Belarus evenly divided between Russia, West - poll


Efforts to improve Belarus's ties with the West have left it almost equally divided between backers of a union with Russia and European Union membership, according to an opinion poll released on Monday. Skip related content

President Alexander Lukashenko has sought to move closer to the West, especially the 27-nation EU, since quarrelling over energy prices two years ago with Moscow - with which Belarus has been linked by a "union treaty" since the mid-1990s.

Belarus's concessions have included the release of detainees deemed political prisoners and the granting of an amnesty last week for a U.S. lawyer jailed for industrial espionage.

Results of the poll, conducted by the Institute for Independent Social and Economic Political Research, showed 42.1 percent of respondents favouring union with Russia and 41.4 percent in favour of joining the EU.

Backing for EU membership was 7 percent lower in the last such poll, conducted in March before a row prompted by a Russian ban on Belarussian dairy products and Belarus's participation in the EU's "Eastern Partnership" summit with ex-communist states.

A survey dating from last September revealed only 26 percent of respondents preferred EU membership.

Lukashenko had long been accused in the West of hounding his opponents, muzzling the independent press and routinely rigging elections, including his re-election in 2006 to a third term.

But the recent improvement in ties with the EU prompted Brussels to lift a visa ban on Lukashenko and he visited Italy in April, his first official stay in a Western European country since the mid-1990s.

The poll showed that among voters supporting Lukashenko, those supporting a closer relationship with the EU had doubled, while among his opponents the figure rose by about 30 percent.

"The change in the public outlook towards Europe did not result from any change in the domestic political situation," the institute said.

"Part of the Belarussian population has simply 'moved' westward. The president's backers have become more pro-European, while those opposed to him have become still more pro-European."

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky, writing by Ron Popeski, editing by Richard Balmforth)



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