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Article by Vera Rich: Soros Foundation director expelled as Lukashenka tightens his grip

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Soros Foundation director expelled as Lukashenka tightens his grip

By Vera Rich

New restrictions have recently been imposed on what remains of the independent press and on foreign correspondents, while a presidential decree on demonstrations and pickets now forces the organisers of such activities to choose between legality and effectiveness. Demonstrations are barred from the most significant locations, such as Minsk's Independence Square, and limited to 5,000 participants elsewhere.

Last weekend, Russian TV reporters in Minsk were forbidden to transmit video materials of opposition marches, and when a representative of Russia's NTV channel tried to take a cassette of the demonstrations over the border into Lithuania, it was confiscated at the customs.

On 24 March [1997], the NTV correspondent in Minsk, Aleksandr Stupnikov, was stripped of his accreditation for covering events in Belarus in a 'biased' manner. The following day, some 50 foreign journalists accredited in Minsk staged a rally in his defence saying that journalists are no longer able to work normally in Belarus. The rally was illegal, since reporters are no longer allowed to cover disturbances.

On 16 March [1997] the director of the Soros Foundation's Belarus office, Peter Byrne, was arrested at Minsk airport on returning form a trip to Hungary. Byrne was held incommunicado until the next morning and then expelled from the country for having allegedly broken Belarusian law by taking part in 'illegal actions' and 'meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state'.

According to the report on Belarusian TV, Byrne was alleged to have been involved in the organisation of recent opposition rallies. The station also accused Byrne of bribery and of failing to comply with the regulations for foreigners staying in Belarus.

President Lukashenka repeated the same charges the following day – significantly, in an address to the former Soviet-era elite of Belarus. 'We will not allow foreign citizens to finance the opposition or take part in disturbances,' he said. But, he added, he did not wish the US government to regard Byrne's detention and expulsion as 'a deliberate act'.

To date, the Soros Foundation has given Belarus US$13 million to develop education and for health and environmental programmes. The direct financial aid to the independent media, which it has given in other countries of central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, is not permitted under Belarusian law. The Russian news agency Interfax suggested that Byrne's expulsion does not herald the curbing of the Foundation's activities in Belarus. However, employees of the Belarusian Soros office see the expulsion as a warning.

Since Lukashenka came to power in 1994 he has consistently tried to control the Foundation's work, and that of all other charities working in the country and, in particular, to specify how and where they spend their money. In 1995, when the Foundation complained that its independence was being undermined, Lukashenka tried to impose a 40 per cent tax on all money it brought into the country. The Soros Foundation headquarters in New York threatened to close down the Belarus operation, and Lukashenka climbed down.

Now, however, he has ordered a state audit of the Foundation's financial affairs, although such an audit contravenes the Belarusian law on public associations. This could pave the way for charges of financial malpractice, a favourite ploy of the president to harass his enemies. Such charges have recently been brought against such diverse bodies as the Communist Party of Belarus and the Chernobyl-relief charity Sakavik, headed by Maria Mitskievich, grand-daughter of the country's national poet, Jakub Kolas. In the meantime, the presidential decree on tax and customs regulations, issued earlier this month, has deprived the independent charities of the concessions they formerly enjoyed.

Byrne's expulsion was not an isolated act. On 23 March Serge Alexandrov, the first secretary at the US embassy in Minsk, was detained and ordered to leave the country within 24 hours – apparently for similar allegations to those brought against Byrne. Both expulsions come against the background of a wave of arrests throughout March of opposition leaders. Some of these arrests have been pre-emptive, on the grounds that they might be planning illegal demonstrations to mark the third anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution, or the declaration of independence in 1918.

On the eve of Constitution Day, Yury Khadyka, a professor of physics and deputy chairman of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, was arrested. Last year, when he and a fellow activist, Viacheslav Siuchyk, were arrested for organising a Chernobyl Day rally, they went on a hunger strike which brought them close to death. They were freed in time, owing largely to the intervention of Russia's President Yeltsin. This time Khadyka again went on hunger strike, but was released after a few days.

Opposition demonstrations for Constitution Day and for Independence Day brought the expected arrests and police violence. Some bizarre incidents were reported – one elderly lady, who happened simply to be passing at the time, was beaten up by the police. 'I have never been political,' she said afterwards. 'I have never been against the president, but by God I am now!'

Former senior politicians were also targeted in connection with the demonstrations. Following the Constitution Day clashes, several former senior politicians, including ex-defence minister Pavel Kazlouski, ex-interior minister Yury Zakharenka, and ex-deputy speaker of Parliament, Hienadz Karpenka, were placed under informal house arrest. After the Independence Day demonstrations, both Zakharenka and Karpenka were briefly detained, and the latter beaten so badly that he was placed in the intensive care unit of the prison hospital.


This article originally appeared on The Index on Censorship Web site in 1997, but apparently is no longer available there.

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