Springfield Journal Register

March 22, 2006

Shimkus, others not allowed close-up view of ballot count

By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - As official observers for the presidential election in Belarus Sunday, Rep. John Shimkus and others weren't allowed a close-up view of the ballot counting, fueling concerns about the legitimacy of the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

In refusing their request, one precinct chair expressed fear of retaliation. "I want to stay in Belarus," she told Shimkus and his team of observers.

"She was afraid," Shimkus said, recounting his experience in a telephone interview Tuesday, a day after the Bush administration called for new elections in Belarus. The United States is consulting with the European Union on a plan of action against Lukashenko's autocratic rule.

Shimkus and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., were the only two members of Congress who served as election observers. Hastings leads the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 55-nation group that monitors elections.

Shimkus is a U.S. delegate to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and co-chairs the House Baltic Caucus. His trip was paid for by Congress.

Shimkus noted a suspicious similarity in the amount of early voting reported by precinct chairs. In each of 17 precincts they visited, Shimkus and his team were told that 20 percent of the residents had voted before Election Day.

"It got to the point where we joked about it because it was always the same thing - 20 percent," Shimkus said, noting the early votes were largely for Lukashenko.

The OSCE, which had long-term and short-term observers in the country, concluded that the election process showed a disregard for human rights, of freedom of assembly, association and expression and produced a climate of intimidation and a questionable vote count.

Shimkus said Lukashenko could have softened the criticism of how he suppressed opponents' voices during the campaign by allowing observers to watch the vote counting.

"We could see the counting from afar, but they wouldn't let us watch the actual counting of the ballots," Shimkus said.

"The process at the counting time became illegitimate."

"My gut told me that this guy could have won a free and fair election," Shimkus said, acknowledging his popularity for maintaining stability in the country after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"He could have won with maybe 55 percent of the votes. But there's no way he got 83 percent of the vote. Those numbers only come when you control the vote."

A former agriculture minister before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko was elected president of independent Belarus in 1994.

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or dori.meinert@copleydc.com.