STOCKHOLM – Sweden said Friday that Belarus had expelled its ambassador for "being too supportive of human rights." Belarus countered that it merely chose not to extend the envoy's accreditation, calling his activities destructive.
The dispute was the latest in a series of diplomatic spats between Belarus and Western nations, especially European Union states that have taken steps against the ex-Soviet country and its longtime leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, over its stifling of human rights.
Ambassador Stefan Eriksson was in Sweden on vacation when the decision was announced. The reasons given included that the diplomat had met with opposition activists in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and that Sweden had provided a university there with books about human rights, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.
The "Lukashenko regime has expelled the Swedish Ambassador to Belarus for being too supportive of human rights," Bildt said. He called it "a serious violation against the norms for relations between states."
Bildt said that Sweden in turn won't allow in the incoming Belarusian ambassador and that two Belarusian diplomats also have been asked to leave the Nordic country, their residency permits revoked.
The Swedish minister called Belarus "an erratic and increasingly unreliable dictatorship that is afraid of its own future," and said he had spoken to European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about the incident.
Belarus disputed Sweden's characterization of what happened.
"The Belarusian side did not expel the Swedish ambassador. The decision was made not to extend his accreditation," Andrei Savinykh, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Minsk told The Associated Press. "Eriksson worked in Minsk for about seven years. That's a long time. During that time all of his activities were aimed not at the strengthening of Belarusian-Swedish relations, but at their destruction," he said.
Tensions have been rising between Belarus and the West, especially after the EU voted in February to add 21 names to a list of some 200 Belarusian officials who face an assets freeze and are prevented from traveling to EU countries because of alleged human rights violations.
The addition of the names followed the December arrests of leading opposition activists who protested alleged vote fraud that helped Lukashenko keep the presidency.
Belarus reacted by telling the EU and Polish ambassadors to leave. The EU then announced it was recalling all its ambassadors to Belarus. When the activists were freed in April, the EU ambassadors returned to Minsk.
The expulsion also comes weeks after a pair of Swedish activists were reported to have used a light plane to drop hundreds of teddy bears bearing messages supportive of human rights into Belarusian territory.
Lukashenko fired two generals over the incident. Bildt, however, said there was no word that the teddy bears were linked to the expulsion.
"That has not been mentioned in this context whatsoever," he said, but noted "it might have had an impact on the general atmosphere."
Later Friday, Ashton issued a statement saying she had received the news "with great concern."
"The European Union and Sweden are committed to the modernization of Belarus and to the spread of European values, in particular democracy, human rights and the rule of law," she wrote, adding that the incident would now be looked at by the Political and Security Committee in Brussels, which will consider "appropriate EU measures." She did not say what those might be.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, a nation of 10 million, since 1994, repressing opposition groups and independent news media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands. He has earned the nickname in the West of "Europe's last dictator."
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Minsk contributed to this story.