With Belarus preparing to hold parliamentary elections later this month, both the United States and the European Union have given unambiguous signals that their relations with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka could be significantly upgraded if he chooses to conduct the polls in a more open and transparent way than previously.
The big question is whether Lukashenka -- who is often referred to as "Europe's last dictator" in keeping with the title bestowed upon him by U.S. Secretary of State Secretary Condoleezza Rice -- will take advantage of this new opportunity to end the West's isolation of his regime.
Lukashenka has indeed shown some signs that he is willing to improve his seriously strained relations with Washington and Brussels.
In August, Lukashenka released Alyaksandr Kazulin and two other opposition activists who were regarded by international human rights activists as political prisoners of the Belarusian regime, thus complying with the West's sine qua non condition for entering into dialogue with him.
Washington responded by sending Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Merkel to Minsk and lifting economic sanctions against two subsidiaries of Belarus's Belnaftakhim petrochemical concern.
Promises to ease more U.S. sanctions followed on the condition that Minsk make improvements in the conduct of elections for the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, the lower house of the National Assembly, which will take place on September 28.
Signs Of A Thaw?
These pledges were reiterated by Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, during the commission's hearings on Belarus in Washington on September 16.
"If the Belarus government chooses to take concrete steps toward genuine progress, I am confident that the United States will do everything we can to encourage those steps so that the citizens of Belarus enjoy the freedoms associated with the democratic state that so many other countries in Europe have followed since the fall of the Soviet Union," Cardin said.
In a bolder sign of apparent goodwill, Lukashenka has opted not to follow Moscow's example in recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist regions that were at the heart of the recent war between Russia and Georgia.
Given that Belarus and Russia nominally form a union state and that Moscow heavily subsidizes the Belarusian "market-socialism" economy -- some put these subsidies at several billion dollars per year -- this was a truly gutsy move that has clearly invited more rewards from the West.
There have been some signs that the seeds of reconciliation are being sown -- the most significant being the unprecedented visit to Belarus this month by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who called for lifting the EU visa sanctions on a number of Belarusian government officials as soon as possible.
But a meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Brussels on September 15 was more cautious, and made further friendly gestures toward Lukashenka conditional on the "respect for democratic values" that he may (or may not) exhibit in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Not Accepting Business As Usual
The EU's wariness is understandable. Lukashenka is a sly political player, even if he lacks firsthand experience in the international arena. For the past 14 years, he has been perfectly able to maintain his autocratic posture without alienating the West for good and without losing the benefits and favors his regime enjoys from Russia.
And there are many reasons to suspect that the September 28 elections will not be much different than all the others held during Lukashenka's three terms as president.
There are virtually no opposition representatives on local election commissions, which are directly responsible for counting the vote. There is no efficient mechanism in place for ensuring the security of ballot boxes during early voting. And even the voters lists in Belarus cannot be checked or verified by international monitors or the opposition.
Washington, too, is aware that the elections may be just another exercise in simulated democracy.
"Less than two weeks before the elections to Belarus's National Assembly, President Lukashenka has given us few signs that these elections will be different from other elections held under his rule, which have fallen far short of OSCE standards," Representative Christopher Smith (Republican, New Jersey) said during the U.S. Helsinki Commission hearings on Belarus on September 16.
"Once again, the opposition finds officials restricting its campaign activities, and opposition candidates have little access to the state-dominated media."
Nevertheless, both Washington and Brussels seem to be keenly interested in seeing some progress in Belarus, and are thus reportedly seeking to persuade the opposition -- which has not yet decided whether it wants to boycott the vote -- to stay in the game.
The leader of one opposition party opting to boycott the vote, the Belarusian Popular Front's Lyavon Barshcheuski, suggested to RFE/RL's Belarus Service earlier this month that the West's primarily concern may be containing Russia's resurgence in the wake of the war with Georgia.
This, he said, could mean that making peace with Lukashenka could be a top priority -- even if it comes at the expense of the opposition.
"Sometime at the beginning of this year, during my contacts and those of my colleagues, we noticed that our serious Western partners had changed their course," Barshcheuski said. "The main thesis of this [new] course was as follows: The opposition in Belarus is weak therefore it is necessary to get in direct touch with the authorities. Although they promised us that the voice of the opposition would be taken into account, in fact this voice has not been heard."
Some political experts in Belarus suggest that, to meet such anticipated Western expectations halfway, Lukashenka might even allow several selected opposition candidates to be elected to the Chamber of Representatives.
Regardless of whether these experts are right or not, such an international context of the Belarusian elections makes the election campaign look more interesting.
Otherwise, however, the election campaign lacks passion and appears headed for an uneventful and foregone conclusion. No major issues or even slogans have been put forward. There is practically no election propaganda to be seen on the streets.
It seems that everyone -- including international observers and domestic competitors -- is so fatigued by the lack of any democratic progress in "Europe's last dictatorship" that even a half-rigged ballot can be met with a sigh of relief.