Mr. President, I welcome the unanimous passage of the Belarus Democracy Act, BDA, by the United States Senate last night following similar action by the House of Representatives earlier this week. As co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I am particularly pleased at timely adoption of this important legislation. I thank Chairman Lugar and Senator Biden for their assistance in facilitating consideration of this bill by the full Senate.
Repression and stagnation have been the hallmarks of the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenka, the leader of Belarus who increasingly tightened the noose around those who express independent views. A series of fundamentally flawed elections have left Belarus without legitimate executive and parliamentary leadership. Against this backdrop, preparations are underway for parliamentary elections and a referendum later this month. The elections take place in an environment in which the regime has intensified its repression of the remaining independent media and vilification of the opposition and their supporters. Lukashenka is also seeking to manipulate the situation to extend his rule by eliminating constitutional term limits for president, possibly paving the way for him to become a “president-for-life.”
As co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I have maintained a strong interest in Belarus and have tried to inform my Senate colleagues about the increasingly troubling developments in that strategically located country, whose 10 million people have suffered cruelty at the hands of czars, Nazis, Communists and now, Aleksandr Lukashenka. During my service on the Commission, I have met and come to know many of the courageous individuals, who often at personal risk have spoken out in support of democracy in the face of Europe’s last dictatorship, including the spouses of opposition leaders and a journalist who disappeared in 1999 and 2000 because they dared speak to the truth.
Belarus, under Lukashenka, has the worst human rights record in Europe. His regime has increasingly violated basic human rights and freedoms. The goal of the Belarus Democracy Act is to help put an end to repression and human rights violations in Belarus and to promote Belarus’ entry into a democratic Euro-Atlantic community of nations following years of self-imposed isolation.
The Belarus Democracy Act authorizes additional assistance for democracy-building activities such as support for NGOs, independent media, including radio broadcasting to Belarus, and international exchanges. It also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections, which have been notably absent in Belarus and which look to be highly problematic when they are held on October 17, judging by the pre-election environment and the regime’s tight control over the electoral process.
The BDA includes sense of the Congress language that would prohibit U.S. Government financing, except for humanitarian reasons and U.S. executive directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance for humanitarian needs. The bill also requires a report from the President concerning the sale of delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to rogue states and on the personal wealth and assets of Lukashenka.
Nearly 2 years after the introduction of the Belarus Democracy Act the situation in that country has spiraled downward. Adoption and implementation of the Belarus Democracy Act will offer hope that the current period of political, economic and social stagnation will indeed end. It shows our concrete support for the courageous individuals, non-governmental organizations, independent media and independent trade unions struggling mightily against the machine of repression. And it shows our support for the people of Belarus, who deserve a chance for a brighter future.