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Belarus: Ever More Isolated, Lukashenka Cracks Down On Cabinet, Media, Western Groups

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka today reportedly fired Prime Minister Henadz Novitski and several other senior officials for what he said was ineffective performance. The firings come on the heels of Lukashenka's lashing out against the country's independent media and international organizations that support them. It's not clear if the two are related, but the crackdown on the media, at least, appears aimed at sweeping the country free of its last remaining voices of dissent.

Prague, 10 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian authorities yesterday banned a Western-funded media support group, the latest strike in what appears to be a new war against the country's independent media.

Minsk announced that the Internews Network group, an international organization that helps develop independent media in countries in transition, had been excluded from a list of U.S. aid programs approved by the Belarusian government. Internews had been supporting several regional television stations in the country.

The decision came just hours after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adopted a declaration criticizing the social, political, and humanitarian situation in Belarus.

Earlier this week, authorities also shut down a higher-education and media-research center in Minsk run by the U.S.-based International Research and Exchanges Board, better-known as IREX.

The Minsk bureau of Russian NTV television was also ordered closed this week amid accusations its reports slandered the Belarusian government. And in June, the privately owned and influential "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" newspaper was suspended for three months.

The spate of shutdowns appears to bring Belarus's free press that much closer to extinction. But authorities in Minsk say they are doing the right thing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh told RFE/RL yesterday the government is not seeking to restrict the freedom of the press -- simply to fight slander and financial mismanagement.

The closure of NTV's Minsk bureau drew loud protest from Moscow yesterday, with the Russian Media Ministry accusing Belarus of contradicting "basic democratic principles, including the freedom of the press, the right to receive information and the independence of the mass media."

Officially, the decision to close NTV was based on an interview the station conducted with Belarusian opposition politician Stalislau Shushkevich, who offered frank criticism of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But Savinykh of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said the Minsk bureau was closed because Russian journalists were routinely distorting the facts and ignoring the standards of solid reporting.

IREX's offices, in turn, were closed due to alleged financial violations. "The decision was taken because the organization has violated Belarusian laws," Savinykh said. "The violations were discovered by the Belarusian Republic's state control committee, which conducted an audit on the economic activities of the group."

The spokesman declined to elaborate on the alleged violations. He also refused to comment on either the "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" suspension or the declaration adopted by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

Belarusian political analysts say the media closures and sanctions have nothing to do with financial violations or dishonest reporting -- and everything to do with Lukashenka's desire to seek a third presidential term. Lukashenka's mandate expires in 2006. The Belarusian Constitution prohibits presidential incumbents from seeking a third term.

Oleg Manaev heads the Minsk-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies. He told RFE/RL that Lukashenka will likely attempt to schedule a referendum on a constitutional amendment to allow a third term.

But, Manaev pointed out, current opinion polls suggest a majority of voters would oppose this move. "The latest polls conducted in April indicate that such [constitutional] changes are likely to be supported by 17 percent and opposed by more than 47 percent [of the voters]. It is clear that Lukashenka will be able to have a 'successful' referendum only if he strictly controls the campaign [proceeding it]," he said.

Manaev said that for the authorities, "controlling the campaign" means controlling the media. Lukashenka, the analyst said, "will officially announce he is seeking re-election only once he is sure he will win. And one of the preconditions of victory is full control of the media."

Independent Belarusian analyst Andrey Suzdalski agrees, but said the constitutional referendum offers only a partial explanation for the media crackdown. "The minimal or tactical task is to win the referendum," he said. "The strategic task is to turn the country into a feudal kingdom. To make some kind of North Korea in the middle of Europe."

Suzdalski said Lukashenka has become trapped within the logic of the authoritarian system he himself has created in Belarus, and is driven toward creating ever-new restrictions and repression.

Dmitrii Orlov, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank, told RFE/RL that Lukashenka may seek re-election. But he said there are no clear signs he is already heading in this direction.

"It is impossible to exclude the possibility that Lukashenka may try to stay in power for one more term or even indefinitely. However, I think if it were the case now, his actions would have been supported by declarations. Not necessarily made by him, but by workers or working collectives expressing their wish to have him in this post for one more term. But we're not hearing such declarations," Orlov said.

RFE/RL's correspondent in the Belarusian city of Orsha, however, reported that local officials today began a public campaign supporting Lukashenka's re-election.

Observers predict Lukashenka will announce the referendum this autumn, and that it may be held at the beginning of next year.