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Crackdown in Belarus

  • Hon. Ben Nighthorse Campbell
    US












Senate

106th Congress, First Session

Mr. President, just a few weeks ago, many of my Senate colleagues met a young, dynamic parliamentarian from Belarus, Mr. Anatoly Lebedko, right here on the Senate floor. He impressed us with his dedication and commitment as he advocates for democracy and the rule of law in his home country currently being rule by a repressive regime. You can imagine how shocked and concerned I was to receive a call from the State Department this week informing me Mr. Lebedko had been picked up by the authorities as part of the latest crackdown in Belarus. I am sure my colleagues who met Mr. Lebedko share my concern for his well-being and for the safety of all of those struggling for democracy and freedom of speech.

 

Eight years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus finds itself increasingly isolated from the rest of Europe as a direct consequence of the authoritarian policies pursued by its present government which have stifled that country’s fledgling democracy and market economy. The Helsinki Commission, which I co-chair, held a hearing a few months ago to assess democracy and human rights in Belarus. In July, a number of Commission members and I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Lebedko address the annual Parliamentary Assembly meeting of the Organization of Security and Corporation in Europe (OSCE ) in St. Petersburg, where he outlined developments in Belarus and the prospects for genuine political and economic reforms. Clearly, the cycle of political and economic stagnation in Belarus will only come to an end through genuine dialogue based on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

 

The Helsinki Commission has called on Belarus to adopt meaningful political and economic reforms in keeping with that country’s obligations as a participating State of the OSCE. On September 3, the government and opposition in Belarus began consultations at the office of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk. These talks, long urged by the international community and the Helsinki Commission could represent an important step in beginning the process of reversing the bleak human rights and democratization picture in Belarus.

 

Until recently I had been encouraged by what appeared to be the start of a dialog between the Belarusian Government and opposition. However, there have been a number of disturbing developments, including continued harassment of opposition members, a renewed crackdown on the independent media in recent weeks, and now the detainment of Mr. Lebedko.

 

We recently wrote to Secretary of State Albright voicing concern about the situation in Belarus and called on the State Department to intensify its work in this area. This most recent development underscores our concerns. I ask unanimous consent that copies of our letter to the Secretary of State, a letter we sent to the President of Belarus, along with recent news clips be printed in the Record. There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Washington, DC, October 15, 1999. Hon. Madeleine Korbel Albright, Secretary of State, Department of State, Washington, DC.

 

Dear Madam Secretary: We are writing to voice our growing concern over violations of the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Belarus under the authoritarian leadership of Aleksandr Lukashenka, who remains in power despite the expiration of his legal presidential mandate last July. The fledgling opposition in Belarus deserves both our moral and material support as they seek to overcome the legacy of Communism and authoritarianism and build a democratic society firmly rooted in the rule of law. Many of us recently had an opportunity to meet with Anatoly Lebedko of the United Civic Party of Belarus, a young political leader who, despite personal risk, continues to openly criticize the Lukashenka regime. His personal safety is of particular concern as he returns to Belarus following an intense crackdown against the opposition. In recent weeks, Lukashenka has reportedly authorized a series of measures designed to further suppress Belarus’ already beleaguered opposition. Border controls have apparently been tightened and officials in Minsk and other large cities have been instructed to ban public protests and demonstrations. The few remaining independent opposition newspapers, including Naviny and Kuryer, have likewise come under increased pressure from the authorities. Lukashenka’s campaign of harassment and intimidation of the political opposition has intensified. Former Premier Mikhail Chigir, arrested in March on politically-motivated charges, remains imprisoned. A number of other former government officials and political opposition figures continue to be subjected to lengthy pre-trial detention on similar changes. In a particularly disturbing development, several prominent opposition leaders, including Viktor Gonchar, Tamara Vinnikova, and Yuri Zakharenka, have simply disappeared. Madam Secretary, we urge you to intensify pressure on the Lukashenka regime for the immediate release of all political detainees in Belarus and a full accounting of those who have disappeared. We further urge you to ensure that adequate resources are made available on an urgent basis to support those programs aimed at strengthening independent media, human rights, civil society, independent trade unions and the democratic opposition in Belarus.

Sincerely,

Christopher H. Smith, M.C., Chairman. Steny H. Hoyer, M.C., Ranking Member, House. William V. Roth, Jr., U.S.S. Benjamin L. Cardin, M.C. Alcee L. Hastings, M.C. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, U.S.S., Co-Chairman. Trent Lott, U.S.S. Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S.S. Frank R. Wolf, M.C. Jesse Helms, U.S.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Washington, DC, October 19, 1999.

 

His Excellency Alyaksandr Lukashenka, President, Republic of Belarus, Minsk, Belarus.

Dear President Lukashenka: We are writing to express our serious and growing concerns about recent developments in Belarus. Until recently, we were becoming more hopeful that meaningful dialogue between the Belarusian Government and opposition would take place. Within the last month, however, violations of the principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law have come to our attention that, frankly, lead us to question your government’s seriousness in finding a solution to the problems of democracy in Belarus. We were disturbed to learn of the arrest earlier today of democratic opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko, for allegedly participating in “an unsanctioned march.” Our concerns include the following: The continued imprisonment of former Prime Minister Mikhail Chygir, who was supposed to be released from investigative detention where he has been held for six months. The disappearances of former Central Election Commission Chairman Viktor Gonchar, his colleague Yuri Krasovsky, former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenka, and former National Bank Chair Tamara Vinnikova. Increased attempts to stifle freedom of expression, including the annulling of registration certificates of nine periodicals, and especially the harassment of Naviny through the use of high libel fees clearly designed to silence this independent newspaper. The denial of registration of non-governmental organizations, including the Belarusian Independent Industrial Trade Union Association. The police raid, without a search warrant, on the human rights organization Viasna-96, and confiscation of computers which stored data on human rights violations. Criminal charges against opposition activist Mykola Statkevich and lawyer Oleg Volchek and continued interrogation of lawyer Vera Stremkovskaya. The initial attack by riot police against peaceful protestors in last Sunday’s Freedom March. Your efforts to address these concerns would reduce the climate of suspicion and fear that currently exists and enhance confidence in the negotiation process which we believe is so vital to Belarus’ development as a democratic country in which human rights and the rule of law are respected.

Sincerely,

Christopher H. Smith, M.C., Chairman. Steny H. Hoyer, M.C., Ranking Member.

 

From the Washington Post, Sept. 30, 1999:

Belarus Opposition Paper to Close. Minsk, Belarus.

A leading opposition newspaper in Belarus said it was shutting down following a court order to pay an exorbitant fine, to the minister of security over an article he said injured his reputation. The Naviny newspaper, which has come under frequent pressure from Belarus’s authoritarian government, said in its last issue that “both the suit and the trial were a cover-up for a carefully planned campaign by the authorities seeking to close down our newspaper.”

 

From the Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1999

Belarusan Officials Blame West for Riots. Minsk, Belarus.

Belarusan authorities accused the West of being behind street clashes between some 5,000 opposition demonstrators and police in which at least 92 people were arrested. But Dmitri Bondarenko of the opposition Khartiya-97 movement said police started the fighting and another opposition member said authorities have long provoked violence by repression. The fighting broke out Sunday in Minsk following an authorized rally by about 20,000 people. The demonstrators were protesting the disappearance of several leading opposition figures and President Alexander Lukashenka’s drive to reunite Belarus, a former Soviet republic, with Russia.

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