Following the November 7 elections, Congress returns to finish business for its 109th Session.This will provide a limited window for work on two legislative initiatives of interest to JBANC before the new legislators convene as the 110th Congress in January 2007.
One bill would continue democracy promotion in Belarus,while another effort supports granting visa waiver privileges to allies of the United States, including the Baltic countries.
Introduced by Helsinki Commission co-chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) on July 27, the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 (BDRA) targets democratic assistance, funds media programs, and establishes additional sanctions against the regime of Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The original Act was signed into law in 2004, and the new bill would authorize $20 million in assistance for both 2007 and 2008 for democracy-building activities, such as support for NGOs and international exchanges. $7.5 million would be applied annually for radio and television broadcasting to the people of Belarus.
Both the House and the Senate must pass the BDRA (H.R.5948), after vetting by a number of committees with jurisdiction over such legislation.The House measure currently has the support of 11 Members (Berman, Evans, Lantos, Lipinski, McCotter, McIntyre, Pallone, Shimkus, Van Hollen, Wexler, and Wolf).
JBANC is working closely with Congress and supporters of the bill to pass it in as timely a fashion as possible.
Regarding the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), there has been growing pressure to deal with the issue — both on the Hill and in the White House. While it is likely that current legislation to support increasing the VWP to include new NATO and EU members, including Estonia, Latvia,and Lithuania, will not pass during this session of Congress, there is hope that a solution is not far around the corner. One small break was Canada’s announcement on September 27 that it had removed visa requirements for Estonian citizens.
A letter signed by 25 Representatives and sent to Secretary of State Rice on September 29 urges that the U.S. ease travel for temporary visitors from EU states such as the Baltic countries, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, and the Slovak Republic. These seven countries are all NATO allies,and would benefit greatly from the reciprocal visa free travel, enjoyed by 27 countries already beneficiaries of the VWP. Baltic Caucus co-chairmen John Shimkus (R-IL) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) are leading this effort.
NATO Summit – Developments in Europe
While U.S.domestic focus is now on the midterm elections, America is internationally preoccupied by Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Korea, Darfur, etc.
At least for a moment, this will change on November 28-29, when the NATO Summit convenes in Riga, Latvia.The heads of states of 25 NATO member countries, including President Bush, who visits Estonia the day before, will join together to discuss next steps for the Alliance. JBANC will be represented in Riga that week as well.
It wasn’t that long ago when Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were on the outside of NATO looking in. It is quite an accomplishment considering that only 15 years ago the Iron Curtain had just been lifted. It has been an important affirmation that these countries, which never voluntarily left the West, are now firmly a part of it as fully engaged allies.
While NATO membership was achieved for the Baltic countries, we should be mindful that NATO’s door remained open for us, and this now presents a great opportunity for other new prospective members to join the ranks. We should be supportive of these aims to help broaden the scope of shared transatlantic values.
When Congress convenes, these and some other issues should be of great concern
For one, there should be immediate focus on the situation between Georgia and the Russian Federation, which has descended into some sabre rattling. The Georgians would certainly like to exorcise the spirits of colonialism and be free of meddling from Moscow, especially with regards to “frozen conflicts” in its border regions. Fears of Russian xenophobia are also growing, witness recent mob actions against residents of Georgian nationality, and the continuing blockade of Georgian agricultural products, wines and mineral water to Russian markets.
Another issue of immediate concern is the very sinister gunning down of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya on October 7. Her death and the growing list of political murders of independent voices in Russia raise questions about Moscow’s state of affairs.
It is essential that Russia chart a safe, secure,and stable course, but one that is non threatening to its neighbors, and its own citizens.
(From The JBANC Chronicle, vol 33. The Joint Baltic American National Committee, Inc. represents the Estonian American National Council, Inc. the American Latvian Association, Inc. the Lithuanian American Council, Inc.)
Legislative update – looking towards the 110th Congress