Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Helsinki Commission, especially Congressman Smith and Co-Chairman Senator Brownback for inviting me here today to discuss the situation in Belarus in view of the upcoming presidential elections in March and to focus on what actions are currently being taken and not taken by the European Union and particular what actions should be taken.
What brings me here today is a strong belief in the freedom to choose one's political leadership in a free and open manner. At the moment, in Belarus, this freedom is non-existent. Current Belarusian president, Aleksander Lukashenko, has once again demonstrated that he will not allow his country to be free and democratic.
Last year, we were preparing to keep an exceptionally close eye on all of Lukashenko activities in rescheduled the elections for March 19, just over six weeks, as was said.
This manipulation of election dates is just another tactic by Lukashenko, the last dictator in Europe to deny free and fair elections and political freedom for the citizens of Belarus.
The recent situation in Belarus is grim. The European parliament's Delegation for Relations with Belarus, and I personally, are in very close contact with the NGOs and Belarusian democratic forces. Unfortunately, our delegation is not welcome in Belarus.
Lukashenko and his cronies have increased their manipulations of the Belarusian political system and the intimidation of the opposition as the elections grow closer. As the opposition candidate, Aliaksandr Milinkievic, travels the country meeting the voters, his rights are violated by Belarusian KGB operatives and police forces in the pocket of Lukashenko. In the Brest region, Milinkievic's convoy was pulled over on the way to deliver cartoons to orphans, and videos were confiscated along with blankets and other supplies. There are similar searches before nearly every political appearance he makes.
Milinkievic campaign staffers have been arrested and had hundreds of thousands of posters, handouts and buttons confiscated in suspicious raids by police forces. Furthermore, Lukashenko's puppet parliament adopted his proposal to amend the criminal code to provide harsh penalties for anyone found to be spreading information critical of the Republic of Belarus and anyone training for or organizing political demonstrations. These laws are meant to stifle the opposition in advance of the elections, and NGOs, human rights groups and Christian missionaries have already been targeted.
There's a saying in Belarus: "You can do whatever you like, but we would find the law in criminal code always to punish you on that."
Lukashenko's attempt to further crash any opposition within Belarusian politics has led to the unlawful arrests of dozens of political leaders and dissidents whose only crime is desire to choose the destiny of their country.
The most well-known political prisoner is Mikhail Marynich, the former ambassador of Belarus to Latvia who was Lukashenko's opponent in the 2001 presidential elections. He's in jail on the dubious charge of stealing computers from the NGO that he runs, though the computers actually belong to the American embassy, and the U.S. government has stated they don't have any claims against him. He has been claimed and labeled as a prisoner of conscious by Amnesty International, and he's an inspirational leader of Zubr, a student opposition group that met with Secretary Rice last year in Lithuania.
The chairman and vice chairman of the "Free Belarus" movement, Valery Levaneusky and Aliaksandr Vasilieu, have been in prison on the charges of public insult to the president -- I remember one of them just said something about his skiing habits that was insulting -- and for organizing mass protests. Mass protests usually in Belarus is 100, 200 people as the mass protests for Lukashenko.
Political prisoners such as these are suddenly common in Belarus today as Lukashenko tries to break the back of the opposition before the March elections.
Further, there are cases of suspicious deaths and disappearances. Anatoly Krasovki, an entrepreneur who provided financial support for the opposition, one day did not return home after visiting a sauna in Belarusian capital, Minsk.
There are dozens of similar reports of prominent individuals, all opposed to the Lukashenko regime, that have disappeared since 1999. I will name just a few of them: Yuri Zakharenko, Viktor Gonchar, Dmitry Zavadsky.
To date, Belarusian authorities have not provided any accounting of the whereabouts of these individuals. Lukashenko is covering every possible angle to stifle the free flow of information within the country.
The efforts of Europe, the United States and the whole international community must be coordinated and (inaudible) when standing up for freedom in Belarus. Therefore, it is now more important than ever that the European parliament and United States Congress formulate a position that is well defined, united and far-ringing.
In order to elaborate such a well-defined position, one should take a look at the Belarus Democracy Act and the resolution of 2005 passed by the U.S. Congress in relation to the human rights situation in Belarus and the resolutions of the European parliament. In this respect, I would like to note the contributions of this commission in keeping the Belarus issue high on the international agenda.
These resolutions are the most recent expression of specific, definitive and innovative motions in regard to the Belarusian issue. For the sake of the solid unified position, it is important that the E.U. members and the various international bodies which are involved in the Belarusian issue establish uniform principles and act according to those principles.
The European parliament has consistently denounced Belarus as Europe's last dictatorship and taken the lead in other respects as well. Since the E.U. enlargement, it has been enlisting people with historic knowledge and understanding of the totalitarian regimes to help guide its response to events in Belarus. This advice helped shaped the parliament's strong stance.
The parliament passed resolution 3663 last year, which stated that parliament, quote, "considers that the sanctions against President Lukashenko's regime should also include the freezing of assets of Belarusian authorities abroad." This pattern of outspoken (inaudible) leadership ought to be continued.
Another essential aspect to an effective response to Lukashenko's actions is to be united in taking the serious stance against his dictatorship. The parliamentary assembly of the consulate of Europe has denied Belarusian politicians even informal access to meetings in Strasburg. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, has also taken a strong stance the Belarusian dictators, but the Belarusian parliamentarians continue their work at the parliamentary assembly of the OSCE. The situation must change. Only truly democratic parliament should sit as equals in democratic forums.
The joint U.S.-European Union parliamentary position must be far-ringing. The goal should be to ensure the Belarusian issue is at the forefront of both European and global agendas. For that to happen our democratic voice must also be heard within Belarus. That won't be easy. There are 1,500 different media outfits in Belarus today. Only a dozen or so retain any form of independence. Even that small number is diminishing as Lukashenko keeps a political, financial and legal pressure on them. Indeed, Belarus' last independent daily newspaper recently went out of business, but Mrs. Kudrycka will tell you more about the media situation in Belarus.
Further, I would like to point out that the activities of the European Union and specifically the European parliament are much broader oriented. Currently, the European Union has implemented a two-track assistance strategy targeting democratization and human rights while working to improve the needs of the population at large.
Two programs have been funded by the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights, and the programs are currently operational educating the Belarusian electorate about their fundamental rights and freedom to choose.
Lastly, the Tacis National Initiative Program has allocated resources to Belarus to promote sustainable development, higher education and training and continues help to alleviate the health problems from the Chernobyl catastrophe which persists to this day.
The total level of funding from the European Commission for Democratization and Civil Society in Belarus is over $11.1 million U.S. for the current fiscal year. It does not include macro project funds which are reviewed case by case and provide program subsidization of up to $1.8 million U.S. to each recipient.
Dear colleagues, it is our duty to get involved by using all the diplomatic instruments available so that each citizen of Belarus should have the right and the responsibility to actively participate in the political life of their country and not to be sidelined by rigged elections.
Therefore, I am proposing concrete steps that should be taken before the elections, during the elections and after the elections. In the view of upcoming elections in Belarus, I would like to invite the members of the European parliament and U.S. Congress to work together to consolidate our voices into well-defined, united and far-ringing parliamentary position in support of freedom in Belarus.
More specifically, on behalf of the European parliament's Delegation for Relations with Belarus, I propose to hold the meeting between the members of E.U. parliament and members of U.S. Congress and issue a joint political statement condemning human rights violations in Belarus and expressing our joint demand for free and fair parliamentary elections in March 2006.
In particular, this message would underscore unified measures by the international community, in particular the European parliament, the U.S. Congress and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Dear colleagues, during and after the elections, we should be watching Lukashenko and reacting to his actions immediately, and it's our duty to do everything possible to ensure that they take place in full correspondence with the international commitments of Belarus and OSCE norms. This is already too late, but there are more parts in the election process. One is before the election date, another is election date, and then the counting process and all the announcements and legal actions. We could keep the eye on all three and try to make close to our understanding about democracy as minimum election day or as minimum the day after.
However, based on the previous experience, prospects for a free and fair parliamentary election in Belarus in March are slim. If during the elections we see that not only human rights and freedoms have been sacrificed but also human lives, we should take joint efforts to remove Belarus from the OSCE and bring Lukashenko to the Court of Justice.
Only with these well-thought and coordinated actions we will be able to make a difference in Belarus. A united voice of all parliamentarians can make things happen. Belarus deserves the freedom to choose.
Thank you, and I would be happy to later on answer on all your questions.