U.S. Deputy State Secretary Stephen Biegun called for Belarusian authorities to give its people the right to “choose their leaders through a truly free and fair election under independent observation” in his remarks at a special meeting on the situation in Belarus held by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna.
“What is clear to the world is that the Aug. 9 election in Belarus was fraudulent,” Biegun said on Aug. 28 during the OSCE meeting of 57 member states where he represented the United States.
“In the period prior to the election, Belarusian authorities carried out an orchestrated campaign of intimidation and harassment against opposition candidates, civil society activists, and independent journalists, and detained hundreds participating in peaceful demonstrations,” Biegun said. “Candidate registration was severely flawed as restrictive measures were put in place to prevent potential candidates from fulfilling registration procedures. Leading opposition candidates were arrested prior to election day and remain in detention to this day.”
There were also “serious irregularities with ballot counting and reporting of election results,” and local independent observers were denied access to polling stations, he added. Therefore, Belarusians “will never know the real outcome of their election.”
The results of the Belarusian presidential election held on Aug. 9 were also questioned by opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who claimed she won the election with 60 to 70 percent of the vote.
The official election commission announced that the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko, 66, who ran for his sixth term won 80 percent of the vote while his main opposition rival Tsikhanouskaya won 10 percent of the vote.
Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, has since fled to Lithuania and formed a council to coordinate a peaceful transition of power.
She has never intended to be the leader of popular resistance to Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm boss. But when her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a blogger, activist and presidential candidate who criticized Lukashenko for years, was jailed in May and other candidates were barred from running in the election, Tsikhanouskaya took her husband’s place as an opposition candidate on the ballot.
Protesting Election Results
Mass protests involving thousands of Belarusians erupted in the Belarus capital of Minsk after the election in solidarity with the opposition and continue to this day.
The government responded at first with blunt suppression. Police used tear gas, flash grenades, and beatings on the crowds in the capital of Minsk and elsewhere. They detained thousands, with hundreds injured and at least three deaths.
But the heavy-handed measures in the days after the Aug. 9 election seemed to produce the opposite effect, emboldening more protesters, triggering strikes at state-run factories and forcing authorities to back off.
After the third week of protests, Lukashenko is shifting tactics, moving to quell the demonstrations gradually with vague promises of reforms mixed with threats, court summonses, and the selective jailing of leading activists.
Biegun called for “an immediate end to violence against the Belarusian people and the release of all who are unjustly detained,” as a prerequisite for a free and fair election.
“The United States strongly condemns the post-election brutality carried out by Belarusian authorities against peaceful protesters and journalists, including the mass detention of nearly 7,000 Belarusian citizens, as well as ongoing efforts to block internet service and use security forces to intimidate those engaged in peaceful protest,” Biegun said, adding that authorities continue to detain people.
Biegun also called on Belarusian authorities for the release of an American citizen, Vitali Shkliarov, who went to Belarus with his son in July to visit his mother. “He was grabbed off the street, thrown in the back of a van, and driven 300 kilometers to a detention center.“ While imprisoned he refused to admit to crimes he did not commit, Biegun said.
Biegun met with Tsikhanouskaya in Vilnius, Lithuania, during his trip to Europe last week and said that he “was inspired by her courage and resolve to advocate for the Belarusian people” their right to choose “their own government and their own future.”
During their two-hour conversation, Tsikhanouskaya asked the U.S. government to” respect Belarusian sovereignty,” Biegun said. He assured her that it would and he expects every other government participating in the OSCE’s special meeting to do the same.
“The United States firmly supports the right of the Belarusian people to demand that their government adhere to the principles that the OSCE stands for: free and fair elections and the protection of human rights.”
Biegun also met with his Russian counterpart in Moscow last week during his trip to discuss the events in Belarus. “It is clear to me,” he said, this is “not a contest between Russia and the United States.”
“The United States does not seek to control or decide the destiny of the Belarusian people,” Biegun said. However if the OSCE does not stand with the Belarusian people it will be a discredit to the OSCE’s mission and values, he added.
The missions of the United States, the UK, Switzerland, and the European Union on behalf of the EU Member States represented in Minsk issued a joint statement on Saturday condemning the excessive use of force by the Belarusian authorities to quell the peaceful protests and urged them to “to stop the violence and the threats to use military force against the country’s own citizens and release immediately and unconditionally all those unlawfully detained.”
The statement also expressed solidarity with Belarusians demanding respect for freedom and human rights “through free and fair elections.”
Ivan Pentchoukov, Reuters, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.