The U.S. ambassador to Belarus said Wednesday prospects for a free and fair presidential election in Belarus in March are slim. He said if the voting is not perceived as meeting international standards, it will mean more isolation for the authoritarian government of President Alexander Lukashenko.
U.S. expectations for the March 19 election in which Mr. Lukashenko is seeking another six-year term in office have never been very high.
And the chief U.S. diplomat in Minsk, Ambassador George Krol, says prospects that the opposition will have a fair chance to challenge the country's ruler since 1994 remain very dismal.
In a talk with reporters here, Ambassador Krol said the Lukashenko government has denied political opponents access to the official media, and is maintaining what he called a sense of insecurity and fear, aided by a law recently passed by the parliament making it a crime to discredit the state.
He said even though opposition forces have managed to organize behind a main challenger to the president, physicist and human rights activist Alexander Milinkevich, they have been unable to get their message circulated broadly.
The ambassador also faulted authorities for refusing the early entry of international observers who could monitor the fairness of the campaigning leading up to the vote.
Under questioning, Mr. Krol declined to discuss the possibility of new Western sanctions against Belarus in the event the election is deemed to have been unfair. But he said such an outcome would add to the country's international isolation:.
"The Belarussian government knows that it cannot, will not, be able to enjoy a robust cooperative relationship with the United States and the European Union as long as it maintains this kind of a system," he said. "And its hostility it seems to the very values that the United States and the European Union hold dear, as being fundamental to having a good relationship with our countries."
Mr. Lukashenko won the presidency in what was considered a relatively free election in 1994, but has ruled since then with an increasingly authoritarian hand.
The United States has been a frequent critic of his rule including the prosecution of opposition figures, and has sharply reduced aid to Belarus over the years.
The Belarus Democracy Act approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in October 2004 authorized assistance to non-governmental groups there, while barring official aid and investment except for humanitarian purposes.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has listed Belarus as one of six outposts of tyranny, and last April she met with opposition figures from the country on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in Lithuania.
Belarus, a former Soviet republic, has maintained close ties with Moscow and enjoys Russian aid including cut-rate energy supplies like those the Russian government is ending for Ukraine.
But Ambassador Krol said Belarus cannot rely solely on Moscow and needs trade and economic ties with the rest of Europe, which he suggested could be at risk if the political situation becomes more severe.
The U.S. envoy would not speculate on the possibility of political upheaval in Belarus, like that seen in Georgia and Ukraine, in response to a rigged election.
He said there were some demonstrations in Minsk following a deeply flawed and internationally-criticized parliamentary election in October 2004 but that they didn't lead to anything more profound.