Elections Test Belarus's Efforts to Court the West

Fairness Is Gauge of Leader's Promise to Unleash Rivals


Belarus -- the country known as "Europe's last dictatorship" -- has promised to hold free parliamentary elections Sunday, setting up a key test of whether a charm offensive that's earned the country a modest thaw with the U.S. and Europe is more than just public relations.

That means a delicate dance for President Alexander Lukashenko, who built his iron-fisted rule on close relations with Russia, his eastern neighbor. After Russia's actions in last month's war in Georgia opened a yawning gap between Moscow and the West, it has become harder to balance both sides' interests.

The Kremlin has leaned hard on Mr. Lukashenko to follow its lead and grant diplomatic recognition to separatists in Georgia. Mr. Lukashenko has so far dodged that decision, possibly because he is worried about jeopardizing his progress with the West, which has denounced Moscow's support for the separatists.

Alexander Lukashenko, left, met Dmitry Medvedev in August, but hasn't granted the Kremlin's wish of Belarusian diplomatic recognition for Georgian separatists.

"It's a very difficult situation," said Alexander Milinkevich, an opposition politician who challenged Mr. Lukashenko for the presidency in 2006. Recognition of the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would signify Belarus was a "Russian satellite state," he said, and derail Mr. Lukashenko's chances of rapprochement with the West.

A former prison guard and collective-farm boss, Mr. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus like a fiefdom, controlling the press, repressing the opposition and running a Soviet-style command economy. A referendum he called changed the constitution, allowing him to serve more than two terms in office.

After years of deepening isolation, Mr. Lukashenko this spring began to reach out to the European Union and the U.S. To curry favor, he has released political prisoners, hired a Western public relations agency and allowed the opposition a little more leeway. In return, the U.S. has lifted sanctions on two Belarusian companies, while the EU has held out the prospect of funding and warmer ties.

"We want you to accept us, to endorse and recognize our election," Mr. Lukashenko said in an interview posted on the government Web site this week. "We do not want to talk to you across the Iron Curtain."

Mr. Lukashenko has said he hopes that some of the around seventy opposition politicians contesting Sunday's election win seats in the 110-member parliament. While victories would represent a breakthrough, they would be unlikely to dent the leader's grip on power.

The opposition had no seats in the old parliament. Opponents complain they have almost no representation in electoral commissions where they say government officials plotted vote-rigging in the past. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found numerous shortcomings in the last national election, a presidential poll in 2006.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko built his rule on ties with Russia but has been reaching out to the West.

Whatever carrots Washington and the EU might offer to lure Belarus toward democracy pale at the leverage Moscow wields. Belarus's largely Soviet-style economy depends heavily on cheap energy from Russia. Minsk pays $127 per 1,000 cubic meters for Russian natural gas, the lowest price Moscow charges any of its export clients. Talks on next year's price are just beginning and Moscow already has indicated it wants an increase. Ukraine, where the pro-Western government has irked Moscow, is facing a price of $400.

Russia has offered Belarus a $2 billion loan to help pay the higher costs, but Minsk officials fear that would make their dependence on Moscow complete.

"If we don't make changes to the economy we'll be absolutely dependent on Russia in two or three years," said Mr. Milinkevich. Mr. Lukashenko was courting the West to attract investment and help modernize Belarus's economy in order to preserve its independence, he said.

The Georgian war -- Moscow's first large-scale use of military force outside its borders since the Soviet collapse -- and Kremlin talk of areas of "privileged interests" in the former Soviet Union have unsettled Belarus, despite its traditional role as a staunch Russian ally, analysts say.

"Russia tried to send a very clear sphere-of-influence message to all post-Soviet states, including its so-called friends," said Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Ripples from the war have caused problems elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. In Ukraine the coalition government collapsed, in part due to difficulties in defining a common response to the war.



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