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Belarus – Opportunities Squandered

  • Hon. Ben N. Campbell
    US












Senate

107th Congress, Second Session

Mr. President. Periodically, I have addressed my colleagues in the United States Senate on developments in the last dictatorship in Europe — Belarus. More than five months have passed since the September 9, 2001 Belarusian Presidential elections, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, concluded did not meet international democratic standards. Since that time, the Belarusian leadership has had ample opportunity to begin to live up to its freely-undertaken OSCE human rights and democracy commitments. Thus far, these opportunities have been squandered. As Secretary of State Powell remarked in his speech at the December 2001 meeting of OSCE Ministers in Bucharest: “The Government of Belarus ignored the recommendations of the OSCE on what conditions would need to be established in order for free and fair elections to take place. It is unfortunate, indeed, that the government of Belarus continues to act in a manner that excludes Belarus from the mainstream of European political life.”

Since September, human rights violations have continued. There has been no progress with respect to resolving the cases of opposition leaders and journalists who “disappeared” in 1999-2000. Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka has retaliated against opposition members, independent journalists, human rights activists and others, especially young people. Beatings, detentions, fines and other forms of pressure have continued unabated. To cite just one example, two defendants in a criminal case against Alexander Chygir, son of leading Lukashenka opponent and former Prime Minister, Mikhail Chygir, were reportedly beaten and otherwise maltreated during pre-trial detention. Criminal cases have been launched against journalists and NGOs as well. A number of leading industrialists have been arrested on what some observers believe are politically motivated charges.

Freedom of religion is also an area of concern. The registration scheme, required for a group to obtain full legal rights, is the ultimate “catch-22.” Registration cannot be granted without a legal address; a legal address cannot be obtained without registration. Even the state controlled media is a concern for religious freedom, due to the highly critical reports in newspapers and television about the Catholic Church and Protestant churches. Very recently, the regular broadcast on national radio of a Miensk Catholic mass was unexpectedly halted.

Efforts to promote human rights and expand support and develop civil society in Belarus are being thwarted. The Belarusian government has threatened the OSCE Mission in Miensk with what amounts to expulsion unless the mandate of the Mission is changed more to its liking and has shown reluctance to accept a new Head of Mission. It is vital that the OSCE be allowed to continue its important work in developing genuine democratic institutions and a strong civil society in Belarus.

Mr. President, I am also deeply troubled by allegations that Belarus has been acting as a supplier of lethal military equipment to Islamic terrorists, a charge that the Belarusian Government has denied. I ask unanimous consent that the text of a recent article that appeared in the Washington Post titled “Europe’s Armory for Terrorism” appear in the Record at this time.

Mr. President, the troubling allegations contained in this article are a reminder of the importance of remaining steadfast in supporting democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Belarus. The lack of functioning democratic institutions, including an independent parliament, together with suppression of free media contribute to an environment void of accountability. Writing off Belarus as a backwater in the heart of Europe would play into the hands of the Lukashenka regime with disastrous consequences not only for the Belarusian people. Mr. President, it is more important than ever for the OSCE to maintain a strong presence on the ground in Belarus and for the United States to continue to support democratic development in that country.

I ask unanimous consent that the Washington Post article “Europe’s Armory for Terrorism” be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

From the Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2002
Europe’s Armory for Terrorism
By Mark Lenzi

The country in Europe that deserves the most attention for its support of terrorist groups and rogue states continues to receive the least. That is the lawless and undemocratic country of Belarus, under the rule of Alexander Lukashenko.

Without a doubt no world leader benefitted more from the September terror attacks than Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, whose ultimate wish is to reunite the Soviet Union. Just as world scrutiny and condemnation were beginning to mount after his rigged and falsified presidential election of Sept. 9 the tragic events two days later took Washington’s quick glance away from this little-known and backward country.

Washington needs to wake up to what is happening in NATO’s backyard: Belarus is quietly acting as a leading supplier of lethal military equipment to Islamic radicals–with terrorists and militant organizations in the Middle East, Balkans and Central Asia often the recipients.

In 1994, Lukashenko’s first year as president, Belarus sold machine guns and armored vehicles to Tajikistan. This equipment quickly made its way into the hands of warring factions in neighboring Afghanistan, as well as Islamic freedom fighters aiming to overthrow the government in Tajikistan itself–ironically the same country where Belarus’s big brother, Russia, has thousands of soldiers stationed to protect Central Asia and Russia from Islamic destabilization.

Many of Lukashenko’s arms deals have followed a similar pattern: Weapons sent from Belarus are “diverted” from a listed destination country to an Islamic extremist group or a country under U.N. arms embargo while Belarusian government officials cast a blind eye on the transactions.

While it is deplorable that Belarus’s weapons have been responsible for prolonging civil wars and internal strife in countries such as Tajikistan, Angola and Algeria, it is particularly disturbing that Sudan, a country where Osama bin Laden used to live and one that is known as a haven for terrorists, has obtained from Belarus such proven and capable weapon systems as T-55 tanks and Mi-24 Hind Helicopter gunships. Weapons sent from Belarus to Sudan either fall into the hands of terrorists or are used in a civil war that has already killed more than 2 million people.

Lukashenko’s efforts to sell weapons to generate much-needed income for his beleaguered economy appear to have no bounds. For a country of only 10 million people, it is unsettling that Belarus is ranked year after year among the top 10 weapons-exporting countries. To put in perspective how much military equipment left over from the Soviet Union Lukashenko has at his disposal, consider the following fact: The Belarusian army has 1,700 T-72 battle tanks. Poland, a new NATO member with the most powerful army in Central Europe and with four times the population of Belarus, has only 900 T-72s.

Despite strong denials from Lukashenko, Belarus has been a key partner of Saddam Hussein in his effort to rebuild and modernize Iraq’s air defense capability. Belarus has violated international law by secretly supplying Baghdad with SA-3 antiaircraft missile components as well as technicians. Given that Iraq has repeatedly tried to shoot down U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the U.N. no-fly zone–with more than 420 attempts this year alone–covert Belarusian-Iraqi military cooperation is disturbing and should set off alarm bells in Western capitals.

Former Belarusian defense minister Pavel Kozlovski, obviously someone with firsthand knowledge of Minsk’s covert arms deals, recently summed up Belarus’s cooperation with Iraq and other rogue states by saying, “I know that the Belarusian government does not have moral principles and can sell weapons to those countries [such as Iraq] where embargoes exist. This is the criminal policy of Belarusian leadership.”

In many ways, the mercurial and authoritarian Lukashenko feels he has a free hand to sell arms to nations and groups that are unfriendly to the West, because the European Union and the United States do not recognize him as the legitimate Belarusian head of state anyway. Threats of U.S.-led economic sanctions or other diplomatic “sticks” against Belarus hold little weight, since the country is already isolated to a degree rivaled only by a handful of other countries.

It is only thanks to cheap energy subsidies from Russia that the Belarusian economy remains afloat. Since Russia is the only country that has the necessary economic and political influence on Belarus, it is imperative that Washington use its new relationship with Moscow to encourage the Russians to exert their leverage on Belarus to cease covert arms sales to rogue states and terrorist groups.

In the Bush administration’s worldwide effort to combat terrorism, it should not overlook a little-known country right on NATO’s border.

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