IRI Eurasia Director Urges EU Support for Belarusian Opposition

March 30, 2007
Remarks at the Conference on European Union and Democracy Assistance
Center for European Studies at the University of Florida
Stephen B. Nix
Director of Eurasia Programs
International Republican Institute

My name is Stephen Nix, and I direct democracy-building activities in the Eurasia division of the International Republican Institute (IRI). IRI operates democracy programs in nine countries in Eurasia. These former Soviet Republics represent unique challenges programmatically as they all are at different stages of political and governance development.

IRI has been active in furthering democratic processes in Belarus since 2001. Along with our European partners, we work with a coalition of pro-democratic political parties, nongovernmental organizations and activists in Belarus whose goal is to bring true democratic change to a country that has been ruled by a dictator for more than a decade.

Belarus after its Independence from the U.S.S.R.

After seven decades as a republic of the U.S.S.R., Belarus gained its independence from the Soviet Union on August 25, 1991. During the three years that followed, there was eager anticipation that Belarus would transition into a fully-functioning democratic republic. In 1994, a former head of collective farm, Alexander Lukashenko, was elected to a five-year term as the first president of the Republic of Belarus. However, since his election, Belarus quickly evolved from a hopeful democracy into an authoritative regime as Lukashenko consolidated his control.

In November 1996, Lukashenko used a non-democratic referendum to amend the 1994 constitution in order to broaden his presidential powers and illegally extend his term in office by an additional two years.

In October 2004, Lukashenko called for a constitutional referendum which would eliminate term limits for the presidency, thus allowing him to run for unlimited consecutive terms. According to the government’s official results, the referendum passed with 77 percent of the votes and the constitution was amended. However, according to IRI sponsored exit polling, the referendum in fact failed; our results showed that the referendum garnered only 48.4 percent of the votes, thus failing to reach the 50 percent total required by the constitution of Belarus.

In March 2006, presidential elections were again held in Belarus. Based on the history of fraudulent elections in Belarus, it was not surprising when the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenko won the presidency by an overwhelming 82.6 percent over his competitors; a figure which even Lukashenko has admitted was not accurate. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) declared that this election has failed to meet Belarus’ commitments to democratic elections, and both the European Union (EU) and the United States called for new elections.

Political Repressions

Under Lukashenko’s 12 year rule, political repressions in Belarus have been rampant. From 1999-2001, several of Lukahsenko’s political opponents disappeared under mysterious circumstances and their bodies have never been found. Following international pressure, the high-profile disappearances stopped and Lukahsenko resorted to arresting and jailing anyone he deemed as a challenge to his rule. For example, former presidential candidate Aleksander Kozulin is currently serving a five-and-a-half year prison sentence for his participation in the March 2006 elections.

Youth activists face constant harassment; with expulsion from university and jail sentences as commonplace punishment for those who participate in demonstrations or are found to support democratic causes.

Media in Belarus is controlled by the state; creating an information vacuum. The few independent media sources which have survived are forced to operate underground and face constant fines for “unfavorable reporting.”

Government laws have made the registration requirements for nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and political parties so arduous that many are often denied registration, or existing organizations are routinely shut down for minor infractions of the government’s requirements on operating procedures.

Mass gatherings in public squares, including peaceful protests and town-hall style meetings for candidates prior to elections, are illegal without consent from the government.

Evolution of a Democratic Alternative

Establishing a unified opposition coalition as an alternative to President Lukashenko’s totalitarian rule is critical if there is to be any hope of achieving true democratic change in the country. Therefore the work of organizations like IRI has focused primarily on the process of consolidating and unifying all of the pro-democratic elements in the country into a single coalition.

Beginning in 2001 with a late decision by pro-democratic activists to rally behind a single opposition candidate in the presidential election, IRI and other implementers have brought together political parties and NGOs, regardless of ideological orientation, which share the common objective of creating a free and democratic Belarus.

Due to these efforts, in January 2004, six of the seven leading political parties in Belarus along with more than 200 NGOs and associations formed the People’s Coalition “Five Plus.” Their promotion of “The Five Steps to a Better Life” as their common platform in the run-up to the 2004 parliamentary elections significantly solidified the pro-democratic coalition.

Though massive electoral fraud kept this coalition from winning any seats in 2004, during the post-election period that followed, an additional number of political parties, youth groups and NGOs joined this effort and the coalition became known as the Unified Democratic Forces (UDF).

This coalition built upon their success in 2004 and implemented a process to select a single unified candidate to challenge Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential election. From June to September 2005, caucuses were held in 121 of the rayons (local districts) of Belarus. At each of these meetings, two local delegates were selected to represent their district at the national nominating congress. These caucuses culminated with a National Democratic Congress held in Minsk, Belarus, on October 1-2, 2005. After two rounds of voting, Aleksander Milinkevich was elected as the UDF’s single candidate, the UDF rallied behind this candidate and canvassed the country campaigning for him.

Following the fraudulent election, in a rare show of public protest, thousands of pro-democratic activists assembled in Oktyabrskaya Square Minsk to demand their right for a fair election. Protestors remained throughout the week and a tent camp was set-up. On Friday, March 24, President Lukashenko ordered his police forces to shut down the protest, and riot police rounded up all the participants, beating many, and took them to police stations. On Saturday, March 25, a crowd of approximately 2,500 protesters led by opposition presidential candidate Aleksander Kozulin marched toward the Minsk detention center to press for the release of jailed opposition activists. Riot police blocked the crowd from marching to the detention center, and SWAT and riot police used percussion and smoke grenades to quash the protest. It is estimated that more than 1,000 activists were jailed for their activities during this election period.

In spite of increasing political repressions, the UDF was not daunted and on January 14, 2007, the UDF participated in elections for the local soviet seats. This election failed to meet even the pre-conditions necessary to be considered free and fair, and the Belarusian government engaged in a strategy of intimidation and fear to suppress all but the most dedicated of democratic activists. Multitudes of pro-democratic candidates attempted to register in Belarus, but only some 300 were registered, and ultimately only 15 pro-democratic candidates were elected to fill 22,661 seats.

Post-Election Period in Belarus

The UDF now finds itself in a post-election period with nearly two years until the next parliamentary elections. Since its creation in 2004, the UDF has been forced to focus its attention on the rapid succession of elections that occurred from 2004-2007. The UDF must now reorganize its internal structure from a campaign-team model and evolve into an organization which features an executive body which can make decisions and implement functional activities to carry out its long-term strategy of bringing true democratic change to Belarus. The UDF also needs to finalize its post-election strategy for the next two years.

However, it is imperative that the UDF not lose any of the momentum they have achieved in the past year-and-a-half and that neither they, nor the United States or the European community, simply view these next two years as a pre-election lull.

Therefore, in February, IRI hosted a delegation of the leaders of the UDF to Washington, D.C. from February 26- March 2, 2007. The objective of the UDF’s delegation to the United States was to brief members of Congress and the administration on events in Belarus, specifically the January 14 local elections; the coalition’s post-election strategy in light of increasing repression from the regime; as well as the current energy dispute and weakening relations between Belarus and Russia.

The delegation represented a broad array of political perspectives. The group included Iryna Kozulina, wife of imprisoned former presidential candidate Aleksander Kozulin; Anatoly Lebedko, Chairman of the conservative United Civic Party; Sergiy Kaliakin, Chairman of the left-wing Belarusian Party of Communists; Vincuk Viachorka, Chairman of the nationalist Belarusian Popular Front; and Siarhiej Mackievic, Chairman of the Working Group of the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs.

During their visit, the delegation had the opportunity to address not only officials of the U.S. government, but also the European Union. Their message was that the stage for democratic transition is being set in Belarus and that the time-frame for change is accelerated – possibly within the next two years.

The Russia Factor

The 2006 presidential election and peaceful protest which followed was a watershed event in the history of democratization efforts in Belarus. However, in addition to the vital unification of the pro-democratic forces within Belarus, there are other factors at play including the drastically deteriorating relationship between Russia and Belarus.

Politically, since its independence from the U.S.S.R., Belarus has retained close political and economic ties to Russia and has turned its back on Europe. In 1999, Belarus and Russia signed a treaty which would begin the process to create a Union State between the two countries granting political and economic integration. While finalization of this Union State has not been realized, deliberations on the subject continue and Russia has financed Belarus’ economy over the past decade by providing low energy costs.

However, this situation drastically changed on December 31, 2006, when Russia more than doubled the amount Belarus must pay for Russian natural gas in 2007 from $46 per 1,000 cubic meters to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters; significantly increasing its gas bill from $1 billion in 2006 to an estimated $2.1 billion in 2007.

In an additional blow, as part of the price negotiation, Belarus was forced to relinquish a 50 percent stake of its state-owned gas transport company, Beltranshaz, to Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom. Gazprom had threatened to cut supplies to Belarus if a deal was not reached. In turn, Minsk promised to retaliate by interrupting Russian gas pipelines throughout Belarus, possibly disrupting the flow of gas to Western Europe.

Lukashenko has suddenly found himself under intense pressure by not only the West, but also his former ally in the East, and currently seems to be deciding whether to play his hand against Russia by courting Europe.

On January 29, during an interview with the BELTA news agency, President Lukashenko said he would never yield to Russia’s takeover of Belarus and emphasized that his country was ready for the EU membership and the Euro’s introduction.” In a separate interview, he said, “It is very important for us to improve relations with the West...Europe simply has seen that it also depends on Belarus in energy supplies. Europe took a different look at Belarus. A new situation has emerged.”

EU Strategy Towards Belarus

We all know that Mr. Lukashenko’s sudden interest in developing better ties with the West is rhetoric. Lukashenko routinely bars foreign diplomats from entering Belarus, and the European Commission has still not been allowed to open a delegation office in Minsk.

For its part, the European Union has remained cautious to Lukashenko’s overtures. In November 2006, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Waldner launched a strategy paper entitled “What the EU could bring to Belarus” a document offering incentives to the regime of dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko were he to engage in democratic reform, respect for human rights and the rule of law. Commissioner Ferrero Waldner said, “I hope the people of Belarus will see this paper as a chance to look towards a democratic future, and that the government of Belarus will take this opportunity to begin the reforms their people need, and end their isolation.”

The strategy contains concrete examples of how the people of Belarus could gain from a rapprochement between the EU and Belarus within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The ENP is a special relationship between the EU and its neighboring countries, which supports political, economic and social reform in partner countries, and seeks to share the prosperity and stability enjoyed by EU member states with those on the EU’s borders. Due to the current political situation in Belarus, Minsk has not enjoyed inclusion under the ENP policy.

According to the strategy paper, if Belarus engaged in democratic reform, it could become a full participant in the ENP and receive benefits including: new trade opportunities to boost the Belarusian economy and create more and better job opportunities, improve provision of healthcare and education and support for the most vulnerable in society, improved transport and energy networks, and management of environmental issues, reform of the legal and judicial system to ensure equal rights for all and greater cross-border cooperation. However, as a requisite obligation, the EU stipulates that Lukashenko and his regime must respect the rights and freedoms of the Belarusian people, allow free and fair elections, relinquish state-owned control of the media, release all political prisoners and allow civil society and NGOs to operate freely.

Next Steps

As I have been asked to speak about the relationship between the EU and Belarus, I will conclude my speech with an outline of the steps I believe that the European Union can take to best support the pro-democratic movement in Belarus. I would note that there are concrete steps the United States should continue taking as well and that a joint strategy between the U.S. and EU has the greatest potential for success; however, I note that this topic will be discussed during a later panel.

1. Encouragement

The first step is to continue to vocally encourage the pro-democratic activists in Belarus in their struggle. It is critical to let our partners in Belarus know – and most importantly, the regime –that their sacrifices and struggles are not forgotten and that we continue to document abuses by the regime against the people.  I encourage the leaders of the European Union to continue to offer statements decrying human rights violations in Belarus and calling for the release of the political prisoners. The power of these statements is proven.

2. Relations with the Government of Belarus

I urge the European Union to continue to remain steadfastly cautious to Lukashenko’s recent overtures of improving relations with the West. Before Mr. Lukashenko can become an ally with the West, he must be held accountable; he must relinquish control of the media, release the political prisoners, and abort his practice of repressing the pro-democratic political parties and shutting down the civil society in the country.

3. Media

It is imperative that the United States and the EU continue to fight the information blockade in order to expose the citizens of Belarus to western ideas and values and unbiased information about the situation in their country. While both the United States and the EU have supported independent media, several different media projects exist and a coordinated solution to this problem has not been reached.

Last year, the European Commission offered a two-year, €2 million tender to a German-led consortium to broadcast independent news to Belarus; however, specific member countries like Poland are also appropriating their own funds to offer satellite and radio transmissions into the country.

It is imperative that there is a consolidation of efforts with regard to electronic media and that funding is used for the most beneficial methods of media transmission. Furthermore, it is imperative that that the Belarusian pro-democratic activists are engaged on this issue. They need to be consulted regularly so that we can routinely evaluate the media systems which have been funded to ascertain how many people are actually able to access the information and whether the content fits their needs. Without this crucial feedback, and subsequent reaction to it, our best intentions will be futile.

4. Visas

It is also critically important that our European colleagues work to keep the cost of travel to the EU, specifically visa costs, as low as possible. In a closed society like Belarus, hope for the development of democracy depends on enlightening the general population to the world around them. Travel to neighboring democratic countries like Lithuania or Poland afford the opportunity for Belarusian citizens to be exposed to various democratic political and social processes from which they can draw their own conclusions about the successes or failings of the Lukashenko regime.

In December, the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council announced its decision to raise the price of Schengen visa fees from €35 to €60 per person. In 2007, the 10 newest member countries of the EU are expected to implement the provisions of the Schengen treaty. These countries include Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, the neighboring countries of Belarus.

Once the treaty is implemented, the cost of a visa for Belarusian citizens to travel to these countries will increase from €5 to €60. In Belarus, where the average wage is €217 per month, this increased visa fee will be crippling and will impede Belarusian citizens from traveling to Europe. As Aleksander Milinkevich so appropriately stated, “For many Belarusian people, who would welcome any kind of contact with the west, this will be like a Berlin wall. It would help only the dictatorship which would like to isolate the country.”

The Lithuanian parliament recently adopted a resolution “On EU Visa Policy” that urged Brussels to reduce Schengen visa charges on non-EU citizens. I urge the European Union to promptly act on this resolution, simplify visa formalities for citizens of Belarus traveling to EU countries and limit the visa fee for Belarusian citizens entering EU countries to €5.

5. Assistance

Finally, I urge the European Commission to create a democracy assistance foundation similar to the National Endowment for Democracy to better coordinate assistance to developing democratic countries such as Belarus. In fact, a plan was recently submitted to the European Parliament by several Members of the European Parliament to create a European Democracy Foundation.

Such a foundation will allow EU leaders to promote human rights and support democracy through a controlled mechanism instead of directly by the commission which may be affected in their assistance decisions by issues related to their bilateral relations with the other nations involved and their need to simultaneously juggle energy and security agendas. A controlled assistance mechanism, while funded by and reporting to the EU, would not be predicated by diplomatic relations and would be able to make decisions with less prejudice based on external factors.

I would also stress the need for a joint U.S.-EU assistance foundation. The creation of such a foundation would have monumental benefits. It would allow our two governments to coordinate policy objectives and streamline assistance. This coordination would maximize the benefits of our financial assistance by ensuring that efforts are not duplicated and that certain areas of need are not overlooked due to miscommunication.

In closing, the time for democratic transition in Belarus is upon us and it is imperative that the international community remain vigilantly supportive of our partners in Belarus and continue to support them in their courageous struggle. As I stated earlier, with the regime in Belarus now under pressure from both East and West, now is the time to act boldly, and expand our joint efforts on democratization in Belarus.