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Belarus: President Says People Want Dictatorship

Minsk, 26 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says he is giving his countrymen what they want by moving the country along an authoritarian path.

Lukashenka said today in a television broadcast that the people asked for "dictatorship" and a return to "Stalin's times."

Lukashenka also said the West and the East were trying to suffocate the former Soviet republic.

The comments come at a new low point in relations between Minsk and Washington. Yesterday, the U.S. recalled its ambassador in Belarus after the Belarusians expelled the embassy's first secretary for attending an anti-government rally in Minsk on Sunday. U.S. First Secretary Serge Alexandrov was among 70 people detained by police during the rally. Belarus labelled Alexandrov a spy, but Washington said he was performing routine duties.

State Department spokesman John Dinger said yesterday that ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz is due back in Washington today to report to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Dinger said Washington will consider expelling a Belarus diplomat for the recent Belarus decision to expel Alexandrov.

Today, Belarus' newly-appointed ambassador to the United States, Valery Tsepkalo, was on his way to Washington to take up his new post when he was ordered back to Minsk.

Relations between the two states have soured recently. Last week, Washington suspended all financial aid to Minsk, after Belarus expelled another American who worked for a philanthropic organization funded by American billionaire, George Soros.

Reports yesterday said up to 40 people have been secretly tried and fined or given jail terms for their part in the march. A member of the opposition Popular Front, Boris Gyunter, told AP yesterday that at least 40 people had received fines ranging up to $600 or jail sentences varying from three to 15 days in closed-door trials. Our correspondent confirmed the report. However, the government has declined to provide details on the trials.

Earlier yesterday, Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky criticized Belarus for banning Russian networks from broadcasting TV footage from Minsk. He urged Belarus to restore press freedom.

In addition to the ban on television footage, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry revoked the credentials of a Russian correspondent for NTV television. Today, ITAR-TASS says a Belarus association of independent journalists protested the government move and picketed the Foreign Ministry building in Minsk.

Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich defended the decision to strip the journalist's accreditation, and warned that anyone spreading lies about Belarus would suffer the same fate.