Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the gentleman from Connecticut (Mr. Gejdenson) and the gentleman from New York (Mr. Gilman) for their leadership in constructing this resolution condemning violations of human rights and the erosion of democracy in Belarus in calling upon the Lukashenka regime to restore the constitutional rights of the Belarusian people and on the Russian Federation to respect the sovereignty of Belarus.
In March, Mr. Speaker, I chaired a second Helsinki Commission hearing on Belarus which addressed many of the issues that are very importantly highlighted in this resolution. The hearing featured key leaders of Belarus’s opposition, including Semyon Sharetsky and two leading State Department officials as well as the person in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Adrian Severin, who was attempting to forge dialogue between the Belarusian authorities and the opposition. This hearing was a follow-up to our April 1999 hearing on Belarus.
In the last year our commission has made repeated and consistent intercessions, including through the OSCE, to draw attention to the deplorable situation in Belarus and to encourage the establishment of a democracy there. As my friend and colleague from Connecticut just pointed out, there are the allegations, and they would seem to be real, that have been in some of the newspapers, including the London Sunday Telegraph about the Russians brokering an arms deal to rebuild the Iraqi air defenses using the Belarusians as the conduit. The Telegraph reported that Beltechexport, the State-owned Belarusian military hardware company, has agreed to upgrade Iraqi’s air defense systems to reequip the Iraqi Air Force and to provide air defense training for Iraqi troops. The deal is estimated to be worth about $90 million. It was signed in the middle of April, or last February, I should say, during a visit to Baghdad by high-ranking Belarusians. It also points out, the article, that Belarusian officials have agreed to undertake a detailed overhaul of 17 Soviet-made Iraqi war planes which had been in Belarus since the late 1980s. Again, Mr. Speaker, this directly puts our pilots at risk who are trying to enforce the no-fly zone, and I think this resolution again gets this Congress focused on the egregious human rights situation and also the military implications of the Belarusian regime.
Mr. Pallone: Mr. Speaker, I rise in support of this Resolution, of which I am proud to be an original co-sponsor. I would like to praise the sponsor, the Gentleman from Connecticut, Mr. Gejdenson, for introducing this Resolution, and to thank both the Ranking Member and the Chairman of the International Relations Committee, Mr. Gilman, for bringing the Resolution to the Floor of the House so quickly.
Mr. Speaker, while there have been many success stories among the new independent states of the former Soviet Union and the other former Warsaw Pact nations, Belarus has not been one of them. Over nearly a decade of independence, the promise of democracy, freedom of expression and association, and a new flowering of a national identity have not come to pass for the Belarusian people. The fault for this sad state of affairs rests with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The President has illegally extended his term of office beyond the legally mandated expiration date. Throughout his tenure, President Lukashenka has monopolized the mass media, undermined the constitutional foundation for the separation of powers, used intimidation and strong-arm tactics against the political opposition, suppressed freedom of the press and expression, defamed the national culture, maligned the national language and eroded Belarus’s rightful position as a sovereign nation.
Apart from the daily deprivations and indignities that the Belarusian people must endure, perhaps the saddest outcome of Mr. Lukashenka’s rule is that his efforts have created the impression, a false one, that Belarus really has no distinct national culture or character. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the formation of the Union State between Russia and Belarus only serves to further perpetuate this false impression. While the tragic reality is that Belarus has been dominated politically for centuries by Russia, the fact remains that Belarus has its own national symbols and a distinct language. It’s no coincidence that authoritarian President Lukashenka has targeted such national symbols as the nation’s flag and coat of arms. As part of this campaign, Lukashenka’s regime has ordered that schools go back to using Soviet-Russian textbooks, while the Russian language has been made the official language of the Belarusian Parliament in Minsk. Lukashenka’s strategy has been to create conditions to justify the claim that history, language and culture inevitably tie the two countries together.
The Belarusian language endures to this day as a key to national survival, both for the people living in the Republic of Belarus and among the Belarusian diaspora in the U.S. and elsewhere. There are centuries-old legal documents and religious texts written in the Belarusian language, as well as modern literary and historic works. Despite Lukashenka’s repression, the cause of Belarusian nationalism still burns in the heart of the Belarusian people, with the Belarusian language the means of expressing it. Failure to acknowledge the harm done to Belarusian culture and national singularity by the Russian-Belarus merger can only give comfort to Lukashenka and the Russian-Soviet irredentists.
Mr. Speaker, the negligence and mismanagement of Mr. Lukashenka’s regime has also put at risk the nation’s environment and the health of the people. Just last week, former Belarusian President Stanislau Shushkevich spoke at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Washington office on the occasion of the 14th anniversary of the Chernobol nuclear disaster in neighboring Ukraine. More than 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from the world’s worst nuclear accident fell on Belarusian territory. While there is plenty of blame to go around for mishandling of this disaster, among Soviet officials, and post-Soviet officials in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, President Lukashenka exacerbates the problems by insisting that all aid to Chernobol victims pass through his hands. These funds often are diverted to other uses. Fortunately, some Western NGOs and religious organizations have bypassed Lukashenka to get aid to the people who really need it.
Also last week, RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine denounced efforts by the Belarusian KGB to intimidate journalists from that organization working in Belarus. Mr. Dine’s statement came in response to the threats against Yahor Mayorchyk, a reporter for the news service funded by this Congress to provide objective information to people from the region. A KGB officer told Mr. Mayorchyk that the `same thing will happen to you as to Babitsky,’ a reference to RFE/RL journalist Andrei Babitsky who was arrested for his coverage of the war in Chechnya and faces trumped-up charges in Moscow.
Mr. Speaker, the abuses of the Lukashenka regime have been a source of concern for at least the past four years. In 1996, I introduced a Resolution expressing concern over the Lukashenka regime’s violations of human and civil rights in direct violation of the Helsinki accords and the constitution of Belarus, and expressing concern about the union between Russia and Belarus. That Resolution also recognized March 25 as the anniversary of the declaration of an independent Belarusian state. A year later, I worked with leaders of the International Relations Committee to include language in the State Department Authorization bill, which passed the House, calling for our President to press the Government of President Lukashenka on defending the sovereignty of Belarus and guaranteeing basic freedoms and human rights.
For years now, the Belarusian-American community has been trying to inform the American people about the truth in Belarus that President Lukashenka’s actions do not have widespread support and his regime has lost any sense of legitimacy it once may have had. I want to thank the Belarusian-American community in New Jersey and throughout the nation for continuing to speak the truth about events in the land of their ancestors. Obviously, President Lukashenka has not been moved by these expressions of concern by the United States and the international community. But we must not give up. We should go on record condemning the abuses that have taken place, and continue to take place in Belarus. We must urge our President and State Department to keep the pressure on President Lukashenka, and also Russian President Vladimir Putin. For these and many other reasons, I urge my colleagues to support passage of this Resolution.