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Belarus: Washington Set To Work For Change

Bush called Lukashenka's Belarus "Europe's last dictatorship" U.S. President George W. Bush pledged in Riga on 7 May that the United State will remain committed to the advance of democracy in Belarus. "The people of that country live under Europe's last dictatorship, and they deserve better," Bush said at a news conference following his talks with the presidents of the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. "The governments of Latvia and Lithuania have worked to build support for democracy in Belarus, and to deliver truthful information by radio and newspapers. Together we have set a firm and confident standard: Repression has no place on this continent."

Bush's words echoed those of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month, before and during her trips to Moscow and Vilnius. "Nobody benefits from the last dictatorship in Europe, which is the Lukashenka government in Belarus," Rice reportedly said before departing for Moscow on 19 April. "Belarus has been held back by the nature of that regime. It is not possible to integrate into anything."

While in Vilnius on 21 April for a NATO meeting of foreign ministers, Rice met with members of Belarusian civil society and discussed the situation of Belarus with the participation of EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis. "The point was made very clearly that the 2006 [presidential] elections really do present an excellent opportunity for the international community to focus on the need for free and fair elections in Belarus," Rice told a news conference following that meeting. "The Belarusian government should know that their behavior is being watched by the international community, that this is not a dark corner in which things can go on unobserved, uncommented upon, and as if Belarus were somehow not a part of the European continent."

Rice pledged in Vilnius that the U.S. government would help the Belarusian opposition in four areas: promoting independent media, supporting pro-democracy activism, encouraging an alliance of political parties and civil-society groups for seeking free government, and unifying the opposition around a single candidate to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2006. This was met with a rebuff from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said in Vilnius on 21 April that Moscow "would not of course be advocating what some people call regime changes anywhere. We think the democratic process, the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside." To which Rice responded: "We can provide support, as both we and the European Union are doing, to the development of civil-society groups and the training of independent media and independent political and civil society forces [in Belarus]. That is the role of outside forces."

It should also be remembered that Rice in January designated Belarus, along with Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Iran, and North Korea, as an "outpost of tyranny" in the present-day world. And in October 2004, shortly before a controversial constitutional referendum in Belarus, the U.S. Congress adopted the Belarus Democracy Act, a bill intended to promote democratic development, human rights, and the rule of law in Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus's sovereignty and independence. The bill authorizes "necessary assistance" for democracy-building activities such as support for nongovernmental organizations, independent media, including radio and television broadcasting into Belarus, and international exchanges. The U.S. Congress is now finalizing its work on a bill appropriating $5 million to support the development of democracy in Belarus in 2005.
"The Belarusian government should know that their behavior is being watched by the international community, that this is not a dark corner in which things can go on unobserved, uncommented upon, and as if Belarus were somehow not a part of the European continent." - Condoleezza Rice

Thus, judging by Washington's strong rhetoric and some practical steps, the U.S. government is set to get firmly involved in seeking political change in Belarus. Does it mean that the White House is not afraid of provoking the Kremlin's ire because of what could be seen as encroaching upon Russia's "backyard," as Belarus under President Lukashenka is now and then described by some Western commentators? Arguably it does, at least for two apparent reasons.

First, it is not unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not commented personally on what Bush and Rice think about the current Belarusian regime, enjoys the situation in which the United States as well as the EU are increasing pressure on Lukashenka. In theory, such pressure could make Lukashenka more pliant and responsive to the Kremlin's idea of integration with Belarus, in which economic integration precedes Russian political advances to Minsk. However, Lukashenka has so far failed to respond adequately. On the contrary, he has managed to obtain a promise from Putin that Russian gas prices for Belarus in 2006 will remain at this year's level, without committing himself to the introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus, a step sought by Moscow and seen as considerable leverage for control over Belarus's economy in the future.

Second, Washington's increasing assertiveness in dealing with Lukashenka's Belarus can be attributed to a recent shift in the balance of power on Russia's borders, following the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Georgia and Ukraine have become, to quote Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, "agents of democracy" and stepped into the game over the future of Belarus, which has so far been seen primarily as a tug-of-war between Russia and the West. While in Washington in April, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko pledged "to support the advance of freedom in countries such as Belarus and Cuba." And Saakashvili has recently called for organizing a new Yalta conference in order to agree, among other issues, on toughening travel restrictions on Belarusian officials and increasing financial and material support to the Belarusian opposition to induce political change in Belarus.

That said, one should not expect that the Kremlin would enthusiastically embrace the idea of another "colored revolution" in its "near abroad" on the one hand, or that the United States, the EU, and the newly emerged "agents of democracy" could easily make such a revolution happen in Belarus on the other. The Belarusian regime seems to manage a sufficient amount of political repression and economic stability to secure yet another "elegant victory" for Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election. But staying in power is certainly bound to be increasingly problematic and discomforting for him. Lukashenka failed to attend the V-Day parade on Red Square in Moscow on 9 May not because he did not want to but because he was well aware that among the more than 50 heads of states and governments there, only a few would have shaken hands with or spoken to him. The future seems to be even emptier and gloomier for him.


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