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9/16/04 - BELARUS REFERENDUM MUST BE FAIR - 2004-09-16

Aleksandr Lukashenko, the autocratic ruler of Belarus, announced a referendum on the question of eliminating presidential term limits. This maneuver would allow him to run in 2006 for a third term. The referendum is scheduled for October 17th and will coincide with the first round of parliamentary elections.

Mr. Lukashenko was first elected president in the summer of 1994. Two years later, a referendum to amend the constitution was held. The changes extended Lukashenko’s original five-year term by two years and gave the office of the presidency sweeping powers. Mr. Lukashenko won a second term in 2001 in an election that was condemned by the U.S. and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for its many irregularities.

Continuing human rights violations by the government of Belarus have left the country politically isolated, rather than leading it to the respected position Belarus should rightfully enjoy in Europe. Given the government’s record, many people have serious doubts that the upcoming referendum and parliamentary elections will be fair. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called on Mr. Lukashenko to “ensure that the Belarusian people are able to debate, vote, and have their votes counted according to international standards on October 17th and thereafter, by taking immediate steps to uphold Belarus' international democracy and human rights commitments.”

Anatol Lyabedzka of the United Civic Party is one of the leaders of the Five Plus coalition. He has vowed to make every effort to thwart Lukashenko’s attempt to rig yet another presidential election. “We will do our utmost and utilize all of our potential against that political campaign,” said Mr. Lyabedzka. “We are ready. As early as two years ago, eight parties said they would pool their resources in case a referendum was announced, and we shall do that,” he said.

Any referendum that does not meet international democratic standards will be viewed as another attempt to subvert the chances for a democratic process in Belarus. Flawed parliamentary elections and a flawed referendum will further isolate Belarus and leave the U.S. no choice but to review its policies towards the Belarusian government.