Thursday, 19 May 2005

Belarus: International Spotlight Falls On Minsk

By Robert Parsons

U.S. President George W. Bush delivered a quick rebuff to Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), on 17 May when the U.S. leader described Belarus as Europe's last dictatorship and praised the efforts of its neighboring countries to promote freedom in Belarus. He was speaking at the International Republican Institute in Washington, which Patrushev accused recently of plotting to undermine the government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. As RFE/RL reports, there are signs of growing international interest in Belarus as it prepares for next year's presidential election.

Prague, 19 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Fresh from his triumphant visit to two of Europe's newest democracies, Latvia and Georgia, President Bush was in messianic mood when he addressed the International Republican Institute (IRI), an organization that seeks to promote democracy worldwide.

Bush urged friends and allies of the United States to stand up and be counted in the cause of strengthening democracy around the world. And he noted that some of the most active supporters of democracy were those who had themselves suffered under tyrannies. With the help of the IRI, Bush said, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia were working with civil leaders in Belarus to bring freedom to Europe's last dictatorship.

It was a calculated slap in the face for Russian FSB head Patrushev, who earlier in May singled out the IRI for particular criticism. Addressing the State Duma, Patrushev said the organization was plotting the continuation of velvet revolutions in the post-Soviet territory, including Belarus.

"Five million dollars has been assigned in 2005 for the implementation by this nongovernmental organization of programs to finance opposition movements in Belarus," Patrushev said. "At the present moment, they are looking into how to involve Ukrainian 'orange' activists in training of opposition members in Belarus and creating a network of opposition youth organizations."

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher described Patrushev's remarks as completely false and mostly ridiculous.

"Our election aid in Belarus and elsewhere is for civic participation in the election process, balanced media coverage, nonpartisan political party training, election monitoring, and electoral administration. these programs are nonpartisan, they're transparent in nature, and we'll conduct them in Belarus in order to support efforts to build civil society and democracy," Boucher said.

Yet Patrushev is undoubtedly correct in thinking that the United States and its European allies see the presidential election in Belarus in 2006 as an opportunity to unseat President Lukashenka. The pressure on the man who has systematically crushed all political opposition since his election in 1994 is growing inexorably. A series of European leaders used the summit of the Council of Europe in Warsaw this week to call for change in Belarus.

Lukashenka is used to criticism from the United States and European Union. What makes the new attacks different is that many of them now come from Eastern Europe and former republics of the Soviet Union. On 17 May, Slovakia added its voice to the swelling chorus of condemnation. The detention of yet another prominent opposition leader this week was, it said, further evidence of political motivated pressure on the opposition and media in Belarus.

Poland, which borders Belarus, has become one of Lukashenka's most outspoken critics. Yesterday it expelled a Belarusian diplomat in retaliation for the expulsion of the first secretary of the Polish Embassy in Minsk one day before. Earlier, at the summit of the Council of Europe, Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski said that "widespread violations of elementary principles of democracy and human rights in Belarus" were not acceptable. His foreign minister, Adam Rotfeld, made much the same point.

"In Belarus, the internal system has to change," Rotfeld said. "It is the last example of the sort of museum piece that the Council of Europe does not accept."

Lukashenka might be feeling the heat, but isolation is a condition to which he has grown accustomed. He makes no secret of his contempt for international as well as domestic opinion.

His opponents, both at home and abroad, will be encouraged by the collapse of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in the elections in Ukraine in late 2004.

But Lukashenka is a tougher proposition altogether. He enjoys a solid nucleus of support in Belarus and he has repeatedly demonstrated his readiness to use force when threatened.