One president but plenty of thugs

By William Hague, shadow foreign secretry (THE TIMES, 16/03/06):

In the past two decades striking changes have taken place across Europe. The political map of the 1980s and the times we live in now could scarcely be more different. Once the Berlin Wall came down, borders opened and free elections ousted communist regimes across Eastern Europe. With surprising speed, the Iron Curtain was lifted and the Cold War came to an end. Former Soviet satellites are now members of Nato and the EU, and the recent “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have proven that democracy may be late in coming, but sooner or later it arrives.

Democracy arrived in most places, but not in Belarus. In the country where the Soviet Union never really went away, this change was thwarted by an authoritarian regime bent on maintaining its hold on power.

Since the election of President Aleksandr Lukashenka in 1994 — the man that the White House dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — civil and political rights have been steadily eroded. Independent media and civil society groups are barely surviving under intense pressure from the Government while state manipulation has turned successive elections into empty exercises. Members of the co-ordinating committee of Free Belarus have been sent to prison for two years for defamation. Democratically minded newspapers have been prevented from publishing for the flimsiest of reasons, such as trying to change their printing schedules. Six years ago a few people regarded as hostile by the regime, including high-ranking officials, a businessman and a TV cameraman, simply disappeared. A Council of Europe inquiry concluded that the cover-up of what had happened to these people extended to the “highest levels of the state”.

To judge by the tone of the election campaign, when Belarus goes to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president the experience will fall far short of the elections that we have seen elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Indeed, it could be October 15, 2000, all over again when Mr Lukashenka orches- trated illegitimate and undemocratic parliamentary elections to extend his power and control over the people.

Today in Minsk opposition candidates are again being intimidated by beatings, harassment and arrests. They are being denied fair and equal access to state-controlled television and radio, which are encouraged to slander the Government’s opponents.

In Brussels a few weeks ago, I met Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the alternative candidate for president, who has the support of most main opposition groupings. He has to fight an election in a large country with almost no television, radio or newspaper coverage, relying instead on leaflets and word of mouth.

Needless to say, any citizen trying to assist his campaign has to live in fear of harassment, intimidation and trumped-up prosecutions. President Lukashenka has called on Belarussians “not to succumb to provocative calls” to attend opposition rallies, which are branded “illegal actions”. In typical old-Soviet style, his opponents are accused of breaking the country’s laws and “destabilising society”. Last week two allies of Mr Milinkevich were imprisoned for 15 days for attending a meeting with their candidate.

In a separate incident, according to Reporters Without Borders, the journalism-advocacy group, plain-clothes police beat up at least nine reporters who were covering the arrest of another opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin. The Belarussian authorities have threatened to refuse accreditation to Polish journalists who plan to cover the elections.

Mr Lukashenka’s policies amount to an attempt to return Belarus to the form of government of the Soviet period, at the expense of the human rights and the wellbeing of the Belarussian people. Their economy is being kept afloat by heavily subsidised Russian gas and oil.

The Belarus opposition has a mountain to climb: unlike Ukraine, where both presidential candidates were on an equal footing, Mr Lukashenka is running as the incumbent and holds all the cards. Unlike Ukraine, the Belarusian opposition is not represented in parliament or in local government. The state-controlled system of counting votes is wide open to abuse and almost certain to be abused. The current inflated economic growth of Belarus may just be enough to choke democracy again. Those who try to justify the behaviour of the Lukashenka Government on the ground that some of its policies appear to be effective should remember that the record of applauding authoritarian regimes for their “efficiency” is not a happy one. Freedom of expression and the rule of law are not ideals to be sacrificed in return for the trains running on time.

If Mr Lukashenka is “elected” we will witness not just stagnant democracy, but democracy in reverse. When we can celebrate the flourishing of democracy in so many formerly communist states, we must not forget the people living in places where it is being stamped on. All of us who enjoy the right to free and fair elections should salute the activists and candidates who are now bravely battling on without freedom or fairness, and condemn a regime that adopts the language of democracy as it retreats into despotism.

It is time to offer support to the people of Belarus and take a harder line against a Government that is forfeiting its legitimacy; and it is certainly time for more European governments to say so.