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Belarus: President Decrees More Restrictions On NGOs

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has issued a decree imposing restrictions on the way non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can use foreign aid. Lukashenka has called presidential elections for this autumn and political opponents say the order creates a further barrier to a free and fair poll. Many groups in Belarus rely on foreign money for their activities, including training independent election monitors. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

Prague, 21 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The opposition in Belarus has grown used to battling for survival, but President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's latest decree to cut private organizations' funding from the outside world could be a crippling blow.

Under the decree, not only will non-governmental organizations and political groups be prevented from using foreign funds for any electoral work. They will also have to register all aid with the presidential administration and keep the money in approved state banks.

Aleh Hulak is executive director of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, an independent organization that monitors the government's compliance with international human rights obligations. He tells RFE/RL the decree is unlawful.

"From our point of view, the decree contradicts current Belarusian laws as well as the constitution. The president, by issuing this decree, has overstepped his mandate. But in our experience, when the Belarusian Helsinki Committee tried to challenge several presidential decrees in the past that were clearly unlawful and clearly unconstitutional, our courts refused to take up such cases, saying that was the prerogative of the Constitutional Court."

Belarusian law does not allow individual citizens and organizations to petition the Constitutional Court. That ensures that challenges to presidential decrees never get a hearing.

Hulak says the Helsinki Committee, along with several other NGOs, has already begun training independent observers for this autumn's presidential elections -- with foreign help.

"This project started getting support last autumn. We have already accomplished part of the job and work is continuing. The project has been approved and is receiving financing."

Hulak says he is determined to see the project through to the end. But he acknowledges that last week's decree, due to go into effect next month (15 April), could hamper those efforts. Even though the Helsinki Committee relies on volunteers for much of its work, they have to be trained and the money for that training comes from international groups.

Myacheslav Hryb heads a coalition of seven NGOs that are preparing election monitors. He says private groups will have to adopt new strategies to continue their work despite the presidential decree. But he stresses that funding from abroad remains the only lifeline for human rights organizations and independent political parties in Belarus. The authorities, he says, make life so difficult for potential domestic sponsors that local funding is practically non-existent.

"We have to change our plans, but the point is that we have no internal resources because people are afraid to provide those resources. If they do contribute funds to prepare election observers -- for example -- they are persecuted in various ways."

Aleh Hulak says a favorite government tactic involves sending the tax authorities to investigate donors' account books -- a harassment strategy that has worked effectively to prevent business people from getting involved in politics.

A date for the autumn election has not yet been set, but according to Belarusian law the poll must be held by 27 September.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jon Purnell, during a visit to Minsk this week, warned Belarusian authorities against taking any measures to restrict the opposition's participation in the poll.

The U.S. envoy said the Lukashenka administration had a chance to mend its undemocratic ways and he held out the promise of cooperation if the electoral campaign and election were run fairly.

"Belarus faces the unique opportunity to create, in the next few months, conditions that will allow it to once again assume its rightful place in the Euro-Atlantic community."

For now, it does not appear that Belarus's rulers intend to take up Washington's offer.

(Bohdan Andrusyshyn of the Belarus Service contributed to this report)