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Tensions High Between Washington and Minsk


Tensions remain high between the United States and Belarus. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the latest diplomatic row between the two countries.

Simply put, relations are not good between the United States and Belarus - headed by president Alexander Lukashenko. Recently they have deteriorated even further after Belarus expelled 10 U.S. diplomats - a decision U.S. officials described as "unjustified and unwarranted." Belarus also accused the United States of recruiting citizens into a spy ring.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey rejected the accusations, calling them "ridiculous."

"These allegations are simply untrue and are unfounded and they make a very poor excuse for reducing our embassy staff," he said Monday.

U.S. officials are contemplating what measures to take in response to the Belarus action.

Experts are baffled as to what prompted this decision by the Belarus government.

Jason Lyall is with Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

"Seemingly, for no apparent reason, all of a sudden there's a spy scandal," he said. "And I think you are seeing right now a lot of Lukashenko's personal paranoia coming through on this. And now he's just simply dispatched a number of American citizens as nominal spies and has thrown them out of the country.

"It's just not clear what precipitated this, in the sense that Belarussian-American relations were already quite low, particularly with the democracy promotion type agenda that the Bush administration has," he added. "And this seems almost like a bid for attention."

For his part, Robert Legvold from Columbia University, says Mr. Lukashenko is known for rash actions.

"We had an episode about six or seven years ago when he was angered because people exiting the U.S. embassy blocked his exit from the presidential driveway, at which point he cut off all the sewer lines and tried to push all of the embassies out of their locations," he said. "It was called 'the sewer war.' Eventually, after more than a year it was settled - the U.S. did move its embassy.

"And then a year ago, there was a major brouhaha with the Poles when he went after a Polish organization that operates within Poland," he added. "And I think this is just more of the same kind of thing."

Experts - such as Olga Oliker with the RAND Corporation - say since he was first elected president in 1994, Mr. Lukashenko has ruled that country with an iron fist, consolidating power and stifling dissent.

"There is not a great deal of freedom in Belarus: political, speech," she said. "It's a very tightly controlled government. Lukashenko is the single human being in charge of it. Belarussians have nothing resembling a free press, have nothing resembling freedom of assembly. There are no opposition parties - there is no opposition to speak of. It's a closed system."

Marshall Goldman from Harvard University agrees.

"He's really erratic - except that you know that if you criticize him, he'll be consistent and won't tolerate that kind of criticism," she said. "In some sense, if you're outside the country, he is a bit of a clown. But inside the country you don't dare laugh at him for his behavior. And he thinks of himself as a kind of superman. And he just won't tolerate anyone saying that he's not behaving well or advancing the interests of his country."

Over the years, the European Union and the United States have been very critical of Mr. Lukashenko who has been called "the last dictator in Europe." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice depicted Belarus as one of six "outposts of tyranny." (The others are Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe). In response, Belarus has accused the United States and Europe of meddling in the country's internal affairs.

Experts say Russia, Belarus' closest ally, has been silent in the latest diplomatic row between Minsk and Washington.

Jason Lyall from Princeton University says Moscow is focusing its attention on the inauguration Wednesday of Dmitri Medvediev succeeding Vladimir Putin.

"Right now the Kremlin is extraordinarily distracted with the handoff of power and so I think they just see this as a minor issue," he said. "If this row continues, I think you may see Russia start paying attention - but for right now, I think the Kremlin is so tied up with the handover that this seems to be pretty small potatoes."

Analysts say if the diplomatic row is not resolved soon between Washington and Minsk, Moscow may be forced to take the side of Belarus as it has done in the past whenever there was a confrontation between that country and the West.

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