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Belarus: Interview -- Expelled U.S. Trade Union Official Talks About Elections

On 25 August, the Belarusian authorities detained and expelled U.S. trade union official Robert Fielding after subjecting him to a lengthy interrogation. Belarus's ambassador to Washington, Valery Tsepkalo, said last week that Fielding was improperly speaking out against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and in favor of the president's leading challenger in this month's election, Uladzimir Hancharyk. Fielding had been in the country -- with the approval of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry -- to conduct non-partisan seminars on the importance of voting.

Prague, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Robert Fielding, who was expelled by Belarusian authorities on 25 August, had been in the country since March at the invitation of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

Fielding headed a democracy-awareness program run by the American confederation of trade unions, known as the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO, through its Solidarity Center, runs similar programs in 27 countries around the world, aimed at strengthening the position of trade unions and making workers better aware of their rights. The AFL-CIO's Belarus program is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Fielding explains:

"It had received clearance and approval from the Belarusian authorities, and the goal of this program was -- working through the Free Trade Union of Belarus and the Belarusian Independent Trade Union -- to get the word out to people at the workplace about the importance of taking part in elections, that democracy is strong when a large percentage of eligible voters turn out to vote and play an active role in political life in their country."

Fielding emphasizes that the program is not aimed at supporting any specific candidate in the presidential election later this week (9 September):

"This was a completely non-partisan program. From the very beginning, it was clear that we would not be able to work with the third trade union in that country, which is headed by one of the candidates for the presidency, [Uladzimir Hancharyk]. His union was automatically eliminated from even our consideration, since he had already been a declared candidate."

On 25 August, Fielding says two plainclothes officers of the visa police came to his hotel room in the city of Hrodna. They demanded to see his visa and registration. Although Fielding says his documents were valid and in order, the officers told him he would have to accompany them for questioning. Before following the men to the hotel lobby, Fielding says he quickly telephoned the U.S. embassy in Minsk, where he was told that an embassy employee, located in Hrodna, would be sent to see him.

In the lobby, Fielding says the two plainclothes officers were joined by more police personnel, who asked him to come down to the local police station:

"I said: 'This lady's coming from the embassy. Why don't we wait for her?' And then this lieutenant colonel of the passport police jumped up and said, in a fairly loud voice: 'Resisting? OK, then we should call the OMON [riot police].'"

At the station, Fielding says the policemen were joined by KGB officers and a cameraman. Fielding was questioned at length about his activities and accused of conspiring against the government. According to the Belarusian penal code, foreign detainees must be formally charged after a maximum of three hours of interrogation.

After four hours, Fielding says he asked to know why, precisely, he was being detained:

"They interrupted me and said: 'You're not detained.' And I said: 'Well, what am I?' 'You've been invited.' And I said: 'Well, that's great. I'm declining the invitation. I'm walking out the door.' And they said: 'No, you're not.' And I said: 'Well, what kind of an invitation is this? I'm declining your invitation. I'm going to get up and walk out the door.' And they said: 'We don't advise you trying to do that.'"

A lawyer hired by the U.S. embassy was repeatedly prevented from attending the proceedings -- also in violation of the penal code. After several more hours, Fielding was escorted back to his hotel, told to gather his things and marched on board a train bound for Poland, where he remains to this day. No formal charges were ever presented.

Despite the abrupt end to his stay in Belarus, Fielding tells RFE/RL that he believes he made a contribution to raising awareness among ordinary people of the importance of democracy and elections:

"In the beginning, we encountered a lot of skepticism. A lot of people were telling us they thought the elections would be rigged. They did not see any chance that free and fair and democratic and transparent elections would ever be held, and some of them didn't feel that it was necessary to vote, because even if they vote, somebody else in the end would end up voting for them, if you understand what I mean."

But after some time, Fielding detected a change:

"As the program continued, we saw a change where people did feel that it made sense to vote, although they did not lose that skepticism."

Fielding says that skepticism is warranted:

"The fact that many organizations that were non-governmental organizations, which were involved directly or indirectly in some way with the elections, were undergoing a whole month of having their computers confiscated by the police -- which hampered at least their ability to function, if not in some cases making it impossible for them to function -- certainly would be a tremendous cause for concern in anybody's book of democratic principles."

He adds: "The fact that organizations which were organizing the Belarusian domestic observer effort were also experiencing raids in their offices, in their headquarters, and having, again, the computers confiscated, of course would tend to cast doubt on whether or not the domestic observation effort was going to be allowed to go forward in any significant way."

Nevertheless, if Fielding has one message he would like to get across to the Belarusian people, it is this:

"From the day I arrived to the day I was deported, I did nothing differently except to explain to people how important it was to vote. And in spite of all of these limitations -- the fact that there is no national independent electronic mass media, that very, very few people, even when I was leaving, had any idea who the candidates were -- in spite of this, I exhorted people to vote and make their opinion known, in spite of the danger or probability that the results of the election would be falsified."

Voters will choose on Sunday between incumbent President Lukashenka, Hancharyk and a third candidate, nationalist Syarhey Haidukevich.

Fielding says that if Belarusian citizens make their voices heard, and that if falsification of the vote still takes place, at least those responsible for such fraud will have been sent a signal and will know just how popular or unpopular a given candidate may be.