Russia could give Belarus leader rough ride in new term

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Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is expected to sail to a fourth term in office Sunday but may find his new mandate scarred by an economic war with his once trusted ally Russia, analysts said.

Relations between the two countries have deteriorated considerably in recent months, provoking attacks from both sides through the media and disputes over gas supplies that have worried the European Union.

Lukashenko was once seen as such a steadfast ally of Russia and proponent of Soviet-style integration that some speculated that he could even be angling for a senior post in the Kremlin in a future unified state.

But in recent months this has changed with dizzying speed.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev denounced Lukashenko's "hysterical" and "anti-Russian" rhetoric only to be accused by the former Soviet republic's leader of financing opposition in the run-up to the presidential elections.

With no prominent opposition candidate standing and the entire state machine under his control, Lukashenko is expected by analysts to win the elections easily.

Russian television went even further, calling Lukashenko a "psychopath" in a documentary called "The Godfather" about the strongman Belarusian president's authoritarian rule.

If Minsk takes no initiative to improve ties with Moscow, "an economic war" is possible and could have serious consequences for Belarus, Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said.

"The closure of the Russian market for agricultural products and machine tools" from Belarus could be a heavy penalty for the country, said Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Politics.

In a sign of sharp deterioration in ties between Moscow and Minsk, Lukashenko was deprived of Moscow's support ahead of the vote, for the first time since his initial election in 1994, noted Russian political analyst Alexander Fadeev.

Moscow has so far recognized all the presidential polls won by Lukashenko in 1994, 2001 and 2006 even though the United States and the European Union have said that the latter two failed to meet international standards.

But there are no signs that Moscow could maintain the same approach after Sunday's vote, independent Belarussian political analyst Ales Lagvinets said.

"Russia's recognition or non-recognition of the presidential elections in Belarus -- which already cannot be considered free and legitimate -- will show whether Moscow agrees or not" to continue dealing with Lukashenko," Lagvinets said.

Russia has already "blackmailed Lukashenko to force him to concede" on the economic front, as Moscow seeks to control Belarussian energy companies through Russian state enterprises -- such as gas giant Gazprom -- Lagvinets added.

In July Russia suspended gas supplies to Belarus and forced it to pay off a debt of 187 million dollars.

Minsk responded by interrupting Russian gas transit through its territory to Europe.

Since 2006, Russia had begun to review its commercial relations with neighboring Belarus and subsequently removed several economic benefits, such as preferential gas tariffs.

The move prompted multiple bilateral conflicts and diplomatic tensions.

Once Russia's closest ally and a pariah in the West, Lukashenko has invoked Kremlin's wrath by recently drifting apart from Moscow's orbit and boosting ties with the European Union.

Lukashenko has also infuriated Russia by breaking a promise to recognize the independence of Moscow-backed Georgian separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

© 2010 AFP

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