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Belarus: Analysis From Washington -- Another Attack On The OSCE

Washington, 30 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has lashed out at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, rejecting its call for greater democracy in his country and implying that he may soon close the organization's office in Minsk.

Speaking to Belarusian security officials on Tuesday, Lukashenka dismissed OSCE findings that recent parliamentary elections in Belarus did not meet international standards. And in a remark cited both by Belarusian state television and Russian news services, Lukashenka said that "the time has come to think about the role and place of the OSCE advisory group in Belarus" -- a comment which appears to threaten to its continued operation there.

Lukashenka's comments about the OSCE came during a speech which contained harsh criticism about the West in general and the Belarusian opposition in particular. He claimed the West was supporting his opponents and promised that his regime will expand its "counterintelligence watch over foreign diplomats" to ensure that "they observe Belarusian law."

Lukashenka suggested that NATO was planning a military move against Belarus much as it had done against Yugoslavia. He said that Western leaders are "waving a finger and putting a fist to the face of the president and the people of Belarus" and saying "'Be obedient or it will be as it was in Yugoslavia.'"

As a result, Lukashenka said, Belarus has been forced to allocate "huge funds to strengthen the air force and air defense troops" in order to get ready to forestall or even repel a possible attack.

Lukashenka's domestic opponents reacted quickly. Vyacheslav Sivchik, a leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, said that Lukashenka's remarks represented his latest "attempt to scare the opposition and foreign diplomats in Belarus" and showed that he believes he can completely eliminate the democratic opposition if international observers like the OSCE are removed from the scene.

Sivchik's views were echoed by the Unified Civil Party's Anatoly Lebedko, who said that Lukashenka had made these remarks now because he wants to ensure that there will not be any free media in Belarus to cover what he does or any opposition political parties before Belarus conducts presidential elections sometime in 2001.

But there are at least three reasons to think that more may be involved in these remarks of the authoritarian Belarusian leader.

First, Lukashenka's remarks may be part of his ongoing effort to demonstrate his loyalty to Moscow's positions. Many in the Russian capital are certainly likely to view them that way especially since Lukashenka spoke on the very day that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was refusing to join an OSCE consensus on a resolution containing language critical of Russian behavior in Chechnya, Georgia, and Moldova.

Perhaps even more important, Lukashenka's denunciation of the OSCE comes just before Russian-Belarusian meetings this week designed to move the two countries further along the road toward a new union.

Second, Lukashenka's remarks may be intended as another test of the West, an effort on his part or on the part of others who support him, to see just what the West will tolerate from him and how it will react to the kind of challenge that threatening to close an OSCE mission office represents.

Known for his flamboyant language, Lukashenka often has threatened to do things and then acted or not depending on whether and how others react. Such a reading is suggested by the fact that the head of the OSCE observer group in Belarus currently is out of the country and that any response from the OSCE will have to be from more senior and authoritative officials, something that he may assume will be less likely.

Lukashenka may be gambling that an OSCE chastened by Russian objections will not be willing to go after him and that he will thus be able to escape criticism from it for what he has threatened and then be in a position actually to implement it.

But on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department did react, with its spokesman suggesting that "the OSCE needs to be there, that people in this region, and particularly in Belarus, need to work with the OSCE and follow their guidelines."

And third, Lukashenka's attack and Moscow's refusal to give consensus to an OSCE document may signal a common and much broader decision by Moscow and Minsk to turn away from cooperation with the OSCE and with those Western countries which have pushed hardest to use that organization to promote democracy in Belarus and elsewhere.

Because Lukashenka has been so extreme in his remarks so often, many in the West may be tempted to write off his remarks. But to the extent that they do so, the Belarusian leader's past performance suggests that his extreme words this time may soon be followed by equally extreme actions.