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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Shuts Down Office of U.S.-Backed IREX

IREX, a U.S.-funded organization supporting academic exchanges and independent media development, will have to close its office in Minsk next month after Belarussian authorities refused to renew its accreditation.

IREX called the decision politically motivated and said it was the latest attempt to muzzle the independent media in Belarus.

"I think this is part of a systematic attempt to intimidate and restrict the independent media in Belarus, and that we're being attacked because we're the largest aid organization on the ground in Belarus providing assistance to the media," Bob Ortega, IREX's representative in Belarus, said Monday.

The Belarussian Foreign Ministry decided not to renew the accreditation, which expires Aug. 7, after being alerted to "a discrepancy" between IREX's stated goals and actual activities by the State Audit Committee, spokesman Andrei Savinykh said by telephone Monday.

Savinykh refused to elaborate on the alleged discrepancy and whether IREX's support of the local independent media might have played a role in the ministry's decision.

However, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Gerasimenko, in informing IREX of the ministry's refusal in a letter dated June 30, made it clear that the Belarussian government does not want IREX to continue working with the independent media.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, said one of the reasons the ministry is not extending IREX's accreditation is a decision by the Cabinet in April to strike IREX Promedia from the country's list of recognized U.S. assistance programs. IREX Promedia is an IREX program to support independent media.

The letter also refers to the audit committee's findings after a check in April.

IREX received the letter Monday.

Ortega promised to fight the decision in court. "The [audit] committee's findings are wrong in their facts and wrong as a matter of law -- as we pointed out to the Foreign Ministry in our response to the findings back in April," he said in a statement. "This decision to close us down is political in nature, and not justifiable as a matter of law."

He noted that many of IREX's media partners, including the Belarussian Business Newspaper, have been subjected to government crackdowns recently.

Two state-owned Belarussian television channels aired a documentary last month in which a KGB spokesman accused IREX of having an "irreproachable" gap between its stated goals and true activities. He suggested that IREX might be working for foreign intelligence.

IREX receives some funding from the U.S. government and has been operating in Belarus since 1997. It had no problem renewing its registration when it previously expired in 2000, Ortega said.

IREX has worked in the former Soviet Union for more than three decades. In Russia, it also has a program supporting the independent media but its main focus is on academic exchanges.