- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

American support for the Serbian opposition was instrumental in ousting Slobodan Milosevic. Now the United States must redouble its public diplomacy to help civic and opposition forces mobilize against Europe's last dictator in Belarus.
Belarus, a country of 10 million, has the potential to join its Western neighbors in progressing toward the European mainstream. Instead, since coming to power in 1994, President Aleksandr Lukashenko has spurned democratization and economic liberalization, maintaining Belarus as an authoritarian police state, will serve as a bellwether for neighboring Ukraine, which appears to be faltering in its own transition and on the verge of autocracy.
It has taken significant effort to derail Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko's presidency took an authoritarian turn early on, and descended into outright illegitimacy when he dissolved parliament and forced constitutional changes that extended his term in 1996. Since then, potential rivals for national leadership and critics have mysteriously disappeared, died under questionable circumstances, or been imprisoned on dubious charges. Recently, two former prosecutors who fled abroad alleged Mr. Lukashenko had created a death squad to liquidate up to 30 persons, including four missing political opponents. Independent foreign and domestic human rights groups have documented a litany of abuses against opposition politicians, non-governmental organizations, trade unions, and independent media. This environment has sapped the hope of most Belarusians that they can live a free and fulfilling life in their own country. It also has led many in the West to write-off Belarus as a lost cause.
Despite the fear and resignation engendered by the regime, mobilization for the Sept. 9 presidential election is mounting. Five opposition presidential hopefuls recently agreed on a unity presidential candidate, Vladimir Goncharik, chairman of the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions, to stand in the election representing a "broad civil coalition." The maintenance of unity in this effort is crucial. For months, the youth group Zubr, its name and symbol the European bison native to Belarus, has been active in mobilizing youth for nonviolent change as Otpor ("resistance") did in Serbia, under the slogan, "Time to Choose." The slogan and the symbol are rapidly spreading throughout Belarus.
Mr. Lukashenko has clearly been unnerved by the sight of fellow autocrat Slobodan Milosevic's overthrow and transfer to The Hague by domestic opponents, government has been roundly criticized at home and abroad for stacking electoral boards and obstruction of domestic monitoring groups. Though under pressure, Mr. Lukashenko finally has allowed the monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) access, abuses he has committed during their absence already mean the elections will be less than "free and fair."
The United States, EU, and other democracies have a responsibility to insist on and work toward a fairly contested election. Because the playing field is so skewed in Mr. Lukashenko's favor, democracies should take their lead from Belarusian democratic opposition and civic forces to determine how best to help them.
Russia is an obstacle. Mr. Lukashenko has received strong support from Moscow for years, and has joined the Russia-Belarus Union, which Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to view as the nucleus of a reconstituted USSR. Mr. Lukashenko is desperate for Kremlin support, though he appears uncertain how much longer Moscow can tolerate such raw dictatorship. Washington and Brussels should ensure that continued Russian support for Mr. Lukashenko exacts a serious political cost. Though Russia's abandonment of Mr. Lukashenko should be pursued, there is no substitute for the grassroots civic efforts of Zubr and the opposition.
This election campaign is pivotal for Belarus' democratic development. In Serbia last year, the September election was a rallying point for citizens fed up with isolation and privation. Belarus presents an even tougher challenge to its democratic opposition. Mr. Lukashenko has unflinchingly used a massive array of repressive tools at his disposal. Democracy in Belarus, like the brutal war in Chechnya, is not a serious component in the U.S. relationship with Moscow, and the opposition has little visibility in the Western media, unlike its Serbian counterparts. Mr. Lukashenko wants to keep it that way, but his ability to intimidate a population with little left to lose is crumbling.
As in Belarus, it is also "time to choose" in Washington and Brussels. With support and pressure, the United States and its allies can help decisively tip the balance in favor of the Belarusian people against their anachronistic regime. Belarus will be a decisive battleground against unabashed dictatorship in the long, costly struggle for a democratic Europe whole and free.

Kenneth L. Adelman was arms control director in the Reagan administration. Max Kampelman was head of the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Mark Palmer is former U.S. ambassador to Hungary. Messrs. Kampelman and Palmer serve on the Executive Advisory Committee of the Washington-based Democratization Policy Institute.


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