Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Statement of Honorable Christopher H. Smith
Chairman - Helsinki Commission

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Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Opening Statement of Hon. Christopher H. Smith,

Chairman

Belarus - Stalled at the Crossroads

March 9, 2000


Last April, the Commission held a hearing on Belarus, at which we examined Belarus' track record with respect to
human rights and democracy. Most of the testimony was not encouraging, although, at that time, there appeared
to be some basis for thinking that there might be possible solutions to the constitutional impasse that has so
damaged the democratic development of Belarus. Unfortunately, today there appear to be even fewer grounds for
optimism and Belarus appears to be stalled at the crossroads. Alyaksandr Lukashenka remains in power, beyond
the expiration of his legal term on July 20, l999. Not surprisingly, he did not acknowledge last May's alternative
opposition-organized presidential elections. Instead, several individuals associated with that election have paid the
price for organizing elections according to the 1994 constitution. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Chygir, the
leading candidate in the alternative elections, was detained for eight months ending November 30, and is now in
the midst of a questionable trial that strongly smacks of being politically motivated. Viktor Gonchar, who chaired
the Central Election Commission for those elections, along with his friend Anatoliy Krasovsky, and former
Minister of Internal Affairs Yuri Zakharenka, a close associate of Chygir's, have mysteriously disappeared. There
is understandable anguish and fear on the part of family, friends, and the democratic opposition in Belarus, and
grave concern from the international community. And, other individuals who have opposed the regime, such as
Andrei Klimov and Vladimir Koudinov, continue to suffer in detention.


Lukashenka's regime continues to clench the reigns of power, stifling fundamental freedoms and violating the
human rights of Belarusian citizens. Despite several false starts, it has refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with
the opposition. Instead, he has played lip service to dialogue, or has used the tactics of delay and obfuscation, so
reminiscent of the communist past. To cite an example: disregarding the OSCE-mediated dialogue process, the
flawed electoral code - recently approved by Lukashenka - ignores key OSCE recommendations. By-passing the
dialogue process contradicts both the July 15, 1999 agreement with the opposition and the OSCE Advisory and
Monitoring Group, as well as paragraph 22 of the Istanbul Summit Declaration which calls for progress in that
dialogue. More importantly, the flawed electoral code dramatically reduces the chances of a free and fair
parliamentary election this Fall.


I would like to think that real dialogue will begin, based on last week's round-table conference in Miensk between
the Belarusian Government and the opposition and NGOs, with the participation of a joint delegation of the
OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and European Parliament. I look
forward to the testimony of Mr. Severin and Mr. Lebedka, who participated in this meeting. However, given the
record of Mr. Lukashenka's broken promises, and the continued climate of repression, I am somewhat skeptical,
although I would be very pleased if it turns out that my skepticism were unwarranted. In the meantime, frustration
and discontent with Lukashenka and his regime continue to grow, both domestically and internationally.
Unfortunately, the regime's reaction to criticism has been to downplay, ignore or rationalize its own violations of
freely undertaken OSCE and other international commitments.

Meanwhile, the situation for the long-suffering people of Belarus gets worse. Living standards are dropping,
inflation is spiraling. The legacy of Chornobyl still hangs like a dark cloud. According to a March 1 Reuters article,
Belarus is experiencing soaring levels of infertility and genetic changes. Belarusian citizens, led by the democratic
opposition, will be holding large rallies in the next few weeks. We expect that there will not be a repeat of the
events of last October's Freedom March in which some demonstrators were brutally beaten, and we would hope
that the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association will be unequivocally respected.


Another issue of growing concern is the Russia-Belarus Union. How can one talk about a Union when a mockery
is made of democratic processes? When freedom of expression is severely limited; when a legitimate parliament
reflecting the electorate is cast aside; when the judiciary is controlled by the executive; when freedoms of
association and assembly are constrained, how can one talk of a Union? Can a genuine debate exist under these
circumstances? For that matter, can you speak of a Union when the decks are stacked against those who deeply
care about Belarus' independence, and when the head of the country actively works against open debate on the
subject? A momentous decision such as whether or not to unify with another country, with all the implications for
Belarus' sovereignty, should - as perhaps no other decision - reflect the genuine will of the people.


I am pleased to welcome our distinguished witnesses and to hear their views on the situation in Belarus and
prospects for the future, with a view for possible solutions to the continuing constitutional impasse.