The Situation Is Not Hopeless

Testimony of Vincuk Viacorka
Chairman, Belarus Popular Front Party
Before the U.S. House of Representatives
Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations
Chairman Chris Smith (R-NJ)
Thursday, March 17, 2005

Congressman Smith and Members of the Subcommittee,

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am grateful for the attention this committee has focused on the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus and for your involvement in passing the Belarus Democracy Act. It is important that Members of the U.S. Congress recognize that the lack of political freedom in Belarus is an important piece of the overall lack of human rights in Belarus. The Members of the House International Relations Committee have taken the lead in doing this.

The recently released United States Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices paints a bleak picture of the human rights situation in Belarus. I am here today to personally attest to this.

If anything, the situation worsens by the day. Just last week, we received reports that Mikhail Marynich suffered a stroke due to the lack of medical attention he received while being unjustly detained by the KGB. Mikhail Marynich's story is but one of the many struggles facing the leaders of the Belarus democracy movement. Marynich sits in prison, accused of stealing United States Government computers, despite the fact that the United States Embassy has stated that the computers are being loaned to Marynich and have not been stolen. He was moved out to a prison about 100 kilometers outside of the capital and was then denied access to needed medicine and suffered a stroke. Unfortunately, this mistreatment is all too familiar in Belarus. Viktar Hanchar, Anatol Krasouski, Jury Zacharanka, and Dzmitry Zavadski [the names of democracy leaders who have “disappeared” since 1998 – Editor’s Note] all suffered fates far worse than Marynich.

After the 2004 parliamentary elections, which were assessed as fraudulent by the majority of international observer delegations, civic activists, and numerous party leaders, including two in attendance today, Anatol Labiedzka and Mikalaj Statkievich, suffered severely for their actions during the most recent elections. Mr. Labiedzka was badly beaten; Statkievich and youth leader Paval Sieviaryniec were imprisoned.

Simply claiming that the elections were fraudulent is dangerous in my country. After the elections, I participated in a press conference with two other Belarusan party leaders present here, Mr. Labiedzka and Mr. Siarhiej Kalakin, during which we detailed examples of electoral fraud by the Belarusian authorities. As a result of this press conference, we have now been accused of libel against Lukashenka.. Recently, small vendors have carried out acts of civil disobedience throughout Belarus, including strikes and meetings, protesting against a double taxation. Now, Anatol Shumchanka, the leader of their association, Perspektyva, is falsely accused of assaulting his prison cellmate and is expecting long-term imprisonment. Leaders of the vendors’ protests and political activists in Hrodna, namely Vadzim Saranchukou, Zmicier Ivanouski, Mikola Lemianouski, and journalist Andrej Pachobut, as well as Leanid Nievar in the city of Rechyca, were sentenced to administrative terms. Let me remind the Subcommittee that two people in Hrodna, Valery Levanieuski and Alaksandar Vasiljeu, are already in prison for libel against the president.

March 15, Constitution Day, was marked by a series of arbitrary arrests. Young activists Zmicier Dashkievich and Artur Finkievich tried to carry out a mock funeral for the Constitution and democracy to commemorate the holiday. The authorities learned of their planned protest and they were arrested before it was carried out and immediately sentenced to prison.

The structures of civil society is constantly being destroyed by the regime. Now, after closure of dozens of pro-democratic NGOs, the government has focused its attention on the political parties. The Labour Party was just eliminated by a decision of the Lukashenka-controlled Supreme Court, and now local affiliates of other parties are losing their official registration.

I fully agree with the alarming assessment of the situation of the media in Belarus made by the U.S. Deputy Representative to the OSCE Council, Paul W. Jones. After closure of 25 media outlets during the last year, it is impossible for the majority of Belarusian people to obtain independent information about their own country and the outside world.

It is not only that political rights are violated in my country. The same is true with regards to educational, cultural, and linguistic rights, all of which are violated according to the ideology of a Soviet-style cult of personality. The only secondary school with instruction in the Belarus language in Minsk, the Humanities Lyceum, was closed by the government a year ago. Despite the closure, the pupils continue their studies informally, underground. They tried to defend their rights on the first school holiday by protesting in Minsk’s central square with posters stating, “We want to study in our native language.” They were detained and beaten by the special police for their actions.

As for freedom of belief, only the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) enjoys full support from the state, despite Belarus’s traditional history of multi-confessionalism. Numerous Protestant beliefs, as well as the Belarusan Autocephalous Orthododox Church, are deprived of equal rights with the ROC. Additionally, the authorities have a record of anti-Semitism with the destruction of a historical synagogue in Minsk and of a Jewish cemetery in Hrodna.

The situation is not hopeless, however. I am in Washington this week with a delegation of Belarusan pro-democracy leaders who are present here and may confirm my words. We are visiting key members of the Administration, House, and Senate, as well as NGOs, to shed light on the current situation as well as articulate our plan for the 2006 presidential elections.
Despite being not so large in size, Belarus is important. As the last dictatorship in Europe, bringing democracy to Belarus marks the final step in fully restoring democracy on the continent. Until Belarus is democratic, Europe is not safe; as long as a corrupt regime is in place anywhere inside the continent, Europe is threatened.
However, too many people see the situation in Belarus as one that is too difficult. They are wrong. The democratic opposition is united and ready to campaign, despite real personal risks, to advance the democratic cause in Belarus. We are putting aside our personal aspirations to run the country in the interest of ensuring that a democratic leader is elected in Belarus.

Over the past year, numerous actions and statements have been made by the United States Government that have energized our movement. As I acknowledged earlier, the House and Senate passed the Belarus Democracy Act, a very important piece of legislation to those involved in bringing democracy to Belarus. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Belarus “an outpost of tyranny” in her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Speaking to a crowd of thousands in Bratislava, President Bush stated that, “the people of Belarus will someday proudly belong to the country of democracies. Eventually, the call of liberty comes to every mind and every soul.”

We are grateful for these statements. However, more needs to be done. The Belarus Democracy Act needs concrete instruments to fulfill its purpose.* Lukashenka is reaching out to corrupt regimes in Iran and Libya for support. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that keeping Lukashenka in place is a priority. Simply put, Belarus marks the final regime that Putin can rely upon. He will do all in his power to keep it that way.

The European Parliament recently recognized Belarus as the last dictatorship in Europe. There are several concrete steps that Europe, together with the U.S., can take to promote democracy in Belarus. Unlike Ukraine, which had Channel 5, Belarus has no independent television or radio stations. I would like to see the Europeans assist Belarus in immediately supporting the still existing independent printed media, and in setting up additional independent media sources, like TV and FM/AM radio, to counter the state-run media, which is the only news that the people of Belarus have access to.

Much in the same way that political parties of different ideologies have united behind a common strategy to compete in the 2006 elections, the international community must unite. This is even more important in light of the recent success by our brothers in Ukraine. More so than the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution had a profound impact on the people of Belarus. Lukashenka, too, was influenced by the revolution. In fact, he recently issued a decree granting himself the right to directly order internal security forces to use arms.

For the parliamentary elections in 2004, the Five Plus Coalition came together with a common platform for a group of six pro-democracy parties and non-partisan activist organizations. We achieved significant success in the 2004 election. According to an exit poll conducted by the International Republican Institute and the Gallup organization, Mr. Lukashenka received only 48 percent of the vote on his referendum to change the constitution so that he could seek a third term in office. While he ultimately chose to ignore the results of the voting, the democracy movement was buoyed by results of the exit poll.

Building on this, our coalition has expanded to include more parties and more NGOs. Four additional political organizations from the European Coalition have joined together with the parties and organizations in the Five Plus Coalition to form a new coalition for 2006. We have drafted a detailed, democratic plan to select a single candidate for the presidential elections. We understand that any electoral success depends on our unity, and we will all campaign for this candidate.

Mr. Chairman, I understand that my time before you today is limited. I am available to answer any questions that the committee has for me. And once again, I thank you for the opportunity to appear here today.

* In May, a House-Senate conference agreed to a Congressional foreign operations appropriations bill that included $5 million specifically for political party, independent media, and civil society building in Belarus, in accordance with the Belarus Democracy Act. Additional allocation has been made in other funding instruments. — Editor’s Note.

Vincuk Viacorka, a teacher by profession, is a founding member of the Belarus Popular Front Movement in 1988 and has been chairman of the Belarus Popular Front Party since 1998. In 1995, he founded Supolnosc–Civil Society Center, which assisted the development of NGOs throughout Belarus and in 1998 initiated the Belarus Congress of Democratic NGOS, now with 600 members.  He continues to serve as its Chairman. Supolnasc is a member of the Centers for Pluralism and has participated in support of democracy initiatives in Serbia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and other countries. Mr. Viacorka is also a founder of the Humanities Lyceum.

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