Uncle Sam Plays The Bully in Belarus

Most Americans if told that several million of their tax dollars were being sent half way around the world to throw an election in favor of a senior member of the Soviet Communist Party, would go ballistic. At the least they might wonder whether Bill Clinton and his left-wing ideologues were somehow still running foreign policy in Washington. The strange truth is that President Bush’s ambassador in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, Michael Kozak, is doing his level best to do just that. He has set out to make sure that opposition leader Vladimir Goncharyk is elected president of Belarus this Sunday.

Goncharyk is being sold in the West as the new breed of politician to finally put an end to the “authoritarian” rule of current president Alexander Lukashenka. What his supporters in the Bush administration have tried to keep under the lid is the fact that Goncharyk, 14 years Lukaskenka’s senior, is President of the Federation of Trade Unions and a former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Lukashenka, habitually referred to in the Western press as a “communist hard-liner,” was in fact merely a collective farm manager during communist rule.

The U.S. government has nevertheless long condemned Lukashenka as authoritarian for, in 1996, holding a referendum to expand the powers of the presidency, which was successful, and for disbanding a hard-line communist parliament that ignored legislation it was sent. When U.S.-favored Russian president Boris Yeltsin did the same and more, he was praised in the U.S. government and media as a “reformer.”

Currently, the Bush Administration and Western media continue to repeat the unsubstantiated but salacious rumor of “death squads” roaming the Belarusian countryside producing scores of “disappeared.” In fact, of the three or four names claimed to be “the disappeared,” one, Tamara Vinnikava, has already surfaced happy and healthy in London. Another of the celebrated “disappeared,” Viktor Gonchar, is widely believed to be living comfortably in the United States. The other one or two may well have been given a similar welcome in the West. Nevertheless, the State Department as recently as August 28, repeated these dubious charges. Spokesperson Richard Boucher said then: “Although the connection between the disappearance of leading pro-democracy politicians over the last two years and government-run death squads has yet to be proven, we do take these charges seriously.” If the U.S. government has no evidence that there even are “disappeared” other than the claims of the opposition, on what basis does it “take these charges seriously?”

The U.S. government and Western media have also decried Belarusian President Lukashenka’s hesitation to allow the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its 14,000 domestic observers to monitor the election. In last year’s parliamentary elections the OSCE announced a month before the election that it would not bother to observe: they had decided in advance that the elections would be neither free nor fair. The several hundred international observers who actually did bother to monitor the elections in Belarus told a different story. The Belarusian president can be forgiven for questioning the impartiality of this monitoring body.

How did the West come to line up behind such an unlikely candidate as Goncharyk? Much of the credit must be given U.S. ambassador Kozak, who Belarusian Television reported called a meeting last month between opposition candidates and told them to withdraw in favor of a single challenger, one Vladimir Goncharyk. This “pro-Western” member of the Soviet ruling elite even has a communist-sounding campaign slogan: “Vote for the agreed-upon candidate.” Anything you say, comrade.

In all fairness to Ambassador Kozak, this kind of meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign countries has been the norm for post Cold War U.S. foreign policy. From Slovakia to Albania to Yugoslavia to Croatia, the U.S. foreign policy in the region has consisted of picking a candidate and making sure he wins. Anyone wondering why the United States is no longer widely admired in these former captive nations need look no further.

Though Belarusian voters hardly know candidate Goncharyk, he has been given at least two 30 minute slots on state television to make his case to the people. Another of the charges against Lukashenka is that he maintains an iron grip on the state media.

When a recent article in the London Times pointed out that Ambassador Kozak was acting in favor of the political opposition in Belarus, the ambassador denied it, in typical diplomat-speak, insisting that the millions sent to Belarus to “promote democracy and the civic sector” were not transferred to any political party. According to the official figures, the U.S. government has sent some $4 million yearly for this purpose – a considerable sum in a poor country – and unofficially millions more have likely been spent. Much of this money ends up in the accounts of non-governmental organizations allied with the opposition.

While Ambassador Kozak denies that the U.S. government funds any political parties in Belarus, one of the government’s cut-out international assistance organizations, the International Republican Institute (IRI), makes less effort to hide the political nature of its activities in Belarus. According to that organization’s website, in Belarus “IRI’s USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development)-funded program provides specialized training for democratic youth, assistance to reform-oriented parties and literature development and distribution. The training is designed to bring activists into political party and NGO organizations and help prepare them for leadership roles” (emphasis added). The political opposition in this election happens to be Goncharyk, and such foreign support of political parties in the United States is, rightly, illegal. The USAID’s own website says of President Lukashenka that he was “elected in 1994 in a vote judged to be free and fair.” So, one may wonder, why are U.S. tax dollars being spent to overthrow him in favor of a leading communist?

A Clinton appointee, Kozak’s undiplomatic biases began before he even set foot on Belarusian soil. In a crude break with diplomatic protocol, Kozak pronounced Belarus “worse than Cuba” in advance of his arrival as ambassador. Some of us may have missed Castro’s political opposition making its case to the Cuban voter on state television, or in numerous privately-owned independent Cuban newspapers.

Most Americans should wonder why we are bothering to meddle in the elections of a sovereign country in the first place. As even rabidly anti-Lukashenka media like Radio Free Europe report that he is the most popular candidate in the contest, shouldn’t the greatest democratic nation on earth allow the good citizens of Belarus to freely choose their own leader? Isn’t that what the Cold War was supposed to be about in the first place?

Daniel McAdams has monitored elections throughout the former communist world for the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, however the views expressed here are his own.

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