Free, Fair Election Increasingly Unlikely in Belarus, U.S. Says

State Department official condemns jailing, beating of opposition candidate

By Vince Crawley

Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The United States increasingly is doubtful that the government of Belarus will tolerate a free and fair election March 19, according to a U.S. diplomat who also condemned the March 2 beating and jailing of an opposition candidate.

In contrast, the United States stands ready to accept the results of neighboring Ukraine's parliamentary election March 26, the State Department's David Kramer said in a March 2 briefing in Washington. "We want to help Ukraine in moving ahead in a reformist direction," he said, citing recently completed trade agreements with Ukraine. (See related article.)

The government of Belarus shows little evidence that it will allow the kinds of political reforms that would help end the country's self-imposed isolation, said Kramer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, stands for re-election in March. 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.)

On March 2, opposition candidate Aleksandr Kazulin was arrested along with several campaign aides and was beaten badly by police before being released. Kazulin said in an Interview with the New York Times that he wants to "liberate Belarus from Lukashenko's yoke."

Kramer, who just returned from a visit to Minsk, Belarus, said the United States condemns "in the strongest terms" Kazulin's assault and detention. "We have indicated to the Belarusian authorities, in the clearest terms that we can, that we expect there to be a free and fair election," he said. "Beating up a presidential candidate is not exactly the way for the regime in Belarus to demonstrate its seriousness about that."

He said the United States will "remain engaged in Belarus for the long term, whether there is a democratic election in Belarus on March 19 or not. And certainly, recent developments indicate that the scales are tipping heavily against such a free and fair election."

Responding to a reporter's question, Kramer denied allegations that the U.S. government is providing funding for specific opposition candidates. Instead, Kramer said, the United States provided about $12 million in 2005 for democracy-assistance programs. "It's not money that goes directly to any one candidate or another," he said. "The United States does not support any specific candidate. We are in favor of a free and fair process." (See related article.)

Kramer said he found during his recent visit that government crackdowns have not succeeded in eliminating pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

"There's a vibrant civil society despite the very best efforts of the Belarusian government to suppress it," he said. U.S. support for civil-society programs "is not destabilizing. We are not trying to destabilize the country," Kramer said. Rather, the United States is trying to "provide hope and support" for groups and individuals whose goal is to promote democracy and end the "self-isolation" caused by current government policies.

Kramer also addressed allegations by Lukashenko's government that the United States is using political and financial clout to force European governments such as Poland to criticize Belarus. The claims are "simply untrue and ridiculous," he said. "There is joint concern about what's happening inside Belarus. And we have full coordination. Neither of us is dictating to the other."

Kramer said it appears that the Lukashenko regime "does not want to allow a free and fair election, does not want to create a level playing field, does not want to give other candidates a possibility to campaign in a free and fair process." (See related article.)

A transcript of Kramer's briefing is on the State Department Foreign Press Center Web site.