Belarus leader dumps unwanted allies after bomb

Source: Reuters

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK, July 24 (Reuters) - Veteran President Alexander Lukashenko has seized on a bomb explosion that hurt more than 50 people at a concert he attended to improve conditions for an opening to the West.

Analysts said Lukashenko, accused in the West of crushing basic rights, had weeded out former allies who had become obstacles to a rapprochement to improve his image before a parliamentary election seen in Western capitals as a test of his willingness to introduce democratic change.

Initial suggestions that the July 4 explosion was a ploy to crack down on the opposition proved unfounded when a dozen activists rounded up by police were quickly released.

Instead, within days of the bomb, Lukashenko sacked Security Council chief Viktor Sheiman, a highly influential ally from when the president came to power in 1994 and linked by Western countries to the 1990s disappearance of opposition figures.

Presidential chief of staff Gennady Nevyglas was also fired.

"Hawks had clearly dominated the government until recently. The paradox is that the bomb could boost those wanting dialogue with the West and moves towards a market economy," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, head of the Mises Institute in Minsk.

"The explosion made it easier to clear out from their ranks people the West sees as odious."

The replacements -- Yuri Zhadobin, chairman of the KGB intelligence service to head the security council -- and presidential adviser Vladimir Makei as chief of staff -- have untarnished reputations that could be more acceptable in the West, analysts said.

"Those with no sinister image in the eyes of the West have had their position strengthened," said independent analyst Alexander Kloskovsky.

"These are people with greater room to manoeuvre and more options in finding their way in making contacts with the West."


Lukashenko remains barred from both the United States and Europe over allegations he rigged his 2006 re-election. The EU has indicated a fair poll in September could transform ties.

Since quarrelling with Russia last year over energy prices, he has tried to improve relations with the West by releasing detainees considered to be political prisoners -- although one of them is still in prison.

These efforts at rapprochement have been aimed mostly at Europe, while ties with Washington -- highly critical of Lukashenko -- have deteriorated.

Belarus told the U.S. ambassador to leave in March and cut the size of its embassy -- all in contrast with a softer U.S. stance towards ex-Soviet Central Asian states.

"Lukashenko is doomed to trying to befriend the West as he has come to the conclusion that Russia cannot be an ally or defend him," said Stanislav Belkovsky, an independent Russian analyst and head of Moscow's National Strategy Institute.

"But the bomb has nothing to do with this. It was a sign of the struggle for power in Lukashenko's entourage. I see no direct link with the election as no one is accusing the opposition. The entourage was held politically responsible."

Opposition leaders suggested for a time they could boycott the September election to a parliament where they hold no seats if the detention of activists compromised the point of the poll.

In any case, analysts say the election is unlikely to produce substantial change.

"It's either zero seats for the opposition like normal or a few token seats for the opposition, which would be interesting," said Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"The opposition isn't going to win substantial numbers of seats unless the regime lets them." (Writing and additional reporting by Ron Popeski in Kiev; Editing by Caroline Drees)