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Belarus Faces Increasing International Condemnation


Belarus is drawing strong international condemnation, following this week's crackdown against independent media and peaceful demonstrators in the former Soviet republic. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky is following events from Moscow.

The presidency of the European Union, currently held by Slovenia, in a statement Friday called on Belarusian authorities to stop further arrests of local journalists with ties to foreign media, and to stop persecuting representatives of the country's civil society.

Belarusian security agents on Thursday arrested at least 30 independent journalists in 12 cities on suspicion of insulting the country's president, Aleksandr Lukashenko.

On Tuesday, at least 70 protesters were detained during a rally marking 90 years since the founding of the independent Belarusian National Republic. Opposition groups have used the occasion to protest against the authoritarian Lukashenko government.

Belarusian neighbors Poland and Lithuania, as well as the United States are among the countries expressing concern about the situation in Belarus.

Andre Bastunyets, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told VOA that a declining economy is beginning to politicize the people of Belarus, who have often been described as apolitical.

Bastunyets says harsh moves against activists or the media are aimed at breaking a mirror that journalists hold up to the government, as if that would improve its appearance. He says authorities also are trying to minimize domestic and international awareness of the situation in Belarus.

Bastunyets says most of the arrested journalists have been released, but their equipment and material have been confiscated. He says they will face questioning by the Belarusian security service, still known by its Soviet-era name - the KGB - which, he says, could use the confiscated material to further intimidate journalists.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry did not respond to several VOA requests for a comment, saying no authorized representative was available. A statement on the ministry's Web site says the arrested journalists were Belarusian citizens, who had long worked for foreign pay, but without proper accreditation, and, therefore, could not be considered foreign journalists.

The statement adds a bit of unexpected local color, citing "wise Belarusian ancestors" who said, "Not everyone in a cassock is a monk."

Andre Bastunyets says he does not expect foreign condemnation to elicit a quick reaction from Belarusian authorities.

However, the journalist says he is convinced that, if the international community did not pay any attention to Belarus, the situation there would be much worse.

The United States refers to Belarusian President Lukashenko as Europe's last dictator, and accuses the country of violating free speech, human rights and election rules.

The United States this week cut its embassy staff in Minsk by half, amid deteriorating bilateral relations. Tensions increased last year after the United States imposed sanctions on the state-run oil processing firm, Belneftekhim. The Belarusian KGB now claims to have uncovered a network of U.S. spies in the country.