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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January, 2005, 19:21 GMT
Analysis: Belarus defies West
By Leonid Ragozin

Relatives hold photos of missing Belarussian politicians
Prominent political rivals of Mr Lukashenko have disappeared
President Aleksandr Lukashenko's regime in Belarus has long been a target of US criticism - and the Bush administration clearly has it on its radar.

The new US "outposts of tyranny" list presented by the incoming US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, mentions just one European country - Belarus.

President Lukashenko, who maintains an iron Soviet-style grip on Belarus, hit back on Friday, saying "some might not want this sort of freedom which reeks of oil and is splattered with blood".

The strength of "people power" in neighbouring Ukraine has fuelled speculation that Belarus might go the same way.

But some experts are sceptical about such a scenario.

"Lukashenko obviously rigged the last (October 2004) referendum, but nevertheless, according to independent observers, he received almost 48% of the votes, which amounts to colossal support," says Russian political analyst Andrey Piontkovsky.

Crackdown on dissent

Mr Lukashenko has used his security forces against non-governmental organisations and the independent media. Demonstrations are often broken up brutally.

Several prominent politicians have disappeared.

Mr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, also disbanded an elected parliament, installing a hand-picked group of loyal deputies.

Aleksandr Lukashenko
Some might not want this sort of freedom which reeks of oil and is splattered with blood
Aleksandr Lukashenko

Angered by such authoritarian practices, the White House adopted the Belarus Democracy Act last year.

It provides for sanctions against Belarus and the promotion of democracy by helping non-governmental organisations and fostering an independent media.

It also bans US federal agencies from giving any financial aid to the country.

Radek Sikorski of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank, says "small amounts of money could go a long way" to promote democracy in Belarus.

He advocates "Cold War-style activity" to effect change in Belarus, such as "broadcasting real information into the country, supporting underground newspapers".

Instead of visa restrictions, Belarussian officials accused of involvement in "disappearing" dissidents should be encouraged to visit the West and then arrested, he told the BBC News website.

Shunned by EU

Mr Lukashenko, often dubbed "Europe's last dictator", is also a major headache for the European Union, three of whose members - Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - share borders with it.
I can't see a figure around which such a revolution could possibly develop
Jim Dingley
UK expert on Belarus

Four key members of Mr Lukashenko's administration are banned from visiting EU countries over their alleged role in the disappearances.

According to Mr Sikorski, the EU "has much stronger instruments than the US" to influence Belarus, "for example, the promise of a European path for the country".

"If people can travel to the West, see the EU and democracy working, eventually a new generation will demand the same rights," he said.

He did not rule out a Ukraine-style popular revolt.

But according to Andrey Piontkovsky, Mr Lukashenko "remains popular, unlike the completely bankrupt regimes of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia or Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine" - all of which succumbed to "people power".

Jim Dingley, a British expert on Belarus, describes the prospects for such an uprising in Belarus as "highly unlikely".

"I can't see a figure around which such a revolution could possibly develop."

Nationalism weak

Moreover, Belarus does not have much national identity around which a protest movement could coalesce, he says.

World War II largely destroyed the country's ethnic mix and nationalism was suppressed by the Soviet authorities.

Its once large Jewish population was largely exterminated by the Nazis, many Poles were deported by Stalin or fled and there was an influx of settlers from Russia.

In the long-term "a core of businessmen who are quite dissatisfied with the limitations imposed on the free development of private enterprise" could spearhead a revolt, Mr Dingley says.

But Mr Piontkovsky agrees that the prospects for a "velvet revolution" in the near future in Belarus "are not too rosy".

Russian influence

But Russia, which maintains close ties with Belarus, could play a significant role, analysts agree.

The US "can and should use President [Vladimir] Putin to put pressure on Lukashenko," says Mr Sikorski. "The regime couldn't survive a few weeks without Russian support."

Russia has been increasingly angered by Mr Lukashenko.

Russian newspapers speculated that he was aiming to become leader of a united state of Russia and Belarus - a country which has existed on paper since 1996.

But the leaderships disagree on key economic issues and relations with the West.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in February 2004 that "the Belarus president is responsible for systematic mistakes in domestic and foreign policy, which hamper economic development and lead to the international isolation of Belarus".

But other former Soviet republics might be more ripe for regime change in the near future, analysts say.

"Kyrgyzstan and Moldova are the first candidates, followed by Armenia," says Mr Piontkovsky.

He also believes that Russia's President Putin is now on shakier ground than Mr Lukashenko.

And Ms Rice did not include in the "outposts of tyranny" list the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan.

Opposition demonstrations do sometimes take place in Belarus - but not even that limited dissent is tolerated in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where human rights abuses are widespread.

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Country profile: Belarus
20 Oct 04 |  Country profiles

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