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Belarus: Lukashenka Wants To Go His Own Way --> Lukashenka (left) speaking to Reuters in Minsk (official site) February 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It's rare for Belarus's authoritarian president to speak to Western media. But recently Alyaksandr Lukashenka has opened up.

Lukashenka, a popular figure nowhere but home, has lately found himself in an especially lonely place -- wedged between an uncompromising Russia and an unsympathetic Europe.

But in a February 6 interview with Reuters, an undaunted Lukashenka emphasized that his country will go its own way.

Belarus, he said, will survive Russia's recent doubling of gas prices -- but ties between the countries can never be the same.

"Our economy can withstand this," Lukashenka said. "Psychologically, if you will, what is most disconcerting for us is the position of our ally. Most of all we are upset that it was an ally country that used such barbaric methods -- a country that is closest to us and home to a people closest to us.

'Practically The Same'

'Belarusians and Russians are practically the same people. They are the same people. It's hard to distinguish between them."

In turn, Lukashenka said, Belarus would also apply market principles to Russia, charging for Russian troops stationed on its soil and for goods transiting the country.

'Europe has suddenly turned its attention to Belarus' -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka

The union state with Russia was still on the agenda, he said. But relations from now on would be on Belarus's terms.

"Russia is trying to disregard the former Soviet republics, thinking they won't go anywhere and they will remain hooked to the Russian Federation," Lukashenka said. "This is a misguided position."

Will Minsk Look West?

Since a New Year's energy spat between Moscow and Minsk briefly shut down oil shipments to the European Union, Lukashenka has made a number of comments calling for a new dialogue with the EU.

"As a result of this [gas] crisis, Europe has suddenly turned its attention to Belarus and understood that without Belarus it is difficult to ensure Europe's energy security," Lukashenka told Reuters. "It has turned out that Belarus also wants to be a sovereign and independent country, and this came as a surprise to the European Union."

Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich (epa)

And in a January interview with the German daily "Die Welt," the Belarusian president described himself as a "willing pupil" ready to learn from the West, and said he wanted Belarus to one day look like Germany or Sweden.

But Brussels remains skeptical. The EU has accused Lukashenka of falsifying elections and clamping down on independent media, and has placed a visa ban and asset freeze on the country's top officials.

In November 2006, the bloc demanded that Lukashenka accept 12 conditions before dialogue between Minsk and Brussels could be restored. The most pressing of those was the release of political prisoners.

The European Commission's external relations spokeswoman, Emma Udwin, told RFE/RL that the EU needs to see political reform before relations with Belarus can be normalized. The ball, she said, is in Belarus's court.

"I see that in the interview with Reuters, Mr. Lukashenka has referred to our suggestions as impossible demands. So I hope that we will see some movement in the future, but I don't think there's anything very substantial yet," Udwin said.

Lukashenka has not given any indication that Belarus is prepared for political reform. Instead, he chastised the West for working with Belarus's political opposition.


Lukashenka said that the opposition in Belarus was a "group of renegades" who had been unsuccessful members of his team.

United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka dismissed Lukashenka's criticism in comments to RFE/RL's Belarus Service: "Lukashenka is not able to forget that there is a group [the opposition] that draws a sizable part of [international] contacts and communications [to its side]. It is simply a feeling of envy by a politician whose time is coming to an end."

But would the West be willing to work with Lukashenka?

In an interview with RFE/RL, Rene van der Linden, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) who recently visited Belarus, said he didn't object to working with the Belarusian government.

"I don't reject cooperation with the government. On the contrary, if they are prepared to go in the right direction and make the first steps, I am prepared to cooperate and to assist, and to be helpful in this [democratization] process," van der Linden said.

Lukashenka also told Reuters that, health permitting, he has no intention of abandoning politics.

That has prompted a new wave of speculation on whether he will run for a fourth term in 2011.

Belarusian political commentator Vyachaslau Orhish thinks that, whatever Lukashenka's desire, there are sociopolitical circumstances that will force him to quit.

"This time is not far away," Orhish says.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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