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Belarus: Minsk's New U.S. Ambassador Says Russia Won't Swallow His Country

The new Belarusian ambassador to Washington, Mikhail Khvostov, said on 30 October that Belarus will not become part of Russia. He also said Minsk wants better relations with the United States and denied that his government is harassing opposition groups or that it sold weapons to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Washington, 31 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The chief envoy of Belarus to the United States has said his country might be economically dependent on Moscow but it will never become part of Russia.

Mikhail Khvostov's remarks, made yesterday in a wide-ranging briefing at RFE/RL in Washington that also touched on Iraq and human rights, come as talks between Russia and Belarus on forging a union have stalled. Khvostov, a former foreign minister, said that "there will be no possibility that Belarus will become a part of Russia. And, of course, it will not be in the interest of Russia to [absorb] enroll Belarus." However, he added, "what is true is that we are really proud to have Russia as our life partners, our strategic partners. And second, for the time being we're really dependent on the Russian market."

For years, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has sought some kind of formal union with Russia, but the project has lost momentum in recent months as relations between Moscow and Minsk have cooled.

Lukashenka said last week that talks on plans to create a merged state with Russia were deadlocked, but said abandoning the notion was tantamount to political death for him. "The Russian leadership does not want to share power," Lukashenka told a news conference.

Russia wants Belarus to join a single state or a merged entity. But Lukashenka reportedly seeks the creation of supranational bodies, with provisions for a president, vice president, and prime minister. The countries have also agreed broadly to introduce a single currency as of 2005. But Belarus is in no hurry to implement the plan, which would likely require overhauling its Soviet-style economic policies, such as price and production controls.

Meanwhile, Khvostov faced tough questions about his authoritarian government's treatment of nongovernmental organizations and whether or not Minsk sold arms to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The U.S. State Department has told RFE/RL that it has credible evidence that a group of Iraqi officers were in Belarus in the fall of 2001 to be trained to use the S-300 anti-aircraft system against British and U.S. jets patrolling the former "no-fly" zones over Iraq.

Khvostov dismissed those allegations which, if true, would have put Minsk in violation of United Nations sanctions. "I am familiar with the information that Iraqi air-defense personnel were trained in Belarus," he said. "That was a period that I was at home, and I deny it. That was not the case because it was prohibited by the appropriate resolution of the UN Security Council. We were in strict compliance with the resolution."

The diplomat was also asked about his government's handling of NGOs. Yesterday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) voiced "serious concern" over Minsk's "continued governmental pressure" on NGOs.

In particular, the OSCE cited a decision by the Belarusian Supreme Court this week in which a leading human rights group, Vesna, was closed down for alleged procedural violations. The Vienna-based OSCE also noted that over the last six months several NGOs have been shut down in Belarus for what appeared to be "political purposes."

Also this week, Belarusian authorities shut down the only school in the capital Minsk offering a course in Jewish studies, in what Jewish leaders said was the third such move against their community in two months.

But Khvostov denied his government is targeting any specific groups, saying all NGOs are treated the same way. "There is no special approach by the government to the situation of a particular NGO. Any NGO and newspapers should go along with the existing way," he said. "That's it. And if there is a violation then they should have the result."

As for Minsk's relations with Washington, Khvostov suggested it is up to the United States to improve the relationship.

But he also suggested that Belarus is keen to improve relations with both Washington and the European Union out of necessity. "We started to voice the necessity to improve relations with the West -- first of all with the United States, the European Union, the European continent -- not because we doubt that the relations with the Russian Federation will become difficult, but because we propose this cooperation and we need the adequate reply from the European Union and the United States," he said.

Since Lukashenka extended his stay in office through what the United States called an unconstitutional referendum 1997, Washington has had a policy of "selective engagement" with Minsk.

Khvostov said if Washington would adopt a policy of "constructive engagement" -- which would entail more contacts -- then that would be the first step toward normalizing the relationship.

(RFE/RL intern Diane Kim contributed to this report)