Crackdown in Belarus undermines EU reconciliation

20th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

A crackdown on the opposition after elections in Belarus has struck a potentially fatal blow to strongman President Alexander Lukashenko's bid to improve ties with the West, analysts said.

In November Lukashenko -- who has ruled the former Soviet republic of 10 million with an iron fist for the past 16 years -- pledged to build "normal relations" with European neighbours, who urged him to launch democratic reforms.

He actually relaxed controls on the opposition during the presidential campaign, a move that appeared aimed at impressing international election observers.

But Lukashenko has failed to "keep the promise to hold a free and fair vote" as police Sunday night used force against tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting against his expected re-election in the first round, claiming vote fraud, Belarussian analyst Ales Lagvinets told AFP.

"Belarus is isolated from the Western democratic world," he said.

The European Union pledged three billion euros in assistance to Belarus and promised closer cooperation with Minsk if the vote was considered to be free and fair.

But the EU has now denounced along with the United States Sunday's violence and the arrest of seven of the nine candidates opposing Lukashenko.

As a result, Lukashenko also risks becoming more vulnerable in the face of growing pressure from Russia, which became irritated by Minsk's flirtation over the last months with Brussels.

"Lukashenko comes out of this situation weakened not only domestically, but also in relations with Russia," on which Belarus depends heavily for its supply of oil and gas, Lagvinets said.

During recent months Lukashenko -- whose country needs foreign financial assistance to cope with economic difficulties -- has sought a favour from both Brussels and Moscow, a traditional ally with whom relations have become strained.

"Lukashenko is confident that, having no other choice, the EU will pursue dialogue with him despite what happened on Sunday," Belarussian analyst Valery Karbalevich said.

Lukashenko's "fear" of tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the capital was behind his decision to use force, Karbalevich added.

"The internal situation in Belarus is more important to Lukashenko than the European Union's reaction."

He said relations with Russia would "remain contentious" due to the dispute over the price for Russian gas, part of which flows through Belarus to Europe.

At a post election news conference, Lukashenko appeared to hold an olive branch out to Russia.

"I will endure all hardships so that we do not split with Russia," he said, adding that Belarus had never been Russia's enemy. "We have managed to get away from this tension."

Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov noted that Lukashenko has "played ... a delicate game of improving ties (with the EU) to the detriment of Russia." "But he has deprived himself of the opportunity to rely on the EU" and could be forced to return to Russia's orbit, he said.

Economically weak, Belarus cannot afford to be at loggerheads both with the West and Russia.

"There is a third way -- isolation -- but Belarus is not strong enough economically. It has an advantageous location between Russia and Europe, but it will be difficult to profit from it amid conflict with both parties."

© 2010 AFP

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