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Belarus: Analysis From Washington -- The Belarusian Divide

Washington, 21 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and the West have again parted company, this time over the legitimacy of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's continuing in office after July 20, the end of his term as set by his country's constitution.

Moscow has accepted Lukashenka's argument that a 1996 referendum there legally extended his term until 2001. But Belarusian democratic activists, Western governments, and European institutions all have condemned that vote as flawed and viewed its use as illegitimate.

This division is likely to have serious consequences not only for Belarus and its relations with both East and West but also for Western assessments of possible efforts by other post-Soviet leaders -- including Russia's Boris Yeltsin -- to bypass constitutional arrangements.

And to the extent that happens, this Belarusian divide could ultimately cast a far larger shadow on East-West relations than even the differences between the two on how to respond to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian behavior in Kosovo.

Yesterday (Tuesday) marked the end of Lukashenka's term of office as established by the Belarusian Constitution, but Lukashenka and his supporters at home and abroad argue that his time in office was legally extended to 2001 by a referendum his government staged three years ago.

Lukashenka himself said on Tuesday that "we will continue to be legitimate for a long time." And the Belarusian leader said he would respond to any protests against his rule with "the most rigorous and adequate but legal measures."

The Russian government echoed his words: Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin said "there are no reasons to doubt" the legitimacy of Lukashenka's remaining in office.

But that hardline position put both Minsk and Moscow at odds with both Belarusian democrats and Western governments and human rights organizations.

Belarusian poet Vladimir Neklyayev spoke for many of his country's democratic activists when he said this week that "as of July 21, there is a legal basis to say that Belarus is run by the dictatorship of an illegal president."

And he called on "the community of democratic states, including Russia" to protest what he called Lukashenka's "dictatorial tendencies in Belarus."

While Moscow has responded by defending its ally Lukashenka, Western governments and human rights organizations have answered such appeals by taking public positions unprecedented in the post-Cold War environment.

Earlier this week, seven leading international human rights groups - including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch -- called on U.S. Vice President Gore to press Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin on the issue of Belarus during their meeting in Washington next week.

Arguing that the human rights situation in Belarus is "deteriorating," the group said that this should be a matter of vital concern for both the United States and Russia.

Its members suggested that the U.S. "must send a clear signal" that any Russian tolerance of such abuses "is ultimately a threat to the level of democracy and human rights" not only in Russia but across the entire post-Soviet region.

And the groups both collectively and individually called on Lukashenka to avoid any repetition of his past repression of democratic protests.

In more diplomatic language, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) echoed these concerns. Its chairman, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, said Tuesday that repression in Belarus "must come to an end" and that future elections must be "free and fair."

So too did the European Union. In a statement released in Helsinki, it reaffirmed its support for the establishment of "a free, open and democratic society" in Belarus. And it suggested that only new and free elections there would make that possible.

But perhaps the toughest position on Lukashenka came from the U.S. State Department. In a statement released on Tuesday by spokesman James Rubin, Washington made it clear that it views Lukashenka's continuing in office as illegitimate.

Asserting that Lukashenka's "legal term of office" ended on July 20 and that the 1996 vote extending his term was based on "a flawed and unconstitutional referendum," the State Department said his legitimacy "can only be restored by free and fair elections."

Even more, the department said that the Belarusian parliament that Lukashenka has sought to suppress remains "the sole legitimate" legislature of that country and that its right "to take its case to the Belarusian people" must be respected.

And, the State Department said, Lukashenka's government must respect human rights and enter into a dialogue with the opposition "without preconditions" if Belarus and its people are "to return to the path of democracy."

Such positions put the West at odds not only with Minsk but with Moscow as well. And thus they are likely to affect East-West relations, even if they have little impact on Lukashenka, a man who routinely has ignored not only democratic principles but the concerns of others as well.