WASHINGTON – The deeply disturbing pre-election environment in Belarus, efforts to foster democracy and civil society, and U.S. policy options toward the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenka were examined at a hearing held today by the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Presidential elections are scheduled to be held on March 19.
“The pre-election climate in Belarus has been abysmal, with daily reports of arrests, beatings, and closures of NGOs and independent newspapers. It is high time to put an end to the climate of fear which has permeated Belarusian society under Aleksandr Lukashenka,” said Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. “The international community – including Russia – should collectively put Lukashenka on notice that continuing pre-election violations and in particular post-election violence against peaceful demonstrations will be unacceptable.”
In a specific message to Belarusians, Chairman Brownback said: “I have a specific message to those who seek liberty in Belarus, especially the courageous youth: Know that in fighting for your freedom and dignity, which has long been denied you, you are engaged in a noble cause. Truth is on your side and you will ultimately prevail.”
“Given the disturbing pre-election environment – where candidates and their assistants have been beaten and imprisoned, where meaningful access to the media by opposition candidates is denied, where independent voices are stifled, and where the regime maintains pervasive control over the election process – it is very hard to imagine that next week’s election will be free. We already know that the election climate is not fair,” added Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act which was signed in law in 2004.
“Stepped up harassment, arrests, and the jailing of opposition supporters and the inability of candidates standing against Lukashenka to conduct anything like normal campaigns speak volumes about the run up to the elections,” noted Commission Ranking Member Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD) in a prepared statement. “The only question is when the people of Belarus will say enough: enough to intimidation, enough to manipulation, enough to falsification.”
Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) has been designated by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office as Special Coordinator for the International Election Observation Mission to Belarus. Commission staff are also scheduled to observe the March 19 election.
Testifying before the Commission were David Kramer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia; Iryna Vidanova, Belarusian activist; Stephen Nix, International Republican Institute (IRI); Patrick Merloe; National Democratic Institute (NDI); Rodger Potocki, National Endowment for Democracy (NED); and Celeste Wallander, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).