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Belarus: President Criticized For Record On Democratization, Human Rights

Washington, 1 November 11 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking jointly in Washington this week, a U.S. diplomat, a Belarus opposition leader and a human rights activist criticized Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for his record on democratization and human rights.

They spoke Wednesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill organized by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The strongest criticism came from Zyanon Paznyak, Chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, who is now in the United States after being granted political asylum in August. According to Paznyak, Lukashenka "acts as a dictator" and human rights in Belarus are "entirely ignored."

Paznyak said Lukashenka's government is wiretapping members of parliament and has imposed censorship over all media. He said Lukashenka has violated some 20 articles of the Belarus Constitution and the International Declaration of Human Rights.

Paznyak also accused Lukashenka of anti-Belarus activities, saying he has closed more than half of the Belarusian language schools in Minsk. He said people have been attacked and arrested for speaking the Belarusian language in public. Paznyak also said Lukashenka has "replaced the key positions in his administration with people who were imported...from Moscow."

Jack Segal, the U.S. State Department's Director of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Moldovan Affairs, commented on a dispute between Lukashenka and the Belarus parliament over competing draft constitutions. Segal said that if a referendum is held on a draft proposed by Lukashenka without first providing opposition leaders access to the media, the result would "not be credible" and would violate human rights.

Segal accused Lukashenka of imposing "a virtual information blockade" through control of television and radio. He said guaranteeing opposition voices access to the media is "vital" and said the government has become increasingly intolerant of opposition views.

Segal said Washington is not siding with either Lukashenka or with parliament in their dispute over competing proposals for constitutional change. But he said that Lukashenka's proposal would not protect the balance of power between branches of government or protect the rule of law.

Lukashenka wants a referendum on November 24 on his proposed constitution, which would greatly expand presidential powers. Parliament has proposed an alternative which would eliminate the presidency.

Segal said that while Belarus has made "some halting steps" toward democracy, it lacks the foundations for a democratic state. Segal said a majority of the people in Belarus are apathetic, adding that while some young people seem interested in politics, they are no more sympathetic to the parliament than they are to Lukashenka.

Segal made clear that the United States will continue contacts with Lukashenka's administration. He called Lukashenka "a popular leader with a loyal following among many elements of society, particularly (among) the elderly and the rural population." Segal said this support gives Lukashenka the opportunity to move the country in a new direction. But Segal warned that if Lukashenka imposes authoritarian government, it would isolate the country and lead to its "economic ruin."

On economic reforms, Segal said Minsk has moved in ways that are "absolutely contrary to the development of a market-based economy." He said the economy is in "extremely bad shape and is going down very rapidly."

The hearing also heard from Antti Korkeakivi, a native of Finland and an expert on international human rights and constitutional law with the New York-based Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights.

Korkeakivi told the hearing that the draft constitution proposed by Lukashenka would undermine the power of parliament and the judiciary. He said the president could interpret human rights provisions without any real checks. Korkeakivi cited Article 23 of the proposed draft, which would allow the president to void constitutional rights if he says he is protecting the national interest. Korkeakivi says that is a particular concern when one considers what he called "the creativeness of President Lukashenka" in imposing limitations on individual rights.

Korkeakivi said that under the draft, the powers of parliament would be "amputated most severely." He noted Lukashenka would appoint one-third of the members of an upper house and would be able to "dissolve parliament quite easily." He said the draft would also undercut the independence and powers of the Constitutional Court, giving the president the right to directly appoint enough members to have effective control.

The First Secretary at the Embassy of Belarus in Washington, Valentin Rybakov, attended the hearing and was later asked by RFE/RL for his reaction.

Rybakov said he could not comment on legal matters raised by Korkeakivi, but said concerns about the president's draft constitution are being taken into account. Rybakov said it is his understanding that the draft will be modified prior to a referendum to reflect concerns raised both by governmental and non-governmental groups.

Rybakov said he would not criticize any of the specific comments made by Jack Segal at the hearing, saying he thought most of the U.S. diplomat's comments were balanced. He did address one concern raised by Segal, saying that members of the opposition will be given access to radio and television before a referendum is held.

Rybakov disputed many of the comments made by Paznyak, the leader of the Belarusian Popular Front. He said Belarusian language schools are not being closed down and said citizens can speak whichever language they choose.