- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

One of the crummiest countries to have emerged out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is Belarus.

My opinion is shared by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, whose representatives as a joint delegation have just reported that Belarus' tyrannical President Alexander Lukashenko and his government have done little to install a democracy since Belarus achieved independence 10 years ago.

Not even Russia, with whom Belarus signed a treaty on a two-state union Dec. 8, 1999, envisioning greater political and economic integration, has actively sought to consummate the accord. Tells you something.

The delegation criticized parliamentary elections held last October since the government had terrorized and denied access to print and electronic media during the election campaign. With presidential elections scheduled for this September assuming that Mr. Lukashenko, president since July 1994, allows them to take place the inter-European delegation demanded that this time the elections be conducted fairly and democratically. It is safe to predict that Mr. Lukashenko's "market socialism" regime that he has imposed on its population of 10.3 million will violate democratic election norms unafraid.

And now a commentator, via the government-controlled television, has accused the U.S. Embassy in Minsk of fomenting inter-religious strife. According to Keston News Service, the TV commentator, Alexander Zimovsky, Mr. Lukashenko's cheerleader, charged that some 430 secret CIA agents "have visited Belarus through the U.S. Embassy in Belarus over the past eight years." These agents have prepared materials "aimed at discrediting all issues of Belarusian policy" and financing "Belarusian opposition groups and their leaders, artificially forcing separatist moods and religious conflicts."

The U.S. Embassy in Minsk, the country's capital, not only denied the charges, but its spokesman, John Kunststadter, went a lot further than is usual in diplomatic imbroglios:

"If anyone has anything to say about fomenting religious tension, one should direct many questions to the Belarusian authorities regarding the situation of Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestant denominations and others that's the real issue."

Keston News Service notes that the Belarusian government strongly favors the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the largest religious community in the country with about 80 percent of the population. Other religious communities are regarded as subversive or potentially subversive. Religious activity is guided not only by restrictive published laws, but and this is what one means by the absence of a rule of law by a network of unpublished decrees and regulations that often override provisions of published law. The Catholic Church and Protestant churches face numerous obstructions to their work, including barriers to buying or building places of worship, restrictions on inviting foreign clergy and church workers, and a ban on renting premises for religious services. Thus the government precludes public worship services by churches that do not own their own facilities. "Catch 22" Belarus-style.

Annual surveys show a deteriorating respect for human rights: political show trials, deeply flawed parliamentary elections, disappearance of well-known opposition figures, restrictions on press freedom, a ban on public demonstrations. Opposition candidates are refused registration and thus cannot run in elections.

One of the Belarusian government's dictatorial actions, which should interest the AFL-CIO, is reminiscent of Soviet history and the rise of Poland's Solidarity: suppression of independent trade unions. Members of the Independent Trade Union of Belarus are pressured at their workplace to join state unions or lose their jobs. The Independent Trade Union newspaper Rabochi (The Worker) is regularly confiscated.

Last year, according to Human Rights Watch, Belarusian authorities twice seized the print run of Rabochi and detained the editor and three others, including the director of the offending printing press, for publishing articles detailing the opposition's plans to boycott the parliamentary elections.

Three independent newspapers, including Rabochi, are going to be out of business next week. The owner of the printing press has canceled a lease with a private printing house. No printing press, no newspapers. Simple.

Belarus is no Soviet Union and Mr. Lukashenko is no Stalin but not from want of trying.

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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