Speech of Vintsuk Viachorka, Chairman of Bielarusian People's Front at session of the parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasburgh
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have come here empowered to present the common opinion of the Advisory Council of Opposition Political Parties of Belarus. This is a consultative body, established to unite the efforts to ensure free
and fair elections. Despite the natural differences among Belarusian parties of the left and right, all of them share the vision of Belarus as an independent country; a commitment to democratic principles; a
profound respect for human rights.
Let me present the developments during recent months in relation to the 4 Conditions which were formulated concerning the situation Belarus, and the commitment to which is shared by the Council of Europe, OSCE and
1) Firstly, the establishment of a political climate of confidence.
All institutions of civil society in Belarus have been and remain under constant attack from the regime. Members of the pro-democracy political parties, of NGOs and trade unions have all too frequently
assaulted, fined and imprisoned in connection with their activism. For example Mr Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the United Civil Party who is here present has been subjected since July to a criminal investigation for alleged "criminal defamation of the President". Mr Siarhiej Malchyk, the chair of the Belarusian Popular Front branch in the city of Hrodna, stood trial on September 10 for "participation in an unauthorised rally and the use of unregistered symbols".
As just one of the recent examples of apparent ?#152;extra-judicial’ retribution, On September 15, Mr. Alaksiej Karol, one of the social democrat leaders,
was physically assaulted and beaten unconscious near his home in the centre of Miensk. The police are evidently taking no appropriate measures to find the assailants.
There has been no progress regarding the cases of the disappeared politicians (Mr. Hanchar, Mr. Krasouski, Mr. Zacharanka) and journalist (Mr.
Zavadzki). No reliable information has been released.
The trial of a gang charged, among other crimes, with the kidnapping of Mr Zavadzki, provided no real answers, but simply raised new questions.
Unfortunately, a new name has now been added to the alarming list of the disappeared: Mr Jury Korban, Belarus Popular Front's local leader from the city of Viciebsk. He disappeared in February. We are asking the Parliamentary Assembly to set up an independent commission to clarify the circumstances of the disappearances in Belarus.
The regime harasses political parties by, for example, evicting them from their office premises -- as has already happen to the United Civic Party and is about to happen to the Party of Communists ?#152;Belarusian’, or by dismissing the party activists from their job, as happened with Albert Jaumienau, BPF activist from Asipovicy district.
Parallel to this policy of repression of civil society, the government of Belarus attempts to replace real initiatives with state-run pseudo-civil
structures, as in the case of the Federation of Trade Unions. Mr. Lukashenka has recently described the role of trade unions in Belarus as merely that of
"supporters of the state". Another alarming development is that the situation with religious freedom has deteriorated. On June 27th the lower chamber of the National Assembly [the so-called “Parliament”] adopted the Bill "On the freedom of denominations and religious organisations". This Bill is now on the agenda to be considered by the upper chamber [of the so-called "parliament"]. Many in Belarus and abroad regard it as discriminatory against religious minorities. Their leaders express concern that the passing of such a law would lead to growing intolerance. The linguistic rights of many Belarus citizens are commonly violated country-wide. Parents who demand for their children the right to receive their schooling in their native Belarusian language are commonly denied such a possibility. This is just another aspect of the general policy of religious and linguistic discrimination in Belarus. No guarantees for healthy life and food are provided for Chernobyl region inhabitants.
The state-run media remain inaccessible for independent political opinions. At the same time, there have been new cases of imprisonment of independent journalists, and independent newspapers have been forced to close down. As a recent example, on September 16 the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper "Rabochy" Mr. Viktar Ivashkievich; was sentenced to 2 years of "restriction of freedom": that is, forced labour. During a closed trial, he was found guilty of allegedly committing an "attempt to libel the President of Belarus" and "public insult to the President". Mr. Mikola Markievich;, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper "Pahonia", and Mr. Paval Maћejka, a journalist, In June were sentenced respectively to two-and-a-half and two years of "restricted freedom" on identical charges, and have
begin to serve their terms. The newspaper "Narodnaja Vola" is currently under investigation on the charges of criminal defamation of the President. All these cases form part of the large-scale campaign aimed at the destruction of the remnants of independent press in Belarus.
The presidential elections in September last year in no way met the international standards of free, fair, democratic elections. Despite the clear position and recommendations of the OSCE, no changes have been made in the legislation. Unless there is a radical reform of the electoral law, at least with respect to the much-criticised "early voting" process and the mobile voting options, and unless pluralistic composition of the electoral commissions at all levels and transparency can be assured at the stage of
tabulation of the nation-wide voting results, the local elections due in early 2003 are doomed to be of the same dubious quality as the last presidential
We believe that although the National Assembly has indeed conducted public debates on the possibility of abolishing the death penalty, this per se is in no way sufficient for the fulfilment of this condition. And although debates on this issue were permitted, one has to note that no decisions resulted from them.
The Belarus opposition takes a firm stand against the death penalty and is also demanding the institution of the post of Ombudsman in our country. But we are convinced that such reforms, although important, can be really meaningful only as elements in a wider and general change of the situation.
Hence we can only conclude that - with respect to all the crucial criteria - there has been not only a lack of progress, but, on the contrary, there are many indications that the severity of political repressions and the self-isolation of official Miensk are actually increasing. Therefore we can only agree with the Rapporteur in that the Special Guest Status should not be offered to Belarus at this time. On the other hand we believe that the issue of offering such a status to Belarus should stay on the agenda. This will provide a signal to civil society of Belarus that an independent and democratic Belarus will definitely become a member of the Council of Europe - once democracy in restored in the country.
Now, is there a way out from this deadlock? We are convinced that there is, and we are ready to go our part of the way. The democratic opposition in Belarus confirms once again its preparedness to begin negotiations with the government on the crucial matters of our country’s present and future. We will be glad to see and fully prepared to acknowledge any substantial progress in any important aspects of the situation in Belarus as soon as any clear steps in that direction are made by the government. In the meantime, our immediate demand is that all the political sentences imposed on the press be cancelled. We demand the immediate release of the convicted journalists; we also demand freedom for Prof.Bandazevski, an expert in Chernobyl-related issues who is imprisoned on dubious charges. We demand
the repeal of the severe norms of the new Belarus Criminal Code which permit criminal prosecution on charges of "defamation" and "insult" of the president and government officials. We demand not to pass the notorious law "On the freedom of denominations and religious organisations” - in its present discriminatory form.
The upcoming local elections will give yet another chance to the authorities of Belarus to improve the situation, at least in the crucial areas mentioned in the Four Conditions. It is important to note that, although all the main parties are currently preparing to participate in the local elections campaign, our position is that this participation should not lead to an international recognition of the present institutions of the regime (including the local ones) as fully legitimised.
We also view with great concern the growing danger that the lack of democracy in Belarus may lead the country to the loss - either formally or de facto - of its independence. It is appalling that now the very future of our country as an independent state has been in fact made a matter of debate. We protest against any attempts or proposals aimed at either violating or putting into question the status of Belarus as of an independent statehood. We assert that no referenda or elections in Belarus can be viewed as a valid expression of the real will of the nation until substantial democratic changes are secured in all spheres of the country’s existence. We urge the Council of Europe, its Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE and the EU to renew the previous practice of policy co-ordination vis-а-vis Belarus. We most expressly oppose the prospect that our country, which at this point of history finds itself in such difficulties, might be made disappear from the map of Europe, thus losing its chances to join the family of European democratic nations in the future.