Independent Belarusian Media Targeted By Authorities
The Belarusian authorities this morning resumed their crackdown, a day after dozens of journalists were detained for questioning by the KGB. Many of them also had their private apartments searched.
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, independent journalist Alena Stsyapanava described the KGB's search of her home in Vitsebsk.
"Around 9 a.m. someone rang to my apartment -- not from the house intercom but the doorbell," Stsyapanava said. "My husband opened the door. I heard that he was being asked for the passports of residents because, they said, it was a check of whether the residents have the right to live there. Only after that did they show us a search warrant."
Targeted were media outlets or journalists with ties to the outside world, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Investigators also zeroed in on employees of Radio Racja and Belsat, both primarily Polish-funded, and the EU-funded European Radio for Belarus -- which have all been denied government accreditation.
In a statement issued on March 27, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the raids, saying, "some 30 independent journalists in 12 cities were detained without legitimate cause."
He said this week's incidents show that a "brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that blatantly ignores human rights and fundamental freedoms" is in power in Belarus.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski expressed the "deepest possible anxiety" over the developments, and said the situation in Belarus is taking a turn for the worse.
Homel-based independent journalist Anatol Hatouchyts spoke to RFE/RL after his home was searched on March 27.
"I have been a professional journalist for more than 30 years. Naturally, I have a computer, and my wife has a computer. I have tape recorders, diskettes. All this was confiscated. They confiscated 31 items in total. In fact, all this was done in order to paralyze the work of journalists who work for nonstate media," Hatouchyts said.
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maryya Vanshyna said on March 27 the searches were being conducted to uncover journalists working illegally in Belarus. "The illegal character of these individuals' activities in Belarus has never been hidden by their foreign owners," she said.
Belarusian Deputy Prosecutor-General Alyaksey Stuk, however, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service the same day that investigators were looking for signs the targeted journalists had cooperated with the creators of animated cartoons deemed insulting to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Independent journalist Stsyapanava supported Stuk's claim.
"The search was linked to me. The search warrant stated that I have to be a witness in a criminal case opened in 2005 against citizens by the name of Marozau, Minich, and Abozau," Stsyapanava said. "While staying abroad, they allegedly disseminated -- via the television company Belsat -- cartoons that defame the president of the republic of Belarus."
Andrey Abozau, Pavel Marozau, and Aleh Minich fled Belarus in 2007 to avoid arrest in connection with the cartoons, which were originally posted on their website, "Third Path," and continue to circulate on the Internet.
Defaming the Belarusian president is punishable by up to four years in prison.
The Polish-funded television station Belsat, which has broadcast the cartoons, said 20 of its Belarusian employees were detained. The Belarusian Journalists Association recorded 16 journalists who were either detained or whose apartments were searched.
A human rights activist was also reportedly detained during a search of a journalist's apartment in Visebsk for swearing. Pavel Levinau had arrived on the scene to ensure that the search was being conducted in accordance with the law.
The Belarusian Journalists Association has petitioned the Prosecutor-General's Office to stop the searches, and has objected to the confiscation of audio and video equipment and printed material.
The crackdown came on a day that 17 U.S. diplomats left Belarus -- a concession to Minsk's recent demand that the U.S. Embassy's staff be halved. U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart was recalled two weeks ago, and some embassy services in Minsk have been curtailed or suspended.
The staff reductions followed accusations that the embassy had recruited a dozen Belarusians to pass information for use against Belarus to the FBI -- allegations the United States has denied.
U.S.-Belarusian relations were further strained when truncheon-wielding Belarusian police violently broke up a street rally on March 25 and detained some 80 demonstrators. Several hundred opposition activists had gathered in a Minsk square to mark the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Belarusian People's Republic, which was subsequently crushed by Bolshevik forces.
The newly appointed U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, David Kramer, told RFE/RL earlier this week that breaking up the rally was "thuggish behavior on the part of the security forces."
"A reminder, I think, of the total lack of respect that the authorities have demonstrated in the past for citizens' rights to assemble and speak freely. It is very unfortunate that a number of people not only were arrested, but many beaten up by the authorities. Totally uncalled for," Kramer said.
Kramer at the time touted a united U.S.-EU front in calling for the Belarusian authorities to ease restrictions on citizens and civil society.
"Belarus is in the heart of Europe, and it remains the last dictatorship in Europe, and it is a country where, together, the United States and the European Union feel we need to both apply pressure on the government so that it demonstrates greater respect for human rights for its own citizens, but also where we reach out to civil society and the democratic opposition and NGOs in Belarus to show that we support what they are trying to achieve in their country," Kramer said.
The EU has echoed the U.S. condemnation of the recent events in Belarus, calling on Belarus to end the crackdown if it wants to improve relations with the bloc.
Since the beginning of the year, President Lukashenka has indicated that he wants to improve relations with the EU. He has released most of the country's political prisoners -- a key EU demand -- and given the European Commission the go-ahead to open up a branch in Minsk.
However, one former Belarusian political prisoner, Syarhey Skrabets, believes Brussels could do more:
"I think all this [political persecution] takes place only because the European Union maintains permanent contacts with the current authorities. Had they taken the position that was taken by the United States, all this would not have happened."
U.S. Embassy Cuts Staff In Belarus Amid Diplomatic Row
The move is likely to ease immediate tensions between Washington and Minsk, but some observers suggest the spat is evidence that hard-line Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has abandoned a brief flirtation with the West to focus on his country's relations with Moscow.
Some 15 U.S. diplomats are scheduled to leave Minsk by March 28, bringing the number of U.S. diplomats in the country down to 17, in a development that comes just two weeks after Washington recalled its ambassador to Belarus, Karen Stewart.
Then-U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Kramer told RFE/RL's Belarus Service last week that Stewart's departure was a forced one.
"We interpreted the [authorities'] initial comments as a recommendation, since that's the word they used," Kramer said. "But we subsequently learned that what they had in mind was in fact an ultimatum, that Ambassador Stewart was given 24 hours to return to Washington for consultations, otherwise she would be declared persona non grata. We felt, in the interest of trying to keep things from escalating, that we would call her back for consultations to avoid what would have been a rather dramatic step."
The U.S. Embassy, which branded the imposed staff cuts "unreasonable and inconsistent with normal diplomatic practice," responded by halting issuing visas for Belarusian citizens. The embassy said it would also close several "American corners" in local libraries that provide information about the United States.
Washington on March 24 harshly condemned what it described as the Belarusian government's "unfortunate actions." U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Minsk had taken "a path of confrontation and isolation rather than a path of engagement and democratic reform."
Ambassador Stewart said last week that Belarus could end the standoff by freeing Alyaksandr Kazulin, a runner-up in the 2006 presidential election who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for leading a protest rally after the vote.
Spokesman McCormack reiterated calls for Lukashenka's administration -- which U.S. officials have described as the "last dictatorship in Europe" -- to show commitment to human rights and basic freedoms.
Belarusian authorities were quick to show that these calls fell on deaf ears. Truncheon-wielding police violently broke up a street rally on March 25 and detained some 80 demonstrators. Several hundred opposition activists had gathered in a Minsk square to mark the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Belarusian People's Republic, subsequently crushed by Bolshevik forces.
The current diplomatic row with the United States has taken many by surprise. Lukashenka, whose once warm ties with Russia have soured over energy prices, recently appeared to edge closer to the West.
In February, Belarus freed six political prisoners in February in what Lukashenka called a "goodwill gesture" and gave the European Commission the green light to open a branch in Minsk, a decision the commission had been waiting for since 2005.
Kramer said the dispute erupted after Washington issued a statement on March 6 concerning the sanctions it imposed last year against Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim.
Washington had frozen the company's assets and barred U.S. companies from doing business with Belnaftakhim, placing pressure on Lukashenka's regime to improve its human rights record.
"What the U.S. Department of Treasury did on March 6 was to announce clarification, or elaboration, of existing sanctions. It seems as though the government of Belarus has interpreted that as additional sanctions," Kramer said. "I think it's in the eye of the beholder -- if that's how Belarus wants to interpret it, that's how it is going to interpret it. These were not new sanctions that were imposed but simply a reflection of what had already been in place."
On March 7, one day after the U.S. statement, Minsk blasted Washington for having "violated" what it said was the agreed course of action toward a normalization of relations and swiftly recalled its ambassador to the United States.
The staff reductions at the U.S. Embassy also follow accusations that the embassy set up a spy ring in the country of 10 million. A television report aired on March 23 claimed embassy staff had recruited a dozen Belarusians to pass information for use against Belarus to the FBI.
Yury Zhadobin, the head of the Belarusian intelligence service still known by its Soviet-era KGB abbreviation, confirmed the information on March 25 as "completely true."
The U.S. Embassy has denied the spying accusations.
Some observers said the U.S. Embassy's troubles signal that Lukashenka, after briefly flirting with the West, has gone back to courting Moscow -- which has adopted an increasingly hostile stance toward Washington -- in the hope of obtaining preferential rates for Russian natural gas.
"In my opinion, Lukashenka is deliberately exacerbating the conflict with the United States in order to put Russia in a situation where it cannot refuse to soften its policy of gas-price increases," Belarusian political analyst Vital Silitski says, "because Lukashenka is such a strong foe of the United States, the Kremlin's [gas] policy could be seen in Russia as pro-American."
Eugeniusz Smolar, the head of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations, says he sees a precise pattern behind Lukashenka's seemingly erratic foreign policy.
"Lukashenka belongs to the Soviet-time type of leaders. On the one hand, he makes gestures and suggests that he will open up. But when the West says, 'Fine, we welcome your approaches but you must, however, offer us proof of goodwill and openness and free political prisoners,' nothing happens," Smolar says. "This doesn't surprise me. By being, in turn, hot and cold, people like Lukashenka think they control the situation."
RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report
Georgian, Ukrainian MAP Bids Likely To Go The Wire At Summit
NATO officials say the debate within NATO is likely to go to the wire at the April 2-4 summit, with the United States and fresh Eastern European member states strongly in favor, and Germany and France opposed.
In a measure of the intractability of the debate over Georgia and Ukraine, NATO officials have drafted two separate sets of declarations for the Bucharest summit -- one containing offers of MAPs, the other not.
The decision will have to be made at the highest level, by NATO presidents and prime ministers.
Officials say it is all but certain that the two countries' bids stand or fall together.
Nevertheless, it is up to each country to make their case. Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze, State Minister for European and Euroatlantic Integration Giorgi Baramidze, and Deputy Defense Minister Giorgi Muchaidze were in Brussels on March 26 to make theirs. The Georgian delegation was received by the 26 NATO ambassadors at the weekly meeting of the North Atlantic Council.
NATO's spokesman James Appathurai has remained tightlipped, limiting himself to restating previously declared positions. He noted that "we are all aware of the context of Georgia's aspirations to move closer to NATO and the context of the upcoming Bucharest summit."
Appathurai said NATO's doors would remain open to "all European democracies." He also reiterated that "no third country" -- a presumed reference to Russia -- will have any influence on NATO's membership decisions.
Appathurai said the Georgian officials were in Brussels to discuss the progress their country has made in moving toward NATO standards within the framework of its Intensified Dialogue with the alliance.
All sides are aware, however, that it political considerations will be foremost in debating the fate of Georgia's and Ukraine's efforts to move closer to NATO membership.
Earlier this month, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told journalists in Brussels that Georgia's case suffered a "hiccup" when the authorities in Tbilisi resorted to force to suppress opposition protests in November. Ukraine's public is known to be split down the middle over NATO membership.
A principal point of concern for most NATO capitals, however, is Russian reaction. Russia's outgoing president, Vladimir Putin, will attend the summit. His successor, Dmitry Medvedev, told the "Financial Times" this week that by extending membership offers to Georgia and Ukraine, NATO would cross a "red line" for Russia.
A NATO official told RFE/RL the U.S. ambassador to the alliance, Victoria Nuland, told her colleagues on March 26 that President George W. Bush favored giving Georgia and Ukraine MAPs. However, a subsequent announcement that Bush and Putin have agreed to a last formal meeting, in Sochi after the NATO summit, prompted speculation that MAPs might not be forthcoming in Bucharest.
Canada and countries in Central and Eastern Europe remain strongly supportive of Kyiv's and Tbilisi's MAP bids.
France and Germany, by contrast, resist the idea equally strongly. But both ambassadors indicated at the meeting on March 26 that they remain generally supportive of Georgia's "Euro-Atlantic ambitions."
Georgian officials told NATO ambassadors that reforms in the country would be at risk if NATO failed to fix a date for a MAP. They also said a MAP would provide a "positive impetus" for the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
NATO officials rejected suggestions that Georgia and Ukraine would be offered an upgrade in ties at the Bucharest summit that fall short of a MAP. NATO's new member states argue that no one would stand to gain anything from what has become known as the "halfway-house" scenario.