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Belarus Opposition Leaders Hail U.S. Senators' Tough Stance On Lukashenka

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is projected on a large screen as he delivers a speech to mark Independence Day in Minsk on July 3.

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is projected on a large screen as he delivers a speech to mark Independence Day in Minsk on July 3.

Leading opposition figures in Belarus have solidly endorsed an initiative by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators urging the Obama administration not to back an international bailout plan for Minsk.

Six U.S. senators sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on August 1 urging him to ensure that the requested loan "is not awarded and to personally voice U.S. opposition to IMF [International Monetary Fund] support for Belarus at this time."

Facing a daunting economic crisis, the government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has asked the IMF for an additional $8 billion in stabilization funding, following the receipt of $3 billion from the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community earlier this year.

The senators -- Republicans Mark Kirk (Illinois) and John McCain (Arizona); Democrats Richard Durbin (Illinois), Benjamin Cardin (Maryland), and Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire); and independent Joseph Lieberman (Connecticut) -- said additional lending "would only subsidize Lukashenka's continued illegitimate and repressive regime and would not advance real economic reforms." They also called for expanded sanction against a number of state-owned Belarusian firms.

Wasted Money?

Leaders of the Belarusian political opposition told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the senators' analysis of the situation is correct and that any funding issued to Minsk at present would only be wasted in the absence of a commitment to economic reform.

Syarhey Haydukevich, a former presidential candidate and leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party, told RFE/RL that the people of Belarus would not benefit from any IMF support.

"The main thing is that now we are a quietly falling into an abyss. And such loans -- inasmuch as nothing is changing in the economy, no one is being fired, there are only fairytales -- so taking loans now would be simple suicide," Haydukevich said. "Thank you to the senators for understanding this."

Likewise, former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu welcomed any Western pressure aimed at securing the release of political prisoners, saying it is "our moral and civic duty" to "secure the release of political prisoners."

"And we can only welcome any steps on the part of the international community that can help us in this -- including the most forceful steps," Nyaklyaeu said. "I am not saying Belarus should not be given loans. I am saying that loans should be given sensibly. A loan when there are political prisoners or when there are no real reforms -- or, as the American senators say, there are not even any signs of reforms -- will not help the people of Belarus. It would only help the regime, which would use the money itself. The loan would only be used to support the regime. They would use it for themselves. And half of the money would be stolen."

Trans-Atlantic View(s)

The letter notes that despite U.S. objections, a 2009 IMF loan to Belarus was processed because the United States and the European Union "did not stand united."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Belarus David Swartz, however, told RFE/RL that gaps between Washington and Brussels on Belarus have shrunk in response to Lukashenka's postelection crackdown:

"Up until about, I would say, the end of 2009 or the beginning of 2010, there was a certain gap, you might say, between U.S. and European perceptions about where Belarus was going," Swartz said. "The Europeans tended to think that, as I see it, there was scope for inducing Lukashenka to behave better. And the United States was doubtful about that. And therefore there was, to some extent at least, a divergence of opinion between Brussels and Washington, so to speak, about how to deal with Belarus."

Swartz added that the senators' letter sends a strong signal to Lukashenka that his past practice of using such differences to his advantage will not work this time. The senators also note, for example, that the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have denied loans to Minsk in recent weeks.

Peter Doran, a senior policy analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, expressed a similar opinion.

"I think the key part and the timing of this letter is important because it is attempting to galvanize the trans-Atlantic cooperation that we've seen since the December presidential election [in Belarus]," Doran told RFE/RL. "It is trying to galvanize that spirit and sort of coordinate a unified European and United States position regarding bailouts, regarding financial assistance and to send the opposition a message that the Western world really finds Lukashenka's regime unpalatable and would like to see it go."

Into Russia's Arms?

But some analysts wonder if an IMF refusal will merely force Lukashenka closer into Russia's orbit. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on August 1 that the union of Russia and Belarus "is possible and very desirable."

Another former Belarusian presidential candidate, Ryhor Kastusiou, said he believes Lukashenka's government might be keeping such an option open.

"He [Putin] wants to quickly achieve his goal -- the unification of Belarus and Russia -- and he has already stated this openly," Kastusiou said. "The worst thing is that not all the politicians in Belarus understand the danger; many are closing their eyes to it. But it is obvious that there must be a statement from Belarusian politicians in response to such assaults from the Russian side, and we must take steps to defend our country from incorporation into Russia."

A recent opinion poll in Belarus found that 31 percent of respondents favor unification with Russia, while 48 percent oppose it. The same poll found that 45 percent favor joining the European Union, while 32 percent oppose.

In an e-mailed statement to RFE/RL, Senator Lieberman said: "We need to stand firmly on the side of the Belarusian people, whose courage and perseverance have been an inspiration to all of us in Congress, and ratchet up the pressure on Lukashenka."

RFE/RL Belarus correspondent Valer Kalinousky contributed to this story from Minsk and RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed from Prague

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