Commission concerned at deterioration of Belarus presidential campaign

In Short:

Protests and scuffles by the fledgling opposition mark the buildup to the 19 March election day in Belarus. The Commission is "watching extremely closely."

The Commission is "deeply worried" over reports of "serious violations of the campaigning rights" of the candidates in Belarus's presidential election race. The elections are scheduled for 19 March. According to press reports, a mass protest rally in downtown Minsk followed the beating and brief detention by government security agents on 2 March of Alexander Kozulin, a leading opposition candidate.

President Alexander Lukashenka has ruled Belarus since 1994, and now he is seeking a third term. Several Western governments refer to him as Europe's last dictator. In a recent speech, Lukashenka described the opposition as "mercenary opponents of our society and our people," adding that the opposition "will be dismantled in a tough way after the elections."

"It is not for [the West] to teach us about human rights," Lukashenka said. "Let them deal with their own affairs. They have plunged the entire Middle East into blood. We see your democracy soaked in blood," he said.

Ferrero-Waldner said that the Commission will continue to watch the elections "extremely closely" and added that the EU is prepared to take further restrictive measures against the responsible individuals if the elections fail to meet democratic standards.

In its 2 March interim report, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) voiced its concern over the "serious deterioration in the campaign atmosphere."

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the Belarus authorities for their recent assaults on journalists. "This is a shocking violation of democratic rights," IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said in a statement.