Mr. President, I wish to update my Senate colleagues on developments in Belarus in my capacity as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Helsinki Commission. The Commission continues to pay close attention to events in Belarus especially as they impact democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
May 7 marked the second anniversary of the disappearance of Yuri Zakharenka, the former Belarusian Minister of Internal Affairs. In 1999, General Zakharenka, who had been critical of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka and had attempted to form a union of officers to support democracy, was put in a car by unidentified men and taken away. He has not been heard from since. His fate is probably similar to other prominent Belarusian opposition figures who have disappeared over the last few years, notably Victor Hanchar, Antaloy Krasovsky and Dmitry Zavadsky. The Belarusian authorities have had no success in investigating these disappearances; indeed, there are indications that the regime of Alexander Lukashenka may have been involved. Opinion polls in Belarus have shown that a clear majority of those who are aware of the disappearances believe that they are the work of the Lukashenka regime.
These disappearances embody the climate of disregard for human rights and democracy that has persisted since the election of Mr. Lukashenka in 1994. That disregard has intensified following his unconstitutional power grab in November 1996.
Presidential elections are planned for later this year. Unfortunately, recent developments in Belarus do not inspire confidence that these elections will meet OSCE standards for free and democratic elections. Despite commitments made to the OSCE, Belarusian authorities continue to unlawfully restrict freedom of assembly and to beat and detain participants in peaceful demonstrations, as illustrated by the April 21 protest by youth activists. On April 27, Valery Shchukin, deputy of the disbanded Belarusian parliament, received a three month sentence for the dubious charge of “malicious hooliganism.” And on May 7, police arrested opposition activists who marked the anniversary of Yuri Zakharenka’s disappearance. The activists held placards reading: “Where is Zakharanka?”; “Who’s Next?”; and “Where are the Disappeared People–Zakharanka, Hanchar, Krasousky, Zavadsky?”
Lukashenka continues his harsh assault on OSCE’s efforts to develop democracy, characterizing domestic elections observers supported by the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) as “an army of bandits and collaborationists.” This is only the last in a series of incredible accusations against the international community, including far-fetched allegations that $500 million had been earmarked in support of the opposition candidates. On April 25, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Friemut Duve canceled his visit to Belarus to protest the denial of a visa to his senior advisor, a U.S. diplomat Diana Moxhay who had earlier served at the U.S. Embassy in Miensk. The visit was to have examined the difficult media environment in Belarus, especially in light of the forthcoming presidential elections.
I continue to have grave concerns that Presidential Directive No. 8, which imposes restrictions on assistance from abroad offered to NGOs for democracy building and human rights including election monitoring, could be used to block NGO activities and important OSCE AMGroup projects in Belarus.
These and numerous other recent occurrences call into question the Belarusian government’s willingness to comply with freely undertaken OSCE commitments and raise doubts as to whether the Lukashenka regime intends to conduct the upcoming elections in a manner consistent with international standards.
As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I call upon the Belarusian authorities to conduct a real and public investigation of the disappearances. Furthermore, I urge the Belarusian Government to take the steps necessary in order for the presidential elections to be recognized as free and democratic as outlined by the March 7 Final Statement of the Parliamentary Troika. These are: transparency and democracy in the preparation and implementation of the elections, in particular the process of registration of the candidates, the composition of electoral commissions and counting of votes; equal access for all candidates to the mass media; refraining from harassment of candidates, their families and supporters; and freedom in carrying out their work for all those engaged in domestic election observation.