Belarus fears battle for regional influence

By Tony Barber in Brussels

Belarus is anxious that a European Union initiative to strengthen ties with six ex-Soviet states should not turn into a contest between Russia and the EU for "spheres of influence" in eastern Europe, according to Sergei Martynov, Belarus's foreign minister.

"We are not going to make a choice between the EU and Russia. We are not going to develop relations with one at the expense of relations with the other," Mr Martynov said in an interview with the Financial Times. "In our view, competition for spheres of influence is a totally wrong prism to look at things through."

He was speaking a week before a summit in Prague next Thursday at which the EU and the six states - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - will launch the so-called "eastern partnership".

Mr Martynov said Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus's authoritarian president since 1994, had still not taken a decision on whether to attend the summit. Some senior EU officials doubt, however, that either Mr Lukashenko or Vladimir Voronin, Moldova's president, will show up.

On the EU side, Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, and leaders of the bloc's central and eastern European countries are sure to attend, but diplomats said it was unlikely that all 27 EU national heads of government would be present.

Even without Mr Lukashenko's attendance, the summit points to a thaw in relations between the EU and Belarus, as the state once dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" takes cautious steps to easing its tight domestic political controls.

"Both sides understand that trying to ignore each other won't work. We have to engage, work together," Mr Martynov said. "There are many areas where the EU and Belarus are equally interested in co-operation - energy, transit of goods, combating illegal migration and organised crime, adopting EU standards in our industry and economy."

Mr Martynov indicated that Belarus was unlikely to spring a nasty surprise on the EU next week by emulating Russia and recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's pro-Moscow separatist regions.

For the EU, Belarusan recognition would serve as a stark reminder of the extent to which Moscow can shape the foreign policy of its much smaller neighbour.

"South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a complex issue. We are studying it at an executive level and at the level of our parliament," Mr Martynov said by telephone from Minsk.

The eastern partnership is designed to promote stability and prosperity in Belarus and the five other ex-Soviet states, without making any promises about possible EU membership.

This reluctance exasperates Ukraine, which has its sights set on joining the EU, but not Belarus, which has no such aspirations.

From the EU's perspective, the project acquired extra importance after last August's war between Russia and Georgia.

For the Kremlin, however, the project smacks of an attempt to extend the EU's influence beyond its eastern borders into a region that for most of the 20th century was firmly under Soviet control.

Belarus is stuck in the middle - a country that has close historical and cultural links with Russia but also with Lithuania and Poland, its western neighbours, which joined the EU in 2004.

"If the eastern partnership is handled in the right manner, it can be a joint effort for a Europe without dividing lines," Mr Martynov said.



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