Belarus orders closure of OSCE office in Minsk
Belarus on Friday ordered the closure of the office of the OSCE in Minsk, in an apparent response to the transatlantic security group's stinging criticism of its presidential polls.
The move was quickly condemned by Western countries including incoming OSCE chair Lithuania, which expressed "deep regret" over the closure.
The move came as Belarus still holds hundreds of opposition supporters arrested in the mass protest against the December 19 polls swept by President Alexander Lukashenko in a crackdown decried by the West.
"The Belarussian side has taken the decision not to prolong the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk," foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said in a statement.
"It needs to be said that this is a conscious decision caused by the lack of objective reasons for retaining an OSCE mission in Belarus," he added.
"This position has been stated for a number of years in official announcements by the Belarussian side."
Giving the rationale for the closure, the foreign ministry spokesman said only that the office's mandate "had been fulfilled".
But the move comes after monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said after the polls that Belarus is still "a considerable way" from holding democratic elections.
OSCE monitors issued a damning report on the presidential polls that listed a litany of vote count violations, saying its observers assessed the tally "as bad and very bad" in almost half of all observed polling stations.
In a statement issued Friday evening, the foreign minister of neighbouring Lithuania, Audronius Azubalis, expressed "deep regret" over Minsk's refusal to extend the mandate for the branch office, which opened in 1998.
"Its mandate has not been completed. There is an important job for the OSCE to continue in Belarus," Azubalis said, as Lithuania geared up to take over the OSCE chairmanship from Kazakhstan through 2011.
He also "called upon the government of Belarus to review its position so that OSCE presence in Minsk could continue".
Germany also condemned the decision, with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying it was another step backwards for democratic rights in the country.
"The decision to close the OSCE's office is a new step backwards for the rule of law and human rights in Belarus," Westerwelle said in a statement.
"With its authoritarian direction, the government in Minsk is separating the country even more from European values of freedom.... We will discuss with our partners what consequences are required in the face of the Belarussian government's voluntary policy of isolation and the worrying human-rights situation in Belarus," he said.
Five of the nine opposition candidates who stood against Lukashenko in the elections are still being held by Belarus while opposition media have been subjected to almost daily raids by the authorities.
The Belarussian foreign ministry statement said that Minsk's envoy in Vienna had informed the OSCE of the decision.
It said the closure of the office would not lead to a halt in work between Minsk and the OSCE, saying that "on the contrary we are ready... to strengthen cooperation".
Lukashenko, who won almost 80 percent of the vote in the polls, is now risking total isolation by the West over the brutal post-election crackdown.
The foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and Sweden said in an article published last week that the elections had "no democratic legitimacy" and the "counting of votes turned into a charade".
"Continued positive engagement with Mr Lukashenko at the moment seems to be a waste of time and money," they said.
Russia has not joined the criticism, with President Dmitry Medvedev congratulating Lukashenko -- albeit very dryly -- one week after the polls.
Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist for 16 years. His re-elections in 2001 and 2006 were also said by the West to have fallen far short of international standards.
© 2010 AFP