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Belarus: Conference In Washington Urges 'Regime Change' In Minsk

"Regime change" as a term has gotten a lot of play recently with regard to U.S. policy toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But participants at a conference in the U.S. capital yesterday suggested Washington should apply the term to Belarus, which the U.S. says sells arms to Saddam.

Washington, 15 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. ambassador to Belarus says President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has chosen the wrong side in the war on terrorism and will soon face the consequences of his illegal arms sales to Iraq.

Ambassador Michael Kozak made his remarks yesterday at a conference on Belarus hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, an independent think tank in Washington.

Kozak joined international experts, officials, and Belarusian opposition leaders at the conference, entitled "Axis of Evil: Belarus -- The Missing Link." The title suggest that Belarus should have been included along with North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as part of U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil."

It was an apt title for a forum whose participants criticized Lukashenka's authoritarian rule and examined ways to achieve "regime change" in Minsk.

Last spring, the U.S. State Department accused Minsk of training Iraqi forces to use the S-300 antiaircraft system, possibly against British and U.S. jets patrolling the "no-fly" zones over Iraq -- or against American-led forces leading any war to disarm Saddam.

Kozak said much of America's information on Belarusian arms transfers must remain secret to protect intelligence-gathering methods. But he did make this remark to the conference: "The training of people to use this system was directed at one thing: to shoot down American and British aircraft. And that was something we didn't take too kindly to."

Last spring, the State Department told RFE/RL that the training of 10 Iraqi officers took place following last year's 11 September attacks on the U.S. and Bush's subsequent edict that America will not differentiate between terrorists and nations that sponsor them.

Belarus denies any involvement in any military cooperation with Iraq.

Kozak said he believes that not only has Belarus continued selling arms to "rogue states" since 11 September, its sales have intensified at a time when Washington is considering military action to disarm Iraq of alleged arms of mass destruction. "We offered the Belarusian authorities opportunity to cooperate in suppressing arms sales to rogue states and terrorist groups. Unfortunately, while there's been a rhetorical response, they seem to have chosen the wrong side in the war on terrorism."

Conference host Radek Sikorski, a former Polish deputy foreign and defense minister, elicited laughter when he followed up Kozak's address with a warning to Lukashenka: "The message from this conference to Lukashenka is: 'President Lukashenka, be careful, because if your buddy in Baghdad gets thrown out, we will find the evidence of what you've been up to with him.'"

The conference also discussed Lukashenka's alleged human rights abuses and antidemocratic rule, including the still-unsolved disappearances of four opposition members.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) told the forum that he considers Belarus to be an "authoritarian cesspool in the center of Europe" that "needs to be drained."

And some participants speculated that change is around the corner -- that Russia is finally beginning to turn against its long-time ally Lukashenka, and that this could spell the end of Lukashenka and the start of democracy.

But others were less sure. Hans-Georg Wieck was head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) monitoring and advisory mission in Minsk, which was recently shut down on grounds it was interfering in Belarusian politics.

Wieck said Russia had "an elegant chance" to get rid of Lukashenka during the September 2001 elections, but decided in the end not to support a rival candidate. Wieck acknowledged there are signs Russia now "regrets its decision" to support Lukashenka, who won in a landslide election that was dubbed "neither free nor fair" by the OSCE. Wieck said, however, in his opinion, Moscow still has clear designs on Minsk, "We should have no illusions that for the prevailing mood in Moscow, Belarus is a Russian province."

Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned the tables on long-time ally Lukashenka, saying a planned union of Belarus and Russia was no longer viable and instead proposed that Belarus be incorporated into the Russian Federation.

Vincuk Vyachorka, leader of the Belarusian National Front opposition party, said the most Belarus could hope for from Russia is for it to withdraw its support for Lukashenka and not to compromise Minsk's sovereignty.

Wieck said global supporters for change must unite to make up for the OSCE's absence in Minsk and work to prepare civil society in Belarus for democratic transition once "the moment of truth" arrives: "This society of dedicated people, or of frustrated, or of frightened people, altogether, needs the moral, political, and material support to be prepared to take over responsibility -- tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or in five years."

To that end, Viachorka and others urged the U.S. to use its leverage with Russia to effect change in Belarus. Viachorka also expressed hope the U.S. Congress would pass the Belarus Act, a bill under consideration in both houses that proposes further isolating Minsk and giving robust economic assistance to the opposition in a bid to bring down Lukashenka.

The bill has yet to come up for vote and appears to be a low priority, although further revelations about arms sales to Iraq would do a lot to bring Lukashenka to the attention of U.S. lawmakers. Senator McCain, a top Republican presidential candidate in 2000, said he is hopeful the new Congress will pass the bill sometime next year.

With the U.S. and Russia allied in the war on terror, McCain added that he hopes Putin will realize that Moscow's backing of Minsk is a stain on his reputation in the West. He said it is clear that without Russian support, "there would be no Lukashenka."