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Belarus: OSCE Summit Disappoints Opposition

At last week's summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), attention focused on Chechnya, and Belarus did not come in for much criticism of its Soviet-style, authoritarian government or its control of the media. Instead, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka used his speech at the summit to criticize his democratic neighbors for alleged violations of human rights.

Prague, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Focusing on the Russian military action in Chechnya and on Balkan affairs, the OSCE summit in Istanbul last week did not pay as much attention to Belarus as the Belarusian opposition had hoped. The opposition, which drew some 20,000 people to a rally in Minsk last month and has another rally scheduled for today, has pushed for international support in promoting democracy in the authoritarian country.

The summit declaration merely reaffirms that the 54 member countries support a political dialogue in Belarus under the aegis of the OSCE. And it stresses the need to remove "all remaining obstacles to this dialogue by respecting the principles of the rule of law and the freedom of the media."

Two presidents, however, did mention Belarus specifically. Poland's Aleksander Kwasniewski and Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus, in their addresses to the summit, both said Belarus requires the OSCE's special attention because of the country's continuing human rights violations and its failure to hold free and democratic elections.

The two men's statements were met with angry rebukes from Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who addressed the summit as one of the last speakers. Lukashenka advised his counterparts to mind their own business rather than "poke their noses into someone else's garden." He accused Poland and Lithuania of violating human rights themselves.

In Poland, Lukashenka alleged, police beat workers and peasants on what he called "a mass scale." As for Lithuania, he said the Baltic state holds elderly people as political prisoners.

Lukashenka said he had received a letter from an organization of Poles in Europe thanking him his attention to the rights of the Polish minority in Belarus. "A question arises," he said. "Who is right -- Poland's President Kwasniewski, who yesterday expressed his concern over the observance of human rights in Belarus, or hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen who thank our Belarusian government for securing their rights? I think, after all, Mr. Kwasniewski, that ordinary people are right."

The Polish president dismissed Lukashenka's anecdote as "low-quality political propaganda."

The letter Lukashenka mentioned was written by the Council of European Polish Associations. Tadeusz Gawin, head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, told a Polish newspaper (Gazeta Wyborcza) that the letter thanked the Belarusian government for granting permission to build new Polish schools in Belarus. But Gawin added that despite official pledges of support, Poles in Belarus still face difficulties in building schools.

Lukashenka was the only head of state in Istanbul who supported Russian President Boris Yeltsin's position on Chechnya, saying that the OSCE countries "are obliged if not to support the Russian people then at least to understand the Russians" regarding their military operation in Chechnya.

To Belarusian Television, Lukashenka gave an entirely positive account of his time in Istanbul. He said Belarus was mentioned only in a "well-wishing" way.

The OSCE summit statement called for free and democratic elections for Belarus, based on political dialogue and supported by a free press. Lukashenka did not mention those summit recommendations.