Belarus Election, Arrests Prompt NATO To Mull 'Options'


NATO is reviewing its political and military relations with Belarus following the country's election earlier this month, widely condemned by the international community and independent observers as a farce.

Belarus' ruling - and iron-fisted - President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected March 19 with 83 percent of the vote, according to official estimates. Thousands took to the street the same day and afterwards to protest the results.

"We are reviewing our options," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters here March 29. "The allies are looking carefully at NATO's relationship with Belarus in view of the overall election and the arrest of protesters in recent days."

Appathurai refused to outline what NATO's options were, though by all appearances they seem to be very few.

Though Minsk signed up to the alliance's Partnership for Peace cooperation program in 1995, it did nothing with it until 1997, when it launched a modest agenda of low-level contacts in civil emergency planning, border security and other areas. That level of activity remains unchanged today, said Appathurai, who added that "high-level political contacts with Belarus [by NATO officials] have been and are avoided."

The main concrete measure between the two sides centers on a small program to destroy a stock of 700,000 land mines in Belarus, which is financed in part by a 200,000-euro ($241,000) contribution from NATO members Canada and Lithuania. Appathurai said there were no plans to halt the program, which is carried out by a nongovernmental organization working in Belarus.

Separately, NATO has just begun tasking how it might provide support later this year to the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan, or to a U.N.-led mission thereafter. The decision to sketch out NATO's support options follows a request March 27 from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's secretary-general.

"Under no circumstances will NATO lead any peacekeeping mission in Darfur," Appathurai said. "Our role - if we choose to have a role - will be one of support, either to the African Union or the United Nations."