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Belarus: U.S. Concerned About Constitutional Referendum

Washington, 15 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - A State Department official in Washington says developments in Belarus have attracted attention at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

"Belarus has risen to the attention of the most senior levels of the U.S. government because we are deeply concerned by the events that are taking place there," says Jack Segal, director of the State Department's Office of Western Slavic and Moldovan affairs.

He spoke at length in an RFE/RL interview Tuesday about a referendum on constitutional changes that Segal says is taking place in an unfair political environment.

He says it asks voters to decide issues they have not been informed about, which will have far-reaching consequences for the democratic future of the country.

Early voting has already begun but the main polling day is on Sunday, November 24.

The referendum is being pushed through by president Alyaksandr Lukashenka as legally binding against the protests of parliament and electoral authorities.

Lukashenka wants citizens to approve a new constitution that would extend his term of office and vastly expand his presidential powers, giving him authority also to appoint key positions in other branches of government.

"This is not a democratic structure that is being proposed. This is a structure that would give control of all three branches of government to one person or one small group of people around that person," said Segal.

Belarusians are being asked to create a new system of government that effectively concentrates almost all power in the hands of the president, he says.

"If the people vote to eliminate the independence of the parliament and the constitutional court...I fear that may be the last vote they will ever cast," Segal said. He added that if their leader turns out to be unsatisfactory, the proposed constitutional changes could deprive voters of the opportunity to elect someone else later.

But he stressed that the United States is not trying to tell Belarusians what to do. The chief U.S. concern is over the referendum process.

Segal says voters have to decide extremely complex constitutional issues presented in a set of confusing and contradictory questions.

He said the proposals stated in legalistic terms will appear almost incomprehensible, in large measure because there has been almost no debate or unbiased, objective explanation of the issues in the run-up to the referendum.

In Segal's words: "We view it right now as a very inadequate process. The information is inadequate, the level of the debate and the access to various points of view in the debate is not adequate...and the opportunities people have had to talk through these issues with their local leaders...with international experts is practically zero."

What's more, he says international observers have not been allowed into Belarus so far. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) wanted to send a mission to discuss the referendum last week but was refused.

The Minsk government has said since that it plans to invite international monitors to watch the polling on Nov. 24. But Segal says this is too little too late.

"We are too far along in a process that people do not understand," he said, adding that one day is not enough to cover the country and really observe the voting process.

Segal says Belarus is an OSCE member and should welcome an OSCE assessment. Both as an OSCE member and a country that wants to be part of the new Europe, Belarus has an obligation to conduct its affairs in a manner that is acceptable to other European democracies.

"That is not happening now," Segal said.