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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 August 2005, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Belarus imposes foreign funds ban
By Steven Eke
BBC News

Aleksandr Lukashenko
Aleksandr Lukashenko has received a show of support from Russia
The government of Belarus has banned foreign assistance for almost all political activity.

A series of new restrictions extends to election campaigning, political parties, political advertising, street demonstrations and protests.

The government, described by the EU and the US as "Europe's last dictatorship", said the measures were designed to prevent "the overthrow of state power".

The country's opposition says the ban will further deepen Belarus' isolation.

In one swoop of his pen, Belarus' autocratic leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has ended what opposition and non-governmental groups in his country considered their last lifeline.

Election outcome

Any direct financial or technical assistance provided by foreign organisations must now be approved by a special government commission.

In effect, the move marks the end of foreign-sponsored conferences, seminars, student exchanges and research trips.

These have been the only channels through which pro-democracy groups have been able to operate.

Presidential elections are due in Belarus next year. Many observers say the outcome is already predictable - in other words, another term for Mr Lukashenko.

But the opposition has been trying to find a single candidate who could both appeal to the population and unite its own, fractious ranks.

Russia's defence

With no foreign assistance available, that will be even more difficult. Since last year's upheavals in neighbouring Ukraine, which brought a pro-Western government to power, Belarus has moved to curb any real or potential sources of opposition.

Most recently, the owners of a website featuring satirical cartoons of Mr Lukashenko were arrested on charges of "insulting the president", which carry a sentence of up to five years in prison.

The one country with any real influence over Belarus is Russia. Far from condemning the wave of repression, it has spoken out strongly in Mr Lukashenko's defence.

The Russian security service says it had evidence that Western nations were plotting to overthrow Mr Lukashenko's regime and replace him with a more obedient figure.

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