Belarus To Vote Sunday; West Offers Closer Ties

MINSK (AFP)--Belarus Sunday holds a parliamentary vote which will be watched for signs of whether "Europe's last dictatorship," as Washington calls the country, will warm to the West or move deeper into Russia's orbit.

The European Union has promised to lift travel restrictions on Belarussian leaders and offered economic aid to the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million if Sunday's vote shows "progress" towards "democratic values."

The U.S. said "significant improvement" was possible in its relations with Belarus, which lies between Russia and the E.U. and is an important transit country for Russian gas exports.

The next move is up to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled his country for 14 years, harassing the opposition and gagging the media, but who is also seen as a clever tactician skilled at defending his interests.

There are some signs the tide is turning in this traditional ally of Russia, which heavily subsidizes Belarus' Soviet-style economy but has been seeking a higher price for its support.

Following Russia's war with Georgia last month, which led to a deep chill in Moscow's relations with the West, the Russian ambassador to Minsk criticized Belarus for maintaining a "modest silence" on the conflict.

Notably, Minsk has declined to follow Moscow's lead in recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian breakaway regions at the heart of the conflict.

"The Belarussians are under enormous pressure from Russia. It threatened to sell them its gas at market prices if they didn't recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia," a European diplomat in Minsk said.

Belarus depends entirely on Russia for its gas imports and pays below-market rates for them, making it vulnerable to the tactics that have been described in the West as "energy blackmail."

In 2007, overcoming Lukashenko's resistance, Russia's Gazprom acquired half of Belarussian gas operator Beltransgaz after hiking its prices and briefly reducing its gas deliveries to the country.

In the aftermath of the Georgia war, the E.U. believes it can help widen the gap between Minsk and Moscow by offering its support to Belarus.

"We must help Belarus have a balanced position. Do we really want it to return to the Russian fold?" the European diplomat said.

Andrew Wilson, a Belarus expert at the London-based European Council of Foreign Relations, said the Georgia war shook up the Moscow-Minsk alliance by showing how vulnerable the ex-Soviet republics were to "big brother" Russia.

Lukashenko was "strangely silent" about the war, Wilson said. "Clearly he was worried that Russia would use a kind of sphere-of-influence power in Belarus as well as in Georgia, particularly economically." Former opposition presidential candidate Alexander Milikevich, a leading opponent of Lukashenko, said Belarus' sovereignty was under threat.

Russia "wants maximum influence on the domestic and foreign policy of the former Soviet republics, of Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus.... It would like to preserve them as satellites," Milikevich said.

Aside from gas, Belarus is also highly dependent on Russia as virtually the only market for exports such as trucks, tractors and other consumer goods, which were the pride of Soviet-era Belarus but are no longer competitive.

To modernize his country's state-dominated economy, Lukashenko needs foreign investment, and it is against this backdrop that he made some concessions to the West in the run-up to Sunday's vote.

In August, Belarus released three people viewed by the West as political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin. The opposition has also been given more access to television.

But dissidents have dismissed the moves as cosmetic in a country where the opposition is subject to arbitrary arrests and other forms of intimidation.

There are only 48 representatives of the opposition among the country's 7,000 members of elections commissions, said Alexander Byalyatsky, head of the Vyesna human rights center.

"After the election, there will be a strong wave of repression," Byalyatsky predicted, blasting Sunday's vote as a "show".

Lukashenko has promised the vote will be "democratic without precedent" and threatened to cut ties with the West if its observers condemn the election as rigged, as they did with previous Belarussian polls. "If the West does not recognize the results of parliamentary elections...Belarussian authorities will break off all talks with them," Lukashenko said last weekend.

Kozulin, the recently freed prisoner and former presidential candidate, said Lukashenko had "no strategy for improving relations with the West" and was merely playing both sides "to get the maximum benefit."



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