Crackdown in Belarus

Posted by Arnold Ahlert

On Sunday the 19th, a crowd estimated to be as large as 40,000 people attempted to storm the main government building in the city of Minsk, Belarus. The demonstration was engendered by the re-election of long-term president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the country since 1994. The protesters contend that last Sunday's election totals were the result of "large-scale vote-rigging" after the central election commission announced that Lukashenko had garnered 80% of the popular vote. Police there cracked down heavily, and hundreds of demonstrators, along with at least seven opposition election candidates, were being held. "There will be no revolution or criminality in Belarus," said the re-elected Mr. Lukashenko.

Slightly less than 25% of Belarus's 7 million registered voters took part in early voting the previous week which opposition candidates contend allowed for much abuse, as ballot boxes were "poorly guarded' and election precincts "poorly monitored." They also contend that this follows a similar pattern to what they consider an equally rigged election which took place in 2006. The European Union apparently agreed with that earlier assessment, enacting a visa ban on top Belarusian officials which was renewed as recently as last September. That followed a 2008 exemption from the ban, during which the EU allowed several dozen officials, including Mr. Lukashenko, to travel to EU countries, including a 2009 trip to Rome and the Vatican City, where he met Pope Benedict XVI.

Belarus is a former member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It declared its independence on August 25, 1991 after the collapse of the Communist Empire. Yet it has maintained closer ties to Russia than any of the otherrepublics once constrained by the Iron Curtain. In 1999, both countries signed a "two-state union" treaty to promote greater economic and political integration. Lukashenko has relied heavily on Russian support for his regime. He returned the favor during the 2003-04 Rose and Orange Revolutions during which former Russian satellites Georgia and Ukraine respectively instituted their own civic reforms, by maintaining his allegiance to the Russians.

In 2007, the relationship soured. Belarus was antagonized by gas taxes levied by the Russian giant, Gazprom, which eventually led to other political disputes between the two nations. As late June 2010, the dispute was still simmering: Russia slashed gas supplies to Minsk over an unpaid $200 million gas debt even as Belarus insisted Gazprom owes a greater amount for transit fees from pipelines used to supply Western Europe with heating fuel.

Shortly before the latest election, however, things quickly changed. Russia, recognizing that Belarus had come perilously close to establishing ties with the European Union, invited Lukashenko to Moscow to sign an energy deal and join a Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan economic union, which Vladimir Putin described as a "a clear course towards integration with Russia." Russian president Dmitry Medvedev rewarded Lukashenko's loyalty: despite the reports of vote-rigging and post-election brutality by police breaking up demonstrations, Mr. Medvedev contended that the election was "solely an internal matter."

The rest of the world was unpersuaded. "The foreign ministry condemns mass beatings and detainments of demonstrators on the streets of Minsk. The brutality of security forces is unacceptable," said Poland's foreign ministry. EU diplomatic chief Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement "condemn[ing] all violence, especially the disproportionate use of force against presidential candidates, political activists, representatives of civil society and journalists." The statement continued:

Taken together, the elections and their aftermath represent an unfortunate step backwards in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights in Belarus. The people of Belarus deserve better.

U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and John Kerry (D-MA), sponsors of the Belarus Freedom Act of 2004, which authorized assistance for entities working to promote democracy and human rights in that country, were even more direct:

We condemn the actions and human rights abuses of the Belarusian government, which demand a strong, determined, and vocal response. We also condemn the palpable fraud that characterized Sunday's election in Belarus, which clearly violated international standards:The sweeping arrest of opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights activists, and the use of violence against civilians bysecurity forces illustrate precisely why Aleksandr Lukashenko's dictatorship has no place in modern Europe.

Lukashenko is unrepentant. After last Sunday's crackdown, Mr. Lukashenko defiantly claimed that a time of "senseless democracy" had come to an end and that opposition media would be held accountable "for every written word" of post-election criticism. Withrespect to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which characterized nearly fifty percent of the vote counts its observers monitored as "bad" or "very bad," Lukashenko again defied his critics. "We did everything they had asked of us," he countered.


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