|United States and Democracy in Belarus |
United States and Democracy in Belarus
State Official Ross L. Wilson Testimony on Belarus to CSCE says "Trends are negative" due to Lukashenko's abuses. Source: U.S.I.A., Washington File, May 5, 1999.
Washington D.C. -- Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko's overthrow of his country's constitution, suppression of human rights and rejection of economic reform "represent the hijacking of liberty and freedom," according to a State Department official.
Ross Wilson, principal deputy special adviser to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States, presented the Department's view of Lukashenko's policies at a hearing April 27 of the congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"The trends are negative," Wilson told the commission chairman, Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey. He then read off a long list of "flagrant abuses" by Lukashenko to support this assessment, including the overthrow of the constitution in 1996 and installation of a "rubber-stamp" legislature, suppression of political opposition and human rights, harassment of the media, and rejection of economic reforms.
These abuses, Wilson said, have cut off Belarus from the democratic transformation taking place throughout the region. He added a cautionary note, that Belarus is "a very serious potential proliferater" of sensitive military technologies and has been "less than cooperative" on nonproliferation issues.
Ross Wilson said U.S. policy toward Belarus is one of "selective engagement," reflecting the administration's view of Lukashenko and what he represents; therefore the U.S. provides no direct assistance to his government. He said that despite these limits, the United States must never ignore or forget Belarus, and so it supports various programs -- such as exchanges and hospital partnerships -- through non-governmental organizations.
In concluding his testimony, Wilson spoke about the promise of democracy and European integration which Belarusians embraced after independence. He said the United States wants to see Belarus "live up to that promise."
Following is a text of Wilson's statement: (Begin text)
Principal Deputy Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States, Ross L. Wilson, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, April 27, 1999.
Mr. Chairman, it is an honor to represent the Administration at this hearing on Belarus and to exchange views on what is taking place in that country.
The trends are negative, Mr. Chairman. President Lukashenko, has destroyed the constitutional balance of power in Belarus, disbanded the Supreme Soviet, installed a rubber-stamp legislature, and subordinated the judiciary. He has clamped down on dissent and independent political organizations in defiance of Belarus' OSCE commitments. His regime uses spurious charges to constantly harass and intimidate opposition leaders. Public demonstrations and assemblies are capriciously denied or severely restricted. Minor infractions of those rules result in heavy fines. For expressing opinions contrary to Lukashenko's, publishers are fined, editors and journalists are harassed and sometimes beaten up, publications are confiscated, papers are closed and programs taken off the air. Lukashenko has rejected economic reform, worked to keep the old Soviet economic machine in his country alive, if not well, and sent his economic advisors to jail when things went wrong.
As he abuses his people at home, so Lukashenko misbehaves abroad. He violated the Vienna Convention and a U.S.-Belarusian agreement when he evicted our ambassador from his official residence -- ostensibly for sewer and water repairs, but really just to confiscate this and other properties for his cronies. Belarus is a very serious potential proliferater of sensitive military technologies, and the Lukashenko regime has been less than cooperative on nonproliferation issues. It blocked work by U.S. contractors on an agreed program to destroy Soviet missile launch pads. It has been the worst government in Europe on ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and NATO action to stop it.
President Lukashenko's overthrow of the constitution in 1996, violation of Belarusian democracy, suppression of human rights, and rejection of economic reform have taken Belarus back in time. They represent the hijacking of liberty and freedom. They have cut Belarus off from the democratic, market economic transformation taking place throughout Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Our policy of "selective engagement" reflects our view of Lukashenko and what he represents. Our contacts with the government are limited. We criticize actions that are inconsistent with democracy and respect for human rights -- both privately and publicly. We make the point, as I did in Minsk in early March, that Lukashenko's illegitimate referendum of 1996 created a political impasse and that the government should initiate a dialogue with the opposition and with the society as a whole to resolve that impasse. We have made clear that, in the absence of such a dialogue and respect by the authorities for internationally-recognized human rights, it will be impossible for Belarus to have a more normal relationship with the United States or, to a very large extent, with the broader Euro-Atlantic community.
Despite these limits, we do not -- and must not -- ignore or forget Belarus. The State Department, our embassy in Minsk, interested non-governmental organizations and others, including you, Mr. Chairman, have closely watched events there. We call attention to the government's most flagrant abuses of Belarusian liberty, and we work with the EU and other democratic partners to push for change. We show visible support for democrats by meeting with them regularly, and we engage as much as we can with the broader population of Belarus.
We have an assistance program that focuses on long-term transformation toward supporting the independent, prosperous market democracy that we would like to see Belarus one day become. Key targets include independent media, the non-governmental sector, and student and academic exchanges, and the following are particularly important programs.
- An embassy-based Democracy Fund small grants program that helps independent media, non-governmental organizations and other independent groups.
- USIA academic and professional exchange programs, including the Community Connections Program, that foster self-sustaining linkages between U.S. and Belarusian communities.
- Legal reform programs implemented by the American Bar Association's Central and East European Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI).
- Training and small grants provided to independent media by IREX ProMedia and the Eurasia Foundation.
- An NGO development program implemented by the Counterpart Alliance for Partnership (CAP).
- A hospital partnership program that has matched up the Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical School with a children's hospital, a radiation medicine institute and a maternity hospital in Minsk.
These programs, we hope, provide a measure of support to those seeking democratic change and help to build constituencies for that change. Other efforts to build constituencies for change include a small-business privatization program and assistance to private farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs.
We strongly support multilateral efforts in Belarus to press for change, and we coordinate with the EU and Belarus' neighbors to encourage positive change. We worked hard to win government agreement to the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) that opened in Minsk in early 1998. The AMG has given special attention to pushing Belarus toward observing its OSCE commitments. We support its efforts and those of the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to train election observers and sponsor programs on media freedom.
We provide no assistance to the Lukashenko government. We still have humanitarian programs, including to help address the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but these are carried out through NGOs, local authorities and hospital administrators. We discourage U.S. investment in Belarus and no longer have EXIM, OPIC or TDA programs there. Our national security programs have been suspended. When he was evicted from his residence last summer, our ambassador was recalled -- and he remains here awaiting progress on a new residence and on compensation for the old one.
Belarus' internationally recognized 13th Supreme Soviet, the legislature that Lukashenko deposed, has called for a presidential election on May 16 -- just three weeks from now. This bold initiative to hold a presidential election in spite of the government represents an effort by democratic forces to engage in the dialogue with the public that the government rejects. It has united opposition forces. It has dramatized the constitutional and political impasse that Lukashenko created and made clear for all to see his failure to unite the country and ensure political stability.
The expiration of President Lukashenko's democratic mandate on July 20 under the 1994 constitution will formalize a process that began several years ago. His departure from the country's agreed constitutional framework and his steady encroachment on the rights of the Belarusian people have already eroded his legitimacy in a democratic Europe. Only a small minority dare to say this publicly, but many Belarusians sense this. No amount of manipulation or orchestration by the government can alter this perception. As democratic forces in Belarus become stronger over time with the international community's assistance, the government will be forced to recognize its folly and adopt a more responsible attitude than it has shown so far.
Mr. Chairman, when I was in Minsk last month, I told opposition and government leaders alike that Belarus was missing out on the great market democratic revolution that is sweeping Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. I said that we are disappointed by that and regret it, as do its neighbors -- and Belarusians themselves. Belarus had promise in the years following independence -- promise that reflected the democratic and European aspirations of the Belarusian people who have seen such suffering in this century. We want to see it live up to that promise. I hope that this hearing will give encouragement to democratic change in that country and that Belarus will soon reoccupy its rightful place in a Europe that is whole and free.