Date: Monday 18 November 2002
Subj: Perestroika reversed, but pressure mounts on Lukashenko.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator
On 31 October 2002 - Reformation Day - Belarus' President Aleksandr Lukashenko signed the highly repressive new religion law - regarded by Keston Institute as the most restrictive in Europe. The Religion Law has been compared to Stalin's 1929 decree on religious associations, which imposed severe restrictions on religious activity for almost the entire Soviet period. There is strong support for the new law from the Moscow Patriarchate. (Link 1)
Belarusian parliamentarian Syarhey Kastsyan recently defended the new law. He said it is intended to erect a barrier against Western clergy who "creep into Belarus and discredit Slavic values." (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. 4 October 2002).
The oppressive new religion law entered into legal force on Saturday 16 November 02. Keston Institute reported, "From then (16 Nov 2002), all unregistered religious activity will be illegal; all communities with fewer than 20 members will become illegal; any religious activity in private homes - apart from occasional, small scale meetings - will be illegal; religious communities that do not have a registered umbrella body will not be able to invite foreign citizens for religious work; and all religious literature will be subject to compulsory prior censorship. In addition, all religious organisations will have to be compulsorily re-registered within two years." (Link 2)
However - pressure is mounting on President Lukashenko, from Belarusian churches vowing to obey God rather than man, from the European Union that votes tomorrow (Tuesday 19 Nov) to enforce a travel ban on the "dictator", and from NATO that is refusing to entertain Lukashenko's presence at the forthcoming summit. Lukashenko is even finding his long-time ally, Russia, no longer totally amenable, as Putin and Lukashenko appear have come down on opposite sides of the War on Terror.
INTERNAL PRESSURE MOUNTS ON LUKASHENKO
PRESS-RELEASE OF INFORMATIONAL CENTRE "FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE" 13.11.02
"On 31 October 2002 the President of the Republic of Belarus signed the Law "About Freedom of Faith and Religious Organizations". Once again the authorities totally ignored the opinion of thousands of Belarusian citizens and millions of Christians all over the world.
"The entry of this law into force will be a blow to freedom of conscience, one of the fundamental freedoms given to individuals by God and on which basic democratic institutions are founded. We believe that in this case the authorities have exceeded the powers given by God.
"The best periods in Belarus' history were the periods of inter-religious tolerance. The violation of such tolerance in the seventeenth century brought about a chronic national crisis. What will such anti-Biblical measures by the authorities bring at the beginning of the twenty first century?
"The newly-adopted law forces us to violate the basic Law on which our faith is based: the Law of God. As believers, we have the full right not to obey laws and decrees that go against our faith and conscience, following the Biblical principle, 'We ought to obey God rather than men'."
On behalf of Association of Full Gospel Churches,
in the Republic of Belarus,
President Alexander Sakovich 01.11.02
Informational Centre "FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE"
Contacts: phone 276 07 54
EUROPEAN PRESSURE MOUNTS ON LUKASHENKO
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has long been a thorn in Lukashenko's side as it has pressured the Belarusian government to reverse it's declining human rights standards and self-imposed isolation.
On 23 October 2002 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL - http://www.rferl.org/) reported that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry had decided that the Advisory and Monitoring Group for the OSCE, would no longer be allowed to operate in Belarus "in its current form."
It appears however, that Lukashenko is stepping too far over the line and a European backlash is being unleashed.
In a statement on Wednesday 13 November, the 15-nation EU chided Lukashenko for continuing to violate the democratic and human rights standards of the OSCE.
A BBC article of 15 November entitled, "EU considers 'dictator' ban", reported that the European Union is planning to ban Lukashenko, and up to 50 members of his government, from travelling to EU and candidate countries because of continuing violations of democracy and human rights. "The banning decision will be taken by EU foreign ministers on Tuesday and will enter into force immediately. So far it is just a proposal on the agenda of the foreign ministers' meeting, but correspondents say it is likely to be passed."
The Times of London reported on 16 November, "Diplomatic sources confirmed yesterday that all EU governments were fully behind the initiative. The text that ministers will approve notes: 'Serious violations of human rights and recurrent restrictions on fundamental freedoms imposed by the Government of Belarus, such as the recent approval of the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations, are in clear contradiction with European democratic
On Friday 15 November 2002, Czech authorities decided to refuse to grant Lukashenko a visa to attend the NATO summit being held in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, this week.
The Associated Press quoted Czech Foreign minister Cyril Svoboda as saying, "We are convinced that the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms is not taking place in Belarus. Lukashenko would use this visit to legitimise his position at home". (Link 3 and 4)
The Belarus government is threatening to cut off diplomatic relations with Czech Republic in retaliation for the move. Lukashenko has also threatened to open Belarus's borders to allow a flood of illegal immigrants and drugs into a Europe unprepared to accept his presence. (Link 4)
On 15 November 2002, RFE/RL reported that, "Russia is finally beginning to turn against its long-time ally Lukashenka, and that this could spell the end of Lukashenka and the start of democracy."
Hans-Georg Wieck was head of the OSCE monitoring and advisory mission in Minsk before it was shut down is not as optimistic as others. In his opinion, Moscow still has clear designs on Minsk, "We should have no illusions that for the prevailing mood in Moscow, Belarus is a Russian province," he said.
RFE/RL went on to report that "Vincuk Vyachorka, the leader of the Belarusian National Front opposition party, said the most Belarus could hope for from Russia is for it to withdraw its support for Lukashenka and not to compromise Minsk's sovereignty.
"To that end, Viachorka and others urged the U.S. to use its leverage with Russia to effect change in Belarus. Viachorka also expressed hope the U.S. Congress would pass the Belarus Act, a bill under consideration in both houses that proposes further isolating Minsk and giving robust economic assistance to the opposition in a bid to bring down Lukashenka.
"The bill has yet to come up for vote and appears to be a low priority, although further revelations about arms sales to Iraq would do a lot to bring Lukashenka to the attention of U.S. lawmakers. Senator McCain, a top Republican presidential candidate in 2000, said he is hopeful the new Congress will pass the bill sometime next year.
"With the U.S. and Russia allied in the war on terror, McCain added that he hopes Putin will realize that Moscow's backing of Minsk is a stain on his reputation in the West. He said it is clear that without Russian support, 'there would be no Lukashenka.'" (Link 5)
- Elizabeth Kendal
1) KESTON NEWS SERVICE, 8 October 2002
BELARUS: Pressure Mounts on President to Vet Repressive Religion Law.
2) KESTON NEWS SERVICE, 14 November 2002.
"BELARUS: Repressive Religion Law Enters Force on Saturday."
3) The Associated Press
"Belarus President Denied Entry Visa"
Friday, November 15, 2002; 10:38 AM
4) The International Herald Tribune
"Prague bars Belarus President" by Susan B. Glasser
Saturday, November 16, 2002
http://www.iht.com/articles/77181.html (recommended reading)
5) RFE/RL "Belarus: Conference In Washington Urges 'Regime Change'
In Minsk" By Jeffrey Donovan 15 November 2002
NATO summit - http://www.natosummit.cz/en/