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Press Roundtable on Upcoming Elections in Belarus

U.S. Department of State

Press Roundtable on Upcoming Elections in Belarus

Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs

Washington, DC February 7, 2006

Question: You wanted to tell us about Belarus?

Question: And then you can tell us about the Danes. [Laughter].

Ambassador Fried: Well, on Belarus, last Friday the United States and European Union issued identical parallel statements about our joint efforts to promote free and fair elections in

Belarus, to encourage free and fair elections in Belarus and we described our unsuccessful efforts to have a joint mission go to Minsk to try to convince the Belarusian authority, authorities, to create the conditions for free and fair elections.

The statement explains what happened. They wouldn't accept both of us in the country at the same time. That's what it came down to. First, they wouldn't accept me but they would accept the EU first they wouldn't accept me but would accept him; then they would accept me and not the EU; then we said all along, both of us or neither of us because this is an important message from the European Union and the United States and I'm sorry that the Belarusian authorities took that position.

Question: What excuses did they give you?

Ambassador Fried: Variously they said-- at various times--that they didn't have much to say to the Americans. That's when they didn't want us to come in. Then later they said they understood the Americans believed in a democratic process but they were angry at the European Union because it was backing the opposition candidate. Well, the European Union had received Mr. Milinkevich in Brussels. In fact Mr. Milinkevich has been seen by the Foreign Ministers, in France and I think it was Steinmeier in Germany. Very high level, and I'm sorry, I should know that but I don't, and was received at the European Union and I met with Milinkevich in Brussels.

Anyway, the reasons were not all that interesting, in fact. The fact was they were unwilling to do this and I regret it.

Question: Can you honestly, not to justify what they did, but you can probably understand given the animosity over the last six to eight months that they wouldn't throw out the welcome wagon for you.

Ambassador Fried: I would have hoped that they would have made an effort to listen to our concerns, to assure us of their good intentions, and at least to try to show the world that they were attempting to create the conditions for free and fair elections, and I'm sorry that they felt otherwise. It was regrettable.

These are elections for Mr. Lukashenko's third term. The Belarusian constitution said he can only serve two terms but there was a referendum held several years ago which we also did not consider to have been conducted in a free and fair manner.

We support-- and the Congress has both authorized us and given us some money-- to support NGOs and civil society and a free and fair election process. There are American and European NGOs active in Belarus to that end. We do not have a position on whether Milinkevich or Lukashenko is more popular than the other. Our position is not to pick winners. Our purpose is to do what we can to promote a free and fair election. It is also true that the Belarusian opposition has united around Milinkevich. As far as I can tell, the opposition is a collection of different groups

with different political views but they are now united around a platform of democracy and basically a kind of democratic patriotism. Milinkevich's little campaign card has the words "To love Belarus". That's what it says.

We are going to consult very closely with Europe and watch the process in Belarus as the elections approach. I don't make any predictions as to what will happen but I think it is always good in these circumstances to think about a long term process rather than short term results, and by a long term process I mean a long term process of helping civil society and reaching out to the Belarusian people and working, maintaining contacts with the government of some kind. We have not had high level contacts in a long time.

But I do want to make clear, as I hope I have, that our policy is centered around support for the Belarusian people and Belarusian independent society. Secretary Rice and Javier Solana of the European Union started this US-European comity on Belarus when they met with representatives of Belarusian civil society in Vilnius. President Bush last February met with Champions of Freedom in Bratislava, various freedom fighters past, present and future. There were Belarusians in the group. So it's pretty clear that our sympathies lie with democratic forces but not with one option or another option. Not our business.

So that is a summary of where we are.

Question: The question then remains, the Ambassador and I guess you have already said there is very little chance that the elections that are coming up are going to be free and fair. The question is what do you do to try to put pressure on Belarus to restore democracy? What concrete actions can you and the European Union and the rest of the world community do?

Ambassador Fried: I think the first thing you do is shine a light and speak clearly. We have succeeded in doing that, working with the European Union. As a rule, it's a bad idea to let authoritarian regimes do their business in the dark alleys. Shine a light and be public about it.

Also send your messages to the Belarusian people. Make clear that we are not an enemy of the Belarusian people or the Belarusian nation, that we're not interested in any particular outcome for them other than the sovereignty, democratic future and prosperity of their country. Within that there are many, many outcomes. I can imagine a democratic Belarus would have a debate about where it wants its country to go. That's their business. That's the kind of debate we support.

Question: What kind of tools do you have? There are already a lot of sanctions, there are no economic ties with them. What kind of tools do we have to -

Ambassador Fried: I don't want to get ahead of myself and predict what we and the Europeans might or might not do if the elections are as flawed as I fear they will be. I can't predict that. We will look at all of our options. But as I said earlier, we have to be very clear about our views but very patient about what we can achieve. You can't start expecting miracles overnight. Sometimes events happen very quickly. Sometimes even good events surprise you by their speed, but you can't count on that and you can't make that a standard. You have to be prepared at all times in these circumstances for a patient, long-term supportive civil society and then it's up to the Belarusian people and society itself.

Question: It sounds like you're planning for a revolution.

Ambassador Fried: I didn't say any such thing.

Question: It sounds like, implied in what you're saying is that you know it's going to be a flawed election and you're helping build a civil society so that they can -

Ambassador Fried: Well

Question: Is any election going to be free with Lukashenko winning if you didn't believe he won the referendum?

Ambassador Fried: Let me push back a little bit at the category because I don't think that's quite right. Revolution in the popular imagination means storming some kind of headquarters in flames and

Question: A certain color.

Ambassador Fried: An overthrow of a government.

We have seen various ways, many different ways in which authoritarian countries have moved to democracy. Some of them have been dramatic. The Rose Revolution. People stormed the Parliament, new government followed by elections. In other cases, Hungary, 1989. A very gradual, negotiated process of free elections. Basically the Communist party negotiated itself out of power.

I mention this not because I expect one or another to happen, but because nothing in what I said should be taken as support for one particular path to democracy and the fact is we don't know the path to democracy.

Question: If I can push back.

Ambassador Fried: By all means.

Question: Because we're just

Ambassador Fried: Sure, we're only on the record. [Laughter].

Question: This Administration has been very clear about its support for democratic movements.

Ambassador Fried: Correct.

Question: They look around the neighborhood and they see Kyrgyzstan, they see Georgia, they see

Ambassador Fried: Who's the they?

Question: The Belarus.

Ambassador Fried: Belarusian opposition or the people.

Question: Even in Vilnius they were talking about if the election's not free and fair we're going to get out on the streets. So I understand you're talking about Hungary and all these things, but they're looking at the immediate landscape and they're seeing that the US supported the end result of these kinds of movements.

Is any election going to be free and fair with Lukashenko winning, because you already said that in the referendum, he came to power in the second term, in the third term wasn't fair. So the elections are bound to be flawed and they're bound to

Ambassador Fried: Those are very fair points. Those are very fair points so I won't push back against it.

Question: [Laughter].

Ambassador Fried: It is your right hard to imagine a free and fair election emerging from current circumstances. We shall see what emerges. Even in the current situation there are ranges of outcomes. The election could take place in several different ways some better, some worse.

Certainly under no circumstances would the United States support violence, street violence, even in response to a flawed election. I want to make very clear that point. Demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations are a right and certainly we're not going to suggest that people don't exercise that right. But what happens is it's not up to us. But under no circumstances would we support violence. That's not what we do. That's not what we favor.

The examples you mentioned were non-violent, thank God. But I want to make clear that our support is for democracy, not a particular path to it. So I don't want to create the impression that we see the only outcome as being some massive street-based change. As I said, our assumption is that after the election this will be a longer-term process.

Question: What would your message have been, what was your plan for the trip?

Ambassador Fried: Well, the plan was I would have gone together with Robert Cooper of the European Union. He has worked for the Council. I believe someone from the Commission would have gone as well. I don't know who, but I believe someone from the Commission would have gone. We would have told the Belarusian government, whoever received us, that we together supported a democratic process. That even now it wasn't too late for the Belarusian government to have a better election if not a perfect election at least a better election and that we would look very closely at that election before deciding on next steps. Very much the message Our message can be read by taking a look at the statement and sort of parsing that out.

Question: What was the goal then, because that message has been delivered?

Ambassador Fried: It would have been better to deliver it in a confidential forum and have a dialogue.

Question: To have a dialogue. It's not that you have the message plus plus Dan Fried's take or

Ambassador Fried: We would have had a message, and it is usually better to have a discussion. But the Belarusian authorities decided it didn't want to discuss this with the United States and Europe.

Question: If I can just go back Sylvia's question for a second. When you say that you're going to look at the election and see what happens before deciding on the next steps, there don't seem to be any next steps.

Ambassador Fried: I didn't say that. What I did say was I don't want to get into possible next steps and speculate over what we might do.

Question: So are they unaware of potential consequences?

Ambassador Fried: The statement actually makes clear that we would consider next steps. I just don't want to speculate about them.

But the fact is if you're looking for some sort of magic key if we do X, we get democracy tomorrow clearly that X doesn't exist. But in the short run we're supporting democratic movements and democratic evolution in the face of authoritarianism. It seems frustrating. In the longer run it often tends to work out.

Question: Without asking you then to reveal what your next steps might be, do you feel you have any levers against a Lukashenko who's basically thumbing his nose at everything you've said for the last number of years?

Ambassador Fried: Well, there are things we could look at but I don't want to get into that right now.

Question: But would they in any way work?

Ambassador Fried: It's a question of short term versus long term. In the short term you can't count on any particular step working. That is you take it and the next day there is democracy.

In historical experience, you do what you can to send clear messages, to exert diplomatic pressure on authoritarian regimes, to support civil society, and that's what you do. In many cases democracy advances in ways that you don't expect.

It is true that sometimes in the local press the United States and sometimes the United States and Europe are accused of masterminding these things, as if we have a plan. We don't have a plan. These societies themselves find a way forward and we do our best to support them.

Question: That was an accusation that was leveled in the case of Ukraine particularly by the Russians, the idea that the US has this plan. And indeed, the US had spent quite a bit of money on civil society and NGOs in the run-up to that election.

Can you give us a sense of what kind of money is being spent now and whether authorities have prevented money from being spent? Are there any safeguards in place to make sure it's not spent on one particular side or the other?

Ambassador Fried: There is a budget for Belarusian democracy of I want to say around $10 million and the Congress gave us an extra five, I believe.

Question: From the Belarus Democracy Act or

Ambassador Fried: Yes, that was authorization, but there was also some extra money appropriated.

Voice: The '05 supplemental was $5 million and the regular '05 was $6.5 million.

Ambassador Fried: There you go. $6.5 million in the regular appropriation for Belarus, most of which went for democratic support one way or another and another $5 million which was appropriated for democratic support. This has gone into a variety of programs, general, non-partisan election support, civil society support, other purposes. These programs are usually carried out by various NGOs. Some of them are media-related. And there's no particular secret; we are transparent about it. There are others who can give you details better than I can, but these are worthwhile programs.

But again, back to Ukraine, I'm well aware of the accusations. You're quite right. But I can tell you that no one was more surprised than the US government at the way things transpired.

I found when I was in Central Asia last, the people who were convinced that the US had nothing to do with the way their democratic revolution had occurred were the Kyrgyz themselves, because they knew what happened. They knew we didn't mastermind it.

Democracy finds a way, and it's not the way we, government bureaucrats think of.

Question: You don't seem to be as active as you have been in the past. First of all, you're signaling today, we're not going to have a revolution, let's be patient; this is long-term, almost like you lost this one. This one isn't going exactly the way you would have hoped, whereas

Ambassador Fried: No, no.

Question: Ukraine. Beforehand you signaled what you would do; you put sanctions on certain people before the election. That hasn't been happening here.

There was a plan laid out in the meeting in Vilnius. It seemed that either not much was done about that plan or it took a long time to come up. Like unifying behind one person. They've coalesced around the one opposition figure. Yes, that's great, but very late in the day.

Ambassador Fried: First of all I would not read into this, I am trying to suggest that while we are always happy to see short run successes, I wouldn't set out as a benchmark that the election happens and two days later democracy flourishes. I think it is only prudent and realistic to be prepared for longer-term issues, for a longer-term process. That doesn't mean that we've given up, it just means you can't set out expectations that are so high you then set yourself up for failure later. You have to be patient, you have to be very clear, you have to be prepared to play a long game.

Question: That's obviously general in terms of different revolutions or different transitions of democracy, but

Ambassador Fried: Democratic processes.

Question: But in Belarus isn't it also an acknowledgement that Lukashenko, you can't gauge how popular or unpopular he is, that he has kept the lid on civil society for so long, so lots of the ground work that had been done in other countries like Ukraine, you just haven't been able to do it.

Ambassador Fried: You're certainly right that the democratic level of Ukraine, even under Kuchma was higher than the general level of democracy in Belarus. That's quite true.

I think one Gallup poll shows that Milinkevich's popularity went from basically zero to 24 percent in about six weeks.

Question: But why aren't you supporting him? You've already said Lukashenko should not even be running because he had two terms and then he kind of, remember that flawed referendum was one of the reasons you set up the Belarus support, I forgot the name of the legislation, but

Question: Belarus Democracy Act.

Question: Right, the Belarus Democracy Act, was the whole reason, because he took this third term, was the whole reason that you started this movement in the beginning. So how can you now say he should be even running for a fourth term?

Ambassador Fried: Third term.

Question: Sorry, third term. Then how can you even

Ambassador Fried: We certainly don't support Lukashenko. My only point was, and you know this, my point was that we support a democratic process

Question: But him running isn't part of a democratic process is it?

Ambassador Fried: Well, that's true and I did meet with Milinkevich. But what I'm not doing is saying the Americans have a candidate. Our principle in this has always been that we support a democratic process, not a particular outcome. That was certainly our position in Ukraine. The problem, and you're quite right to sort of poke at this, is that there is one opposition candidate who has a democratic platform and the incumbent candidate has very weak if no, let us say no democratic credentials whatsoever. What I'm doing is simply being consistent with our policy that we don't anoint people; we don't name them as our candidates.

Question: Can we go back, the question was

Question: Can we move to another

Question: It was called for a Belarus briefing.

Ambassador Fried: I'm in your hands.

Question: It's a Belarus briefing.

Voice: For five more minutes.

Question: The Secretary's meeting produced this kind of game plan. The game plan included

Ambassador Fried: Vigorous support for democracy.

Question: - unify around one candidate, get yourselves a cause like

Ambassador Fried: But that's not our

Question: Then promises by the Secretary to come home, to talk to all the people in Washington. Then really we, as the media who have been keen to follow this, have hardly found a blip on the radar that we could call news. So what's being, going on that really has followed up on what turns out to be the perception that it was just a photo op.

Ambassador Fried: Good heavens, what a question! And earlier I was being set up to be a supporter of street revolutions and now accused of doing nothing. [Laughter]. One can hardly be both at the same time.

Question: I didn't ask both of those questions.

Ambassador Fried: No, I know, but they are part of the record.

Question: What I'm saying is, doesn't it appear to just be a photo op if after a year or so you don't know what's being done?

Ambassador Fried: Certainly not. A great deal has been done. We have considerable and expanded programs in place to support civil society, to support a free election process, to support free media. All of these things are very complicated to implement in conditions now prevailing in Belarus. We have also taken steps to bring American encourage American and European NGOs to work together. We have also encouraged a coordinated European and American diplomatic approach which you saw last week with this very unusual joint statement. That is quite a bit of activity.

It is true that every time there is a program launched we don't announce it to the media. If we were to do that you might ask us why we were giving away information like this that could make it ineffective.

Question: Can I just follow up Saul's question by asking it a slightly different way? Since that time, since that incident in Vilnius, the Alinsky lesson that you gave them in organizing, has there been any

Ambassador Fried: Nobody remembers who Saul Alinsky was.

Question: You did.

Ambassador Fried: I'm the only one.

Question: You and me.

Ambassador Fried: Okay.

Question: Anyway, has there been any improvement in the prospects of a democratic alternative to Lukashenko?

Ambassador Fried: Yes.

Question: How has that manifested itself?

Ambassador Fried: The change has been the opposition organized itself around one candidate, and that candidate has gone from basically zero recognition to 24 percent popularity according to this Gallup poll, and according to another poll, Provenance, I can't quite recall, drawing nearly even with Lukashenko in Minsk. Now that's very considerable progress in a very short period of time.

Question: The prospects of the opposition or somebody winning actually or actually contesting this thing?

Ambassador Fried: Contesting and winning are different. Contesting is in fact what they're doing. And in fact, and this is speculation about the future so I have to be careful, but since you asked and since Saul asked, a contested election can also mean an election in which the Belarusian people after the election realize that there is an alternative for them. That one exists. Even if the rulers of their country did not allow them free expression, that it did exist, and that is very important as you're thinking about the long term. That's quite a bit of progress.

For Belarusian society, Belarusians to understand, yeah, okay, there is some alternative out there. It exists. It's an alternative which is somehow more European, more open, a better future, more likely to bring a country forward in a way that would benefit my children and grandchildren.

Voice: That's a great way to end.

Question: One other question.

Question: Two.

Question: The Danish government was very very disappointed by the delay the US took to support them in this

Ambassador Fried: I actually had the pleasure of talking to Danish journalists yesterday and made very clear our strong support for the Danish government both in theory and in practice. There was a very good White House statement issued when we learned of the problems in Damascus and you of course have seen that. It came out on Saturday. I also referred to Sean McCormack's very strong language in support of Denmark on Friday. So I don't think there's any question.

But I'm of course aware of the Danish media and I addressed this yesterday and made as clear as I possibly could that although there is a debate taking place in Europe and the United States, in newsrooms and editorial boards around the country about the decision to publish cartoons, and editorial boards come out different ways, there is no question and no difference of opinion about the inadmissibility of violence, threats against property or persons, official or private, in response to this. We have made that very very clear.

Question: Can I just ask one question on Olympic security?

Ambassador Fried: I doubt it. I mean you can ask but I doubt I'll be able to answer it.

Question: Can you talk about any support that the U.S. is giving to the Italians?

Ambassador Fried: I really can't. I know there is, but I'm not the right person. Sorry. I do have to go.

ENDS


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