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Belarus: Lukashenka, More Isolated Than Ever, In Moscow For Talks

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is holding talks in Moscow today with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The talks come a day after the United States announced a travel ban on Lukashenka. The U.S. announcement mirrors a visa ban recently announced by all European Union members, except Portugal, imposed in protest at alleged human rights abuses by the Belarusian authorities.

Prague, 27 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's been a bad month for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. First, Lukashenka -- as leader of a Partnership for Peace country -- sought to visit Prague for last week's NATO summit. But his visa request was rejected by the Czech Foreign Ministry on the grounds that his government violates its citizens' human rights. Then, 14 of the European Union's 15 member states announced a travel ban on Lukashenka. Yesterday, the United States followed suit.

State Department spokeswoman Lynn Cassel said the U.S. made the move because of what she called the "erosion of human rights and democratic principles in Belarus." Relations between the West and Belarus have been strained for years. So what lies behind the European and American moves to further isolate Lukashenka?

Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent Minsk-based political think tank, said after Lukashenka won re-election in presidential elections in September 2001, Western leaders appeared ready to mend relations with him. But Lukashenka, instead of meeting them halfway, made moves to further alienate the West. "Lukashenka, instead of extending his hand in a gesture of response, did the opposite. He increased his anti-Western policy. In the first place, he increased repression within the country. Secondly, he chased the OSCE observer mission out of Minsk. Plus, he began intensive relations with Iraq. To put it another way, Lukashenka answered the West's proposal to improve and normalize relations with Belarus with a series of opposing actions."

Last month's visit to Belarus by a top-level Iraqi delegation led by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Abdel-Tawab Mulla -- who was making his second visit to the country in just three months -- may have been the final straw, at least in Washington's view. Belarus has denied that it is involved in anything other than legitimate humanitarian trade with Baghdad, but the two countries' increasingly close ties have aroused suspicions in the United States that Minsk may be providing Iraq with more than just tractor parts.

Stuart Hensel follows Belarus for the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. He told RFE/RL, "To the constituents in the U.S. who have been pushing for a hard-line stance against Belarus for a number of years, this has definitely given them more ammunition and some more allies in the Congress, in terms of ratcheting up the pressure on Belarus."

The travel ban, therefore, is a signal to Lukashenka of the West's increasing displeasure with his actions. But will it have an impact? As Hensel noted, Lukashenka -- unlike other leaders in the region -- was not exactly racking up frequent-flyer miles on visits to Brussels or Washington. "He was hardly a frequent visitor to Western capitals or to Washington in recent years, so that is hardly a concern. It's quite an easy target, in fact, for Western governments. It's not like there are extensive business links between any domestic constituents and the Belarusian side. So it's hardly as if anyone was fighting in Mr. Lukashenka's corner."

But Karbalevich, in Minsk, believes the travel ban does somewhat reduce Lukashenka's diplomatic maneuvering room. "It says that Lukashenka's attempt to play Russia off the West will not work. Up to now, whenever relations between Minsk and Moscow went through a bad patch, Lukashenka would make a small step in the West's direction and conversely, he would draw back [when relations with Moscow improved]. Now, such a tactic no longer works. And I think this is the main significance of the West's action towards Minsk."

Conversely, the West's actions now give Russian President Putin even greater leverage when he meets Lukashenka for talks today in Moscow. Karbalevich said: "Today, Lukashenka's position is weaker than ever. And therefore, Putin will speak from a position of strength."

At an earlier meeting in June, Putin caught Lukashenka by surprise, proposing an even closer union than what the Belarusian leader had in mind, putting Lukashenka -- suddenly afraid of losing his power base -- on the defensive. Putin's gambit steered the focus away from political union between the two states to purely economic issues, as Moscow had sought.

Analysts agree that Putin does not want a merger between Russia and Belarus. Putin today once again politely confirmed this, telling Lukashenka in front of reporters that he appreciated Minsk's efforts for close relations, but that Belarus was but one of Moscow's important partners. "The fact that you have once again reiterated Belarus's commitment to the integration with Russia in the first place among other post-Soviet countries is a very important signal for us. Russia's foreign policy is absolutely open and transparent, and we will continue to build our relations with all our partners, including Belarus, in this manner."

What Putin wants, according to analysts, is a pliant Belarus which will continue to assure Russian military and business leaders a dominant position in its markets.

Hensel said, "The key interest for any government in Moscow is that it has a lot of influence over the Belarusian economy and that it is able to cooperate closely militarily with Belarus, given Belarus's strategic location. And on both those fronts, Belarus has been delivering for a number of years. Certainly, Russian business interests are much more closely linked to the Belarusian economy than any other country's business interests. And militarily, the cooperation between Russia and Belarus is second to none. I think those are the key interests for Russia and as long as Mr. Putin can be assured that those are being met in Belarus, he's quite happy to keep Mr. Lukashenka in place, especially seeing as no real viable alternative seems yet to be apparent."

Speaking ahead of today's Moscow talks, Karbalevich told RFE/RL he expected negotiations to focus on economic issues, with Russia seeking to further anchor its economic presence in Minsk. "The talks in Moscow will focus mostly on economic problems, problems of Russian capital controlling certain Belarusian enterprises. I don't think that there will be much talk about political integration at these talks."

First indications are that Karbalevich is correct. On arrival in Moscow, Lukashenka announced he will put his country's gas pipeline up for sale next week. Russian gas giant Gazprom has already expressed an interest in the pipeline, as it seeks to consolidate its position on European markets.

It appears Lukashenka, having painted himself into a corner, will have little choice but to accede to his hosts' wishes.