Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has made clear to a visiting European delegation that he will not allow any outside mediation between his government and the country's political opposition. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky looks at the outcome of the visit by representatives of three major organizations that sought -- unsuccessfully -- democratic commitments from Lukashenka.
Prague, 7 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The latest attempt by European multilateral organizations to persuade Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to adopt more democratic practices has again demonstrated how contemptuous the authoritarian leader has become towards international efforts to influence him.
A tripartite delegation of representatives from the European Union's Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, was in Belarus on a three-day visit last week (Mar. 2-4). The delegation met with both Lukashenka and members of the Belarusian opposition that he has been trying to squeeze out of the country's political life.
It sought not only to encourage dialogue between the opposition a nd the government, but also to secure Lukashenka's agreement to hold democratic parliamentary elections in October and allow the opposition press to operate freely. It failed to achieve any of these aims.
The representatives from the three European organizations had hoped to build on work done eight months ago by the OSCE alone. The 54-state organization had reached an agreement with Lukashenka allowing it to mediate talks between his government and the opposition and to advise on organizing elections that would be recognized as free and fair by the international community.
Many Western countries do not recognize Belarus's current parliament, which Lukashenka filled with obedient supporters in 1996 after amending the constitution and dissolving an elected and troublesome parliament. Belarus opposition leaders -- many of them members of the former parliament -- say Lukashenka, elected president in 1994, has stayed in power illegally beyond his term, which expired last July.
On the eve of the delegation's visit, the Belarus monitoring association Vyasna issued a report saying that the country's human rights situation had worsened last year, as many members of the opposition were either jailed or simply disappeared. Vyasna also said the regime routinely harassed and arrested opposition protesters.
As if to illustrate the point, just hours before the delegation arrived, police arrested three protesters who demanded that the government explain what happened to opposition figures who had disappeared. These figures include opposition leader Viktar Hanchar, former Interior Minister General Yuri Zakharenko, and Honchar's friend, publisher Anatoly Krasovsky.
In the days before the European groups' arrival, Lukashenka himself sent out clearly negative signals about their visit. He said that his country did not need outside mediation and that, in any case, he wanted to hold what he called "broad" talks with a representative spectrum of Belarusian society. Without consulting the opposition, Lukashenka also changed the rules for the upcoming elections in a manner that opposition spokesmen say is designed to diminish their chances of winning seats.
In his meeting with the European delegation, Lukashenka said the same things -- and more. He made clear that he does not regard the opposition as part of any broad spectrum of national society. He did say that he would talk to the opposition, but not with the help of outside mediators.
Lukashenka also indignantly told the delegation that Belarus has a good human rights record and that the elections will be conducted in keeping with the highest international standards. He said, too, that he sees no need for the OSCE -- which maintains a mission office in the capital Minsk -- to remain in the country.
After the meeting, the European delegation issued a statement that expressed, in its words, "shock [at the] the derailment of the negotiation process that was begun last year [by the OSCE]." The group urged the government to re-open talks with the opposition and ensure equal electoral opportunities, including media access for the opposition.
The head of the OSCE mission in Minsk, Hans-Georg Wieck, said later that he had told Lukashenka he was not packing his bags to leave.
"I told him [Lukashenka] afterwards that 'you agreed to our presence here for advice and consent, and this is the basis of our presence' [in Minsk]. They [that is, the government] do not want now, in this public posture, something which they had agreed to and accepted and implemented eight months ago, namely the OSCE aegis for negotiations between government and opposition."
Wieck said that although the OSCE's mediation role between government and opposition is now no longer feasible, the mission will stay on to monitor the preparations for and the holding of the October parliamentary elections. He urged the opposition to explore whether the kind of talks Lukashenka has offered will be serious:
"If one avenue is no longer available, then I will choose another one. It's not a question for us of prestige or whatever. It's to get the matter across into the political fabric of the country."
The "matter" Wieck speaks of is democratic behavior. Like the members of the visiting delegation, Wieck warned that if the elections are not fair, they will not be internationally recognized.
If the preparations for the elections continue as they have begun, it looks like the elections will not be fair. Lukashenka has given no indication that he will stop his crackdown on political dissent.