Belarus's Lukashenko Stakes Better EU, U.S. Ties on `Fair' Vote

By Paul Abelsky

Sept. 27 (Bloomberg) -- European Union observers monitoring tomorrow's elections in Belarus are doing more than protecting the voters' rights. Their verdict on whether the vote is fair and open may shape relations between the EU and the former Soviet state.

President Alexander Lukashenko has staked future ties with the EU and U.S. on recognition of the parliamentary elections' legitimacy. EU foreign ministers said this month they are ready to re-examine sanctions imposed on Belarus in 2004.

The vote in the country of 10 million that borders three of the EU's members will be the most closely watched in more than a decade as Belarus attempts to balance its historic economic and cultural ties to Russia with overtures to the West. The nation's pipelines carry a fifth of Russia's natural-gas exports to Europe and almost 30 percent of its oil.

``The essential thing for the government in these elections is to have them recognized as free and fair,'' said David Marples, a history professor at the University of Alberta in Canada and author of ``Belarus: A Denationalized Nation.'' (Routledge 1999)

The opposition has called for more openness in government, greater freedom of speech and assembly and an economic program geared at helping living standards more closely match those in the West. The 54-year-old Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and was described by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006 as ``Europe's last dictator,'' has relaxed restrictions on opposition candidates and said on Sept. 23 that it is time to ``rethink fundamentally'' the EU's relationship with Belarus.

`Levers of Support'

The conflict in Georgia last month, Russia's first major international military operation since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has unsettled its closest ally.

Lukashenko resisted pressure from Russia to recognize Georgia's breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, said Nikolai Zlobin, director of Russian and Asian programs at the Washington-based World Security Institute, a research group.

``Belarus is looking for a guarantee of its own survival after seeing how easily national borders and sovereignty can be violated,'' he said. ``It wants to find levers of support outside the post-Soviet area.''

On Aug. 16, the day Russian troops dug in around the Georgian town of Gori, Lukashenko freed Alexander Kozulin, Belarus's most prominent political prisoner, who campaigned against Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential election.

Top 10 Reformer

David J. Kramer, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor at the U.S. State Department, said the U.S. had begun a review of sanctions after the prisoner release and described this as a ``time of opportunity for Belarus,'' according to a statement published on the State Department's Web site.

Economic reforms have backed up Lukashenko's political overtures to the West. The World Bank's annual ``Doing Business Report'' this month ranked Belarus as one of ``top 10 reformers'' in making government regulations friendlier to business. The country eased the rules for starting a company and amended tax system, jumping to 85th from 115th in the list of 181 countries.

Belarusian gross domestic product has rose 10.4 percent in the first half compared to 2007, the second highest growth figure in the Commonwealth of Independent States after Azerbaijan, according to the Inter-state Statistics Committee of CIS. EU countries account for more than half of Belarusian foreign trade.

Asset Sales

The government has put forward plans to sell state assets, including engineering companies and agricultural producers, and is looking for investors in key industries, said Lucas Romriell, head of regional development at Galt & Taggart Securities in Kiev, who will oversee the investment bank's new office in Minsk.

``Right now, there is more demand from investors than there is supply of assets available,'' he said. Belarus has targeted 2011 for selling off a number of state-run companies, he said.

Belarus has sought to diversify its foreign ties with a range of countries from China to Venezuela, Romriell said. Still, it remains heavily dependent on Russian oil and natural-gas exports.

Russia's natural-gas monopoly OAO Gazprom briefly halted supplies of gas to Belarus in February 2004 during a pricing dispute and threatened to cut off shipments in a 2006 disagreement before reaching an agreement minutes before deadline.

Gazprom warned last month that it may sue Belarus for falling behind in payments. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to conclude a pricing agreement during a visit to Minsk on Oct. 6.

`Nervously' Watching

Russia will be ``nervously'' watching the vote and its aftermath, Zlobin said. ``A sharp turnaround on the part of Belarus is unlikely, but Russia certainly holds no monopoly on friendship,'' he said.

A total of 275 candidates are contesting 110 seats in the lower house of parliament, the OSCE said.

Opposition parties were given greater freedom to campaign and their representatives allowed to join district electoral commissions said Tatyana Protko, chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, a Minsk-based independent human-rights watch.

The electoral campaign is proceeding in a ``strictly regulated environment,'' and it is `` being conducted in an extremely low key manner,'' the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in an interim report this month.

No independent polls are available because public opinion surveys must be conducted by organizations certified by the government.



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