Vol. 10, Issue No. 29/2003

Senator John McCain's keynote remarks

Axis of Evil: Belarus--the Missing Link

Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus cannot long survive in a world where the United States and Russia enjoy a strategic partnership and the United States is serious about its commitment to end outlaw regimes whose conduct threatens us. The impunity with which Lukashenko has ruled since he created his dictatorship by referendum in 1996 is the result of a unique historical moment framed by the end of the Cold War and the start of the war on terrorism. Lukashenko's opportunity began with Boris Yeltsin's coddling of the dictator--ironically, in a bid for electoral advantage in Moscow--and must soon end with the realization among NATO's members that a Europe which enjoys peace with Russia cannot abide a black hole of authoritarianism at its center. As we did with the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe's democracies must ally ourselves with the regime's democratic opposition and provide moral leadership backed by political will to liberate Belorussians from the rule of Europe's last tyrant.

Although it now seems inexcusable, it is perhaps understandable in retrospect that American attention and resources did not focus on Belarus during the 1990s. Those of us who supported ending the war in Bosnia, liberating Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic's tyranny, and expanding our community of values through NATO enlargement knew that this was only the beginning of what America and our European allies could achieve in the wake of our historic Cold War victory. Unfortunately, it was in U.S. policy towards Russia that we compromised the values we were seeking to instill in Moscow and, through neglect, allowed sovereign states in what some Russians like to call their "near abroad" to fall under Russian influence.

Much has changed for the better in Russia over the past decade. The war on terrorism has given us common cause, and we welcome the historic shift in our relations that has occurred under the leadership of Presidents Bush and Putin. Allow me to simply suggest that Belorussians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, Chechens, Dagestanis, and others stand as eloquent witnesses to the ways in which Russia has not changed since 1991. America's efforts to instill our values in Moscow have not been matched by policies that resolutely defend the fundamental rights of people in both distant Russian republics and sovereign states bordering Russia. The manifestation of our failure lies in the ruins of Grozny and the Russian-inspired chaos and lawlessness beyond Tbilisi. And it is apparent in the way Alexander Lukashenko misrules Belarus and pursues external policies that are unacceptable in the modern community of nations.

Last year, one Minsk resident told The New York Times, "I lived here during the war. I saw Germans coming down that street. But what is happening now is much worse. For me, Lukashenko is the worst fascist. This country is just being taken over by Russia." Belorussians have been captive to the effects of Moscow's past sponsorship of Lukashenko's regime. Historians can debate the formative influences on Belorussians' national identity - the partnership in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the effects of centuries of invasion and occupation, including Stalin's Great Terror and the Nazi blitzkrieg. But to the extent that governance in Belarus has changed little from the days when it formed part of the Soviet Union, it is not national culture but a history of Russian support for tyranny in Minsk that is largely to blame.

That support may be ending. If so, it heralds a new day, for it has formed a bulwark that a brave and organized opposition has not yet overcome. Without Russia's support, a balance of political power that favors freedom would soon emerge to challenge every assumption on which Alexander Lukashenko bases his illegitimate rule. Change may happen suddenly, in the same way Ceaucescu's rule crumbled in Romania, aweing so many who had viewed the state's power as absolute. It may take time - a delayed revolution, as occurred in Serbia, where external pressure sufficiently weakened Milosevic's regime that an organized opposition could seize power peacefully and send him to stand trial for his crimes. But have no doubt that it will happen. It will happen sooner rather than later if Moscow's repudiation of Lukashenko stands.

I do not claim to know Lukashenko's fate. But I do know that the clock is ticking on his rogue tenure. The pillars of Lukashenko's rule are crumbling, as shown by the way his popularity has declined by half since only last year, to less than 20 percent, and by the well-deserved thrashing President Putin gave to his ambitions for a union of equals with Russia in their summit last summer. Many members of Lukashenko's own government, including officials in his military and security services, oppose his rule. He is presiding over a government that despises him. This creates enormous fissures within his regime. Alexander Lukashenko is a leader who is isolated not only from the world and from his own people but from his own government.

A ruler who kidnaps and kills his political opponents, flattens the political landscape of all but temples to his rule, razes churches, grossly manipulates electoral processes, shutters independent media, attacks foreign diplomats, presides over a devastated economy, and trains and equips rogue regimes cannot long face the glare of international scrutiny when Moscow pulls the curtains up to reveal that the man operating the machinery of power in Belarus is small, and weak, and vulnerable.

He is vulnerable because of the widespread acknowledgment, both at home and abroad, that his regime is illegitimate, and because of new pressure from President Putin. By ending the charade of Lukashenko's hopes to merge Belarus with Russia as a union of equals, thereby humiliating Lukashenko and leaving him with no ally save his misplaced pride, Putin inflicted a significant defeat on the dictator next door. Faced with the prospect of Belarus' being subsumed as the 90th region of Russia, Lukashenko returned to Minsk following his August summit with Putin a reconverted nationalist, swearing eternal fealty to his country's sovereignty and decrying Russian attempts to absorb it. Finally, something Lukashenko and Belorussian democrats could agree on. But Belarus' sovereignty is being undermined by Lukashenko himself, for the country under his illegal rule has survived only as a quisling of Moscow.

Thus, the charge of the Belorussian opposition is not only to free the people of Belarus from Lukashenko's tyranny but, in doing so, to free Belarus from a subservient relationship to a nation that has not used its power to serve the Belorussian people. Russia has shown a darker side to its statecraft in Chechnya, Georgia, and, in the past, in Belarus. But President Putin's break with a history of Russian support for tyranny in Minsk may be sincere. If it is, Putin may deserve credit, however belatedly, for creating circumstances that will embolden the Belorussian opposition to end a dictatorship. In concert with the helpful influence our friends in Moscow can bring to bear, it is time the United States and our allies in Europe pursued a newfound campaign to roll back Belarus' dictatorship based on its offense to our common values and its active role in training and arming regimes that hate us and would do us harm.

Under the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has reportedly sold weapons to Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Sudan. According to the U.S. State Department, there are "repeated reports from a variety of credible sources that Belarus is involved in arms transfers to states or groups that support terrorism, and in the military training of individuals associated with those states." Just last month, Iraq's deputy prime minister and minister for military industrialization conducted a six-day visit to Belarus - a long time to stay in that country without an extensive shopping list befitting of its place as one of the top 10 weapons-exporting countries on Earth, despite its tiny population. Press reports indicate that Belarus has supplied Baghdad with SA-3 antiaircraft missile components as well as technicians. According to the State Department, a group of Iraqi officers traveled to Belarus last year for training in the use of S-300 anti-aircraft systems.

For the first time in its modern history as a sovereign state, the actions of the rogue government of Belarus threaten the national security of the United States. This is not another regime that oppresses its people but contains its vitriol within the boundaries of its own borders. The government of Alexander Lukashenko has provided a nation with which the United States will most likely go to war sophisticated air defense weaponry that can and will likely be used by Iraqi forces to target American pilots. American and allied lives may be lost as a result of the policies of a rogue regime in the middle of Europe. In this case, the friend of our enemy is our enemy.

Although Belarus' ties to the Iraqi regime are long-standing, Lukashenko seems not to have learned that September 11th, 2001, marked the end of an era in which the United States could afford to take a hands-off approach to sponsors and suppliers of rogue regimes like Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Transferring arms and providing training to the kind of regimes President Bush has pledged to transform or end in this new age is behavior that will relegate the nations providing such assistance to sharing the fate of their rogue partners. Thanks to Lukashenko's leadership, Belarus now joins a group of nations, including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, that are both isolated in the modern community of nations and face a newfound American commitment to change the way they do business or go out of business.

September 11th obscured the illegitimate vote Lukashenko held, and manipulated, to extend his term in office. But September 11th opened our eyes to the status of Belarus as a national security threat. After all, it was after September 11th--when many rogue nations at least publicly moderated behavior which offended us--that Lukashenko's Belarus trained Iraqi military officials to operate anti-aircraft defenses sold to them by his regime. And September 11th brought the United States and Russia together in ways that may yet reverberate in Minsk.

As we in the West celebrate NATO's historic enlargement to the East and inaugurate the alliance's new relationship with Russia, our obligation is to focus our common attention and resources on draining the authoritarian cesspool that drowns out the values we share with the people of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. NATO, the EU, the OSCE, and all states that have pledged fealty to the values they uphold must work to transform the way the nations between democratic Europe and Russia are governed. This is in our interest not only for the sake of our security and the sake of freedom where too few enjoy it, although these reasons alone are important enough to drive our policy. It is in our interest to help transform Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova into strong, democratic states in order to accelerate the progress of democratic and market reform in Russia.

NATO enlargement has shown that, contrary to predictions of a new Cold War, pushing the boundaries of a secure and democratic Europe eastward towards Russia has mitigated Russian security concerns and provided a showcase in Russia's backyard of the values we want all Russians to enjoy. The imperial temptation that has afflicted Russia throughout its history has been checked by the inclusion into western institutions like NATO of sovereign states on Russia's periphery, including the Baltics, that some in Moscow wrongly believe to hold a special association with Russia. Weak, dependent, and authoritarian regimes on its periphery will continue to tempt Russian interference and inspire dreams of Russian suzerainty in some quarters. In doing so, their vulnerability will threaten both the security of the Atlantic democracies and Russia's democratic progress, as well as the human rights of their own citizens. It is in both the West's and Russia's interest to eliminate Europe's soft spot from the map and replace it with strong democratic states that enjoy full sovereignty and security within an equal community of nations. There can be no Europe whole and free until this task is complete.

Intriguingly, pressure for positive change is emanating from some important quarters beyond the Kremlin, where leaders see the corrosive effect of Belorussian dictatorship on their own developing democracy. Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemstov has built a relationship with the United Civic Party and has been active in the movement for reform in Minsk. Indeed, the Lukashenko regime clearly views him as a high-profile threat, as it demonstrated when it detained Nemstov and a colleague upon landing in Minsk several weeks ago to attend an opposition conference and forced them to return to Moscow. Russia's Unity Party has also expressed interest in deepening its partnership with elements of Belarus' opposition. Pressure for reform within Belarus emanating from Moscow, coupled with an active and united western campaign in favor of freedom in Belarus, may make the regime's iron grip on its political opponents untenable.

Western policy must center on using our new relationship with Moscow to transform the way Belarus is governed. The United States must work closely with our European allies, in whose backyard the problem lies, to develop and sustain an aggressive common policy supporting democratization and regime change in Belarus. A comprehensive and robust policy toward Belarus on the part of the Atlantic allies will aggravate the regime's isolation and raise the pressure for change within Belarus.

The common values that unite the NATO alliance mean there can be no place at the Prague summit for Europe's last dictator. Our common values also require us, as an alliance, to re-examine Belarus' role in the Partnership for Peace. The PFP includes countries with many different forms of government. Some of them certainly don't qualify as full-fledged democracies. But none of them qualify as full-fledged dictatorships--as does Lukashenko's Belarus. NATO should suspend Belorussian membership in the Partnership for Peace, and suspend all contact with the government in Minsk, as long as Alexander Lukashenko remains in power.

The fate of democracy in Belarus may hinge on the role other European governments and activists choose to play in liberating the people of their captive neighbor. Governments and civic organizations in Britain, Lithuania, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and elsewhere are currently playing a critical role. The Atlantic democracies must provide sustained support and encouragement to the Belorussian opposition to prepare it for the task of governing after Lukashenko. With our European allies, including many who remember what life was like behind the Iron Curtain, we should pursue concerted efforts to build up the institutions of a free Belarus - civic organizations, independent media, strong political parties, and other institutions to create political space not under the regime's control. The maturity of civil society in Belarus and the democratic legitimacy enjoyed by opposition parties make the situation ripe for change.

The role of NGO's and political party activists from other countries was critical to the ability of the Serbian opposition to peacefully depose Slobodan Milosevic in a sophisticated campaign worthy of the Serbian people's aspirations. The work of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the OSCE, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Freedom House, U.S. Ambassador Mike Kozak, and an impressive array of civil society activists from across Europe has helped Belarus' opposition parties persevere in a climate of repression that knows no equal on the continent. But at the end of the day--as in Serbia - opposition forces will stand alone as they face down Lukashenko's illegitimate regime, for the burden and the privilege of liberating their country lies with them.

The American government, the Russian government, our European allies, and civic activists from free Europe can help level the playing field - providing resources for opposition forces to function and organize, supporting free media that could otherwise not exist, and adding moral force to the opposition's banner for democratic change, for an end to repression and fear, for national independence and pride as part of a free and secure Europe. The international community should further isolate Belarus and encourage Moscow's new and welcome approach to Minsk, as part of the Atlantic community's new strategic relationship with Russia--which cannot work if not underpinned by a commitment to the common values we are defending in the war on terror.

The leaders of the Belorussian opposition who are participating in this conference stand as proof that their people value liberty no less than others. Your campaign to end the tyranny of fear that rules your nation inspires all of us whose values are not tested every day, as yours are, and who pay no price for our beliefs, as you do. Such is the luxury of living in America, a privilege for which the best men have struggled and died to preserve. Such is the freedom for which you now fight. You are patriots whose love of your country will change history. We stand with you.

Lukashenko's petty tyranny, his frail mastery in a dictatorship of fear, is no match for our common commitment to freedom, to a nation's right to choose its destiny freely through its people's will. Alexander Lukashenko is the last man standing on the deck of a ship of Soviet ideas that has been sinking in the ocean of history since brave men and women empowered by external pressure brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko's rule is an offense to the values whose victory was secured almost everywhere else in Europe with the end of empire. His rule will threaten America and Europe as long as the civilized world pursues the mission of our age: to work from within and without to change the very character of regimes that threaten us, as does Lukashenko's regime so long as it consorts with our enemies and proliferates the weapons they would use against us.

Nearly two centuries ago, speaking of another nation, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be." Today, says the great Belorussian writer Vasil Bykov, "Lukashenko and democracy are two incompatible words." The vision of a free and democratic Belarus that cares but little for pretensions of a Soviet past and has thrown off the shackles of Lukashenko's rule haunts Belorussian patriots, whose moral commitment to democratic change will end the reign of Europe's last dictator.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Courtesy of American Enterprise Institute. See photos and other materials from the event at
The master of ceremonies was Radek Sikorski.

Vol. 10, Issue No. 29/2003

The Summit Times

Copyright 2002 by Andrzej M. Salski