Be­larus faces crit­i­cism for throw­ing out E.U. watchdog

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KATHY LALLY lal­lyk@wash­post.com

moscow — In­ter­na­tional mon­i­tors pushed back Satur­day against an an­nounce­ment by Be­larus that it was clos­ing the of­fice of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Se­cu­rity and Co­op­er­a­tion in Europe, which had crit­i­cized the con­duct of the coun­try’s re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Lithua­nia, which took over the OSCE chair­man­ship Satur­day, re­sponded sharply to the dec­la­ra­tion by Be­laru­sian For­eign Min­istry spokesman An­drei Savinykh a day ear­lier that “ the OSCE has ful­filled its man­date” in Minsk, where it has op­er­ated since 1998.

“Its man­date has not been com­pleted,” said Au­dro­nius Azubalis, Lithua­nia’s for­eign min­is­ter. “ There is an im­por­tant job for the OSCE to con­tinue in Be­larus.”

The move did not come as a sur­prise. When Be­larus voted Dec. 19, po­lice beat up and ar­rested many re­porters. Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko, the nation’s ruler for 16 years, won 80 per­cent of the vote against nine op­po­nents. Seven of those can­di­dates were later ar­rested on charges of or­ga­niz­ing pub­lic dis­tur­bances, and the Be­laru­san KGB launched raids on other jour­nal­ists, con­fis­cat­ing com­put­ers, hard drives and doc­u­ments re­lated to their cov­er­age of the elec­tion.

Con­doleezza Rice, for­mer U.S. sec­re­tary of state, once called Be­larus the last true re­main­ing dic­ta­tor­ship in the heart of Europe. All of its elec­tions have been crit­i­cized as un­fair by in­ter­na­tional ob­servers.

Af­ter the lat­est elec­tion, Dunja Mi­ja­tovic, the OSCE rep­re­sen­ta­tive on free­dom of the me­dia, cen­sured Be­larus for the attacks on jour­nal­ists.

“ The po­lice should as­sist re­porters who cover pub­lic events,” Mi­ja­tovic said, “not beat or in­tim­i­date them, dam­age their equip­ment and im­prison them.”

As for the elec­tion, the OSCE said, “Elec­tion night was marred by the de­ten­tion of most pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and hun­dreds of ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and civil so­ci­ety rep­re­sen­ta­tives,” adding that ob­servers de­scribed al­most half of the vote counts they mon­i­tored as “ bad” or “very bad.”

Be­larus, a nation of 10 mil­lion, has a mostly state-owned econ­omy and a bal­loon­ing bud­get deficit, and be­fore the elec­tion, the in­ward-look­ing Lukashenko had ap­peared to be reach­ing out both to Rus­sia and the West for pos­si­ble eco­nomic as­sis­tance.

In Novem­ber, theUnited States said Lukashenko had agreed to give up weapons-grade nu­clear ma­te­rial and in ex­change would be par­tic­i­pat­ing in the 2012 U.S.-spon­sored Nu­clear Se­cu­rity Sum­mit.

But Lukashenko has never taken kindly to in­ter­na­tional re­proach. The nu­clear agree­ment came against the back­drop of a long his­tory of frosty re­la­tions, which reached an es­pe­cially low point in 1995, when Be­larus shot downa hot air bal­loon, killing two Amer­i­cans tak­ing part in an of­fi­cially an­nounced race. Lukashenko has re­fused to pay any com­pen­sa­tion for the deaths.

U.S. in­ter­ests in Be­larus are rep­re­sented by a charge d’af­faires rather than an am­bas­sador. And af­ter last month’s elec­tion, Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, along with E.U. High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cather­ine Ash­ton, is­sued a state­ment crit­i­ciz­ing the vote and its af­ter­math.

“Re­spect for democ­racy and hu­man rights re­main cen­tral to im­prov­ing Be­larus’s re­la­tions with the United States and the Euro­pean Union,” the state­ment said. “With­out sub­stan­tial progress in these ar­eas, re­la­tions will not im­prove.”

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