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Belarus: Editors Urge West To Keep Pressure On Lukashenka

While Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka reportedly continues a crackdown on people who oppose his September re-election, a group of Belarusian journalists is urging Western governments and organizations not to let up their pressure for change in Minsk.

Washington, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A group of Belarusian newspaper editors is making the rounds in Washington in an effort to keep the international spotlight focused on the country's authoritarian government, two weeks ahead of a major decision concerning Western policy toward Minsk.

Three editors and the vice president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists met with U.S. State Department officials as well as human rights organizations and the international media. At an RFE/RL press briefing yesterday, the four men said the plight of independent media in Belarus has only worsened since September's controversial re-election of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by U.S. officials.

Western rights groups say non-state Belarusian newspapers, radio, and television stations face harassment in the form of unfair taxes, predatory audits, and punishing printing and distribution costs. Lukashenka, who claims to have won nearly 80 percent of September's vote, defends his handling of the independent media.

Two of the newspaper editors -- Mikalai Markevich of "Pahonia" and Iosif Siaredzich of "Narodnaya Volya" -- face criminal charges they say were brought because of their coverage of the opposition during last fall's presidential campaign.

Although his Minsk daily is still being published, Siaredzich says he faces libel charges and possible jail time for his critical coverage of Lukashenka. But Siaredzich, who, like the others, spoke in Russian for lack of a Belarusian interpreter, says he's not alone in facing fresh government pressure:

"What's been going on now, ever since the elections, is every week or two, either I or other journalists are summoned to the prosecutor's office for interrogation."

The editors' remarks substantiate reports from Belarus that Lukashenka has launched a crackdown against those who opposed his bid to retain power, including the arrest of several top Belarusian businessmen.

The Belarusian embassy in Washington did not respond to a telephone message left by RFE/RL asking for comment on the editors' allegations.

Lukashenka has long been accused by critics of complicity in the disappearance in the late 1990s of three business and opposition leaders and a Russian television journalist. Recently, some Western newspapers, including "The Washington Post," have asserted that he has been involved in arms sales to nations under a United Nations weapons embargo, such as Libya and Iraq. Lukashenka vehemently denies any wrongdoing.

The editors are urging the international community not to let up the pressure for change in Belarus. They voiced concern that such pressure is waning, citing a recent statement by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), that expresses "cautious optimism" about a draft law on the non-state Belarusian media.

A U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that the assessment by the OSCE -- which is set to issue a key decision on 21 February about who will represent Minsk in the 52-nation Parliamentary Assembly -- "is certainly premature."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE consists of representatives of the parliaments of all 55 member states. The Parliamentary Assembly will meet in Vienna on February 21 for its annual winter session. One of its tasks is to approve the new delegation from Belarus, representing the parliament chosen in elections last year.

Until now, Belarus has been represented by a delegation from the old Belarus Supreme Soviet, which was chosen after the collapse of communism. The mandate for this delegation expired automatically when the elections were held last year and a new parliament was chosen.

The Belarus delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has long been a source of dispute with Lukashenka. Lukashenka argued that the parliament installed by him in November 1996 was the legitimate parliament of the country and should have been recognized by the OSCE. However, the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly refused, continuing to recognize the old Supreme Soviet as the legal representatives of Belarus.

The representation decision is viewed as vital by the Minsk opposition. If the OSCE lets in Minsk's new National Assembly -- widely viewed as a rubber-stamp parliament -- the opposition says it will legitimize Lukashenka internationally and provide him with even more license to crack down domestically.

To be sure, the OSCE -- whose Minsk mission seeks to help the former Soviet republic of 10 million people make the transition to democracy -- faces a tough task. Lukashenka last fall accused the OSCE of working with the opposition to topple him.

On 5 February, Minsk refused to allow the Minsk mission's new leader, Eberhard Heyken, into the country. Foreign Ministry spokesman Pavel Latushko told Reuters: "We first insist on reviewing the mandate of the OSCE, which in recent times was teaching the opposition and has turned into a political player in Belarus."

But the editors say Lukashenka is still the only political power in Belarus -- a fact they blame on his virtual media blackout but also on the disorganized opposition's errors and "inconsistent" Western policy. Markevich made this observation:

"You have to come to the conclusion that this state of affairs came about because of the inconsistency of the West. Western countries have failed to develop a clear, consistent policy to condemn these evils (disappearances, alleged arms sales) when they occur. It's their lack of consistency that's allowed it to occur."

Markevich's "Pahonia," based in the western city of Hrodna, was shut down last November. Markevich says he was punished for publishing a statement by opposition parties and non-governmental organizations condemning Lukashenka's re-election as fraudulent -- the same charge made by the U.S., the European Union, and the OSCE.

"Pahonia," which means "chase," is named after the national symbol of Belarus -- a medieval knight on horseback raising his sword. But the image lost its official status following a controversial 1995 referendum by Lukashenka and has since become a symbol of the struggle to maintain the Belarusian language and state in the face of what many in Belarus believe is Russian encroachment.

Markevich says the publishing of books and newspapers in the Belarusian language has collapsed since the arrival of the pro-Russia Lukashenka, who has also shut down most native-language schools: "What you have now with the closure of my newspaper, 'Pahonia,' is you don't have any provincial newspaper left now that is publishing on political and social issues specifically in the Belarusian language. We are using the terms 'ethnocide' and 'linguacide' to describe what's going on today in Belarus."

However, the editors acknowledge that Lukashenka still has a large base of popular support, especially in rural areas. They say this is largely a result of seven years of one-sided state media and television, which they say is comparable in power to the work of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels.

Asked why only a handful of people turned out to protest the election results on 10 September in Minsk's October Square, Siaredzich said many in Belarus have lost hope that change is possible. He cited a Belarusian proverb: "If you call someone a pig 100 times, on the 101st time he will oink. And they oinked."

(RFE/RL's Roland Eggleston contributed to this story.)