EU should block Belarus-Russia union, Minsk opposition says

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The EU and US should say at the G8 summit in July that any Belarusian referendum on a proposed state union with Russia would be illegal, Belarus opposition leader Aleksander Milinkevich told EUobserver on an impromptu visit to Brussels on Tuesday (20 June).

"I really want democratic countries, especially the EU, to say they cannot and will never recognise any referendum in a dictatorship," he said. "I hope this subject will be raised in St Petersburg, not just by the European countries, but also Canada, Japan and the US."

The current threat by Russian energy giant Gazprom to triple Belarusian gas prices in 2007 is an attempt to force president Aleksander Lukashenko to honour 1999 commitments to join Russia, Mr Milinkevich explained, saying "We see in this a danger of Anschluss [annexation]."

Mr Lukashenko told Russian agency Interfax on 8 June "Our country would never merge into the Russian Federation," but denies any link between gas prices and a state union, while negotiating the sale of Belarus gas pipelines to Gazprom to help keep hikes at bay.

Mr Milinkevich explained that a Belarus gas crisis would be bad for the EU and Russia, saying "There are some cool heads in the Kremlin who understand that a budgetary crisis in Belarus is dangerous for Russia and its neighbours, affecting their economies, creating migration."

But with just 5 to 6 percent support among Belarusian people for joining Russia, the worst case scenario would be a Lukashenko u-turn followed by a fake referendum backing the move, he added:

"This would definitely provoke very serious disturbances. There is a huge number of people, especially among the young, who could never live with the fact that their fatherland has ceased to be. The partisan resistance for which Belarus was famous in the past would not be good for anybody today, but it could rise up again."

EU plays wait and see

Mr Milinkevich made the remarks after meeting European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels, with Mr Barroso reportedly expressing support for Belarusian independence but "without going into details."

An EU diplomat said there is "no chance" of an EU declaration prejudging the results of a hypothetical referendum in the future, on the basis that "due to some miracle" the referendum later takes place in a free and fair manner.

The EU does not know the current status of Belarus-Russia state union talks, with discussions carried out "in secret" by unnamed officials on the basis of documents that do not reach the public domain.

But the EU diplomat believes "the Russian lion is keen to swallow this big chunk of meat in small bites" by first proposing a currency union or a military union while keeping the "emblems" of Belarusian sovereignty intact.

"We could reach a tipping point quite soon - a situation where Russia sees state union as its last chance to keep Belarus from drifting toward the EU, while Lukashenko turns to the EU for help against Russia, giving rise to some kind of democratic transformation."

His analysis comes after Mr Lukashenko made a conciliatory speech toward the EU while meeting the commission's Belarus envoy - Ian Boag - on 14 June, saying Minsk would make "two or three steps" to meet the EU if Brussels made one step, Russian agency Ria Novosti reported.

First step would be easy

Back in Brussels, Mr Milinkevich urged Minsk to take a first step toward Europe by releasing the 17 long-term political prisoners thrown in jail after the 19 March election protests. "They could do this in one hour."

He also supported MEPs' efforts to talk the commission into funding a European Democracy Foundation that could channel EU cash to unregistered Belarusian NGOs, bypassing the current commission "bureaucracy."

"Such a foundation is missing in Europe," the opposition leader stated.

Mr Milinkevich explained the EU visa ban and asset freeze on 37 Belarusian politicians has "damaged morale" in president Lukashenko's circles, adding that Turkey is considering taking the EU line - after the US, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and the other western Balkan states jumped on board.

"Do not expect any sudden change in Belarus," he warned, however. "Dictators don't fall in a day. This is not Georgia or Ukraine. This is more like Poland under Solidarnosc."