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Belarus: Zeman Gives Vocal Boost To Opposition

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman demonstrated his support for the Belarusian opposition on a trip to the country this week. He was traveling not as a prime minister but as head of the Socialist International's committee on peace, democracy, and human rights. While in Belarus, he did not meet with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Prague, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During a visit to Belarus this week, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman took the opportunity to voice support for that country's opposition. He was traveling not as a Czech leader, but as head of a committee of the Socialist International. Zeman is head of his country's Social Democratic party, the CSSD. His visit to Minsk followed trips to Russia and Lithuania.

At a meeting with leaders of opposition parties and trade unions, Zeman expressed solidarity with forces opposed to the rule of Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Zeman told the groups, they "do not enjoy equal conditions in the political battle.... Belarus reminds me of a political museum. By the way, your state newspaper until now is published under the name of 'Soviet Belarusia' and I don't know the reason why," Zeman said.

Zeman also had talks with his host Nikolai Statkevich, leader of the Belarusian social-democratic party, Narodnaja Hramada. Statkevich was detained last month for organizing an unauthorized street demonstration, but was later released. Statkevich said he was happy that Zeman and the Socialist International delegation had arrived in Belarus. "This visit is a signal to Belarusian authorities and to our society that the whole world follows what is going on here," Statkevich said.

Zeman declined to meet with Lukashenka. The Czech Prime Minister said he would only see him if Statkevich accompanied him. Statkevich's deputy Vladimir Nistyuk said Lukashenka did not respond to the offer.

Zeman's visit to Minsk coincided with a Belarusian decision to deny entry to Eberhard Heyken, a new special representative to the country of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Earlier in the week, the Belarusian government failed to extend a visa for the acting head of the OSCE in Minsk, Michel Rivollier.

The OSCE protested the act, but the Belarusian government said the new representative was appointed without its approval.

In Russia, Zeman met with President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and other top officials. Kasyanov promised that Russia would repay its $1.1 billion debt to the country, which was incurred during the Soviet period. The repayment would take the form of military planes, helicopters, and nuclear fuel for Czech nuclear power stations.

Czech media criticized the deal. The daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" said the agreements reminded it of the type of business conducted under the former Comecon organization that linked the Soviet Union and its satellites. The paper said the Czechs would get Russian combat helicopters that are incompatible with NATO standards and Antonov transport planes that they don't need.

In Lithuania, Zeman met with Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas. Talks in Vilnius centered largely on NATO enlargement. The Czech Republic will host a NATO summit this autumn and Lithuania hopes to be invited to join the alliance.

BNS news agency says Zeman was in high spirits during the press conference, which was held together with Brazauskas. He patted Brazauskas on the back, praised his personal qualities, and promised the Czech Republic will support Lithuania's wish to join NATO.