Axis of Evil: Belarus- The Missing Link

The Belarusian Review

A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XXVIII-- December 15, 2004

The conference organized by the New Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute was held on November 14, 2002 in Washington, D.C. It featured leaders of the Belarusian democratic opposition, international experts and U.S. officials. The main panel topics were human rights violations and the disappearance of political opponents, arms sales to rogue states, and prospects for reconstruction of Belarus after Lukashenko.

Radek Sikorski, the Executive Director of NAI, opened the conference by introducing former Congressman Sam Gejdenson who described how he witnessed the switching of ballot boxes while monitoring elections in Belarus. His parents came originally from Belarus and in the past he was the sponsor of a number of Congressional resolutions in support of Belarusian democracy. He was followed by Michael Kozak, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus. He described the current situation in the country and how it has deteriorated in the last years, and the steps needed to bring Belarus out of self-imposed isolation. The former OSCE ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck called for the return of the OSCE mission to Minsk and for the resumption of its advisory and monitoring activities.

The human rights panel was moderated by the President of RFE/RL Thomas Dine.

A film by Moscow telejournalist Pavel Sheremet, who personally experienced months of detention in Belarus, dealt with the disappearance of Dmitry Zavadzki, Anatol Krasouski and Viktar Hanchar. Krasouski's wife Iryna related some of the details of her husband's disappearance and how her neighbors have since out of fear stopped talking to her. Nina Shea, member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, explained how Belarus's new law on religion is one the most repressive in the world. It even prohibits Bible studies in private homes. Former Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Sannikau, who resigned his post after one of Lukashenko's fraudulent referendums and is now the International Coordinator for Charter 97, called on Western institutions to do more to counter the supression of liberty in Belarus.

RFE/RL analyst Jan Maksymiuk and Rafal Sadowski of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw presented the history of Belarus's arms sales to states like Libya, Iran, Sudan and most of all to Iraq. A compilation of more than twenty high level contacts with Iraq in the last four years was available. Ambassador Kozak revealed that the United States has intelligence information on Belarus' arms sales and has presented the Lukashenko government with a demarche over the training of Iraqi officers. Panel moderator, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer agreed with a questioner that there is concern also about Russian involvement in these sales.

The panel 'Belarus after Lukashenko' was chaired by Barbara Haig, a National Endowment for Democracy vice president. It opened with a dramatic video taped message by Andrei Klimau, a former parliamentary deputy who has spent three years in jail on political charges and is not allowed to leave the country. He called on the West not to abandon his country and on his countrymen to overcome their fear.

Stanislav Shushkevich, former head of state and currently the leader of the Social Democratic Party Hramada called on the formation of a broad political coalition as a first step toward democracy. Anatol Liabedzka of the United Civic Party believes that Belarus's strategic goal must be membership in the European Union in ten to fifteen years. He felt, however that a democratic Belarus can cooperate with Russia. Vincuk Viachorka of the Belarusian Popular Front stated that Belarusians must take matters in their own hands in protecting their independence and rejoining Europe. He did not believe that democratization can come from Russia and called on the U.S. Congress to pass the Belarus Democracy Act.

Congressman Christopher Smith who is one the co-sponsors of this Act sent a message of support to the conference. He concluded his message by saying that 'the Belarusian people deserve better than the heavy hand of Alexander Lukashenko', and that 'they deserve our support as they work to overcome the legacy of the past and develop a genuinely independent, democratic country based on the rule of law and democratic institutions'.

The culmination of the conference was a hard hitting and well informed speech by Senator John McCain. Especially interesting excerpts follow:
"The impunity with which Lukashenko has ruled since he created his dictatorship by referendum in 1996 is the result of a unique historical moment framed by the end of the Cold War and the start of the war on terrorism. Lukashenko's opportunity began with Boris Yeltsin's coddling of the dictator - ironically, in a bid for electoral advantage in Moscow - and must soon end with the realization among NATO's members that a Europe which enjoys peace with Russia cannot abide a black hole of authoritarianism at its center. As we did with the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe's democracies must ally ourselves with the regime's democratic opposition and provide moral leadership backed by political will to liberate Belarusians from the rule of Europe's last tyrant. .

... Unfortunately, it was in U.S. policy towards Russia that we compromised the values we were seeking to instill in Moscow and, through neglect, allowed sovereign states in what some Russians like to call their "near abroad" to fall under Russian influence. Much has changed for the better in Russia over the past decade. The war on terrorism has given us common cause, and we welcome the historic shift in our relations that has occurred under the leadership of Presidents Bush and Putin.

Allow me to simply suggest that Belarusians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, Chechens, Dagestanis, and others stand as eloquent witnesses to the ways in which Russia has not changed since 1991. America's efforts to instill our values in Moscow have not been matched by policies that resolutely defend the fundamental rights of people in both distant Russian republics and sovereign states bordering Russia. The manifestation of our failure lies in the ruins of Grozny and the Russian-inspired chaos and lawlessness beyond Tbilisi.

... Belarusians have been captive to the effects of Moscow's past sponsorship of Lukashenko's regime. Historians can debate the formative influences on Belarusians' national identity - the partnership in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the effects of centuries of invasion and occupation, including Stalin`s Great Terror and the Nazi blitzkrieg. But to the extent that governance in Belarus has changed little from the days when it formed part of the Soviet Union, it is not national culture but a history of Russian support for tyranny in Minsk that is largely to blame. That support may be ending. If so, it heralds a new day, for it has formed a bulwark that a brave and organized opposition has not yet overcome. Without Russia`s support, a balance of political power that favors freedom would soon emerge to challenge every assumption on which Alexander Lukashenko bases his illegitimate rule.

... It is time the United States and our allies in Europe pursued a newfound campaign to roll back Belarus` dictatorship based on its offense to our common values and its active role in training and arming regimes that hate us and would do us harm. Under the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has reportedly sold weapons to Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Sudan.

... Press reports indicate that Belarus has supplied Baghdad with SA-3 antiaircraft missile components as well as technicians. According to the State Department, a group of Iraqi officers traveled to Belarus last year for training in the use of S-300 anti-aircraft systems. For the first time in its modern history as a sovereign state, the actions of the rogue government of Belarus threaten the national security of the United States. This is not another regime that oppresses its people but contains its vitriol within the boundaries of its own borders. The government of Alexander Lukashenko has provided a nation with which the United States will most likely go to war sophisticated air defense weaponry that can and will likely be used by Iraqi forces to target American pilots. American and allied lives may be lost as a result of the policies of a rogue regime in the middle of Europe. In this case, the friend of our enemy is our enemy.

... September 11th obscured the illegitimate vote Lukashenko held, and manipulated, to extend his term in office. But September 11th opened our eyes to the status of Belarus as a national security threat. After all, it was after September 11th - when many rogue nations at least publicly moderated behavior which offended us - that Lukashenko's Belarus trained Iraqi military officials to operate anti-aircraft defenses sold to them by his regime.

... The United States must work closely with our European allies, in whose backyard the problem lies, to develop and sustain an aggressive common policy supporting democratization and regime change in Belarus. A comprehensive and robust policy toward Belarus on the part of the Atlantic allies will aggravate the regime's isolation and raise the pressure for change within Belarus. The common values that unite the NATO alliance mean there can be no place at the Prague summit for Europe's last dictator. Our common values also require us, as an alliance, to re-examine Belarus` role in the Partnership for Peace. The PFP includes countries with many different forms of government. Some of them certainly don't qualify as full-fledged democracies. But none of them qualify as full-fledged dictatorships - as does Lukashenko's Belarus. NATO should suspend Belarusian membership in the Partnership for Peace, and suspend all contact with the government in Minsk, as long as Alexander Lukashenko remains in power. The fate of democracy in Belarus may hinge on the role other European governments and activists choose to play in liberating the people of their captive neighbor. Governments and civic organizations in Britain, Lithuania, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and elsewhere are currently playing a critical role. The Atlantic democracies must provide sustained support and encouragement to the Belorussian opposition to prepare it for the task of governing after Lukashenko. With our European allies, including many who remember what life was like behind the Iron Curtain, we should pursue concerted efforts to build up the institutions of a free Belarus - civic organizations, independent media, strong political parties, and other institutions to create political space not under the regime's control. The maturity of civil society in Belarus and the democratic legitimacy enjoyed by opposition parties make the situation ripe for change.

Lukashenko's petty tyranny, his frail mastery in a dictatorship of fear, is no match for our common commitment to freedom, to a nation's right to choose its destiny freely through its people's will. Alexander Lukashenko is the last man standing on the deck of a ship of Soviet ideas that has been sinking in the ocean of history since brave men and women empowered by external pressure brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lukashenko's rule is an offense to the values whose victory was secured almost everywhere else in Europe with the end of empire. His rule will threaten America and Europe as long as the civilized world pursues the mission of our age: to work from within and without to change the very character of regimes that threaten us, as does Lukashenko's regime so long as it consorts with our enemies and proliferates the weapons they would use against us.

Nearly two centuries ago, speaking of another nation, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be." Today, says the great Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau, "Lukashenko and democracy are two incompatible words." The vision of a free and democratic Belarus that cares but little for pretensions of a Soviet past and has thrown off the shackles of Lukashenko's rule haunts Belarussian patriots, whose moral commitment to democratic change will end the reign of Europe's last dictator."

The following day the International Republican Institute (IRI) hosted a Political Round Table with the Belarusian party leaders who took part in the conference. They were joined by Aliaksei Karol of the United Social Democratic Party. The discussion was well attended by U.S. officials and representatives of the diplomatic community. The introductory remarks were made by Steven B. Nix of IRI, Laura Jewett of the National Democratic Institute and by Rodger Potocki of the National Endowment for Democracy. During the discussion the party leaders more or less restated their known positions by going into greater detail. Of particular interest was the declaration by Shushkevich that his Social Democratic party will without question join forces with the Popular Front in the next elections. On Russia's position vis--vis independence of Belarus, he quoted the head of a semi-official Russian think tank, Sergei Karaganov: "The process of national self-identification, of independence, is developing in Belarus, and the sooner we put an end to it, the cheaper it will be for Russia. And this (step) is essential in order for us to hold on to the Kaliningrad oblast".

After the Round Table, Trygve Olson, the IRI Country Director for Belarus gave a slide presentation of the preview of an extensive poll which was just concluded in Belarus, a year after Presidential elections of 2001. Respondents were asked about changes in the country in the last year. Detailed results will be available in early 2003 and below is an overview of the key questions:

1. Direction of the country: Satisfactory 22%, Unsatisfactory 59%
2. Economy: Improved 11%, Same 30%, Worse 50%
3. Person to lead the country: Lukashenko 21%, Someone else 62%
4. Putin or Lukashenko: Putin 38%, Lukashenko 16%, neither/don't know 41%
5. If a union with Russia, what type: Economic, like EU 51%, Military union 3%, like USSR 20%, part of Russia 5%, No union 19%

In response to a question as to how many would want Belarus to join the European Union directly, without any union with Russia, the pollster estimated that the result would have been upward of 65 - 70% !

Interview, granted to Belarusian Review by Mr. Vaclov Stankevic, the chairman of Lithuania's Parliament Committee on NATO affairs :

Belarusian Review (BR): After Lithuania received the official invitation to join NATO, it took a long time for your country to prepare for entering the Alliance and for Lithuanian armed forces to attain the necessary NATO standards. As we know, in the international political arena Lithuania probably encountered another problem when Russia openly opposed the integration of Baltic states into NATO. Russian officials often used various international meetings to express their opposition to the enlargement of NATO in the post-Soviet territories. How did you resist this pressure by Russia?

Vaclov Stankevic (V.S.): I am glad you asked this question. Ever since in 1994 our former president, Mr. Brazauskas, declared our preliminary intention to apply for NATO membership, we began an intensive preparation to join the Alliance. All governmental institutions have been working very hard to approach NATO standards in their operations. You may see the results today, when NATO definitely invited our country to become its member. Concerning the Russian opposition to the NATO enlargement, it is true that in the last few years strong pressure has been exerted on Lithuania. We still remember shocking statements by top Russian politicians, who castigated the Baltic states for wishing to join the Alliance. But the times are changing, and so are the people and their ideas. Today Russia respects our views and accepts the fact of our joining NATO. This is due not only to our efforts, but also to the earlier efforts of our partners - mainly to the balanced position of the 19 NATO member countries. In our opinion, very important progress has been achieved with a strong support by Poland and the Scandinavian states.

Historically, Lithuania developed as a multi-ethnic country. Today, with a considerable Russian-speaking minority, our country presents an example of respect for the rights of national minorities.

BR: Does it mean that Russia lost the reasons to oppose enlargement of NATO, and to ask for an for improvement of human rights in the Baltic states ?

V.S.: Yes, Russia lost these reasons to oppose NATO enlargement in the Baltic region. Today's NATO is different from what it was at the time of its establishment in 1949. It is constantly transforming and is now a modern organization. Due to the changing values and new security threats, Russian politics is also undergoing serious changes. As a result, Russia is also trying to approach NATO.

BR: What do you think about the future relationship of your government and the ruling regime in Belarus in the light of NATO enlargement and the political situation in Belarus ? In the context of the new political-military situation, do you perceive any changes in the security balance on borders of Lithuania and Latvia with Belarus ?

V.S.: We are convinced that the enlargement of NATO is bringing stability and security to the Baltic region. One of the responsibilities of the Alliance is to provide security of its members and their borders with other countries We would like to improve our relations with Belarus; however, for known reasons it is difficult. Unfortunately, today we cooperate only on cultural and economic basis. So far we have no political dialogue. We will attempt to persuade Belarusian authorities to restore democracy, nonexistent in Belarus today.

You have asked for our opinion on the matter of entry visa denial for Mr. Lukashenko on the occasion of the NATO summit in Prague. I will respond this way: after Mr. Lukashenko threatened the West with flooding Europe with massive illegal immigration and a wave of drug trafficking, he should not have been issued a visa for his presence at a global event like the NATO summit.

Editor's note: Mr. Vaclov Stankevic is of Belarusian descent.

This article was originally featured in the Belarusian Review
Vol. 14 (No. 4), but is no longer accessible on the website of said organization. It has accordingly been salvaged and again made available to the public by The Rational Argumentator.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA's Statement of Policy.

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