IRI Eurasia Director Testifies on the Deteriorating Political Situation in Belarus

“The Deteriorating Political Situation in Belarus”
Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Europe
Stephen B. Nix
Director of Eurasia Programs
International Republican Institute

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I request that my statement be submitted into the record in its entirety.

I sit before you today to testify on the deteriorating political situation in Belarus and the efforts of the People’s Coalition Five Plus to fight for the democratic future of their country. I am sure that you have been briefed in the past about the repressive regime of Alexander Lukashenko and his efforts to stifle the voice of democracy in Belarus, so I will try to keep my remarks about the regime brief and instead focus primarily on the positive efforts of the democratic opposition.

There is only one source of power in Belarus: the president. The judicial branch is appointed by him and issues decisions based upon his desires. Legislators at all levels of government, from parliament to the smallest local council, are officially elected, although in reality their candidacy must be approved by the president.

Media outlets that offer criticism of the president are summarily seized or shut down. Individual opponents of the president are threatened, beaten, imprisoned and killed.

Little information about the negative consequences of Mr. Lukashenko’s policies reaches the Belarusian populace because of their limited access to independent media. As a result, many assume that Alexander Lukashenko is popular among Belarusians. That is categorically false.

A recent poll conducted by The International Republican Institute shows that 61 percent of Belarusians desire a change in the office of the president. Alexander Lukashenko enjoys just 27 percent support. Seventy-one percent of Belarusians feel their country is going in the wrong direction.

More imperative to Belarus’ democratic future than the president’s lack of support, is the appearance of a coalition of political parties and NGOs with the desire, capacity, and, most importantly, the courage to fight against the totalitarian status quo and for a better life for all Belarusians. That coalition is the People’s Coalition Five Plus.

This coalition was formed in preparation for this year’s fall parliamentary elections in Belarus. Five Plus encompasses six of the seven largest democratic political parties, more than 200 NGOs, and the small, but stubborn democratic faction of the current Belarusian parliament known as Respublika.

Belarusians have organized coalitions before, but never so early before an election, and never with the objectivity and resolve of Five Plus. Casting aside differences in party ideology, the coalition has designed a broad platform built upon five main goals that average Belarusians have identified in public opinion polling. They have agreed on a common slate of candidates to promote in each of Belarus’ 110 parliamentary districts. And they have accomplished all this despite the repressions I alluded to earlier.

Their platform is entitled “Five Steps for a Better Life” and, among other things, calls for fair wages; an economy that stimulates growth and the creation of new jobs; equal application of the law towards each citizen; a just and transparent government; and placing Belarus on equal footing with its European neighbors and all countries throughout the world.

Public opinion polling shows the current popularity of Five Plus candidates at 17 percent. When combined with the 10 percent support that independent candidates enjoy, and eight percent that a smaller, separate democratic coalition maintains, the total for non-Lukashenko, pro-democratic candidates swells to 35 percent of the total vote. Adding to the optimism created by these numbers is the fact that Five Plus has just begun its public outreach campaign.

As the political parties and NGOs of Five Plus begin to spread their message through a broad-reaching grassroots campaign, their colleagues in Respublika are introducing legislation in the Belarusian parliament based on the Five Steps to a Better Life. The likelihood of adoption of this legislation is de minimus. However, the message to the regime is clear: Pro-democratic forces understand the course they must follow and they are committed to seeing it through until they see the lives of their fellow citizens improve. In other words, Five Plus is serious, Five Plus understands its duty, and Five Plus is not going away.

Not all political parties and NGOs have come together under the aegis of Five Plus. However, the other groups have agreed to work with Five Plus to monitor the election together, among other coordinated activities. The door remains open to them to join the coalition and it is hoped that they will eventually do so.

It is an easy task to sit here in Washington, DC and commend Five Plus on their coming together into a cohesive entity and for setting out their campaign strategy nine months before the election. However, Mr. Chairman, the campaign period will not be easy for pro-democratic political parties. Already we have seen the regime of Alexander Lukashenko moving against Five Plus’ leadership. Earlier this month, the Minsk Prosecutor initiated criminal charges against Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the United Civic Party, who is a driving force behind the coalition and its platform. According to the Prosecutor’s office, Mr. Lebedko will be charged with defamation of the president. The apparent basis for this charge is Mr. Lebedko’s comments on Russian television suggesting a presidential shadow budget financed through illegal arms sales, and linking the recent Russian-Belarusian row over gas deliveries to the Lukakshenko government’s failure to build an efficient economy and industrial base over the past decade.

Two weeks ago another incident occurred, this time against Vintsuk Vyachorka, the leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, and other key players in the coalition. The group was questioned by police in the western region of Hrodno after attending a meeting between a local councilman and his constituents. Although no official charges were filed against the politicians, it is clear that even local government officials are intolerant of open dialogue between politicians and citizens.

Mr. Lukashenko has also manipulated the election law to his advantage. For example, the actual campaign season is limited to just one month prior to election day. Importantly, current election law prohibits political parties from legally raising, or spending, money. Can you imagine, Mr. Chairman, trying to run an underdog campaign without being able to raise any money, without access to television, to radio, to direct mail, without the ability to organize a lit-drop, or even tell your neighbors that you are running? That is effectively the case for the democratic forces in Belarus.

The United States has shown its resolve to support democracy around the world, but we must continue to ensure that we do not neglect the doorstep of its closest allies, the Euro-Atlantic Alliance. By the time the October elections are held in Belarus, the country will share a border with NATO and the European Union. Belarus is a known supplier of arms to rogue states and is the last stop on the route for drug runners from points further south and east before they ply their evil trade in Europe.

Many in Congress and here in this room have spoken out in support of the democratic forces in Belarus. The Belarus Democracy Act is a tremendous example of the type of support the United States can offer to these struggling defenders of freedom. Other countries, too, deserve recognition for their efforts in support of Belarusian democracy. The Government of Lithuania both at home and through their embassy in Washington has been particularly supportive of U.S.-sponsored political party building efforts and through their own programming. Lithuanians are all too aware of the perils of sharing a border with an authoritarian regime. I am also pleased to report that other countries in the region, such as Latvia and Slovakia, are now seeking to be more actively engaged in building support for the democratic forces in Belarus. There is much to do, and I encourage the Congress to continue to support these and other efforts to improve the lot of the Belarusian people.

Mr. Chairman, as I conclude I would like to draw your attention to one final point. On Belarus’ western border lie the countries of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance. On Belarus’ eastern and southern edges lie Russia and Ukraine, two countries much larger than Belarus, and arguably more geostrategically important to U.S. foreign policy. Officials in Kyiv and Moscow will be watching the Belarusian election campaign very closely. Indeed, the United States has characterized Belarus as the last dictatorship in Europe, which should not serve as a precedent for its neighbors.

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