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Belarus: Helsinki Commission Criticizes Lack Of Democracy

The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, held a hearing in Washington on Thursday about Belarus. A number of witnesses testified about the lack of democracy in Belarus and human rights violations in that country of 10 million people. One prominent opposition figure also raised fears that Belarus could be swallowed up by Russia through a union treaty. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 10 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of a bipartisan U.S. human rights panel says the Belarus government continues to disregard the democratic rights of its citizens.

Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) said Thursday at a hearing held by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that there is grave concern by the international community about Belarus.

Smith, who chairs the panel, said on the top of the political oppression, the situation for the "long-suffering people of Belarus gets worse." He said living standards are dropping, inflation is climbing and health care conditions are getting worse.

Smith said Alyaksandr Lukashenka remains in power as Belarus president beyond the expiration of his legal term last July. He said members of the political opposition have been thrown into jail or disappeared.

"Lukashenka's regime continues to clench the reigns of power, stifling fundamental freedoms and violating the human rights of Belarusian citizens. Despite several false starts, it has refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with the opposition. Instead, he has played lip service to dialogue, or has used the tactics of delay and obfuscation, so reminiscent of the communist past."

Harold Hongju Koh, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said in his testimony that he shared Smith's assessment.

"The situation in Belarus has markedly deteriorated since the spring of 1999, when you held your last hearing on this beleaguered country. Belarus is being left behind at a time when the rest of Europe is seeking to build a common foundation of democratic Governance, respect for human Rights, and the rule of law."

Koh added:

"The United States is deeply concerned about the situation in Belarus, and that is why I traveled to Minsk last November. "

At the hearing, witness after witness criticized the Lukashenka regime.

Ross Wilson, an adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said:

"The Lukashenka regime long ago lost its democratic legitimacy and, in our view, lacks authority to commit Belarus to something that could diminish the country's sovereignty and independence."

Wilson was commenting on the latest Union Treaty, signed last December by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Lukashenka, that seeks to bring the two nations closer. Critics fear the accord could lead to Russia annexing Belarus.

Semyon Sharetsky, the speaker of the Belarus Parliament that was disbanded by Lukashenka in 1996, told the commission he is concerned about the independence of Belarus. Sharetsky, who lives in exile, said that the Russian-Belarus Union Treaty could lead to the loss of Belarus sovereignty.

"If, God forbid, Belarus should be annexed to Russia, then a 700-kilometer-deep wedge will be driven into Europe."

He said such an action would be a potential military threat to the West.

Representatives of the Belarus government did not testify at the hearing. However, the Belarus embassy issued a statement, which it made available to the commission, saying that the Belarus government does not deny "certain problems" that exist in the country.

The statement said the problems were caused by "the formation of democracy and emerging market economic relations."