Below is an article submitted to the Belarus Solidarity Campaign by the Ambassador of the Republic of Belarus to the UK, Mr. Aleksandr Mikhnevich.
This year is a very special one for my country – the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from fascists. On July 3rd, 1944 one of the large-scale military operations of WWII called “Bagration” was completed near Minsk. It was crowned with crushing defeat of the enemy. Minsk and practically all the territory of Belarus were liberated from Nazis. Therefore the Belarusian people fixed the date of 3 July as the Independence Day of the Republic of Belarus.
The Great Patriotic War triggered tremendous human casualties and devastation in Belarus. Not a single country involved in the hostilities was faced with such appalling atrocities and destructions, the way Belarus was. The war left a deep mark in history and in the minds of the Belarusian people.
Every third resident of Belarus perished in the War. Of 270 towns and communities, over 200 and almost 90 per cent of buildings in Minsk were ruined. More than 9 thousand villages were devastated. In pre-war prices, material damage was about half the national wealth of the country.
One can tell for hours about heroism of Belarusian people and all peoples of the USSR during the war. I will give only examples. Such as the small garrison deployed in the Brest Fortress was fighting with the invaders for over a month. The German troops were already near Smolensk but battles in Brest – 600 km from the front line – were still underway. Even Hitler arrived by plane to Brest in July 1941 to understand why his powerful army could not capture this small islet of Belarusian soil.
eople know that Belarusian people are "The Righteous among the Nations".
The authorities of Israel introduced the title "The Righteous among the Nations", awarded to people who had saved Jews during the war. Today, there are 22 thousand righteous globally. And over 600 of them live in Belarus, making Belarus Number 8 in this honourablerating.
Another page of the history of the war is partisan warfare.
Overall, a total of 370 thousand partisans fought their battles in Belarus. Over 44 thousand of them died in action.
The scale of the partisan movement was self-evident as single
partisan zones sprang up in 1943 (2 and a half years before the hostilities were over), recaptured by the partisans and estimated at 60 per cent of the occupied territory. Government was restored in those areas, bringing the life of civilians back to normal.
The partisan regiments were multinational, with Belarusians largely outnumbering other nationalities, over 70 %.
Other massive groups included Russians, around 20 per cent, Ukrainians – nearly 4 per cent.
The partisans also involved over 1,200 foreigners: Poles, Slovaks, Germans, French, Italians, and other Europeans.
It was the joint efforts of the anti-Hitlerite coalition and Resistance fighters that defeated fascist Germany and its allies. However, the peoples of the Soviet Union, Belarus included, and the Soviet Army shouldered up a major and overwhelming burden of the war.
Belarusians took part even in the French Resistance. Their ranks included former partisans, underground activists, POWs who escaped fascist concentration camps and joined Resistance in France.
For Belarus, it is worldwide recognition of the contribution made by the country to defeating fascism that made Belarus a UN founding member.
At the very first session of the UN General Assembly, on the proposal of Belarus, a resolution was passed on the extradition and punishment of war criminals.
Modern Belarus is an independent, well-developed European state. Minsk is one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. Belarusian people as nobody else value peace, prosperity, universal values. Our foreign policy is aimed exactly at the creation of zones of neighbourliness. One of the main principles is multi-directed foreign policy. Brotherhood ties us with Russia. Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia – all peoples of the former USSR are our friends and welcome guests. Close relations with Europe, great powers and small countries of Asia, North and Latin America are no less important for us. This is the guarantee for prosperity and progress of Belarus. But we will never forget the price of our freedom.
The President of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko said “We, thankful descendants, bow down before valiant war veterans and home front workers who, with their immortal heroism in the years of the Great Patriotic War, offered us an opportunity to live peacefully and work on free soil. At the cost of numerous lives, the Belarusians earned the right to independence”.
July 2008: Bomb Blast at Belarusian Independence Day Celebrations.
On the third of July a home-made bomb filled with nuts and bolts exploded at the Belarusian Independence Day celebrations in Minsk, that had been attended by around 500,000 people. The bomb went off in the evening and wounded 50 people. Ten have been discharged from hospital and three people were described as being in a ‘bad condition’ one 18 year old boy with abdominal injuries is still in a critical condition. A second bomb that failed to explode has been discovered by the authorities and is currently undergoing forensic examination.
President Lukashenko was in attendance at the evening’s celebratory concert, but has played down speculation that it was an assassination attempt. In fact he refused to leave the concert, and personally took control at the scene of the explosion. Opposition groups immediately responded by complaining that the government would use the explosion to suppress their activities, a claim that was dismissed by President Lukashenko. The incident will be thoroughly investigated, and the Russian, and even the US governments have offered technical assistance if required. Offers that have been well received by the Belarusian authorities.
The explosion is a significant event in the usually peaceful republic, but its timing should not be ignored. Parliamentary elections are due this autumn, and a destabilising of the political situation in the country at this time does not serve the interests of the government. This point is of note in regard to the Belarusian Party of Communists (PKB) claim that the authorities may have set the bomb themselves. (The PKB is actually a non-communist pro-Western party, who’s leader Sergei Kalyakin met with US officials in 2007 to discuss ways of removing Lukashenko from office).
The second issue in regard to the timing of the bomb is that it fell on the republic’s official Independence Day that celebrates the liberation of Minsk from German fascist forces in 1944. (This holiday was chosen by 88.5% of the population in a 1996 referendum). The opposition has opposed this event, preferring instead to mark the short-lived Imperial German created Belarusian Republic of 1918. An explosive device was detonated during opposition protests in March 2006 marking the above date, and similarities will certainly be investigated.
Until the investigation is completed it is not known who set the bomb, but what is certain is that their futile goal was to disrupt the unity of the Belarusian people that was expressed in honour of the Republic’s independence.
An Old Enemy for Belarus...
The following is from the news website 'Russia Today' June 11th 2008:
"A Belarusian TV channel has broadcast a report showing what it says are opposition activists training at right-wing Ukrainian military camps. The footage, aired on Belarus’s state-run Channel One, shows the activists training with UNA-UNSO (Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian Self Defence). The TV station describes them as a dangerous group preparing a coup against the Belarusian president. However the report has been dismissed by some political analysts, who see it as a crude attempt by Belarusian president Lukashenko to mobilise his electorate. According to Belarus’s Channel One, the trainees were polishing their hostage-taking skills, attack strategies, as well as reconnaissance and camouflage techniques. The report said the camp is sponsored by the U.S. National Democratic Institute through its Kiev office, which has allocated $US 250,000 to the body since June 2007. However, commentators doubt that this is enough money to train a paramilitary group capable of staging a coup in Belarus. It is not the first time Belarus’s state-run media have run features on opposition figures, often showing them in compromising situations in neighbouring countries. In 2005, Belarus security services said they discovered camps of opposition members in Lithuania. And in 2006 security officials said radicals were planning to forcefully overthrow the government."
The notion that the UNA-UNSO are a new enemy for Belarus is actually quite false. These Ukrainian ultra nationalists have a history of involvement with the Belarusian opposition movement, particularly with Zianon Paznyak's Belarusian Popular Front (BPF). At a Chernobyl memorial march in April 1996 the BPF attempted to turn the event into an anti-Lukashenko protest. Violence broke out and the Belarusian police arrested over 200 people. 17 of which were Ukrainian nationals, and members of UNA-UNSO. The fact that Paznyak rallied his support in Kiev prior to the march indicates the level of co-operation between the Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalists.
The fact is that for all the misinformation and lies about President Lukashenko's supposed fascism or anti-Semitism, the reality is that Belarus under his leadership has been a consistent and active opponent of fascism, racism, and the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe. More information on these issues can be found on this website, and particularly in the Human Rights Chapter of 'The Last Soviet Republic' by S. Parker.
Bellicosity in Belarus? Or Those Living in Glass Houses…
The Washington Post carried a commentary on Belarus under the title of ‘Bellicosity in Belarus’ on March 9th 2008. It seems that the escalation of US sanctions against Belarus, and the meddling in Belarusian internal affairs by US diplomatic staff needs public support. How can US citizens be convinced that their hard earned tax dollars are going to good use, by being distributed to an unpopular minority of activists in a country around 5000 miles away? The answer, again, is simply by lying to them. The Washington Post supported the invasion of Iraq, and continues to support the US military presence there despite the resulting bloodshed, lack of goals achieved, and the failure to uncover either weapons of mass destruction or Al-Quaeda training camps. The Washington Post once seen as a ‘liberal’ newspaper has moved to the right and is now generally regarded as neo-conservative, with its National Security correspondent admitting that he had been instructed to cease reporting stories which could have been viewed as critical of the Republican administration. This of course is a fine example of the freedom of the press that the aforementioned administration believes should be forced onto Belarus.
The Post’s article begins by briefly mentioning the case of Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou the deputy editor of the Zhoda newspaper in Belarus. The paper that re-printed the anti-Islamic cartoons featuring the image of the prophet Mohammed with a bomb as head-dress. The content of this cartoon was known around the world, even where it was not printed, and the backlash against Danish embassies, and the newspapers who re-printed it was widely recognised. In this light president Lukashenko publicly reminded journalists and editors in Belarus that to re-print the cartoon would be in breach of the Belarusian criminal code, and constitution, as it would by now clearly be an inflammatory act aimed at stirring up ethnic and religious tensions. Zdzvizhkou’s response was therefore to print the cartoon. Unsurprisingly he was arrested and tried under criminal law for inciting religious hatred. Found guilty, sentenced to three years imprisonment, but released after his sentence was mitigated to three months by the Belarusian Supreme Court.
The Washington Post however reported a five year sentence, and said the purpose of which was Lukashenko’s intention to show “his support for Muslim fundamentalism”. Added to this is the accusation of anti-Semitism which we have previously covered in detail, and the unfounded notion that Belarus is responsible for “illegal arms sales to terrorists”. A bold claim, and one that begs the question, is it possible then to legally sell weapons to terrorists? Presumably only if you call the terrorists “Contras”, and their training camp is located in Fort Benning, Georgia. (Click here for more information).
However, not only is Lukashenko a “dictator for life” (despite indicating he my step down as President after the next election), but he is also a man who “threatens to become the most dangerous leader in the world”. How is this conclusion reached?
“The regime in Belarus — a small country of 10 million — is as corrupt and evil as they come. Syria, Iran and North Korea are strategic allies. Belarus, during 2001 alone, secretly sold $500 million in arms to Syria and its terrorist faction, the Hezbollah, that used the deadly Katyusha rockets against Israel”.
This ‘secret arms deal’ is not backed up by any sources, and again is blatantly hypocritical in the face of US arms sales to Suharto’s Indonesia, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq amongst a list of others. Incidentally relations between Belarus and North Korea are not especially close. With Belarus actually having more joint ventures, and trade deals with South Korea. The Washington Post’s version of a ‘strategic relationship’ being the fact that the countries listed are all targets for US sponsored ‘regime change’.
However the worst is yet to come. In inexcusable inflammatory rhetoric, that could not be taken seriously in a country not attempting to maintain a level of fear amongst its populace, the Post 's article continues with: “If another terrorist attack succeeds in the United States, it will be because of Mr. Lukashenko, unabashedly clinging to his Stalinist tactics and disregard for international law”.
The article concludes with: “The current U.S. administration has done little to help the Belarusian people to overcome this tyrant. It is to be hoped the White House's next occupant will address this wrong”.
Apparently the “such sums as may be necessary” of the 2004 Belarus Democracy Act, and subsequent renewals specifying some 20 million per year is not enough.
And the reason that this is not enough, is because the Washington Post’s article is typical of the propaganda directed against Belarus, in that it does not cite sources, distorts quotes, and where facts do not exist to support the argument, they are conveniently made up. The trial, jailing and subsequent early release of Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou is a bizarre springboard for the claim that the next terrorist attack on the USA will be down to President Lukashenko. Bellicosity indeed, but not from Belarus.
The Reality of Social Benefit Reforms in Belarus.
One of the greatest achievements of Belarus has been the maintenance of social equality, and a fair standard of living for all its citizens. This has been accomplished through regulation in the economy, and a significant allocation of funds to the social sphere. The Belarusian economy is socially oriented, meaning that profits are redirected not into directors pockets, but go to the benefit of the people as a whole. One way this has been achieved is through a large social benefit system including: subsidised transport, maternity support, grants for students, assistance to veterans, and the link between pensions and earnings.
In June 2007 the Belarusian government announced a review of the benefit system, with some reductions and cancellations to be made. The opposition movement used this opportunity to try and mobilise students in particular. It was widely reported in supposedly independent media that Belarus was cancelling its benefit system despite securing oil extraction contracts in Venezuela, and a Russian stabilisation loan for gas payments.
As is typical in the case of Belarus, the reporting of the social benefit changes left out more than was included. The actual changes have not been detailed or explained elsewhere, hence the need for this examination. What ought to be made clear immediately is that the reforms are aimed at ensuring that available funds go to those who need them most, and is not a case of cancelling benefits, and leaving people destitute. The government has not abandoned its policy of “the state for the people”.
Prior to the benefit reforms some two thirds of the population received some form of state benefits. However the impact of these benefits was (on average) quite small. With most families receiving less than 20,000 Rubles per month (around $10 US). As a percentage of the budget this amounts to some $66 million. What was clear was this amount of money could achieve more if it was more directly targeted. The Belarusian government sought to identify the most vulnerable elements in society, assess their need, and establish if it was being met. What emerged was that of the 50 categories of beneficiaries and 100 types of benefit the most vulnerable were not receiving the significant help they needed. This was due to the available funds being spread too thinly, and sometimes to people who no longer required it for financial stability. The reason for this being the general improvements in the Belarusian economy and levels of wages (and pensions) since the introduction of the original benefit system. By way of example we can examine the last two years.
In 2006 real income (taking into account inflation and costs of living) rose by 17.3% on the previous year, whilst pensions rose by 13.4%. In 2007 the real income rose by 117.2% with pensions surpassing the levels throughout the region, and inflation dropping to only 3.2% (the lowest in the CIS).
What this means in real terms is that the number of people needing benefits has clearly reduced.
The previous system had also resulted in a disproportionate allocation of funds to urban areas. Rural families were typically receiving just over half the amount that city dwellers were. Whilst higher costs of living were already balanced by higher wages in cities. The result being a significant amount of money being distributed, that did not have a proportional result in terms of reducing poverty, or a raising of the living standards of the most vulnerable members of society.
The new benefit system which came into force in December 2007 is designed to remedy the errors in the old system, in the reality of a different socio-economic situation. The changes directly effect three main categories of benefit:
* Medicine prescriptions.
* Public transport.
Previously support had been granted to anyone (and their family) within a category such as ‘all students’. Now that has been replaced with an ‘addressed beneficiary’ system. Whereby those who actually need the support receive it. Which means that the number receiving benefits are reduced, but the actual benefit is increased to the required level. Again the increase in real incomes ought to be remembered in this context.
In terms of public transport it had become the case in Minsk that every second citizen had been entitled to a discount, when clearly this level of need did not exist. Following the reform, subsidised transport will only be available to children, the disabled and war veterans.
The money saved by the cancellation of benefits will not be ‘used elsewhere’ but will actually be channelled back into the services in question. For example transport, and housing companies will receive funds to improve the quality of their services. In response to the criticism of the benefit reform being a shift away from the social oriented policies pursued previously, the following ought to be considered.
In addition to providing the money for the new ‘addressed social support’ the funds freed up from the abolishment of the old system will be re-directed into the following: Some 7 billion rubles for housing grants. 21 billion rubles to the Presidential programme ‘Children of Belarus’, which provides free food for children. Health promotion projects, particularly relating to mother and baby. And money for the rehabilitation of soil affected by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
Thus it can be seen that the new benefit system is a necessary and far sighted reform, aimed at ensuring available funds are directed to the most needy. Whilst wages, pensions, and stipends are also increasing, and new jobs being created. The new ‘addressed system’ will enable a significant and targeted raising of the living standards of the poorest in the population, whilst the process of applying for benefits has also been simplified. In the principles of social justice the new system will enable the people who actually need the benefits to receive them, whilst the funds saved will be used in other social projects for the population as a whole. Speaking of the new system in November 2007 President Lukashenko summarised:
“The main goal of the state is not to give privileges but to create relevant conditions in which the citizen will be enabled to have an opportunity to get a worthy standard of living. The person needs to be provided with the job, salary, pension and the stipend. Whilst the state support should be provided to those who are vulnerable, socially unprotected people, and those who are not able to take care of themselves”.
January 2008: Hijack of the Entrepreneurs.
It was with some interest that we watched the reporting of the so-called ‘entrepreneur protest’ unfold in independent media. The protest itself took place in the form of a two-week strike beginning on the first of January 2008. Also a rally was held on the 10th of January. What prompted this dissatisfaction?
According to Reuters, “a restrictive decree”.
The decree in question is actually nothing more than the formal categorisation of businesses, wholly necessary for classifying tax codes, and ensuring the legal responsibilities of employers to employees are met. Examples abound of similar legislation in Western countries which are rarely, if ever termed “restrictive”. The fact that small businesses have operated for more than ten years in Belarus without these regulations also goes some way to exposing the lie that Lukashenko has overseen a succession of repressive and arbitrary measures and arrests to control the activities of businessmen. (As claimed by the CIA world Factbook).
The new legislation was actually tabled three years ago, and was not enforced immediately in order to allow small businesses time to adapt to the required changes.
Essentially ‘edict number 760’ limits the number of people who may be employed by a person classified as a “sole entrepreneur”. Such businesses may now only employ three family members, otherwise they have to be classified as a legally registered enterprise. Concessions in terms of tax and employer liabilities for sole entrepreneurs are aimed at allowing small market traders to exist and operate, however this has been abused. ‘Sole entrepreneurs’ had been employing as many people as 100 creating not only unfair competition, but also unregulated employment practice. Meaning that sick pay, maternity pay and pension contributions were not being provided. Lukashenko noted in December that the removal of unfair business practices was wholly necessary, and that the authorisation to employ family members was a lenient concession.
The protest itself brought around 2000 people into central Minsk, and a small confrontation occurred with the city police. Twelve people were arrested and have since been released. It ought to be noted that there are approximately 200,000 Belarusians registered as sole entrepreneurs, and that the protest meant a mere 1% turnout. Alexander Milinkevich, the nationalist Belarusian Popular Front and the United Civic Party came out in support of the small businessmen, and it was opposition activists who were seen to be initiating scuffles with the police, and even with bystanders. The protest itself was resplendent with nationalist and opposition group flags. With the ‘sole entrepreneur’ issue being sidelined.
Lukashenko observed that unrest on the streets is not what “money and business” likes to see. “It seems there were practically no businessmen there” he noted, “only one in ten, and even those left after saying they had been misled”.
January 2008: Radio Free Europe and Belarusian Government/Opposition Dialogue.
Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty is a news source often quoted by the US and other Western nations to justify their hostile stance in regard to the current administration in Belarus. RFE/RL certainly does monitor the situation in Belarus closely, and actually broadcast in Belarusian too. However the background of RFE/RL tells the listener/reader a far more interesting story. RFE/ RL was formed in 1975 from two distinct bodies who were doing almost exactly the same thing. Free Europe inc. and Radio Liberty being established in 1949 and 51 respectively. Their mission was to broadcast anti-communist propaganda into the Soviet Union and socialist countries of the Warsaw pact. Funding came from US Congress via the CIA, with a notable private contribution too. The CIA officially withdrew in 1971 handing over titular control to the President of the United States’ appointed Board for International Broadcasting. The mission and information remained the same, simply the cheque had a different name on it. Following the end of the Soviet Union many considered RFE/RL to be defunct, after all it considered itself to have “won the battle against communism”. However RFE/RL proved itself capable of adapting to the new world situation and consolidating its own place and funding. RFE/RL found itself brought under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, responsible for all US international non-military broadcasting and official media. This body proudly brings Radio Marti to the people of Cuba, as well as having focused RFE/RL onto Yugoslavia in mid 1990’s and even broadcasting in Farsi for the ‘Iranian market’ in 1998.
RFE/RL’s mission statement has as objective number one that: “[RFE/RL] provides objective news, analysis, and discussion of domestic and regional issues crucial to successful democratic and free-market transformations”.
What ought to be noted here is the hugely subjective use of the word “democratic”. As without the required free market transition the democracy is judged to be of little value to the power and interests behind RFE/RL.
Not wanting to be accused of bias RFE/RL declares in its statement of 'professional journalistic standards' that: “RFE/RL shall be independent from any political party, ruling or opposition group, émigré organisation, commercial or other special-interest organisation, or religious body, whether inside or outside the set of countries to which RFE/RL broadcasts radio or television programming (the ‘Broadcasting Area’); and shall not endorse or advocate any specific political, economic, or religious viewpoint”.
This commendable position is quite frankly ignored by RFE/RL, as to comply with this standard would serve to negate the goals outlined in its mission statement. In the case of Belarus, independent monitors and analysts confirm that President Lukashenko’s programme is genuinely popular, and that the democratic process is working. Simply the results don’t suit the interests of those seeking the opening up of Belarus to exploitation and economic plundering (i.e. the free market). RFE/RL almost uniquely carries stories from Belarus with an opposition perspective. The United Civic Party (UCP) and Alexander Milinkevich receiving particularly frequent coverage. This despite the fact that the Belarusian opposition themselves voted Milinkevich out of his position as leader, and the UCP’s failure to secure even one parliamentary seat in an independently monitored election with 90% turnout.
Thus it is interesting to read from RFE/RL on the 10th of January 2008 that the Belarusian Presidential Administration has refused dialogue with the opposition. Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the UCP found an audience at RFE/RL for his quite ridiculous claim that the authorities were unwilling to discuss the framework for the 2008 parliamentary elections in Belarus. The Belarusian election commission is in fact legally obliged to do so, and the Presidential Administration would be unable to interfere in such a process. However the dialogue in question was in fact a request that the elections follow “accepted democratic standards”, which is tantamount to accusing the government of having cheated previously. Of course this is exactly what the opposition want, to claim they have a far higher level of support than can be measured at the ballot box (or even on the streets), and that it is the government who maintain their notable level of obscurity within Belarus. RFE/RL serves to give this pitiful idea credibility. A credibility wholly lost when the background and purpose of RFE/RL is considered.
January 2008: A Matter of Diplomacy...
At the end of December 2007 President Lukashenko threatened to expel the US ambassador to Belarus, Karen Stewart if US sanctions are extended. At first glance it appears counterproductive to eject the representative of a government that ought to be reconciled with, however in this case such an act would be more than expedient.
Karen Stewart is the fifth US ambassador to Belarus, and upon arrival in Minsk she announced: “I look forward to building on the work of my predecessors, representing the American people and their values to Belarusians and articulating the views of the United States Government to Belarus”.
The work of her predecessors is worthy of closer examination, in particular Michael Kozak and George Krol.
When it became clear in 1996 that Belarus was pursuing independent development and policies, and quite clearly (as a result of a referendum) seeking closer ties with Russia, the US administration began taking a more ‘hands on’ approach to the country. A State Department report was hurriedly published criticising the human rights situation in Belarus to serve as a justification for subsequent actions. The series of referenda in 1995 and 1996 had proved that the hegemonic interests of the US were not compatible with the popular ambitions and concerns of the Belarusian people. Worst of all (for the US), in Lukashenko the people had actually found a leader who would not ignore their best interests in favour of a ‘quick buck’. Such a trend in a sovereign nation with no historical ties to the US clearly had to be stopped, lest it serve as an example or inspiration elsewhere. It was at this point that the OSCE began to boycott the polls it was there to observe, but happily published condemnatory reports for the Western press to regurgitate without even a hint of impartiality or objectivity.
Michael Kozak was assigned by President Clinton in 2000 to be the new ambassador to Belarus and his appointment was a clear turning point in US/Belarusian relations. From this point on US diplomacy was to mean direct intervention and interference in Belarusian internal affairs. A fact that Kozak himself was remarkably open about. Kozak was chosen for his expertise in dealing with “difficult situations” in foreign affairs, having been involved in the destabilisation of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, the invasion of Panama, and also having served as a special interests envoy in Cuba.
Kozak arrived in time to take a direct role in the 2001 presidential elections, and thus established a very close working relationship with the head of the OSCE commission in Belarus, Hans Georg Wieck. The two men infamously created the united opposition strategy for Belarus, and are on record as even choosing its leader.
As important as meddling in a presidential election may have been, Kozak’s legacy in Belarus was the establishment and funding of around 300 Non-Government Organisations (NGO’s). When Kozak admitted that many of these NGO’s had links to those “seeking regime change” it becomes clear how the US was hoping to remove Lukashenko from office. Despite all of its talk of human rights and democracy the US was not relying on the ballot box to serve its interests in Belarus.
In Nicaragua the US sponsored Contra rebels waged a bloody campaign of violence against civilians in order to destabilise and blackmail the popularly elected socialist government. A campaign which cost the lives of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans. In a letter to the London Times newspaper Kozak declared that in Belarus the “objectives and to some degree methodology” was the same as in Nicaragua 10 years previously. Despite being a Clinton appointee, Kozak had served the interests of the US so successfully that it was not until 2003 that George Bush junior replaced him with George Krol. (Kozak becoming Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour within the US State Department).
Krol was given far greater pseudo legal support for his actions in Belarus by the Congressionally approved Belarus Democracy Act of 2004. This allowed any “activities consistent with the aims of this act” and granted “such sums as may be necessary” too. Krol, like his predecessor maintained close ties with the OSCE, and set about establishing a unified opposition, and following a meeting in Lithuania with Department of State Secretary Condoleezza Rice Alexander Milinkevich emerged as the latest opposition leader. Unsurprisingly a ‘leader’ appointed and sponsored by foreign governments, who also unashamedly acts on behalf of their interests, does not win many votes at home. Thus Milinkevich’s hopes were pinned on a ‘velvet revolution’ style post election protest. Despite imported protestors, and provocations there simply was not a popular base for the removal of Lukashenko (particularly not the day after more than 80% of the population voted for him).
Nonetheless the protests appeared impressive from the right camera angles, and more importantly the OSCE had kept up its end of the bargain and condemned the electoral process as neither free nor fair. The lack of co-ordination of NGO’s and their remarkable lack of enthusiasm in spite of the huge US investment in their activities was the most surprising result of the elections. Leaving US commentators asking again “where did all the money go?”
Thus Karen Stewart’s pledge to carry on the work of her predecessors ought to have had her turned away at the airport in October 2006!
Ms. Stewart’s subsequent activities have been focused around establishing greater unity, and acting as a mouthpiece for the various opposition groups. With the embassy website becoming little more than an outlet for opposition views. The embassy has also facilitated the meetings between ‘democracy activists’ and US government officials, such behaviour that would hardly be tolerated by the USA, in the converse position. Ms Stewart has also been personally present at opposition rallies and marches to “observe and issue public statements of support”. As proudly announced by the State Department “Stewart and her team at the embassy have worked to develop additional U.S. sanctions on Belarus and expand the visa ban on Belarusian public officials who support the Lukashenko regime”. Again it is pertinent to note the remarkable tolerance that has already been shown by the Belarusian government to these actions.
Ms. Stewart’s direct interference in Belarusian civil society earned her recognition from Secretary of State, who bestowed on her the first Diplomacy for Freedom Award on December 10th in a special ceremony at the Department of State.
Ms. Stewart then went on to add that further sanctions to those already in place against the government, and Belneftekhim may be applied. It was this announcement which prompted Lukashenko to publicly speak out against the US ambassador. Lukashenko threatened to eject her, and also to cease all trade in US dollars. Speaking of Ms. Stewart the President said, “She attends opposition hangouts and says economic sanctions could be introduced against Belarus, heating up the situation”. Lukashenko also noted that hostility, had increased since the recent agreements with Venezuela, particularly in the field of oil extraction. As such ambassador Stewart seems to be failing to represent the “values and interests of the American people” as promised, but rather the opposite. She is undermining democracy promoting civil discord, and acting in the interests of the already wealthy financial bodies who regard every nation and people as little more than a target market. As Lukashenko said “let the American ambassador deal with her own problems, otherwise she may leave her post in Belarus ahead of time”.
December 2007: Vladimir Putin in Belarus.
Vladimir Putin arrived in Silichi (Mogilev Region) on December the 13th for two days of talks with his Belarusian counterpart. The two presidents having already had a preliminary telephone discussion on the 11th. Putin’s official visit is timed to coincide with the meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Russia/Belarus Union State.
Of key importance at the meeting will be discussion of the proposed constitution of the Union. So far this has been an area where conflict has arisen between the two countries with Belarus being pressured to make greater concessions to Russian interests. At discussions in 2005 Lukashenko rejected Russia’s pretensions to dictate to its neighbour declaring that he would not let the “Russian hoof smash the social policy of Belarus”.
Lukashenko was elected on the promise of closer ties with Russia. However the proposed Union State and its precise format has been a drawn out and difficult task. What has been key is Lukashenko’s refusal to be anything but equal partners once rejecting nationalist concerns of Belarus being absorbed by Russia, with the statement, “why not raise the question of Russia being incorporated into Belarus?”
Bilateral relations have recently been dominated by the issue of gas prices, but with Putin’s term as President coming to an end there has been speculation that he is seeking rapprochement with his neighbour as a way to maintain political influence. However both Moscow and Minsk deny that there is any intention to discuss who will act as head of the Union. Certainly it is unclear how this would actually be of any advantage to Belarus, as the majority of progress towards the Union State was actually (rather ironically) achieved during the time of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.
What will be discussed is how to spend the budget of around 4 billion (Russian) Roubles, earmarked for 38 joint programmes in industry, energy, security co-operation, as well as social and cultural projects. Following President Lukashenko’s visit to Venezuela the meeting with Putin will further secure the Belarusian position in terms of reliable access to affordable fuel and energy.
December 2007: President Lukashenko Makes Official Visit to Venezuela.
Between the 6th and 8th of December President Lukashenko made an official visit to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The visit was of great benefit to both sides, and further emphasised the strategic partnership and mutual solidarity between the two countries. The progressive steps undertaken by the charismatic and popular Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, have in a very short space of time secured an improvement in the quality of life and prospects of the poorest and hardest working people in the country. Belarus had already been playing its part in the improvements in manufacturing, building and the infrastructure of Venezuela. Additionally Belarusian technical expertise has eased the transition of Venezuela’s oil industry to a nationalised concern. This has been made all the more possible by the very close ideological ties between Chavez and Lukashenko: In fact Chavez sought the advice of both Fidel Castro, and Alexander Lukashenko on the pace and methods of nationalisation.
In recognition of Belarusian support , Chavez agreed to set up a joint oil venture between two state owned companies. With the Belarusians securing a 60% share of the ventures oil output. This will mean some 900,000 metric tonnes of oil next year, rising to around 2 million tonnes per year by 2010. Belarusian foreign minister Sergei Martynov stressed that the oil produced would fulfil the requirements of local markets, with the proceeds being used to purchase cost effective energy closer to home. Thus ensuring that both Venezuela’s existing trade agreements are met, whilst Belarus can no longer be held to ransom over fuel supplies.
Belarus in turn will supply the machinery and technology to enable Venezuela to maximise the efficiency, productivity and benefits of its oil resources. Belarusian specialists are overseeing the construction of some 5000 apartments in Caracas to replace the ‘ranchos’, the makeshift shanties that precariously cling to the mountainsides around the city. All of which will make good Chavez’s promise to improve the living conditions of the great mass of Venezuelans who have worked so hard but received so little.
15 agreements were signed by the two leaders on economic, technical, and military issues. President Lukashenko also promised to guarantee the sovereignty, security and independence of Venezuela. Chavez noted that the two nations shared a common approach to both domestic and foreign issues. Lukashenko commenting on the nature of Belarusian / Venezuelan relations added that “there are no limits to co-operation between our two countries. We have made agreements that we are going to strengthen by all means to construct a multi-polar world”. Chavez also awarded Lukashenko with the ‘Order of the Liberator’ the highest award the Venezuela can bestow.
In further recognition of the significance of the relationship between the two countries Chavez said: “These agreements are proof that Venezuela is free. Now we have ceased to be a colony of the United States”. Chavez added that Belarus and Venezuela are at the forefront of a process to liberate their people, unite their nations and break the neo-liberal paradigm of globalisation.
December 2007: Belarusian Opposition Leaders Meet Their Supporters.
According to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) the Belarusian opposition are intending to appeal to the US government to drop the sanctions in place against Belarus. At first glance the headline of this media outlet (with a history of CIA involvement) appears to show that the opposition do actually care about the Belarusian people effected by these coercive and illegal sanctions. However, rather unsurprisingly the offer comes with conditions. Namely that the government must abide by democratic principles and free the media. This of course is a hugely subjective claim. The opposition are playing on the fact that they did not win either the Presidential election of 2006 or any seats at the subsequent parliamentary elections. Thus Belarus is not democratic; the possibility that they simply do not have mass support is deliberately ignored. The coalition of seven opposition leaders including Alexander Milinkevich, visited the USA in early December for official meetings with their sponsors including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The irony being that completely unelected people with a history of non-democratic actions are allowed an official meeting with US officials to “advocate the cause of freedom in Belarus”.
In return for the Belarusian government increasing democratisation (apparently referenda, presidential, parliamentary elections and a national peoples assembly are not democratic enough) the opposition leaders have promised to deliver their request to the US government. The opposition leaders hope to: “appeal to the U.S. government to encourage investment in the Belarusian economy, give a loan to the Belarusian government to carry out market reforms, and alleviate the consequences of higher energy prices, as well as to ask Washington to lift the sanctions against Belarusian officials and state-run enterprises”.
Taking into account the economic growth and social protection offered by the current Belarusian economic model, securing a loan (i.e. large debt) to undo these via ‘market reforms’ is baffling. It is obvious however as to who would benefit from such a policy; and that is certainly not the Belarusian people. It is not surprising that the opposition leaders once more apply the language of human rights and democracy to what is clearly an economic interest.
Alexander Lukashenko: “Settle the Unemployment Problem Once and for all”.
At a meeting of local and national state administrators, President Lukashenko set out new targets in term of housing and employment. Not content to ‘rest on his laurels’ Lukashenko has demanded less income disparity and a reduction in unemployment.
The problem as it stands in Belarus is an income disparity of the lowest paid receiving around 83% of the national average. It is worth noting that the minimum wage in the UK equates to around 50% of the national average (in London this is worse at 33%). In the US the average minimum wage is around 42% of average income. As for unemployment, according to the European Commission report of July 2007 Belarusian unemployment stands at 1% of the economically active population. The report commented that “this reflects stable economic growth and general socially oriented policies of governance”. However Lukashenko has commented that this is still not good enough! “One should think about setting up enterprises to settle the unemployment problem once and for all” the President added that “the resolution of these problems cannot be postponed any longer”.
The reason for this is that Lukashenko recognises the wider ramifications of unemployment, and does not have a need for a reserve of unemployed labour to manipulate salaries, or undermine job security. Rather in Belarus the government aims to maintain a rise in incomes (and pensions) above the rate of inflation. The level of state ownership and regulation in the Belarusian economy allows the government to directly intervene in the interest of the population in the socio-economic field. As quoted above Lukashenko has directly said that the government must provide the necessary conditions to eliminate unemployment. Specifically this must be applied nation-wide in order to avoid a concentration of opportunities and wealth in large cities (particularly Minsk) only. In order to achieve this the Belarusian government will oversee the development of manufacturing enterprises including the retooling of factories and workshops.
Despite enjoying one of the lowest rates of income disparity and unemployment in the world, Lukashenko is still driving Belarus to improve. The economy in Belarus works for the people as opposed to a select handful of oligarchs or capitalists, thus even 1% unemployment is seen as a severe problem to be eliminated. This socio-economic model was described by US diplomat Stephen D. Mull as “clearly abnormal” and he added that the Belarusian people could rely on US support to change this. It is no wonder that the Belarusian opposition stooges do not poll above single figure percentages. As is widely acknowledged even by foreign and hostile media, Lukashenko does not need to cheat to win an election comfortably. This is not down to a supposed domination of the media, or state intimidation, but rather the very real and obvious programme of economic and social security, “the state for the people!”
Unemployment rates around the world can be compared here. (Statistics from June 2007).
United Nations Rejects US Accusations Against Belarus.
After the UN failed to back the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Washington Hawks declared the military action necessary not only to oust Saddam Hussein, but also to avoid the US “subordinating its power to the UN”.
In the latest of a series of US sponsored country specific resolutions the US has once more singled out Belarus. Without a hint of irony US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalizad declared that “as the last dictatorship in Europe, (Belarus) continues to imprison people as part of its political strategy”. He also added that Belarus places severe restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly and prevents free elections. If he was unaware of the US electoral irregularities in 2000 and 2004, Guantanamo Bay, or the US Patriot Act, then the rest of the UN certainly were not. 124 nations voted against the US resolution. The Belarusian representative to the UN Human Rights Committee asked if delegates had received a “balanced and unprejudiced assessment of the situation of human rights in Belarus”. The answer of course was no. The case presented by the US was nothing but prejudice, and bordered on the hysterical, as well as being embarrassingly hypocritical. Once more the US put forth the OSCE conclusion that the 2006 presidential election was neither free nor fair as evidence of human rights abuse in Belarus. It ought to be mentioned once again that the OSCE is not an independent body, and nor was it the only organisation to monitor the election in question. It was however the only organisation to have a conclusion that ran contrary to its own observers opinions, who like the BHHRG and CIS monitors considered the process to be transparent and democratic.
The last group of people not considered by the US are the Belarusians themselves, who have consistently voted for the raising of living standards, real wages, pensions etc. (i.e. for President Lukashenko’s policies, and against the sale of their country to the highest bidder).
Andrei Popov of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry noted that the latest US proposal had no legal or moral base, and that the majority of states are disinclined to “settle accounts with Belarus following the will of certain countries, including tampering with human rights problems”.
When Kofi Annan declared the invasion of Iraq to have been illegal he was dismissed by the US, after all he had seen the same evidence of weapons of mass destruction as had the US administration. Now the US has unilaterally increased sanctions on Belarus without securing support from the UN. As Andrei Popov commented in 2006 “No state in the world can have an exclusive right to criticise the human rights situation, as no one can consider itself as an example of democracy and complete observation of human rights standards. We are absolutely confident that the United States is not an exception in this case”. The problem is of course, that the US refuses to subordinate its power to the UN, but wholly expects the UN to act in the interests of the US. By way of example former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 1998 of Kofi Annan’s diplomatic mission to Iraq, “when he comes back we will see what he has brought and how it fits with our national interest”. The fact that the UN voted to terminate the mandate of a special rapporteur for human rights in Belarus in June 2007 showed that the UN refuses to allow alleged human rights issues to be used to achieve political goals. The challenge for Belarus is to ensure that the UN not only dismisses US political manoeuvres, but also condemns them.
November 2007: US Places Further Sanctions on Belarus.
As if confirmation was needed as to the real motivations behind US foreign policy, Tuesday 13th of November saw specific sanctions applied against Belarusian oil concerns.
The US Treasury Department added Belarusian oil company Belneftekhim to a “list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons, with the result that any assets the entities hold under U.S. jurisdiction must be frozen and U.S. persons are prohibited from transacting or doing business with the designated entities”.
Belneftekhim makes mineral fertilisers essential for Belarusian food production, tyres, paints and anti freeze, and crucially, heating, motor and aviation fuels. That such indispensable products should be provided by a state owned and regulated company makes perfect sense in terms of the ‘socially orientated economy’ of Belarus. Belneftekhim employs some 120,000 people with products and services vital to the Belarusian economy as a whole. The foreign trade profit from this company is some 3 billion US dollars per year.
According to the official press release of the US Treasury, the “action tightens our sanctions against Lukashenko and his cronies by imposing financial sanctions against a massive conglomerate under the regime’s control”. How does the ‘regime’ spend the profits from this industry? Has Lukashenko and “his cronies” built palaces, taken holidays or built up foreign bank accounts? No. President Lukashenko’s personal finances are well known to the US after they investigated them as part of the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004. Lukashenko’s salary in that year was $17,000, (compared to the $700,000 income of his US counterpart).
The fact is that Lukashenko is not a shareholder or executive director of any Belarusian enterprise. State owned means just that. If the company makes a profit, the people as a whole profit too. Belneftekhim being a very good example of this principle. The company works hand in hand with trade unions, building housing to improve the quality of life for Belarusian workers, as well as sponsoring sports and other social events. Belneftekhim provides funds for programmes supporting children, disabled people, war veterans, retired workers, and victims of the disaster at Chernobyl. In addition to such charitable work, Belneftekhim also subsidises the agricultural branch of the economy, supplying it with significant amounts of oil products and mineral fertilisers free of charge or at reduced prices. This of course goes against the ‘wisdom’ of free market economics, but in reality helps to maintain one of the lowest levels of unemployment in the whole world, and guarantees the steady growth in Belarusian GDP and productivity.
Not only are the financial assets of such a company being targeted by these measures, but also the Belarusian economy and social sphere as a whole. The Treasury Department’s sanctions cover Belneftekhim offices in Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia, China and its US subsidiary, Belneftekhim USA. “Any assets found in the United States that belong to the company must be frozen. Americans also are prohibited from doing business with the company and its designated offices”.
It is also of note that Belneftekhim is the company most involved in oil extraction in Venezuela, and Iran, as well as providing investment and expertise in Cuba. The targeting of this company is not accidental, and the threatened freezing of assets could have far reaching consequences. Possibly the US aim is to force the Belarusian government to consider privatising its oil concerns, with US companies ready to step in and profit. After all the Treasury’s official explanation for the sanctions make little sense: “The Secretary of the Treasury, after consultation with the Secretary of State, [is authorised] to block the assets of individuals or entities determined to be responsible for, or to have participated in, actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Belarus; to be responsible for, or have participated in, human rights abuses related to political repression in Belarus”.
The reality is that these latest sanctions are exceptionally broad based and will be felt by all in Belarus, not just the government, but the people who rely on Belneftekhim for work, housing, subsidies and charitable support. The US Treasury’s international policy is defined as: protecting and supporting “economic prosperity at home by encouraging financial stability and sound economic policies abroad”. In the case of Belarus this “sound policy” is an attempt to bully a government into submission by threatening the livelihoods and living conditions of its entire people in the name of ‘human rights and democracy’.
Competing Interests or Difference of Opinion?
The EU and US up until last week held almost identical positions on Belarus. However there appears to have been an unusual divide in opinion. The EU after all is actually competing with the US in terms of markets and resources, and Belarus finds itself in the sights of both. Belarus trades with the world, and of course holds a vital geo-strategic position in the heart of Europe, particularly in terms of fuel transit from the Russian Federation.
Following the oppositions ‘Europe march’ (see below) the EU acknowledged the tolerance to dissent shown by the Belarusian authorities. The statement declaring that the EU “ Presidency... notes with satisfaction some positive movements on the Belarusian side, expressed in increased respect for the rights of assembly during the marches”. This is a rare admission, although it still comes with some reservations.
The US however had quite a different reaction. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer met with a representative from the Belarusian Presidential Administration to condemn the Belarus for increasing “pressure on the opposition and activists of non-governmental organisations”. Furthermore the US then presented an extended list of visa restrictions and warned of additional sanctions to be detailed the following week.
Clearly as the EU relaxes its pressure on Belarus and moves towards reasonable dialogue the US responds hysterically and aggressively. This originates in the fear of losing out to a competitor rather than from any genuine concern for the state of civil society in Belarus.
November 2007: 90th Anniversary of the October Revolution.
The Russian October Revolution of 1917 (on the 7th of November using the ‘new style’ calendar) had far reaching consequences, particularly for the nations of the Former Russian Empire. As a result of the October Revolution Belarus was granted recognition as a unique national entity, and under Soviet rule its present day borders, ethnic composition and infrastructure were all established. This goes some way to understanding why a ‘foreign event’ is celebrated, and officially recognised as a holiday in Belarus. (It is worth noting that Belarus also celebrates International Women’s day, and International Worker’s day).
Presently Belarus is the only nation that formally recognises October Revolution day. Russia has attempted to replace it with ‘Unity day’ a former Tsarist holiday revived in 2005 to counteract unofficial celebrations of the 1917 Revolution. The reason that Belarus recognises the significance of the October Revolution whilst others do not, is that the independent model of development pursued by Belarus is strongly based on the lessons of history. Belarus has not cast off its past in order to meet the expectations of powerful nations or its neighbours. The changes to the state flag, and holidays undemocratically applied by the reactionary government between 1991 and 1994 have all been undone. However President Lukashenko, unlike his predecessors, did not take these decisions arbitrarily, but rather put the question to the people in a series of referenda. Yet it is Lukashenko’s democratic credentials that are widely questioned by foreign governments and media. Zyanon Paznyak the nationalist founder of the Belarusian Popular Front exerted influence far beyond his popularity or support in the early 1990’s and it is primarily his undemocratic actions and ideas that the ‘democratic opposition’ in Belarus is trying to restore with its Western support and finance.
Belarus today is preserving the best elements of its Soviet experience whilst also enjoying its independence; it meets the challenges of the modern world with a healthy economy and population. Belarus does not live in the past, but rather it has truly learned from its past.
In 2002 Lukashenko’s congratulation message on October Revolution day noted that “Our grandfathers and forefathers have their biographies and destinies linked to the October revolution, we regard their deeds and achievements with respect”. In 2006 he added to this principle with the statement that “89 years ago, there occurred an event which brought the working people of our country liberation from poverty and lawlessness, exerted great influence on the destinies of the people in the entire planet. Its value for Belarus was also in the fact that it provided, for the first time ever, the real opportunities for the formation of its own statehood”. The direct significance of the Revolution to Belarus is highlighted, as are the noble aims of the Revolution.
This year to mark the 90th anniversary of the Revolution worker’s parties from all over the world gathered in Minsk for a congress in the only nation that officially recognises its significance. As Lukashenko said of the Soviet Union, “despite all mistakes and blunders of its leaders, [it] was the source of hope and support for many states and peoples”. It is this very spirit which created the October Revolution, that continues to inspire people to this day, and ought not to be consigned to the history books. Its legacy is real and significant, and its attempt to create a just social order ought to be recognised.
“The Great October called into being the hitherto unclaimed creative potential of ordinary people. The society rallied together in its striving to build a free state worthy of respect. The initiative and selflessness of the people’s masses resulted in unprecedented achievements of an enormous power. Today, our republic welcomes the holiday in an atmosphere of political stability, lasting civil peace, dynamic economic and socio-cultural development” (A.G. Lukashenko November 2006).
October 2007: Anti-Semitism in Belarus?
A familiar but alarming theme in the discussion of Belarus, and Alexander Lukashenko has again reared its ugly head. And that theme is alleged anti-Semitism. This story has been something of a ‘slow burner’ which we have been monitoring over the last week. The story itself arose from a live interview by President Lukashenko on the 12th of October where he discussed the city of Bobruisk (may also be spelled Bobruysk). This city lies in the central/Eastern part of Belarus, and was a part of the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement. As such Bobruisk once had a large and thriving Jewish population. This of course was decimated between 1941 and 1944 under Nazi occupation.
What is clear from this case is that President Lukashenko’s comments have been quoted selectively, and translations vary in accuracy from poor to libellous. This is not the first time this has happened, as will be explained and explored further. Returning to the press conference itself, none of the news sources who have picked up the story are quoting the original ‘full text’ but rather are quoting each other, and the original translation/ edit from the Israeli foreign Ministry. It is completely understandable that the Israelis would be sensitive to any potentially anti-Semitic remarks or sentiments emanating from any head of state, however in this case it is our view that this concern has been exploited. The allegation of anti-Semitism, like that of racism, essentially serves as an accusation of irrationality, and ignorance. Given the role of Jews in the past of Belarus it also implies a not insignificant amount of naivete, and a lack of any historical awareness.
Alexander Lukashenko (despite being belittled as a farm manager) actually holds teaching qualifications in both history and social studies, meaning he is not insensitive to the position of the historical Jewish population of Belarus (additionally Lukashenko has further qualifications in agricultural sciences and economics). The recent claim that he is a “bigot” also does not stand up to examination. In 1999 he promised to “tear the arms off any fascist” in response to anti-Semitic graffiti at a Jewish cemetery. Anti-Semitism is a crime in Belarus, and as noted by Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Gaisenak: “Although few in number cases of anti-Semitism are a source of deep concern and disquiet to us”. He also noted that Jews had been living on the territory of Belarus for over six centuries and were “fully integrated into the life of that society”.
At the 60th meeting of the UN commission on Human Rights in 2004 Belarus jointly tabled a resolution expressing its concern at the rise of neo-nazi and aggressive nationalist organisations. (This resolution was passed despite the USA, Japan and several European countries voting against it). As well as official declarations independent bodies have confirmed the high level of tolerance in Belarus. The Israeli Stephen Roth Institute noted in 2001 that the authorities and Lukashenko himself were “supportive of the Jewish community”. Furthermore several far right newspapers and groups have been shut down by Lukashenko. This act of course being a double-edged sword in that it is often used as an example of the stifling independent media, however to do nothing would see the accusation of official tolerance of racism and anti-Semitism.
In the specific case of the Jewish community in Belarus (which numbers around 28,000) the US Belarus Democracy Act highlighted official targeting of the Jews as a justification for intervention. This came as a shock to the Belarusian government who prided itself on tolerance and the lack of inter-ethnic confrontation. It also came as a surprise to the Chief Rabbi of Belarus who responded by saying he had “no qualms with any aspect of Lukashenko’s rule”. Even the US based organisation that monitors Jewish life and anti-Semitism in the former USSR acknowledged that “Jewish life has rebounded and is flourishing” under Lukashenko. That is not to say that isolated incidents do not occur, and in December 2000 a synagogue in Minsk was the victim of an arson attack. Lukashenko personally visited the site and was quoted as saying “we won’t let anyone harm our Jews”. As to who is behind these acts, it is clear that the more nationalist minded groups are typically prone to xenophobia and anti-Semitism. One group calling itself the ‘White Legion’ was declared illegal by Lukashenko (again to international criticism for harassing Non Government Organisations). For nationalists, who are highly active and visible in the Belarusian opposition movement anti-Semitic acts serve not only there own agenda, but also increase foreign pressure on and scrutiny of Lukashenko. By way of example, not all of the Western financed groups oppose Lukashenko. Some claim to be supportive of the President, whilst endorsing ultra-right wing policies that in reality run contrary to those of Lukashenko. This has ironically led to a few Western neo-Nazi groups actually being supportive of Belarus, which only further highlights the ignorance of anti-Semites and racists.
It is this deliberate and selective interpretation of quotes and the lack of context that allowed the myth to spread that Lukashenko had ‘praised Hitler’ when he most certainly did not. The basis for this claim is a 1995 interview that President Lukashenko gave to the German Handelsblatt newspaper. The actual interview was a discussion about economic policy, and actually contained no reference to Hitler. However when it was ‘translated’ by Russian channel NTV, the story broke that Lukashenko was an admirer of the Nazi leader. The journalist who carried out the original interview, Dr. Markus Zeiner was furious that his interview had been “quoted out of context and with the sequence of comments altered by the Russian media”. Despite Zeiner’s attempts to set the record straight, the Lukashenko/Hitler story still is still carried by respected news agencies such as the BBC.
It would appear that Lukashenko is once more a victim of deliberate mistranslation, and lack of context. Lukashenko complained that Bobruisk a city that used to be a Jewish town “was a pigsty” and in desperate need of repair. It has been claimed by the Jerusalem Post that he said that Jews were wholly responsible for this, but this statement cannot be found in the original broadcast. Nor can the Jerusalem Post’s claim that the Belarusian population “was virulently anti-Semitic for centuries” and that they “collaborated with the Nazis” be substantiated with any serious study of the nation’s history. In fact this claim is just as offensive as Lukashenko’s alleged comments, when it is considered that Belarus lost one in three citizens under Nazi occupation, and raised a partisan movement (including many Jews) that numbered over 300,000 men and women.
Bobruisk it also ought to be remembered is very much a former Jewish town, with the holocaust and emigration to Israel having resulted in only a tiny number of Jewish people living there today. Certainly not enough to warrant criticism for the appearance of the city today. Belarusian ambassador to Israel , Igor Leshchenya commented that the city was “literally saturated by Jewish history” and that this history was preserved and respected. Most significant of all was President Lukashenko’s proposed solution for the dilapidation of Bobruisk, and that was for Jewish people to return to Belarus. This solution would not be proposed by an anti-Semite.
This news story has ‘snowballed’ and typically as it spreads it has moved further away from its source until the facts and context are almost lost. This is certainly no accident and is another example of deliberate misinformation about Belarus, and personal slander of President Lukashenko which simply does not ring true to anyone who has studied his policies and actions from a position of objectivity or impartiality.
Europe March all too Predictable...
Many newspapers and press agencies reported on the recent March for Europe in Belarus as though it was the first time the opposition movement to President Lukashenko had dared to raise their heads in public. This of course is far from the truth, but what is notable is that this march took place under great foreign scrutiny. Figures of attendance vary between 2000 and 6000, the nationalist Belarusian Popular Front placing the number at 5000. Even this, it ought to be noted is a very poor turnout in a government sanctioned march. Anyone hostile to the Belarusian authorities were given the opportunity to show their dissatisfaction. The fact that this did not happen owes nothing to the fear of reprisal. After the March 2006 protests, the Belarusian authorities were very lenient with those detained during any confrontation. Only ringleaders and lawbreakers were charged and very few of those went on to be imprisoned.
As predicted in the previous article ‘Unified Democratic Opposition?’ below, the marchers did indeed deliberately defy the authorities, and provoke confrontation. The Gulf Times reported that Alexander Milinkevich himself instructed demonstrators to abandon the scheduled route, and converge on the government district of central Minsk, bringing traffic to a standstill. The police repeatedly warned marchers through loudspeakers that they were breaking the law and would be allowed no further than the building of the Academy of Sciences. The warnings were not heeded, as a provocation was openly being sought. Reuters reporters even acknowledged that restraint was shown by the police and the scuffles which broke out were not started by the authorities. Reuters also noted that Milinkevich spoke before the march, but was nowhere to be seen when the marchers followed his instructions and left the agreed route. This is familiar from the same man who promised to stay with demonstrators “until the end” in March 2006, but was seen to leave in his car shortly after saying this.
Unsurprisingly the march fizzled out with little action for the expectant western cameras to capture, and again the message that actually came through is that the Belarusian authorities are failing to live up to their ‘police state’ and ‘dictatorship’ labels. Even hostile western media has found itself struggling to justify its position, acknowledging that President Lukashenko is “generally popular”.
Unified Democratic Opposition?
On October the 14th the Belarusian opposition will be staging what the German Press Agency has already termed “an EU sponsored protest march”.
The demonstration is supposedly a rallying call to Belarusian citizens to discard their independent development and socially orientated economy in favour of EU integration. The march has been allowed by the Belarusian government despite its clearly subversive nature. It is also clear that the aims of the march clearly meet the needs of the opposition’s source of finance rather than the interests of most Belarusians.
However what is new, is that the opposition movement have finally shifted position (if only temporarily) away from nationalism. Since the last days of the Soviet Union and the founding of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) the most reactionary and exploitative Belarusian political groups have rallied to aggressive nationalism. By way of example the BPF’s early demonstrations frequently turned violent thanks to their collaboration with Ukrainian ultra right wing extremist group UNA-UNSO. This fiercely nationalist and racist organisations has not only provided volunteers to fight Russian forces in Chechnya, but also provided security for the ‘democratic’ leaders of the Orange Revolution in Kiev 2004-2005.
However nationalism is a political movement which has failed to ignite passions in the Belarusian people, the reasons for this are threefold. First the enormous suffering experienced during the second world war, when one in three Belarusian citizens were killed under fascist occupation, including the country's large Jewish population.
Secondly, Russian migration during the Soviet era provided expertise and resources to modernise Belarus. Prior to 1917 Belarus had the lowest literacy rate in Europe, now no nation has higher. This migration from all over the Soviet Union, in addition to established Jewish, Polish and Baltic populations led to a remarkable degree of ethnic harmony in Belarus, that saw a socialist rather than nationalist outlook and culture develop and prosper.
The third and most relevant factor is that President Lukashenko has learnt from this historical experience and developed the country appropriately in the post-Soviet era. He has never resorted to petty scapegoating or the promotion of any divisions in society in order to ‘divide and rule’.
The focus on the EU from the Belarusian opposition, is presumably meant to gain more interest from the Belarusian people who are likely to be less offended by EU flags, than by the nationalist and even Nazi collaborationist symbols seen at previous rallies and marches.
The EU also has a history of involvement with the opposition, particularly with failed 2006 presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich. This is the man who was noted by the New York Times to be organising not an election campaign, but “an uprising”. However he still went on to win the EU Sakharov prize for human rights (on what grounds is a mystery). Milinkevich had held a series of private meetings with EU Parliamentarians and leaders at a time when he ought to have been campaigning to the Belarusian people. But as we know the masses did not feature in his intended methods for taking power.
Milinkevich however is now no longer recognised by the Belarusian opposition. He lost his (US sponsored) position as ‘unified leader’ when he refused to lead by coalition, and also refused to open a dialogue with Lukashenko’s government, despite this being the desire of the majority of rank and file opposition members, and other leaders. Clearly this champion of democracy, was not willing to live by his own slogans. Milinkevich was thus ousted by the opposition congress, but this seems to have slipped under the radar of the EU. Milinkevich recently was in Prague collecting another human rights award from former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who rather anachronistically acknowledged Milinkevich’s “high authority with his people”.
The fact that the government has allowed the demonstration to go ahead is important, as it illustrates that Belarus does allow dissent to be practised openly, but within a legal framework. Hence (as in Britain and the US) routes taken by Marchers have to be agreed with relevant authorities beforehand. However in Belarus, some opposition groups are already declaring their intent to take the demonstration away from the agreed routes and meeting areas. What is certain is that a pretext for confrontation is being sought, particularly under the watching eyes of EU observers. This very same tactic was used by the ‘democratic opposition’ in March 2006 when presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin incited the crowd to “overthrow the government” and called for “Lukashenko’s death”. The EU was so appalled at his resulting arrest that it demanded his immediate release. Of course should anyone go to an EU capital with a large crowd and attempt to storm a police station whilst inciting the overthrow and murder of the elected head of state, they may be waiting a long time for a foreign government to call for their release.
This Sunday we will certainly see large crowds protesting, which is to be expected, as no government enjoys 100% support, however it ought to be noted that when 10,000 protesters took to the streets in March 2006 they represented a mere 1% of those who had voted against Lukashenko. This is a particularly low figure for an expression of ‘popular will’ when it is considered that Lukashenko secured 82.6% of the vote.
Internet Control in Belarus?
There has recently been further concern over the freedom of internet users in Belarus. This has primarily come about in response to two things. Firstly the fact that the internet is one of the main tools used by the opposition to present their points of view to the world. Secondly because President Lukashenko recently expressed concern over the wide range of inappropriate material available on the internet.
Of course most responsible governments share this worry, however in Belarus, it is the political angle that is stressed. It is important in this case to be aware of some basic information about internet use in Belarus, as well as the media in general. (See the ‘about Belarus’ page for media statistics).
In the run up to the 2006 presidential election Belarusian media came under particularly close scrutiny and the conclusions arrived at by impartial and even hostile bodies is enlightening. The BBC reported in March that the “state [Belarus] tries to control political comment on the internet as much as possible”. However in the same article it was acknowledged that the opposition widely use the internet as an outlet for their views, naming several prominent (English language) examples, before conceding that “some of what they publish is more rumour than fact”. This is true of a lot of English language information about Belarus, and worryingly such rumours are often cited as sources by respected news agencies. An example of such a distortion came in December 2005 via the Associated Press. The headline read “Belarus Moves to Limit Online Dating”. The dating in question was actually websites where ‘mail order brides’ from Eastern Europe could be literally “added to a shopping cart” at the click of a mouse. Legislation against human trafficking is a source of justified pride in Belarus, with the UN Office for Migration commenting that “Belarus has been globally recognised as one of the worlds most resolute fighters against the slave trade”. However we are led to believe by independent media that this is an example of “the latest in a series of stringent government controls backed by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko”.
Returning to the election in 2006 the independent body OpenNet Initiative (ONI) monitored the Belarusian internet for any signs of foul play or abuse by the government. The ONI considered Belarus to be an important study, citing allegations from the opposition as one reason, and also noting that the government in Belarus was certainly technically able to filter the internet if it so desired.
The ONI conclusion was that they “found no evidence of systematic and comprehensive interference with the Net. Any regime-directed tampering that may have taken place was fairly subtle, causing disruptions to access, but never turning off the alternative information tap”. ONI also confirm that they could not prove that the Belarusian government was behind the few anomalies it encountered. In its conclusion ONI also comment on the fact that at any time the government would have been able to “clamp down on internet openness” but had apparently not felt the moral or political need to do so.
Another factor in the issue of Belarusian opposition websites, is that many are maintained and hosted from outside Belarus. In the case of the 2001 election the Unified Opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik’s website was registered to an address in Texas, USA. Pavel Marosau a Belarusian ‘cyberactivist’ concedes that German and US hosting and expertise is being used. His example of the Belarusian government clamping down on internet free speech is as follows:
“Owners of United Civil Party of Belarus website were sued by one Belarusian official claiming damage to his reputation because of an article the website had published accusing his son of abuse of law”.
This is clearly a case of libel law, but apparently serves as an indication of the “mass repression” carried out in Belarus.
In terms of Internet use, Belarus leads the CIS in the percentage of its population regularly using the internet, and this figure has increased under President Lukashenko’s drive to raisie the living standards of Belarusian citizens across the whole country. From 1.8% of the population in 2000 to 56.6% in 2007 (source: UN-ITU). Whilst the Belarusian Information Technologies and Communications Ministry is providing broadband access across every region. In the near future this will be upgraded to a cutting edge high-speed wireless system.
Lukashenko’s comments that many sites on the internet serve as a platform for the Opposition and hostile voices and nations is generally true, and such sites are beneficiaries of a not insignificant proportion of the $7.5 million allocated by the US State Department for anti-Lukashenko media in Belarus.
Internet monitoring by the governments of the EU nations and USA are well documented elsewhere and concerns expressed by civil liberties groups ought to be acknowledged. However so too should President Lukashenko’s statement that “we cannot allow this great technological achievement of man to be turned into an information garbage heap”.
Belarusian record harvest a result of shrewd planning and collective farming.
On September 22nd it was announced that the grain harvest in Belarus this year had reached a record 7.5 million tonnes. This grain has all been threshed, and will ensure self-sufficiency for Belarus in the coming year. The harvest will even allow Belarus to sell the surplus abroad. According to Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Bambiza the harvest is up by 900,000 tonnes on the previous year, yielding a surplus for trade.
This ought not to be dismissed as a result of fortuitous weather or any other coincidence. The fact is that the Belarusian government had been advised by foreign experts (including the IMF) to cease investment in the agricultural sector of the economy, and instead to purchase grain from abroad. Not only would this have had a huge detriment on those dependent on agriculture for their jobs, and in the case of Belarusian collective farms for their communities also. But also would have been a huge financial disaster too. As President Lukashenko noted, following such advice would have caused a crisis far more acute than the recent energy ones, as international prices for grain have more than doubled over the past year.
The President praised agricultural workers for their efforts, on what was a national holiday of harvest festival, and celebration of rural workers. Belarusian funds to the agrarian sector have not served as subsidies to maintain artificial price levels or profits for farmers, but rather to improve the technical sophistication of farming. Also far less waste is incurred by the construction of appropriate storage and transit facilities, so a record breaking harvest will not be allowed to rot by the side of the fields. Additionally the living standards of rural residents is rising, thanks largely to the collective system which Lukashenko has described as “units which will always protect humans and help them”.
The Belarusian rural revival and agricultural policies are closely intertwined. University graduates and technical specialists are given work placements across the country where their skills are needed most. Such placements are not permanent or punitive but serve the policy of maintaining both economic growth, and a rise in living standards across the whole country. This avoids a total saturation of skilled workers in the Belarusian cities, particularly in Minsk. On coming to power Lukashenko said, “it is not to a person to move around in search of the adequate living conditions (education, job, information and cultural values) but the very living and activity conditions should be made available to everyone regardless of where they are”. This record harvest is testament to the success of such a farsighted and progressive policy.
Would you want in or out of an Outpost of Tyranny?
The Belarusian Interior Ministry has confirmed that, again, Belarus has positive migration.
In the early 1990’s as the Soviet Union collapsed, and Western style economic and political reforms came to Belarus there was a steady decline in population. Following the stabilisation of the economy and social sphere under President Lukashenko more and more foreigners have been attracted to Belarus. Over the first six months of this year of all migration 60% was in favour of immigration.
This illustrates that Belarus far from being a repressive human rights abusing state, is actually an attractive prospect for many. The US claim that Belarus is an Outpost of Tyranny is shown up as false by the fact that people freely migrate to Belarus, and are not fleeing from it.
Belarusian language day.
One of the ‘findings’ that justified the US government’s Belarus Democracy Act was that: “The Lukashenko regime has reversed the revival of Belarusian language and culture”. This claim has little grounding in reality. The most commonly spoken language in Belarus is actually Russian, a consequence of history and geography rather than the policies of the ‘Lukashenko regime’. In fact the Belarusian language enjoys joint status with Russian as the official national language.
The Belarusian ministry of education passed a decree in 2001 to widen the sphere of Belarusian language use including the establishment of Belarusian language grammar schools in every region and city district. In the same year it was noted that almost a third of Belarusian school children were already being taught in Belarusian.
The US concern over a reversal of the Belarusian language is in fact an amplification of the concerns of the Belarusian nationalist minority, and also deeply hypocritical (has indigenous North American culture and language been revived by any US regime?)
The first Sunday of September traditionally is the Belarusian written language day, and also a national holiday. The purpose of this day is to demonstrate “the inviolable unanimity of the Belarusian written language and the history of the Belarusian people, its close ties with the Slavic origins as well as understanding the historical track of the Belarusian written language and book publishing”.
This day will be celebrated on the 2nd of September, and exposes another slander against the Republic of Belarus.
July 2007: Belarus – Venezuela increase solidarity and co-operation.
President Hugo Chavez of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela first visited Belarus in July 2006, and even then declared solidarity with his Belarusian counterpart. Chavez highlighted that both Belarus and Venezuela had “many common interests and one main goal – securing higher living standards for their citizens”. Chavez went as far as to say that in Belarus was a “model of social development that we have only begun to establish at home”.
The 2006 meeting was highly productive in both trade and strategic terms. Contracts were agreed that would see Belarus establish construction industries in Venezuela, and also provide equipment for the Venezuelan oil industry.
Hugo Chavez visited Belarus again in June 2007, where he reaffirmed his commitment to solidarity with Belarus going as far as to say that in the struggle against the unipolar world he and Alexander Lukashenko “were brothers”.
On July 11th the Venezuelan state oil company announced increased petrol production in partnership with the Belarusian ‘Belarusneft’ company. Whilst Belarusian enterprises working in partnership with those of Venezuela have been establishing factories to produce tractors, specialised construction vehicles, and also household appliances.
This co-operation is only the beginning of what is emerging as a close strategic partnership. Lukashenko has already commented that Belarus and Venezuela have “absolutely identical” views on international affairs. Whilst Chavez has said that “Belarus is a free country, Venezuela is a free country, and that puts us in sight of the US empire’s ill fated objectives”.
Commentary on the Amnesty International Report 2007: Belarus.
In May 2007 Amnesty published their situation report on Human rights in Belarus. The report mentions that Amnesty delegates visited Belarus in February, however for most information and background far from independent or objective sources are used.
Notably when commenting on the Belarusian Presidential election of the previous year, only the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conclusion is mentioned. Alarmingly the OSCE opinion is used as evidence of the opinion of the “international community”.
The OSCE has a less than inspiring history of involvement, and interference in Belarus. The most notable examples being the direct collaboration of OSCE director Hans Georg Wieck with former US ambassador Michael Kozak in 2001 that resulted in the promotion of a ‘unified opposition candidate’ (Vladimir Goncharik) who was not even the first choice of the opposition themselves. The OSCE have also been notable for declaring an election to be neither “free nor fair” without actually observing it. (Belarusian Parliamentary elections of 2000, and Presidential election of 2001).
The OSCE itself is no impartial organisation, and nor are its members truly independent. OSCE observers are nominated and appointed by the governments of its member states (including the USA), many of these are actually in the employ of the diplomatic and security services. As such they have a significant professional obligation not to deviate too far from official policy and position. The OSCE missions are also well paid for their work.
The OSCE mission that criticised the 2006 Presidential election (and in turn by Amnesty International) was led by US Congressman Alcee Hastings. This appears an unusual choice given that Hastings had been impeached in 1989 when serving as a judge for 17 high crimes and demeanours. The US House of Representatives went so far as to say that his actions had struck “at the heart of our democracy”.
Amnesty International have been unfortunately manipulated by relying on the OSCE as an independent source on the situation in Belarus. The CIS report on the same election had a notably different conclusion, and ought not to be ignored or dismissed. Independent observer missions too would be of far more value to Amnesty.
Amnesty also cites the Council of the European Union as being dissatisfied with the conduct of the poll. The EU however had already made up their mind before the poll. ‘Opposition leader’ Alexander Milinkevich having been invited to a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and 25 other senior EU ministers in Brussels in January 2006. Milinkevich was supposedly presenting the reality of the political situation in Belarus whilst at the same time hoping to acquire greater funds for his campaign. Even Radio Free Europe acknowledged that Milinkevich was being granted “almost unprecedented levels of political access” whilst the EU bodies concerned tried to keep “it all very quiet”. Following the Election Milinkevich was awarded with the Sakharov prize for Human rights by the EU. (Milinkevich ultimately was deposed from his titular position of leader of the opposition for his non-democratic methods of leadership).
It ought to remembered that the EU pertains to being neutral in concern to the internal affairs of any non-member state.
'Clampdown on Freedom of Association'
Amnesty contends that Non Government Organisations (NGO’s) face “stringent controls and checks on their activities”. This ought to be seen in context. For example organisations as diverse as the Red Cross and Zubr (a youth opposition group) both qualify as NGO’s but have very different purposes and activities.
The vast number of NGO’s in Belarus include the over 300 that US ambassador Kozak left behind in 2003 that were “linked to those that were seeking political change”. In 2004 the US Department of State complained that the Belarusian government was harassing and de-registering NGO’s. This followed the declaring of an NGO called the ‘White Legion’ being declared illegal. Not only were the Belarusian authorities concerned by the activities of this extremist racist organisation, but so too was the Israeli Stephen Roth Institute. The Belarusian Ministry of Justice commented on this case that the “activities of these organisations escalate social and political tension and are of an extremist and illegal nature. We know for a fact that there have been contacts between radical groups and representatives of foreign circles, which has a destabilising influence on domestic processes”.
Such NGO’s funded form abroad and seeking political change ought to be closely monitored by any responsible government. Amnesty actually cites the article of the criminal code that has been used to monitor extremist groups. This being article 193 that circumscribes the “organising and running of an unregistered organisation that infringes the rights of citizens”. The key point here being that such a law actually protects rights, but also, only effects unregistered and thus illegal groups, such as the ‘White Legion’. The maximum sentence for such behaviour is three years imprisonment.
Amnesty uses the example of the arrest of four members of the Belarusian NGO ‘Initiative Partnership’ as a clampdown on the freedom of association. This NGO was not registered and was, according to its members only going to collect exit polls on the election. The authorities claimed that the Initiative Partnership’s goal had been to use fraudulent exit polls as part of a plan to engineer a violent protest following the election.
The fact that they could have registered to monitor the elections legally is important, as is the fact that Amnesty previously declared that they would consider the four members as prisoners of conscience should they be convicted (press release 14/03/06). Amnesty ought to be aware that the group may actually have been guilty, and prejudging by either side is equally improper.
Amnesty also uses the example of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), “the only remaining national human rights organisation still operating in the country”. However several independent bodies still monitor Belarus, including of course the Amnesty visit in February, and frequent detailed studies by the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.
The BHC was under scrutiny by Belarusian authorities over an alleged tax evasion regarding a grant from an EU programme. However Belarusian court decisions had ruled that the BHC itself was a lawful NGO in terms of its activities. It was only the financial irregularity that was under investigation. Despite Amnesty’s concern that following the end of the lease of their premises the organisation would lose its legal status, the BHC still legally operates from a private address.
It is also of note that the BHC when monitoring Belarusian elections had reported that proceedings had gone “without violations”.
'Detentions of Peaceful Demonstrators'
This section of the report focuses on the aftermath of the Belarusian Presidential election of 2006. The claim that large numbers of peaceful demonstrators were detained and beaten does not tally with events. The initial protest following the vote was dealt with in a remarkably restrained manner, and in full view of the worlds media. The protestors who turned out n the first night numbered some 10,000 (less than 1% of those who had voted for the opposition). This number dwindled quickly and by the end of the week 150 people were removed from Minsk’s October Square in buses. A week later a second demonstration celebrating the short lived 1918 Belarusian Republic ended in violence when protestors began throwing glass bottles at the police (the only reported serious injuries being to policemen).
The demonstration turned violent after unsuccessful presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin urged the crowd to storm a police station, calling for “the government’s overthrow and [President] Lukashenko’s death”.
Amnesty notes that those charged over these incidences were actually charged with administrative offences carrying sentences of ten to fifteen days.
'Harassment of Opposition Activists'
Amnesty expresses opinion as fact concerning the arrest of activists for “criminal offences in an attempt to discredit them”. It is not denied that the activists have committed crimes but rather concern that the Criminal Code “may have” been used for “political reasons to deter other activists”. This of course is pure speculation and the Code equally ‘may not have been used for political reasons’.
'Prisoners of Conscience'
Amnesty highlights the case of the above mentioned Alexander Kozulin as a case of a prisoner of conscience. Amnesty claims “there was concern that these charges were part of an ongoing systematic campaign of harassment, intimidation and obstruction by the Belarusian authorities against Alexander Kozulin”. It is not made clear who held this concern, and nor was it explained what he was actually arrested for i.e. the calling for the storming of a government building, overthrow of the government, and the death of the head of state.
'Violence Against Women'
Amnesty criticises the “lack of mandatory government training programmes for police, judges and medical staff”. This however fails to take into account the very high levels of Female representation amongst the above mentioned professions, (particularly in the case of judges). Whilst Amnesty is certainly right to express concern over the issue of domestic violence it seems misleading to highlight the issue specifically in a country that occupies a leading position in terms of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s rating of gender equality.
Ultimately Amnesty International has a very valid and useful role to play in monitoring of human rights across the world. However Amnesty also has a duty to abide by its core principle of “impartiality and independence”. In the case of Belarus Amnesty appears to have been misled by some of its sources, particularly the OSCE, who are a very powerful, but certainly not impartial body. This is why the campaign for objectivity and the truth about the Republic of Belarus is so important.