Belarus chief gets warm U.S. welcome Republic moving nuclear weapons


WASHINGTON -- The White House laid out a showy welcome mat this week for a portly, voluble physicist named Stanislav Shushkevich and clearly hoped that some of his neighbors were watching.

Mr. Shushkevich is parliamentary chairman and head of state of Belarus, the former Soviet republic that is now cooperating completely with the U.S. goal of making sure that all nuclear weapons are removed from former Soviet territory except bTC Russia.

Belarus' anti-nuclear stance is born of experience. A victim of Chernobyl radioactive fallout, it is now coping with a legacy of increased thyroid diseases and leukemia.

On his first working visit to Washington, Mr. Shushkevich stayed at Blair House, the elegant presidential guest house across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, met with President Clinton and was showered with praise.

His defense minister got full honors at the Pentagon and a pledge of up to $59 million to help Belarus safely ship some 80 SS-25 long-range strategic nuclear missiles to Russia.

Mr. Shushkevich also said he got a potentially far more lucrative pledge for a share in the proceeds from the sale to the United States of billions of dollars worth of fissionable material from the former Soviet Union.

Belarus, the State Department declared, "has made an outstanding contribution to international efforts to strengthen regional and global security and stability."

The message was aimed less at Belarus than at Kazakhstan and Ukraine -- especially Ukraine, which has failed to keep commitments both to ratify the START I strategic arms accord and to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as a nonnuclear state. Kazakhstan has ratified START but has yet to join the NPT.

As with India and Pakistan, a nuclear-armed Ukraine, which borders Russia, would put nuclear weapons in the hands of two neighboring states. The United States and the Soviet Union were able to avoid a nuclear conflagration in part because of the vast distances separating them. But with neighbors, points of friction are far more apt to engage vital interests and are thus more likely to escalate, U.S. officials fear.

Belarus is hardly perfect from the U.S. viewpoint. For one thing, it has been slow to convert to a market economy. The country has also been slow to adopt political reform and a new constitution.

Belarus, which claims neutrality, also clings to a military alliance with Russia.

But for now, in ratifying START and joining the NPT, Belarus is doing everything Washington wants.

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