By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006
The White House accused the authoritarian president of Belarus yesterday of being "among the most corrupt leaders in the world," and administration officials said they will consider new sanctions assuming tomorrow's elections are manipulated as expected.
In a report sent to Congress on Thursday night and posted on the Web yesterday, the White House alleged that President Alexander Lukashenko "has created a repressive dictatorship on the doorstep of the European Union," sold arms to rogue states and enriched himself at the expense of his people.
The release of the report just two days before presidential elections in the former Soviet republic was intended as a sharp repudiation of a man often called Europe's last dictator amid a pre-vote crackdown on dissent. Authorities in Belarus, where the KGB retains its Soviet name, have shut down newspapers, raided civil society organizations, stifled anti-government rallies, and beaten and arrested opposition figures, including a candidate running against Lukashenko.
"We are very concerned about the behavior of the leaders in Belarus," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday. "They are not pursuing a democratic course."
In separate interviews, two other administration officials who were not authorized to speak on the record said the U.S. government is studying ways of applying more sanctions against Lukashenko's regime, targeted specifically against him and his cronies. The United States has already imposed travel restrictions on some high-level Belarusan officials.
Assuming the elections are not deemed free and fair, the administration would consider working with European governments to go after the assets of Lukashenko and his circle, the officials said. "This is something that people at the highest level feel strongly about," said one of the officials. The other said, "It's unacceptable that there's a dictator and a tyrant on the border of NATO and the E.U."
Although Belarus is a small country with 10 million people and little strategic importance, Bush has taken a personal interest as part of his vow to spread democracy. On Feb. 27, he invited to the Oval Office two Belarusan women, Irina Krasovskaya and Svetlana Zavadskaya, who have become important opposition symbols since their husbands disappeared. In the national security strategy he unveiled this week, Bush included Belarus among seven countries deemed "despotic systems."
The new report, drafted in response to the Belarus Democracy Act passed by Congress in 2004, alleges that Belarus sold arms, military equipment and dual-use items to countries such as Iran and Sudan. The money goes into secret funds controlled by Lukashenko, according to the report.
The report says that Lukashenko controls a presidential fund with more than $100 million and quotes him once bragging that it really has $1 billion. "The precise extent of corruption is difficult to determine because of the regime's lack of transparency and the blurring of personal and state property," the report says. Lukashenko gave the U.S. embassy a document reporting his annual income as $16,596.
Much of the information about his finances comes from public statements by Tamara Vinnikova, a former head of the national bank who fled Belarus in 1999. A classified version of the report has other authentication, sources said.
"This gives a very clear picture of this monstrous regime," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who sponsored the Belarus Democracy Act. "We're not going to give up. As we've seen with every thief and dictator over time -- remember Nicolae Ceausescu? -- there's a long list of people who are no longer there to torture and abuse their people." Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, was executed in a popular uprising in 1989.
Belarusan Ambassador Mikhail Khvostov complained that the White House report was filled with "false allegations" and "black PR." Khvostov said Belarus does not hide its arms sales but complies with U.N. regulations. And he said Lukashenko does not use the presidential fund for personal purposes but instead to fund arts and sports.
"In my view, this action on the eve of the election is an attempt of a black intervention into the internal affairs of another country," Khvostov said. "This administration does not like President Lukashenko to win this election."