As President Lukashenka's rule has grown increasingly undemocratic, the Republic of Belarus has become isolated from the international community. The United States, the countries of Western Europe and many international organizations saw the controversial November 1996 referendum and the massive violations of freedom of speech and assembly as unacceptable, vehemently protesting them. Russia in contrast, has defended Belarus before the international community, even while protesting violations of the rights of Russian journalists in Belarus.

U.S. policy

Following the November 1996 referendum, the United States reassessed its policy towards Belarus. Considering that Belarus' drift away from democratic principles had reduced the scope for constructive relations,the Clinton administration adopted a policy of selective engagement, limiting government contacts to a minimum while continuing to work with democratic institutions, such as the independent media and NGOs.

Relations were strained further when, first, Peter Byrne, Executive Director of the Belarusian Soros Foundation, was refused entry into Belarus on March 16, 1997, and then a week later, when Serge Aleksandrov, the U.S. Embassy's first secretary, was expelled from the country for having allegedly participated in an opposition demonstration. The Clinton administration protested the expulsion, expelled a Belarusian diplomat and requested that the new Belarusian ambassador to the U.S. not come for his posting.

EU policy

The European Union (EU) reacted to the November 1996 referendum by sending a fact-finding mission to Belarus to investigate the circumstances of the referendum. Based on the conclusions of this mission, the Council of Ministers of the EU made its economic cooperation programs with Belarus conditional on concrete steps to be taken to return to democracy. Currently, under the guidance of an EU mediator, representatives of the Belarusian government and the opposition are discussing a new constitution that would guarantee a functioning separation of powers and human rights.

Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suspended Belarus' special guest status in late January 1997 in reaction to the November 1996 referendum. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent a fact-finding mission to Belarus from April 15 to 18, 1997, which concluded that "there is every indication that the [Belarusian] authorities are constructing a system of totalitarian government."14 The OSCE delegation recommended that a permanent OSCE representation be established in Minsk to monitor the human rights situation and advise the Belarusian government on promoting democracy. While the Belarusian government initially agreed to the establishment of such an office, it informed the OSCE on July 18, 1997, that negotiations had been suspended indefinitely, as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly had invited only deputies from the old parliament and not from the National Assembly to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly.

Russian policy

Russia immediately recognized the results of the November 1996 referendum as well as the newly-established parliament. On April 2, 1997, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and President Lukashenka signed a short accord and initialed a Union Charter, which was signed on May 23, 1997. While both countries had been discussing far-reaching integration or even a merger, the text of the charter was watered down considerably under pressure from liberals in the Russian government. The charter provides for closer cooperation in the social, political, economic, military and other fields.

Russian officials have stated on various occasions that Belarus' human rights problems are an internal matter, and have continuously supported and defended Belarus in the international community. Belarus was openly criticized by President Yeltsin, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and First Vice Prime Minister Nemtsov when correspondents for Russian television stations were stripped of their accreditation.

14 Ambassador Rudolf Thorning-Petersen, "Report of the Mission of the Personal Representative of the Chairman in Office of the OSCE to the Republic of Belarus," April 29, 1997.