Toggle navigation menu.
Flag of Belarus 368x331

1999: A Critical Year for Belarus

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

106th Congress, First Session

Mr. Speaker, last month, a Congress of Democratic Forces was held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The Congress demonstrated the resolve of the growing democratic opposition to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the determination by the opposition to have free, democratic elections consistent with the legitimate 1994 constitution.

 

Earlier last month, on January 10, members of the legitimate Belarusian parliament, disbanded by Lukashenka after the illegal 1996 constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16. According to the 1994 constitution, Lukashenka’s term expires in July. Not surprisingly, Lukashenka rejects calls for a presidential election. Local elections are currently being planned for April, although many of the opposition plan not to participate, arguing that elections should be held only under free, fair and transparent conditions, which do not exist at the present time. Indeed, the law on local elections leaves much to be desired and does not provide for a genuinely free and fair electoral process.

 

The local elections and opposition efforts to hold presidential elections must be viewed against the backdrop of a deteriorating economic situation. One of the resolutions adopted by the Congress of Democratic Forces accuses Lukashenka of driving the country to “social tensions, international isolation and poverty.” As an example of the heightening tensions, just last weekend, Andrei Sannikov, the former deputy minister of Belarus and a leader of the Charter ’97 human rights group, was brutally assaulted by members of a Russian-based ultranationalist organization. Additionally, Lukashenka’s moves to unite with Russia pose a threat to Belarus’ very sovereignty. Thus, Mr. Speaker, this year promises to be a critical year for Belarus.

 

Recently, a staff delegation of the (Helsinki) Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which I chair, traveled to Belarus, raising human rights concerns with high-ranking officials, and meeting with leading members of the opposition, independent media and nongovernmental organizations. The staff report concludes that the Belarusian Government continues to violate its commitments under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and that at the root of these violations lies the excessive power usurped by President Lukashenka since his election in 1994, especially following the illegitimate 1996 referendum. Although one can point to some limited areas of improvement, such as allowing some opposition demonstrations to occur relatively unhindered, overall OSCE compliance has not improved since the deployment of the OSCE’s Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) almost one year ago. Freedoms of expression, association and assembly remain curtailed. The government hampers freedom of the media by tightly controlling the use of national TV and radio. Administrative and economic measures are used to cripple the independent media and NGOs. The political opposition has been targeted for repression, including imprisonment, detention, fines and harassment. The independence of the judiciary has been further eroded, and the President alone controls judicial appointments. Legislative power is decidedly concentrated in the executive branch of government.

 

The Commission staff report makes a number of recommendations, which I would like to share with my colleagues. The United States and OSCE community should continue to call upon the Belarusian Government to live up to its OSCE commitments and, in an effort to reduce the climate of fear which has developed in Belarus, should specifically encourage the Belarusian Government, inter alia, to: (1) Immediately release Alyaksandr Shydlauski (sentenced in 1997 to 18 months imprisonment for allegedly spray painting anti-Lukashenka graffiti) and review the cases of those detained and imprisoned on politically motivated charges, particularly Andrei Klymov and Vladimir Koudinov; (2) cease and desist the harassment of opposition activists, NGOs and the independent media and permit them to function; (3) allow the opposition access to the electronic media and restore the constitutional right of the Belarusian people to free and impartial information; (4) create the conditions for free and fair elections in 1999, including a provision in the election regulations allowing party representation on the central and local election committees; and (5) strengthen the rule of law, beginning with the allowance for an independent judiciary and bar.

 

With Lukashenka’s term in office under the legitimate 1994 Constitution expiring in July 1999, the international community should make clear that the legitimacy of Lukashenka’s presidency will be undermined unless free and fair elections are held by July 21. The United States and the international community, specifically the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, should continue to recognize only the legitimate parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, abolished by Lukashenka in 1996, and not the post-referendum, Lukashenka-installed, National Assembly. At the time, the United States, and our European allies and partners, denounced the 1996 referendum as illegitimate and extra-constitutional. The West needs to stand firm on this point, as the 13th Supreme Soviet and the 1994 Constitution are the only legal authorities. The democratically oriented opposition and NGOs deserve continued and enhanced moral and material assistance from the West. The United States must make support for those committed to genuine democracy a high priority in our civic development and NGO assistance.

 

I applaud and want to encourage such entities as USIS, the Eurasia Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, ABA/CEELI and others in their efforts to encourage the development of a democratic political system, free market economy and the rule of law in Belarus. The United States and the international community should strongly encourage President Lukashenka and the 13th Supreme Soviet to begin a dialogue which could lead to a resolution of the current constitutional crisis and the holding of democratic elections. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) could be a vehicle for facilitating such dialogue. The Belarusian Government should be encouraged in the strongest possible terms to cooperate with the OSCE AMG. There is a growing perception both within and outside Belarus that the Belarusian Government is disingenuous in its interaction with the AMG. The AMG has been working to promote these important objectives: an active dialogue between the government, the opposition and NGOs; free and fair elections, including a new election law that would provide for political party representation on electoral committees and domestic observers; unhindered opposition access to the state electronic media; a better functioning, independent court system and sound training of judges; and the examination and resolution of cases of politically motivated repression.

 

Mr. Speaker, there is a growing divide between the government and opposition in Belarus, thanks to President Lukashenka’s authoritarian practices, a divide that could produce unanticipated consequences. An already tense political situation is becoming increasingly more so. Furthermore, Lukashenka’s efforts at political and economic integration with Russia could have serious potential consequences for neighboring states, especially Ukraine. Therefore, it is vital for the United States and the OSCE to continue to speak out in defense of human rights in Belarus, to promote free and democratic elections this year, and to encourage meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition.

Category
Country
Issue
Date
Filter Topics Open Close
Hearings

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Putin’s Personal Prisoner

Sep 20, 2023

Stream here: HEARING: Vladimir Kara-Murza: Putin’s Personal Prisoner – YouTube Vladimir Kara-Murza, a father, husband, and a freedom fighter, has been in detention for over five hundred days and is currently being transferred to a prison in Siberia. As he is being moved, his family has lost all contact with him and are faced with worry […]

screen-reader-text
Articles

United States Demonstrates Global Leadership on Ukra...

Jul 14, 2023

The Helsinki Commission’s four senior leaders helmed the United States’ bicameral, bipartisan delegation to the 30th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly last week in Vancouver, Canada. Co-Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD), serving as Head of Delegation, was joined by Chairman Joe Wilson (SC-02) as Deputy Head of Delegation as well as Ranking Members […]

screen-reader-text
Hearings

Supporting A Democratic and Secure Moldova

Jul 12, 2023

In recent years, Moldova has made notable steps to improve its democratic institutions and combat corruption. President Maia Sandu and her Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) have spearheaded wide-ranging reforms and backed a number of high-profile anti-corruption cases. Moldova has also made strides toward greater integration with the European Union (EU). In 2022, the […]

screen-reader-text
Press Releases

Helsinki Commission Chair and Co-Chair Lead Delegati...

Jul 10, 2023

WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Ben Cardin (MD) and Helsinki Commission Chair Representative Joe Wilson (SC-02) led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the 30th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in Vancouver, Canada from June 30-July 4. As Head of Delegation and Deputy Head of Delegation respectively, Senator Cardin and Representative Wilson welcomed the […]

screen-reader-text
Press Releases

Helsinki Commission Leadership Celebrate Pardon of N...

Jun 23, 2023

Washington—Today, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Representative Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Ranking Member Steve Cohen (TN-09), applauded Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili’s decision to issue a presidential pardon for journalist Nikoloz “Nika” Gvaramia. Mr. Gvaramia, an outspoken media figure and […]

screen-reader-text
Press Releases

HELSINKI COMMISSION SENDS APPEAL TO GEORGIAN PRESIDE...

Apr 28, 2023

WASHINGTON— The leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Chairman Representative Joe Wilson (SC-02), Co-Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Ranking Members Representative Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Senator Roger Wicker (MS) sent a letter to Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili urging her to intervene to break […]

screen-reader-text
Press Releases

Helsinki Commission Leadership Statement on Georgian...

Mar 06, 2023

WASHINGTON—In response to news that the Georgian parliament is considering Russian-style foreign agent legislation, which would have a chilling effect on Georgia’s vibrant civil society, Helsinki Commission Chairman Representative Joe Wilson (SC-2), Co-Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member Representative Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “Since regaining independence, the Georgian people have clearly and […]

screen-reader-text
Hearings

North Macedonia’s Leadership of the OSCE in a ...

Feb 28, 2023

North Macedonia has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a year into Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Much of the OSCE’s focus over the past year has revolved around responses to the war, including using the organization to condemn Russian aggression and hold the […]

screen-reader-text
Press Releases

HEARING: NORTH MACEDONIA’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE IN...

Feb 24, 2023

Tuesday, February 28, 2023 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Streaming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNgAOyC9f5g North Macedonia has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a year into Putin’s brutal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Much of the OSCE’s focus over the past year has revolved around responses to the war, […]

screen-reader-text
Press Releases

U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA presents Joint Statem...

Feb 24, 2023

WASHINGTON— Today, the U.S. Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA) endorsed the “Joint Statement of Action on the One-Year Anniversary of Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the International Legal Order,” which was endorsed by the OSCE PA Bureau and published today at the conclusion of the […]

screen-reader-text
Press Releases

Steadfast Support for Ukraine: United States Delegat...

Feb 23, 2023

WASHINGTON – Today, the United States Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), led by Senator Ben Cardin (MD), met with Mykyta Poturaiev, Ukraine’s Head of Delegation and additional representatives of the Ukrainian Rada in Vienna, Austria, along with the Heads of Delegation of Canada, Estonia, […]

screen-reader-text
Press Releases

Helsinki Commission Chair and Co-Chair: Statement on...

Feb 20, 2023

WASHINGTON—Following reports of the sharp deterioration of Azerbaijani dissident Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-2) and Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following joint statement: “We are absolutely appalled at the continued unwarranted detention and mistreatment of Azerbaijani civil activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who has been imprisoned on trumped up charges and […]

screen-reader-text