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Belarus: Authorities Deny Entry To OSCE Election Observer Mission

Officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) say Belarus authorities have told them to delay a planned mission to observe the upcoming presidential campaign. In a statement, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said five staff were to arrive in Minsk tomorrow as a first observation contingent ahead of the 9 September presidential poll.

Prague, 31 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The most frequent criticism aimed at foreign observers during elections is that they tend to arrive too late, concentrating their energies on the actual voting day, when in fact it is the pre-election campaign that often determines whether a poll ends up being fair.

The OSCE is conscious of this criticism, which is why its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) had planned to dispatch a team of observers to Belarus more than a month ahead of the country's presidential election. The observers were expected to monitor the registration of candidates and the formation of local electoral commissions as well as keeping tabs on local media coverage.

An initial team of five ODIHR observers had planned to arrive in Minsk tomorrow, to be followed by some 20 additional staffers over the next few days. Hrair Balian, the head of the ODIHR's election section, tells RFE/RL, however, that the Belarusian authorities refused them entry at the last minute.

"[On] Friday night we received a note verbale, which is a diplomatic letter in essence, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing us that we are not welcome on the 1st of August, that we should wait for a formal invitation from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. [This] is not correct because according to the OSCE commitments and documents, we have a standing invitation from all OSCE member states to observe their elections and come in and set up our observation missions. We don't need to wait for an invitation."

ODIHR head Gerard Stoudmann said today that the presence of the OSCE experts was intended to enhance the electoral process. He said that preventing or delaying the arrival of the team could erode both domestic and international confidence in the election.

Balian says it is essential that his team be allowed into the country as soon as possible if the observers are to do a proper job, as the deadline for registering candidates is 9 August.

"That's a critical part of our observation, to see how fair, how transparent, how level the playing field is in terms of registering all the opposition candidates."

Balian says now is the time when flaws in the system -- whether intentional or not -- could be caught, before undemocratic mechanisms are set in place.

"We would be thoroughly analyzing the legal and administrative framework as it is set up now, because the regional election commissions are now being set up -- to see to what extent the opposition is able to take part in the work of the election administration bodies -- the commissions -- not only at the central level in Minsk but also in the regions. We would be opening seven regional offices, so our observation would not be limited only to Minsk, the capital."

With 10 days left until the end of registration, only four of 22 candidates have been approved by the electoral commission. One of those, Uladzimir Hancharyk, issued a statement this week charging that media access rules discriminate against all of the potential rivals to president Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Hancharyk said that no television debate or ads were allowed and that each registered opposition candidate would be given only two 30-minute television and radio slots to present their platforms -- outside of prime viewing and listening time.

By contrast, in Hancharyk's words, "the incumbent president will be on air from morning till evening."

The U.S. government has expressed concern about what it calls a climate of political repression imposed by Lukashenka's regime. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters last week there are credible reports implicating government officials in Minsk in the disappearance of four political activists. The four -- all opposed to the Lukashenka regime -- have been missing since 1999.

Earlier this month, the European Union's enlargement commissioner called the situation in Belarus "very, very worrying" and urged political and economic reforms there. But Lukashenka has told foreign governments to "mind their own business" and has in the past accused OSCE observers of trying to instigate a coup.

Hrair Balian says the government has indicated it might respond to the ODIHR's entry request after a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe -- which is currently in Minsk -- leaves the country on 3 August.