opposition, and the Progressive People's Party of the Center. A staff delegation then traveled to Zagreb, Croatia, from April 20-23, 1990. It observed the voting and some counting of ballots at polling stations in Zagreb and surrounding towns and villages on April 22, as well as voting in Krsko, Slovenia, for the run-off elections in that republic. The delegation also observed voting and the counting of ballots at work places on April 23, and met with the Croatian Republic Election Commission, the Committee for Information, and representatives of the Croatian Democratic Union and the Democratic Union of Albanians in Croatia. During the course of both visits, the delegations also had numerous informal meetings with Communist, opposition and independent candidates. Other sources include the Croatian and Slovenian press, Tanjug news agency and Radio Free Europe reports. The U.S. Consulate in Zagreb and U.S. Embassy in Belgrade both provided considerable assistance in arranging the congressional and staff delegation visits, which was greatly appreciated. In April and May 1990, the republics of Slovenia and Croatia in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia held the first genuinely free elections in that country since World War II. In both cases, a large number of alternative parties fielded candidates, and the local Communist Parties lost control of both republic governments. The Slovenian and Croatian elections took place during a time of major political and economic problems within Yugoslavia, as well as ethnic strife. Beyond the creation of multi-party, democratic political systems in Slovenia and Croatia, the election debate in these two northern republics focused on their respective futures in the Yugoslav federation, with consideration being given to the formation of a confederation and, sometime in the future, perhaps even independence.

  • Elections in the German Democratic Republic

    The unexpected landslide victory of the East Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a reformed ally of the former Communist regime, indicates the strong East German desire for rapid unification. The CDU and its conservative Alliance for Germany coalition won almost 50 percent of the vote. This was the first free, multiparty election in the GDR. All parties agreed that there had been no government interference with the campaign. There were no charges of fraud and both the GDR Electoral Commssion and foreign observers testified to the fairness of the election. The Alliance for Germany has moved quickly to form a coalition government with the 2/3 majority needed to change the Constitution in order to proceed with unification. They have invited the centrist Alliance of Free Democrats, and the Social Democratic Part (SPD) to join them. The FDP has agreed while the SDP is negotiating with the CDD. Among SPD demands are that a future government should immediately recognize the current border with Poland, reaffirm existing ownership rights in the GDR, and promote social welfare and worker participation in corporate decisions.  However, the legacy of 40 years of totalitarian rule is dogging the new government as accusations surface that many of the new legislators collaborated with the secret police (STASI) in the past. Although the GDR cast an unequivocal vote for democracy, unification, and a market economy, the ambiguities of the past may make it difficult for the new leadership to deal with the challenges of the present.

  • Status Report on Soviet Jewry

    This hearing, which Representative Steny H. Hoyer presided over, was a portion of multiple hearings held on March 7, 1990, when attendees looked at the dramatic consequences of the Soviet government’s decision to relax its emigration policies, in addition to the impact of Glasnost on Jewish life in what was then the U.S.S.R. This new decision, the emigration policy of which was expected to soon be codified by the Supreme Soviet soon after the hearing took place, had negative and positive implications. While a record number of Jewish individuals were allowed to leave the U.S.S.R., Soviet citizens still needed explicit permission to leave the country. In spite of these reforms, though, there were still at least 100 refusenik cases, not to mention fear of an active anti-Semitic movement in the country.

  • The Supreme Soviet Elections in Lithuania

    This report is based on the findings of a Helsinki Commission staff delegation to Vilnius, Lithuania, from February 21 through February 26, 1990 to observe the political processes taking shape around the February 24 elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. The delegation interview representatives of the Communist Party, the Lithuanian Reform Movement Sajudis, the Lithuanian Democratic, Christian Democratic, Social Democratic and Green Parties, Yedinstvo, the Union of Poles in Lithuania, and various other organizations and minority groups. Officials from district and republic-level electoral commissions, as well as candidates, their supporters, and the voters at the polls, were also interviewed.

Pages