Ballots on the Frontiers of Freedom: Elections in Belarus and UkraineDavid Kramer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs
Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center
March 21, 2006
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: Blair, thank you very much. Itís a pleasure to be here. I appreciate the opportunity to speak here at such a distinguished institution, so my many thanks to you and to all the staff here who worked in putting this together.
It has been a busy period in the past couple of months. No let-up, no rest for the weary, and certainly the events of the past few months in Belarus and the developments as Ukraine gets ready for its election have kept many of us here in this room and elsewhere very busy.
I am here to talk about the elections in Belarus and in Ukraine. They are two extraordinarily different elections, Iím very pleased to say. Pleased at least in the sense for Ukraine. In the case of Belarus, unfortunately the election went pretty much as many of us predicted, and Iíll get into some more detail on that.
The reason for talking about the two elections together is because theyíre happening within a week of each other, theyíre in neighboring states, and they do reflect, I think, different directions that weíre seeing these two countries go in.
Ukraine is a country in which weíre seeing greater opportunities, vast improvements in the areas of political freedom. We still are seeing a somewhat messy transition in Ukraine, but thatís to be expected, as many of you who have followed transitional societies know. Movements towards democratic systems can be a messy thing, so that is perfectly normal in whatís going on in Ukraine. But I think on balance, certainly, what weíre seeing in Ukraine is a very positive development toward what, as Ambassador Herbst said yesterday in a speech in Kiev, is probably Ukraineís freest and fairest election shaping up so far.
Belarus, sadly, is in stark contrast to what weíre seeing unfold in Ukraine. The Secretary of State, as you know, has referred to Alexander Lukashenka as the last outpost of tyranny, the last dictatorship in Europe, and the developments weíve seen leading up to the election on Sunday and what we saw on Sunday itself certainly confirmed those descriptions and appellations for Lukashenka.
The statement we issued and the comments from the White House yesterday in response to the Belarus election I think are known to people. Iíll just make very brief reference to it in which we came out very clearly and firmly in saying that the United States cannot accept as legitimate the election results announced by the Belarusian Central Election Commission in which they declared Alexander Lukashenka the winner in a landslide. We did indicate our support for calls for a new election as the opposition has called for and weíve also very strongly supported the democratic forces in Belarus who have been fighting for a brighter future there against enormous odds and obviously, of course, against personal risk to themselves and their families.
We also very clearly indicated that together with the European Union and our allies in Europe, we will be working on taking steps in response to whatís happened in Belarus, taking appropriate measures against those responsible for fraud and human rights abuses, and doing so in a targeted way that gets to the people who are responsible for these actions and reinforces the notion that we are, in fact, a friend of the people of Belarus, but the regime is a different matter.
The report issued by the OSCE that came out yesterday, the preliminary report, I think is very clear in laying out a number of the problems that we saw both on the election day itself and with the vote counting as well as with everything leading up to the vote during the campaign. In very clear terms the OSCE ODIHR report says, "The conduct of the 19 March presidential election failed to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections." It goes on to cite "the climate of intimidation and atmosphere of insecurity on the eve of the election," and it says that "the incumbent president permitted state authority to be used in a manner which did not allow citizens to freely and fairly express their will at the ballot box."
"The pre-election environment," the report goes on to say, "did not represent a level playing field. A pattern of intimidation and the suppression of independent voices, including those remaining non-state print media, was evident throughout the campaign." It goes on toward the end of its preliminary conclusions to say, "The process deteriorated during the vote count, which was problematic and lacked transparency."
So the entire campaign, as well as election day itself, were extraordinarily flawed in Belarus and were the furthest thing from a free and fair election, as the ODIHR report made very clear.
Comments from a number of people, officials and commentators in Europe I think also demonstrate that the view I just enunciated is very widely shared throughout Europe.
The Austrian Foreign Minister expressed her regret that "the policy of self-isolation of the Belarusian authorities continues." She goes on to say, "In todayís Europe, Belarus is a sad exception, but we remain convinced that for democracy and democrats in Belarus the climate of winter will not prevail."
The French Foreign Minister called on the EU to be extremely firm with the Minsk government. "We have defined a double strategy," he said. "Vigorous sanctions against Belarusian leaders and support for the civilian population will be clearly what is in order."
Then today the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, issued his statement, and in that he said, "The elections did not allow citizens to freely and fairly express their will at the ballot box. All this casts a shadow over the legitimacy of the electoral process. I wish to underline that we in the EU see the Belarusian people as our brothers and sisters in Europe and wish to engage with them in a strong, people-to-people partnership." In this context Solana went on to say, "I very much regret that by consolidating its authoritarian hold on Belarus the government stands in the way of a brighter future for the countryís population."
Leaders in Lithuania and Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been extremely outspoken in their condemnation of the election. Other leaders in other countries have issued similar statements.
The Belarusian governmentís increasingly repressive measures have certainly reinforced the fears that many of us had in leading up to the election. Unfortunately they lived up to the worst expectations that we had.
Dramatically increased detentions, harassments, seizures, as the election approached, were designed to create the climate of intimidation and fear among opposition candidates and non-partisan activists as well as among voters. In all this reflected the authorityís disdain for a free media and free public discourse and for the ability of voters in Belarus to express themselves in a free manner.
The arrests and detentions both before and after the election Ė and arrests have gone up since voting on Sunday, including overnight and into today Ė are frankly outrageous and are further evidence of the governmentís thuggish insecurity. Theyíre afraid to let people exercise their rights to gather, to speak openly, to protest peacefully. Belarus is a member of the OSCE. You would not know it based on the governmentís handling of this current situation.
The continued detention of activists, including those associated with the civil society organization Partnership, accompanied by absurd claims of a violent revolutionary plot by Americans, are further evidence of the abuses that this regime is engaged in, and we demand the release of all of these political prisoners who have been held by the government.
These actions Ė together with the regimeís use of state-run media to vilify opponents, election commissions stacked with government supporters, stringent campaign rules applied only to the opposition Ė point and underscore the deeply flawed election that was just carried out in Belarus.
Because of the tight control of the media that the regime has maintained, the issue of corruption is one that probably few people in Belarus are aware of. It is something we have touched on in the release of the report, the Belarus Democracy Act, which we have the Congress to thank in offering us a vehicle by which to expose the enormous corruption, the illegal activities in which the government is engaged in, including illicit arms sales.
On the issue of corruption I would just highlight that the presidential administration plays an increasingly large role in the economy. The Presidential Reserve Fund is separate from and unaccountable to the main state budget. Lukashenka himself has admitted that such funds have roughly $1 billion in them and were drawn from secret arms sales. Reports link Belarus to the transfer of weapons and other military equipment to Libya, Syria, the former Iraqi regime, among others. According to former regime insiders, Lukashenka has profited from expensive gifts from supporters and business people. One of those called him the richest man in the CIS, and thatís a pretty high standard to live up to.
All these reports raise serious questions about the kind of leader Belarus has been saddled with for nearly a dozen years.
Our policy is well known. Before the election we wanted to shine a bright light on Belarus and on the regimeís record. We wanted to help those activities working to promote democratic change, and we wanted to break the regimeís stranglehold on information, by which we hoped to get flows of information by radio, internet and other means into Belarus so they would have an objective source of information contrary to the propaganda that is fed by the regime. We, of course, also stood for a free and fair election process.
We will continue to stand for these principles in the post-election period. Weíve provided some $12 million in Freedom Support Act assistance to implement the number of programs that have supported Belarusian efforts to build democracy in that country, focusing on such areas as the political process, access to independent information that Iíve already touched on, as well as development of civil society and NGOs, and we plan to sustain that level of funding in 2006 and into the future.
President Bush has been personally engaged on this issue. He and Secretary Rice recently met with the widows of several of the disappeared. Under Secretary Nick Burns, Assistant Secretary Dan Fried and I have been very involved and active in meeting with Belarusian activists and those who have been fighting for democracy in Belarus. The administration has been very much engaged on this issue at the highest levels.
I went to Minsk in February to deliver a stern warning to the authorities there against election fraud and use of violence for which there would be serious consequences. I tried to be as clear as I possibly could. I am relieved to say that the worst case scenarios about force and violence have not been realized so far, but that doesnít mean that arrests, detentions, beating up of people, are things that we turn a blind eye to. Those are things that we very much are focused on and will pay very close attention to and hold those responsible for them accountable.
While I was in Belarus I met with representatives of the opposition, those fighting for democracy, people in the civil society community, students, and the independent media, to reassure them that the United States was working hand in hand with the European Union, that we have not forgotten about Belarus and we are paying very close attention to developments there and coordinating our response very closely.
I was criticized for not meeting with state media while I was there. The state-controlled television and radio are not a media. They are a KGB front. The reason I did not meet with them is because they have been engaged in a relentless anti-American propaganda campaign in addition to being engaged in an offensive and disgusting campaign against individuals in our U.S. embassy. I tried to tell the authorities in Minsk as clearly as I could that when such offensive and disgusting campaigns came to an end we would then consider talking to people in the state media. Until then, weíre not interested.
I will say that despite the rhetoric here today I have every hope and intention of returning to Belarus sometime this spring to stand with the people there, to remind them that the United States is a strong advocate of democracy in Belarus and to let them know that they have friends in the international community Ė the United States as well as in the rest of the West.
We stand with those struggling for a future with Belarus and its rightful place among European democracies. Weíve met with leading opposition figures. Alexander Milinkevich has toured Europe, and a number of us have met with him and have been extremely impressed by the way he conducted himself, by what heís had to say, and we think that he and people like him provide the hope that Belarus needs for its future. It is important for the opposition to stay united, to keep its focus on the big picture and to push for the greater good of the country.
As Iíve mentioned, weíre working intensively with our European allies and partners to take a united approach in dealing with Belarus, as we did before the election and as we will continue to do both in the immediate aftermath and for the long term. The U.S. and the EU are on record as ready to take additional measures against individuals responsible for violations of international standards. Specifically, we will look to expand travel restrictions on additional individuals responsible for fraud and human rights abuses. I have with me a list of names that we are taking a look at for people that we would actually put on such a list, and we are consulting very closely with our European allies on that. It is, in fact, largely travel in Europe that is most appealing for people in the regime, and itís that kind of travel for those who engaged in the abuses that we want to put an end to.
We also will look at going after assets in a targeted way of key people in the regime in Minsk. It is important that we go after people and that they pay a price for the abuses that they have engaged in.
All these steps, as Iíve said, will require close coordination and consultation with our EU colleagues, and I am very confident that we will be able to maintain a very strong, effective and united front in the days, weeks and months ahead.
As you may know, we have tried in the past to engage with the regime in Belarus but there wasnít any interest in taking the steps necessary to establish a serious dialogue. So, as a result, the isolation that is talked about is a self-imposed isolation. The United States, the European Union have not isolated Belarus. The isolation of Belarus is a decision made by the Lukashenka regime to cut itself off from the outside world. Lukashenka and those around him are the ones who have tried to hurt the people of Belarus, not the United States, not the European Union.
At the same time, we will continue to support the people of Belarus, inspired by the courage of Belarusian democrats, despite the repressive environment. The road will not be easy, the timing wonít be predictable, but inevitably they will succeed. Lukashenkaís days are numbered.
We will be engaged in Belarus for the long haul, and while the election has been an immediate focus, the U.S. is a friend of the people of Belarus and weíll work to build a brighter future for them over the long term.
Having spoken about Belarus and the rather dire situation there, despite the promise held out by the Belarusian democrats, let me turn to what I think is a more promising, encouraging picture in Ukraine Ė in fact a very different situation unfolding there.
As you know, itís a different election, itís a parliamentary election for the Rada, and the conduct of this election is crucial for Ukraineís democratic development and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
I was in Kiev exactly a week ago today to see first-hand how the election was going, and I must say I was struck by the vibrancy of the campaign Ė noticeable just from the ride from the airport, where you see billboards and signs and posters and tents. There is a real live active environment, a competitive feel to whatís going on in Ukraine that I think has not been seen and felt before.
Ambassador Herbst yesterday, in Kiev in a speech, noted that this election is shaping up to be the freest and fairest election in Ukraine since Ukraine gained its independence, and thatís certainly a view that I would agree with.
Of course we need to look at the entire election process. The election is not over, voting day hasnít been held yet. You have to look at the campaign, the voting, the vote count, any dispute adjudication process, before giving our final evaluation. There have been technical problems that have been evident, in particular a lack of staffing for election commissions and incomplete voter lists. Additional problems include overcrowding polling stations that must serve more than the recommended number of voters that could lead to long lines and frustration on election day.
But as I cite these deficiencies and shortcomings, I am struck by the contrast with what I just described in Belarus. In Ukraine, we are talking about problems that are manageable, that are fixable, that will be overcome and should not be allowed to be viewed as keeping Ukraine from taking a good, positive step.
I am happy to report that thus far the process has been markedly better than the election we saw in 2004 for the presidential campaign, and as I said, it stands in stark contrast to some other elections in the region.
In Ukraine, we have a number of outside observers as well as domestic observers, many of whom have been reporting major improvements in the campaign. A peaceful campaign, a free and vibrant press, and I think the free and vibrant press is perhaps the most notable change that we have seen. We donít have the temnyky [government-issued press instructions] any more telling journalists what to write on and report about. We have an active civil society, overhauled voter list. The Rada has extended the right for domestic observers to NGOs; so many significant improvements.
Most importantly, no systematic abuse of administrative resources as weíve seen in the past and as weíve seen most recently in the Belarus election.
The problems that weíve seen so far appear to be issues of management and disorganization and they are to be expected, and I daresay they happen in countries that have been democracies much longer than Ukraine. But there does not appear to be any systematic attempt to influence the vote.
The relative normalcy of the campaign in Ukraine dramatically illustrates the democratic strides the country has made over the past year and the focus of the election is where it should be, on the results of the vote and on subsequent horse trading among parties and blocs. The fact that we donít know how this is going to play out, frankly, is a positive, encouraging sign.
The United States government has provided more than $13 million to promote free and fair elections with programs focused on strengthening election administration, voter education, civic involvement, domestic and international observation, promoting an independent media, and non-partisan political party training.
Iím not going to stand here and venture predictions on how things are going to turn out, but it is clear, I think, that no party or bloc will emerge with a majority on its own. So this will put a premium on building coalitions in Ukraine.
It will be particularly important this year because the constitutional changes that kicked in earlier in January give the new Rada the right to select a new Prime Minister who will in turn select the cabinet. So there is an enormous amount riding on this election. It is important that this election be conducted in a free and fair fashion. It is important that the new Rada elect a new Prime Minister and a new cabinet as quickly as possible so that Ukraine can continue on the track that it has been on.
I want to stress that our government, the United States government, has been very clear in saying that we are prepared to work with any government that emerges from the elections that meet international standards of being free and fair. That Ukraine emerges from these elections with a new reform-oriented government is obviously crucial. Thatís obviously in our interest. More importantly, itís in Ukraineís interest. We hope and expect that the new government of Ukraine will maintain a commitment to the momentum on democratization, reform, and integration with Europe and the international community including with NATO and the EU.
We will judge the new government by its actions, not so much by its words.
Let me also make clear that we have been, are, and will remain a strong friend and ally of Ukraine and the people of Ukraine. We want to see that country succeed in becoming a flourishing democracy, a market-oriented state aspiring to a greater Euro-Atlantic integration while maintaining very strong, healthy ties with all of its neighbors.
As a demonstration of U.S. support for Ukraine, just in the last two months alone, as many of you know, we have restored a generalized system of preferences, trade benefits, GSP, accorded Ukraine market economy status, signed a WTO bilateral market access agreement, and then earlier this month, in a very significant development, Congress voted to graduate Ukraine from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, giving the President the authority to extend to Ukraine permanent normal trade relations. Goodwill toward Ukraine, accelerated after the Orange Revolution, continues here in the United States.
In addition, the Millennium Challenge Corporation has opened discussions with the Ukrainian government on a threshold program that would focus on helping Ukraine improve rule of law and fight the problem of corruption, which remains a serious concern.
I joined the Secretary for her meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Tarasyuk when he was here just a few weeks ago. I must say that it was refreshing to be able to have discussions with our Ukrainian counterparts that can focus on all the good we can do together instead of all the problems weíve had to deal with in the past.
It goes without saying that Ukraine has an enormous amount of work still to do to secure those heady days at the end of 2004 when hundreds of thousands of people braved the elements to demand a better government and their vote to be counted accurately and fairly.
We look forward to continuing our strategic cooperation with Ukraine and will continue to support Ukraineís historic effort to consolidate and make permanent the changes that will ensure its democratic and prosperous future.
Blair, I think with that I will stop and be happy to take any questions.
Question: Stuart Goldman, Congressional Research Service.
David, many speakers over recent months here and in other fora in town have opined that if former Prime Minister Yanukovychís Regions of Ukraine Party comes out ahead in the elections this weekend that will seriously retard the prospects for Ukraineís movement toward a membership action plan for NATO. Do you share that view?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: Stuart, as I mentioned, we will be prepared to work with whichever government emerges from these elections. And if Party of Regions is in control and selects the Prime Minister and that Prime Minister gets full approval and brings in a new Cabinet, weíll be prepared to work with them, and working with them on a reform-minded agenda, on an agenda that includes helping them in Ukraineís aspirations to become more deeply integrated in the Euro-Atlantic community.
In terms of NATO itself, NATO is a performance-based organization. Ukraine will have to meet the criteria in order to pursue any membership aspirations that it may have. Weíll of course work with our Ukrainian friends and allies as they try to move forward in that, and the pace at which they meet the performance-based criteria will be set by the Ukrainians. So it will be up to the new government, it will also be up to the President who has made clear his very strong interest in moving in that direction.
So it will remain to be seen what kind of government weíll have; it will remain to be seen how fast a track it will want to be on; but the United States will certainly stand ready to help in any way we can.
Question: In reading todayís analyst papers that some analysts consider that Lukashenka is on the way to break relations not only with the West but with the Kremlin too because he has a high percentage, 82 percent of voters, shows his sort of independence from the Kremlin, from Russia. So whatís your position, whatís your opinion to the point?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: Mr. Lukashenka is going to face a number of challenges with Russia, as well as with all the other countries around him, and even far from him. The Russians have made clear that they plan to end the subsidization of gas prices to Belarus. I would expect that that may happen sooner rather than later, in which case I think that would have a rather serious impact on the economy in Belarus and may have an impact on Mr. Lukashenkaís standing in his country as well, going from 46 or 47 dollars per thousand cubic meters up to a significantly higher price.
Lukashenka is, I think, I would not rule out the possibility that he will try to balance relations between Russia on the one hand and other countries in Europe with the other. I think that our response will be pretty clear, which is weíre not going to engage in those kinds of games. If heís interested in good relations with us, heís had opportunities in the past. This election probably seals the opportunities for him to engage with us in a serious way to demonstrate that he is serious about improved relations.
In terms of his relations with Russia, that is something that he will have to work out. We have discussed Belarus with our Russian colleagues on a number of occasions, and we will have to see what kind of relationship unfolds between Belarus and Russia.
Question: Thank you. Iím with Voice of America.
I just wondered if you could talk about how effective you think the sanctions that you just talked about will be against the Belarus government, and then also if you were discussing the sanctions with Russia, as well. You mentioned that you were in close consultation with the European allies. Does that include Russia? How effective will the sanctions be without Russiaís help perhaps?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: Sanctions done by the United States alone wonít have much impact, and I donít want to sit here and pretend that steps that we take unilaterally will bring the regime to its knees. It is critical that we work very closely with our European allies on putting forward an effective sanctions regime. I have been encouraged in a number of discussions Iíve had with European officials both before the election in Belarus and elsewhere as well as in discussions Iíve had since Sunday, since the election, and comments Iíve seen reported in the press where it does seem that the resolve of European officials is very strong.
It is critical that the United States and Europe stay together on this. Iím very convinced that we will be able to do so. As I mentioned before, itís less travel to the United States that people in Belarus are interested in. Itís more travel throughout Europe, so we will have to look at that very carefully.
In terms of actions that we plan to take, we have discussed these with the Russians. I think it is safe to say that Russia has an enormous amount of influence over the situation in Belarus, and, quite frankly, weíve seen some reports that suggest that there was communication before the election on Sunday advising against the use of force and violence, and if those reports are true, then we are very appreciative of Russian efforts to weigh in on that issue.
The concerns we had about the possibility of force and violence were real. I detected them when I was in Minsk back in February, and based on the reports and indications we were getting from a number of different sources leading up to Sundayís election, we were very concerned about the possibility of a real ugly scenario unfolding in terms of force and bloodshed. So if Russia and others weighed in to advise against that, if our warnings in which we said we would hold those responsible for any force or violence accountable for their actions and take steps against them, then I'm pleased to see that it didnít come to that. But as I also mentioned, just because we didnít see bloodshed in the streets doesnít mean that what the regime has been doing is okay and acceptable. Unjustifiable arrests of hundreds of people, beating up of a presidential candidate before an election as well as others, breaking up of peaceful protests, peopleís rights to gather, are steps that also are unacceptable. Maybe not as graphic, not as bloody, but also steps that are very much running against any democratic trends that we hope to see.
Question: Leonard Overlander.
Inextricably linked to freedom of religion, intellectual freedom, and political freedom is economic freedom. Along with the thrusts for the former three, what can you tell us about what is being done to ensure that the economic freedoms, particularly with regard to energy infrastructures that support that are going to be treated in the same way to bring about the effectiveness of total freedoms across the board?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: In both countries?
Question: Particularly in Belarus, but it also applies to Ukraine. The first three Ė freedom of religion, intellectual freedom, political freedom Ė are much more advanced in Ukraine than they have been. Economic development is moving there. But what can we say about also how robust that is in Ukraine and how that will be treated in Belarus.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: Economic freedom is obviously critical to any democracy because if you have political freedom but standards of living decline, then democracy is going to be pretty fragile. So it is in every governmentís interest as it transitions from the previous regimes to what it hopes will be a democratic, market-oriented country, to improve the standard of living throughout the country, to ensure that people have ownership rights, that rule of law is firmly entrenched, that there is contract sanctity, and that any steps towards privatization or reprivatization are thought through very carefully.
Economic freedom is critical. People need to be able to set up their own businesses. They need to do so without harassment from authorities, they need to do so without having to pay exorbitant bribes. They need to be able to engage in commercial activity that they want to pursue, that they have every right to pursue. So economic freedom, as you rightly point out, is inextricably linked with all these other freedoms. Absent prosperity these other freedoms are going to be significantly challenged.
Thatís true in Ukraine, itís true in Belarus, itís true pretty much anywhere else. In Ukraine, I think we have seen significant advances made in this area, but thereís still a lot of work to be done. The decline in the economy over the past year or so I think has had an impact on the popularity and standing of the current government so it is important that the economy be addressed in a serious way, that there be not necessarily guarantees of profits and solid returns, but there be predictability so that people arenít operating in an environment in which theyíre wondering if their property will be seized one day or the next.
In terms of Belarus, there is not a great deal of private economic activity. There is really very little to no economic freedom. Itís sadly consistent with the lack of freedom that we see on every other level in Belarus. The level of corruption that I touched on in my remarks is a reflection of how much the regime and particularly Lukashenka and his family have control over the economy and are able to engage in the kinds of economic activity that benefits them in a very corrupt way.
Question: Suzanne Lutarsky.
In the case of Belarus, one hopes it wonít take a very long time, but if it does, are we prepared to do the kind of support for the forces of freedom as was done in the case of Solidarity over the long years it took or in some of the other countries? If so, what kind of a division of labor is there likely to be? Will we look to, for instance, the Slovaks and others to take the lead really on this? What kind of policy would be pursued if it did take a long time?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: The short answer to your question is absolutely, we are prepared to engage for the long haul. We have planned for that in terms of our foreign assistance, weíve planned for that in terms of our diplomatic strategy, and it also helps to have people in high level positions in the State Department including the Secretary, Assistant Secretary Fried, Under Secretary Burns, who have experienced whatís gone on in other parts in the region and who understand that sometimes things donít happen overnight. And sometimes they do take quite a while to unfold and to develop.
We are prepared to stay engaged in Belarus for however long it takes for that country to get on its feet to reinforce its sovereignty, become a democratic, market-oriented member thatís integrated into the international community. So you will not see any diminution in our efforts and commitment to Belarus.
You also touched on what I think is a very important issue, which is it canít just be up to the United States. This is an issue that requires full engagement from all of our European allies. And I must say, as I mentioned before in response to the sanctions question, I have been very pleased and impressed by the solidarity weíve had with our European allies on this. Not just the neighboring states of Belarus, but countries from a distance from Belarus who have manifested a real strong commitment for the long term with Belarus to reach out to the people there, to engage in exchange programs, to reach out to the youth in Belarus, to try to demonstrate to them that there is a brighter future ahead. So all of that will require that we stay engaged in Belarus for a very long period of time in the United States, and I feel very confident in saying European Union are prepared to do that as well.
Question: Iím a correspondent with the EIR.
Would the Bush Administrationís displeasure with the elections in Belarus warrant engagement such as a preemptive military invasion of that nation as a more expedient way of promoting democracy? If not, how much of the U.S. concern in Russiaís so-called near abroad is geopolitically designed to curb or detract from Russiaís recent positive initiatives in diffusing Cheneyís war drive with Iran?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: No, and none.
Question: Are you sure of that?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: I donít think I can be any clearer.
Question: One difference between Belarus and other authoritarian regimes seems to be that Lukashenka has a real political base in his country. In parts of Belarusian society Lukashenka is popular. How do you explain that? Why do you think this is so? And donít you see the danger that sanctions might internally strengthen his position? You have often this situation that outside pressure strengthens an authoritarian politician inside a country. Donít you see that danger?
And a second question: Russian President Putin has congratulated Lukashenka. I think heís the only one I have heard of. Do you see tensions arising between Russia and the U.S. on that question of attitude towards the Belarus government? Thanks.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: In terms of Lukashenkaís popularity, itís hard to tell. Itís hard to conduct polls and surveys in a country in which there isnít any freedom. People are afraid to tell you what they honestly think.
In addition, when the regime controls the media, as it does in Belarus, they donít get any other information. I think it was in the ODIHR report that it said Ė maybe not in the current one but in a previous one Ė that 94 percent of television coverage was for Lukashenka, 6 percent divided among the other three candidates, one of whom was not a serious candidate.
The awareness of alternatives out there is extremely limited, and thatís why getting information into Belarus is so critical to demonstrate to the people, to increase awareness that there are alternatives to Lukashenka and his dictatorial regime.
Do we run the risk of strengthening him? In the short term, possibly. In the long term, no. We never go wrong, I would argue, in standing for freedom and democracy, and I think it would be an enormous mistake to write off Belarus and say that it just isnít destined for joining the rest of the international community.
In response to the earlier question, sometimes these things take a while. Sometimes they donít happen in an election. Sometimes they donít happen overnight. But I am firmly convinced that our approach, shining the spotlight on the abuses of the regime so that the people inside Belarus, as well as throughout the international community, are aware of what kind of leader weíre dealing with here.
Iím convinced that in the long term, if not in the short term, that will bring about the kind of change and improvement that we all hope to see.
In terms of the Russian reaction, we certainly take a note of it. We have been in touch with our Russian colleagues about this. Will it lead to tensions? I hope not. I think we can handle this. Our relationship with Russia is one in which we have many areas of agreement. We also have a number of areas where we donít necessarily see eye to eye. This may be one of those issues.
We will continue to be in close touch with Russian officials about the way ahead in Belarus, not in the spirit of condominium, because itís not for us or Russia to decide Belarusí future, itís up to the people of Belarus to decide their own future. But to talk with the Russians in the sense that, to remind them that it is in fact up to the people of Belarus to decide their future. So I expect we will be having many more conversations with our Russian colleagues.
Question: Pat Harrahan. Iím a Fellow here at the Wilson Center this year.
David, I had actually two questions. One was can you give us some comparative views: we spent $13 million in Ukraine on the election process, education, observers and so on. How does that compare with the European Union and perhaps the Russian Federation?
The second question is: did we notify the Ukrainian government that weíre spending $13 million on their election?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: I can answer the second question easily. Yes. Not only the Ukrainian government, we tell all the governments. There are no secrets about our assistance on dealing with elections. Itís on our web pages, itís extremely transparent. There are no secrets. Whether itís on this election in Ukraine with the Rada or whether it was on the election in 2004 for the presidential election in Ukraine. Whether itís on the Belarus election. It was a well-known fact that we were providing roughly $12 million in support of democracy and toward a better election process in Belarus. That was something authorities in Minsk could easily find out, and we werenít hiding it from them.
In terms of the question about how much resources from the Europeans, I will confess to you, I donít know. My impression is that Europeans have been very actively involved in helping Ukraine on a number of different fronts. There was the Ukraine-EU Summit in early December, so I think the EU has been very actively involved. In terms of actual figures, though, Iím sorry to say Iím at a loss to give those to you.
Question: What struck me about this was the contrast between the two elections. If you sort of close your eyes and think back 2002, 2004, the Ukrainian elections sounded like the thing thatís happening in Belarus right now, and itís amazing how things can change so quickly.
Iíd like to ask your opinion on the impact of the protests in Belarus. These are the largest weíve seen in a very long time, and Iíve been getting e-mails from colleagues in Ukraine about Ukrainians who went up to Minsk to participate, who have been arrested. But if you again think back to Ukraine, the protests in 2004 werenít the first ones. So there was a series of protests in 2002, 2001. So do you see an impact that these protests will have in the future?
Talking about relations with Russia and your other allies, have you ever considered the G8 context as a way of looking multilateral actions in maybe commenting on elections?
And on Ukraine, the vibrancy of the election campaign again, looking at the images that are coming from Ukraine. It seems to me the question is people donít know who to vote for rather than anything else.
But my question is about something that [inaudible] was talking about here. The number of candidates with criminal records who are still on the ballots. Could you just comment on that?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: Your comments at the outset I think are very hopeful because I think itís a very important point to keep in mind and itís also a point that gets to some of the other questions about that these things can take time and they donít happen overnight. And because of the repressive nature of the regime in Minsk, it is difficult for people to organize and rally and get together and push for the right things. Thatís why I think what the opposition, what the Belarusian democrats have been able to do over the past few months, going back to the United Congress in October and including the rallies and protests that theyíre holding as we speak, are a very positive, encouraging sign for the future of Belarus. I think we will be able to see them build on those promising signs. So, in terms of the protest, they have a right to. We have told the authorities in Minsk, youíre a member of the OSCE. You donít act like it, but you are a member of the OSCE. You have to allow people to protest peacefully. And I must say I have been very pleased by the responsible nature in which the opposition has handled the protests. They have not engaged in any provocations despite efforts by the authorities to try to encourage them in that direction. Theyíve acted very responsibly, so we tip our hat to them.
In terms of a G8 and elections, there is the possibility this will be an issue there. I think we have told our Russian colleagues that Belarus need not be an issue between us. We hope it wonít be.
And the situation in Belarus is not over yet. There is, sadly, still a possibility for things to turn bloody. There is still the possibility for things to get worse. The number of arrests is already out of control. It can get worse, though, so we need to be very mindful and keep vigilant there and also make sure that the Russians do that as well and use their influence there.
In terms of Ukraine and the people on the lists, we have noticed some of that too, and I think it will be up to the people of Ukraine to decide which ones look better to them and which ones donít. That I think is in part one of the positive things thatís developed about this election, which is that there is much greater transparency in this.
And the freedom of the press, too, gives the people an opportunity to make much more informed, educated decisions on how theyíre going to vote.
Question: You said that the United States will work with any Ukrainian future government which will be formed of the elections. If it applied for the government which would be created by the [inaudible] of the Yanukovychís party will win the election.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: If done so in a free and fair fashion, sure.
Question: I have a final question, David, and I want you to step back and recall your days in the think tank world, because this is a --
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: There are many days I yearn for those. [Laughter].
Question: This is more that kind of question.
I remember various meetings we went to in the early 1990ís about the future of this region, and I donít know about either you or me but I think in general the tone of those discussions were perhaps more hopeful about the future of Belarus.
You described two very different countries, and yet they start from a very similar beginning. What do you attribute this divergence of paths over the last 15 years or so?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: Back in í94 Lukashenka won in what was a free and fair election, paradoxically enough. Then he sort of went off the reservation. I hate to attribute the wrong direction Belarus is headed to one person, but itís hard not to in the case of Belarus. Of course, dictators need willing accomplices, and sadly heís had those. And thatís why when we talk about holding people accountable, weíre not just talking about Lukashenka, but weíre talking about those who had facilitated his ability to control such a dictatorial, tyrannical regime.
He needs people to carry out the orders, and heís had those, unfortunately, all too willingly. I think it is Lukashenka, weíve seen it over the years since his election in í94 with the referendum and the change in the parliament and the disappeared, so many steps in which he has taken Belarus in the wrong direction. And he has just consolidated control over society, over the press, so that it comes back to the question that was asked about the popularity.
Itís not surprising that he would be popular among a number of Belarusians because many of them donít know any choice, donít know any alternative. Thatís why I think getting information into Belarus to make people aware that there is a different future that is available to them out there is one of the critical things that we need to do.
I think Lukashenka, while Iím reluctant to pin responsibility on an individual, in this particular case I make an exception. I think he does deserve an enormous amount of responsibility and blame and guilt for the direction that he has taken this country in.
Question: And what went right in Ukraine?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Kramer: The people. The people in 2004, the hundreds of thousands of people who turned out on the Maidan. They decided enough of corruption, enough of having their votes ignored, enough of a country in which the rights of individuals werenít properly respected and they decided it was time for a change. Thatís why I think the election coming up on Sunday is so important. Because there again, the people will have the opportunity to decide. They may choose for Yanukovych. They may choose Yushchenko. They may choose for Tymoshenko. But they have a right to choose however they want.
I think whatís also important is we are more confident this time than before that their votes will be counted properly. There may be a few problems. I donít want to sweep those under the rug. But I think this time the future of Ukraine is up to the people of Ukraine. Thatís what we want to see in the case of Belarus. We want to see the future of Belarus taken out of the hands of a dictator and put in the hands of the population.