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Belarus: Is Minsk Seeking Better Relations With the West?

Belarus appears to be signaling that it wants better relations with the West. This month, the Belarusian Constitutional Court recommended placing a moratorium on the death penalty. Lawmakers have suggested they may take steps to make the election law more democratic. But some analysts question whether those measures -- even if implemented -- will be enough to bring Minsk closer to the West.

Prague, 25 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus may be seeking better relations with the West at a time when its ties with Moscow are under strain.

"I have doubts if any reforms are possible. For Lukashenka, reforms mean that his power will be limited."
The country's Constitutional Court this month announced it is prepared to issue a moratorium on the death penalty. Belarus is the only European country where capital punishment remains legal, and up to a dozen people are believed to be executed each year.

Capital punishment is among the controversial issues that has kept Minsk firmly on the sidelines of European integration. Its guest status with the Council of Europe human-rights body has been suspended since January 1997.

Andrey Noreiko, a Belarusian parliamentarian, says a moratorium on the death penalty would naturally improve the country's image in the eyes of the European Union. "If we are talking about aiming for integration with the EU, then we must meet its standards," he says.

The moratorium is set to come into force only after the country's president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, signs a decree overturning a 1990 referendum in which 80 percent of Belarusians backed the use of the death penalty.

It may be only part of a broader package of measures aimed at moving the country closer to the West.

Lawmaker Valery Lipkin last week said the Belarusian Parliament is debating possible changes to the country's election law that would permit different political parties to supervise ballot counting.

Such measures come at a time when Minsk's ties with Moscow are on a downswing. So is Belarus now trying to court favor with the West?

Analysts say it is too soon to tell. Alyaksandr Sosnov is deputy director of the Minsk-based Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies. He says the proposed changes to the penal code and election law have little substantive value.

"The problem is that our Constitutional Court, while discussing the problem of the death penalty, concluded by saying it is possible to announce this moratorium. But it is not clear if [this suggestion] will be approved. And as for parliamentarians -- they have no influence on decisions. They only talk, so let them talk," Sosnov said.

He says so far there are no real indications the country is polishing its image in order to court favor with the West. Sosnov says it is difficult to imagine that Lukashenka, a notoriously repressive leader, has acquired a taste for reforms.

"I have doubts if any reforms are possible. For Lukashenka, reforms mean that his power will be limited. If he does something, he does it only to evade some very negative consequences for himself. He wouldn't like very much to change anything," Sosnov said.

Sosnov says Belarus is caught in a difficult position -- isolated from the West and under increasing economic pressure from Russia. At most, he says, rumors of reform might be nothing more than a scare tactic aimed at intimidating Moscow by threatening to turn to the West.

Nikolay Zlobin is a senior fellow of Russian and Asian Programs at the Center for Defense Information, a think tank in Washington. He says Belarus's recent flirtation with reform is unlikely to impress the West, and that Minsk will have to completely overhaul its legal system before Brussels and Washington consider repairing ties.

"I think, from the formal point of view, there are many things which should be changed. Judicial, legal matters -- the whole system should be reformed and everything should be turned completely upside-down. The main priority should be ensuring the rights of Belarusian citizens, defending their rights," Zlobin said.

Few observers believe Lukashenka is likely to change his iron-fist approach to leadership anytime soon. Still, Zlobin says, if Lukashenka does decide to seriously undertake reform, the West would be sure to take notice.

"Formally speaking, [Lukashenka] might be able to improve [relations with the West]. Just take a look at what, for example, [Libyan leader] Muammar Ghadaffi, or leaders of some other countries, are doing now. For a large part of their political lives they were anti-Western, anti-American. But now, by making some concessions, they are winning, and in a sense have become tactical allies of the United States or other Western countries in the war against terrorism," Zlobin said.

Sosnov says even if a radical shift takes place, it may ultimately be scuttled by the reaction of the Belarusian public. Polls indicate Belarusians have no clear idea about where they think the country should go.

"The majority of people positively value strengthening integration with Europe. Some two-thirds of voters in separate polls [support it]. However, on the other hand, no fewer and maybe an even bigger number of people support integration with Russia [at the same time]," Sosnov said.