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Belarus: More Diplomatic Trouble With U.S.

Washington, 28 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- There are more diplomatic developments in the troubled ties between the United States and Belarus.

Belarus' newly appointed ambassador to the U.S., Valery Tsepkalo, left for Washington earlier this week but only got as far as Frankfurt before being ordered back to Minsk.

The U.S. State Department explained yesterday that it asked the government of Belarus not to send a new ambassador. Spokesman John Dinger said the U.S. told Belarus "it is not an appropriate time now for a new Belarusian ambassador to come to Washington."

The latest diplomatic stall came after the U.S. expelled a Belarusian diplomat -- First Secretary and Consul Vladimir Gramyka -- in retaliation for the expulsion of a U.S. diplomat from Minsk.

The American -- Serge Alexandrov -- had been observing an anti-government demonstration and was accused by Belarusian authorities of acting provocatively. The U.S. said the allegation was "simply false."

Yesterday, Dinger called the expulsion "unwarranted and inappropriate," listing it as one of many human rights violations and anti-democratic measures taken recently by the government of Belarus.

"It is now impossible to refer to what is left in Belarus as a democracy," Dinger said.

He spoke about some of the major abuses in Minsk that led the U.S. to toughen its policy toward Belarus this year, cutting off aid and discouraging traders and investors from doing business there.

Dinger listed some of the steps the Belarusian government has taken that cause deep concern in the United States, including financial audits of democracy-building organizations such as the Belarusian Soros Foundation and expelling its director, Peter Byrne, last Sunday.

"We believe that is a clear attempt to intimidate the organizations and their clients," and that the government of Belarus is systematically harassing and repressing independent media.

Dinger said most independent media have to print their editions in neighboring Lithuania and transport them across the border, and that police and tax inspectors frequently visit their offices.

In their latest move against the press, Belarusian authorities have announced that all foreign journalists must get new accreditations.

Thus, Dinger says, "they reserve the right to cancel the credentials of journalists whose reporting is not favorable (to the Belarusian government)."

There is also a decree prohibiting the transport of videotapes and other media material across Belarusian borders, Dinger says.

He says the Minsk government has imposed additional new restrictions on freedom of the press. Failure to comply carries stiff penalties, including time in prison for some violations.

Opposition political parties and their leaders, as well as dissidents, suffer similar forms of persecution.

Dinger says they are subjected to arbitrary visits by security police and that several key opposition leaders have been arrested and given jail sentences, often just for participating in peaceful protests.

He pointed out that many people are being arrested without cause and that the government disrupts peaceful protests with violence.

Dinger says the trend toward authoritarianism in Belarus increased markedly after a referendum on constitutional reform last November that was widely regarded as illegal.

According to Dinger, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka silenced the voice of the opposition to get a favorable vote in the referendum and has been using its flawed result as a mandate to expand his dictatorship.