Lukashenko ready to consider more Belarus reforms

By Michael Stott and Ron Popeski

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, long criticized as authoritarian in the West, said he could give suitably qualified opposition figures government jobs and make other political reforms demanded by Europe if this does not hurt the economy.

The European Union suspended sanctions against Lukashenko, Belarus's leader since 1994, and re-established political contacts after detainees deemed political prisoners in the West were freed and opposition newspapers were allowed to publish.

Speaking to Reuters in a wide-ranging interview at the presidential offices in Minsk, Lukashenko welcomed the EU's moves and said he was ready for further steps to ensure good relations for ex-Soviet Belarus with both the West and the East.

"I believe it is important for both Russia and Europe that Belarus is a sovereign, independent state where Europeans can feel at home," he said. "...We have to destroy stereotypes in people's minds that Belarus can be isolated or taught a lesson."

Brussels wants to see changes to electoral rules and the end of a law allowing imprisonment for membership of an unregistered organization if the sanctions are to disappear for good.

"If someone starts nudging me toward this, I will take a good look," Lukashenko said when asked about further reforms.

"If a given step causes no harm to the political and economic situation, I will do it."

But the Belarussian president said he would not take steps which could lead to political or economic chaos, such as that seen in neighboring Ukraine after its 2004 "Orange Revolution."

"I have already made quite a few concessions to Europe," Lukashenko said. "But we should not be doing this today ... if it will lead to the collapse of the economy, of public activity, to negative consequences, to destabilization, as in Ukraine."


Lukashenko noted the weakness of the domestic opposition, correcting a reporter's assertion that 400 people attended a recent protest rally. "We count them to a man. I am therefore telling you there were 200 people there," he said.

But he said he would accept opposition figures in government jobs "with great pleasure" if they had the right qualifications and were willing to work for the benefit of the people.

He praised Alexander Milinkevich, who ran against him in the last presidential election in 2006, as "pragmatic and well-considered" in his policies.

The Belarussian leader, a former state farm boss and military officer, defended his political system, saying his people "like our Belarussian model."

Official results gave Lukashenko 83 percent of the vote in 2006 elections criticized as undemocratic by the West, against six percent for Milinkevich.

Police used to routinely disperse protests in Minsk with truncheons, but Lukashenko said the West was in no position to give lessons.

"We are criticized for taking tough measures against demonstrators, but Lukashenko has never, not once, used tear gas or water cannon, against demonstrators," he added.

"And that is what we have seen periodically in democratic Europe or in the United States, the very hotbed of democracy."

Lukashenko has overseen an improvement in relations with the West, such as his trip last month to Italy and the Vatican and an invitation for Belarus to take part in this week's EU "Eastern Partnership" with six former Soviet republics.


But he made it plain change would not be at the expense of a long-standing alliance with gas and oil supplier Moscow.

"We have signed a treaty with Russia on building a union state," Lukashenko said, referring to a largely dormant 1997 treaty establishing a customs and passport union.

"We will not move away from this treaty even if Russia has a tendency to back away from what has been agreed."

Lukashenko ruled out any question of EU membership for Belarus in the future, saying "we haven't even thought of this."

But he also set a condition that union with Russia could only develop on the principle of complete equality between both sides -- something Moscow has deemed unrealistic because Russia's population is fourteen times the size of Belarus's.

The Belarussian leader said he enjoyed good personal relations with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and its Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin.

But he criticized Moscow for doubling gas prices to Belarus and imposing customs duties on Belarussian products, saying Russia should have adopted a "more careful position."

"Economics form the basis of our relations," Lukashenko said. "If our economic relations are poor, you cannot expect relations to be any better in terms of politics."

The United States imposed sanctions on Belarus under the Bush administration, dubbing the former Soviet republic "the last dictatorship in Europe," a term which angered Minsk.

Lukashenko bemoaned what he termed the West's "double standards" toward Belarus, saying nobody demanded that Russia undertake the kind of political reforms which were asked of him.

"If I had (natural) resources like Russia or Kazakhstan, our relations would be completely different," he said.

He foresaw improved relations with Washington under President Barack Obama, whom he described as a "reasonable man" but added Minsk had not yet received any clear signals from the new administration in Washington.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)



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