US watching Belarus elections for signs of opening


The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States is looking to the conduct of parliamentary elections in Belarus this weekend for signs that a government it has denounced as a dictatorship wants improved relations.

The two countries have been cautiously feeling each other out since Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko satisfied a major U.S. demand last month by releasing political prisoners. The move came shortly after Russia invaded Georgia, which changed the dynamics of regional politics. Like Georgia, Belarus is a former Soviet republic that borders Russia.

After the release, the United States dropped some sanctions and sent Deputy Assistant Secretary David Merkel to Minsk for talks, the highest-level U.S. visit in more than two years.

Merkel said the United States has told Lukashenko that the Bush administration will study reports on the election before making further moves.

"The Western strategy is to be responsive to the positive step they took with the release of the political prisoners, to try to encourage them to take another step by improved parliamentary elections and to be responsive to those elections, if improved," Merkel said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Lukashenko's government welcomed the U.S. suspension of a ban on dealings with two Belarusian companies, but relations remain tense. Other U.S. sanctions still are in place, including those imposed against a major state-controlled oil and chemical company, Belneftekhim. The U.S. ambassador left in March after Belarus pulled its ambassador from Washington. Most employees of the U.S. Embassy have been expelled in recent months. The United States and the European Union have imposed travel sanctions on Lukashenko and his officials.

U.S. officials are trying to understand why the authoritarian Lukashenko ordered the prisoner release. One possibility is that he is nervous about his country's deep dependence on Russian energy and trade and is looking for more Western contact as a counterweight to Moscow, which ruled Belarus, or White Russia, until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

"The timing, that they released all of their political prisoners after Georgia, was remarkable," Merkel said. "Part of this is that there is a real sense of Belarusian nationalism, pride in a patriotic sense, and they don't like the fact that Russia doesn't think of them as an independent country."

U.S. and European officials will look for indications of improvement from past elections in a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will have more than 400 election observers in Belarus. 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. In all, 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.



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