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Belarus: OSCE Meeting Today To Discuss Visa Denial

Relations between Belarus and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have fallen to a new low, with the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka refusing to extend the visa of the acting head of the OSCE Mission in Minsk, Michel Rivollier, who left the country yesterday. The OSCE's Permanent Council is meeting in a closed session in Vienna today to discuss future relations with Belarus. The mission was established in Minsk in 1998 to help build democracy and the rule of law. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports.

Munich, 16 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, are expected to hold an emergency meeting in Vienna today to discuss the forced departure from Belarus of the acting head of the OSCE Mission in the country. Michel Rivollier left Belarus yesterday after his visa expired.

An OSCE spokesman, Ayhan Evrensel, told RFE/RL that the Belarus Foreign Ministry had refused to extend Rivollier's visa and diplomatic accreditation. The spokesman said the OSCE received a diplomatic note last week saying Belarus saw no reason to extend his accreditation.

Rivollier had represented the OSCE in Minsk since the end of last year, when the OSCE's designated new head of the mission in Belarus was refused a visa.

Evrensel said the Belarus action creates a serious problem for the OSCE. "It amounts to a member country forcing the departure of a senior OSCE official," he said from Vienna. "It is the first time the OSCE has been faced with such a situation, and it is uncertain how the organization will react."

The mission was sent to Minsk in February 1998 in response to complaints that the government, led by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, failed to meet OSCE standards for democracy and the rule of law.

Its official mandate -- agreed with the Belarus government -- is to "assist the Belarus authorities in making progress towards a democratic system of government and in complying with other OSCE commitments." It has three main goals: the establishment of democratic institutions, education in human rights, and assistance in drawing up legislation to promote these goals.

Evrensel said the OSCE wants to maintain its mission in Belarus but is not clear how it should proceed in the present atmosphere. He said members of the OSCE's Permanent Council are holding intensive consultations with the Belarus delegation before today's meeting in Vienna begins.

The present crisis began at the end of last year when the first head of the OSCE Mission, German Hans-Georg Wieck, retired. The OSCE appointed another German, Eberhard Heyken, to take his place.

To the consternation of the OSCE, Belarus declined to give Heyken a visa. Lukashenka's government said it was dissatisfied with what the mission was doing and would not grant a visa to the new chief until the mandate of the mission was revised.

Belarus has accused the OSCE of aiding the political opposition. The OSCE condemned last year's presidential election in Belarus as fraudulent.

The OSCE reacted by appointing a senior member of the mission, French diplomat Michel Rivollier, as acting chief while the dispute was resolved. But the crisis deepened last week when Belarus declined to extend Rivollier's visa.

Evrensel said the incident has shocked the OSCE. He said normal practice is to renew the visa every six months as a matter of routine.

"This is a totally bureaucratic thing. It is a very normal, a very typical thing that the host country issues a special visa to OSCE personnel. In Belarus, it was done every six months, so this is a totally routine event. This was [previously] done for Mr. Michel Rivollier, but last week the Belarus authorities came back [saying] that they see no grounds to extend the visa," Evrensel said.

Evrensel said it is evident that the OSCE was the target of Belarus's anger, not Rivollier personally. The application for renewal of his visa had been made on behalf of the OSCE, not for Rivollier as an individual.

Officials at OSCE headquarters in Vienna say Lukashenka has always been reluctant to accept the mission. It took a year of difficult negotiations before he agreed to it. OSCE officials said at the time that Lukashenka had finally accepted the mission only on the advice of then-Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov.

Belarus joined the OSCE in 1992. Relations deteriorated in 1996 when Lukashenka dismissed a democratically elected parliament and replaced it with one chosen by him personally. The OSCE sent a team of diplomats and legal experts to Minsk in April 1997 to investigate the situation. Their report detailed abuses of power by the government, the police, and the judicial system while criticizing restrictions on freedom of the media and freedom of assembly. The Danish head of the delegation, Rudolf Thorning-Petersen, concluded that Belarus was in danger of becoming a totalitarian state.

The OSCE's response was to establish the mission. Its first head, Hans-Georg Wieck, told a closed session of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna after he retired last year that his time in Minsk had been a "constant battle against obstructionism and hostility." In the closing months of his term, Wieck had been accused of spying and of trying to undermine the administration.

Diplomats in Vienna have said it is unclear how the OSCE will proceed. Spokesman Evrensel said Western delegates are urging Belarus delegates to persuade the Minsk government to reverse its decision and allow Rivollier to return. They are seeking guarantees that other members of the mission will continue to be given six-month visas.

"The OSCE wants to keep a properly functioning office in Belarus," Evrensel said. "It believes it is important to continue working for democracy and the rule of law in Belarus."

Some Western diplomats believe Lukashenka wants the OSCE Mission to leave and may even be prepared to withdraw from the organization altogether.