When Saddam Hussein's closest aide, Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti, was apprehended in Iraq a year ago, U.S. officials were alarmed to find him carrying Belarusan passports not only for himself but also for other high-ranking members of the former regime -- including Hussein's two infamous sons. A year later Washington's continuing concern about this matter is understandable, given that some of Hussein's top officials and others in his regime may have escaped via Syria to the European pariah state of Belarus during and after the war.
Belarus has a history of close cooperation with rogue states, and of extremely poor relations with the United States. Nevertheless, before the Iraq war, Washington ignored signals that clearly indicated Belarus was not only Iraq's most active ally in Europe but was also willing to provide refuge for members of Hussein's regime.
Belarus may have been the only country where Hussein's henchmen might have expected to find government-sanctioned safety. It is Europe's last Stalinist state and is controlled by an erratic leader who was among Hussein's closest allies. It is also a country that, according to the United Nations was perhaps the worst violator of U.N. arms sanctions against Iraq, secretly assisting Hussein with ballistic missile development and supplying Baghdad with advanced antiaircraft defense equipment and training.
Belarus's dictatorial president, Alexander Lukashenko, made Hussein such a key military, political and economic partner that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in testimony to Congress a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, singled out Belarus as the country most likely to accept Hussein if he were to flee Iraq.
While this testimony was largely ignored by the media and seemingly forgotten by Rumsfeld, Belarus actually increased its cooperation and assistance to the Iraqi regime to the point where Hussein's son Uday was scheduled to make a high-profile visit to that country in March of last year. The outbreak of war was the only reason this much-hyped trip did not take place. Saddam Hussein did manage, however, to dispatch Baghdad's then-mayor, Adnan Abed Hamed, to Belarus two weeks before hostilities began to publicly thank the government for its strong support and to tour a truck factory that is widely believed to have supplied Iraq with vehicles that were adapted to carry missiles.
Ominously, Belarus has not only reportedly sold weapons to six of the seven countries on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism but has also continued to defy Washington in doing so -- even with the war on terrorism in full swing. In the case of possible Belarusan involvement in weapons sales to Syria, Lukashenko has not even attempted to conceal his military assistance. "No matter how severely we are admonished for it," he has been quoted as saying, "we'll continue to help Syria militarily, because they have promised to help us in the same way."
Being as diplomatically isolated as he is, Lukashenko has little regard for world opinion. He also has a record of providing asylum to international criminals and thugs.
Over the past eight years, two U.S. administrations have halfheartedly tried to convince Russia of the need to change the situation in Belarus. Russia, however, has chosen not to use its overwhelming leverage on Lukashenko to improve his dangerous behavior. As a result, the Belarusan regime has become more belligerent and increasingly dictatorial, and it now openly provides economic and military assistance to state sponsors of terrorism.
The Bush administration must formulate a clear and independent policy on Belarus, not only because the country may be harboring members of Hussein's regime but, more important, because it continues to actively support state sponsors of global terrorism while acting as a destabilizing force in Europe.
Andrei Sannikov is former deputy foreign minister of Belarus and currently the international coordinator of Charter 97, a human rights group. Mark Lenzi is a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright scholar in Eastern Europe.