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Civil Society In Belarus


On March 19th, Belarus will hold a presidential election. Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is running for a third term. Under the original Belarusian constitution, this would be illegal. But Mr. Lukashenko held a fraudulent referendum in 2004, changing the constitution and making it possible for him to seek re-election.

The U.S. and the European Union would like to help Belarusians improve the prospects for a free and fair election. That is why U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns recently met with several representatives of Belarusian civil society. Mr. Burns expressed to them the United States' "deep and continuing interest in Belarus, both ahead of and after the March 19th election."

So far, the prospects for a free and fair election in Belarus are dim. Authorities have imprisoned Mikhail Marynich, the opposition candidate in the 2001 presidential election, on dubious charges of theft. Valery Levaneusky and Aliaksandr Vasilieu, the chairman and vice chairman of the "Free Belarus" movement, have been jailed on charges of having insulted the president.

In recent years, independent publications in Belarus have been particularly targeted by government repression. In 2005, at least fifteen independent newspapers were denied printing or distribution services by state-owned monopolies. While Mr. Lukashenko can attack other candidates with impunity on state media broadcasts, his opponents' media access is strictly limited. And Belarus's anti-defamation laws make it nearly impossible to criticize the government.

Meanwhile, the government of Belarus has failed to investigate the disappearances of prominent opposition figures and journalists, including Anatoly Krasovki, Yuri Zakharenko, Viktor Gonchar and Dmitry Zavadsky, despite credible reports that senior government officials were involved. The government has also failed to adequately investigate the deaths of two independent journalists, Veronika Cherkasova and Vasily Grodnikov.

The government of Alexander Lukashenko is seeking to deny Belarusians a choice at the ballot box. "The fate of Belarus," said President George W. Bush, "will not rest with a dictator, but with the students, trade unionists, civic and religious leaders, journalists, and all citizens of Belarus claiming freedom for their nation."

The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.

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