Will Belarus come in from the cold?

By Jonah Hull in Minsk

With little fanfare, Belarussians are taking to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament.

While many will come out and exercise their vote there is little cause to wonder at the outcome. The country's parliament currently contains no opposition and is little more than an extension of the presidential administration under Alexander Lukashenko.

But western powers are watching closely. An election deemed fair could open the way to a lifting of sanction on Belarus, and renewed dialogue towards closer ties.

In a village outside the capital Minsk, I met the Troshin family. They have farmed land there for 45 years and were harvesting the potato crop that will see them through the cold winter months. The general election taking place was no reason to stop.

In Belarus, parliament answers to the president, and the president is widely liked.

"He takes care of the people, especially the pensioners," Pelagia, a 75-year-old grandmother, told me.

"If you complain, he will always listen. He is a good man and a very good leader," she said.

Clinging to power

Pensions and salaries, though still meager, have indeed risen in the 14 years that Lukashenko has ruled Belarus as his own private fiefdom. Freely elected in 1994, he has since clung firmly to power, wielding the tools of dictatorship to do so.

The country's media is almost entirely under state control. It's security service is still called the KGB. Opposition activists are frequently harassed and arrested.

But dictatorship is an image Lukashenko is trying to throw off. His country badly needs western investment to counter its reliance on Russia. And, while Belarus is closely tied to Russia in culture and heritage, Belarussians would also like to think of themselves as Europeans.

High ranking government officials liken Belarus to a free and open, European-style democracy. In substance it is anything but, of course. Nevertheless, the conduct of these elections will be closely watched by Western observers for signs of democratic change.

The West now has a powerful incentive of its own to bring Lukashenko in from the cold.

The brief August war between Georgia and Russia highlighted Russia's regional ambitions, and Europe in particular would be keen to see Belarus as a buffer against Russian aggression, rather than an extension of it.

'Unfair start'

Back in the Troshin's field, I asked Pelagia's son Nikolai what he thought of constant demands by the country's embattled opposition, and the West, for change.

"I watch the news," he told me.

"And I know the West treats Lukashenko and Belarus with prejudice. His achievement as president was to build up this country from nothing."

So how much widespread popular support is there for the kind of change demanded by Washington and the EU before sanctions can go? Quite possibly not much.

Lukashenko may have been labelled the last dictator in Europe by the Bush administration, but here at home, dictatorship means a firm hand, and a firm hand has brought at least the appearance of progress.

By the very nature of the state-controlled political climate in which it takes place, this election is unfair from the start.

In their reaction to the vote, Western powers will have to weigh up their new geostrategic interests, against the values of a true democracy that Belarus may never become, and many Belarussians may not want anyway.



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