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Czech Republic: Government Nearing Decision To Bar Lukashenka From NATO Summit

The United States has come out against the participation of Belarus' president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, at the NATO summit in Prague next week. RFE/RL reports the Czech government tends to agree but has yet to take a decision on whether to issue the visa while Belarus authorities are threatening "serious consequences" for what it says is "humiliating" treatment.

Prague, 13 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech authorities' dilemma over whether to issue a visa to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears to have eased somewhat as a result of comments yesterday by a senior U.S. diplomat.

Lukashenka wants to attend the NATO summit on 21 and 22 November since his country is one of 46 members of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), which will be meeting as part of the summit. The EAPC is a consultative and cooperation council grouping NATO's 19 member states with the 27 members of the alliance's Partnership for Peace, of which Belarus is a member.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Robert Bradtke, in a teleconference with Czech journalists yesterday, said the U.S. opposes Lukashenka's attendance or presence at the Prague summit: "I'm not going to tell the Czech government whether to issue visas or not issue visas. That's a sovereign decision of the Czech government. Our view in so far as Mr. Lukashenka's attending the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council is that we think he should not be there."

Bradtke says the U.S. does not think the government of Belarus has been acting consistently with the kind of principles that are embodied in the EAPC and that "the lack of democracy in Belarus certainly does not reflect the kinds of principles that we feel should be a basis for cooperation among countries that are part of the EAPC."

Lukashenka is a strong opponent of NATO expansion. Seven out of nine candidate countries are expected to be invited at the NATO summit to open membership negotiations.

Czech Foreign Ministry spokesman Karel Boruvka earlier this month hinted that only Lukashenka might be given a visa but not his delegation. But Boruvka now says Czech consular authorities are examining the visa requests of the members of the proposed Belarusian delegation individually and have not yet made a decision. "This decision is a sovereign decision of the Czech Republic. We will take it in the near future and of course we will inform the media of the decision."

Boruvka now says the Czech Republic is "leaning toward not granting the visas," adding that the Belarusian authorities should also take note of what he describes as "clear signals of rejection" by NATO in Brussels.

On 11 November, Belarusian Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvastou summoned the Czech charge d'affaires in Minsk, Ales Fojtik, and handed him a note saying denial of visas to the Belarusian delegation would be a step toward undermining bilateral relations and would be a breach of international law having "very serious consequences."

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Paval Latushka said: "The decision against Belarus's participation at the EACP summit will be evidence of NATO's selective approach to EACP members and its practice of double standards against Belarus. As a sovereign country, the Republic of Belarus reserves the right to make further changes to its position."

Lukashenka's press secretary, Natalia Petkevich, says the whole issue of whether to issue visas to the Belarusian delegation is "insulting" and "humiliates the Belarusian people." "This question breaches all norms and rules because no special invitation to this summit is required."

Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Alyaksandr Sychev yesterday informed NATO ambassadors orally but not in writing that the Belarusian state has never allowed anyone to decide for it, "even in the most important areas such as international security."

Czech Foreign Ministry spokesman Boruvka responded to the Belarusian remarks: "The [Czech] Foreign Ministry is of course informed about the 'threats' by the Belarusian side, because we have reports from our embassy in Belarus and that [11 November Belarusian Foreign Ministry] text is known by the media. We have acknowledged the text. In any case, it has no influence on our decision making to grant or not to grant a visa to President Lukashenka."

Boruvka echoed U.S. remarks on Belarus, saying, "We condemn President Lukashenka's manner of governing." He says the Czech Republic has repeatedly expressed its concerns clearly yet "nothing has changed."

The Czech Republic and NATO are similarly perturbed by the prospect of the participation at the Prague summit of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, due to his country's alleged sale of an aircraft-detection system to Iraq. Kuchma denies allegations that he approved the sale of the Kolchuga system, in violation of UN sanctions.

However, question's about Kuchma's summit participation have been considerably more low-key. NATO officials in Brussels have warned that if Kuchma and Lukashenka do come to Prague there would be "a lot of empty chairs" by NATO leaders refusing to sit down at the same table with them.

Ukraine's National Council for National Defense and Security meets later this week to decide whether Kuchma or his foreign minister will attend the Prague summit.

NATO has already downgraded a meeting in Prague of the NATO-Ukraine Council from the level of heads of state to foreign minister.