Democracy Denied in Belarus

Democracy Denied in Belarus

Hon.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell
United States
Senate
106th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Thursday, October 19, 2000

Mr. President, I am pleased to join as an original cosponsor of this resolution introduced by my colleague from Illinois, Senator Durbin, to address the continuing constitutional crisis in Belarus. As Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, during the 106th Congress I have worked on a bipartisan basis to promote the core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Belarus in keeping with that country's commitments as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

 

Back in April the OSCE set four criteria for international observation of parliamentary elections held this past weekend: respect for human rights and an end to the climate of fear; opposition access to the state media; a democratic electoral code; and the granting of real power to the new parliament. Regrettably, the Lukashenka regime responded with at best half-hearted measures aimed at giving the appearance of progress while keeping democracy in check. Instead of using the elections process to return Belarus to the path of democracy and end the country's self-isolation, Mr. Lukashenka tightened his grip on power launching an intensified campaign of harassment against the democratic opposition and fledgling independent media.

 

Accordingly, a technical assessment team dispatched by the OSCE concluded that the elections ‘fell short of meeting minimum commitments for free, fair, equal accountable, and transparent elections.’ The President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE confirmed the flawed nature of the campaign period.

 

We recently saw how Slobodan Milosevic was swept from power by a wave of popular discontent following years of repression. After his ouster, Belarus now has the dubious distinction of being the sole remaining dictatorship in Europe. Misguided steps toward recognition of the results of Belarus's flawed parliamentary elections would only serve to bolster Mr. Lukashenka in the lead up to presidential elections slated for next year.

 

This situation was addressed today in an editorial in the Washington Times. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a copy of this editorial be printed in the Record following my remarks. I commend Senator Durbin for his leadership on this issue and will continue to work with my colleagues to support the people of Belarus in their quest to move beyond dictatorship to genuine democracy.

 

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: From the Washington Times, Oct. 19, 2000- Battle for Belarus: In Belarus last weekend, the opposition leaders did not light their parliament on fire as their Yugoslavian counterparts had the week before. They did not crush the walls of the state media outlet with bulldozers or leave key sites in their capital in shambles. No, the people living under the last dictator of Europe met this weekend's parliamentary elections with silence. Opposition parties rallied the people to boycott, and what they didn't say at the polls, the international community said for them. The U.S. State Department declared the results ‘not free, fair, or transparent’ and replete with ‘gross abuses’ by President Alexander Lukashenko's regime. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, the European parliament and the European Union said the same.

 

The dictator's allies got most of the 43 seats in districts where the winner received a majority of the vote. Where no candidate received a majority of the vote, run-offs will occur Oct. 26, another opportunity for the dictator to demonstrate his unique election methods. However, a record-low turnout in many towns, claimed as a victory by the opposition, will force new elections in three months.

 

What will it take for the people to push Mr. Lukashenko to follow Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic into political oblivion in next year's presidential election? Nothing short of war, if one asks the international coordinator for Charter '97, Andrei Sannikov. `I don't know how the country survives. [Approximately] 48.5 percent live below the poverty level,' Mr. Sannikov told reporters and editors of The Washington Times. `That increases to 60 percent in rural areas. It would provoke an extreme reaction anywhere else. Here, they won't act as long as there is no war'.

 

But the people of Belarus are getting restless. Out of the 50 percent of the people who don't know who they support, 90 percent are not satisfied with Mr. Lukashenko and with their lives in Belarus, Mr. Sannikov said. The dictator's behavior before last weekend's elections didn't help any.

 

In his statement three days before the elections, Rep. Chris Smith, chairman of the OSCE, listed just a few reasons why the people should take to the streets: `Since August 30, the Lukashenko regime has denied registration to many opposition candidates on highly questionable grounds, detained, fined or beaten over 100 individuals advocating a boycott of the elections, burglarized the headquarters of an opposition party, and confiscated 100,000 copies of an independent newspaper.'

 

Mr. Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister, was himself a victim last year when he was beaten unconcious, and three ribs and his nose were broken, in what he said was a government-planned attack. He and the rest of the opposition don't want to be victims in next year's election. If the opposition can rally behind one formidable leader, war won't have to precede change, nor will Mr. Lukashenko again make democracy a fatality.

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The context in which these elections took place was also complicated by the conflict in Croatia that began in earnest in July 1991 as militants among the alienated ethnic-Serb population of Croatia, with the encouragement of the Serbian leadership in Belgrade and the help of the Yugoslav military, demonstrated violently their opposition to the republic's independence. After severe human casualties, population displacement and destruction, the conflict generally ended in January 1992 with a U.N. negotiated ceasefire that included the deployment of U.N. protection forces on much of Croatia's territory A new constitution and growing stability argued for holding new elections. Despite opposition complaints that August was not an appropriate time for elections, President Tudjman scheduled them with the likely calculation that his party stood its best chances in a quick election before growing economic hardship and pressure for genuine democratization replaced the joys of independence and renewed peace. During the campaign period, 29 political parties fielded candidates. They faced no major difficulties in organizing rallies and distributing their literature to the public. At the same time, the Croatian media was only moderately free, with television and radio broadcasts much less so than newspapers and journals. Only toward the end of the campaign did the media seem to open up fully The stated objective in organizing the elections was to be fair and impartial to all contending parties. At the same time, the electoral procedures were not as fully satisfactory as they easily could have been, raising suspicions of an intent to manipulate the results. However, opposition political parties considered the process sufficiently fair for them to compete. They also had the opportunity to have observers present at polling stations and election commissions on election day. According to a constitutional law on the matter, Croatia's national minorities enjoy certain rights regarding their representation in governmental bodies. Ethnic Serbs, the only large minority with some 12 percent of the population, were guaranteed a greater number of seats in the new Sabor than all other minorities combined, but, unlike the smaller minorities, no elections were held in which ethnic Serbs alone could chose their representatives. This was viewed as discriminatory treatment of the Serbian minority, despite apparently small Serbian participation in the elections. Balloting on election day was orderly, despite the enormous complications caused by the conflict and questions of citizenship and voter eligibility in a newly independent country. 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  • PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS AND INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUMS IN THE BALTIC STATES, THE SOVIET UNION AND SUCCESSOR STATES

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