Lukashenka’s public criticism of the leader of the OSCE’s observation mission, Italian Member of Parliament (MP) Matteo Mecacci, indicates the dictator will forget real reforms, just spin (or spit on) the observers’ assessment of the election and double down on autocratic isolation. Not surprisingly, the level of repression has made it difficult for human rights defenders to monitor developments inside Belarus.
Before the last election, in December 2010, there were signs the opposition was being allowed to campaign more freely. Yet the night the returns were counted – or rather miscounted – peaceful demonstrators were beaten by riot squads. Hundreds were clubbed and some 700 detained, including seven opposition presidential candidates. Lukashenka gave his captive nation a sneering lecture that there would be no more “senseless democracy.”
Ales Mikhalevich, a leading opposition candidate, testified before a congressional hearing I chaired in November 2011, that he and others were tortured. All this represented a worsening of Lukashenka’s already deplorable human rights record. The dictator has maintained himself in power since 1994 through consistently sham elections, gagging the press, and imprisoning political opponents. A dozen years ago a group of opponents were “disappeared” and never heard from again– murdered, almost certainly.
The international response to the repression following the last election was stronger than Lukashenka expected. The EU followed the U.S. lead in instituting tougher sanctions, and has left the door open for more. On the one-year anniversary of the 2010 violence, Congress passed my law that strengthened targeted sanctions against Belarusian officials involved in the repression.
The U.S. and other OSCE governments need to signal that we are ready to respond equally strongly this time. Right now OSCE governments should be meeting publicly with political opponents and democratic activists, even those under house arrest or enduring harsh conditions in prison, and strengthen communication with Belarusian civil society. We should be speaking frankly, in public and private with Belarusian government officials, about a fair electoral process – something they’ve failed to deliver for two decades.
No one expects a turnabout from the Belarusian government and authorities next month. And OSCE observers should do their work, as Mecacci said, with an “open mind and outstretched hand.” But if or when they don’t see tangible improvements and good-faith cooperation from the authorities they should tell the world clearly and categorically what they saw. The monitoring of these elections must be a strong signal for Belarusians struggling for their freedom. These are the voices of change too long silenced by Lukashenka. By being present in Belarus later this month, international observers can help bring greater attention to their noble cause.
Smith is the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a senior
member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and author of the Belarus
Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2011.