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Belarus: U.S. Urges Belarusians To Vote In Election

The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is urging voters in Belarus to take part in the 9 September presidential elections. Ambassador David Johnson says a large turnout will assist those who are trying to give the country an honest political process. He also says the U.S. wants a credible investigation into the disappearance of a number of people in Belarus.

Munich, 7 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Robert Johnson, said today that both the United States and the OSCE believe a large turnout for Sunday's (9 September) election in Belarus is important to the country's struggle to establish democracy.

He says a large turnout will encourage non-government organizations (NGOs) and individuals who are working for a democratic government.

"The first thing I would say, the first message, is: Go and vote. Notwithstanding your questions about the honesty of the process and what the outcome might be and whether your vote might count -- go and do it. Help those who are trying to make sure that it's an honest process -- the people who are trying to organize the domestic voter observation program. Give them your public and private support."

Johnson says many things have been done -- or not done -- in the last several weeks and months which make it difficult to believe that the poll will be fair and transparent.

But he praises the opposition for pushing on with its campaign despite the obstacles. He said their determination raises hope that there can still be a real contest.

The U.S. ambassador to the OSCE says that, regardless of the outcome, he believes the work of NGOs and other democratic forces in Belarus is making positive steps toward democratic development.

"No matter how the election turns out, I think what's been done in the last several weeks and months has been positive for the potential for democratic growth in Belarus...creating a united opposition rather than one which is so fragmented that you can't -- you don't really have a democratic choice. You just have a government and a bunch of people, individual parties which aren't going to be able to constitute a real opposition."

Johnson says democratic forces in Belarus should bear in mind the examples from Eastern and Central Europe.

He also pledged that Belarusian democrats will enjoy the continued support of the international community, which wants real democracy in Belarus:

"You've got the interest of the international community, which is not willing to just say, 'Oh, if it's a semi-totalitarian state, that's OK with us.' That's not what we are interested in having in Europe. We are going to stay with it until the process completes itself."

Johnson says the U.S. and the OSCE believe that both a government and an efficient opposition are essential prerequisites for a functioning democracy, not only in Belarus but anywhere.

Johnson says the U.S. is deeply disturbed by the recent disappearances of several critics of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and by reports that there could be a government connection.

"That people have disappeared is an incontrovertible fact. That there are assertions by what appear to be credible witnesses about foul play -- and assertions that there is a government connection to that foul play -- is also something that we take very seriously. We think that what needs to be done is to have a credible and transparent investigation -- not just for us and not really for us, but for the families of the victims and for the people of Belarus to have some confidence in the system in which they live."

But the U.S. ambassador says he does not expect that sanctions will be imposed on Belarus if the election is judged to fall short of democratic standards. He said that Belarus has, in effect, "placed sanctions on itself by isolating itself so much politically," and by not taking steps to make its economy more competitive.