Belarus protest leader to seek EU backing in Vienna

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus's main opposition leader is to have talks in Vienna next week with EU president Austria, keeping up Western pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko over a disputed presidential election.

Alexander Milinkevich came a distant second to Lukashenko in the March 19 vote which was judged unfair by Western observers and triggered protests against Lukashenko's rule that were unprecedented in the tightly-controlled ex-Soviet state.

Milinkevich said on Friday he would use a meeting with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel on Monday to enlist the European Union's support for his cause.

Police broke up the week-long protests last Friday and arrested dozens of opposition activists. Lukashenko has postponed his inauguration, a move his opponents said showed he was rattled by the scale of the protests.

Washington has described Lukashenko, an ally of neighbouring Russia, as Europe's last dictator. He says he has brought stability to Belarus and that voters do not want any political upheavals.

"The main issue I will discuss in Austria is the situation in Belarus after the election and the possibilities for cooperation between the EU and Belarus civil society," Milinkevich told Reuters.

"We also consider it very important to discuss the EU's assistance to those Belarus citizens who suffered from reprisals for their political convictions," he said, referring to the arrest of protesters.

The pressure on Lukashenko was upped by an unexpected source when Russian gas giant Gazprom on Thursday said from 2007 it would be ending Minsk's hefty discounts for gas supplies.

Gazprom is phasing out the discounts to ex-Soviet states but analysts had expected that Belarus, as Russia's closest ally, would get preferential treatment.

In Brussels, the 26-nation NATO issued a statement deploring the use of force against Belarussian protesters and saying it would have no dealings with officials involved in repression.

"NATO will pursue a policy focused on encouraging reform," it added. An alliance spokesman said possible action included increasing NATO contacts with non-governmental organisations and civil society in Belarus.

It repeated a statement this week that its ties with Belarus -- essentially based on an 11-year-old pact that has yielded some low-level military contacts -- were under review.


Vienna confirmed Milinkevich would be received on Monday by Schuessel, acting in his capacity as holder of the EU's rotating presidency. Milinkevich is also expected to meet Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik.

In a statement to the media, Plassnik demanded the immediate release of all the opposition supporters "who have been arrested purely because they exercised their basic right to freedom of expression."

Belarus officials have threatened to jail Milinkevich for up to 15 days for violating public order.

He made a one-day visit to neighbouring Poland on Thursday where he received assurances from President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz that Warsaw would act as Belarus's advocate with the EU.

Milinkevich said he would chair a council of opposition forces later on Friday to discuss what action to take next.

Several dozen jailed protesters were released on Friday from a detention center on the outskirts of Minsk. Some said they had been beaten and threatened by police.

"At first, they (police) calmly and politely led us to a bus," said Denis Sheleg, 23, who was detained last Friday.

"But in the bus, seeing that there were no journalists about, they beat me severely," Denis said. "They mainly kicked me on the head and kidneys."

Kristina, a 30-year-old mother of two, had a large bruise on her face. "They beat us fiercely after throwing us into a police truck," she said. "Then they said they were taking us outside the Minsk ringroad to bury us. They said they would rape the girls first."

Police deny using excessive force against protesters. Officials have said only two people were injured when police broke up the protest last Friday.

(Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels)