Mr. Speaker, today I am introducing the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006, a bipartisan measure to provide support for the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Republic of Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus’ sovereignty and independence. I am pleased to be joined by my colleagues, Representatives Lantos and McCotter, as original cosponsors.
Three years ago, I introduced the Belarus Democracy Act which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming support and was signed into law by President Bush in October 2004. At that time, the situation in Belarus with respect to democracy and human rights was already abysmal. Belarus continues to have the worst rights record of any European state, rightly earning the country the designation as Europe’s last dictatorship. Bordering on the EU and NATO, Belarus is truly an anomaly in a democratic, free Europe.
The need for a sustained U.S. commitment to foster democracy and respect for human rights and to sanction the regime of Belarus’ tyrant, Alexander Lukashenka, is clear from the intensified anti-democratic policies pursued by the current leadership in Minsk. Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to note that the United States is not alone in this noble cause. Countries throughout Europe have joined in a truly trans-Atlantic effort to bring hope of freedom to the beleaguered people of Belarus. Prompt passage of the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 will help maintain the momentum sparked by adoption of the 2004 law and the further deterioration of the situation on the ground in Belarus. Indeed, with the further deterioration in Belarus with the massive arrests of recent weeks, this bill is needed now more than ever.
One of the primary purposes of the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 is to demonstrate sustained U.S. support for Belarus’ independence and for those struggling to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus despite the formidable pressures and personal risks they face from the anti-democratic regime. The bill authorizes $20 million in assistance for each of fiscal years 2007 and 2008 for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, including youth groups, independent trade unions and entrepreneurs, human rights defenders, independent media, democratic political parties, and international exchanges.
The bill also authorizes $7.5 million for each fiscal year for surrogate radio and television broadcasting to the people of Belarus. While I am encouraged by the recent U.S. and EU initiatives with respect to radio broadcasting, much more needs to be done to break through Lukashenka’s stifling information blockade.
In addition, this legislation would impose sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, and deny senior officials of the regime, as well as those engaged in human rights and electoral abuses, including lower-level officials, entry into the United States. In this context, I welcome the targeted punitive sanctions by both the Administration and the EU against officials, including judges and prosecutors, involved in electoral fraud and other human rights abuses.
Strategic exports to the Government of Belarus would be prohibited, except for those intended for democracy building or humanitarian purposes, as well as U.S. Government financing and other foreign assistance, except for humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products. The U.S. Executive Directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance that serve humanitarian needs. Furthermore, the bill would block Belarus Government and senior leadership and their surrogates’ assets in property and interests in property in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of United States persons. To this end, I welcome the Treasury Department’s April 10 advisory to U.S. financial institutions to guard against potential money laundering by Lukashenka and his cronies and strongly applaud President Bush’s June 19 “Executive Order Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus.”
Mr. Speaker, I want to make it absolutely clear that these sanctions are aimed not at the people of Belarus, whose desire to be free we unequivocally support, but at a regime that displays contempt for the dignity and rights of its citizens even as the corrupt leadership moves to further enrich itself at the expense of the people.
Mr. Speaker, Belarus stands out as an even greater anomaly following Ukraine’s historic Orange Revolution and that country’s March 26th free and fair parliamentary elections which stand in glaring contrast to Belarus’ presidential elections held just one week earlier. The Belarusian elections can only be described as a farce. The Lukashenka regime’s wholesale arrests of more than one thousand opposition activists, before and after the elections, and violent suppression of post-election protests underscore the utter contempt of the Belarusian authorities toward the people of Belarus.
Illegitimate parliamentary elections in 2004 and the recently held presidential “elections” in Belarus brazenly flaunted democratic standards. As a result of these elections, Belarus has the distinction of lacking legitimate presidential and parliamentary leadership, which contributes to that country’s self-imposed isolation.
Lukashenka, the Bully of Belarus, has repeatedly unleashed his security thugs to trample on the rights of their fellow citizens. Indeed, they demonstrated what Lukashenka truly thinks about his own people. Nevertheless, courageous peaceful protesters on Minsk’s central October Square stood up to the regime with dignity and determination. Almost daily repressions constitute a profound abuse of power by a regime that has blatantly manipulated the system to remain in power.
Albeit safely ensconced in power, Lukashenka has not let up on the democratic opposition. On July 17, in a particularly punitive display against those who dare oppose Lukashenka, former presidential candidate Aleksandr Kozulin was sentenced to an obviously politically motivated 5 1/2 years’ term of imprisonment for alleged “hooliganism” and disturbing the peace. Democratic opposition leaders such as Anatoly Lebedka and Vincuk Viachorka have been arbitrarily detained and sentenced to jail terms which have been as much as 15 days. Last month, opposition activists Artur Finkevich received a two-year corrective labor sentence and Mikalay Rozumau was sentenced to three years of corrective labor for allegedly libeling Lukashenka. Other opposition activists, including Syarhey Lyashkevich and Ivan Kruk have received jail sentences of up to six months.
In a patent attempt to discourage domestic observation of the fraudulent March 19 presidential elections, authorities arrested activists of the nonpartisan domestic election monitoring initiative “Partnerstva”, Tsimafei Dranchuk, Enira Branitskaya, Mikalay Astreyka and Alyaksandr Shalayka. They have been in pre-trial detention since February 21, charged with participation in an unregistered organization.
Lukashenka’s pattern of anti-democratic behavior began a decade ago, and this pattern has only intensified. Through an unconstitutional 1996 referendum, he usurped power, while suppressing the duly-elected legislature and the judiciary. His regime has repeatedly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion. In its May 3 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included Belarus on its watch list, as Belarus appears to be adopting tougher sanctions against those who take part in unregistered religious activity. The democratic opposition, nongovernmental organizations and independent media have been subject to intimidation and a variety of punitive measures, including closure. Political activists and journalists have been beaten, detained and imprisoned. Independent voices are unwelcome in Lukashenka’s Belarus and anyone who, through their promotion of democracy, would stand in the way of the Belarusian dictator puts their personal and professional security on the line. Their courage deserves our admiration, and, more importantly, our support.
Moreover, we have seen no progress on the investigation of the disappearances of political opponents–perhaps not surprisingly, as credible evidence points at the involvement of the Lukashenka regime in their murders. I welcome President Bush’s decision to personally meet with two of the widows in the Oval Office to discuss the situation on Belarus. An Administration report mandated by the Belarus Democracy Act and finally issued on March 17 of this year reveals Lukashenka’s links with rogue regimes such as Iran, Sudan and Syria, and his cronies’ corruption. Despite efforts by the U.S. Government, working closely with the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other European organizations, and non-governmental organizations, the regime of Lukashenka continues its grip on power with impunity and to the detriment of the Belarusian people.
Colleagues, it is my hope that the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 and efforts by allies in Europe will help put an end to the pattern of clear, gross and uncorrected violations of OSCE commitments by the Lukashenka regime and will serve as a catalyst to facilitate independent Belarus’ integration into democratic Europe in which democratic principles and human rights are respected and the rule of law is paramount. The Belarusian people deserve better than to live under an autocratic regime reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and they deserve our support in their struggle for democracy and freedom.