"Europe's Last Dictatorship" Mulls Future After Russia-Georgia War

By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor

( - The decision by Belarus' autocratic government to release political prisoners has fueled debate about whether Moscow's closest post-Soviet ally has been unnerved by the Russia-Georgia war into speeding up efforts to improve ties with the West.

Political analysts seeking to make sense of the implications of recent developments in the Caucasus for countries formerly under Soviet domination are following events in Belarus with interest.

Relations between President Alexander Lukashenko's regime and the West have been strained over human rights abuses, but on Wednesday, Belarus freed the last two political prisoners whose release has been demanded by the U.S. and European Union. Four days earlier Alexander Kazulin, Belarus' most prominent activist and a former presidential candidate, was released.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood in a statement said the step could lead to improved ties. He announced that David Merkel, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, was headed for the Belarus capital, Minsk, for talks Wednesday with government officials as well as members of the democratic opposition.

Bilateral relations reached a nadir in March, when Belarus recalled its envoy from Washington and put pressured the American ambassador to leave.

Kazulin was sentenced to a five-and-a-half year prison term in mid-2006 after publicly protesting the rigging of presidential elections that March (Lukashenko was reelected for a third term with 83 percent of the vote, while Kazulin and another opposition candidate garnered eight percent between them).

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September 28, and will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which declared the last such election, in 2004, not free because of pro-government media bias and restrictions on the opposition.

Addressing a press conference on Wednesday, Kazulin said he doubted Lukashenko would permit any "real" opposition figures to enter parliament, but only those who pose no threat to the regime. He said democratic forces' candidates should withdraw from the election if it became apparent that it would be rigged.

Kazulin and other opposition figures have voiced skepticism about Lukashenko's motives in freeing the political prisoners.

Andrei Sannikov, coordinator of Charter 97, a democracy and human rights campaign, said the regime likely hoped to use the releases merely in a bid to gain international recognition.

Dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship," the country of 9.8 million people situated between Russia and Poland has since the late 1990s been linked to Russia in a binational "union," despite disputes over currency issues and prices for Russians energy supplies.

Unlike other former Soviet republics and client states in Europe, it has not sought membership in the European Union or NATO, although it is a member of the OSCE.

Belarus is also a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Moscow-led grouping of Soviet successor states from which Georgia withdrew last week in protest over Russia's military incursion. Russia attacked Georgia on August 8 after Georgia launched a military offensive against Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia.

Amid condemnation from the West and muted reaction from other CIS members, Russia bristled over what it viewed as insufficient early support from Belarus for its actions in Georgia (Radio Free Europe opined that Lukashenko's silence could be interpreted as a "pro-Western" signal.)

"We don't understand why Belarusian authorities are keeping such modest silence," Russia's ambassador to Belarus, Alexander Surikov, said last Tuesday - five days after the military operation began. Allies should be clearer in voicing their support, he said.

Lukashenko then scrambled to assuage the Kremlin's anger, expressing condolences to South Ossetians affected by Georgia's offensive and flying in humanitarian aid.

On Tuesday, the Belarus leader met with President Dmitry Medvedev at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he expressed effusive praise for Russian actions, saying they had "restored peace" in the wake of Georgian "aggression."

Some Belarusians are concerned about Russia's plans for their country, whose status as Moscow's last regional ally has become even more important to the Kremlin as other countries in the region react negatively to its actions in Georgia.

Last week Surikov said Russia may deploy short-range missiles and strategic bombers in Belarus, in response to Poland's agreement to deploy U.S. missile defense facilities on its soil. That agreement was signed Wednesday in Warsaw.

During his meeting with Medvedev, Lukashenko agreed to form a single air defense system with Russia. The Russian business daily Kommersant said officials made it clear the move was in response to the missile defense plans, which Russia strongly opposes.

The head of the Conservative Christian opposition party in Belarus, Zyanon Paznyak, said Moscow was forcing Belarus to deploy troops and missiles on its territory, a move that he said "threatens a real loss of Belarus' independence."

"The situation is very dangerous," he said in an interview with Radio Svaboda in Minsk.

"Russia is slowly restoring [the] once destroyed Soviet empire, by threats, economic means, or rude force as it happened in Georgia," Pavel Marozau, coordinator of independent non-governmental organization Third Way Belarus, wrote in an analysis.

"That's a clear menace for security of Russia's European neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine above all, but also Belarus and Baltic states."

Marozau said Belarusians must look to the U.S. to counter attempted Russian domination, especially in the event of the departure of Lukashenko, who he said had managed to some degree to insulate Belarus from outside pressures.

"In the case of sudden changes in the country only strong foreign counterbalances will give Belarusians time to reshape political and social organization of Belarus, launch reforms, and make economy stable in the face of outside challenges : only the United States can be such a counterbalance."

He argued that of the candidates running for the White House, Republican Sen. John McCain was the better option for Belarus. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, Marozau said, was "a man with clearly insufficient foreign policy experience who appeals to negotiating with dictators and appeasing Russia."



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