Mr. President, earlier today, I had the opportunity to meet with the wives of four Belarusian opposition leaders who have either disappeared, been imprisoned, or have died under mysterious circumstances. Theirs is a compelling story which starkly illustrates the human toll of Alexander Lukashenka’s regime in which human rights, democracy and the rule of law are violated with impunity.
These courageous women–Ludmilla Karpenko, Irina Krasovska, Tatiana Klimova and Svetlana Zavadska–conveyed their concerns about their husbands as well as about the continuing climate of fear in Belarus.
Earlier this month, I led a delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session, where I met with Anatoly Lebedko, one of the leaders of the Belarusian democratic opposition.
Belarusian presidential elections are quickly coming up–on September 9. Unfortunately, the Belarusian authorities have not yet made a serious commitment to abide by criteria set forth well over a year ago by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, of which Belarus is a member. These criteria include an end of the climate of fear, equal access to the state media for all candidates, respect for freedom of assembly, as well as transparency and fairness in the registration of candidates and functioning of electoral commissions.
The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, continues to receive troubling reports concerning developments in Belarus. Indeed, the prospects for free and fair presidential elections this fall remain dim. The unbalanced composition of the regional electoral commissions is particularly disturbing given the apparent rejection by the authorities of all candidates–over 800–proposed by Belarusian democratic parties and non-governmental organizations. The Belarusian authorities need to guarantee the impartiality of the electoral commissions by ensuring that democratic parties and non-governmental organizations, NGOs, are represented meaningfully and to correct other reported violations of the electoral code.
The State Department has urged the Belarusian authorities to mount a credible investigation to account for missing former Minister of Internal Affairs Yury Zakharenka, 13th Supreme Soviet Deputy Chairman Viktor Gonchar and his associate Anatoly Krasovsky, as well as Russian Television cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky. They have urged the immediate release of political prisoners and 13th Supreme Soviet members Andrei Klimov and Valery Shchukin. Such an investigation, as well as the release of political prisoners, will be an essential factor in reducing the current climate of fear.
Finally, the Belarusian authorities need to work with the OSCE to facilitate the work of international and domestic observers and to help ensure that all candidates are able to organize freely, without harassment, and carry their campaigns to the people.
While it is not yet too late for the Belarusian authorities to take the steps necessary to ensure an atmosphere conducive to elections that will meet international democratic standards, time is of the essence. Free and fair presidential elections are an essential step if Belarus is to move ahead and end its self-imposed isolation. As President Bush has remarked in connection with this week’s observance of Captive Nations Week, America must remain vigilant in our support of those living under authoritarianism. The people of Belarus have that support as they seek to overcome the legacy of the past and build an independent nation based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.