Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe: U.S. Helsinki Commission
Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change
Former President Candidate, Political Prisoner,
Senior Director Europe,
National Endowment for Democracy
The Hearing Was Held From 10:30 a.m. To 12:00 p.m. in 210 Cannon House Office
Building, Washington, D.C., Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), Chairman, CSCE,
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Federal News Service
REPRESENTATIVE CHRISTOPHER SMITH (R-NJ): (Sounds gavel.) The commission will
come to order, and good morning to everyone. I’d like to welcome all of our
witnesses and everyone who is joining us this morning for a hearing titled
“Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change.”
Nearly a year after the brutal post-election crackdown of last December, the
Lukashenka dictatorship has not relaxed its grip. Civil society remains under
attack, with NGOs facing even greater constraints, and freedoms of assembly and
expression are severely infringed. Just a few weeks ago, Lukashenko further
tightened his grip by signing amendments to two laws. One would tighten
penalties for political and civil society groups receiving foreign aid, and the
other would add even more restrictions on peaceful gatherings, such as the
silent protest which resulted in the detentions of some 3,000 people this past
Yet at the same time, there are reasons to ask whether the dictatorship may not
be increasingly vulnerable. Lukashenka’s popular support has plunged because
of his repression and because of the ongoing economic turmoil. And Lukashenka
is facing a new international environment. We can talk about how changing
policies of the U.S., EU and international institutions like the IMF may be
affecting the dictatorship.
The sad truth is that two decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, Belarus
remains unreconstructed politically and economically and isolated from its
European roots. The Belarusian people, who have endured so much over the
course of the last century, certainly deserve better. I am convinced that the
time will come when Belarus will be an integral member of the family of
democratic nations. We need to stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus,
with the oppressed and not the oppressor, to achieve these goals and the values
we all espouse.
So we'll have to talk more about what can be done by the United States and its
European partners to promote democratic change in Belarus, both by assisting
those struggling for freedom and by holding accountable those who perpetrate
human rights abuses.
The Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, legislation that I authored
this spring, passed by the House in July, and awaits Senate passage. The
Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act reinforces earlier legislation that I
authored, known as the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 and 2006. The Bush and
Obama administrations have put the provisions of the earlier legislation to
good use. But this new bill will reinforce our message and provide new tools
for promoting democracy and human rights in Belarus. For example, it expands
the list of Belarusian senior officials who would be denied U.S. visas and be
subject to asset freezes, so that the list would now include those involved in
the post-election crackdown.
I'll close with an observation on political prisoners. In the last few months,
Lukashenka has released many of the political prisoners convicted in the
crackdown. He obviously hopes to regain favor in Europe and in the United
States in view of Belarus' sinking economy. The U.S. and the Europeans and the
international lending institutions must not be taken in by this. Before we can
improve relations with such a vicious dictator, we need to see truly meaningful
changes and reforms, such as the release of all remaining political prisoners,
full restoration of their civil and political rights, and a complete end to the
harassment of all those who criticize the dictator.
I'd like to now introduce our very distinguished panel of witnesses, beginning
first with Ales Mikhalevich, who was a candidate in the December 2010
Belarusian presidential elections. In the protest that followed, Mr.
Mikhalevich was arrested, as were six other presidential candidates and more
than 600 other individuals. Held for two months in a KGB jail – in Belarus, it
is still called the KGB – after his release, Mr. Mikhalevich publicly denounced
the conditions in his prison and described the acts of physical and
psychological abuse that he and others endured. In danger of being arrested
again, he sought and received political asylum in the Czech Republic. Last
week, Mr. Mikhalevich was awarded Canada’s John Humphrey Award for his courage
and determination in defending human rights and democratic principles. He
holds degrees in political science and law from the Belarusian State University
and has studied at the University of Warsaw and the University of Oxford.
We will then hear from Mr. Rodger Potocki, who is senior director for Europe at
the National Endowment for Democracy, where he has overseen NED’s Belarus
portfolio since 1977. Mr. Potocki has written widely on Belarus. His most
recent article, “A Tale of Two Elections,” appeared in the July 2011 issue of
Journal of Democracy. An adjunct in Georgetown University's history
department, Mr. Potocki also worked in the U.S. Congress and at the Woodrow
Wilson International Center for Scholars and Jamestown Foundation. He holds an
M.A. in Russian, and East European studies from Yale University.
Then we’ll hear from Susan Corke, who was director for Eurasia programs at
Freedom House. Before joining Freedom House, she spent seven years at the
State Department, most recently as the deputy director for European Affairs in
the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Of great interest to us
because of the Helsinki Commission’s mandate to combat human rights abuse, she
has been the managing editor for the State Department Country Reports on Human
Rights Practices, where she has had responsibility for reports on European
countries. She has also had supervisory oversight over DRL’s civil society,
media and human rights programs in Europe, and of course that includes Belarus.
She has a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington
And we welcome her and thank her for her service as well.
I’d like to now ask Mr. Mikhalevich if you would present your testimony.
ALES MIKHALEVICH: Mr. Chairman, members of the Commission, thank you for the
opportunity to speak here about the terrible conditions facing democratic
politicians, civic activists, human rights groups and lawyers in Belarus.
As one of the candidates in the 2010 presidential election, I was deeply
involved in the events that took place during and after the campaign. The
brutal crackdown against peaceful protests that began on December 19th and
continues to this day has shocked not only the international community but also
many Belarusians who were previously not interested in politics. Today, as we
speak, a number of my colleagues, including two other presidential candidates,
remain imprisoned. I hope that my testimony will help their difficult
I would like to tell you about my about my own personal experience. I was not
naive when I decided to enter the presidential race. After years of being a
democratic activist, I clearly understood the state’s repressive mechanisms,
how they function and what they are capable of. But I also had a clear vision
of how my country could be modernized and changed for the better.
Back in 2010, during the “dialogue process” with the European Union, it seemed
that positive changes within the regime were possible. Before the elections,
the candidates were allowed to campaign in ways that were previously forbidden.
Many experts interpreted this softening of repressions as a sign of
liberalization. But it all ended with the brutal crackdown on election night.
When I heard that many people had been beaten by Special Forces, I used my car
to help my campaign team bring the injured to the hospital or homes. That
evening, I stayed with my staff at campaign headquarters. In the middle of the
night, officers in black masks and uniforms broke down the office door and
arrested me. I was brought to a KGB detention center, where I spent the next
During my imprisonment, I was subjected to constant mental and physical torture
in order to coerce a confession of guilt. Masked KGB jailers carried out body
searches five or six times a day. We were stripped naked and forced to assume
various positions. For example, our legs were pulled apart with ropes.
Afterwards, it was difficult work – to walk. We were forced to stand close to
the wall with our arms outreached until our hands swelled up. All of this was
done in freezing rooms, never warmer than 50 degrees. Some of the prisoners in
poor health fainted during these procedures, but those in the masks didn’t
stop. They wouldn’t turn off the overhead lights at the night, but forced us
to lie down and underneath the fluorescent lamps. We couldn’t even cover our
eyes with handkerchief. As a result, our eyesight began to deteriorate.
Prisoners were denied their legal right to medical help. A doctor could visit
the prisoners only once a week at a specific time. Prisoners were also not
allowed to see their lawyers. This was done deliberately to ensure silence
about the torture. The isolation was used to force people into signing
prepared statements and confessions.
For me, it became a choice between remaining in jail until my trial or
pretending to cooperate with KGB. At the same time, I had very little
information on what was going on in Belarus, what was happening to my stuff.
I later learned that those working at my headquarters were detained and office
equipment confiscated. Campaign workers were summoned to the KGB for
interrogation. Those who called to me to express their solidarity were
questioned. My apartments – my apartment, as well as those of my family, were
searched several times by the KGB, and my relatives were interrogated.
I was unable to see my wife and daughters for two months. After my wife
accepted an invitation to address the Polish parliament about my imprisonment,
she was taken off the train to Poland before it left. When she tried to get to
Warsaw by car, she was followed by a car – by several cars of KGB and she
stopped near the border and escorted back to Minsk by KGB staff. She was
informed that she couldn’t leave the country until I was indicted. During my
imprisonment, she was left to care for our two small children and was
constantly harassed by the KGB.
Due to this physical and mental pressure, I agreed to play the game proposed to
me and signed an agreement with KGB. But as soon as I was released, I had a
press conference to break the silence about the torture that I and others had
experienced. I felt that I had no other choice but to speak about it. Despite
the risk of being arrested again, I still decided the publicize the torture so
as to ease the fate of other political activists and peaceful protesters. I
hope that the pressure on them has diminished after my statement.
I’m not a hero. I was – it was not possible for me to stand under further
torture. I believe I could do more good by speaking about what is going on in
capital of one of European countries.
After I was released, it took me a while to adapt to new Belarusian reality.
What was going on in my country can only be compared to Stalinist gulag. Faced
by an unprecedented wave of repressions, the country has changed. People were
intimidated. Belarus civil society was paralyzed with leading activists
imprisoned or abroad.
Since coming to power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenka has steadily consolidated
his power and transformed Belarus into Europe's last dictatorship.
Furthermore, the regime has become a virus in the sense that its authoritarian
methods have spread to other countries in the region, such as Russia and
Ukraine. The roots of Putin’s “administrative reform” and Tymoshenko’s prison
sentence can be founded in Lukashenka’s Belarus.
Nevertheless, I decided to participate in the 2010 presidential elections in
Belarus. I tried to position myself as an independent candidate, distancing
myself from both the regime and the traditional Belarusian opposition. In my
platform, I advocated economic modernization, rule of law, real separation of
powers and democratic institutions. I saw my participation in the campaign as
an opportunity to attract people who had never before actively participated in
politics but were willing to improve the economic and political state of the
country without resorting to radical ideas and acts.
During the violent crackdown on December 19th, more than 800 people were
detained, among them dozens of journalists and six presidential candidates.
Many participants were beaten. More than 40 people were charged with crimes,
including seven of the 10 presidential candidates. Today, two candidates still
remain behind bars, Andrei Sannikau and Nikolai Statkevich. The health of many
of the arrested and imprisoned is very bad.
Soon after elections, the campaign headquarters in most – of most presidential
candidates were raided and their work paralyzed. Equipment was confiscated,
and many activists were detained. The same happened to offices of many
prominent NGOs and human rights organizations. Ales Bialiatski, chairperson of
the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and vice president of the International
Federation of Human Rights, was arrested in August 2011. He is charged with
massive tax evasion, is currently in custody and faces up to seven years behind
bars. Recently, a new law is being considered that criminalizes all activities
carried out with foreign funding.
The authorities have attacked lawyers defending the detained and the
politically neutral bar association. My lawyer, who was speaking to media
about my bad physical condition, was disbarred. As a part of pressure on legal
community, the mother and wife of my lawyer also lost their licenses. But it
was not enough for the regime. Criminal cases against my lawyer and his mother
were started against them. Altogether, seven lawyers were disbarred, and
several thousand are still under so-called “recertification process” and can
lose their licenses soon. Relative independence of the Belarusian Bar
Association was totally destroyed, and now it is totally controlled by Ministry
I’m absolutely sure Lukashenka is ready to defend his power by all possible
means. We can compare – unfortunately, we can compare Lukashenka with Gadhafi.
And by the way, Lukashenka is speaking a lot about Gadhafi’s case during all
his speeches in parliament or with general public.
So I urge the United States, European Union and the international community not
to trust another game of liberalization badly played by the regime. Cooperate
only with independent civic society in Belarus: nongovernmental organizations,
both registered and not registered; independent newspapers and media; and
democratic activists. These will be the main partners in Belarus after
Lukashenka leaves the scene.
We should not give a saving hand to a collapsing regime. We should not replace
one dictator in Belarus by another. The Belarusian people deserve to enjoy the
same freedoms and rights enjoyed by every American. In the current situation,
Belarusian human rights activists and NGOs need more international support and
attention. The authoritarian regime in Belarus has become a contagion,
negatively affecting other states in the region, even some countries of the
European Union, such as Lithuania. Yet with the right changes and the active
support of civil society, the country has a chance to turn into a sustainable
democracy and increase democracy and stability in all Central and Eastern
Thank you very much.
REP. SMITH: Thank you very much for that very moving and comprehensive
testimony. I’d like to now ask to Mr. Potocki if he would present his
RODGER POTOCKI: Mr. Chairman, members of the commission, thank you for the
opportunity to speak about the ongoing crackdown in Belarus. And thank you for
all that you and your staff have done on behalf of Belarus, especially the
Belarus Democracy Acts.
I represent the National Endowment for Democracy, a leading supporter of civil
society in Europe's last dictatorship, and we have been on the front lines of
providing support for the victims of repression for more than 15 years.
Ales Michalevich’s testimony and personal story illustrate the appalling events
that followed the flawed December election. But Belarus’ Bloody Sunday and
winter repression are only part of a larger chronicle of egregious human rights
violations that began when Alexander Lukashenka came to power 17 years ago.
While unprecedented in its ferocity, this crackdown also calls to mind the
brutal attacks on demonstrators in 1996, the disappearing of dissidents in
1999, 2000 and the violence against peaceful protesters in 2006.
Sadly, the repression continues today. As you have noted, more than 3,000
Belarusians have been arrested for participating in this summer’s silent
protests. Scores have been detained, jailed and fined for taking part in this
fall’s people’s assemblies, including just this past Saturday.
The crackdown that began on December 19th has not ceased. It is destined to
continue because force is a fundamental feature of this regime. The Lukashenka
regime’s human rights record has been repeatedly criticized by every leading
rights body, including this commission. Fear has helped this dictator to stay
But Mr. Chairman, despite more than a decade of repression, there are
indications that Belarusians are becoming less afraid. Today, for the first
time, citizens blame the regime for the country’s economic and political woes.
Support for and trust in the head of state and government are at historic lows.
While organized protests have yet to gain momentum, there are signs that
society is stirring. In addition to this summer’s silent protests, more recent
events, such as the garbage strike in Borisov and the attempt to form a free
trade union branch in Slonim, indicate that unrest is rising.
Today I will speak about three areas in which, despite the repression, there
have been positive developments. The first optimistic note is the performance
of independent media. Since Mr. Lukashenka came to power, Belarus has been one
of the worst perpetuators of crimes against free media. Hundreds of
independent broadcast and print outlets have been closed down. Last year, a
new law to regulate the Internet came into force. Reporters Without Borders
has declared that Lukashenka is a predator of the press and an enemy of the
Internet. On election night, scores of journalists were detained and had their
equipment smashed. In the weeks that followed, more than a dozen media offices
and journalists’ homes were raided. During the silent protests, 95 reporters
were detained and 13 sentenced to jail time. Today, three journalists remain
prisoners of conscience.
Yet, despite this repression, independent media is thriving in Belarus. This
is in dramatic contrast to five years ago, when it was on the verge of
extinction. Today, the top five news and information websites in Belarus are
either independent or opposition-run. Only two of the top 10 sites are
state-controlled. The website of the regime’s flagship mouthpiece, Sovetskaya
Belorussiya, barely breaks the top 15. Since the December crackdown,
independent media sites have seen their audiences grow by two and a half to
four times. I will cite just one of many examples: In 2006, the independent
online newspaper Belorusskie Novosti had 1.2 million visitors. By the 2010
election, the number had grown to 11.4 million. As of the end of this
September, the total had already reached 18.3 million.
What we’re seeing is, following the regime’s precipitation of the political and
economic crises, society is increasingly searching for information and ideas
from independent sources. One media expert noted, when something happens in
Belarus, no one turns on the TV to get news; they go online.
Today, 62 percent of Belarusians distrust state media, and as one sociologist
put it, propaganda is losing its influence. Ever growing numbers of
Belarusians are getting the real story about the country’s collapsing economy,
political paralysis and international isolation from the independent media.
The regime has failed to convincingly convey its version of the events
occurring on and after the 19th. Independent media is winning the information
Mr. Chairman, a second bright spot has been the exemplary work of Belarus’s
human rights defenders. Since the crackdown, human rights groups have had
their hands full. But in contrast to a divided political opposition, they have
worked together before and after the election to maximize their efforts and
impact. Belarusian human rights groups created a common human rights fund in
fall 2010 to render assistance to those in need, putting in place procedures
and resources before the crackdown commenced.
As a result, these groups were able to provide legal, medical and humanitarian
assistance to more than 500 repressed presidential candidates and political
leaders, civic activists and journalists, lawyers and ordinary citizens and
their families, including, too, Ales, his wife and their daughters. More than
20 NGO, political party and media offices had their confiscated equipment
replaced. This support has continued through 2011 and is being provided
regardless of political orientation. All of those who have needed and sought
help have received it.
This work has been all the more impressive because, like Belarus’ independent
journalists, the human rights defenders themselves have been a primary target
of the crackdown. At least 10 human rights leaders were persecuted following
the elections. The chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee was arrested
on the evening of the 19th. The committee's office was searched on the 5th of
January, and the organization was officially censored a week later.
The day after the election, the central office of the Viasna Human Rights
Center was raided, 10 of its members were arrested and all of its computer
equipment and documents confiscated. On January 17th, Viasna’s offices were
searched again, as was the apartment of its director, Ales Bialiatsky. The
effectiveness of the organization's work was recognized by the regime, when it
officially warned Mr. Bialiatski for activities on behalf of an unregistered
organization, a criminal offense in Belarus. I’m proud to quote Viasna’s
response: We believe that our human rights activities are absolutely legal and
popular among Belarusian society; we will not stop them.
Mr. Chairman, civil society in Belarus is still active and functioning in part
because of the courageous and tireless work of these human rights defenders.
It wasn't a surprise when the human rights community’s leader, Mr. Bialiatski,
was jailed in August and put on trial this month. It is ironic that he faces
seven years in prison for not paying taxes on the funds that his organization
received to aid those repressed by the regime.
A massive defamation campaign has been launched by the regime against Mr.
Bialiatski, his wife and his colleagues, but this has not prevented him from
being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is a tribute to the tireless
work of Ales and other human rights defenders that they have been targeted. It
is a testimony to their organizations that the assistance to those in need has
continued, despite the repressions directed against their leaders.
The last but most encouraging example is the social solidarity that has been –
that has resulted from the crackdown. Because so many were arrested on the
night of December 19th, the human rights organizations I’ve spoken about were
overwhelmed. Appalled by the regime’s brutality, ordinary citizens stepped
forward to monitor the assembly-line sentencing in courts, gather information
about the detainees and contact families to let them know the fate of their
sons and daughters.
As the scale of the repression became known, activists made public appeals
through blogs and social networking sites that quickly spread throughout the
Internet. One web page read: Hundreds of people are in jail, beaten, sick and
hungry. They do not enjoy the quiet snow or the holiday season. Restore their
faith in the Christmas story. Do not wait for a miracle. Make one yourself.
This was the beginning of what became known as the guardian angels campaign.
And despite the fear, holiday vacation and winter weather, hundreds answered
the call. Within a day, an office was filled with donated clothes, food,
medical supplies, toiletries and even toys for prisoners’ children. As the KGB
raided organizations and apartments across the city and the police tried –
police tried to block access to an office, volunteers worked day and night to
assemble more than 1,200 parcels for the prisoners. When jailers decreed that
only family members could deliver parcels, the volunteers suddenly became the
adopted “aunts” and “cousins” of prisoners.
More than $50,000 was collected and used to help more than 400 victims by
covering the costs of prisoners’ upkeep, medical assistance and humanitarian
aid to families. Doctors promised to rehabilitate the injured, and private
businessmen pledged to hire those who had been dismissed from their jobs.
Perhaps most importantly, the guardian angels provided a human touch to those
whose bodies had been beaten and whose dignity had been trampled upon. They
comforted the families of the detained and stood vigil outside the prisons in
solidarity with those inside. They greeted those released, provided them with
rides home and passed along information on where to get medical treatment.
It's not possible here to read even a fraction of the heartfelt responses to
the angels. But what is clear is that while prisoners were grateful for the
parcels, it was the solidarity that was the true gift that Christmas. One
prisoner explained: It wasn't just about clean water or clean clothes; when
you're locked away and helpless, it was important to know that people
remembered and cared for you.
Another wrote that – without these packages, many of us would have left prison
with just one thought: to leave this country as soon as possible, forever.
But because of them, we came out believing in better times.
It should come as no surprise that the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs awarded
the “guardian angels” its hero of Belarusian civil society award.
The social solidarity and self-organizing wasn't just a response to the
election repression. It has continued throughout 2011. When the editorial
office of Nasha Niva was raided and its equipment seized in January, it was
able to keep publishing because its loyal readers donated more than 30
computers to the newspaper. In the spring, when a teacher was fired for her
political activities, 117 of her colleagues contributed part of their salaries
to help her. During the silent protests, one group of volunteers gathered more
than $4,000 in money, bottled water and other supplies for those detained.
There have been many more examples like this. As one newspaper article put it,
a wave of repression has caused a tsunami of solidarity.
Mr. Chairman, as inspiring as these examples might be, they are even more
remarkable because Belarus remains a hard-core dictatorship. 2011 has been a
year in which more Belarusians than ever have been beaten, arrested and
repressed, and Mr. Lukashenko continues to tighten the screws. On Sunday, he
signed two controversial laws that will make it even harder for Belarusians to
exercise their right of freedom of assembly and to receive foreign assistance
for their civil society activities.
Against great odds, independent media outlets, human rights groups and citizen
solidarity campaigns have performed admirably since the election, producing
tangible and compelling results. But given the worsening conditions there, we
cannot only laud our Belarusian colleagues’ drive and determination. Civil
society needs our continued support and solidarity. In my personal capacity as
an expert on Belarus, I would like to offer three recommendations.
Support for civil society should be maintained at current levels. Due to the
crackdown, the U.S. government increased its support to Belarus in 2011. Much
of this support went directly to aid independent media and human rights
victims. The editor of one repressed publication mentioned: We never felt
But funding for Belarus is expected to decline to $11 million by 2013. I ask
that we try to hold the line on the Belarus budget so that we can continue to
help brave people like Ales Bilatski and Ales Mikhalevich. It is the right and
moral thing to do.
Secondly, more support must go directly to Belarusian independent journalists,
human rights defenders and civil society activists who are doing the good work
I described. Too much assistance goes for soft, nondemocracy programs
fostering engagement with the regime. It is the Belarusian democrats who are
struggling to change their country for the better, and it’s their efforts that
must be supported.
Finally, the most effective support that can be provided is that over the long
term. I first started work with Ales Michalevich when he was still in college
back in the mid-1990s. Short-term and one-off programs have little impact or
lasting effect in Belarus. In a dictatorship, it takes time for independent
publications to build their capacity and audiences, for human rights groups to
build networks and trust and for NGOs to engage citizens who have been – who
have much to lose by opposing the regime. The outstanding work of Belarusian
civil society in the post-electoral period is the payoff of years of
investment. Please help us to maintain this commitment, and we’ll continue to
reap dividends. Despite the crackdown, momentum is building for change.
Thank you very much for your support and for considering these points. I’m
happy to answer any questions you might have.
REP. SMITH: Mr. Potocki, thank you very much for your very long-standing
commitment to the Belarusian people and to democracy, for your very specific
recommendations to the commission. I also serve of the Foreign Affairs
Committee and I know that I will translate that to the foreign ops subcommittee
people – Kay Granger and others – and as well as to the administration and to
members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. So –
MR. POTOCKI: (Inaudible.)
REP. SMITH: -- thank you so very much for that extraordinary testimony.
I’d like to now ask Susan Corke if she would present her testimony.
SUSAN CORKE: Mr. Chairman, Members of the Commission, it is an honor to appear
before you today for a very timely discussion on unbridled repression in
Belarus. As someone who has worked in common cause with the Commission staff
both when I worked for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and now
in my role covering the OSCE region at Freedom House, I have always appreciated
the opportunity to participate in the commission's important work. It is also
an honor to appear today with Ales Mikhalevich and Rodger Potocki of the
National Endowment for Democracy. They’ve both played a large role in working
to improve human rights in Belarus.
Mr. Chairman, I'd like to commend you for your leadership in securing the
passage of the U.S. House of Representatives Belarus Democracy and Human Rights
Act of 2011. This is an extremely important bill that will reinforce the
administration's efforts to foster democracy in Belarus and to show strong
support for civil society actors and citizens of Belarus who are suffering
under the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenka.
All of us here today hope to see a democratic transformation in Belarus in the
near future. In Freedom House's annual reports Belarus is ranked “not free,”
and it’s also on our “worst of the worst" list. The status quo is not
sustainable. Yet Lukashenka will continue to do whatever he can, using any
means, to preserve his own power and the system he created to perpetuate it.
Since declaring victory in the presidential election of December 2010, he has
increasingly used brutal tactics to maintain control of the country. As my
fellow panelists have already spoken to the tactics used by Lukashenka and
conditions on the ground, I will focus primarily on policy prescriptions and
why the time is now.
Unprecedented developments this year are leading some observers to suggest that
Lukashenka’s days might be numbered. Never before has Lukashenka faced an
economic crisis in his country like the one he bears responsibility for today,
with a collapsing currency, severe shortages, and dwindling hard currency
reserves. Never before has he been under more pressure from the EU and U.S.,
through their sanctions for the regime’s human rights abuses; from Russia
through its cut-off of subsidies; and from the IMF for rightly withholding
In September, Lukashenka hit the lowest point of his popularity in his nearly
17-year rule, dropping to only about 20 percent support. Lukashenka can no
longer assert that his regime provides for economic stability in the country,
and the implicit social contract, which ensured ongoing support for Lukashenka,
has been broken. As winter hits, and with it the imminent need to heat cold
houses, compounded by worsening economic conditions, the discontent of the
Belarusian people will grow.
In order to put forth a trans-Atlantic policy road map for Belarus, Freedom
House and the Center for European Policy Analysis launched an expert working
group in June of this year that included contributions from a bipartisan and
international group of leading scholars and analysts, including those from the
Helsinki Commission staff. We shared the results in a report entitled
“Democratic Change in Belarus: A Framework for Action” in events in Washington,
in Warsaw and in Brussels. Many of the recommendations I will share today are
direct findings of that group.
In short – and I will go into more detail – it is important that the
international community maintain solidarity, not let up on pressure, and take
actions to catalyze democratic change and transition. At the same time,
however, those around Lukashenka need to know that he is no longer a guarantor
of their own safety and stability but indeed a liability, which jeopardizes the
future of the country.
Lukashenka’s departure from power may occur unexpectedly, and it is the
responsibility of Belarusian pro-democratic forces, as well as of the
international community, to ease transformation in a democratic direction.
Before making recommendations for forward-looking policy, I would like to first
briefly recap some recent actions taken by the U.S., Europe and Belarus.
Belarus has been urgently holding out for an IMF loan, but based on the IMF
visit in October, such a prospect does not look likely as it requires a clear
commitment, including at the highest level, to stability and reform and to
reflect this commitment in actions. The EU recently said that the success of
progress in its relationship with Belarus is conditioned upon Belarus's steps
towards enacting fundamental values of democracy, human rights and rule of law.
As such steps have not been taken, it was logical and sound for the EU to
extend the existing visa ban and assets freeze until October 2012, for those
responsible for violations of international electoral standards in the
presidential elections and for the crackdown on civil society and the
opposition. The U.S. government took some important immediate measures after
the December post-election crackdown, including expanding the list of Belarus
officials subject to travel restrictions and imposing financial sanctions.
In August, the U.S. imposed more economic sanctions against four major
Belarusian state-owned enterprises. The post-election crackdown pledge of a
hundred million (dollars) by Western governments was an important sign of
international solidarity. It is important now for international donors to
coordinate and expedite the flow of assistance to those who need it, including
those beyond Minsk.
Lukashenka’s regime however remains defiant in the face of growing unpopularity
and international pressure and has orchestrated a new series of maneuvers to
legitimize – in the eye of Belarusian law – grounds for further repression of
citizen freedoms. Nothing except further misery and ruination for Belarus can
be possible under Lukashenka. His departure would free the people of Belarus
from Europe's last dictator and establish the foundations for positive
integration into Western communities.
In order to prepare for such integration, engagement, and change, here are 10
things the West should do and 10 it should avoid. One, do understand that
Lukashenka is a threat to the decades-long vision of a Europe whole, free, and
at peace; to the people of Belarus who have suffered 17 years under his abusive
rule; and to peace generally, through arms sales to rogue regimes. At the same
time, do not worry about isolating Lukashenka. Through his actions, he has
done that himself.
Two, do maintain unrelenting pressure on the regime through economic sanctions
to force the release and full rehabilitation of political prisoners and lawyers
disbarred for representing them. It is the only way to win their freedom. At
the same time, do not worry about pushing Belarus toward Russia. Indeed stop
viewing Russia – Belarus through a Russian prism. Doing so plays into
Three, do insist on the unconditional release of all political prisoners.
Thirteen are still in Belarusian prison, and even those who have been released
have not had their civil rights restored. Do not even talk about engaging the
regime as long as one political prisoner still engages – still languishes in
Four, do raise questions about Lukashenka’s legitimacy as leader, especially
since the U.S. did not recognize as legitimate the results of last December’s
rigged election. Do not adopt a business-as-usual approach to Lukashenka now
and in the future.
Five, do engage more with Belarusian pro-democratic forces and insist on the
unrestrained work of NGOs inside the country. Already the EU and member states
and the U.S. have done a lot on this score, but more can and should be done.
On the other hand, do not invite Lukashenka’s representatives like Foreign
Minister Martynov to European Partnership meetings, as was done recently. This
lends credibility to Lukashenka’s illegitimate regime and undermines attempts
to pressure him.
Six, do add Martynov to the visa ban list so that he no longer can peddle lies
of the Lukashenka regime. For European officials, do not keep going to Minsk
thinking that you can persuade Lukashenka to do the right thing.
Seven, do question any major privatizations, which Lukashenka seeks to fund his
failing system. Instead, do impose sanctions on more state-owned enterprises,
driving down their attractiveness for buyers and to prevent financial flows
into the regime's coffers. Do not allow the IMF to offer a lifeline by
extending any assistance. This would simply be a betrayal of Belarus's
Eight, do prepare strategies for a post-Lukashenka Belarus and recognize that
the very idea of talking about such a future will take on a life of its own.
At the same time, do not force artificial unity among the opposition. Let them
forge their own democratic path.
Nine, do encourage defections among Belarus's diplomatic community and even
within the regime. Do not rule out turmoil within the ruling circle. There
are clear indications that some officials see that the current political system
is not sustainable, and Lukashenka is a threat to their own well-being. They
may be looking for a way out.
Finally, 10, do recognize that with an unprecedented economic crisis, there is
no greater opportunity than right now to facilitate change in Belarus. Do not
assume that Lukashenka will survive and stay in power for many more years to
come. As Tunisians showed in driving out Ben Ali and in holding Tunisia's
first free election, dictators of the world are not destined to rule forever.
The same can apply to Belarus and Lukashenka.
For the U.S. and Europe, the outcome in Belarus matters greatly. Lukashenka is
determined to preserve his model of dead-end governance and avoid changing
course from authoritarian rule and corruption. He will likely resort to old
tricks and strategies, looking to exploit divisions between the U.S. and Europe
and among EU member states. We must not let him do so.
The U.S. and Europe have made many commendable policy steps in 2011, as well as
a few that could be improved upon. Those in Belarus who look to the West have
high expectations for an active, coordinated response to help them press for
democratic change. We have nurtured these hopes. Now is not the time to
disappoint. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the aftermath of
Belarus's fraudulent elections, it is a reminder that the U.S. and Europe must
redouble their efforts to bring about positive democratic change to Belarus and
to prepare the foundation for the time when the country is able to take its
rightful place as a democratic European nation.
REP. SMITH: Thank you very much for your testimony, and thank you for those
very specific recommendations, which you know, are just a blueprint for action.
So I deeply appreciate that on behalf of the commission.
Let me ask Mr. Mikhalevich – when you spoke about the physical and the mental
torture that you endured and your fellow political prisoners in order to coerce
a confession of guilt – and the other panelists might want to speak to this as
well – you know, it has always struck me – and I’ve been in Congress now 31,
almost 32 years, and my first trips were to the Soviet Union. And I have
always felt – other than the propaganda value that they might glean inside the
country – it is absolutely ludicrous and absurd to think that anyone believes a
coerced confession and that it has any value outside of the controlled press
inside the country. And that – I guess, that validity is why they do it.
But I mean, in a day when the Internet, obviously, and all the other
independent media have the ability to overcome the government-controlled press,
such a signing is – who cares. I’m glad you signed. I hope others would sign,
come out and then speak – to endure torture over a big lie effort on their part
only brings dishonor on those who are perpetrating the lie, and that’s the KGB
When you described the tortures, and you pointed out that masked KGB jailers
carried out body searches five or six times a day, which is all about
humiliation and degradation because it is not about trying to find weapons or
anything. We all know what they’re doing here. You said, we were stripped
naked and forced to assume various positions.
You also said, our legs were pulled apart with ropes and we could feel our
That sounds like the rack. I mean, that is – that is just – that’s outrageous.
And I would like to say, we ought to – rather than calling them the KGB, it
ought to be the KGBP – P for perverts. Masked men who strip other men naked –
and women, presumably, as well – that’s acts of perversion that should not go
unnoticed by the international community in terms of its degradation. It is a
form of torture, and I – and you might want to speak to that, because I just
think that is – and then you mentioned all the other things, including the
lights – and the overhead lights that were kept on all night.
All of the methods of torture designed to break people if you wanted to speak
to that or elaborate on that because again, KGBP – P for perverts – on the part
of these jailers. And someday they have to know that there will be efforts
made to hold them to account for their crimes against humanity that they
committed against you and all of your fellow political prisoners. So if you
would like to – any of you – speak to the actual torture issue.
And if you could also speak to the – isn’t it time that Lukashenka and other
gross violators of human rights in Belarus be indicted by prosecutors at the
ICC – at the International Criminal Court? We know that a special request
could be made from the Security Council. I believe – and I plan on sending a
letter to the Obama administration and to the Security Council to ask that an
effort be made to do this.
I know I’m one of the few members of Congress who actually met with Bashir in
Khartoum, the perpetrator of crimes against humanity both in Darfur and in the
south of Sudan. And the one thing he wanted to talk about was getting rid of
the sanctions. And then when the ICC indictment was handed down, that had him
worried and scared, and it is something that potentially, especially in
Belarus, might have an impact in bringing that man to justice.
We know Milosevic, Mladic, Karadzic and all the others loathed being charged by
the regional court. Charles Taylor and – I could go through a whole long list
of thugs who, when they’re indicted and face the possibility and hopefully the
probability and – God willing someday – certainty of prosecution, are very much
worried about spending the rest of their lives in prison for the crimes that
they commit – it’s all about accountability.
Why hasn’t this man – why hasn’t an effort been made to bring an indictment
against him at the ICC? And again, the torture issue, if we could speak to
that, and the issue of incitement – anyone who would like to speak to those.
MR. MIKHALEVICH: So just – thank you very much for your question. It’s about
torture. So many people are speaking about it at the moment. It’s really – I
am very proud that I was the first who started to speak about it and now a wave
of such people who are speaking about it.
So with great assistance from Radio Free Europe, they made, in cooperation with
some human rights organizations, a special program about tortures. So it’s
more and more confessions, more and more evidence of torture in Belarus. And
what we are doing, we’re just collecting information. And we are working with
special – U.N. Special Rapporteur onTorture.
The biggest problem is that those people who are still in prison, they cannot
write any documents, any evidences directly to Belarusian prosecutor office.
So we are – unfortunately, we are limited that we should wait until those
people will be – will be released because in other cases I’m seeing the torture
simply will heighten pressure, and tortures will be more and more.
So majority of people who are in prison, unfortunately they’re afraid. The
same, by the way, definitely, while I was – during two months in KGB detention
center. I didn’t complain on any conditions because those who complain, they
immediately were beaten, immediately were – like level of torture were raised.
So thank you very much.
REP. SMITH: You know, I would just add – and it’s why we should never lose our
shock value and our outrage when torture is employed. And it is – it is human
nature that if you’re being tortured and face the prospects of being tortured
again by being rearrested, you won’t speak about it, and others won’t speak
about it. So I commend you for bringing this to the table.
I’ll never forget Jeremiah Denton, one of the POWs in the Vietnam War, who when
very gullible Americans traveled to Hanoi to say that the prisoners were being
treated very well, he – you might recall, with his eyes, flashed “torture’ in
Morse code to say that – nobody was fooled, that torture was endemic, it was
commonplace, pervasive by those who incarcerated those POWs. So more focus,
not less – as a matter of fact, profoundly more focus needs to be brought to
light in terms of Lukashenka’s systematic use of torture.
MR. POTOCKI: Mr. Chairman, I would just mention that the human rights groups
in Belarus have spent two years putting together an alternative report on
torture that was presented this week in front of the U.N. committee there in
Geneva, mentioning both the case of Mr. Mikhalevich and others. So they are
working on gathering evidence, information on what has been taking place
throughout these 17 years. And we do look forward to the time when it can be
MR. SMITH: Would you also speak, if you would, to whether or not you think it
would be advisable to begin the process of an indictment at the ICC – any of
you – and of course, Ms. Corke.
MR. MIKHALEVICH: So we’re cooperating with different groups, with a very
influential British law firm, on organizing processes against Lukashenka
according to legal systems in different European countries – hopes that it also
will be not only in European countries. But also what we should remember – as
I told – I stated that Lukashenka is ready to defend – to defend his power by
all means. It means that I’m absolutely sure that quite soon we will see
hundreds or hundreds of thousands of people on our streets. And unfortunately,
Lukashenka and his special troops are ready to shoot the people; like, they’re
ready to defend their power by all means. So just as I predict that definitely
we have more than enough evidence different crimes made by the Lukashenka
regime, but unfortunately, it’s – to my mind, it’s only beginning. More and
more such cases and they will be – unfortunately, they will be very visible.
It will be more and more such evidences. Thank you.
MS. CORKE: I think it’s important that the violators of human rights in
Belarus must be held accountable and that any means for doing so should be
considered, whether it’s the ICC, whether it’s before the European Court of
Human Rights, whether it’s looking to a post-Lukashenka environment. There’s
been a fairly severe information blockade in Belarus. And the people of
Belarus do not know the abuses that the regime has committed.
In order to move forward for a better future for Belarus, it’s important that
the people come to terms and understand the abuses that were committed by the
regime. And thus an important step to moving forward is finding
accountability, both within Belarus as well as international instruments.
REP. SMITH: Mention was made – mention was made of no saving hand to a
collapsing regime. Is there a sense that it is indeed collapsing or – I mean,
in the past – and this applies to places like Cuba and elsewhere where human
rights are systematically violated – somehow the dictatorship is able to
survive to abuse for another day.
I know that, Mr. Potocki, you mentioned that the independent media is thriving,
independent media is winning the information war. And I think that’s extremely
encouraging. But are we on the precipice of another major additional crackdown
that would consolidate Lukashenka’s iron-fisted rule?
MR. POTOCKI: Mr. Chairman, we’ve seen so many crackdowns over the course of
these 17 years that I would say that the independent civil society that exists
today – those people who are fighting for free media, for political parties,
for NGOs in Belarus – are in a sense professional dissidents. They’ve already
lost their jobs. They’ve already spent time in jail. They have nothing else
to lose. They, I don’t think, can be intimidated.
I think one positive outcome of the crackdown that we’ve seen is that not one
NGO or independent media outlet stopped working since the repression.
Belarusians, like Ales, are committed to the work that they’re doing, and we’re
very proud to be supporting them. We don’t see the fall-off in activity that
we saw in past years. And I think perhaps they also sense that this is the
beginning of the end of the regime.
REP. SMITH: Let me ask, Mr. Potocki, again, talking about independent media
and online content and the like, have you seen evidence of the Chinese
government’s aiding and abetting Lukashenka’s regime. Because obviously
they’ve written the book on how to crack down on dissidents. And is that
expertise being shared with Minsk?
MR. POTOCKI: From what we understand, the regime has considered and tried to
implement different ways to block or filter or obstruct the Internet in
Belarus. But the Chinese have one thing that Lukashenka doesn’t have, and
that’s a lot of money. It takes a lot of resources to construct the great
firewall of China. Lukashenka doesn’t have those resources, thankfully.
And they’ve been largely ineffectual in blocking the Internet and being able to
deter people from getting out the information about the crackdown, the economic
crisis, the international isolation. We’ve been very proud to see that
virtually every independent website in Belarus has grown by two and half to
four times this past year. And the government has not been able to block them
or stop them for more than a few hours or days at a time.
REP. SMITH: Let me just ask, what role does the church play in promoting –
churches of various denominations in promoting human rights respect.
MR. MIKHALEVICH: The main churches in Belarus are – the biggest and so-called
official church is Russian Orthodox Church. So certainly it is not playing any
special role in – only maybe sometimes they’re speaking about Stalinist crimes,
what is also quite positive in Belarusian situation because it’s like speaking
about historical truths. Definitely Catholic Church is playing much, much
better role because it’s very much integrated into the Western community.
And also there are very active – smaller but very active Protestant churches.
And they’re playing really a very important role because they experienced very
difficult Soviet times, and they are very much open for democracy promotion.
They’ve very open for promotion of what – so-called Western style of life. So
it’s really very, very important, and churches – even under quite huge control
from state sphere, churches are surviving and they are developing their base.
And definitely it’s helped very much for democratic candidates because it’s
organized structure of civil society. Thank you.
MR. POTOCKI: I would – I would just add to that, that we saw this week a very
interesting visit of a papal envoy to Belarus, Swiss Cardinal Koch, who spoke
in a sermon this Sunday in Minsk about the right of people to a fair trial.
I’m hoping that we’re seeing – this the third visit by a high-ranking church
member from Rome over this last past year. And I hope that we’re seeing the
church take a more active role – the Catholic Church take a much more active
role in promoting democracy and human rights in Belarus, like it did in Central
Europe 20 years ago.
REP. SMITH: Does the International Committee for the Red Cross get to pay
visits to the political prisoners? The ICRC, have they been able to have
access to prisoners of conscience? Do they –
MR. MIKHALEVICH: No. I don’t know anything about such visits. As far as I
know, Belarusian Red Cross is total – it’s like governmental and governmental
organization and totally integrated into governmental system. And no one – I
didn’t hear that someone from such structures wanted to visit political
REP. SMITH: Mr. Potocki, you mentioned that too much U.S. assistance goes to
U.S. contractors for soft, nondemocracy programs fostering engagement with the
regime. It is the Belarusian democrats who are struggling to change their
country for the better, and it is their efforts that should be supported.
Could you just elaborate on that?
MR. POTOCKI: I think when Ales Mikhalevich mentioned a saving hand, he was
referring to the IMF bailout of Belarus in 2009, and a period in time where the
U.S. and Europe believed that by engaging in the regime, we could win over Mr.
Lukashenka to become more democratic and more Western.
I think the crackdown destroyed all of these illusions, but I think some of the
aid programs that are still being conducted are under the illusion that by
working with the state, with the regime that you can bring them to appreciate
the values that the Western community espouses. I think that those programs
need to be cancelled as – like the IMF consideration was for Belarus recently,
and that we need to really redirect most of our support to those who need that
assistance in Belarus.
MR. MIKHALEVICH: Excuse me. I just wanted to add that because of such
projects, which are quite important for local office of USAID – for example –
they are lobbing some really strange ideas, like cooperating, like trying to
agree on all United States projects with Lukashenka government or even with
KGB, for example. So it’s very strange ideas to my mind just because – I’m not
against some, like, soft projects in cooperation – direct cooperation with
registered organizations in Belarus. But the only problem is that because of
such project we are, like, forgetting about supporting human rights activities.
We’re forgetting about supporting an independent media. Because we should
remember that economic conditions in Belarus are such that a real, independent
media will not survive without such help, because it’s huge, huge pressure on
them from side of authorities.
So I totally agree with Rodger Potocki that because of such projects, we have a
lot of really – so it’s like – very much like supporting Belarusian government
forgetting about supporting civil society. Thank you very much.
REP. SMITH: Just two final questions before going to Dr. Gingrey, a fellow
Commissioner. I was shocked and dismayed on another human rights issue with
regards to China when on her first trip to China, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton said she was not going to allow humans rights to, quote, “interfere”
with peddling United States debt, as well as global warming issues.
I know most of the U.S. – now living in the U.S., as I know you do as well –
dissidents – Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng, all the others, who were absolutely
outraged by that statement and said that threw the dissidents in the laogai
under the bus because we were too worried about selling our debt. So in other
words, human rights were subordinated in order to curry favor with the Beijing
I’m concerned that the European Union and the U.S. are far too distracted. We
do have obviously pressing and vexing issues dealing with our own economies,
but that shouldn’t mean that concern for human rights goes on a vacation. And
I’m wondering, if you could speak to it, have we been as focused as we should
be on bringing accountability and an end to this dictatorship in Minsk, as we
should? Is Obama, is the EU, others doing enough? And I repeat my comment
before, because I do plan on sending a letter to all the appropriate officials:
Is it time to indict or to seek an indictment – because it’s a long step to
actually getting an indictment – of Alexander Lukashenka before the
International Criminal Court?
MS. CORKE: I would say in the past year following the December elections, the
U.S. and the EU have been remarkably in-synced and doing a lot of the right
moves by extending sanctions, increasing travel ban. The challenge now is to
maintain that solidarity moving forward. Mr. Lukashenka has been very good in
the past at exploiting any possible divisions. And even this year he’s
exploited divisions by having, for example, the Bulgarian foreign minister
going, thinking that he could cut a deal. Lithuania and Poland both bear some
responsibility in the case against Mr. Bialiatski. So the challenge now is to
double down and make sure that there isn’t any daylight between the U.S. and
MR. POTOCKI: I would just – I would just add to that, I agree. I would add
that perhaps the one area where there has been some disagreement between the
U.S. and the EU and where the U.S. has really led is in terms of economic
sanctions. The United States has been in the forefront of that.
Lukashenka’s largest trading partner isn’t Russia. It’s the European Union,
and the European Union seems happy to still import gas, oil and petroleum
products that either originate or travel through Belarus. I think the European
Union would be better off tightening economic sanctions, cutting off that
saving hand that Mr. Mikhalevich referred to; and that if we could get our
European partners to do more in this area, we really could bring down that
REP. SMITH: Dr. Gingrey?
REPRESENTATIVE PHIL GINGREY (R-GA): Mr. Chairman, thank you. And I want to
apologize to our three witnesses for coming in late. This is obviously a very
important subject and one in which I am extremely interested in, and so please
accept my apologies. We had a markup in another committee, and otherwise I
would have been here at the beginning.
I did want to ask a question and maybe ask all three of you to respond to this.
And I know that there have been some recent amendments to various laws that
would appear to strengthen the security services, to outlaw protests, for
example, and indeed prohibit any foreign funding of civil society and political
Do these represent anything new? Or are they essentially reinforcing what was
already on the books or what has already been practiced? How dangerous are
these recent amendments? And maybe we can start with the gentleman on my
right. I can’t pronounce – I’m sure I’ll mess up your name, but I’m reading
about what you have been through in regard to your detention. And I’m sure you
have some very strong feelings about this.
MR. MIKHALEVICH: So thank you very much for your question. First of all, new
amendments is just bringing new legislation for real process. For example, it
was punishment of civic organizations for, like, receiving foreign funding. It
was extremely huge competencies of employees of secret services. So it’s more
or less the same that used to be – but the very important process is that
Lukashenka trying to convince his people. Because those people who are serving
in his system, that they can do everything. If you are – if they are killing
members or representatives of opposition, so he’s trying to convince them that
it’s OK. It’s like it’s legal. So it’s like spreading of these legal
opportunities for people within the system.
Definitely at the same time, a majority of them still understand that if
they’re killing someone, it’s illegal, yeah? So even if it will be written in
current legislation, so that still they – the majority of society, they have
understanding that it’s just Lukashenka trying to prepare the system and to
prepare himself and his allies for defending against society in case – if mass
manifestations will start. So he’s preparing his people that – please do
everything in order to defend the system.
REP. GINGREY: Well, Mr. Mikhalevich, thank you very much. And in – we’ll go
to the next witness.
MR. POTOCKI: I agree with my fellow witness that the regime has never had a
hard time in justifying its repression against democrats and civil society
activists in Belarus, whether it’s in the law or not. These laws are a sign of
his increasing desperation in terms of doing all he can to prevent unrest from
spreading inside of the country. At the same time, it hasn’t intimidated or
caused any of the groups that we’re working with to be less idealistic or
active in terms of opposing the regime.
REP. GINGREY: Ms. Corke?
MS. CORKE: I would agree for the most part with what both Ales and Rodger have
said. There have been plenty of restrictions before. I think this is a sign,
though, that Mr. Lukashenka is increasingly defiant. As his unpopularity grows
within the country and international pressure increases, he continues to put
more legislative tools in place to justify more crackdowns. Belarusian civil
society has strongly condemned the amendment. On October 20th, several civil
society organizations, including the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, “Viasna”
and the Human Rights Alliance, released a joint statement in which they said
the draft law on amendments to the state security bodies significantly expands
the powers of the state security service, makes them uncontrollable and
actually puts them above the law.
Another thing I would note is this summer there were a lot of demonstrations,
the clapping protests. Those have slowed down in part due to reprisals.
However, the fact that there’s more legislation in place to further restrict
their ability to – for freedom of assembly, I think, would have a chilling
effect and dissuade them from taking to the streets again.
REP. GINGREY: Thank you all very much.
Mr. Chairman, I yield back.
REP. SMITH: Thank you very much, Dr. Gingrey.
Let me just add just – or ask a few final questions, and then I’ll yield to Mr.
Milosch for a question or two.
Last June, the U.N. Human Rights Council did condemn, as we know, the
Belarusian government’s crackdown on the opposition. They talked about serious
allegations of torture and ill treatment in custody, impunity of perpetrators
and called for a visit. And as a matter of fact, the – Pillay – Pillay, I
should say – the head of the Office of the High Commissioner wanted to
undertake a visit, which apparently has been denied.
And I’m wondering what your sense is as to the U.N. committee – you know, a
strong statement from the Human Rights Council. Has the U.N. on torture, the
panel of experts, have they spoken about the use of torture? I mean, if we
don’t have zero tolerance for torture, then, you know, to me that’s –
especially in light of what you have suffered and so many of your fellow
political prisoners. Your sense on the Human Rights Council; and secondly, the
committee on torture or any other relevant U.N. body?
MR. POTOCKI: I know that the Belarusian human rights groups also produced an
alternative report on the human rights review that was presented to accompany
the Belarusian government’s report that the U.N. reviewed. The U.N. was
strongly critical, as many international bodies, such as the OSCE, have been.
But like many, they cannot travel inside of the country and cannot share these
views with Belarusians inside the country. That’s why I believe an independent
media is so important to be able to spread the word about these decisions.
The committee in Geneva, the committee against torture, hasn’t spoken yet.
Just yesterday, Belarus’s envoy to the U.N., who used to be the ambassador here
in Washington, Mr. Khvastaw, denied that Belarus practices torture, in the face
of statements such as Mr. Mikhalevich’s. I don’t think anybody believes him.
I agree with you that in the 21st century, it’s very hard to keep this
information quiet, and the government is in a sense constantly denying its
transgressions. We do hope that the committee will make a strong statement on
this. I think – I think the 21st is the final day in Geneva for these
decisions. We look forward to hearing their comments but we’re pleased in a
sense that the Belarusian human rights groups have been able to put together
their own reports, present their own evidence, argue this case on their own
behalf, which is something that they have not been able to do in the past and,
I think, shows a strong growth, again, in the self-organizing and solidarity
spirit inside the country.
REP. SMITH: I would just finally add that I believe the most efficacious way
or means of holding Lukashenka to account – and I agree with everything you
just said – but it is to indict him.
MARK MILOSCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I’ll switch gears here a little bit with a question to the approach taken by
the democratic opposition. What is their basic message to the Belarusian
people? I’m wondering if maybe they’re – do you think they have the right
message? Perhaps their message is the fundamental message that they all maybe
have in common it might be, Lukashenka is denying us democracy; we want
Maybe that’s not the right message. Maybe their message should be, Lukashenka
is impoverishing us.
You know, what is their message? And do you think they have the right one?
And would you suggest another one?
A second question – the Polish model of Solidarity that was just mentioned –
Poland’s, of course, on the border, and you have Poles in Belarus. It was – it
became the effective model of resistance in the 1980s in Central Europe. The
idea was, we’re not going to let the dictatorship divide us up into workers
versus intellectuals, or workers versus farmers. We’re not going to let them
play on anti-Semitism to divide us up. You know, we’re the 99 percent.
They’re the 1 percent, to use the current phrase.
What’s the relevance of the Polish Solidarity model in Belarus? Has it played
any role? Have people tried to use it? And how does that work out?
I’d like to hear from each of you. Thanks.
MR. MIKHALEVICH: Thank you very much. We should remember that in Belarus
during the last – in the second half of ‘90s and begin of 2000s, we had an
economic growth. And Belarus was – which was relatively poor during many
years, we started to become more rich in last years of the Soviet Union. For
them, this was quite high salaries. They were something completely new. So
they were extremely loyal to the Soviet Union the last years of the Soviet
Union, and they became loyal to Lukashenka because it was economic growth. The
salary were bigger and bigger. They bought the fast car. They made good
reparations – their houses and their flats, so – and during the last half year,
because Lukashenka wanted to achieve this standard of $500 per month for every
employed person, before elections, we had collapse of our financial system. We
had, like, very big problems in the economy. And people lost in their salaries
So exchange rate of Belarusian currency towards dollar or euro was decreased
three times, became smaller three times. And people lost majority almost three
times they lost their – level of life. And definitely a majority of people
became unloyal (sic) to Lukashenko. That’s why at the moment he has only 20
percent of support, and we should remember that in post-communist countries 20
percent are usually supporting any government. So those who are in power –
they are supporting authorities. They are not supporting someone personally
but they’re in favor of authorities.
So Lukashenka lost his, I would say, totally lost his support. That’s why our
message at the moment is just changes. It’s not about – so definitely people
understand it from economic terms. Because before five, seven years ago, we
could rely and we could work only with those people who cared about human
rights, who cared about rule of law. But the majority of people,
unfortunately, used to be satisfied. At the moment, 80 percent of people are
against Lukashenka, so it’s really a very, very big change with our people.
And just change at the moment is our main – is our main slogan, our main
message for our population. We are speaking in different ways, I mean, but
this word “changes” is the most important.
Coming back to solidarity, Rodger in his speech talked about huge level of
solidarity within Belarusian society: when people were collecting money, when
Belarusian business was just giving money because they felt themselves guilty
that they were not participating in protest against Lukashenka. So it’s
solidarity among people, and it’s really very well-developed. And also I’m
absolutely sure that Lukashenka failed to divide us. For example, Polish
national minority, which is quite influential in Belarus, is totally integrated
into democratic movement. We are standing together. We are working together.
The same – while I was employed by independent trade union, we developed a very
high level of solidarity between different groups: workers, teachers, doctors,
so on– and it’s working. I’m absolutely sure that Belarusian society’s a
completely new society. It’s completely different than society which we used
to have in ’94, when Lukashenka was elected as the president.
MR. POTOCKI: I would add to that that the message of change, I think, is not
enough today in Belarus and that we’ve been concerned that in contrast with the
human rights groups or some of the other parts of civil society that are more
united, that the politicians are a bit more divided and have not yet presented
an alternative vision of the country that the public will respond to. And we
are trying to assist them in that work and urging them to do so. I think it’s
very important that there is one common message, like Solidarity had in Poland
back during those days.
I would also mention – Ales mentioned independent trade unions. The one big
difference we see today in Belarus, as compared to Poland 20 years ago, is the
amount of activism in the labor sector. We’re just starting to see over the
last couple of months the first strikes, the first unrest amongst workers,
which still comprise 70 percent of state enterprises. But Belarus is still
really much a very state-run economy, and I think that once workers begin to
become more active, that we will see more of a situation like we saw in Central
Europe back in the late 1980s.
MR. MILOSCH: Ms. Corke?
MS. CORKE: I agree with a lot of what’s been said, but it’s the economic
hardships that have driven, the economic hardships that drove the Belarusians
to take to the street this summer. However, only a minority is motivated by
political issues, thus a message of change is important but also recognizing
the fact that the current social contract is broken is what is really driving
the population to have dissatisfaction with the current regime.
As was briefly touched up on previously, civil society has not done a great job
at reaching out to the population. In part, as Rodger noted, funding has gone
toward soft things that have encouraged talking to the regime, and a lot of the
population outside of Minsk is not understanding that both civil society and
the opposition can help them in this time of economic hardship. So creating
greater solidarity amongst the population, civil society and the opposition is
an important area to focus.
MR. MILOSCH: Thank you all for very incisive answers.
REP. SMITH: Thank you.
Mr. Mikhalevich, you said in your statement that you’re not a hero. I just
want to say you are a hero and you are a very enlightened individual that helps
this Commission but, more importantly, the people of your beloved Belarus.
Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your testimony and for telling the
world with fresh insights what – exactly what Lukashenka and his thugs are
doing to the people, especially the bravest and the best, and that would be the
I want to thank Mr. Potocki. Thank you for your expertise and since 1997
working this very, very difficult issue of trying to bring democracy and
freedom to Belarus.
And Susan Corke, thank you for your expertise, for your many excellent
recommendations. Freedom House is always welcome here and has helped this
Commission, as well as my subcommittee – the Global health, Global human
rights, Africa subcommittee – time and again over the many years with
suggestions for legislation and for holding dictators to account and helping
those who are striving for freedom.
If there’s anything you would like to add before we conclude – yes, Mr. Potocki?
MR. POTOCKI: Mr. Chairman, I just – on behalf of those who suffered for the
cause of democracy in Belarus after the 19th, I wanted to personally thank you
for taking part in the Voices of Solidarity campaign that recited their names
to the world over Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during those difficult
Christmas days. It would be my pleasure to present you with a CD produced by
RFE/RL and NED with that entire program, and we’re grateful for your efforts.
REP. SMITH: Thank you for doing that very program and thank you for presenting
And again, I want the human rights defenders in Belarus to know that they have
many friends throughout the world, including in the U.S. Congress House,
Senate. Democrat, Republican, we are all united in standing in solidarity with
them. And so I want the human rights defenders to know they are not alone.
The hearing is adjourned.