KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 7 March 2001

CONFLICT. Controversy has surrounded claims by a commentator on state-
run television that American spies are deliberately fanning inter-religious
conflict in Belarus. Contacted by Keston News Service on 6 March,
Belarusian government officials declined to discuss the claims; the deputy
head of the U.S. embassy in Minsk, however, vigorously rejected the charge
as `a grotesque lie'.


by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Controversy has surrounded claims by a commentator on state-run television
that American spies are deliberately fanning inter-religious conflict in
Belarus. The deputy chairman of the Belarusian government's State
Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs declined to discuss the claims
with Keston News Service, dismissing any attempt to discuss the issue with
laughter. However, the deputy head of the U.S. embassy in Minsk - while
stressing that `we do not comment on alleged intelligence matters' �
vigorously rejected the commentator's charge that the U.S fans inter-
religious conflict as `a grotesque lie'. `For the Belarusian authorities to assert
that the U.S. government is involved in any way in religious groups in
Belarus is a flagrant lie,' John Kunstadter told Keston from Minsk on 6
March. `Our only involvement is to pay attention to religious persecution.'

The commentator, Aleksandr Zimovsky, made the allegations on a special
edition of his weekly news comment show Resonance entitled `The KGB
against the CIA', aired on state-controlled Belarusian Television and Radio -
the only nationwide television station - on 28 February. Zimovsky is known
for his virulent attacks on all perceived opponents of President Aleksandr

Zimovsky's wide-ranging claims included allegations that as soon as the U.S.
Embassy was established in Minsk after Belarus gained independence the
CIA began recruiting agents. `Over the past eight years, about 430 agents of
various US special services have visited Belarus through the US embassy in
Belarus alone.' Zimovsky claimed the CIA was focusing on three main
subjects in Belarus: `First, preparation and incitement of materials aimed at
discrediting all issues of Belarusian policy. Second, affairs aimed at
artificially creating and escalating political and economic conflicts between
Belarus and other states. Third, financial assistance to Belarusian opposition
groups and their leaders, artificially forcing separatist moods and religious

Contacted by telephone in Minsk on 6 March, the deputy chairman of the
state committee for religious affairs Ivan Yanovich shrugged off all Keston's
enquiries about whether his committee shared Zimovsky's belief that U.S.
agents are fomenting inter-religious conflict in Belarus. `We don't have such
information on spies or on what they are doing,' he told Keston. `We are an
official structure. Without such data we cannot say anything.' He referred all
enquiries to the Interior Ministry and the Committee for State Security
(KGB). `Spies are their affair.'

The duty operational officer at the Interior Ministry, who did not give his
name, told Keston on 7 March that he personally had `no information' that
any American spies were intent on creating or furthering religious conflict in
Belarus, referring all enquiries to the KGB. `On questions of national
security it is the KGB that is responsible.'

The duty officer at the KGB department of Minsk's central district declined
to comment, referring all enquiries to KGB headquarters. `It is not our
competence,' he told Keston on 7 March. `We are just a small division.' The
switchboard at KGB headquarters was constantly engaged when Keston
called on 6 and 7 March.

Kunstadter at the U.S. embassy rejected the charge of fomenting inter-
religious conflict. In giving our assistance to Belarus we have acted fully
within the framework of the 1996 bilateral agreement between our two
governments,' he insisted, stressing that all such assistance was channelled to
civil society groups such as non-governmental organisations, the
independent press and economic development and humanitarian efforts. `The
U.S. government does not get involved in supporting religious groups,' he
reported, adding that `in addition, in accordance with U.S. law we do not
fund political parties'.

Kunstadter went further than simply rejecting Zimovsky's claims that the
U.S. was fomenting inter-religious tension. `If anyone has anything to say
about fomenting religious tension, one should direct many questions to the
Belarusian authorities regarding the situation of Roman Catholics, Greek
Catholics, Protestant denominations and others - that's the real issue.' He
pointed to the numerous violations of religious rights of these groups
highlighted in the U.S. State Department human rights report on Belarus,
issued two days before Zimovsky's broadcast.

Keston notes that the Belarusian government strongly favours the Belarusian
Orthodox Church, the largest religious community in the country, and
regards most other religious communities as subversive or potentially
subversive. All religious activity is guided not only by restrictive published
laws, but by a network of unpublished decrees and regulations that often
override provisions of published law. The Catholic Church and Protestant
churches have faced numerous obstructions to their work, including
difficulties of regaining, buying or building places of worship, difficulties of
inviting foreign clergy and church workers, and the ban on renting premises
for religious services - rendering public worship services by churches that do
not own their own facilities impossible.

Any accusation that a religious community was a tool of the CIA � or any
other Western intelligence service - would be highly dangerous for such a
community in today's authoritarian Belarus. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.