Thursday, October 14, 2004

President Alexander Lukashenka of Belarus has added a referendum to the Oct. 17 parliamentary elections.

The referendum will ask Belarusians if they allow Mr. Lukashenko to participate in presidential elections (in violation of his own tailormade constitution), and if they accept the constitutional changes to end presidential term limits.

Thus, Mr. Lukashenka, a former collective farm boss, who is in office illegally following his 1996 constitutional coup, will take a step to make himself a president-for-life — an unseemly sight in democratic Europe. He would not only run for a third term in 2006. By changing the Constitution, he will permit himself to run again and again.

Mr. Lukashenka has also prevented political parties from competing in parliamentary elections, from having equal access to the media or from placing, in accord with Belarus law, party observers on local and regional electoral commissions.

The authoritarian Belarus has become a pariah state in Europe, especially after Mr. Lukashenka caused several opposition leaders to “disappear” in the late 1990s. Sources in Minsk confirmed that the dictator’s henchmen murdered them.

U.S. and EU countries jointly agreed on a list of Belarus officials from Mr. Lukashenka’s inner circle who will be denied visas to travel to the West. This may be a right step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Mr. Lukashenka now will retaliate by banning U.S. and EU officials from visiting Belarus.

Russia is also apprehensive about Mr. Lukashenka and does not need a basket-case economy led by a basket-case dictator as an albatross around its neck. Moreover, Mr. Lukashenka nurses an ambition to engineer the Anschluss of his own land so way he can run for the presidency of Russia. A specter of a certain Austrian corporal who achieved great fame in Germany in the 1930s apparently makes him jealous. In fact, Lukashenka expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, the latter a Georgian of low origins who made it big in Mother Russia.

Russians should know that, if integrated, the bacilli of Belarusian authoritarianism may exacerbate their country’s own uneasy relationship with democracy. And the world’s indifference to the Belarus’ dictator may encourage those in President Putin’s entourage who advise their boss to remain in power after 2008, when his term is up.

The United States and Western Europe have many interests at stake in Belarus, including the possible effect of its democracy’s failure on Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine will elect its next president Oct. 31. Belarus is also suspected of weapons sales to rogue regimes, such as Iran and Saddam’s Iraq. Anti-Western arms dealers in Minsk may also sell weapons to terror groups around the world, including those fighting in Iraq. Thus, Belarus represents an great opportunity for cooperation between Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels.

The 2004 Belarus Democracy Act, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, and others, finally passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Oct. 4. More needs to be done. Both U.S. presidential candidates should denounce violation of constitution and electoral procedures by Mr. Lukashenka. The United States and the EU should declare illegitimate the referendum and parliamentary elections if observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) certify there are election falsifications and other violations.

There should be coordinated criminal investigations into homicide, money laundering and illegal arms trading within respective jurisdictions by U.S. domestic and international law enforcement agencies, such as the Interpol and EU members.

The U.S. Justice Department and its European counterparts should investigate the disappearance of Mr. Lukashenka’s political opponents, provided a jurisdictional nexus for the United States and/or Europe. The U.S. and Europe can initiate criminal procedures against those in the Belarusian president’s circle who ordered and participated in murdering opposition politicians and journalists. Democracies should seize assets of Mr. Lukashenka and his inner circle around the world through criminal proceedings against illegal arms sales and money laundering in violation of U.S. or international sanctions. The United States will be entitled to enforce such sanctions even if the violation did not occur on American territory.

According to Scott Horton, a senior partner at Patterson Belknap who practices European law and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) law, the United States has never recognized an absolute sovereign immunity defense. America in the past has intervened with allies like Italy and the United Kingdom in stopping overseas shipments of Ukrainian arms to the Balkans in violations of international sanctions.

The United States also has investigated leaders from the post-Soviet states, such as President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and most of his senior team, the late President Heydar Aliev of Azerbaijan, and Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko who was convicted by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The U.S. also apprehended Panamanian President Manuel Noriega and the former prime minister of Turks and Caicos Islands.

The United States should fund, together with EU, an international broadcasting operation from countries around Belarus on the AM band by opposition radio stations, launch opposition TV broadcasting, and expand people-to-people and educational exchanges.

Finally, U.S. should consult with Russia regarding a possible political changes that will make Belarus more democratic and predictable. Such a shift on Mr. Lukashenka will benefit Russia by making the transit route for Russian gas to Europe less prone to his interference, and will eliminate the need to support the Belarusian economy by subsidized natural gas at a cost of more than $2 billion a year to its neighbor.

Mr. Lukashenko thinks he is here to stay, but the people of Belarus deserve better. The next Congress and administration will have their Belarus “in” basket full from Day One.

Ariel Cohen is research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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