Belarus Opposition Urges President To Negotiate To Save Nation

WARSAW (AFP)--Belarussian opposition leaders Monday urged authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to negotiate with them, saying it was the only way to save their country from Russia.

"If we want Belarus to remain free we should deal with things now. In two or three years' time it could be too late," former presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich warned in an appeal to Lukashenko published in the Polish newspaper Dziennik.

"If gas prices go up, that will be enough. It will mean the end of Belarus. We would fall completely into dependence on Russia. We need to meet to agree how to save our country," he wrote, alongside three fellow opposition heavyweights.

Vintsuk Vyachorka, of the Belarussian Popular Front, said the four leaders were "calling for a compromise that will save Belarus from Russia".

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, three years after the country became independent when the Soviet Union broke up, and is dubbed "Europe's last dictator" in some Western capitals because of a human rights record that includes severe restrictions on the opposition.

Relations between Minsk and its former master Moscow were long close, but have slid over the past two years after Russia raised gas prices.

Until then, Belarus had benefited from special prices, a form of support for Lukashenko's regime, and the hikes have put Minsk under pressure.

Lukashenko has himself lashed out against Moscow, accusing the resurgent energy power of trying to incorporate his country into Russia.

"Sometimes compromise is necessary, as it takes little steps to bring about big changes. That task isn't hard for Alexander Lukashenko. It's enough for him to ensure free elections," wrote Stanislav Shushkevich, Belarus' former president.

Belarus is due to hold parliamentary elections on Sept. 28. Past elections have been criticized in the West as rigged.

Milinkevich, Vyachorka, Shushkevich and fellow opposition leader Anatol Labedzka called on Lukashenko to hold "round-table" talks, similar to those which brought about the peaceful end of Poland's communist regime in 1989.

Drawing further on the Polish example, they said Belarus needed a "credible mediator" and pointed to Lech Walesa.

Walesa was the leader of Poland's communist-era opposition movement Solidarity, served as president of his newly-free nation from 1990-1995 and has since become a campaigner for democracy in other countries.



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