Uncle Sam Goes Red in Belarus

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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
US 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 US-favored Russian president
Boris Yeltsin did the same and more, he was praised in the US 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
US 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
US 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 US 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
US foreign policy. From Slovakia to Albania to Yugoslavia to Croatia,
US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 about in the first
place?

September
7, 2001

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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