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Belarus Reaching Out To The West

Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau

Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau

Hit by the economic crisis, Belarus is reaching out to the West -- at least in the pages of the "IHT."

In the paper today, Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov "explodes" three myths about Belarus: that Belarus is only liberalizing its economy because of outside pressure; that Belarus faces a stark choice between Russia and the West; and that Belarus is stuck in a Soviet time warp.

On the first point, Martynov rattles out Belarus's argument -- which they've repeated so much recently that officials are perhaps even starting to believe it -- that they waited, didn't go down the road of rapacious capitalism like Russia, and now -- after plenty of careful analysis -- they're ready to liberalize their economy.

The reality is that the Belarusian economy is tanking, with declining demands for its exports and a devalued ruble. The IMF has agreed to loan Belarus $2.5 billion, but it needs more and is looking to Russia and the West to get the money.

Denying that the West has any influence over Belarus is just face-saving and nothing more.

But Martynov -- to give him the benefit of the doubt -- does cite some areas of progress in Belarus: an improved standing in a World Bank "Ease of Doing Business" survey and fewer Internet restrictions.

But as Brian Whitmore wrote last week, the loosening up is schizophrenic:

In recent months, Belarus has released its last political prisoners, allowed the publication of opposition newspapers, created consultative councils that include members of the opposition, and made some cautious moves to liberalize the economy and relax controls on the online media.

At the same time, Lukashenka's regime has had a hard time letting go of some of its more traditional, repressive tactics. Opposition figures still face petty harassment and arbitrary arrests. Some youth leaders have also been detained and press-ganged into the armed forces. Critics describe the practice as politically motivated conscriptions.

On the second myth, having to choose between Russia and the West, Martynov is probably right. Given Belarus's history and its long-standing political and economic relations with Russia, it shouldn't be forced to choose which parent to live with.

Charles Grant, writing in a second "IHT" piece on Belarus today, makes that point, saying that "the EU and Russia should work together -- and with the international financial institutions -- to help Belarus."

As to the third myth, that Belarus is "some sense a last outpost of Soviet ambition," well that's not entirely a myth of the West's making.

While journalists' boilerplates of "Europe's last dictatorship" or "a giant Soviet theme park" certainly get a little tiring, Belarus has retained more elements of a command economy and hung onto more trappings of its Soviet heritage than its neighbors to the east.

Not to mention that the biggest problem with Belarus is that we've seen it all before: the playing both sides off against the other, the signs that the country is opening up which then amount to nothing, or end up with more heads getting cracked at a rally (as happened a few Saturdays ago) or an independent newspaper getting closed down.

Lukashenka is a skillful diplomat and he's made his career -- and garners respect from many political operators in Belarus -- by knowing how to play the game.

While the most recent signs are indeed promising and should be encouraged by the West, a note of caution is still needed. Some habits are hard to break.

-- Luke Allnutt

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at