United States plans to remain engaged for the long term, State's Kramer says
By Jeffrey Thomas
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- The run-up to the March 19 presidential election in Belarus is already deeply flawed, and the United States is making plans with European allies for common post-election policies, a senior State Department official said at a congressional hearing March 9.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko "has already tilted the playing field to assure his re-election by using state officials and police to intimidate opposition candidates, nonpartisan activists and voters," said the State Department's David Kramer.
"Stringent campaign rules have been applied only to the opposition," said Kramer, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. "The regime has used its domination of the state media to vilify government critics with impunity. Election commissions are stacked with government supporters." (See related article.)
It is still possible that the government of Belarus "could conduct the voting and vote-counting in a manner better than they have in the pre-election period - and we strongly urge them to do that," he said. "But past experience gives us very little hope even for this somewhat-improved but far-from-perfect outcome."
Kramer told the committee that, in a unified approach with the European Union, the United States intends to remain engaged in Belarus for the long term despite what a presidential election unlikely to prove free or fair.
"After the elections, we intend to continue our outreach efforts and our work to help pro-democracy forces build capacity to push for change," he said.
"We understand the obstacles standing in the way of quick change, and whatever happens in this particular election, we intend to remain engaged in Belarus for the long term," Kramer said.
Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, engineered what Kramer referred to as a "fraudulent referendum" in 2004 that enabled him to change a constitutional provision that would have otherwise prevented him from running for a third term. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have referred to Lukashenko's government as the "last outpost of tyranny in Europe." Bush on February 27 met with two widows from Belarus whose husbands disappeared in the 1990s, apparently for political reasons. (See related article.)
Lukashenko is a man driven by "paranoia, megalomania and corruption" who is "trying to stay in power at all costs," Kramer said when asked by committee Chairman Senator Sam Brownback for his assessment of where the Belarusian dictator is headed.
Kramer said Lukashenko has blurred distinctions between his personal and state property, by his own admission putting a billion dollars from international arms sales into his own account rather than state coffers.
Kramer, who recently returned from a visit to Minsk, said one of the reasons for his trip was to make clear to Belarusian officials that the United States and the European Union "are completely united in our approach to Belarus." He also conveyed directly to those officials "that there will be serious consequences if the election - including the process leading up to the actual voting - remains as seriously flawed and tainted as it has been thus far."
Kramer said he also underscored "that there will be major consequences if the government resorts to force against protestors who have a right to assemble and protest peacefully."
The United States and western Europe are "prepared to respond in a most serious way to fraud, abuse, and violence perpetrated by this regime," he said, adding: "It would be a grave mistake by those in the Lukashenko regime to underestimate American and European resolve."
The United States will maintain solidarity with pro-democracy forces in Belarus, Kramer said. "Our proper place is standing beside these brave Belarusians, doing what we can to encourage and help them to achieve a better future for their country."
Such a future will inevitably come, "although we cannot predict when," he said. "Belarus is in the heart of Europe, and its democratization will be a major step in completing the democratic transformation of the continent."
Also testifying at the hearing were Patrick Merloe from the National Democratic Institute; Stephen B. Nix from the International Republican Institute; Rodger Potocki from the National Endowment for Democracy; Iryna Vidanava, a Belarusian activist who also is the Editor-in-Chief of Students' Thought, the only independent youth publication in Belarus; and Celeste Wallander from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.