'Europe's last dictatorship' goes to the polls

Reform promised as sanctions begin to bite

From John Follett in Minsk

BELARUS - a country the US branded "Europe's last dictatorship" - will try to shed its pariah image today by holding what it promises will be fair parliamentary elections.

The small country's dictatorial president, Alexander Lukashenko, has decided it is time to come in from the cold after ruling the country with an iron fist for 14 years.

Fed up with first being lumped into the "Axis of Evil" and then being labelled "an outpost of tyranny," Lukashenko claims he is ready to gradually increase political freedom in exchange for normal relations with the West.

In the past, Russia has propped up his autocratic regime, selling him cheap natural gas, thus allowing him to preserve a Soviet-style command economy that would otherwise have failed long ago.

In exchange, Russia has extracted important concessions, treating the country like a satellite state. Russian companies have bought out strategic industries at knockdown prices, while a pipeline running through Belarus carries Russian gas to Europe. Russia also benefits from Belarussian military radar facilities.

But results have been mixed. So little has changed since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 that first-time visitors to the Belarussian capital, Minsk, often say they feel like they have entered a Soviet time warp.

The reality, say analysts, is that Lukashenko's policies have isolated the country from the West, starving it of much-needed investment and modern technology. His policies have also forced Belarus into an ever-tighter union with Russia, a union that some fear could see it cease to exist as an independent country.

"It would be a tragedy if Belarus disappeared from the map of Europe," says Alexander Milinkevich, an opposition politician who unsuccessfully challenged Lukashenko for the presidency in 2006.

If Belarus does not start reforming its inefficient economy and begin weaning itself off what Milinkevich calls the "Russian gas needle," it will lose its independence within two or three years, he warns.

Lukashenko, a hot-tempered former prison guard, openly admits that he wants to repair almost non-existent relations with the European Union and the US in order to help his country develop. "We want you to accept us, to endorse and recognise our election," Lukashenko said in an interview last week. "We do not want to talk to you across the Iron Curtain."

If the West turns it back on him again and doesn't give today's election an at least partially clean bill of health, he has threatened to fast-track relations with Iran and Venezuela, both US foes, and deepen ties with Moscow.

He has an incentive to open up his tiny country of 10 million to the West: sanctions. Both the EU and the US have financial sanctions in place that complicate life for Belarussian companies and ban him and other top officials from travelling to the West. The signs are that the sanctions are hurting.

Lukashenko, who likes to be called "Batka" (father), has given small but encouraging signals that he is ready for change, albeit on his own terms. He has released all the country's political prisoners, resisted Russian pressure to recognise the Georgian breakaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and given his opponents a little more room to manoeuvre.

To make sure his makeover doesn't go unnoticed, he has also hired a big Western public relations firm, Bell-Pottinger.

After years of refusing to talk to the Western media, he has started giving the odd interview as he seeks to rebrand himself and his country.

Experts say he has a long way to go, though. The current parliament has no genuine opposition lawmakers in it, the media is tightly controlled in his favour and the police disperse even the smallest opposition gatherings in Minsk.

In fact, diplomatic sources say they're not expecting today's elections to be free in any meaningful way. Rather, they say they hope they might at least be fairer than past votes. Even a small improvement could be an excuse for the West to reward Lukashenko in some way in an attempt to draw Belarus closer to the West, while distancing it from Russia at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions.

International observers say Belarus has not held anything close to a free election since the mid-1990s. Opposition leader Milinkevich says he thinks the opposition would win up to 30 of 110 seats in a fair election. As it is, he says he expects Lukashenko to "appoint" a few opposition candidates for appearance's sake.

"Even that would be progress," he says, adding that at least they would for the first time have some kind of official status.

The Kremlin will be watching closely. If Lukashenko's flirtation with the West fizzles out, it will want to be next in line.



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