The World from The Hill: Durbin, McCain say it's time for Belarus freedom, too

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) don’t agree on much. But they both are working to oust a dictator in a former Soviet state.

Citing the chaos in Egypt, Durbin and McCain are separately trying to spotlight human-rights violations in Belarus.

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In an interview with The Hill, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate said the protests and upheaval demanding democratic reforms in Tunisia and Egypt carry a lesson in viewing repressive regimes such as Belarus.

Durbin said, “There are battles going on all over the world, and our support for that effort can make a difference.”

“As we see the events unfolding in the Middle East, we also believe that events should unfold here for the people of Belarus,” McCain said during a Friday news conference with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in Lithuania. “[Belarus President Alexander] Lukashenko is on the wrong side of history, and sooner or later we will see democracy and freedom in Belarus.”

But the former Soviet state stuck in its Soviet ways is not something that most Americans think about, Durbin acknowledged.

“I think most people would struggle to identify where you’d find it [on a map],” the Senate majority whip said.

Last month, Durbin visited Lithuania, where his mother was born. He spoke to the country’s parliament and marked the 20th anniversary of the Soviet “Bloody Sunday” attack on civilians in the capital Vilnius.

Realizing that it was a only three-hour drive to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Durbin secured a visa and made the trip.

Lukashenko has held onto power with an iron grip since 1994 through internationally criticized elections and a constitutional change that indefinitely extended presidential term limits.

The Dec. 19 election results, handing Lukashenko another term (“a very suspect election,” Durbin notes), resulted in thousands of Belarusians pouring into the streets in protest and seven opposition candidates being arrested, along with some 600 demonstrators.

When Durbin visited, he said, four of those candidates were still being held behind bars. He met with families of jailed activists and candidates and called for the immediate release of their loved ones.

“Most of them had no direct contact with their husbands and sons,” Durbin said.

Durbin met with Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov and lodged a protest about the treatment of the opposition; Martynov, said Durbin, told him the U.S. should give their “new democracy” credit for not using more forceful tactics to bring in the opposition candidates. But the crackdown is hardly unusual in Lukashenko’s regime.

“In terms of his commitment to democracy, it is so weak — this type of thing that he’s done here really tells the whole story,” Durbin said.

There is a stark contrast between Belarus and its European neighbors that were also liberated two decades ago.

The country still calls its secret police the KGB. It ranks 154th in the world on Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index, with Lukashenko dubbed a “predator” of press freedom. It’s ranked “not free” by Freedom House. The Heritage Foundation ranks the country 155th in its economic freedom index.

Last Monday, the U.S. levied sanctions on Belarus in response to the post-election crackdown, revoking temporary authorization to do business with two subsidiaries of the country’s largest state-owned petroleum and chemical conglomerate; “significantly expanding” the list of Belarusian officials banned from entry into the U.S.; and “working to impose financial sanctions against additional Belarusian individuals and/or entities.”

Washington simultaneously pledged to increase its assistance to democratic movements in Belarus by at least 30 percent.

The White House action coincided with a European Union imposition of travel restrictions and an asset freeze on Belarusian officials.

While lauding the moves, Durbin said, “I think we need to do more.” He said he has spoken to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and is confident they’re on the same page in opposing the Lukashenko regime.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on human rights in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently introduced legislation to reauthorize the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004.

That measure calls on Minsk to release political prisoners and journalists, expresses the sense of Congress on sanctions, would increase support to free radio broadcasts and pro-democracy activities in Belarus, and would require annual reports from the president to Congress on weapons exports that may be supporting terrorism.

Republicans Dan Burton (Ind.), Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) and Frank Wolf (Va.) have co-sponsored the legislation.

Durbin, meanwhile, highlighted his trip to Belarus in a Jan. 25 floor speech, accompanied by an angry photo of Lukashenko, detailing the struggles faced by democracy proponents there. He condemned the “desperation and fear of a dictator whose reign belongs in the dustbin of history.” Durbin titled the speech, “The Bully of Belarus.”

The video of that address, he said, was shipped back to the families of those imprisoned, and spoke to the power of speeches delivered in Congress.

“It does not go unnoticed by a lot of the foreign governments when we stand up and speak up,” Durbin said.

McCain did not hold back on Friday, calling Lukashenko “a ruthless, oppressive, brutal tyrant.” Poland’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that Lukashenko should keep an airplane “on standby in Minsk,” because Tunisia and Egypt could be an omen that other dictators could soon be ousted.

Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski warned Lukashenko from the podium of an international donors’ conference: “You are losing. ... Sooner or later you will have to flee your own country, your own people.”

“I wish,” Durbin said. “I don’t know if that’s possible. I can certainly understand the national sentiment, fed up with his dictatorial ways.”

Durbin noted that the Polish warnings would feed the paranoia of Belarus, which blames the Poles and Germans for conspiring against its government.

“It would be laughable if people weren’t languishing in prison because of it,” Durbin said.