Soros head expelled from Minsk

March 28, 1997

The director of the Soros Foundation's office in Belarus was expelled from the country last week. According to the information bureau of the presidential administration, Peter Byrne, an American, had repeatedly broken Belarusian law by taking part in "illegal actions" and "meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state".

On returning from a trip to Hungary he was arrested at Minsk airport and held incommunicado for over 12 hours, made to sleep under guard and given no food. Officials of the United States embassy were denied access until a few minutes before he was put on a Frankfurt-bound aircraft.

A television newscast claimed that Mr Byrne had been involved in the organisation of opposition rallies and screened a film clip from last November. However, in spite of the commentator's words, the clip itself proved nothing more than Mr Byrne's presence at the demonstration. The newscast claimed he has also been accused of having "bought people", promising that a list of those "bought" would be shortly made public. He was also accused of having failed to comply with the country's regulations for foreigners.

President Aleksandr Luka-shenka repeated the charges the following day in a meeting with the former soviet leaders of Belarus. "We will not allow foreign citizens to finance the opposition or take part in disturbances", he said. But, he added, he would not like the US government to regard the decision by the Belarusian authorities to detain and deport Byrne as "a deliberate act".

To date, the Soros Foundation has given Belarus $13 million to develop education, health and environmental programmes. According to an "anonymous source in the law-enforcement agencies", quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax, Mr Byrne's expulsion was a warning shot against the whole Soros Foundation.

Since Mr Lukashenka came to power in 1994 he has consistently tried to control the foundation's work, particularly how its money is to be spent. So far he has failed, although in 1995 the foundation came close to terminating its work in Belarus, after an attempt to impose a 40 per cent tax on all monies it brought into the country. Now Viktar Sheyman, secretary of state of the Belarusian security council, has ordered an audit of the foundation's financial dealings, with the implication that it may be closed down for some technical breach of financial regulations.

The foundation's information service says the audit contravenes existing law, and that it has already lost all tax and customs concessions under a presidential edict on taxation earlier this month. Nevertheless, it is prepared to continue its activities in Belarus.

Mr Byrne was treated in a deliberately provocative manner. His expulsion coincided with a wave of arrests of opposition leaders on the grounds that they might be planning illegal demonstrations.

At the beginning of March, President Lukashenka decreed restrictions which make it impossible to hold demonstrations and pickets legally. With the third anniversary of the adoption of the Belarusian Constitution and the holding of a "Congress of Peoples of the USSR" (communists who want to bring back the old soviet state) the Belarusian authorities clearly wanted to take no risks.

On the eve of Constitution Day, Yury Khadyka, a professor of physics and deputy chairman of the pro-democracy Belarusian Popular Front, was taken into custody. Last year, when arrested for organising a Chernobyl Day rally, Professor Khadyka and a fellow activist went on hunger strike which brought them close to death before they were released after intervention by Boris Yeltsin. Once again, Professor Khadyka went on hunger strike, but this time he was released after only a few days.

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