Hearing on Elections in BelarusDavid Kramer, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Testimony before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
March 9, 2006
C. SMITH: The Helsinki Commission will come to order. And I want to thank all of our distinguished friends and witnesses for coming out this afternoon.
And just let me begin by saying that exactly six years ago to the day on March 9, 2000, the Helsinki Commission held hearings on Belarus, focusing on the already bleak human rights and democracy situation under the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Numerous witnesses, including some of the leading opposition members from Belarus, testified at the time, highlighting concerns and outlining steps on how democracy and that country's integration into Europe could best be fostered. Six years later, we find ourselves examining an even more precarious situation in Belarus than we encountered then.
Unfortunately, the Lukashenka regime has only become more dictatorial with the passage of time. The assault on civil society, NGOs, independent media, democratic opposition and increasing pressure on unregistered and minority religious organizations has only intensified, becoming daily occurrences.
Despite innumerable calls for Belarus to live up to its freely undertaken OSCE election commitments, elections in 2000, 2001 and 2004 were neither free nor fair. It follows along a downward trajectory that began a decade ago when Lukashenka, through an illegitimate referendum, took control over the legislature and the judiciary and manipulated the constitution to remain in power.
Belarus, which borders on E.U. and NATO nations, has become a stark anomaly in an increasingly democratic Europe. The Belarusian people have become even more isolated from the winds of democracy following neighboring Ukraine's Orange Revolution. Lukashenka's fear that the people would follow the Ukrainian example has led to his further clamping down on those who dare to speak out for freedom and fundamental human rights.
Among the numerous examples that can be cited, just last week, one Belarusian opposition candidate running for next week's elections was detained by security forces and severely beaten. Yesterday -- or the day before, I should say -- we received reports that five members of the campaign of the United Opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, were held by police and driven away.
In recent weeks, Lukashenka has launched an intensive campaign to encourage a climate of fear and to stoke hostility among the Belarusian people through a Soviet-style propaganda campaign against the opposition, Europe and the United States.
As the prime sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act, I indeed welcome the administration's growing engagement with the people of Belarus. I am pleased that President Bush and other high-ranking administration officials met with Irina Krasovskaya and Svyatlana Zavadskaya, two of the wives of opposition figures believed to have been murdered with the complicity of Belarusian senior officials.
I would note parenthetically that I had the privilege of meeting with them and others over the last six years on a number of occasions, including a press conference we held when we called on the Belarusian authorities to provide an accounting for their whereabouts, and I have always admired their determination and courage. They are truly remarkable ladies.
Given the disturbing pre-election environment, finally, where meaningful access to the media by opposition candidates is denied, where independent voices are stifled, and where the regime maintains pervasive control over the election process, it is very hard to imagine that next week's elections will be free. They are already not fair.
In the event that protests are held in response to electoral fraud, we remind Belarus' authorities that the right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental human rights issue and a basic tenet of the OSCE. Any violent suppression of peaceful protests will have serious repercussions, and only deepen Belarus' self-imposed isolation.
Over the course of the last century, the Belarusian people have endured great suffering at the hands of murderous dictators such as Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Twenty years ago they endured, and continue to endure, Chernobyl's dark cloud. I believe that the Belarusian people deserve -- and I know people in this room believe likewise -- the freedom and the dignity long denied to them. And Belarus deserves its rightful place in a free and a prosperous democratic Europe.
We now would like to -- I'd like to welcome our first witness to today's hearing, beginning with David Kramer, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs. He is responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus affairs, as well as regional nonproliferation issues.
Previously, Mr. Kramer served as a professional staff member in the Office of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State. Before that, he served as senior adviser to the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs. Before joining the government, Mr. Kramer was Senior Fellow at the Project for the New American Century, Associate Director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and assistant director of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies -- all here in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Kramer, the floor is yours and I yield to you.
KRAMER: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you here today. And let me also thank you for your leadership on the issue of Belarus, bringing freedom and democracy there, and for your leadership on the Belarus Democracy Act. We are grateful for what you've done.
Mr. Chairman, without objection I'd like to ask that my written statement be entered into the record.
C. SMITH: Without objection, your full statement will be made a part of the record.
KRAMER: Thank you.
Mr. Chairman, this hearing comes at a critical moment with the Belarusian election less than two weeks away. The policy of the United States toward Belarus is defined by our support for the Belarusian people in their aspirations for democracy.
As President Bush stated when he signed the Belarus Democracy Act in October 2004, at a time when freedom is advancing around the world, Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his government are turning Belarus into a regime of repression in the heart of Europe, its government isolated from its neighbors and its people isolated from each other. We will work with our allies and partners to assist those seeking to return Belarus to its rightful place among the Euro-Atlantic community of democracies. There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind, the president said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stressed the importance of, quote, shining a bright spotlight on the Lukashenka regime's shameful record of denying basic human rights and freedoms to its citizens on what is -- as she succinctly said -- the last outpost of tyranny in Europe.
She and the president met just over a week ago with the widows of two of the disappeared persons believed to have been murdered by the Belarusian authorities for their political views. The president then gave these women his personal support for their efforts to seek justice for the disappeared, and for all those who seek to return freedom to Belarus.
Just today, our U.S. ambassador in Lithuania, Steve Mull, read a statement from the president at a ceremony marking the European Humanities University, which was kicked out of Belarus, in which the president highlighted the great courage and determination of so many Belarusians, who are overcoming enormous challenges to show the world that, quote, the love of liberty is stronger than the will of tyranny.
As Belarus approaches the presidential election March 19th, the regime has given itself broad new legal powers to silence dissent and targeted representatives of independent civil society with a dramatic increase in politically motivated detentions, prosecutions, beatings, harassment and property seizures, under the cover of laws passed by a parliament that does not have a single opposition member in it.
Nonetheless, despite this government repression, it is possible to see significant positive developments within Belarusian civil society, and to find active support for them in the international community.
Mr. Chairman, Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power in 1994, is running again for office, having engineered, as you put it, a fraudulent referendum in 2004, to change a constitutional provision that would have otherwise limited him to two terms.
Clearly rattled by the recent democratic breakthroughs in the region, he and his government have ratcheted up pressure on the opposition, nongovernmental organizations and the independent media. They have rewritten the laws to criminalize, quote, discrediting Belarus. And they have used these and other legal provisions to punish and intimidate the people of Belarus.
There has been a surge of detentions and harassment in the last two months, designed to intimidate opponents of the regime and to create a climate of fear in the run-up to the election.
On February 21st, the Belarusian KGB detained four civil activists, and they continue to hold them on charges under a new criminal code provision forbidding activity in an unregistered organization, threatening the interests and duties of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus -- a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
The KGB has publicly claimed that these individuals were involved in a bizarre coup plot, allegedly directed by a U.S. NGO -- a truly absurd claim.
On March 2nd, the authorities beat and detained an opposition presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, as well as a number of his supporters and journalists. Reportedly, one of Kazulin's assailants was none other than Dmitry Pavlichenko, the notorious special forces colonel implicated in international investigations as being directly involved in the cases of the disappeared in 1999 to 2000.
This week there have been more disturbing incidents. On March 7th, police arrested Anatol Lyabedzka and other members of Alyaksandr Milinkevich's campaign after a rally. Lyabedzka was fined $750 for an illegal demonstration, and Vladimir Shantsev, Milinkevich's regional campaign head, was sentenced to 15 days in jail.
On March 7th, police in Gomel seized 28,000 Milinkevich leaflets. Last Saturday, police seized 250,000 copies of independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya. And just yesterday, police detained senior Milinkevich campaign worker Vintsuk Vyachorka, also head of the Belarusian Popular Front, as well as a number of other campaign people.
Today, Vyachorka and others were sentenced to 15 days for holding an unsanctioned rally.
Mr. Chairman, I would be happy to yield to Senator Brownback, if you'd like.
BROWNBACK: No. Please proceed at this point in time. And I apologize for being late. We just had a vote that was up, but I'm delighted that Congressman Smith got this up and going. Let's just go ahead with that, and then I'll do my opening statement afterwards.
KRAMER: Appreciate that. Thank you, sir.
Let us not forget other political prisoners currently serving lengthy sentences in Belarus, including Mikhail Marynich, Valery Levaneuski, Nikolai Statkevich, Pavel Severinets and Andrei Klimov.
It is clear that the regime has created a climate of fear that it hopes will intimidate opponents during the election campaign. At the same time, the government has failed to adequately investigate the deaths of two independent journalists, Veronika Cherkasova and Vassili Grodnikov.
Because of the government's tight control of the mass media in Belarus, few Belarusians are probably aware of reports linking Lukashenka and his inner circle to corruption. His presidential administration owns a large and ever-increasing amount of property in Belarus, including hotels and other real estate.
Lukashenka a his immediate family reportedly enjoy residences and other facilities throughout Belarus. Distinctions between his personal and state property are blurred, and a large presidential reserve fund remains separate from, and unaccountable to, the main state budget.
Lukashenka once admitted that this account amounted to $1 billion. These funds, earned from the sale of military equipment abroad do not enter the state coffers. Lukashenka himself has said that it is hidden so well that no opposition member will find it.
And according to Lukashenka, the presidential fund receives money from secret arms sales, the total profits of which have not been recorded in the state budget, and are beyond public scrutiny.
Despite all the obstacles and uncertainties thrown up by the regime, many Belarusians have chosen to work for a democratic future for their country. These include brave independent journalists, NGO activists, members of pro-democracy political parties and many ordinary people, who have taken simple steps like signing a candidate's ballot petition or attending a political rally.
These people know they may be risking the loss of their jobs, arrest, trumped up criminal charges, jail time, beatings or worse. And they have achieved some successes, even in such a forbidding environment.
The pro-democracy opposition in Belarus is more unified today than it has been in recent memory.
Our proper place is standing beside these brave Belarusians, doing what we can to encourage and help them to achieve a better future for their country. Such a future will inevitably come, although we can't predict when that will happen.
Belarus is in the heart of Europe, and its democratization will be a major step in completing the democratic transformation of the continent.
The U.S. government, in close coordination with the European Union, and with the invaluable help of the Belarus Democracy Act, has been a strong voice against the regime's abuses.
We've sponsored successful resolutions, and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights met repeatedly with Belarusian democracy and human rights activists, and taken concrete actions to hold regime officials accountable, such as the travel restrictions we announced in 2004 against government officials responsible for the disappearances and election-related abuses.
For many years, we have denied most kinds of direct U.S. government assistance to the Belarusian government with some exceptions, including continuing humanitarian assistance and educational exchanges.
Our programs have largely been aimed at furthering development of democracy, respect for human rights and market-oriented reform, despite the forbidding environment, and include human rights monitoring and education, access to objective and independent information, democratic political party development, voter education, rule of law, electoral reform and independent oversight.
After the elections, we intend to continue our outreach efforts and our work to help pro-democracy forces build support to push for change. Whatever happens in the upcoming election, we intend to remain engaged in Belarus for a long time to come.
Mr. Chairman, I have been very pleased with the cooperation we've had with the European Union in developing a unified approach to the upcoming election. At the beginning of this year we tried a joint pre-election message to deliver to officials in Minsk with the European Union.
As it turned out, unfortunately, the Belarusian authorities turned down the request for the joint mission, exposing as hollow their claims that they seek dialogue with the international community. This was just the latest evidence demonstrating that the government in Minsk has isolated itself and the country. We have not isolated it; it has isolated itself.
We have coordinated our various types of assistance through a series of donor coordination meetings with the E.U., and we welcome the European Union's decision to support media programs in Belarus, including external broadcasting through the European Radio for Belarus and others, and we have coordinated closely to be sure that these efforts mesh with our own efforts in this area.
Getting objective information flowing into Belarus has been one of our top priorities as a way to break through the government's stifling control over most media. Top officials of the E.U. and several E.U. member states have also received opposition candidate Milinkevich, and have used that occasion to underline their support for democracy in Belarus.
Mr. Chairman, I traveled to Minsk two weeks ago, and I went for several reasons. I wanted to reinforce the sense among the people of Belarus that the United States is very closely following developments there and remains very engaged.
I also wanted to get a feel first hand, albeit only for two days, for the situation in Minsk, and to give a boost to those fighting for democracy and freedom. I also wanted to convey directly to Belarusian officials in Minsk, rather than simply through their ambassador here, that there will be serious consequences if the election, including the process leading up to the actual voting, remains as seriously flawed and tainted as it has been thus far.
I also underscored that there will be major consequences for the government forces, if it resorts to violence against protesters, who -- as you pointed out, Mr. Chairman -- have a right to assemble and protest peacefully, if they so choose.
Fourth, I wanted to make clear to Belarusian officials that the U.S. and European Union are completely united in our approach to Belarus, that the concerns about developments there are not simply based in Washington, but are shared in Brussels and in all European capitals.
Fifth, I wanted to reach out to civil society representatives, students and the independent media, as well as to those in the opposition -- and what's left is brave and vibrant -- to let them know that the U.S. is a friend of the people of Belarus, and that the isolation of their country is the result of the decisions made the paranoid regime there.
Sixth, and finally, I wanted to give a boost to our terrific embassy employees in Minsk, who face increasing and outrageous harassment from thuggish authorities and state television.
In Minsk, Mr. Chairman, I was as clear as I could be that we in the West are prepared to respond in a most serious way to fraud, abuse and violence perpetrated by this regime. It would be a grave mistake by those in the Lukashenka regime to underestimate American and European resolve.
Both the U.S. and the E.U. have made clear publicly that we are ready to take further measures against individuals responsible for committing fraud and violating international standards in this election. A dialogue is already underway on what these measures will be and whom we'll target, although obviously, final decisions and public announcements will wait until after the results are known and the OSCE and ODIHR election observation mission have offered its assessment.
Unfortunately, the election process has already been deeply flawed, as I mentioned. And past experience gives us very little hope that things will get better.
Mr. Chairman, the United States will be ready to respond to any result, holding accountable those responsible for abusing the rights of their fellow citizens and continuing to help the people of Belarus in any way we can to support the transition to a free society and to consolidate democratic gains when they come. We are already making plans with the Europeans for our post-election policies toward Belarus and for continuing donor coordination meetings.
We look forward to the day when Belarus takes its rightful place as a democracy in a Europe whole, free and at peace. We appreciate continued congressional support and interest in Belarus. Whatever happens March 19th, we should not and will not give up on our support for the people of Belarus.
Mr. Chairman, thank you very much.
C. SMITH: Chairman Brownback has been kind enough to let me go first, because I do have to testify, myself, at 2: 30. And I thank him for that gracious yielding.
Just to ask a couple of very quick questions.
One is -- and you alluded to it -- what happens if Lukashenka sends out the thugs to beat up -- and you mentioned Mr. Lyabedzka. I've met him a number of times at OSCE parliamentary meetings, and he is an absolute -- a real democrat. You know, he believes in democracy, believes in transparency, believes in fundamental human rights. And he has been targeted before, and he's a good friend, I think, of all us on the Commission, like so many others.
And thank you for undertaking that trip to send that clear message on behalf of the U.S.
But what do we do with regards to this, if what is not unthinkable, regrettably, does indeed happen?
And secondly, with regards to the broadcasts, we know that the E.U. began broadcasting in Belarus on February 26th. What -- how any impact of that broadcasting and Radio Liberty, as well as Voice of America? Are there plans to beef up our efforts?
Because, again, as I learned as a kid growing up -- and I'm a great fan as a member of Congress for these last 26 years -- the Iron Curtain isn't sound-proof. And certainly, surrogate broadcasting and Voice of America type broadcasting, as well, is a great way of getting that message through to give people hope, but also real information that's factually based.
KRAMER: We are trying to do all we can to make sure that force and violence do not occur, whether before the election or after the election. We have already seen the beating up of Mr. Kazulin and the beatings of others, as well, in Minsk.
We are trying to send a clear message, in full coordination with the European Union, that force and violence will be met with serious consequences for those who condone it, authorize it or engage in it.
We are trying to reach out as much as we can to make clear that force and violence are completely unacceptable.
We have also conveyed that message to neighboring states.
C. SMITH: (inaudible).
KRAMER: We have been in touch with Russian officials and asked them to convey the very same message, yes, sir.
Concerning broadcasting, you are absolutely right. This is critical. Getting information flowing into Belarus, objective information that is not state controlled is key to this.
The starting up of the European Radio for Belarus February 26th -- it's still a little early to come to a judgment on the impact. Our hope, clearly, is that it is having an impact, and word is getting out that it exists and is out there as a resource.
We're also trying to provide support for other information posts. You mentioned Voice of America, which has increased its Belarus coverage. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is continuing its extensive coverage. And it's also, I think, very important that all of you, and all of us in the administration, continue to speak out loud and clear, so that word gets out. And we are working with our European allies to do the same thing.
As I mentioned before, we've been very pleased with the response we've gotten among E.U. officials, as well as European capitals directly.
C. SMITH: I would just note in closing that we're joined today by a number of distinguished visitors. But Solomon Passy, the foreign minister of Bulgaria, who was the Chairman-in-Office and did a superb job, is with us. And thank you, Mr. Chairman, for joining us.
BROWNBACK: Thanks, Congressman Smith, and for being here.
Secretary Kramer, I've got several questions I want to ask. But I guess I just want to start on a broad and a bit of a philosophical basis.
Belarus is such an outlier in the region. What -- where's Lukashenka headed with this? I mean, he's got to see the flow of history as clearly not moving back to these sort of very heavy dictatorial types of regimes.
What does he hope is going to take place? What's the plan here on his part?
KRAMER: Mr. Chairman, getting into the mind of Alyaksandr Lukashenka may be a losing proposition. But I think it is safe to say that paranoia is one of the words that could be used to describe him. Megalomania, certainly. And as I also mentioned, corruption.
He came to power in an election that was fairly decent by international standards, in 1994. But unfortunately, ever since then, it has been a downhill trajectory.
Where he's headed, I think, is trying to stay in power at all costs. Dictators don't like to give up power freely. And in this case, Lukashenka is no exception.
So, I think what he would like to do, and feels that the only way he can stay safe and secure, is by staying in power by any method. And our hope is that the people of Belarus will call him on that.
BROWNBACK: What's the Russian role on this with Lukashenka? You alluded to some of it, that they've been helpful? Or are they being helpful of Lukashenka?
KRAMER: It's not black and white. We have been in discussions with our Russian counterparts to talk about Belarus, to explain to them that the spread of freedom and democracy to Belarus is in everyone's interest, including in Russia's interest. That having Belarus run by a dictator serves neither the people of Belarus' interests, nor the people of Russia, their interests, either.
So, we have been in discussions with them about what's going on there. Mr. Lukashenka certainly has made trips to Sochi and to Moscow. But I would also note that Alyaksandr Milinkevich has made two trips to Moscow, and those, I think, have been noteworthy, as well.
So, it's a bit more complicated than simply full support. And we have tried to impress upon our Russian counterparts that support for a free and fair process, which is where we stand, and support for freedom and democracy in Belarus are where we would hope to find our Russian allies.
BROWNBACK: They haven't exactly been moving that way themselves, the Russians.
What -- I mean, it sounds like, to me, really, they're in many respects, from what you're describing, they're blocking for Lukashenka in Belarus, and not being very helpful in the process. But you seem to describe more of a mixed bag of what they're doing.
What are they doing on the positive side to encourage freedom and democracy in Belarus?
KRAMER: In the situation with the Russians, there certainly have been a number of officials -- Russian officials -- in the Duma and elsewhere, who have spoken out in support of Lukashenka.
There have also been a number of people, both in and outside the Duma, and outside the Russian government, who recognize that having a dictator in Minsk is not in Russia's interests.
I've traveled to Moscow numerous times since I've been in this job and have been struck at the range of people I've met with in Moscow, who have agreed that Lukashenka is not just a problem for Belarus or a problem for the West, but he's also a problem for Russia. We have tried to reach out to those people, to convey to them that we share their concerns, and we will continue to do so.
The view of the presidential administration of the Kremlin is more difficult to discern. But it certainly goes without saying that Lukashenka has been in meetings with President Putin, and there are pictures of the two together. And those -- sometimes pictures can speak very loudly.
BROWNBACK: Are the Russians propping him up with energy supplies?
KRAMER: Belarus, unlike the other countries in the region, is paying roughly $47 per thousand cubic meters, whereas, as you will recall, Mr. Chairman, the price for Ukraine went up considerably, where it had been, on January 1st, when the Russians decided to increase prices for all the neighbors, except for Belarus. So, Belarus is receiving subsidized energy from the Russians.
And I would note, however, that Foreign Minister Lavrov a few weeks ago did mention that removing subsidies for the neighbors would apply across the board, and that Belarus would be no exception. However, an exception continues to be made for Belarus, and likely will remain the case up until the election.
BROWNBACK: Well, you're confusing me a little bit here. You seem to be saying the Russians are kind of mixed record or an unreadable record on Belarus, and yet the specific actions seem to be very supportive of Lukashenka.
Are we putting sufficient pressure on the Russians that -- you know, look at what this guy is doing. He is right next door to you. He is very dependent upon you, and he may, indeed, even be looking to you for inspiration or aspirations or a way out. And you should be putting much more pressure on him.
KRAMER: In part, I guess -- and I don't mean to confuse or to cloud the issue. There are different views in Moscow. There's not one common view.
Now, the view that matters most, obviously, is that of Mr. Putin. And indications are that the presidential administration has been supportive, though has not warmly embraced Lukashenka.
But as I mentioned, there are a number of people who have influence inside the Kremlin -- not necessarily in the Kremlin, but influence with the Kremlin -- who do recognize that Lukashenka is a problem. And so, they have been reaching out to the opposition in Belarus and, I think, have done more than might be expected inside Russia.
BROWNBACK: This reminds me a bit of China and North Korea, where the Chinese have the most influence over North Korea, and once in a while are helpful, but most of the time not.
KRAMER: Rest assured, we are raising this with our Russian colleagues on a regular basis, including on the recent visit.
BROWNBACK: Secretary Rice has been very outspoken on Belarus, and I very much appreciate her statements. She's called Belarus an outpost of tyranny. The administration has been very vocal. I appreciate that. I appreciate the clarity of your testimony here today.
Yet our assistance to Belarus has remained very flat. Are we going to be making more aggressive actions on our direct assistance to Belarus? Are we going to follow this up with some additional action on the basis of these statements we've been making?
KRAMER: Well, Mr. Chairman, I think we've been making very effective use of the aid that we've -- of the money that we've received. In FY 2005, the total was $11.5 million, and that included $5 million from the supplemental. In 2006, the level is $11.88 million.
So, we have been pleased to maintain the level of support. We hope to continue that. We, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, are looking at staying engaged in Belarus for the long term, not simply to focus on this election -- though that is a major part of our focus right now -- but we want to sustain assistance and support for a whole range of programs and activities in Belarus.
So, we'll look forward to certainly working with you and the Congress on foreign assistance issues with Belarus.
BROWNBACK: Is Belarus impacting things in the Ukraine or any of the other countries outside of Russia in the region in a negative fashion? Or is their actions been mostly contained inside the country?
KRAMER: Certainly with Poland -- the Poles have run into problems with the ethnic minority inside Belarus and have had significant tensions in their relationship with the Lukashenka regime.
It is no one's interest for there to be a dictatorship there in Europe. And so, it is negative for the regime that's in place there to exist and to continue. It does have a negative impact on all of the neighboring states.
There are certain realities that the neighbors have to deal with, bilateral issues that cannot be put aside just because of the regime that's in place in Minsk.
But we have been pleased by the interests and the efforts of the neighbors to work with us in trying to bring greater freedom and democracy in Belarus.
It is a challenge for the immediate neighbors, but I've been very pleased that none of them has backed down from working with us.
BROWNBACK: Is there any relationship between Belarus and Iran or North Korea? Several of the -- or two of the axis of evil nations?
KRAMER: Mr. Chairman, we have looked into these issues. Nothing, I would say, that we would discuss in this session.
BROWNBACK: Well, I may try to take that up in another setting, then, as well.
Secretary Kramer, thank you very much, and thank you for your clarity of statement here today. I think it's important that the United States state its position clearly, and particularly on a country that is so undemocratic and such an outlier, as what Belarus is. And so, I appreciate your being here and appreciate the strength of your statement.
KRAMER: Mr. Chairman, thank you.
BROWNBACK: We'll call the next panel up. While they're getting in place, I'd like to make my opening statement. Again, I apologize for not being here on time, but we had a vote.
Presidential elections will be held next week, March 19th. And we've heard from the administration and we'll hear from other expert witnesses on how Belarus is doing with its freely undertaken OSCE election commitments in light of the upcoming elections. So, there was commitments that were made.
These commitments include respect for human rights and democratic principles. And I have to say, the picture there is not encouraging.
Last week, security forces beat up and arrested one of the two opposition candidates. Just yesterday, security forces detained a top opposition leader for holding a meeting with voters in Minsk.
Daily reports of arrests, KGB raids and the closure of independent newspapers and NGOs have become commonplace as Belarus prepares to hold presidential elections on March 19th, capping off a decade of dictatorship under Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Beginning with an illegal referendum 10 years ago aimed at consolidating political power in his hands, Europe's last dictator has led his country into increased isolation, as Belarus' neighbors, excluding Russia, have consolidated democracy through free and fair elections.
By contrast, Belarus has held a series of fundamentally flawed elections at both the parliamentary and presidential levels, seriously undermining the legitimacy of the country's political leadership. Regrettably, this pattern is already evident as the 2006 elections get underway in earnest.
It is instructive to assess current developments in Belarus in light of the four criteria agreed by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and European Parliament nearly six years ago.
These are: number one, ending a climate of fear; number two, granting equal media access; number three, empowering parliament with meaningful authority; and number four, enacting meaningful election reform.
On each of these critical points, the regime no longer even feels compelled to pay lip service, let alone take meaningful action. Leadership has yet to explain the disappearances of leading opposition figures, even as it perpetuates a climate of fear, by directing the levers of state power against independent voices it seeks to silence.
The regime maintains such a stranglehold over the flow of information, that even some broadcasts from Russia are blocked, while the handful of remaining independent newspapers are squeezed, and most have already been shut down.
Opposition candidates given token time on state radio media are in turn the subject of a constant barrage of vicious attacks by the state apparatus for agitation and propaganda.
This is a country where mere criticism of Lukashenka is deemed defamation, and has landed several activists in prison. Meanwhile, the national assembly remains a largely rubber stamp institution, going through the motions on measures already decided by the presidential administration.
The electoral apparatus at all levels, much less the country's media outlets, remains firmly in the hands of the regime. In a country where the state is the dominant employer and most workers are kept on short-term contracts as a control mechanism, pressure to support Lukashenka cannot be dismissed.
The same holds true for university students subject to expulsion for dissent. Tragically, educators responsible for training the younger generation in Belarus also make up the bulk of those administering the elections through commissions often headed the school principal.
At the end of the election day, these teachers are then presented with results that they must confirm or face obvious consequences. Not surprisingly, of the over 74,000 commission members, two -- two in the entire election apparatus -- represent opposition candidates.
Based on the evidence thus far, there are few grounds to believe that the election will be free or fair. In the end, it is the Belarusian people, long denied their freedom and dignity, who suffer.
One of our witnesses today was featured in a "Washington Post" profile regarding her activities as a dissident. As difficult and bleak as the situation in Belarus may seem today, Ms. Iryna Vidanava has an optimistic message. According to her, the young people of Belarus today will change the fate of Belarus tomorrow. We must support their efforts, and we must give them hope. And I certainly look forward to her testimony and the rest of the panelists.
Now let me introduce the panelists that will presenting on this panel.
Ms. Vidanava has been active in promoting civil society in Belarus for more than a decade. She's the editor-in-chief of "Student's Thought," an independent publication, which is the only magazine for students in Belarus. She has also served as international coordinator for the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs, Belarus' largest third sector umbrella organization, has held leadership positions in the Belarusian Student Association and Youth Information Center.
While in the United States, she has worked for the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins, and Freedom House. She's a historian by training, is a lecturer and doctoral student at Belarus State University. She currently is studying public policy, nonprofit management and international relations at Johns Hopkins, where she's a Muskie Fellow.
Next, Stephen B. Nix, International Republican Institute, regional program director for Eurasia. He joined the IRI October 2000 as regional program director for Eurasia. In that position he oversees a number of countries in the region.
We'll also hear from Patrick Merloe, National Democratic Institute, director of programs on election processes. He's been an observer of election processes in more than 25 countries, and later (ph) participated in over 130 NDI delegations and assistance teams to more than 50 countries around the world.
From Rodger Potocki -- did I say that right? Good. Got one right -- senior program officer for East-Central Europe. He oversees NED programs in Central Europe, the Balkans and Belarus. He's been active in Belarus for more than 15 years.
Celeste A. Wallander, Center for Strategic and International Studies, director of Russia and Eurasian programs. Dr. Wallander directs the Russia and Eurasian program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and is a CSIS senior fellow for -- she joined there. She's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and associate professor of government at Harvard University.
So, a distinguished panel. I look forward to your presentations and your thoughts about what's taking place in Belarus, and what we should be doing.
Your full statements will be placed into the record as if presented, so you're free to summarize. We'll run the clock at six minutes to give you some sense of time. And then I would like to have some time for questions afterwards.
We'll start off with you, Ms. Vidanava. I admire you.
VIDANAVA: Thank you.
BROWNBACK: I admire your work and I admire your courage. It takes a lot to stand up in a tough place, and you're doing it. Thanks for being here.
VIDANAVA: Mr. Chairman, members of the Commission, thank you for the opportunity to speak about the difficult situation concerning young people in my country, Belarus.
There will play a key role on March 19th. In Belarus, young people are the most open-minded, tolerant and pro-European segment of the population. They have no connection with the country's Soviet past and look to the future.
Young people are less satisfied with the current economic and political situation in Belarus. It should come as no surprise that a December survey found that more than one-third of those supporting the democratic candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, were under 30.
Belarus is a very young society. About a quarter of the population is 15 (ph) and to 71 (ph) years old. Next week, many of these young people will vote for the first time. With a significant percentage has not made up its mind.
The largest segment of undecided voters is among youth. And they are skeptical that their choice will be respected. Seventy-seven percent of young people doubt that the elections will be fair.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka understands these demographics and trends. His government has tried to win the hearts and minds of youth by creating the state-run Belarus and Patriotic Union of Youth, based on the model of the old Soviet Komsomol.
Mr. Chairman, the focus of this hearing is freedom denied. And I would like to report on the freedoms denied young people in today's Belarus.
Young people are denied freedom of association. Since 2001, the government has dramatically increased repression against youth and NGOs and publications. The official registration of youth groups has been revoked. They now operate without legal status.
Pavel Severinets, leader of the Young Front, was sentenced to two years of forced labor for organizing a peaceful protest in 2004. NGOs and other civil society initiatives cannot operate at universities, and contacts with Western universities are banned.
Young people are denied freedom of speech. Independent news publications have been shut down and their print (inaudible) confiscated. Last fall, an issue of my magazine was hit (ph) by the authorities. The seizure was justified by the claim that dangerous ink, which threatened readers' health, was being used to print the magazine.
After finding opposition forces in her dorm room, the authorities threw Lubov Kuchinska out of her university.
Young people are denied freedom to travel. New regulations forbid institutions of higher learning to grant students and professors leaves of absence to travel abroad. Students wanting to work or study abroad must obtain special permission, which is rarely given.
In November 2005, Tatiana Homa (ph) was expelled for making an unauthorized three-day trip to France, where she attended a meeting of the ISIP (ph) -- the largest European student organization promoting students rights.
Young people are denied freedom of thought. In 2003, an elite high school in Minsk was condemned as a nest of opposition and closed down for teaching a wrong version of national history and culture. One year later the authorities shut down a European humanities university, deleting (ph) private institutions in Belarus providing a Western style higher education.
All first year college students are required to take a course on state ideology, whose syllabus was drafted by Lukashenka himself as the father of the nation.
Young people are denied freedom of choice. All graduates of state universities are required to work for two years in locations and fields decided upon by the government. Students are often sent to still-dangerous Chernobyl zones. All political activities, debates or meetings are forbidden at universities.
This year, students were forced to sign election petitions for Lukashenka, prior to taking their exams. The minister of education has urged students to vote for the current head of state.
The state's (ph) policy has made an impact. The country's best and brightest young people are choosing to leave Belarus.
Others are retreating into inner immigration by immersing themselves in underground subcultures.
Mr. Chairman, the authorities cannot isolate us from democratic Europe. Young people in Belarus want to be free. They are using high-tech means to bypass the regime and express their opinions. On Internet forums, thousands of students gather daily to discuss hot topics. Denied the right to publish, my magazine was transformed into the first compact disk edition in Belarus, and continues its mission to activate young people.
Young activists in Independence Square use their cell phones to send text messages about and pictures of the March 2nd demonstrations to the international community. These young people -- the future leaders of Belarus -- need your assistance.
My colleagues and I offer three recommendations.
As an editor, I know that young people desperately seek objective information about Belarus and the outside world. Support for independent news publications must be continued. More assistance should be provided for alternative forms of media, which is friendly (ph), such as Internet and independent (inaudible) radio.
As Lukashenka intends to isolate Belarus, we must keep the trans- Atlantic world open for young people to study abroad in exchange programs, so that they can experience Europe and America, compare it with at home and tell others about life in the West.
Finally, we must continue to help the brave young people who are central to the democratic movement. The civil society effort should now (ph) continue to be supported, no matter what will happen on or after March 19th.
In particular, we must continue to express our solidarity by assisting young people who will lose their jobs, be expelled and otherwise be repressed for their pro-democratic activities.
Mr. Chairman, the demographics of Belarus tell us that time is on our side. So, all the Sovietized generation that forms the bedrock of Lukashenka's support is passing away.
I ask you to stand with the pro-democratic young people of Belarus. Thank you.
BROWNBACK: I'd be happy and honored to stand with the young people of Belarus. And I'm pleased that they are standing up and being heard.
NIX: Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to be here today, and I would formally request that my statement be entered into the record.
BROWNBACK: Without objection.
NIX: Mr. Chairman, we're on the eve of a presidential election in Belarus which holds vital importance for the people of Belarus. The government of Belarus has the inherent mandate to hold elections, which will ultimately voice the will of its people.
Sadly, the government of Belarus has a track record of denying this responsibility to its people, its constitution and the international community. Today, the citizens of Belarus are facing a nominal election in which their inherent right to choose their future will not be granted.
The future of democracy in Belarus is of strategic importance, not only to its people, but to the success of the longevity of democracy in all the former republics. As we witnessed Georgia and Ukraine, it is inevitable that the time will come when people will stand up and demand their rightful place among fellow citizens of democratic nations.
How many more people must be imprisoned or fined or crushed before this time comes in Belarus?
Mr. Chairman, the situation in Belarus is dire, but the beacon of hope in Belarus is shining. In the midst of repeated human rights violations, continued repression of freedoms, a coalition of pro- democratic activists has emerged and united to offer a voice for the oppressed.
The courage, unselfishness and determination of this coalition are truly admirable. It is vitally important that the United States and Europe remain committed to their support of this democratic coalition, not only in the run-up to the election, but post election, as well.
The road to a free Belarus may be long, and we must make the commitment to travel with our fellow democrats to the journey's end.
Today, my testimony will focus on the history of the unified democratic forces, their progress in spreading their message, as well as the challenges they face.
Mr. Chairman, in January of 2004, six of the seven leading political parties in Belarus, along with more than 200 NGOs and associations, formed the People's Coalition Five Plus. This was a major step for all pro-democratic forces in Belarus.
In November of 2004, four additional political organizations joined together with Five Plus. This coalition, now referred to as the United Democratic Forces, or UDF, is determined to remain united until it achieves its goal of creating a truly democratic Belarus.
The UDF set their sights on the presidential election to be held in 2006. The coalition realized that in order for maximum success, all pro-democratic activists needed to unite behind one single leader who would represent all the pro-democratic forces. As a result, the coalition created a comprehensive and detailed democratic process for nominating a candidate.
From June to September 2005, caucuses were held throughout Belarus. At each of these meetings, local delegates were selected to represent their district in a national nominating congress. These caucuses culminated with a national democratic congress held in Minsk on October 1 and 2, 2005, where Alyaksandr Milinkevich won the nomination.
Following his registration as a candidate, Milinkevich began campaigning in earnest. Currently, he an his team are attempting to spread the message of the UDF throughout Belarus. Because of the difficulties they face, this campaign is employing the most fundamental skills of democratic politics -- person-to-person contact and grassroots activism.
Before the March 19th election, Milinkevich will have visited all major towns in every oblast to meet with voters face to face, to hear their concerns and to share his message of a peaceful, prosperous and free Belarus.
Recent polling conducted by IRI confirms that Mr. Milinkevich and his team have made great progress in spreading the coalition's message. More than 55 percent of people in Belarus report having seen, read or heard about Milinkevich in the past few weeks. These statistics are monumental when considering the fact that Milinkevich's entire campaign is run by face-to-face meetings with voters, as he has no access to television or radio.
Despite the foregoing, Mr. Chairman, the regime shows no intention of playing into false delusions for a fair playing field for this election.
In 2005, the president of Belarus issued an edict which imposed new restrictions on foreign technical assistance Belarus. That was followed by a new law on political parties in Belarus, which strengthens the government's control over their activities.
In addition, the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus has taken over control of organizing public opinion polls. On December 20th, President Lukashenka signed into law a controversial bill that would introduce severe penalties for activities deemed to be fomenting a revolution in the country.
Mr. Chairman, in light of these repressions, the UDF has shown tremendous courage and tenacity. To quote Alyaksandr Milinkevich, "We hold no illusions. We are in this for the long run."
We owe the coalition our continued support. It's imperative that the United States and the European Union pay close attention to both the conduct and the results of the March 19th election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election observation mission findings will be crucial. Voting irregularities and embellished voting results must not be tolerated.
It is our duty, and the duty of the international community, to hold Lukashenka and his regime accountable. Immediate repercussions must be put in place if the election is stolen, such as economic sanctions and visa bans on leaders of this regime.
The UDF is determined to maintain the coalition and their work. It is imperative for us to aid their resolve. More assistance is needed to fight the information vacuum and to spread their message to the people.
In summation, Mr. Chairman, the coalition has proven their willingness to unite and campaign against all odds. We owe it to them to acknowledge their dedication, and to see their goals of a free Belarus come into fruition.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
BROWNBACK: Thank you, Mr. Nix.
MERLOE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Without objection, I would ask that my written testimony be made part of the record.
BROWNBACK: It will be in the record.
MERLOE: Thank you.
Let me begin my remarks, Mr. Chairman, by thanking you personally for your opening summary, and also thank Congressman Smith for his opening remarks, as well.
I'm pleased to be associated with them and with the testimony that was presented by the others members of this panel.
It's an important opportunity to be able to comment on the trouble of electoral conditions now in Belarus. Indeed, it is a continuing circumstance, this denial of freedom.
And Belarus has yet to organize an election that meets even minimum international standards and (inaudible) commitments. The run- up to the March presidential poll, unfortunately has been marked by a large number of violations, many of which have been covered by your comments and by the testimony of others at this hearing.
I will focus my remarks on one critical subject: the importance of the free exercise of the right of citizens to participate in government and public affairs through nonpartisan election observation by NGOs.
This derives directly, as you know, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on provisions of the National Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, the Copenhagen Document, and other instruments.
On February 21st, as has been noted, several civic activists were arrested. Their offices and their homes were ransacked. Their computers and other effects were confiscated. These persons who are leaders of the movement of Belarusian citizens to monitor elections remain in detention. They are accused by the KGB of slandering the president and illegally running an unregistered organization.
These are serious criminal offenses in Belarus, which could result in multiple year jail terms.
Belarusian authorities have attempted in other ways to stymie the efforts of citizens to observe their elections. Citizen organizations came together to monitor the fraudulent elections in 2001 and 2004. These observers acted with integrity and professionalism, though their efforts to register an election monitoring organization were rejected by Belarusian authorities.
In 2005, many of the civic activists involved in these efforts once again sought to register a citizen initiative called Partnership, in order to observe the present elections. Their good faith request for registration was denied.
But that basis -- denial of registration -- is being used by Belarusian authorities as a basis for charging individuals with running an illegal organization.
In fact, Mr. Chairman, this is a Belarusian Catch-22. We won't register you, and you are charged with not being registered, with no acceptable reasons for denying the legal recognition.
In addition, in an ongoing propaganda campaign, Belarusian authorities falsely accuse Partnership of fabricating fraudulent exit polls, to be released after the election, in order to draw protesters to the street where explosions would be detonated to create blood and sacrifices, and mobilize the population to attempt to seize governmental power.
This false and outlandish accusation also implicated NDI in the KGB's fiction.
Mr. Chairman, attempts by Belarusian authorities to foil nonpartisan election observation by its citizens violates rights guaranteed by Belarus' constitution, election (inaudible) and international obligations -- all of which are covered in my written submission to this Commission.
With membership in the United Nations and its succession to the International Fundamental Civil and Political Rights, Belarus is obliged to ensure every citizen's rights and opportunities, without unreasonable restrictions to participate in government and public affairs, and to ensure this, whether acting individually or in association with others.
Through its participation in the OSCE, Belarus admits to this principle through the Copenhagen Document and explicitly commits to invite domestic observers from any appropriate organization to monitor its elections.
Like all OSCE participating states, Belarus is obliged to ensure that its laws, regulations, practices and policies conform with obligations under international law and be in harmony with OSCE commitments, not that they be designed (ph) to frustrate (inaudible) rights.
However, the government of Belarus stands in violation of its OSCE commitments and human rights treaty obligations.
Mr. Chairman, we all believe that sovereignty belongs to the people and flows from the people in the country, and that the legitimacy and the authority to govern flows from the will of the people expressed in periodic and genuine, democratic elections.
It is from these precepts that citizens organize themselves to observe and help ensure the integrity of election processes. The NDI is deeply concerned that the Belarusian authorities are taking overt action to deny this and other civil and political rights to the citizens of Belarus in this electoral period.
NDI chairman, Madeleine Albright, in a statement released by the institute on March 6th, which is attached to my written statement, deployed against (inaudible) to deny citizens the right to peacefully monitor the March 19th presidential elections and condemns the recent arrest of citizen activists, as well as the false accusations against Partnership.
In her statement, we call on the government of Belarus to immediately release those detained and to allow them to continue their rightful monitoring of the election process. We hope that you will join us in this call.
Mr. Chairman, NDI greatly appreciates the role of this commission in defending and promoting human rights and all aspects of the Helsinki process. The CSCE is a strong voice of Congress and of the American people.
NDI would also like to highlight the effort of the OSCE concerning the electoral situation in Belarus, and in particular, the efforts of the chairman's office and of the OECD's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which are noted, again, in my written statement.
These and other actions by the OSCE are valuable and are consistent with the OECD mandate to watch the compliance of the participating (inaudible).
It is our goal at NDI that the government of Belarus will meet its obligations and conduct itself in accordance with international commitments and law, and its constitutional requirements in this election period.
Ensuring that civil and political rights are guaranteed in a free and open in genuinely democratic elections are crucial to developing democracy in Belarus, as in all other countries.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
BROWNBACK: Thank you, Mr. Merloe. Very, very strong statement.
POTOCKI: Mr. Chairman, I welcome the opportunity to comment on the situation in Belarus prior to the March 19th presidential election. And I would also like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, and all members of the Commission for your continuing support for the National Endowment for Democracy over the years.
Today I will talk about the situation and role of nongovernmental organizations on the eve of the election. Before starting, it is important to keep in mind that, although the terms that I will use -- NGO, third sector and civil society -- may sound academic or theoretical, they represent real people who are struggling against great odds to improve lives in Belarus.
The groups which I will talk about include individuals, like the teacher educating pupils in their native language, the social worker helping Chernobyl children and the editor whose magazine inspires young people.
In a decade of work with Belarusians, I've come to know these people and hundreds like them who are the face, the heart and the soul of Belarusian civil society. It is difficult to believe that Alyaksandr Lukashenka calls these citizens hooligans, criminals and terrorists.
NED is a nongovernmental organization that helps other NGOs to promote freedom around the world. This work has become extremely difficult in Belarus, where the government has declared wars on NGOs.
In contrast to political parties, which continue to be legally recognized, hundreds of independent youth groups, human rights organizations, independent newspapers and NGO support centers, have had their legal registrations revoked, have been evicted from their offices and had their equipment seized.
The third sector has borne the brunt of the regime's repression. The majority of activists who have been arrested and imprisoned come from NGOs, and the situation is getting worse.
Understanding that NGOs play the key role in exposing falsified elections and mobilizing citizens in Georgia and Ukraine, Lukashenka pushed through a law in 2005 authorizing criminal penalties against NGOs for activities directed against the people and public security.
But Mr. Chairman, despite the repression that reduced its ranks, Belarus' third sector continues to struggle for democratic reform. Today, more than 70 NGOs throughout the country are working with political parties and trade unions in the Unified Democratic Opposition. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the candidate of the united opposition, is himself from the third sector.
Other NGOs are working independently to promote a free, fair and transparent election, and Belarusian citizens want them to be involved in the process. An independent survey in February found that 81 percent of respondents supported the idea that NGOs should inform citizens about candidates. Eighty-five percent thought it appropriate that NGOs monitor the electoral process.
Mr. Chairman, the focus of this meeting is freedom. This word, "svaboda" in Belarusian, is also the slogan of a major third sector campaign working to mobilize voters. Others include the 16 Solidarity and Jeans Campaigns.
The first asks that Belarusians light a candle in their windows on the 16th of every month, signifying the day seven years ago when the first of four opposition figures disappeared Belarus, the second encourages citizens to wear denim as a symbol of freedom -- both campaigns aimed to build solidarity and reduce fear in society.
The Hopits!, or Enough!, campaign contrasts the ideal situation of the country, as painted by official propaganda, with the ugly reality of hidden unemployment, corruption and repression in today's Belarus. The coalition's name comes from a Lukashenka speech declaring that he would leave office when Belarusians told him, "Enough!" This group will try to hold him to his promise.
These campaigns are making an impact. In a January survey, only 11 percent of respondents were aware of NGO election related activities. By the end of February, the number had grown to 48 percent.
Citizens are being informed, and the electorate is being energized. Milinkevich is speaking to capacity crowds. His March 2nd rally was the largest civil society gathering in two years. Polls indicate that Milinkevich's rating and name recognition are steadily growing.
Mr. Chairman, Europe's last dictator has no intention of permitting a free election to take place in the heart of Europe. In Lukashenka's authoritarian state there is no room for civil society. So it should come as no surprise that the regime arrests NGO activists for holding unsanctioned meetings, disrupts their offices with fire inspections, sends skinheads to crash their meetings, confiscates their publications for libel and strips their election materials from officially designated spots.
The regime has declared NGOs and almost all the third sector's election related activities to be illegal.
What will happen to the third sector after March 19th? In Lukashenka remains in power, he has promised to get rid of the opposition in a tough way. The hard times of Belarus' NGOs are likely to get much harder.
In recognition of this possibility, Belarusian activists have made the following recommendations.
Civil society must continue to be supported after the election. Reform can only come to Belarus through the active participation of the third sector in a broad-based civic and political movement.
A key means of support would be the reauthorization of the Belarus Democracy Act.
Everything that can be done to sustain and strengthen the 10 (ph) Plus coalition should be done. NGOs and political parties must continue to work together and expand cooperation.
One of the greatest impediments to the development of civil society in Belarus is the lack of legal status of NGOs and independent media. The international community should pressure the government to restore the legal right of NGOs to exist, and respect international standards for the third sector and fourth estate.
In the event of a crackdown, support and assistance must be directed at helping NGOs to survive and operate in what will surely be a more underground fashion.
And we must demonstrate our solidarity by making sure that resources are available for legal and humanitarian assistance to those who will be imprisoned, hospitalized, expelled or unemployed after the election.
Finally, Mr. Chairman, as we discuss specific election related abuses in Belarus, I ask that we also not forget the thousands of other victims of this regime who remain unknown: those who have been harassed, beaten, arrested and fined; those who have lost their jobs or been expelled from school; those who have been forced into exile or chosen to emigrate; those who have lost their dignity and their hope.
Lukashenka has described his authoritarianism as benevolent, and declared that the main thing is not to ruin people's lives. But this is precisely what his regime is doing. Therefore, civil society will continue to oppose dictatorship, and we must continue to support its struggle.
BROWNBACK: Thank you, Mr. Potocki.
WALLANDER: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to speak with you about Belarus and U.S. foreign policy.
In my written testimony, I address how support for democratization in Belarus fits U.S. security policy, the challenges of working with Europe for effective change, Belarusian foreign policy and the role of Russia in Belarus. And I'd like to request that be entered into the record.
BROWNBACK: Without objection.
WALLANDER: For this hearing today, I would like to focus on the need to act very decisively, if, as many expect, the results of March 19 do not meet clear and widely accepted international standards for free and fair elections.
Although in the short term, American security policy must address immediate threats, such as terrorism, there is no question that investment in liberal democracy and market based economic development serve long-term American security interests.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted in January of this year, the greatest threats to security emerge from within states, and the fundamental character of regimes now matters more than the international distribution of power.
As long as Belarus remains the last dictatorship in Europe, Secretary Rice's call for a transformational diplomacy in support of American national security must apply as much to Europe as to the Middle East and Asia.
Indeed, an American transformational strategy has little credibility as long as the United States fails to directly confront the problem of a regime in Belarus that continues to repress Belarusian society and periodically stage show elections.
If the United States is serious about democratic transformation as the centerpiece of its security strategy, the United States needs to get serious about democratic transformation in Belarus.
Because Belarus is a European country, such a U.S. policy can be successful only if it's trans-Atlantic. As we saw in the case of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, consistent and unified refusal by the U.S. and E.U. to recognize fraudulent results denies non-democratic regimes legitimacy in their claim to rule and provides support to citizens who refuse to have their elections stolen.
The United States and E.U. must face that their previous policies on Belarus have been inadequate, and make a decisive change in approach that centers on the illegitimacy of the regime.
The U.S. and Europe have consistently called for free and fair elections in Belarus and have sharply criticized the regime when it repeatedly violates those standards. Yet, official U.S. and E.U. policy, nonetheless, recognizes the regime as the legal government of the Republic of Belarus.
The United States and Europe should expand support for long-term democracy promotion in Belarus and other non-democratic countries. Efforts to support civil society and break the information blockade within Belarus are vital. They are vital, long-term policies that will enable Belarusian citizens, someday, to hold the regime accountable and choose the leadership that they believe will pursue the country's true aspirations.
But we have to be hard-headed about the limited prospects for change in the short term. Because of the self-isolation of Belarus under the Lukashenka regime, because of Russian subsidization of Belarus' Soviet-style economy, because the regime has been brutally efficient in eliminating sources of independent political discussion over the past 12 years, it is very likely that we will witness a fraudulent election on March 19th.
The question is, what can the trans-Atlantic community do in the short term to create the conditions for the success of the long-term strategy, and how not to let short-term expediency undermine a wise long-term strategy?
In the short term, the United States and E.U. should cease providing legitimacy to show-elections conducted by the regime in Belarus. The purpose of elections is competition and choice. Without competing political parties, free and diverse sources of information and the presumption that citizens have the right to voice questions and their preferences, there are no true elections.
In the context of Secretary Rice's call for democratic transformation as integral to U.S. foreign policy, it's time to make elections meaningful and to end the practice of complicity in recognizing blatantly fraudulent elections.
If, after March 19th, the OSCE does not report that the presidential election in Belarus was free and fair, the United States and the European Union must publicly declare that they do not recognize the results as the expression of Belarusian citizens, and that they therefore do not recognize the winner of such fraudulent elections as the legitimate head of state of the Republic of Belarus.
They should call upon the government to hold free and fair elections before the end of the year. The U.S. and E.U. should impose individual sanctions, such as denial of visas and seizure of assets, against those officials who deny Belarusian citizens their basic political and human rights, and who order and execute actions that violate the rules of free and fair elections.
Judges, election officials and local politicians who follow orders that are illegal should be included on the list, as well as regime leaders at the highest levels.
The trans-Atlantic community should launch an international investigation into the unexplained disappearances of Belarusian politicians, businessmen and journalists, who challenged the Lukashenka regime.
If the regime uses force against peaceful demonstrators protesting fraudulent elections, the international community should lay the groundwork for an international tribunal that would someday hold guilty officials accountable for any orders to harm citizens exercising their rights under European and international law, as well as any individuals who execute those orders.
The United States, in cooperation with Europe, should suspend negotiations on Belarusian membership in the World Trade Organization until a legitimate government is elected.
And finally, the United States, in an effective partnership with Europe, should implement targeted trade sanctions to deny the regime access to the resources it needs to fuel its unreformed, Soviet-style political/economic system.
If transformational diplomacy fails in Europe, where trans- Atlantic relations have a long and successful record of cooperation, and where shared values and interests are strong, it has little chance for success on a global scale. If 15 years after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and E.U. recognize a regime which retains its grip on power by using methods that the Soviet regime relied upon to eliminate political opposition and to control society, it seems premature to offer to support democracy in regions where societies are less modern than Belarus.
If the U.S. and E.U. do not take a stand against the trivialization of elections in Europe, the hope for democratic transformation is a slogan, not a strategy for peace and security.
It's time for the term "free and fair elections" to carry the weight they deserve, and Belarus is a primary test.
BROWNBACK: That's very good. A very strong statement.
It's an excellent panel and an excellent panel of experts. And the people that have given their lives for this effort. And I really appreciate -- I want to recognize what each of you have done over a lifetime to bring freedom to a group of people, and in some places more successful than others.
I am struck -- there's an article in the "Economist" dated yesterday -- I think this in an Internet edition. It's titled "Do As I Say, Comrade." I'm going to enter it into the record.
And what I'm struck by is that they're citing Lukashenka and Nazarbaev and Karimov as dictators, I guess of the old mold from the former Soviet Union. And then there's a group coming in -- the new grouping, engaging more democratic values of what we're seeing in Georgia and Ukraine and some other places.
One of you that have studied this the most, tell me, what am I seeing here? What's the bifurcation? They've all come out of the former Soviet Union. And yet, you're seeing some really embracing democracy -- messy, difficult, but embracing -- and others seemingly just really holding onto the former Soviet style, as Dr. Wallander just said. These are tactics we saw in Soviet days.
What's the bifurcation? Can somebody give me what's happening from a 30,000-foot view of why certain ones are going back to the Soviet style, or retaining it, and others embracing and moving forward?
WALLANDER: I'll take a first stab at it. I think it's a -- there are many reasons, and there are many variables, since we talk about 30,000 feet.
I think one of the important differences is that the countries that early on had a diverse and energetic political and social structure -- had regional politics, such as in Ukraine, had different sectors of the economy and cultural differences, such as in Georgia -- are those which sustained diversity and competition in views.
Those countries that were somewhat more unified, or didn't have some of those messy, but actually quite helpful, sets of variations in their political and social structure -- it was easier in those countries, including Belarus and Uzbekistan, for leaders who were ruthless and corrupt to kind of pick off the opponents one by one.
I think the lesson is that isolation reinforces that lack of diversity. And even though we can't affect where these countries started out at the end of the Soviet period, we can affect support for building diversity of views, especially in the next generation, as Iryna so eloquently argued.
And I think that's where the hope lies, in creating diversity and variety of options for the citizens over the long term.
BROWNBACK: Mr. Nix, you've had a long experience in this region.
NIX: I would join the previous comments by saying that, what seems to be lacking in the countries you've mentioned, the problematic countries, that existed in Ukraine and Georgia was some semblance of civil society and political parties.
In Ukraine, political parties had developed over years into a fairly unified force. The same could be said in Georgia.
In Uzbekistan, you should know for the record, there are no legally registered opposition political parties whatsoever in the country. In Kazakhstan they're severely regulated and oppressed. So, there's really a lack of oxygen in these countries that you've mentioned with regard to civil society and political parties.
Where we had the benefit of having these things in Ukraine, they united, they came together. The same was true in Georgia. But you don't have that in the three countries that you had mentioned.
BROWNBACK: Let me build on that statement, because that's been my experience in traveling in the former Soviet Union areas -- in Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan.
Also, I mean, leadership matters. Some of these places, you would run into some of these guys, and they're just -- they're old- style Soviet communist dictators. That's their style. And in others, more open and engaging.
But it seems like you're just going to have to differentiate in tactics, then, depending on which of these folks that you're dealing with. I mean, in some -- and you are going to have to get the club out and start beating on people. And it's going to have to be real, and it's going to have to be effective.
Dr. Wallander says, well, we won't recognize Lukashenka's election, which would be significant. And then a series of economic sanctions.
Are we, I guess, at the point that you're going to just have to pull out the club and really start beating on some of these folks?
MERLOE: Well, senator, I think the question comes down, in many ways, to the kinds of incentives and the kinds of disincentives that are put out there in an effective way. And I think that Celeste was very forceful in her presentation about that. All the way through to questions like targeted sanctions, and so on. There are economic dimensions to this as well.
And in the case of Ukraine, there are the connections to Europe. There are cultural and other issues that have been involved that I think she mentioned.
In the case of Georgia, there is a certain amount of openness that has been part of Georgian society over the centuries, as well.
The leadership question that you mentioned, I think is critical. And if we look at what was allowed to happen under Shevardnadze, and what was allowed to happen in Ukraine, on the one hand you saw a number of factors -- a relatively open space for the development of independent media, civil society organizations, even election monitoring in these countries.
We don't see that in Belarus. And we said, and to a lesser extent, in the other countries you mentioned. And I would add Azerbaijan and Armenia into that list -- to a lesser degree, but they're on the negative side of the ledger.
If you think about, there's some development of balance of powers within the legislatures in Ukraine and in Georgia. There was some sense of assertiveness that was put forward. In Ukraine, even some evidence of judicial independence in the lead-up to the so-called Orange Revolution.
There was a fracturing of the security forces, and in some sense, political and economic constituencies in those two countries, where certainly in Belarus, there's a more unified power base.
The emerging frustration of citizens, it's been true across the board in all of these countries. But in Belarus and in Georgia, and in some other places, we've seen evidence where the political opposition has shown more maturity in the way they've gone about organizing themselves, offering themselves as more of a realistic alternative, more unity among them, and so forth. Less so in some of these other countries.
Civil society, again. It's hard to fault the opposition or civil society for not being more effective. It's almost like talking about two people who are going to enter a sprint, one of whom has had their legs beaten for three or four days before the race, and we fault that runner for not doing as well as the one who was free to run, or less injured (ph).
A number of these factors have to be examined as we look at country by country. But I agree completely that consistency in policy by the European Union, other European formations -- the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so forth -- and U.S. foreign policy towards these countries, is critically important to give signals to those who hold power and to give solidarity and encouragement to those who are seeking democratic reform.
And so, even sessions such as this, which show that solidarity and help to break down the isolation, I think are quite important and not to be underestimated.
BROWNBACK: Dr. Potocki, doesn't it all go back to Russia? And isn't this just all really tied into Putin's recentralization of authority, and these countries picking we're going to lean back on Russia, or we're going to lean away from Russia? Isn't it all tied, or moves away from Russia?
POTOCKI: Certainly, Russia and the Putin administration are playing a large role in these developments. Belarus in particular has a very difficult history with Russia and with the Soviet Union and then with Russia again.
I would point out that, in terms of the way the Kremlin looks at the world, especially these days, focusing on energy and energy security, Belarus is playing a very important role in that, because of the pipelines that go through there.
Belarus is seen to be more important, perhaps, than some of the other states that we've mentioned today, from Moscow's point of view, because of bordering on three NATO countries, on the E.U. as a buffer zone between Europe and Russia.
Certainly, when Russia looks at Europe and looks at developments as the Rose and Orange Revolutions, Belarus and the Central Asian states then become even more important and keeping a hold on them.
BROWNBACK: Keeping a hold on them and keeping democracy out?
POTOCKI: Well, I would argue that, in Russia, things are going in the wrong direction. And many of the policies that they've adopted were first introduced by Mr. Lukashenka, in terms of media control, in terms of the NGO laws.
So, Moscow's role in limiting democracy within its own borders is also, in a sense, extended outside of its borders to support for people like Mr. Lukashenka.
BROWNBACK: Well, let me understand. You seem to be saying to me that Belarus is the experimental ground for what you can do on getting away from democracy and controlling things for Russia? Russia's watching to see what you can get away with in Belarus, and then they're using that?
POTOCKI: I would agree with that. Mr. Lukashenka is Europe's longest-serving head of state. And so, he's set a few policies in place that are being copied by others, especially in the aftermath of the Orange and Rose Revolutions.
BROWNBACK: I still don't understand the long-term game plan, even under Putin's analysis of this. They've got to be seeing that history moves towards free people and free societies. Free societies, free people do more. They operate better. It clearly is the route of European formation and history, or progress, if you want to put it that way.
I mean, is this just to try to control things, while they feel like they get their societies better together, or their economies? I don't see the long-term game plan here. Unless it's just to make yourself very wealthy.
POTOCKI: Mr. Chairman, in terms of Russia, your comments, it's clearly a pattern that Russia is reasserting itself within the region. That's true in the countries of Central Asia. It's true of the Caucasus. In fact, the Duma has recently appropriated money for democratic reform for places like Latvia.
So, Russia is determined to reassert itself politically and promote its own version of democracy in countries. And there will be...
BROWNBACK: But what would that version be in Latvia?
POTOCKI: Well, it would certainly support the Russian-speaking minority there. There's a huge question of minority rights there, the use of Russian language, things like that.
So, there will be -- and it's a very controversial issue within the country. People are required to take tests in the local language before they are accorded citizenship, and that is a troubling issue.
So, we see a pattern here where Russia wishes to reassert itself diplomatically and geographically within the region. And certainly, it's within that interest for Lukashenka to continue to serve as president of that country.
BROWNBACK: Ms. Vidanava, I want to ask you, just operationally on the ground -- somebody gave me a piece of denim with "16" on it. As somebody involved in politics, I understand the importance of symbols and rallying points. Tell me about this one.
VIDANAVA: Well, the 16 Campaign developed first as a solidarity campaign with those who disappeared in Belarus during the last seven years, and those who are now in prison, political prisoners.
It has now developed into a combined campaign of our Solidarity Campaign -- the number 16 is its symbol -- and the Jeans Campaign, which is a symbol of youth mobilization sort of campaign.
Basically, jeans for young people, as well as for older generations, of those who were dissidents in Soviet time, is still a symbol of freedom. And it's something that you can wear, like you can put a candle into a window and show your solidarity with the opposition movement, and show your opposition and still not be punished.
So, as well, you can wear jeans and say, I want to be free. And this is what the young people are doing.
And Mr. Milinkevich is now wearing jeans piece on his coat when he is talking to crowds of people. So, it is important have a symbol. And we hope that in Belarus there will be Denim Revolution, or there will be denim change.
So, we also try to tell the -- to give a symbol that can be understood by the outside world. And easily, the jeans is something that people understand everywhere in the world.
BROWNBACK: Are the young people afraid of Mr. Lukashenka?
VIDANAVA: Yes and no. Definitely, the entire generation grew up with Mr. Lukashenka. Those who are now 18, 21 years old, they don't know anything but his regime. They were studying state ideology in high school. They are studying state ideology at the university. They know that they can be expelled for any kind of independent opinion or activities.
So, we have to keep it in mind when we expect young people to be active, in Belarus it's really dangerous.
On the other hand, young people come and meet with democratic candidates. They participate in civic mobilization campaigns. Young people are a driving force for the campaign that Rodger Potocki mentioned called Hopits!, Enough! They want to say, enough, to this person in power, and they want a change.
So, they are less afraid to discuss their opinions now, especially before the elections. And they use different means for that, including Internet, including cell phones, including print editions, including the street actions.
So, I would say that there is a growing hope among young people. And we hope that democratic activities, that we will be able to build on momentum and to keep working after the election.
BROWNBACK: So, what if the elections are stolen? What do you think the reaction in country is after March 19th, if these are not free and fair elections?
VIDANAVA: Well, the hope is that people will realize that the elections and their votes were stolen, and they do have a right for peaceful protest. And we hope that people will come out and say, we voted the way we did, and we want it to be acknowledged.
If it does not happen, I think that these elections are a starting point in Belarus, not the last point, and that we can observe now this change in the mood of people. They are energetic, they are more hopeful. And I can compare it with 2001 campaign, 2001 presidential elections. I was part of it, as well. There is a big change, and there is a big difference between the two.
So, we do hope that the democratic opposition united in the coalition, united force of political parties and NGOs and youth movements and independent media will continue telling the population truth, and that people of Belarus will understand that it's up to them to change the situation in their country. So, they're not going to stop on March 19th or 20th.
BROWNBACK: So, if the election is stolen, it does not comport to international standards, you would anticipate major rallies after the election?
VIDANAVA: It's very hard to predict in Belarusian conditions.
For now, the goal of the campaign, of the democratic candidate and all of the civic mobilization efforts, is to give people information. What people do not have is objective information. So, the hope is that, having this information, people will make the right choice on the day of the elections and afterwards.
If they are afraid -- because the fear is huge in Belarus, and it's understandable; the reasons all were named today -- then we hope that the change will occur later on. But the main goal is not to leave (ph) the people of Belarus alone (ph) and to lead (ph) the democratic movement along (ph), if on the day of the elections or the day after the elections, there won't be those rallies (ph), there won't be demonstrations. Because we have to keep working and we have to believe that the situation will change sooner or later.
BROWNBACK: Well, Godspeed to you and to the young people and others advocating for freedom in that country.
I want to thank this panel. It's been an excellent panel and very, very thoughtful.
I've been watching this region for some period of time, particularly since being in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and then chairing this and traveling a fair amount in the former Soviet Union, although primarily in the southern states area.
Belarus strikes me as a -- this is a real kind of a tipping case. You could look at some of those in southern Soviet Union, and you can travel in Georgia versus Uzbekistan, and you could see stepping off the plane one's development of civil society and the other's throttling of it.
I mean, you just felt it when you walked off the plane, and then as you met with dissident groups -- or if you could find one in some of these places -- you knew the soil was hard, that it was going to be hard for something to sprout up.
Belarus, it seems like to me, is a -- I mean, you've got some hardness, but you've also got some possibility with this one. And while Ukraine had the civil society and that the development that was taking place, and that was known, you could see this taking place. Belarus will be an interesting case.
It's kind of neither hot nor cold in that sense, or neither hard nor soft. It is in between. And it's certainly my hope first that there'd be free and fair elections, although the lead-up to this seems like, but nothing of the sort is going to take place.
But then, the reaction afterward will be key, and will be critical of what takes place on our part, as Dr. Wallander and several of you note. But what also takes place in the people of Belarus, what they do afterwards will be critical.
And no doubt, in an authoritarian regime, you've got a lot of physical violence that's threatened and that has happened already, and that will be exercised. Still, you know, we will do everything we can to support that civil society development and push by the people, and particularly, those wearing blue jeans throughout Belarus.
Thank you very much. The record will remain open the requisite number of days, if there's additional statements that you'd like to enter into the record.
The hearing's adjourned.
[Whereupon the hearing ended at 3: 39 p.m.]
CQ Transcriptions, March 9, 2006
List of Speakers
U.S. SENATOR SAM BROWNBACK (R-KS) CHAIRMAN
U.S. SENATOR GORDON H. SMITH (R-OR)
U.S. SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R-GA)
U.S. SENATOR RICHARD BURR (R-NC)
U.S. SENATOR DAVID VITTER (R-LA)
U.S. SENATOR CHRISTOPHER J. DODD (D-CT)
U.S. SENATOR RUSSELL D. FEINGOLD (D-WI)
U.S. SENATOR HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY) VACANT
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH (R-NJ) CO-CHAIRMAN
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE FRANK R. WOLF (R-VA)
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JOSEPH R. PITTS (R-PA)
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT B. ADERHOLT (R-AL)
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE MIKE PENCE (R-IN)
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE BENJAMIN L. CARDIN (D-MD)
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE LOUISE MCINTOSH SLAUGHTER (D-NY)
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE ALCEE L. HASTINGS (D-FL)
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE MIKE MCINTYRE (D-NC)
DAVID J. KRAMER, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR EUROPEAN AND EURASIAN AFFAIRS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
STEPHEN B. NIX, REGIONAL PROGRAM DIRECTOR, EURASIA, INTERNATIONAL REPUBLICAN INSTITUTE
RODGER POTOCKI, SENIOR PROGRAM OFFICER FOR EAST CENTRAL EUROPE, NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR DEMOCRACY
IRYNA VIDANAVA, BELARUSIAN ACTIVIST, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, STUDENTS' THOUGHT
CELESTE A. WALLANDER, DIRECTOR OF THE RUSSIA AND EURASIAN PROGRAM, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
The hearing was held at 2: 03 p.m. in Room 138 Dirksen
Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., Sam Brownback, chairman,
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, moderating.
Source: CQ Transcriptions
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Maria Antonieta Trejo