Belarus election tests commitment to reform

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus: In parliamentary elections being held here this weekend, Belarus' charismatic and authoritarian leader can count on his people's support. But what President Alexander Lukashenko really yearns for these days is the approval of the West.

In the past year, the former Soviet republic has been reaching out to the United States and Europe as it fends off growing pressure from Russia. And after Russia's invasion of Georgia last month, Lukashenko believes he has new cause to be wary of the Kremlin's intentions.

The West has called Lukashenko the "last dictator in Europe" and imposed sanctions on his government. But alarmed at the vengeance with which Russia punished Georgia, the United States and the European Union are now more receptive to Lukashenko's overtures and have offered to repair ties if he eases his political repressions.

Sunday's ballot will be a major test of his commitment to democratic reform.

Every election Lukashenko has held since becoming president in 1994 has been condemned by the West as undemocratic, but he has vowed that this one will be different.

In a turnaround from elections four years ago, he has allowed the opposition to take part. A total of 263 candidates are competing for 110 seats, and about 70 are from the opposition.

Opposition leaders, however, say the contest is far less competitive than it sounds. They have not been allowed to campaign and have been blocked from monitoring the vote count. There have been no posters on the streets, political rallies or television debates.

"On all the television channels they say that opposition members are all enemies of Belarus, but I haven't been able to learn anything about any of them," said Anton Gulyakevich, 18, a student who was taking part in early voting Wednesday in the capital, Minsk.

Lukashenko was clearly shaken by the war in Georgia, which has left Russia in control of the two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where it intervened on the side of separatists.

Moscow has recognized the regions' independence and insisted they will not become part of Russia. But many in Belarus, and some experts in Russia, believe the Kremlin intends to combine the two Georgian separatist territories in a future union between Russia and Belarus. The leader of Abkhazia has suggested as much.

If that is Moscow's plan, Lukashenko is showing no inclination to endorse it.

"Lukashenko understands that the Kremlin's plan will bury Belarus' independence and his status will drop to the level of the leaders of the unrecognized states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, an independent political analyst.

Negotiations over a full merger between Russia and Belarus, which have been under way since the 1990s, have long been deadlocked. But some analysts say Moscow has sought to revive those efforts in recent years, with the aim of making Vladimir Putin, Russia's current prime minister, the head of the unified state.

Alexander Rahr, a German scholar who met with Putin this month, called a Russian-led union a strong possibility.

"The charismatic Putin will create for himself a new state entity, which he will head," he said.

This is not the first split between Minsk and Moscow. Belarus is dependent on Russia for oil and gas, and the Kremlin has used the prices it charges as a political tool to reward or punish the Belarusian president.

Lukashenko, however, has learned to maneuver. Every time the Kremlin threatens to raise energy prices, he edges toward the West.

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said the U.S. will be watching the elections closely.

"I think the upcoming elections are an important test," he said Thursday in Washington. "And how those elections turn out will depend on how we go forward" in relations with Belarus.

Opposition leaders hold out little hope for democratic advances. They point to heavy early voting, where groups of students, soldiers and government workers are being marched to the polls ahead of election day. This was one of the methods international observers said was used to rig past elections.

Not only can voters be intimidated under these circumstances, early voting makes it harder to match the number of votes cast with the number of voters who show up at a given polling station, making ballot stuffing easier.

"It's already clear that the votes will not be counted fairly," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Party. "Lukashenko will simply name his list of deputies and in the best case scenario add a few uninfluential opposition member in order to shut up the EU and U.S."

The opposition has called on its supporters to rally in Minsk's central square after polls close Sunday. Only five to 10 opposition candidates are expected to win seats.

More than 400 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will be monitoring the vote.



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