Divide and conquer in Belarusian elections

By Thijs Papot

It would take political and economic isolation to force the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to democratise his country and look for rapprochement with the West. But signs of a political thaw seldom last long in Belarus, as the events accompanying Sunday's elections demonstrate.

Alexander Lukashenko"Lukashenko has issued a new decree: only people with at least five years' demonstrable experience as president may succeed him." That's not just a common joke in Belarus, it's also a fact. Because since 'the last dictator in Europe' came to power in 1966, he has governed his country with an iron fist and ensured that democracy remains a meaningless concept.

The European Union and the United States have been pressuring the Belarusian regime for years to respect human rights and offer political opponents more room, without much success.

Positive step

Last month, Mr Lukashenko set three political prisoners free. One of them was the opposition leader and presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, who had been in prison since March 2006 for organising a demonstration against the governing regime. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen found the move "a positive step". At the same time, he also called for an loosening of sanctions in expectation of Sunday's parliamentary elections.

The Belarusian president says the upcoming elections are fully compliant with Western criteria. But should the EU or the US fail to recognise the result, Mr Lukashenko warned last week, then Belarus would break off all dialogue with the West.

"Yes, we can say that those elections aren't free and are unfair at this moment,"

responded Ales Michalevic, independent candidate and one of the few members of the opposition to appear on the ballot.

"But I can also say that the elections are much more democratic than the previous ones."

Dialogue with the EU

According to Michalevic, while there may be no reason to recognise the outcome of the approaching election, the EU should do its best to continue dialogue with Minsk.

"Because the political climate in Belarus would benefit more from European than Russian interference."

Officially, Belarus and Russia from a political union. But a difficult relationship with the Kremlin has led in recent years to higher oil and gas prices for Belarus. And that has threatened an important pillar of Mr Lukashenko's planned economy with collapse.

But Mr Lukashenko's isolation is not as great as imagined, says Pawel Kazanecki from the East European Democratic Centre in Warsaw. He believes that Mr Lukashenko doesn't actually need the EU as much as people think. That's because, in recent years, the Belarusian president has been working hard to improve relations with China, Iran and Venezuela in a bid to safeguard his country's oil supply and investments.

"I think he needs those relationships only for negotiations with Russia today."

That Mr Lukashenko has been maintaining the appearance of democracy by allowing people such as Ales Michalevic to stand for election is, says Pawel Kazanecki, a Machiavellian masterstroke.

"He's demonstrating goodwill to the outside world while at the same time sowing seeds of disruption among the already hopelessly divided Belarusian opposition."

* RNW disruption (ng)



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