Democracy in Belarus
Eighty-eight years ago this month, the people of Lithuania declared their independence, vowing to establish a democratic state with its capital in Vilnius. While the twenty men who signed the declaration may not have anticipated the difficult decades that would follow, they represented most dramatically the indomitable Lithuanian spirit. This spirit, this desire for democracy and freedom, drove the Lithuanian people to oppose Moscow in the late 1980s, to recognize that the end of the Soviet Union was near, and to achieve freedom for their nation once again.
It is an honor to be in a country filled with such patriots, and I thank you for inviting me and my colleagues to this conference. I have had a special affinity for the Baltic nations since I was a child. I remember watching the annual parades with my family, as the Baltic-Americans marched proudly, I watched in wonder, always fascinated by these special countries.
As I grew older, and became familiar with the politics of these lands, I was proud that the United States maintained a strict non-recognition policy. It was always clear that the sovereignty of the Lithuanian state resided in the freely expressed will of the Lithuanian people, not in a group of apparatchiks in Moscow.
And so to see how far Lithuania has come since the Soviet days is a simply a joy. In the fifteen years since this country regained independence, it has become one of the world's great success stories. We in America count Lithuania as one of our closest friends, and we value its partnership in NATO and other important institutions of the West. The great strides that it has made in the past decade and a half testify to the universal human aspiration to live in freedom.
This testament is not silent; instead, the people of Lithuania, having achieved freedom themselves, are actively promoting the liberty of others. Through conferences like the one in which we participate today, this country leads not just by example, but by action. I can think of no more honorable role for a great nation that has endured so much.
In sadness, we must contrast the Lithuanian success story with the far darker tale that has unfolded across the eastern border. There, men who oppose tyranny disappear forever. Wives are assaulted in public. Dissidents are jailed, universities shuttered, visas denied. The media is state controlled, NGO activity is restricted, and political rights are systematically violated. I speak, of course, not of Burma, North Korea or Zimbabwe, but rather of Belarus – a part of Europe, whose capital stands just a three and half hour drive from where we meet today.
Belarus today blocks the road to a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Belarus, under President Alexander Lukashenko, mocks the values that bind so firmly the transatlantic democracies. The political and human rights situation in Belarus is lamentable, to be sure, but it is more than that. It is a crisis, a threat to the interests and values of the transatlantic partners. Allow me to share a few facts.
Under Mr. Lukashenko’s leadership, the government has routinely harassed, arrested, and physically attacked democracy advocates - individuals guilty of nothing more than speaking out against the dictatorship into which their government has descended. In 2004, protesting fraudulent parliamentary elections, opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko was chased through the streets of Minsk and severely beaten. Two activists were imprisoned after the same protest, and three others were charged with libel after documenting election fraud.
Mikhail Marinich, who served as Belarus' ambassador to Latvia, returned to his country with a desire to run for President. For his role in the opposition, in 2004 he was thrown into KGB detention. After being sentenced to five years in prison on trumped up charges, he was denied treatment for high blood pressure. He suffered a stroke last May and remains in jail.
Four of the president’s political opponents vanished in 1999 and 2000, and human rights groups have expressed strong suspicions that these men were secretly executed. On July 7 last year the regime’s brutality was evident again, when Svetlana Zavadskaia stood in Minsk’s main square with a portrait of her husband. In the midst of a peaceful rally marking the fifth anniversary of his disappearance, the authorities descended on Svetlana, punching her in the face. She was hospitalized with a concussion. This sickening event, captured on television, is a profound statement on the repression that she and others suffer in Belarus each day.
But the regime targets more than political opponents; it also assaults independent media. Even after Mr. Lukashenko’s regime almost totally eliminated independent reporting, his officials have raided journalists’ homes, deregistered publishers, and terminated publishing contracts. This crackdown is part of a broader attempt to restrict all sources of outside information – the government has even gone so far as to restrict the number of trips children can take abroad.
I could go on, describing the crackdown on NGOs – the International Republican Institute, for example, is forced to operate from Vilnius, and its employees are routinely labeled “spies,” while the Belarusian government continues to harass the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. Or I could list new laws, including one that makes it a crime to discredit the name of Belarus abroad. But by now the nature of the regime in Minsk should be clear to all.
To its shame, the country with the most influence over Belarus continues to aid and abet this state of affairs. Russia provides cut-rate natural gas to Belarus through state owned Gazprom, at the same time that it uses its supplies as a weapon against democratic Ukraine. In January, Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Putin met to sign various legal accords and champion their growing integration. Mr. Putin noted their “common wish for energetic progress in the union,” and the Speaker of Russia’s State Duma has said that parallel referendums on a union state constitution could take place later this year. It is quite unfortunate, though perhaps not unanticipated, that these two rulers so dedicated to autocracy would find common cause. Indeed, many of the anti-democratic practices that the West condemned in Belarus over the past several years have begun to surface in Russia.
Yet while the repression in Belarus is overwhelming, and the abuses too numerous to count, there is no reason to despair. Instead, there is reason to hope. There is reason to hope because there are in Belarus individuals like those standing with us today. Aleksander Milinkevich, head of the Belarus Union of Democratic Forces, is the opposition’s unified candidate in next month’s presidential elections. Sergei Kalyakin is his campaign manager. Mr. Kalyakin, Mr. Lebedko, and others have set aside their differences in order to present a strong, unified front in opposition to the regime in Belarus. And for this, they are to be heartily congratulated.
These men are well acquainted with political life in Belarus. They and their supporters have been routinely harassed by police and authorities while gathering the signatures necessary to list Mr. Milinkevich on the ballot. They know how hard this struggle is, they realize it is likely to persist beyond March 19, and they are aware that the fight may be long. But they are ready.
Mr. Milinkevich and his allies believe that Belarus can reassume its rightful place as a proud European country. They know that any leader who must reign through fear and intimidation has no right to claim legitimacy in the name of his people. Mr. Milinkevich and the other opposition members stand as proof that, for all his fervor, Mr. Lukashenko is, at his core, anti-Belarus. The real patriots, the real lovers of a proud country, are those brave men and women who stand up for their fundamental human and political rights, and the millions more who silently follow them. It is with all of them that we stand today. Tyranny in Belarus cannot forever endure, and those who fight for freedom will ultimately triumph.
The Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the triumph of democracy in other lands illustrates the strength of people who stand up for their rights. Democracy in Belarus is not only possible, it is inevitable, and individuals like those in the opposition bring that day closer.
They will need our help. The EU and the U.S. administration deserve great credit for taking a strong stand against Mr. Lukashenko’s abuses. But the international community must take more concrete steps to ensure that Belarus has the tools to build a functioning democracy. Other nations, especially those in the European Union, need to follow Lithuania’s lead by dedicating resources to support democracy in Europe. In this vein, the EU’s recent decision to fund broadcasts into Belarus is welcome, as is the dedication of over 1 million euros in democracy program funding.
When the opposition does triumph, it will chart a new course for Belarus’ relations with Europe and the United States. Belarus does not have to be a pariah, the embarrassment of Europe under a petty dictator. It could instead enjoy close ties to its European neighbors and North American friends. It could free itself from a subservient relationship to Russia that has ill served the Belarusian people. It could follow the course set out by the continent’s most successful democracies, including the one in which we meet today. Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors, is the perfect example of a country whose politics, security, and economy soared after tyranny was consigned to history’s dustbin.
One day Belarus will do the same. To Mr. Milinkevich and all those who support you, I say that we will not let up. We will continue to pressure the dictatorship, continue to stand by you, and continue to support freedom in Belarus. Freedom in Belarus may come quickly, and no one would be more overjoyed than I. But it also might take years, and we are prepared for that possibility as well.
The fight for freedom and a better life in Belarus is difficult, and you know that better than anyone. We admire your courage and your inner strength, and we will not forget you. One day your country will reassume its proud place as a free and democratic nation. History and the world’s democracies are on your side.