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Kontek: Belarus "A Black Hole" in Europe

(Washington, D.C.--August 14, 2003) Belarus is the least democratic and most repressive country in Europe, according to Ted Kontek, a former Political/Economics Officer in U.S. Embassy in Minsk. Before the reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in September 2001, the country still had a good chance of joining the fast-developing states of Central and Eastern Europe, like neighboring Poland or Lithuania. However, Kontek said, in the last two years one can observe a steady decline in Belarus' economy and, consequently, a deterioration in the quality of life there.

Kontek said that, in his discussions with Belarusians, he found that they are concerned about two issues -- the possibility of a referendum to change the constitution and allow Lukashenka to run for a third consecutive term as President, and the possible loss of their country's sovereignty to a deepening political and, especially, economic and currency union with Russia. Kontek noted that the specter of a referendum, first proposed for August and now for November -- has been used as an unofficial justification for a crackdown this year on Belarus' independent media and on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGO's) operating in the country. Kontek also said that Belarusians are convinced that a process has already been established to bring about a union with Russia, in spite of the frosty relations between Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Many Belarusians are unhappy and feel that they and their country are being "left behind" in terms of economic security by the rapidly strengthening economies of Russia and Ukraine. They do not blame the government for the lack of economic reform, Kontek said, but rather Lukashenka personally. Furthermore, according to Kontek, Lukashenka seems to be increasingly isolated, not only from the Belarusian people, but increasingly from his governing nomenklatura and from the business elite. The political opposition in Belarus, however, remains weak and divided, Kontek said, having no shared action program beyond its opposition to Lukashenka.

Kontek asserted that U.S. and EU policy towards Belarus has consistently emphasized a desire to see Belarus become part of "Europe, whole and free". However, Kontek noted, relations between Belarus and the West are rather "bleak", though they have improved marginally since the 1997 Drozdy incident, during which several Western ambassadors were evicted by Belarusian authorities from their official residences. Kontek said that relations with the Lukashenka government can be normalized only after his government conducts a thorough investigation into the fate of four "disappeared" opposition leaders and meets the four conditions set by the OSCE in April 2000: adopting a democratic election law, ending human rights abuses and the climate of fear gripping Belarus, allowing the opposition access to the state media, and granting real powers to the parliament. As demonstrated by the 2001 presidential elections and the recent crackdown, Belarus has yet to satisfy any of these conditions. The US has even expressed a willingness to work with the Belarusian government on a "step by step" basis, Kontek said, in order to respond to any positive steps taken by Belarus. However, Kontek noted, even this show of flexibility by American diplomats has been rebuffed by Belarusian authorities, who say that the West "should reward [Belarus] for not doing bad things."

Western governments are under no illusions that Lukashenka will change his policies, Kontek said, and will continue to enforce a ban on contacts with ministerial-level Belarus officials and pursue implementation of the four OSCE conditions. At the same time, the U.S. is interested in supporting the development of Belarus' repressed civic society, "with or without the Belarusian government's agreement," Kontek said. He described the suspicion and difficulties faced by western civil society assistance programs trying to operate overtly in Belarus, and suggested that Belarusian NGO's may benefit from the opportunity to establish their own identities while still receiving technical support and advice from abroad.

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