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'Troubled' By Minsk Visit, U.S. Senator Urges Coordinated Moves To Counter Belarus Abuses

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin during his visit to Minsk on January 14
U.S. Senator Richard Durbin during his visit to Minsk on January 14
A group of prominent U.S. senators has called for a strong and coordinated response by the United States and European Union to the crackdown on democracy activists following the December reelection of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Six U.S. senators signed the letter, to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, urging targeted sanctions against Lukashenka and other officials and a ban on business with Belneftekhim, Belarus's state oil company.

Among the signatories is Senator Richard Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), who just returned from a trip to Minsk. He spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher on the eve of Lukashenka's inauguration on January 21, which was boycotted by world leaders.

RFE/RL: Senator Durbin, why did you decide to sign the letter to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton calling for joint U.S.-EU sanctions against Belarus?

Richard Durbin: I was so troubled by what I found in Minsk. Being with the families of those political candidates who are now languishing in prison -- it just struck me as an outrage that [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka would do this.

When I met with his foreign minister and asked for an explanation, he asked me to be more forgiving of Belarus because they were, in his words, "a new democracy." And I found that to be totally unacceptable. To think that you would systematically arrest and imprison political prisoners tells me that Belarus is not even close to the democratic values that we want to see.

RFE/RL: Tell me how you came to be in Minsk to meet with these families?

Durbin: I'd just been in Lithuania -- they were observing the 20th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 14 just common people in Vilnius were killed by Soviet tankers and paratroopers and 1,000 were injured. I drove over to Minsk and sat down with other families fighting for freedom in that country. You couldn't escape the historic parallel.

RFE/RL: You said you met with government officials, among them the foreign minister. Was it just yourself in the meetings and did the officials know that you were meeting with families of the detained?

Durbin: I doubt if there were many things about my trip that they didn't know or monitor. But I met personally with [Sergei] Martynov, who is the foreign minister in Belarus, and told him about the disappointment we felt over the actions of Lukashenka.

RFE/RL: And in response, he asked you to be more understanding?

Durbin: Yes. And of course they are trumping up these charges that this was a conspiracy inspired by Poland and Germany, and I'm not sure who else, to overthrow the government of Belarus. It is an outlandish charge, as extreme as the actions that they took against their political opponents.

  • Thousands of opponents of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka rallied in the center of Minsk to protest the election, which they say was rigged.
  • A man from among the group of protesters smashes a glass door of the parliament building during a rally denouncing the results of the presidential election.
  • An opposition supporter appeals to riot police for sympathy.
  • Police in Belarus beat demonstrators with batons and rounded up opposition leaders.
  • Riot police chase an opposition protester.
  • Presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu lies on a street after he was beaten during the rally in Minsk.
  • Supporters carry the injured Neklyayev to his campaign headquarters.
  • Opposition candidate Andrey Sannikau lies on a street after being beaten during a clash between protesters and police.
  • A supporter of presidential candidate Uladzimir Neklyayev is seen at his campaign headquarters after he was beaten.
  • Members of the Election Commission count ballots late on December 19 in Minsk. The incumbent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, won in the first round with almost 80 percent of the vote.
  • An opposition supporter flashes a victory sign from a police bus near a detention center in Minsk.
  • A woman cries outside a prison in Minsk where hundreds of antigovernment protesters are being held.


RFE/RL: How would you characterize the meeting after you expressed your concern and the minister responded by saying the West needs to show more understanding? Did the mood become hostile? How did it end, diplomatically speaking?

Durbin: Well, diplomatically [speaking], they called it "frank and candid." And I would say it ended with Martynov and the Lukashenka government totally unrepentant. In fact, he turned around and flew into Europe to meet with some representatives of the EU to charge that Poland and Germany were involved in some conspiracy against Belarus. I mean, it was unfortunately a very extreme comment by someone who has little or no defense to offer.

RFE/RL: The letter that you signed asks the EU to join the United States in speaking with one voice on Belarus and impose sanctions that carry "very real and significant consequences" for Lukashenka and other Belarusian officials responsible for human rights abuses, vote fraud, and the continued detention of opposition presidential candidates and party leaders following the December 19 presidential election. If that doesn't happen, are there any steps you plan to take in the U.S. Congress to keep the pressure on Belarus?

Durbin: I have tried to work with the [Obama] administration to make sure we did things in concert with the European Union, and my feeling is that [White House] is going to move forward. I've spoken to some of their representatives. I think we ought to work with [the EU]. My impression is that sanctions, whatever they might be, are not very effective unless they're coordinated by many nations. So unilateral efforts have very little impact; I think we will have much greater impact if we work together.
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: NJSmith from: Planet Earth
January 21, 2011 08:23
Would be nice to get distinguished senator to answer following questions:

1. On the subject of human rights Belarus dwarfs in comparison to China. Do you advocate and work for imposing sanctions on China since that would seem to be your natural political stance on defending democracy? What plans does US Government have on "speaking with one voice on China, and impose sanctions that carry "very real and significant consequences" for Hu Jintao and other Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses"?

2. Would you defend whatever party in the US of A who would attempt to snatch power before completion of vote count during next presidential election? If no, why do you feel it is justified to do so in Belarus?

3. US law explicitly prohibits for presidential candidates to get financial support from foreign citizen/institutions. Do you think it is OK for Belarussian candidates to be supported by foreign funds? If yes, why?

4. By your own Wall Street Journal estimates Lukashenko had won with not less than approx. 60 plus % of total vote which is indicative of he is popular among Belarussians. Please name any eveidence( and not a mere hearsay) that would support your/your government notion there was vote fraud.

In Response

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
January 21, 2011 17:38
" 3. US law explicitly prohibits for presidential candidates to get financial support from foreign citizen/institutions. Do you think it is OK for Belarussian candidates to be supported by foreign funds? If yes, why? "

Evidence???
In Response

by: oleg
January 21, 2011 18:08
he is a Belrusian kgb plant, he doesn't need evidence.

and "bad or very bad" is an osce "pat on the head"?

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101220/ap_on_re_eu/eu_belarus_election_33
In Response

by: NJSmith from: Planet Earth
January 21, 2011 20:54
Here you go Zoltan:

Cristian Science Monitor, September 2001 - "US spends millions to bolster Belarus opposition. Washington spent $24 million in Belarus last year, and US officials say the figure is slightly higher this year. That amounts to a small fortune in this impoverished nation wedged between NATO's eastern flank and Russia. "To me, [the aid] is nothing to be embarrassed about if you say you want to develop an open, civil society," Ambassador Kozak says. "We made no secret about it." But critics say that, even if the opposition were to win Sunday's vote, they could have a hard time shaking a "Made in the USA" label." Same Mr Kozak, may I add, who was overseeing the "democratic" replacement of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections, in his capacity as US Ambassador in Nicaragua (1990 and 1992). By Mr Ambassador's own admission in a letter to the Times newspaper: "As regards parallels between Nicaragua in 1989-90 and Belarus today, I plead guilty. Our objective and to some degree methodology are the same."

Scotland On Sunday, August 2005 - "THE European Union is set to provide cash for opposition parties in the former Soviet republic of Belarus."

NYTimes, February 2006 - "President Bush to leaders across Europe, have thrown their support — and money — behind Milinkevich and an array of democratically minded activists"

The United States Department of State, “Belarus 2007 Performance Report,” November 16, 2007 - "The US State Department last year provided funding to five opposition parties and 566 opposition activists, and support and training to over 70 civil society organizations, 71 antigovernment journalists and 21 opposition media outlets in Belarus. 900 Belarusian youth were enrolled tuition-free at US government-expense at the European Humanities University. The university is an alternative to Belarusian state schools which the US government condemns for failing to “support the country’s transformation to a free-market democracy.”

Financial Times, January 2011- " Belsat, an independent Belarusian television channel, receives about 90 per cent of its 23m zlotys ($7.9m) funding from the Polish government."
In Response

by: NJSmith from: Planet Earth
January 21, 2011 21:17
Oleg,

The date of the link you provide inadvertently supports what I said, i.e. OSCE had changed its mind after December 19th. Before that the head of the OSCE mission in Belarus, German ambassador Geert Ahrens told Belarusian media that significant progress had been made. Other observers who approved of the electoral conduct were Italian member of parliament Andrea Rigoni and OSCE/ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human rights)observer David Byrne Heysel.

As for calling me a KGB plant, well, it seems you were following Cicero advise " When short on argument abuse the plaintiff".
In Response

by: simon
January 22, 2011 08:42
Maybe Oleg thinks you're a KGB plant because you go by "NJSmith", and yet it's clear you're not a native English speaker. Who do you think you're fooling?

And of course you parrot the official line that the protesters were attempting some sort of violent coup, a blatant lie only such a Soviet-style government would expect anyone to believe.
In Response

by: NJSmith from: Planet Earth
January 22, 2011 17:18
Simon,

I fool nobody. I guess, possibility of one getting his/her surname by adoption, marriage or result of an intermarriage between one's parent never have crossed your suspicious mind. Shame, really.

And surely I parrot no official line - you do not consider US state Dep, Christian Science Monitor or FT(Financial Times, in case you don't know) to be Belarussian official sources, or do you? - but keep my mind open as opposed to.....you, perhaps, who swallow 'news' pre-packed and half-chewed for easy digestion? BTW, the fact that opposition announced creation of the new government during the December 19th demonstration before final vote count as well as people cheering on while buildings were attacked comes from no other but timeline published by opposition's Charter97.

Like Oleg you couldn't provide a single counter argument and chose to hide your ignorance behind name calling. Since ignorance is a bliss, why to bother, right? After all, if Sarah Palin once said she could understand international relations because in good weather she could see Russia across, you too could justly believe you know everything as it really was/is because you have... a gut feeling. Congratulations, keep it up!
In Response

by: Election Observer from: US
February 03, 2011 07:33
I was a member of the OSCE's Belarus Presidential election short-term observation mission in December, based in the city of Vitebsk. It is true that the pre-election period was slightly more open than past Belarus elections. For example Belarus state television granted each opposition candidate five minutes of unedited airtime and there was also a televised debate which all the opposition candidates participated although Lukahenko did not.

My role as an STO was not to evaluate the pre-election period however, but just to observe and report on the early election (four days of early voting) and election day period in my assigned observation area totaling about 30 polling stations. I can tell you quite frankly that aside from the various procedural issues with the election process (lack of serial numbers on ballots, early voting in every polling station for four days, plasteline (what americans call "play doh") used for sealing ballot boxes over night, lack of access or denied to the voter registry/list, lack of opposition representation on polling station commissions, few opposition or independent domestic observers) we observed outright ballot stuffing in the polling station where we observed the count. I could explain in detail the mechanism used but suffice to say it was done in fashion which was very easy for us to determine. The results was a higher than 100% turnout. Therefore some adjustments had to be made which resulted in votes taken away from the other candidates to bring the total down to a more feasible 90% turnout. The final result was approximately 80% for Lukashenko. It was bizarre to watch the process unfold in silence. Our requests for more information were met by threats to expel us from the station by armed Belarus police.

After the count was finished we proceeded to the regional election commission to witness aggragation of the vote totals and to check the vote count result protocols of other polling stations we visited throughout our week in Vitebsk. Here we discovered a similar problem of high vote counts. In order to get the right proportions, the polling station commissions simply increased the total number of voters and ballots received (fixed numbers which shouldn't change much) in order to bring their turnout down to 90%.

Our theory is that the polling station commissions and chairpersons were under so much pressure to turn out the vote and so fearful of a low voter turnout, that they excessively ballot stuffed the early voting boxes during the first four days of the early voting period, probably on the last night before E-day. However on the Sunday Election Day, they actually had a quite high turnout with many voters showing up. This led many of them to have a problem of higher than 100% vote totals, necessitating some mechanism to bring them back down either by stripping away votes, as we witnessed in our vote count station or by increasing the total number simply on the paper protocol to get the approximate proportions right. A very clumsy method but that is the system.

(con't)
In Response

by: Election Observer from: US
February 03, 2011 07:34
I was a member of the OSCE's Belarus Presidential election short-term observation mission in December, based in the city of Vitebsk. It is true that the pre-election period was slightly more open than past Belarus elections. For example Belarus state television granted each opposition candidate five minutes of unedited airtime and there was also a televised debate which all the opposition candidates participated although Lukahenko did not.

My role as an STO was not to evaluate the pre-election period however, but just to observe and report on the early election (four days of early voting) and election day period in my assigned observation area totaling about 30 polling stations. I can tell you quite frankly that aside from the various procedural issues with the election process (lack of serial numbers on ballots, early voting in every polling station for four days, plasteline (what americans call "play doh") used for sealing ballot boxes over night, lack of access or denied to the voter registry/list, lack of opposition representation on polling station commissions, few opposition or independent domestic observers) we observed outright ballot stuffing in the polling station where we observed the count. I could explain in detail the mechanism used but suffice to say it was done in fashion which was very easy for us to determine. The results was a higher than 100% turnout. Therefore some adjustments had to be made which resulted in votes taken away from the other candidates to bring the total down to a more feasible 90% turnout. The final result was approximately 80% for Lukashenko. It was bizarre to watch the process unfold in silence. Our requests for more information were met by threats to expel us from the station by armed Belarus police.

After the count was finished we proceeded to the regional election commission to witness aggragation of the vote totals and to check the vote count result protocols of other polling stations we visited throughout our week in Vitebsk. Here we discovered a similar problem of high vote counts. In order to get the right proportions, the polling station commissions simply increased the total number of voters and ballots received (fixed numbers which shouldn't change much) in order to bring their turnout down to 90%.

Our theory is that the polling station commissions and chairpersons were under so much pressure to turn out the vote and so fearful of a low voter turnout, that they excessively ballot stuffed the early voting boxes during the first four days of the early voting period, probably on the last night before E-day. However on the Sunday Election Day, they actually had a quite high turnout with many voters showing up. This led many of them to have a problem of higher than 100% vote totals, necessitating some mechanism to bring them back down either by stripping away votes, as we witnessed in our vote count station or by increasing the total number simply on the paper protocol to get the approximate proportions right. A very clumsy method but that is the system.
In Response

by: Election Observer from: US
February 03, 2011 07:41
(cont'd)

However the bright light is that the commissions don't operate with full impunity. For instance, they fear to fill out the voter registry in advance (one signature for each ballot received by a voter) for fear that someone will show up to the station and find their name already signed on the registry. Because of that, we were able to check between the reported number of ballots on the posted protocol showing a 50% turnout against a list with only two or three signatures per page on average (less than 10%) that indicated a high chance for fraud to be taking place. Also in the three out of thirty stations where indpendent or opposition observers were present, the posted protocol numbers were much lower indicating that just one or two people observing a group of 15 or 16 polling station commission members all picked by local authorties, can have a huge impact as watchdogs and improving corrupt behavior.

The people of Belarus are not stupid, they know what is happening and the frustration is widespread in society. But the climate of fear is palpable. It is a much less free society than Russia for instance where political freedom is limited but personal freedom is quite high as long as you are not too successful and don't venture into politics. From my experience in Belarus the police state is omnipresent and people, such as those polling station chairpersons and their commissions, are committing fraud because they know if they dont' produce the required numbers, the authorities will find someone who can and that means loss of job, social position and security for one's family if not the potential for violence.

The saddest part of the whole episode is that Lukashenko is the most popular political subject in the country. My guess based upon what I saw in Vitebsk which is close to the Russian/Belarus border and generally recognized as a Lukashenko stronghold is he would have won approximately 40% of the vote on a 50% total vote turnout. Getting less than 50% would have triggered a run off election with the next leading vote receiver, which the incumbent probably would have won in any case.

However in a state like Belarus, winning an election with 40% of the vote is similar to losing. It would undermine Lukashenko’s authority which is based on a total domination of the state. He needs overwhelming, dominant authority to maintain his iron grip on the state and he manufactured it using the tried and true soviet era mechanisms.

by: Nathan Smith from: Washington, DC
January 21, 2011 14:18
Uh, NJ Smith, even if the source you cite is correct, there was vote fraud, as 60% < 79%.
In Response

by: NJSmith from: Planet Earth
January 21, 2011 17:05
Nathan, Wall Street Journal gave their estimates and not actual number, meaning by their analytical data Lukashenko had no less than named %% support in election. You are aware bankers do put their money where their mouth is, so, I've no reason to suspect WSJ didn't know what it was talking about. OSCE gave lukewarm, I admit, but a pat on a shoulder to the way Belarussian election were going on saying Belarus made a step in right direction and that there was some progress made, etc right till the demonstration in Minsk during which the opposition, - I am tired to repeat that but I have to since such a 'little' detail is being ignored by mainstream media, - attempted a coup de etat by proclaiming creation of new government well before the final vote count and then called on people to march on to president's residence and other governmental buildings to announce 'the will of the people' during which acts of vandalism and forceful attempts to break into the buildings were committed with opposition leaders watching on without calling on people to stop. What will of the people if the vote was being counted still? BTW, the timeline of events that evening was published by opposition own Charter97 and not by pro-official sources. Anyway, only after the demonstration OSCE had made quite a turn and started to cry fool. I don't know about you but for me such change of heart does make the organization credibility look shaky and current righteous posturing by US senators and EU parliamentarians highly hypocritical.

by: Jack from: US
January 21, 2011 20:33
I agree that US senator was customarily hypocritical. However that does not change the fact that Lukashenko in Belarus is just a plane disgrace for that country. And even if it is true that 60% of Belarus people voted for him it only shows how slave-minded they are. All Lukashenko did is to turn Belarus into a client state for Russia, and his only existence is largely due to that parasitic relationship. Belarus economy is kept afloat because of huge Russian subsidies. I only wonder what did Russia gain from that, other than moral satisfaction in having retained at least one client state after all other went astray or changed into US' client states
In Response

by: NJSmith from: Planet Earth
January 22, 2011 10:09
I am not a Lukashenko fan, but what exactly do you base your assumption on to call him a disgrace for Belarus? That he won with supposed 79% of the vote? Well Georgian 'First Democrat' Mr Saakashvili won with 96%, almost like the late Saddam Hussein, and such practically impossible number never was a reason enough for the US or EU to raise a question. His treatment of the opposition never was a reason enough to make him look like a villain by the US/EU countries media. To the contrary, he was always showered with praise, particularly in the US, which brings in question how objective reports about Belarus as a country and its government are. How about EU ignoring the result of Irish referendum on Lisbon Treaty and pressuring the country for the vote that would suit EU big wigs, how democratic that was? Would that justify to call all people of EU chronically duped and gullible or to name all Americans Texan rednecks because the majority voted Bush in twice? And let us not even think about Sarah Palin. So, calling Belarussians who voted for Lukashenko 'slave-minded' is ignorant generalization and shows how little you know about their country.

As for economy, again the picture you've painted is rather lacking in depth. As early as in spring 2010 China had announced US$10 billion investment in Belarus, and I don't think it would be exaggeration to assume it is only a beginning, and soon both Russia and EU status as main business partners would be squeezed out. In my opinion, Lukashenko was doing a lot of balancing act between EU and Russia, and it is EU shortsightedness that made that balance to tilt unfavorably to EU interests. The West seems still to be enamored with revolutions it can give a brand name to ignoring the fact such politics are nothing but stomping onto its own tail.
In Response

by: Andrew from: Auckland
January 26, 2011 09:30
Actually NJSmith, Saakashvili won an internationally monitored election after Shevardnadze committed massive fraud, his 96% of the vote win was was in 2004. His massive majority was a mainly a result of protest votes against the pro Russian and highly corrupt regime of Shevardnadze.

His most recent election to the presidency in 2008 was only won by 53.47% of the votes cast. Hardly the 97% you claim.

Similarly the governing party won 59.18% of the seats in Parliament.

by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix AZ
January 22, 2011 17:35
Lukashenka won a very convincing first election as president of Belarus. They have maintained their status as a responsible member of the international community despite being comtinually drawn into controversies not of their own making. The millions being illegally funneled to opposition candidates has not destroyed the government's stability and sanctions are not called for. This is Belarus, not North Korea.

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York, NY
January 27, 2011 06:07
NJ Smith, you don't care about China, and are merely being facetious with this claim of U.S. imbalance because universality and human rights aren't really of interest to you -- you are advocating on behalf of a brutal and ruthless regime, that's clear. So don't hide your tracks.

There isn't any "snatching of power". People demonstrating on a square and demanding accountability of a clearly-rigged vote have every right to do so under international human rights standards.

This idea that the presidential candidates received foreign funds is one that you and other regime apologists keep flogging. But I don't find the evidence very convincing. I know for a fact that the claims made about me, to the effect that I gave $211,000 to Charter 97, are purely false and outrageous. As for other grants that may in fact be factually true, they are given for legitimate purposes of education, training, and news. This is a country without an independent press. You can't have free elections without free media. So any assistance that the West gives to help free media is all about creating a level playing field.

The idea that foreign countries can't help other countries to have democratic elections is basically an illegitimate one. They can, and do, all the time. The laws in the U.S. about foreign donations abroad by the two party institutes and other government-funded institutions like NED are very strict, and carefully monitored, and they certainly in no way amount to somehow funding some individual candidate to win, but are about a level playing field. But of course, again, you're not *really* interested in the truth here, but merely in sniping.

If the U.S. spent $24 million on Belarus, most of that would be spent on their own consultants. It's a small figure, and hardly enough to "overthrow" a government that had the actual support of its people.

Interestingly, for someone backing a ruler who claims he had at least 80 percent of the vote, you are trying awfully hard to discredit these "pathetic" opposition members. Why imprison and torture people and subject them to slander abroad if Lukashenka's power is so legitimate? Of course it isn't, and that's why you and other propagandists work overtime.

I fail to see any coup d'etat -- there are ample numbers of independent videos showing brutal storming by the police of demonstrators -- not visa versa.

Once again, these "millions" that are claimed for the opposition don't exist -- and even if they did, it would require untold sums and political will to remove a figure backed by the Kremlin in an oil-transit country for Russia. Lukashenka's misrule is not stable, however, but brittle, like all despotism -- the use of violence is caused by weakness.

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