"With important parliamentary elections and a questionable referendum to extend Lukashenka's rule beyond his two-term tenure set to expire in 2006, the United States has demonstrated our unwavering support for pro-democracy forces in Belarus," Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ), chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, commented on the bill. "With passage of the Belarus Democracy Act, we send a strong signal that we stand firmly on the side of those who long for freedom."
The Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 is designed to promote democratic development, human rights, and the rule of law in Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus's sovereignty and independence. The bill authorizes necessary assistance -- leaving the determination of its volume for the U.S. president -- for supporting Belarusian political parties and nongovernmental organizations; independent media, including radio and television broadcasting into Belarus; and international exchanges. The document also prohibits all agencies of the U.S. government to provide loans and investment to the Belarusian government, except for the provision of humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products.
The bill obliges the U.S. president to present annual reports to the U.S. Congress on the sale and delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to any country supporting international terrorism; goods, services, and credits received by Belarus in exchange for the weapons or weapons-related technologies; and the personal assets and wealth of Lukashenka and other senior Belarusian government officials.
Originally, the Belarus Democracy Act was introduced to the U.S. Congress in November 2001 -- shortly after the controversial presidential elections in Belarus -- with much harsher provisions regarding the Lukashenka regime than those approved this week. The 2001 bill proposed that the U.S. government freeze Belarusian assets in the United States, prohibit trade with Belarusian government-run businesses, and deny Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka, the right to travel to the United States. It also proposed the appropriation of $30 million to assist Belarusian democratic institutions and organizations, including funding for radio broadcasting in and to Belarus.
Another version of the Belarus Democracy appeared in March 2003, when it called for $40 million over the 2004-05 fiscal year to promote democracy and civil society in Belarus. It also projected an additional $5 million to support Voice of America and RFE/RL broadcasts into Belarus. The 2004 Belarus Democracy Act is "meeker" than its 2003 predecessor -- it does not contain provisions about the travel ban on Belarusian officials and the prohibition of U.S. strategic exports to Belarus. It also remains noncommittal about the volume of necessary assistance to democracy advocates in Belarus. And, notably, it leaves out a reference, enclosed in the 2003 version, about Russia's role in promoting democracy in Belarus.
"They have wanted to have democracy in Belarus, they have become worried about our elections and referendum," Lukashenka commented ironically on the Belarus Democracy Act on 6 October. "They have forgotten that they have enough of their own problems!" Lukashenka countercharged that the United States has "the most archaic election system" in the world. "As a result, the current [U.S.] president obtained fewer votes than the one who took second place," Lukashenka added. "Is it normal? And such people are worrying about the situation in Belarus!"
"What do the parliamentary elections and referendum have to do with the president's income?" Lukashenka wondered sarcastically, referring to the act's provision about his assets and wealth. "Anyway, I have ordered the immediate calculation of everything that I have been paid by the state and send [the result] to America. But afterwards our new parliament will convene and demand that [U.S. President George W.] Bush make public his own income. And we will compare [our incomes]."
Meanwhile, Belarusian independent media earlier this month cited two polling organizations, the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys from Lithuania and the Yurii Levada Analytical Center from Russia, which found in separate polls conducted in Belarus after the announcement on 7 September of a presidential referendum that Lukashenka's desire to run for the presidency for a third time is supported by 37 percent and 39 percent of eligible voters, respectively.
According to the Belarusian Constitution, a referendum may amend the constitution only if it is backed by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters. However, it is not clear how many eligible voters Belarus has at present. According to official data, there were 7.1 million eligible voters in the local elections in Belarus on 2 March 2003. But on 9 September, Belapan cited "preliminary data" from the Central Election Commission asserting that Belarus now has "some 6.5 million" eligible voters.
Thus, a question may arise: Where have some 600,000 voters disappeared to in the past 18 months in a country of 10 million people that did not register either a deadly epidemic or an outbreak of frantic emigration in that period? Some in Belarus worry that the "preliminary data" regarding Belarus's eligible voters may signal that the Central Election Commission is set to significantly slash their actual number in order to help the president win the referendum in an "elegant" way, as Lukashenka himself referred to his victory in the 2001 presidential ballot.
On 6 October, a representative of the opposition United Civic Party who is on the Central Election Commission with the right to a "consultative voice" proposed that election monitors be given the right to familiarize themselves with lists of voters in each constituency in order to make the 17 October parliamentary election and referendum more transparent. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Central Election Commission flatly rejected this idea.