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Belarus: U.S. Sees Good News And Bad News

Washington, 28 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns describes the situation in Belarus as one of good news and bad news.

The good news, he told reporters Wednesday, is that the last of the nuclear missiles Belarus inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed were handed over to Russia on Wednesday.

The bad news, says the spokesman, is the ongoing "anti-democratic" efforts of Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, efforts that Burns says the United States is "extremely disappointed" by.

Lukashenka has been roundly condemned in Europe for staging a national referendum last Sunday that strengthens his control on the nation. The run-up to the referendum led to a confrontation with Parliament as many members contended that Lukashenka was trying to fashion a dictatorship.

He won an overwhelming popular endorsement for his proposed changes to the constitution, and the new document went into effect Wednesday. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), other multi-lateral European organizations and the United States denounced the referendum voting, saying it was neither free nor fair.

The crisis in Belarus deepened when 122 pro-Lukashenka deputies broke away from the 199-seat Parliament and voted to dissolve it. They then voted to turn themselves into a new national assembly, which is to be the lower house of a new bi-cameral Parliament.

Over 50 deputies who remain in the original Parliament, including chairman Semyon Sharetsky, voted Wednesday to form a Belarusian Committee for the Defense of Democracy.

Burns called Lukashenka's actions a farce.

"He has engaged in a farce this week, and we cannot support it," Burns said. "And we have made that very clear to the government of Belarus."

Despite the denunciations of Lukashenka coming from Washington, the United States appears to be holding out a hope of reasoning with the president.

Burns was asked if Washington is considering breaking diplomatic ties with Belarus, a drastic step that Burns says is not likely now.

Burns said the United States has "not made a decision to recall" Ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz. Burns said Yalowitz is an effective, experienced diplomat.

"We think that by -- at least at this point -- leaving him there gives us a senior American official who can talk to Lukashenka, talk to the other senior members of the government, talk now to the opposition figures in a convincing way about what we think should be happening, and to protect our own interests," said Burns. "So I think we'll certainly maintain the embassy there in Minsk."

Burns said that the United States recognizes the government of Belarus and is "choosing at this point to deal with that government, to have diplomatic relations with it."

The spokesman added, however, that "relations are suffering now because of the anti-democratic actions and the actually gross violations of democratic norms taken this week by President Lukashenka."