Western leaders deny plot to influence destiny of Belarus

By Stefan Wagstyl, East Europe Editor

The US and the European Union would like little better than to contribute to ending what Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, has called "the last dictatorship in Europe".

However, they insist they are limiting their efforts to promoting fair elections and democracy - and reject claims from Belarus and Russia that the west is plotting to remove Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko in a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution.

In any case, western governments recognise that Belarus is much less open and susceptible to outside influence than Ukraine was in 2004, or even Georgia, which saw a similar popular revolt at the end of 2003. Pavol Demes, director of the central and eastern Europe operations of the German Marshall Fund, an independent US institution promoting democracy, says: "Belarus is far more isolated."

Russian officials have said this isolation has not prevented western governments from interfering in Belarus's elections in favour of the anti-Lukashenko opposition. The foreign ministry recently questioned the impartiality of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main organiser of international election monitoring, in its preparations for the Belarus poll.

In a Financial Times interview on Friday, Dan Fried, the US assistant secretary of state, said Washington was promoting democracy in general in the former Soviet Union and not trying to manipulate local political forces. "What we want to do is shine a spotlight on Belarus and what is going on to make sure Lukashenko knows he can't do things in the dark," he said.

The US and the EU have issued strong statements urging Mr Lukashenko to hold fair elections, although they have little hope this will happen. They are also warning Mr Lukashenko and the opposition to avoid violence if the polls are followed by demonstrations.

Mr Lukashenko has imposed tough controlson independent political parties, the media and non-governmental organisations. Foreign financial assistance is often channelled through secret routes, a tactic that inevitably provokes charges of conspiracy from the Lukashenko administration.

The US last year budgeted nearly $9.8m (?5.7m) for the promotion of democracy out of $11.8m total assistance for Belarus and it is planning similar spending for 2006. The EU last year earmarked ?9m (?6.2m) for promoting democracy and civil society, including ?2m in new money.

Mr Lukashenko is permitting the OSCE to deploy nearly 500 election observers, alongside 400 coming from Russia and its allies. However, independent exit polls are banned.

Foreigners or no foreigners, Mr Lukashenko is leaving little to chance.