EU plans to fund opposition to Belarus 'dictator'


THE European Union is set to provide cash for opposition parties in the former Soviet republic of Belarus.

Western leaders fear that president Alexander Lukashenko, widely regarded as Europe's last dictator, will attempt to influence next year's presidential election in order to stop pro-Western or pro-reform candidates taking power.

The move comes in the wake of the peaceful democratic revolutions in neighbouring Ukraine and nearby Georgia, which both saw corrupt governments ousted.

Last December, the opposition in Ukraine successfully challenged the result of a presidential election which was widely regarded as having been fiddled by the outgoing president in favour of his allies. Dirty tricks included an attempt to poison the main opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, and intimidation of campaign workers.

EU diplomats are considering direct funding to allow Belarus's opposition parties to compete with the pro-government campaign. If approved, it would mark a major shift in EU policy towards promoting democracy.

It would also mark a significant ramping up of pressure on the authorities in Minsk, but would risk antagonising Moscow. Russia has a close relationship with Belarus and is still smarting over what it sees as Western interference in Ukraine, which is looking to join the EU and Nato.

A document prepared by the EU policy unit says that the "Lukashenko regime is becoming increasingly repressive", pointing to the harassment of the opposition and of lobbyists for reform, and asks whether "direct/indirect opposition support" should be considered.

Brussels is also considering visa restrictions on Belarussian officials and the freezing of some of the country's overseas assets. Olga Stuzhinskaya, who represents a coalition of Belarussian opposition parties and NGOs, told the Brussels-based news magazine European Voice: "The situation for opposition parties is very bad.

"In the last couple of years all the donors have moved out and the political parties have been left on their own. Many have closed. Everyone is talking about great support for the opposition, for civil society and isolating the regime but nothing happens. The repression increases."

Many leading figures in the Belarussian opposition have been charged with criminal activities, debarring them from running in the elections - a move seen as a trick by the government to neutralise the opposition.

While the EU is unwilling to allow Belarus to continue as Europe's most repressed country, the obstacles to democratic reform are considerable.

Lukashenko has warned that anyone who attempts to spark a revolution will be treated as a "hellraiser" and given "special treatment".

In contrast to Ukraine, Belarus lacks a high-profile and well-organised opposition. Ukraine's burgeoning middle class - a factor absent in Belarus - gave much of the impetus to last year's 'Orange Revolution' in Kiev out of fear that an undemocratic government would jeopardise their standard of living.