US Media Decry Violence in Belarus Election

On the election day grim news of violence on Minsk’s Independence Square appeared in all major US newspapers. The media invariably used an appositive “post-Soviet state” and many papers reprinted stories by The Associated Press.

As expected, conservative news sources contained more biting criticism of the authoritarian state and proposed to punish Minsk with sanctions. The more liberal papers, which also criticized the crackdown, stressed the need for support for the country’s weak civil society and the opposition.

According to the country profile in The New York Times (center/liberal), Belarus is “torn between a desire for the freedoms and prosperity of the West and the authoritarian traditions of its larger neighbor to the east.” Interestingly, the newspaper views the brutal suppression of the protest on the election night as a blow to the European Union, but not the United States.

On December 23, The New York Times published op-ed "Lukashenko the Loser" authored by several European foreign ministers, who wrote that Lukashenka’s “vote-rigging and outright repression makes what Milosevic tried to do in Serbia in 2000 pale in comparison.” They conclude that “Europe must not be mute.”

Notably, among those beaten on the night of Dec. 19 were The New York Times’ reporter and a photographer. Even so, the dateline of the first version of its article “After Belarus Vote, Riot Police Attack Protesters” read “Minsk, Russia.”

The Washington Post (center/conservative) had a separate article about the travails of Vladimir Neklyayev’s wife. The Post also commented on the consequences faced by jailed protesters, many of whom were fired from their jobs. On Dec. 20, The Washington Post published editorial "A backfire in Belarus," which stressed the brutality of Belarus security forces and called on the Western governments to ensure that Lukashenka “pays a price for his behavior.”

Unfortunately, the editorial hardly offered a workable approach to Belarus: while reinstating and strengthening sanctions against the Belarusian president and key associates is a reasonable punishment, it is hardly enough to induce positive change in Belarus. The editorial is somewhat naive offering to democrtatize Belarus using Russia:

The episode may also offer President Obama a chance to explore whether the "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations can be extended to Belarus. For its own reasons, the Kremlin despises Mr. Lukashenko [sic], and the Russian media it controls have cynically campaigned for the opposition. This would be a good time to challenge the government of Vladimir Putin to give up its imperialist ambitions in the region and cooperate in isolating a regime that is overdue for change.

In addition to several articles decrying the authoritarian regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, The Wall Street Journal (conservative) published a video condemnation by Belarus opposition Leaders.

Liberal TIME published photos of the Dec. 19 crackdown and used Lukashenka’s assessment of the election as its quote of the day: “Openness and transparency were so high that people mistook these elections for a reality show.” According to December 20 article "The Moscow Power Games Behind Belarus' Election Crackdown" by Simon Shuster, Lukashenka’s game changed on December 4, when “he signaled to Moscow that he was serious about yielding to the West” and then “the change that flickered on Belarussian [sic] TV screens on December 4 has taken only a couple of weeks — and a brief set of talks in Moscow — to fade away.”

Earlier this month, TIME published substantive article "Where Tyranny Rules" by Yuri Zarakhovich, which described the fate of Nikolai Statkevich, who ran for president in 2001 and asserted that “at least 4,000 citizens have been imprisoned on political charges” in Belarus. The article concludes that “as long as Lukashenko is President, real freedom will remain elusive.”

In assessing the scale of repression, most US papers refer to the data provided by Belarus’ human rights organization Vyasna. The newspapers also frequently quote the joint statement by US State Secretary Hillary Clinton and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.

According to the official US statement on Presidential Election in Belarus, “The United States cannot accept as legitimate the results of the presidential election.” However, Washington is still hoping to “engage the government, the political opposition, and civil society to promote progress for the sake of the Belarusian people and their democratic aspirations [emphasis added].”

Unlike Polish press, the US media are often naive about the role which Russia can play in Belarus. They neglect the fact that further isolation of Belarus will make Mr Lukashenka more dependent upon Russia. Not surprising, President Medvedev was the only G8 leader who congratulated Mr Lukashenka with his victory. Overall, the level of attention to Belarus problems in the US press has been surprisingly low despite unprecedented post-election repressions.

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