Belarus frees prisoner in EU charm offensive


Belarus over the weekend freed its most prominent political prisoner, Alexander Kazulin, in a move welcomed by the EU, as Europe's "last dictatorship" tries to improve its image in the west.

The opposition leader walked out of the Vitba 3 jail on Saturday (16 August) after serving over two years of a five-and-a-half year sentence, with Belarus officials saying he has been granted a presidential pardon.

Mr Kazulin speaking at a protest rally in March 2006 (Photo: Andrew Rettman)

"We don't know what has happened and under what conditions he has been released, but he is definitely coming home and I hope he is coming home for a long time," his daughter told the Ria Novosti news agency.

Mr Kazulin was beaten up and arrested during street protests after rigged presidential elections in March 2006, which led the EU to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on 35 high-ranking politicians.

"This release comprises one of the conditions imposed by the European Union for a gradual resumption of dialogue with Belarus," the French EU presidency said in a statement.

The move comes ahead of parliamentary elections on 28 September, with president Alexander Lukashenko promising that opposition figures will be let into the 110-seat house for the first time.

"I see this as an important victory for democratic society," opposition campaigner, Anatoly Lebedko, told Reuters. "His release will significantly improve the political environment for the election campaign."

Mr Lukashenko has also taken a pro-western line in refusing to blame the Georgian government for the conflict in the South Caucasus, with the Russian ambassador to Minsk criticising him for "keeping silent timidly."

In July, the president hired British PR guru, Lord Timothy Bell, to raise his profile in the west. Lord Bell has in the past worked for Margaret Thatcher as well as anti-Kremlin figures Boris Berezhovsky, Alexander Litvinenko and Viktor Yushchenko.

"Lukashenko told me that he hasn't paid attention to external relations for years, and that it's about time he did. He wants to have foreign investment and he wants to have better relations with the west," the publicist told The Spectator magazine.

President Lukashenko's relations with Russia cooled in late 2006, when Moscow put an end to preferential gas export prices - blowing a massive hole in Belarus' state budget - and tried to push the country into a state union.

Gas export prices for Belarus are set to climb from $120 per thousand cubic metres to over $200 next year.

But the erratic Belarusian leader also drew fire from pro-free speech NGOs earlier this month, after signing a decree equating the internet with "mass media" in a move that could see most of the opposition's publishing activity gagged by the regime.



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