Ambassador Compares US Policy in Belarus to Nicaragua

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

London ( - The American ambassador to Belarus, a former Soviet republic, has compared U.S. relations with the country to the controversial U.S. policy towards Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Ambassador Michael Kozak wrote in a letter to a British newspaper that America's "objective and to some degree methodology are the same" in Belarus as in Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua, anti-government Contra rebels were covertly supported by the U.S. government in an attempt to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government. The diversion of funds to the Contras from the proceeds of a secret arms sale to Iran eventually led to a major scandal and the "Iran-Contra" hearings.

Kozak, a former ambassador to Cuba, was not available for comment Tuesday. An embassy spokesman told the London Times that the embassy helped to fund 300 non-governmental organizations in Belarus, including non-state media, but did not fund political parties, since that is banned by law.

The Belarussian government, headed by communist President Aleksandr Lukashenko, has been under increasing scrutiny in the run up to elections on Sept. 9.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last week that the U.S. has been troubled by the situation developing in Belarus before the elections. There have been reports of media harassment and allegations of state-sponsored assassinations.

"Although the connection between the disappearance of leading pro-democracy politicians over the last two years and government-run death squads has yet to be proven, we do take these charges seriously," Boucher said.

"There have been other actions by the Lukashenko regime that lead us to question whether Belarus will be able to conduct a fair and free election."

Also last week, the U.S. Embassy in Minsk lodged a protest with the Belarussian government over the deportation of a U.S. citizen, Robert Fielding. American officials said Fielding was taken from his hotel by plainclothes officers and detained for alleged violations of hotel registration regulations.

Fielding was interrogated for 10 hours by law enforcement officials, embassy officials said, and parts of the questioning were later shown on Belarussian national television.

Fielding was denied legal council and deported to Poland. Belarussian officials told the embassy that the arrest and deportation were entirely legal under the country's laws.

Election monitors have also been the subject of Belarussian government harassment. Two aides working for election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were denied visas last week.

"This is yet another step in what has become systematic obstruction and interference with the observation," said Gerard Stoudmann, director of the OSCE's office for democratic institutions and human rights.

"Despite these limitations, our team remains in Minsk and continues to make every effort to cover all aspects of the election."

After a recent trip to Belarus, the head of the OSCE's election observation mission, Finnish lawmaker Kimmo Kiljunen, expressed concern about the visa denials and procedures governing early and mobile voting.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, gained independence in 1991, but has retained close ties to Russia. Lukashenko was overwhelmingly elected to a five-year term as president in 1994. His term was later extended by a referendum.