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Belarus: Powell Issues Strong Criticism Of Regime

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says Belarus's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union 10 years ago filled Americans with hope and admiration. But Powell says that since 1996, the Belarus regime has chosen to abandon the country's transition to democracy. He says unless Minsk authorities reverse course, the current regime will remain "the lone outlaw in Europe." RFE/RL correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports from Washington.

Washington, 30 August 2001 (RFE-RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says failure by Belarus authorities to respect human rights and democracy would condemn the current regime to remain what he calls the "lone outlaw in Europe."

Powell made the remarks in a written message marking the 10th anniversary of Belarus' independence on 25 August. The text of his message was posted by the U.S. Embassy on its website in Minsk on 25 August and made public yesterday (29 August) in Washington by the State Department.

While the State Department has issued strong comments about the political situation in Belarus recently, Powell's comments appeared to be the harshest yet on record made by America's top diplomat. It was not made public until now -- and only in response to a reporter's question.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. was not trying to withhold the communication from the public. Boucher said the U.S. was trying to give independent media in Belarus a chance to carry the message first. He said, "We weren't trying to hide it."

Boucher added, "We've made, obviously, more general observations in the past, as the secretary does in his piece here, about the situation with regard to human rights and freedom in Belarus, which is (and) -- has been and continues to be of great concern to us."

In his written statement, Powell said the commitment of the United States to the Belarusian people and to their desire for independence and democracy remains vigorous. Regrettably, Powell said, since 1996 the Belarusian regime has chosen to abandon the transition to democracy and the rule of law. He said the regime has harassed civil society and has constantly violated human rights and other commitments Belarus accepted as a participating state in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and by signing the Vienna Convention.

Powell said the U.S. is prepared to resume productive bilateral relations, to restart high-level contacts and to encourage greater two-way political, trade, investment, and military contacts. However, Powell said the U.S. will do so only if the Belarusian authorities adopt standards that include free elections, respect for civil society, human rights, and the rule of law.

Belarus faces presidential elections in less than two weeks. Asked whether conditions permit the balloting to reflect the will of the people, Boucher said:

"We've said very clearly that there are a number of things that have happened and continue to happen in Belarus that cause us to have grave doubts about whether the elections could be free and fair. We do think there are steps the government can take and should take to make more of an effort in that regard that could put it back on the road to trying to be free and fair."

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka faces main opposition candidate Uladzimir Hancharyk in the 9 September presidential election. Hancharyk's supporters have complained of being harassed and intimidated by Lukashenka's police.

The United States on 28 August urged Belarus to undertake a credible investigation into allegations that authorities in Minsk used death squads to silence Lukashenka's political opponents. Lukashenka has denied the allegations.

The U.S. says in order for Belarus to have a free election, it must ensure access by all parties to the state-run media on an equitable basis, stop harassing the independent media, and allow effective election monitoring.