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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Ministry Warns Opposition

MINSK -- Belarus' Justice Ministry warned opposition parties Friday that they faced suspension or liquidation if they failed to meet legal requirements for membership.

Opposition politicians said the warnings to six parties were intended to disrupt their plans for parliamentary elections next year. The action also contrasted with efforts by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko to improve ties with the West.

Parties under threat included key groups in the often fragmented opposition, the Belarussian Popular Front, which has long campaigned against Lukashenko, and the Gromada Social Democratic Party, whose leader was jailed after the president's disputed re-election last year.

"The political parties have been warned that if they keep ignoring the ... requirements of the law, a suspension of their activity could be considered, as could be their legal liquidation," the ministry said in a statement.

Veteran Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vechorko said the move was "the authorities' way of preparing for the 2008 parliamentary elections. They want to neutralize key political forces."

Registered parties must have branches throughout the country. An opposition Communist Party has already been suspended for six months.

The ministry also said it was rejecting a bid for registration by a leading human rights group, Vesna, citing its "unclear aims" and police data showing that 20 of its 69 founding members had been convicted of various offenses.

The United States and the European Union have barred entry to Lukashenko and other officials, saying he rigged his re-election with an official 83 percent of the vote. Foreign dignitaries, apart from a handful of allies, rarely visit Minsk.

The opposition joined forces to confront Lukashenko in last year's election, but split at a congress in May. It has since set aside differences to organize a joint street rally for the fall.

Lukashenko has sought better ties with the West since quarreling with traditional ally Russia over energy prices.

Meanwhile, an envoy of Belarus' Foreign Ministry, Sergei Gaidukevich, said a top official of the Council of Europe, a major rights body, was prepared to meet Lukashenko, the Vremya Novostei newspaper reported.

Gaidukevich said Rene van der Linden, head of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, saw a meeting as "subject to specific conditions ... that could be fulfilled and examined in the context of dialogue with the [EU] Commission."

Van der Linden was not immediately available for comment.

In Brussels, the EU's commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, decried the recent arrest of opposition activists, including Pavel Severinets, jailed for 15 days earlier in the week on illegal assembly charges.

Among those viewed as political prisoners in the West is Gromada leader Alexander Kozulin, jailed for 5 1/2 years for organizing mass rallies in protest of Lukashenko's re-election.

n Belarus' Foreign Ministry said last week that U.S. tourists and businessmen would no longer need to provide letters of invitation to obtain visas to visit Belarus, but visa rules would be tightened for U.S. officials in retaliation for a U.S. decision to expand a list of barred Belarussian officials.