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Why Did Belarusian President Pardon His Toughest Opponent?

Alyaksandr Kazulin

Alyaksandr Kazulin

Last week President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed an act of clemency for political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin.

Kazulin, who had been serving a 5 1/2-year sentence since March 2006, said in a written statement that he does not accept his pardon on moral grounds, and demands full rehabilitation plus compensation of 2 million euros from the state.

In February of this year, Kazulin was allowed to leave prison to attend the funeral of his wife, who died after a battle with breast cancer. It became known at that time that Lukashenka offered him an early release to help his wife seek treatment abroad but only on the condition that they would never come back to Belarus.

Both Kazulin and his wife refused to accept this condition.

Lukashenka's current pardon was welcomed by a number of Western officials as an auspicious step of the Belarusian regime toward normalizing Minsk's relations with the West.

'Step In The Right Direction'

Lluis Maria de Puig, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), said that for his organization, "bringing Belarus into the fold of European democracies is a priority and the release of political prisoners an unfaltering demand." De Puig added that Kazulin's liberation is a "step in the right direction."

Andrea Rigoni, PACE rapporteur on Belarus, said Kazulin's release "is revealing of the dynamics within the Belarusian leadership and of the willingness of at least part of it to engage in a dialogue with European institutions and to respond positively to their demands."

Jonathan Moore, charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Kazulin's pardon is an "important step" which, if followed by more "positive steps" on the part of the Belarusian government, could significantly repair relations between Washington in Minsk. Following a series of mutual expulsions in a bitter diplomatic row, Moore is now in charge of a skeleton staff of five U.S. diplomats in Minsk.

Belarusian human rights defender Ales Byalyatski, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights, said that both Belarusian and international human right watchdogs should take credit for the liberation of Kazulin.

"It is a common achievement of Belarusian human right defenders and various foreign structures, both governmental and nongovernmental," Byalyatski said. "We also contributed our part, so for me this news was cause for a lot of joy. I'd like this trend to be continued after Kazulin because there are two more political prisoners [in Belarus]."

Return To Politics

The two mentioned by Byalyatski are Andrey Kim and Syarhey Parsyukevich. In April, Kim was sentenced to 18 months in prison for allegedly attacking a police officer during a protest in January. Parsyukevich received a 30-month sentence for allegedly beating a guard while serving a 15-day sentence for the same protest.

Kazulin postponed a press conference on his pardon until August 20. But in the meantime he met with a number of opposition politicians, including Social Democrat Mikalay Statkevich.

Statkevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Kazulin is going to return to politics, despite the fact that earlier this month he was dismissed from the post of chairman of the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada).

"Certainly, Mr. Kazulin, even without the official post of leader of his party, is already an [important] factor in Belarusian politics," Statkevich said. "It is up to him how he is going to dispose of his potential that he gained thanks to his courage."

Kazulin is generally seen as the most radical and uncompromising of all prominent opposition leaders in Belarus.

During the 2006 presidential campaign, in which he ran as a candidate, Kazulin -- in an appearance on state-run television -- accused Lukashenka of leading an immoral personal life. He disclosed that the incumbent president had a mistress and a young son from the relationship, while the nominal first lady had been living in a provincial city since Lukashenka's inauguration in 1994.

In March, during an opposition rally, Kazulin called on demonstrators to go to a prison holding several hundred protesters incarcerated in the wake of the presidential campaign. He was arrested during that march, charged with hooliganism and disorderly conduct, and imprisoned.

Why Now?

Why did Lukashenka decide to free Kazulin now, after missing an excellent opportunity earlier this year, when he released several other political prisoners and seemed to be willing to enter into a significant dialogue with the West?

The current timing for taking such a step seems to be very good, and Lukashenka is known for his instinctive ability to exploit any ripple in international politics to his advantage.

First, there is the Russian-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia, which is poised to bring another icy period in relations between Russia and the West. Although purportedly building a union state with Russia, Lukashenka neglected to offer Moscow event the slightest verbal support in the first week of the war -- an omission that, in the post-Soviet neighborhood, spoke volumes.

Meeting on August 19 with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Lukashenka hastily backtracked, effusively praising Russia for its "wisdom... at the time of aggression" and for bringing "peace" to the region. But his initial silence, like Kazulin's pardon, could be interpreted as a "pro-Western" signal to the world.

Second, Kazulin's release, at least for Western observers, overshadowed the fact that polling-station commissions for Belarus's September parliamentary elections were formed by Belarusian authorities with only symbolic participation of the opposition.

The opposition, which maintains that most electoral falsifications are made at the level of polling-station commissions, proposed some 1,300 candidates for these commissions, while the authorities accepted fewer than 50. According to opposition parties, the upcoming parliamentary ballot will most likely be similar to previous parliamentary campaigns, when it was completely impossible to verify election results.

The opposition suspects that by offering clemency to Kazulin, Lukashenka may be inviting the West to finally recognize the way he has become used to holding electoral campaigns in Belarus.
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