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Belarus: America, Europe Face Debate On Policy Toward Minsk

There are few countries whose relations with Washington did not change after 11 September. Belarus, still very much a pariah as far as the U.S. is concerned, is one of them. But a debate is starting to rage on both sides of the Atlantic on possibly changing policy toward Minsk after eight years of isolation that has done little to change the policies or position of its authoritarian leader.

Washington, 16 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- So what ever happened to Alyaksandr Lukashenka?

On 10 September, the Belarus leader declared a "shining victory" in presidential elections that the West denounced as fraudulent.

But the next day, the world did not denounce Lukashenka. The next day, the world changed.

Terrorists struck America, killing more than 3,000 people in perhaps the most spectacular attack in history, and the U.S. declared war on terrorism -- a war that has transformed Washington's relations with Minsk's main ally, Moscow, as well as with authoritarian Central Asian countries whose human rights records would almost make Lukashenka's look good.

In the ensuing months, President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin forged a "friendship," with Putin even spending the night at Bush's Texas ranch. And nations such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have seen their help in America's campaign in Afghanistan lead to better ties and economic agreements, including the possibility of normalized trade relations.

But if the world changed on 11 September, human rights activists and political analysts say that Lukashenka did not -- even if he appears keen on having Minsk join the long line of former Soviet countries that are improving their status within key European bodies, such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Indeed, the question of what policy to adopt toward Belarus -- engagement or further isolation -- looks set to be hotly debated in the coming weeks as the OSCE ponders two key decisions: whether to allow members of the Belarusian parliament, widely considered a rubber-stamp congress, to sit in its Parliamentary Assembly; and whether to give Minsk special invited country status to Europe's premier human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe. The timing of the decisions is still not clear.

Belarus' human rights record has so far prevented it from membership in the Council, while the OSCE had recognized Belarus' 13th Soviet -- the democratically elected parliament that was disbanded by Lukashenka in 1996 -- until its official term in office ended in 2002.

Recently, Belarusian Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvostov said relations are improving with both organizations. But he has also urged them to stop "politicizing the Belarus question" and start treating Minsk as they do other former Soviet republics with which they have normal relations -- that is, as a "young democracy." Khvostov also said on 13 January that Belarus is genuinely interested in normalizing relations with Washington.

But the Belarusian opposition takes a reverse view. On 13 January, it urged the West to further isolate their country politically and economically as the only way to deal with Lukashenka.

The debate has taken on urgency for human rights activists, who say Lukashenka is using the lull in attention on Belarus to launch a major crackdown on top businessmen who opposed his 2001 re-election bid.

In their latest move, authorities on 9 January arrested Mikhail Leonov, the director of the country's biggest factory -- the Minsk Tractor Plant -- and launched a probe into his possible abuse of power and negligence.

Catherine Fitzpatrick is executive director of the International League of Human Rights, a group with consultative status at the United Nations. Fitzpatrick says Leonov's and others' arrests for "economic crimes" do not appear to be legitimate and recall Soviet methods of persecution.

"I think it's an alarming sign, and it's sort of reminiscent of the Soviet Union, when there were always these 'economic criminals' and it was very hard to get a beat on their cases because of those kinds of charges," Fitzpatrick said. "But usually in a non-market economy, there are a hundred ways you can get rid of your opponents through those kinds of charges."

Fiona Hill agrees. An analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Hill says the lack of an international spotlight on Lukashenka is bad for Belarus: "There are so many other things going on in the whole region that I'm sure that Lukashenka is fairly confident of the fact that there will be no reprisals."

Hill also says it is a little strange for Minsk to seek to be treated more leniently as a "young democracy" along the lines of Central Asian states, since Belarus was perhaps the most industrially advanced of all the former Soviet republics and even had its own seat at the United Nations.

Hill says that engaging Central Asian states, although necessary for U.S. interests, also makes sense because civil society is so weak. She says the space for such forces will be "pushed out" by U.S. engagement. But Hill says Belarus is on a different level in a region flanked by likely future European Union countries.

"Belarus ought to be held to a different standard. I think it's a cop-out for Lukashenka and the people around him to say, 'Look, we're on the same level as the Central Asian states.' The Central Asian states were the least developed, economically and politically, of all of the Soviet states in 1991," Hill said. "And if Belarus would like to present itself off as kind of the poorest, the least developed of all the region, that's fine, but they're doing their own country a disservice in that respect."

But if Hill and Fitzpatrick agree on Belarus' ills, they differ on solutions. Hill, pointing to Fidel Castro, who has been in office for nearly half a century despite fierce U.S. isolation, is wary of further isolating Minsk.

Fitzpatrick, however, is a passionate advocate of a bill currently in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would severely isolate Belarus as well as give millions of dollars to the Belarusian opposition. But it is far from clear that the "Belarus Act" -- sponsored by veteran Senator Jesse Helms, the author of past sanctions on Cuba -- will ever get through Congress.

Hill says she is unsure whether restoring Belarusian status in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe would actually harm the country's democratic prospects in the long run. She believes Lukashenka could be in power for quite some time and that it is important to engage the people around him -- especially through groups and governments in neighboring countries -- so that when he does leave, the country will be ready for change.

Hill says Lukashenka is already isolated enough -- and the world can't expect him to fall like Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia: "What you're trying to do is to affect and isolate Lukashenka. But Lukashenka wasn't like a Milosevic, [who had] a lot of external interests. He doesn't have a coterie of people around him who are involved in all kinds of international trade and other things. Belarus' external links are tenuous. They don't have a great to deal to lose by isolation -- they're already pretty isolated anyway, I mean, certainly from the Baltic states and the Europeans. Their ties are with Ukraine and Russia, and they were before and they've remained so. We really don't have a great deal of leverage there."

But Fitzpatrick vehemently disagrees. She says Belarus has so far not really experienced real isolation, adding that many methods have yet to be tried: "That's not isolation. Isolation is -- there's a range of things that you can do, leading up to expulsion from the OSCE. You can ban visas, you can have very vocal condemnations. You can stop trade fairs, you can halt exchanges -- you know, there are many, many ways you can show your unhappiness. We aren't doing that at all."

Fitzpatrick says Lukashenka and Belarusian officials do not respond to positive incentives. She says they often promise to do things -- such as release political prisoners from jail -- for short-term political gains, but routinely fail to live up to those promises when the political need passes.

Fitzpatrick says she believes Lukashenka and Belarusian officials think they won their hardest battle on 10 September and that they've had a new attitude since 11 September -- one that can be summed up in two words: gloating and glee.