Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said he would engage in a dialogue with opposition parties. But rather than making concessions, Lukashenka has tightened his control over opposition media.
Prague, 30 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Independent Belarusian newspapers say talks between the government and the opposition appear to be nearing an end before they've really begun.
Two weeks ago, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called a meeting of cabinet ministers and law enforcement agencies. His actions since then seem designed to intimidate the opposition.
At the meeting, Lukashenka addressed public anxieties following a series of apartment building explosions in Russia. He ordered tough security measures to prevent similar attacks in Belarus.
But Lukashenka was not worried about extremist elements from Russia. Instead, Lukashenka said Belarus is threatened by what he called "domestic extremists." He told border guards to monitor the frontier so closely that, in his words, "a mouse could not creep across it." He also ordered municipal authorities in Minsk and other cities to identify specific venues for demonstrations by the opposition and, in his words, "other scum." Protests in all other locations are banned.
Lukashenka also began a crackdown on media. Pointing to an allegedly libelous article about a state official in the opposition newspaper "Naviny," he ordered the closure of newspapers that attack state officials without good reason.
In what many see as an ominous sign of how dissent may be repressed, a prominent opposition politician disappeared just a few hours after Lukashenka's cabinet meeting. Opposition figure Viktar Hanchar, missing since mid-September, is deputy chairman of the opposition Supreme Soviet and organizer of an alternative presidential election. He falls into the category of what Lukashenka calls "domestic extremists."
The opposition alleges Hanchar was kidnapped by state authorities to intimidate Lukashenka's political opponents. Hanchar was scheduled to preside over the opposition's Supreme Soviet session just two days after he disappeared. Delegates were to vote on representatives for upcoming talks with the government.
Shortly after Hanchar's disappearance, police illegally seized property of the newspaper "Naviny." Then a court ordered the newspaper to pay more than $50,000 -- an exorbitant sum in Belarus -- to settle a libel suit. The paper has been forced to close. Yesterday's edition was to be the last.
Lukashenka has responded to concerns from Western diplomats about Hanchar's disappearance by saying they should look for him in the West before alluding to any sinister activity in Belarus. State-controlled media have echoed that position, saying Hanchar staged his disappearance to gain publicity. But under increasing foreign pressure, Minsk has finally launched an investigation.
Given the crackdown on opposition media and the disappearance of Hanchar, commentators suggest Lukashenka's declaration to enter into a dialogue with the opposition was not sincere. Lukashenka's regime has not met any of the opposition's conditions for a dialogue. He has failed to give the opposition access to the state-run media, and he has not released political prisoners. In fact, the political climate in Belarus has become even more oppressive than before.
One opposition party leader, Stanislau Bahdankevich, said he had few illusions that Lukashenka could ever engage in dialogue. Bahdankevich said Lukashenka "prefers to give endless monologues."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is supposed to be facilitating dialogue between the government and the opposition, does not seem to have the political leverage to make such a dialogue work. Belarus continues to suppress political opponents and trample on human rights, yet has gone virtually unpunished in the international arena.
How the West responds to Lukashenka's latest challenge will not only reflect on his credibility in the international arena. It will also attest to the West's own commitment to promoting democracy where it is so sadly lacking and so desperately needed. ss