Belarus uses 'sewer wars' to drive out ambassador

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BELARUS HAS bolstered its reputation as the juvenile delinquent of eastern Europe by forcing out from his residence the ambassador of the only nation that could be described as a significant friend and ally: Russia.

Russian officials confirmed yesterday that their envoy, Valery Loshchinin, had left his home in a leafy diplomatic compound which has been the battlefield for the infamous "sewer wars" - a fracas that has led nine nations, including Britain, to recall their ambassadors from the increasingly isolated ex-Soviet republic.

The Russian embassy in Belarus said their man in Minsk moved out after the water and electricity were cut off, part of a campaign by the Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko, to regain possession of the luxury residences.

Belarus says the compound needs repairs to the sewage system, but others suspect the president wants the prize properties for his cronies. Despite everything, Russia has decided not to withdraw its ambassador. But the Minsk-Moscow relationship - held together by common language, Soviet past, Slavic culture and close economic ties - has been put under strain by Mr Lukashenko's exploits. A leading Russian television commentator recently described Mr Lukashenko as a "pig" and "an imbecile".

Human rights organisations and others have long accused Belarus of stifling all opposition by imprisoning and beating up political opponents, closing down independent media and violently breaking up demonstrations. International organisations, including the European Union, have also long harboured concern about the manner in which Mr Lukashenko, in a highly suspect public referendum in 1996, extended his term in office, and eradicated the last vestiges of an independent judiciary or legislature.

Now fresh allegations are looming: a report to be published this week by Human Rights Watch says that young people associated with the Belarussian People's Front, the most prominent opposition party, have been beaten, arrested, threatened, and expelled from university for supporting its youth branch.

The report cites the case of two youths - Vadim Labkovich, 16, and Alexei Shidlovsky, 18 - who were arrested last August for writing graffiti attacking the president on public buildings and statues (including Lenin's) in Stolbtsy, 50 miles south-west of Minsk. They spent six months in custody in filthy and overcrowded conditions before their trial, a fact which - as one was only 16 - violated international agreements on the treatment of juveniles.

Instead of facing the usual petty charge for graffiti writing, they were charged with "malicious hooliganism", an offence punishable by up to five years in prison. During their five-day court hearing, they were brought to the courtroom in handcuffs and placed in an iron cage, guarded at all times by at least six armed policemen and an attack dog. When they were finally found guilty, the 18-year-old, who had earlier spent a month in a prison clinic after an alleged beating by guards, was dispatched to a prison labour camp for one and a half years. The 16-year-old was given a suspended sentence.

The report will also include details of the case of a Minsk-based director, Yuri Khashchevatsky, who made an award- winning film satirising Mr Lukashenko which was shown on a French-German channel in Europe. Afterwards, he was beaten unconscious by unidentified attackers.