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.
Belarus Elections in the Focus of Polish Press
The recent presidential elections in Belarus have received significant attention in Polish press. All major media such as Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita followed the events related to the elections. In Poland, those events bring back the memories of oppression, lack of freedom and poverty of 1980s. Back then, free elections resulted in mass beatings and arrests just like in Belarus these days.
It was a Polish politician Jerzy Buzek, the President of the EU Parliament, who was the first top European official to ring the bell about major election fraud, massive beatings and arrests in Belarus. Mr Buzek requested an immediate release of all detained and in particular presidential candidates.
Polish press began to follow Belarusian events closely as they unfolded. On the 21st December Gazeta Wyborcza, the leading Polish daily, wrote that Lukashenko did not win the elections. It quoted Radoslaw Sikorski, Foreign Minister of Poland, that in reality Mr Lukashenko received between 30 and 40% of the votes. Mr Sikorksi said that perhaps that was the reason for such a violent and irrational reaction which followed the elections. “Someone who wins honestly does not have to jail its competitors in prisons”- Sikorski stated in his interview.
Later that month, Gazeta Wyborcza described Mr Sikorski statements as "the strongest blow to the reputation of the Belarusian leader. " It emphasized that none of the foreign politicians have denied Lukashenko’s victory. Other foreign leaders only admitted that the elections were not fair.
According to the Polish press, Adam Rotfeld, a former Polish Foreign Minister, said that he was certain Mr Lukashenko did not win in the first round of the elections. He thought that Mr Lukashenko remains in power because he realizes that whoever comes to power after him, would hold him responsible for his misconduct such as the death of the disappeared opponents of the regime. "He who has blood on his hands, obviously is afraid of this responsibility” – said Rotfeld.
Mr Sikorski also spoke over the telephone with Olga Nieklaeva – the wife of Vladimir Nieklaev, an opposition presidential candidate. He shared his words of encouragement with Olga Nieklaeva according to the website of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Gazeta.pl writes about Polish contribution to improve the situation in Belarus. Mr Bosacki, the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed that Poland would double its support to Belarus from PLN 20 to 40 mln (around US$13mln). The money is to be spend on helping the repressed, providing young Belarusians with scholarships, supporting mass media, radio and television such as Belsat broadcasting from Poland. According to Rzeczpospolita, the government is also considering abolishing visa fees for Belarusians, not only for Poland but also for the entire Schengen area.
Poland devoted more attention to the recent Belarus events than any other European country. It appears to be serious to commit significant resources to help democracy in Belarus. Poland is likely to play an active role in the EU institutions advocating sanctions against the Belarusian regime on one hand and stronger support for civil society in Belarus on the other hand.