By Kathy Lally
MOSCOW - International monitors pushed back Saturday against an announcement by Belarus that it was closing the office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had criticized the conduct of the country's recent presidential election.
Lithuania, which took over the OSCE chairmanship Saturday, responded sharply to the declaration by Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh a day earlier that "the OSCE has fulfilled its mandate" in Minsk, where it has operated since 1998.
"Its mandate has not been completed," said Audronius Azubalis, Lithuania's foreign minister. "There is an important job for the OSCE to continue in Belarus."
The move did not come as a surprise. When Belarus voted Dec. 19, police beat up and arrested many reporters. President Alexander Lukashenko, the nation's ruler for 16 years, won 80 percent of the vote against nine opponents. Seven of those candidates were later arrested on charges of organizing public disturbances, and the Belarusan KGB launched raids on other journalists, confiscating computers, hard drives and documents related to their coverage of the election.
Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state, once called Belarus the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe. All of its elections have been criticized as unfair by international observers.
After the latest election, Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, censured Belarus for the attacks on journalists.
"The police should assist reporters who cover public events," Mijatovic said, "not beat or intimidate them, damage their equipment and imprison them."
As for the election, the OSCE said, "Election night was marred by the detention of most presidential candidates and hundreds of activists, journalists and civil society representatives," adding that observers described almost half of the vote counts they monitored as "bad" or "very bad."
Belarus, a nation of 10 million, has a mostly state-owned economy and a ballooning budget deficit, and before the election, the inward-looking Lukashenko had appeared to be reaching out both to Russia and the West for possible economic assistance.
In November, the United States said Lukashenko had agreed to give up weapons-grade nuclear material and in exchange would be participating in the 2012 U.S.-sponsored Nuclear Security Summit.
But Lukashenko has never taken kindly to international reproach. The nuclear agreement came against the backdrop of a long history of frosty relations, which reached an especially low point in 1995, when Belarus shot down a hot air balloon, killing two Americans taking part in an officially announced race. Lukashenko has refused to pay any compensation for the deaths.
U.S. interests in Belarus are represented by a charge d'affaires rather than an ambassador. And after last month's election, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with E.U. High Representative Catherine Ashton, issued a statement criticizing the vote and its aftermath.
"Respect for democracy and human rights remain central to improving Belarus's relations with the United States and the European Union," the statement said. "Without substantial progress in these areas, relations will not improve."