Under Western pressure, Belarus frees opposition leader

By Clifford J. Levy


MOSCOW - Belarus, a former Soviet republic that is considered to have one of the world's most authoritarian governments, yesterday released its most prominent opposition politician from prison, officials said.

The opposition figure, Alexander Kazulin, had been serving a lengthy sentence for leading anti-government protests. Kazulin was freed after months of pressure from the United States and the European Union on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

Relations between Belarus and the West have grown more strained as Washington has stepped up sanctions in an effort to compel Lukashenko to curb political repression.

Lukashenko often is described as a throwback to a Soviet-style leader who keeps control with the help of a security agency, which still is called the KGB.

The war in nearby Georgia has sent tremors through relations between Russia and other former Soviet republics and satellites, but U.S. officials said yesterday that they believed that Kazulin's release was not related to the conflict.

Belarus and Russia have had generally good relations and have talked often in recent years about forming an official union.

Even so, Russia has expressed some displeasure in recent days that the Lukashenko government has not offered more vocal support for the Russian side in the Georgia conflict.

Belarus is to hold parliamentary elections next month. Lukashenko has pledged that they will be free and fair, and Kazulin's release may be related to the government's attempt to try to improve Belarus' image before the voting.

Kazulin did not make any remarks upon leaving the Vitba 3 prison yesterday, officials said.

Jonathan Moore, the senior U.S. diplomat in Minsk, the Belarus capital, said the release of Kazulin "was an important step in improving the human rights situation in Belarus."

Kazulin, 52, a former Lukashenko ally, turned against him and ran in the 2006 presidential election, which election observers said was rigged in Lukashenko's favor.

Kazulin was arrested and sentenced to 5? years in prison. He was briefly released in February to attend the funeral of his wife, Irina, who died of cancer.



Partners: Social Network