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Belarus Threatens to Retaliate over US-EU Travel Ban - 2004-09-29


Authorities in Belarus say they are drawing up a retaliatory travel ban on U.S. and European Union officials, after four Belarusian officials suspected of involvement in the disappearances of opposition leaders were denied visas to travel abroad this week.

In a written statement late Tuesday, the foreign ministry of Belarus accuses the United States and European Union of what, it calls, "unacceptable double standards."

The statement says, once again, the United States and European Union are "wrongfully taking on the role of judge and jury" in denying visas to the Belarusians.

The officials cited in the ban are suspected of involvement in what are widely believed to be the politically-motivated disappearances of three key opposition leaders in Belarus and a critical journalist.

Yevgeni Volk is a leading analyst on Belarus with the The Heritage Foundation in Moscow, an independent policy institute. He says the move by the West, while welcome, will likely yield little real progress on the matter.

"[President] Lukashenko has got very strong leverage in the country to control public opinion, to manipulate the media, dodge the results of the elections, to escape any public criticism," Mr. Volk said. "So, in fact, he is not vulnerable to any foreign pressures maybe, but for strict economic sanctions, which are not yet imposed. So, I believe that these moves by the United States and EU are more symbolic, political signals to [Mr.] Lukashenko. But I'm not sure that he will be open to them and ready to change his political line."

Mr. Volk also gives little credence to Belarus' stated plans to draw up a corresponding list of its own, banning American and European officials travel to Belarus. He says relations between Belarus and the West were already slim to non-existent, before the events of this week.

Mr. Volk says he is equally pessimistic that the ban on travel will bring about any kind of change in what he says is long-standing government inaction in investigating the opposition disappearances, which date back to 1999. "They want to give an impression that they are working, but everyone perfectly knows that the roots of all these episodes are very deep inside the power and no one is ready to give away the people in the close entourage of [Mr.] Lukashenko," he said.

President Lukashenko has long maintained his innocence in connection with the disappearances and has said he will defend his officials to the fullest.

Addressing the Belarusian Security Council this week in the capital, Minsk, the president accused officials in the West of using the travel ban as a pretext to link him to the disappearances and drive him from his job ahead of a key political referendum next month.

Voters in Belarus will be asked on October 17 if they support allowing Mr. Lukashenko to serve a third term. In power since 1994, President Lukashenko has already extended his mandate once through a referendum heavily criticized as "unfair" by the United States and Europe.

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