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1997 In Review: President's Methods Isolate Belarus

By Serguei Navumchyk

Prague, 10 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus remained politically isolated throughout 1997, largely because of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's authoritarian methods.

In February, the Council of Europe formally charged that Lukashenka used illegal means to increase his power. The council said that the president's 1996 decision to change the constitution and the subsequent dissolution of the parliament as well as the establishment of a new legislative body were illegal. The Belarusian government continued to deal harshly with opposition leaders and protesters. Hundreds of citizens were detained and scores were convicted during the course of the year.

In a sign of international protest against the political situation in Belarus Lukashenka was not invited to attend in July the Madrid gathering of leaders of countries which participate in the NATO-led Partnership for Peace program.

Nevertheless, the international community made repeated efforts to find some path to affect change and improve conditions in Belarus. Delegations from various international organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the World Bank visited Minsk to offer advise and help. So did delegates of numerous non-governmental bodies --International Helsinki Federation and so on. But to no avail.

In April, the Council of Ministers of the European Union issued a statement expressing deep concern over the rise in unwarranted arrests of peaceful demonstrators.

In May the International Committee for the Defense of Journalists issued its list of the "10 worst enemies of the press". Alyaksandr Lukashenka figured prominently on the list -- he was sixth. The committee said: "Utilizing tactics common to the days of the USSR, Lukashenka intimidates and increases pressure on the press by shutting down independent mass media and publicly threatening journalists...Before (Lukashenka) signed the union agreement with Russia, he introduced censorship and blocked free distribution of any information which might be construed as harmful to the interests of Belarus."

In June, the World Bank of Reconstruction and Development (WBRD), recalled its representative in Minsk. For the past three years the WBRD has suspended loans to the republic because of Belarus' refusal to institute market reforms.

In the course of his year many private humanitarian organizations were forced to cease operations in Belarus. The government imposed a three-million dollar fine on the Belarusian Soros Fund, which was set up finance scientific, medical, educational and cultural programs in the country. The fund's director Peter Bern was forced to leave the country. The move was condemned by the U. S. Department of State. Eventually, the George Soros Fund decided to fold operations in Belarus entirely.

During a 23 March mass demonstration marking the 79th anniversary of the founding of the Belarusian People's Republic, first secretary of the U. S. embassy in Minsk, Serge Aleksandrov, was detained by police. The Belarusian government accused Aleksandrov of conduct unbecoming his diplomatic status and expelled him from Belarus. The U. S. State Department condemned this action and responded by expelling Aleksandrov's counterpart in the States.

The U. S. ambassador to Belarus, Kenneth Yalowitz, was summoned to Washington for consultations. Washington further retaliated by refusing to recognize newly appointed Belarusian ambassador to the US, Valery Tsypkala.

Shortly after the Bern and Aleksandrov incidents, U. S. embassy official Janet Demirey was reported to have said that: "Now, whenever a prospective American investor seeks State Department advice as to whether to invest in Belarus, our government responds unequivocally - Investing money there is dangerous and one should seek investment opportunities elsewhere." (Svobodnye Novosti, 18 April 1997)

In June, an OSCE delegation canceled its visit to Minsk because the Belarusian Foreign Policy Office refused to allow delegates to meet with representatives of the opposition.

At the OSCE parliamentary assembly in Warsaw in July, Russia was Belarus' sole supporter. This relationship deteriorated somewhat during the year, however, largely over the disagreements on the human rights issue.

The Belarusian government's order to arrest Russian journalists during the summer months led to Moscow's decision to deny Lukashenka landing rights on Russian territory.

In October, the Council of Ministers of the European Union concluded that cooperation with the Belarusian government was impossible until Minsk institutes democratic and market reforms.

Subsequent to that decision, the situation in Belarus became the subject of debate in several European parliaments. In November, for example, the German Bundestag convened an extraordinary session in order to discuss the situation in Belarus.

But those instances of international pressure on the Belarusian government in and on Alyaksandr Lukashenka to change their policies and methods failed to bring about any tangible results.

Arrests on political grounds continue in Belarus, newspapers are still being shut down and the private sector of the economy is rapidly shrinking.

Experience has shown that Lukashenka may view any efforts at compromise as signs of weakness and respond to them with even more brutality.

Serguei Navumchyk, former member of Belarusian parliament, has recently been granted political asylum in the United States.