Belarus pushes Sweden to close its embassy in Minsk


Belarus is pushing Sweden to shutter its embassy in Minsk by the end of the month, the latest in a string of diplomatic salvos between the two countries.

Last week Belarus turned down extending accreditation for the Swedish ambassador, stating that “his activities were aimed not at the strengthening of relations between Belarus and Sweden, but on their erosion.”

Sweden said Ambassador Stefan Eriksson had been ejected for reasons involving human rights, long a sore spot between Belarus -- whose president is viewed by many as Europe's last dictator -- and other European countries. In return, Sweden expelled Belarusian diplomats and declared that Belarus' proposed new ambassador was not welcome.

The move left the Belarus Embassy in Stockholm with just two junior diplomats who weren’t qualified to run the mission on their own, the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday. Belarus has recalled its entire embassy staff and informed Sweden that its diplomats would lose their status by Aug.  30.

Restored relations are “only possible if the Swedish side, through dialogue with Belarus, reverts to observing the internationally recognized principles of mutual respect, sovereign equality of the states, and promotion of friendly relations,” the Belarus Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The act once again aggravated Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who said that President Alexander Lukashenko had showed “his fear of human rights reaching new heights.”

Belarus has been slammed as one of the most repressive countries in Europe by human rights groups, who lament that demonstrators have been jailed for such simple forms of protest as wordlessly clapping. Lukashenko was not allowed to attend the London Olympics as the European Union has banned him from traveling to its member nations because rights abuses.

Though Belarus did not bring it up, the spat comes after a recent stunt pulled by members of a Swedish ad agency who dropped teddy bears with free speech slogans from a plane over the capital. Belarus state media reported that the country has asked Sweden and Lithuania to help investigate "the violation of the Belarusian air border."


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Photo: A staff member adjusts a Swedish flag on the Swedish Embassy in the center of Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday. Credit: Tatyana Zenkovich / European Pressphoto Agency

Belarus fires generals after teddy bears drop from the sky

Two generals were fired and two people were arrested after an air bombardment that left the president of Belarus fuming over how its borders could be so easily overrun -- by teddy bears.

Hundreds of the toys descended on Belarus last month, dropped by Swedes tooling over the capital, Minsk, in a small plane. The plush invaders were outfitted with parachutes and bore activist slogans such as “Free Speech Now.” The human pilots, working for a Swedish ad agency, wore teddy bear masks.

The small agency said it paid for and carried out the activist prank itself after hearing about the killing of a Belarus human rights activist, with the goal of “slipping in the words ‘Belarus’ and ‘free speech’ somewhere between the news about iPhone 38 and Miss Kardashian’s cat.”

Human rights groups have dubbed Belarus one of the most repressive countries in Europe, lamenting its long record of jailing activists and censoring and harassing journalists.

Dissent is so heavily policed that protesters have been arrested simply for clapping or ringing their cellphones in unison and have even resorted to posing toys in mock protests -- part of the inspiration for the risky Swedish stunt.

Belarus, which has prided itself publicly on its defense systems, at first denied the toys had been dropped. But as the news spread through photos and videos, President Alexander Lukashenko reacted with outrage, demanding at a government session last week, “How can you explain the provocation involving a single-engine aircraft that crossed the Belarusian border with impunity?”

Lukashenko announced this week that two generals, the air force commander and border committee chairman, were losing their posts “for improper discharge of official duties in ensuring the national security of the Republic of Belarus.”

“There should not be much fuss about it,” Lukashenko told the Belarusian Telegraph Agency on Thursday. “Quite the opposite, the punishment was too lenient. In the times of the Soviet Union, these people would be jailed.”

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Belarus leader denied entry to Britain for Olympics or otherwise

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko
MOSCOW -- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, viewed by many as Europe's last dictator, will not attend the London Olympics after being denied entry to Britain, officials said Wednesday.

Lukashenko, who also serves as head of the nation's Olympic Committee, is on a list of people barred from European Union countries, Inna Romashevskaya, press secretary for the British Embassy in Minsk, told the Interfax-Zapad news agency.

“This ban also remains in force during the Olympic Games and this decision will not be changed,” Romashevskaya said.

The 57-year-old leader of the former Soviet republic of Belarus was blacklisted by the European Union and the U.S. in 2006 for human rights violations. That ban was lifted in 2008, then reinstated by the EU in early 2011 after the Lukashenko government cracked down on opposition figures after his disputed victory in the December 2010 presidential election.

Poet and former presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, who was beaten and imprisoned after the election and remains under house arrest, said the visa denial shows "the rest of the world" that Europe is unhappy about its "one dictatorship."

“This public humiliation serves Lukashenko right,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

Lukashenko this year took a few steps toward appeasing the West and pardoned several key political opponents including former Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Sannikov, leader of the European Belarus movement. 

Sannikov, who was released from prison in April after 16 months of captivity -- four of those in solitary confinement -- is recuperating in a hospital in neighboring Lithuania.

His wife, Irina Khalip, a reporter with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said denying Lukashenko a visa was an appropriate way to deal with him.

“Lukashenko wanted so much to attend the Games that he even had a special Olympic suit manufactured for him," she said in a phone interview. 

Lukashenko said this month that he expected the Belarusian team to win 20 to 25 medals in London, the Interfax news agency reported.

Also Wednesday, Alexander Zhukov, head of the Russian Olympic Committee, wrote in a Twitter post: "The organizing committee of the London Olympic games didn't give an accreditation to Belarus NOC [national Olympic committee] A. Lukashenko. Is sports outside politics?"

But the International Olympic Committee and organizers of the London Games reportedly denied banning Lukashenko.


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Photo: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and son Nikolay arrive to watch a military parade to mark the nation's Independence Day in central Minsk on July 3. Credit: Nikolai Petrov / AFP/Getty Images


Russians, others sentenced to prison in post-Kadafi Libya

In Libya, Russians, other foreigners convicted of aiding Moammar Kadafi

MOSCOW -- Two dozen men from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were sentenced Monday to long prison terms in Libya for their work in support of the late Moammar Kadafi's regime, Russian news media reported.

The men -- 19 Ukrainians, three Belarussians and two Russians -- were convicted of aiding the Libyan military during its campaign last year against rebels and NATO forces by servicing weapons system, RIA Novosti and Russia-24 television reported. They were captured by the rebel forces in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, last fall as Kadafi's regime was overthrown.

Alexander Shadrov, a Russian described as a leader of the group, was sentenced to life in prison while his fellow countryman, Vladimir Dolgov, was given a 10-year term, Ilya Samonin, the consular department chief of the Russian Embassy in Tripoli, told Interfax. The rest of the defendants also received 10-year sentences.

Russia-24 aired video that showed a long line of men apparently being led out of the court building after sentencing. At least one of them was seen wiping tears from his eyes.

The men maintain that they were in Libya to work in the oil industry, RIA Novosti reported.

Dolgov’s wife, Taisiya Shilova, told Russia-24 that she had not seen her for a year. He left for Libya on June 16, 2011, to work for an oil company, she said.

“I am more than confident that he is not guilty of anything,” Shilova said in a televised interview. “He simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

Thousands of people died in Libya during the civil war that ended Kadafi's rule. He was captured and killed by rebels Oct. 20.

Russia's Foreign Ministry expressed indignation over the verdicts, which it called “unjust and unjustifiably harsh.”

“Moscow is expecting the Libyan authorities to rigorously observe all the rights of the Russian citizens,” Alexander Lukashevich, the ministry spokesman, said in a statement. “All necessary efforts will be continued without delay in coordination with the Ukrainian and Belarus colleagues ... to achieve a speediest resolution of the problem and a review of this clearly biased verdict.”


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Photo: A Libyan soldier guards a group of 24 foreigners convicted of aiding late Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's military during the rebellion against his rule last year. Credit: Sabri Elmhedwi / European Pressphoto Agency

Are the media free? What people said around the world


Where do people believe that their media are free? A Gallup Poll in 133 nations around the world asked whether residents  believed journalists in their countries were free to report the news.

Worldwide, nearly two of three people said yes. But the numbers differ greatly from country to country. In Belarus, less than one of four people thought the media were free, the lowest level found in the poll. Belarus has a repressive government that persecutes journalists, according to Human Rights Watch:

Severe restrictions on freedoms of association, assembly, and media remain and the level of repression is unprecedented. ... The authorities routinely threatened the independent print media, and on several occasions blocked social media and other websites. Police arrested dozens of journalists covering pro-democracy protests in December and the later “silent” protests. For example, in May 2011 a court handed independent journalist Iryna Khalip a two-year suspended sentence on trumped-up riot charges in connection with the December protests. In May the authorities initiated closure proceedings for the independent newspapers Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Vola. Although legal proceedings were discontinued in August, both newspapers received fines for trumped-up violations of media law. In July a court convicted Andrzej Poczobut, a correspondent for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, for defaming Lukashenka. In his articles Poczobut called President Lukashenka a dictator. He was handed a three-year suspended sentence. In September a higher court upheld the conviction.

The Times reported last year on the tension in Belarus: "The country lives in fear and people are arrested every day on fake charges as [President Alexander] Lukashenko is preparing the nation for big political trials of the opposition leaders," editor Svetlana Kalinkina said, fearful her newspaper would be shuttered.

People were also dubious of media freedom in Gabon, Armenia, Mauritania, Congo and the Palestinian territories. Their perceptions of media freedom usually matched the ratings given by Freedom House, an international free speech group; the exceptions were Botswana, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kuwait and Liberia, where 80% of people or more thought the media were free but Freedom House disagreed.

In contrast, almost everyone polled in Finland and the Netherlands thought the media were free. People also were highly likely to believe that media were free in Australia, Ghana, Germany and Sweden.

Gallup created this map showing where people believe the media are free and where they don't. The darker green the country is on the map, the fewer people believe that the media are free:


To see an interactive version of this map, check out the Gallup blog.


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