The International Republican Institute (IRI) hosted a delegation of leaders of the Unified Democratic Forces (UDF) in Belarus from February 26- March 2, 2007. The delegation traveled to Washington, DC to discuss their vision for Belarus. While they were in Washington, the delegation met with members of congress, administration officials and members of the media. They also spoke at a forum hosted at IRI, “Belarus in the post-election period: where do we go from here?”
The delegation represented a broad array of political perspectives. The group included Iryna Kozulina, wife of imprisoned former presidential candidate Aleksander Kozulin, who is currently serving five-and-a-half years in prison for his involvement in the March 2006 presidential election; Anatoly Lebedko, Chairman of the United Civic Party; Sergiy Kaliakin, Chairman of the Belarusian Party of Communists; Vincuk Viacorka, Chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front; and, Siarhiej Mackievic, Chairman of the Working Group of the Assembly of Pro-Democratic Nongovernmental Organizations.
During the trip, delegates met with officials from the State Department and White House including Ambassador Mike Kozak, Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations, National Security Council; Barry Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary of State or Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and, David Kramer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. The delegation thanked the official for the support of the U.S. government and discussed their strategy for bringing democratic change to Belarus.
Mr. Kaliakin comment on the position of the U.S. government regarding recent overtures made by the Belarusian regime to normalize relations with the West. “We were told that no one would believe mere words,” Kaliakin said. “The normalization of relations is possible only after specific steps are made by the Belarusian government.”
Assistant Secretary Lowenkron recognized the work of the UDF, “…They’re not going to give up. They’re going to continue to press. The citizens of Belarus will find themselves that there is an alternative…to Lukashenko, there is an alternative to a regime that suppresses their human rights, and that alternative lies to its other neighbors.”
During their visit, the delegation also met with Congressmen Alcee Hastings, Chairman of the United States Helsinki Commission; Congressman John Shimkus, Chairman of Baltic Caucus; Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee; and Congressman Chris Smith, Ranking Member of the United States Helsinki Commission. The delegation thanked these Members of Congress for their invaluable and steadfast support in co-sponsoring legislation and resolutions about the situation in Belarus, specifically the Belarus Democracy Re-Authorization Act of 2006 which has brought hope to the Belarusian people.
The delegation also had an opportunity to address the European community during their visit. Prior to dinner with German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth, Polish Ambassador Janusz Reiter and Ukrainian Ambassador Oleh Shamshur, the delegation addressed a foreign delegation in the Unites States as part of the State Department’s Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe, (e-PINE) program. This delegation included diplomats from the eight Nordic and Baltic countries. The UDF delegation was able to discuss ways in which its European neighbors can best assist the advance of democracy in Belarus.
The delegation also met with The Washington Post, Voice of American, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Russian Television International (RTVi) to discuss the current political situation in Belarus and the Russia-Belarus energy crisis.
The Unified Democratic Forces is a coalition of pro-democratic political parties, more than 200 nongovernmental organizations, youth groups and prominent individuals which have put aside their political ideologies to unite together to bring democratic change to Belarus. This coalition came together and selected a single unified candidate for the 2006 presidential elections in March 2006. More than 1000 activists were jailed for their activities during this election period.
Following the fraudulent presidential election, the UDF participated in local elections in January 2007. Once again, activists were harassed by the regime and out of 22,661 open seats only 300 pro-democratic candidates were allowed to be registered. Not surprisingly, these elections again violated international standards and were deemed neither free nor fair.