Constitutional Impasse Continues in Belarus

Constitutional Impasse Continues in Belarus

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, May 25, 1999

Mr. Speaker, on May 16, the alternative Presidential election concluded in Belarus within the timeframe envisioned by the legitimate 1994 Constitution. While the opposition Central Election Commission (CEC) concluded that the final results of the voting were invalid because of various violations deriving from the impediments placed by Belarusian authorities, the ballot served as an important barometer of democratic engagement by the citizens of Belarus.

In the months leading up to the election, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had imprisoned one of the two Presidential candidates, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chygir, on what were clearly politically motivated charges, arrested hundreds of election officials and volunteers, and instituted administrative proceedings against others. Nevertheless, the authorities were unable to thwart the election in at least one critically important respect, according to the opposition CEC, the voting itself was valid because more than half, or 53 percent of the electorate, participated. When one considers that these were unsanctioned elections that challenged Lukashenka's legitimacy, this is a substantial number of people.

No matter what the imperfections, Mr. Speaker, the opposition's electoral initiative should send a powerful message to Lukashenka. Clearly, an appreciable number of Belarusian citizens are dissatisfied with the profoundly negative political and socio-economic fallout stemming from his dictatorial inclinations and misguided nostalgia for the Soviet past or some misty “Slavic Union.” The vote highlights the constitutional and political impasse created by Lukashenka's illegitimate 1996 constitutional referendum, in which he extended his personal power, disbanded the duly elected 13th Supreme Soviet, and created a new legislature and constitutional court subservient to him.

Last month, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), which I chair, held a hearing on the situation in Belarus, with a view toward promoting human rights and democracy there. Testimony from the State Department, OSCE mission in Belarus, the Belarusian democratic opposition and several human rights NGOs all reaffirmed that Belarus is missing out on what one witness characterized as “the great market democratic revolution that is sweeping Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia” because of Lukashenka's power grab and backsliding on human rights and democracy.

Despite repeated calls from the international community, including the Helsinki Commission, for Lukashenka to cease harassment of the opposition, NGO's and the independent media; allow the opposition access to the electronic media; create the conditions for free and fair elections and strengthen the rule of law, we have failed to see progress in these areas. Indeed, we see more evidence of reversals. Earlier this year, for example, Lukashenka signed a decree which introduces extensive restrictions on non-governmental activity and mandates re-registration, by July 1, of political parties, NGOs and trade unions. The decree, which among other onerous stipulations requires that organizations acknowledge the results of Lukashenka's illegitimate 1996 referendum, is clearly designed to destroy democratic civil society in Belarus and further consolidate Lukashenka's repressive rule. Moreover, within the last few months, several disturbing incidents have occurred, among them the March arrests of Viktor Gonchar, Chairman of the opposition CEC, and the Chygir imprisonment, as well as the mysterious disappearances of Tamara Vinnikova, former chair of the National Bank of Belarus and, on May 10, Gen. Yuri Zakharenko, former Interior Minister and a leading opponent of Lukashenka. Just a few days ago, Lukashenka's government announced that no more foreign priests will be allowed to serve in Belarus, making it extremely difficult for the Roman Catholic Church, which is rebuilding following the travails of the Soviet era, to function.

Mr. Speaker, I strongly urge the Belarusian Government to comply with its freely undertaken commitments under the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements and to immediately, without preconditions, convene a genuine dialog with the country's democratic forces and with the long-suffering Belarusian people.

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In a poignant end to the Standing Committee’s second session, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation, Mykyta Poturaiev, reported on violence in his neighborhood of Kyiv and bid farewell as he sought to return to his family in Ukraine. The 2022 Polish Chair-in-Office of the OSCE for 2022 outlined Poland’s priorities in an utterly transformed era in European security. During the general debate, nominally on the topic of “security guarantees and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” delegations resumed their near-universal condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Rep. Hudson opened the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security by denouncing the invasion of one participating State by another, in total opposition of Helsinki principles. He also underlined the committee’s particular relevance in the context of the security crisis precipitated by Russia, a view reinforced by a panel of senior OSCE officials present as guest speakers.  Finally, Rep. Hudson moderated a debate on “heightened tensions in the OSCE area and the need for inter-parliamentary dialogue.” The debate focused heavily on the attack on Ukraine, with Sen.Wicker remotely joining those in Vienna condemning Russia’s outrageous behavior, and Rep. Jackson Lee forcefully urging members to recall the role of the Belarusian government in the events leading to the invasion. In the economic and environmental affairs committee, Rep. Smith spoke alongside OSCE official Valiant Richey about their efforts as special representatives on human trafficking issues of the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, respectively. They specifically discussed supply chains as they relate to human trafficking matters. Representative Wilson spoke for the United States in the subsequent debate. In the committee dealing with democracy and human rights, Rep. Wilson condemned Russian human-rights violations in occupied Ukraine and in Russia itself, as well as ongoing repression in Belarus. Rep. Aderholt defended free media in his statement to the committee following presentations by recent Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitriy Muratov and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro. On the margins of the Winter Meeting, the U.S. delegation gathered key parliamentarians from a range of participating States over dinner, fostering an opportunity for frank and candid exchanges of views on important topics confronting the OSCE. The event emphasized the depth of the U.S. commitment to European security, going beyond diplomatic representatives to include elected Members of Congress. The delegation also was briefed by diplomats representing the United States in the OSCE, including Ambassador Michael Carpenter, and held bilateral meetings with the heads of the Azerbaijani and Mongolian OSCE PA Delegations. Visiting Lithuania The delegation’s presence in Europe also afforded an opportunity to visit Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, the delegation met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. Officials emphasized to the delegation the game-changing nature of recent developments, especially the total capitulation of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus to Moscow. These actions resulted in a dramatically more challenging situation on Lithuania’s border, leaving the country essentially no warning should Putin choose to act against the Baltic states.  The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area, a Lithuanian initiative which provides facilities for U.S. and Allied military activities in the region. Members also met with Belarusians and Russians who had fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • ‘Long Live President Volodymyr Zelensky’

    Mr. Speaker, on Friday, I was grateful, as the ranking member of the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to address the Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. Our delegation was ably led by Co-Chair Steve Cohen. The bipartisan United States delegation of Democrats and Republicans being transatlantic, with our valued European and Indo-Pacific allies, have been united about the Putin war of mass murder in Ukraine, violating the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. Here, we want to emphasize the devastating human cost of the Putin war against the families of Ukraine, isolating Russia and Belarus from the modern world. I was grateful over the years to have visited Russia a number of times where I was so impressed by the talented citizens. Today, they are being betrayed by Putin in his obsession for oil, money, and power. Two months ago, I visited Kyiv and it is horrifying to know of the attacks. Sadly, in Belarus, dictator Lukashenko has become a puppet facilitating the Putin war. It is inspiring that the legal President of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, would have her first loyalty to the people of Belarus, not the war criminal, Putin. In conclusion, God bless Ukraine. God save Ukraine. Long live President Volodymyr Zelensky.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Conflict of Interest?

    Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.  The briefing, held on February 16, 2022, investigated the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also explored practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. During the briefing, attendees heard from Dr. Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for the Near East, and Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist with Amnesty International. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by remarking on the importance of Turkey and his personal history with Turkey.  He also emphasized that human rights abuses in Turkey have long been a subject of concern, particularly those brought about by President Erdogan’s empire-building attempts. “We need to do what we can to see that the whole world is fair for citizens to express themselves, for press to express themselves, and for people to get information, without which we will not have independent democracies,” he said. Mr. Nishanov explained in opening remarks that Turkey’s position is complex and multi-faceted—while Turkey has been making efforts to normalize relationships with Armenia, Israel, and Egypt as well as bearing a large refugee burden, recent years have been challenging as Turkey experienced economic pain, inflation, and governance issues. Additionally, Turkey’s record of human rights abuses, anti-immigrant sentiments, and other obstacles cast a pall on recent progress, and bring into question the future of Turkey’s democratic development. Dr. Soner Cagaptay spoke about President Erdogan’s declining domestic popularity and the looming threat of economic hardship in Turkey. He also remarked on President Erdogan’s attempts to restore ties with Turkey’s Gulf neighbors, as well as with the United States and Europe. Dr. Cagaptay asserted that as tensions heightened between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey would adopt a neutral public-facing identity, but support Kyiv militarily. While Russia and Turkey are often compared, he pointed out that Turkey has measures of democracy that Russia does not. “The lesson of Turkey under Erdogan is that it takes a long time to kill [democracy]. Turkish democracy is resilient, it is not dead,” he said. Deniz Yuksel spoke to Turkey’s human rights crisis and the dangers opposition politicians, journalists, and citizens face. Reports of torture and detention are common, and those calling out such abuses face persecution themselves. She recommended that U.S. officials raise human rights concerns in every engagement with Turkey. She emphasized, “From the record-breaking imprisonment of journalists to the persecution of LGBTI people, an ongoing crisis of gender-based violence, and the unlawful deportation of refugees, the failures of Turkey’s judicial system cut across societal lines and undermine the human rights of all.” During the question-and-answer segment of the briefing, panelists addressed a range of questions including how specific ethnic minorities are treated in Turkey, how human rights abuses may affect Turkey’s relationship with the United States, and what challenges will arise alongside Turkey’s 2023 elections. Related Information Panelist Biographies Will Turkey Help Washington If Russia Invades Ukraine? | The Washington Institute Human Rights in Turkey | Amnesty International – USA: Turkey Regional Action Network  Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia | Foreign Policy Research Institute 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Intersection Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey Wednesday, February 16, 2022 11:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3Je5Ck4 Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.   The briefing will investigate the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also will explore practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Soner Cagaptay, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for the Near East Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist, Amnesty International  

  • Helsinki Commission Marks One-Year Anniversary of Navalny’s Imprisonment

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the one-year anniversary of Alexei Navalny’s arrest on January 17, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “In the past year, while Alexei Navalny has remained unjustly imprisoned, the Kremlin has doubled down on its absurd persecution of his anti-corruption organizations as ‘extremist,’” said Chairman Cardin. “Nevertheless, Mr. Navalny’s colleagues, friends and allies, in the face of grave threats, continue to risk their own freedom to expose Putin’s thuggery across Russia.” “Putin would not have gone to the trouble to imprison Alexei Navalny unless he perceived a serious threat to his power,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Mr. Navalny and his team across Russia were instrumental in revealing the ill-gotten gains of Putin and his cronies. This tells you all you need to know about why they are a target.” “During his imprisonment, Alexei Navalny has used his own suffering to call attention to the plight of the hundreds of other political prisoners in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “We have not forgotten him or others who are persecuted for their beliefs, and we look forward to a Russia in which they finally are free.” “Despite the Kremlin’s attempts to push Alexei Navalny out of public view and prevent him from challenging Putin, we will not stop calling for his release,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russians who challenge Putin should not have to fear for their safety in their own country.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by the FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and was arrested at the airport. In February, a Russian judge sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. Previous time served under house arrest reduced his prison time to two years and eight months. In June, the Moscow City Court ruled that Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional networks would henceforth be considered “extremist” organizations, essentially outlawing these groups and criminalizing their activity. In September, Russian authorities opened a new probe against Navalny and his closest associates for creating and directing an “extremist network.” This, combined with other ongoing criminal investigations, could lead to additional jail time for Navalny and threaten those associated with his organizations, many of whom have been forced to flee Russia.

  • Helsinki Commission Cautions Russia Against Dissolving Russian Human Rights Organization Memorial

    WASHINGTON—As the latest court proceedings conclude for Russian human rights group Memorial International, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “The Kremlin continues to twist Russia’s so-called justice system to punish civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media who dare to speak out against the abuses of Putin’s regime. The United States should raise the stakes and impose concrete consequences on any officials who support such vindictive action against the Russian patriots who defend the human rights of their fellow citizens.” In a December 17, 2021 letter, Chairman Cardin, Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, Rep. Wilson, and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) urged President Joe Biden to sanction 17 Russian officials and associates involved in the harassment and prosecution of Memorial and its leadership. “The United States has a moral duty to prevent this attack on universal rights and freedoms,” they said. “Publicly sanctioning the Russian officials involved in the attack on Memorial and their enablers would be an effective way to support pro-democracy forces in Russia and deter perpetrators.” In November 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court notified Memorial that the General Prosecutor’s office was suing to dismantle the organization for alleged violations of Russia’s “foreign agent” laws. In a November 17 statement, the Helsinki Commission expressed concern about the organization’s potential dissolution, noting, “We continue to see an alarming increase in attacks on civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media in Russia. Now the Kremlin actively seeks to dismantle Memorial, a respected network of organizations dedicated to revealing and preserving the history of Soviet repression and fighting for political prisoners in Russia today. Memorial’s efforts to defend truth and human rights are essential and must be protected for generations to come.” Memorial, established in the final years of the Soviet Union by dissidents including Andrei Sakharov, is one of the most respected and enduring human rights groups in the region. Its local chapters focus on preserving the truth about Soviet repressions, particularly under Stalin, and honoring the memories of those lost. Memorial also maintains a comprehensive database of current political prisoners in Russia and continues to advocate for the rights of the people of Russia, especially in the North Caucasus. The Helsinki Commission has convened numerous events featuring Memorial representatives.  

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