Belarus president cancels EU meeting

By Stephen Castle

BRUSSELS: Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has postponed a meeting with one of the European Union's highest-ranking officials, raising new questions about how independent his government wants to be from Russia.

Belarus is one of the closest allies to Moscow but has moved closer to the West in the past 12 months. That process, which included the release of some political prisoners, led in October to the suspension of the European Union's political sanctions against much of the Belarussian leadership, including a travel ban on Lukashenko.

But Lukashenko's office said Wednesday that he would not be in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Friday, when he was expected to meet Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner. This prompted a postponement of the visit, just one day before she was expected to arrive in Belarus.

Engagement with Belarus is seen by some as the ultimate test of Europe's soft power in the region and of its ability to lure nations out of Moscow's sphere of influence. The European Union, with 27 member nations, is debating whether to invite Belarus to a meeting May 7 in Prague that would provide Eastern states with a perspective on closer integration with the Europe Union - and an alternative to Russia.

Lukashenko on Wednesday left for Armenia, where he will meet President Serzh Sargsyan, a trip that is believed to be the cause for the postponement of the EU meeting. Scheduling changes at a very late stage are unusual, particularly with nations that have fewer high-level diplomatic contacts.

The timeframe of the Armenian visit was decided Monday, according to the official Web site of the president of Belarus. Ferrero-Waldner's visit had been confirmed more than two weeks earlier. The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said the meeting would now take place in "mid-April." Ferrero-Waldner would have been one of the two most senior EU officials to visit Belarus in a decade. The only other high-level EU visitor recently was Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief.

From the European perspective, the timing is puzzling because EU foreign ministers could decide Monday whether to continue the suspension of political sanctions against Lukashenko. That is despite reports that the authorities in Minsk have recently arrested three critics of the government and worries that Belarus could ultimately bow to political pressure from Moscow and recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

An EU diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, suggested that Lukashenko could, for domestic political reasons, be seeking a lower profile on the policy of closer engagement with Europe. That might mean that Belarus is represented at a less senior level than that of the president if Belarus is invited to the meeting May 7, the diplomat said.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million people, has had a difficult relationship with Europe since Lukashenko came to power in 1994 and imposed an authoritarian regime that has tended to gravitate toward Russia, with which Belarus shares cultural and linguistic ties.

Analysts say they believe that Belarus's rapprochement with Europe is becoming a growing irritant to Moscow.

Nicu Popescu, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Lukashenko might be seeking to distance himself from the process of closer rapprochement with Europe.

"Minsk has tried to become less dependent on Russia and maybe turned to the EU to blackmail Russia by saying that, if it made too many demands, then Belarus would move to the West," Popescu said. "But what we see is that it is much more difficult to Belarus to do this than for example, Moldova, because of the degree of integration of the Belarus political, economic military and intelligence elite with Moscow."

International Herald Tribune



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