Belarus Is Ripe for G-8's Attention!

There are a number of valid reasons why the current situation in Belarus requires addressing at the July 15-17 G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. The non-legitimacy of the Belarus' "head of state," Aleksandr Lukashenka, is one of them. Another is that Belarus is on the verge of losing its independence and sovereignty by entering into a "union state" with Russia. A third is the continuing dismal human rights situation in the country.

So there is a lot that can and should be discussed. For example, what to do with Lukashenka, who managed to change illegally the constitution last year so that he could run for president an unlimited number of times? The rigged presidential election this year and what to expect in the future-Belarus another Cuba or : a province of Russia. The Russian politicians would love the latter scenario. After ten years of jockeying, what is left is for Putin and Lukashenka to initial the draft union state constitution and have it approved by a national referendum in both countries. No doubt the Russians will go for it in the hope of recreating their lost empire. And in Belarus, it will be up to Lukashenka to determine what number of votes he needs to pass, or not to pass, the referendum. It will all depend on which number will better serve his own ego-the status quo, turning to Europe, or giving in to Russian pressure.

One thing is certain: the knotty case of Belarus can't be resolved without dealing with Russia. The upcoming G-8 summit presents the ideal opportunity to discuss this problem. Unfortunately, however, Russia will be presiding and Russia has made it clear that Belarus-Russia relations as well as Belarus' internal affairs are strictly their own business. Russia will thus press hard to keep the issue off the summit agenda. Russia must not be allowed to succeed with this crude maneuver. According to some reports, the attempt will be made to raise the subject at the June 29 Moscow meeting of G-8 foreign ministers. And here again, the meeting will be chaired by Russia. It also should be noted that Russia is the current chair of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers.

So what are the chances for the Belarus case reaching the G-8 level? The odds don't look favorable for Belarus-that is to say not for a democratic, independent Belarus.

There has been some talk within the U.S. and EU about the need for discussing the case of Belarus at the G-8 level to cover such items as the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus, suppression of human rights and Russia's use of natural gas supplies as a tool to force Belarus to integrate into the Russian Federation. The U.S has taken a more aggressive stance while the EU prefers a softer approach.

Vice President Dick Cheney, in his May 4 speech at the 2006 Vilnius Conference of leaders from the Baltic and Black Sea region, was blunt about the situation in Belarus. He said: "All of us are committed to democratic progress in Belarus. That nation has suffered in major wars and experienced terrible losses, and now its people are denied basic freedoms by the last dictatorship in Europe. With us today are democracy advocates from Belarus :The world knows what is happening in Belarus. Peaceful demonstrators have been beaten, dissidents have vanished, and a climate of fear prevails under a government that subverts free elections and bans your own country's flag. There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind. The people of Belarus deserve better. You have the right to determine your destiny. And your great nation has a future in the community of democracies."

At another point, Mr. Cheney chided Russia for seeking to reverse its reforms and for using oil and gas as tools of intimidation or blackmail of its neighbors. And he added: "And no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor or interfere with democratic movements."

Western Europe, just as Belarus, depends heavily on Russia's natural gas and oil supplies-hence the desire not to irritate Russia. That kind of sentiment could be observed at the June 1 European Conference of Presidents of Parliament held in Tallinn, Estonia. While Russia and the organization's other members remain divided on a common Belarus policy, PACE President Rene van der Linden, in his effort to explore the possibilities of parliamentary diplomacy, said that "there are no differences ... when it comes to looking for ways in opening dialogue" with the ex-Soviet state. While in Finland next day, he said: "I welcome the intention : [of the European Union] to make improving EU-Russia relations a priority :. The European Union has missed opportunities in its relations with Russia in recent years, but the coincidence of [upcoming] Finland's Presidency of the EU with Russia's Chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers is an excellent opportunity to begin putting this right." He also met President Putin in Moscow on June 5.

And in Belarus: Some prominent members of the intelligentsia agreed May 25 on sending Putin a letter asking for the inclusion of the Belarus question into the G-8 agenda. Also, members of the opposition visited Germany at the end of May where they submitted an appeal to Chancellor Angela Merkel, asking G-8 members to address the situations in Belarus, the illegitimacy of the presidential campaign, and the subject of political prisoners.

Mr. Lukashenka, in his most recent statement said that Belarus won't sell its Beltransgaz to the Russian Gazprom at its current book value; that Belarus is not against raising the price on gas supplies as long as that price would be the same as that for Russia's users; that the idea of integration with Russia remains unchanged, but Belarus will never become a part of the Russian Federation; and that an early introduction of single currency would be like putting the cart before the horse. "The question of currency should be addressed in the union state constitution, which will be adopted via a referendum," he said.

We hope that the G-8 members find a way to discuss the internal situation in Belarus and convince Russia that the incorporation of Belarus into the Russian Federation would be in the best interest of neither. We would like to see Russia approach this subject in the spirit of the Budapest CSCE (now OSCE) summit of December 1994 where Russia, along with the US and UK, committed to respect Belarus' independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Joe Arciuch, Editor-at-Large

Belarusian Review, 2006 Summer Issue (Vol. 18, No. 2)