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Belarus: Lukashenka's Public Support For Iraq May Be Meant For Domestic Audience

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka this week announced his country's support for Iraq in its current crisis with the United States over alleged weapons of mass destruction. But analysts say such declarations are directed more at the Belarusian public as a way of bolstering Lukashenka's image as a bold political leader. In reality, they say, there is little Belarus can offer Saddam Hussein by way of practical support.

Prague, 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It may be cold comfort, but Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has at least one ally in Europe: Belarus.

On 3 February, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka formally accepted credentials from Iraq's new ambassador to Minsk, Salman Zeydan. During the ceremony, Lukashenka said his country supports Iraq "as much as is possible in the situation that has arisen." He also noted that it was "not by chance" that he was accepting credentials from the Iraqi diplomat at a time when the United States is pressing its case for a military campaign to depose Saddam Hussein and rid Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Lukashenka stressed, however, that his country's support for Baghdad does not extend to military cooperation, something that would represent a violation of United Nations sanctions. Last summer, Minsk vehemently denied allegations that Belarus had sold weapons to Iraq.

So what does Lukashenka's public vow of support for Iraq really mean? Very little, say analysts, at least in terms of material aid for Baghdad. Lukashenka's words, they say, are aimed more at bolstering the Belarusian president's popularity for his audience at home.

Alyaksandr Klaskovsky, who edits "Novosti," a Belarusian Internet publication, told RFE/RL that Lukashenka is trying to project a commanding image at home. "Such challenging declarations are likely to be directed toward [Belarusian] voters and seek to solidify the image of a strong politician who is not afraid of anyone, not afraid of America, and so on. This is a very important part of Lukashenka's image at home. He always presents himself as a brave politician who is not afraid to challenge the strongest states in the world," Klaskovsky said.

Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent Minsk-based think tank, agrees. He said that such public statements of support for Iraq are typical of Lukashenka's Soviet-style leadership. "I think it won't make him less popular; it won't harm him. Lukashenka addresses voters with a Soviet mentality, with the mentality of Sovietized Belarusians who think they're still living in the Soviet Union. They still have the same Soviet-style attitudes toward the world. In the Soviet Union, the West was accepted as an enemy and the Third World as being exploited and friendly. [Lukashenka] is trying to continue along this path of Soviet propaganda," Karbalevich said.

A survey conducted last December by the private Minsk-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies indicates that 30 percent of Belarusians would vote for Lukashenka in new presidential elections, a decrease of nearly 20 percentage points in comparison with a similar poll conducted a year earlier.

Technically, the poll is hypothetical. The Belarusian Constitution limits to two the number of terms a president can serve. But last year, Lukashenka suggested he might seek a third term as president and was ready to push for the constitutional changes necessary for such a move to be possible.

His recent support of Hussein may be motivated by a desire to boost his popularity ratings ahead of a third-term bid in 2006. At the same time, however, analysts say Lukashenka's pro-Iraq stance is consistent with Belarusian foreign-policy goals. "This statement is not completely unexpected, because the relations between Baghdad and Minsk have been rather close in recent years. The cooperation between Minsk and Baghdad has been political and possibly also military. We also know that the relations between the United States and Belarus have always been tense. It is completely logical that in this conflict, Belarus is on the side of Iraq. It would have been a surprise if things were otherwise," Karbalevich said.

Cultural and economic bilateral ties between Minsk and Baghdad are close. Last October, a top-level Iraqi delegation led by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Abd-al-Tawwab al-Mulla Huwaysh paid an official visit to Belarus. A large exhibit of Iraqi industrial goods was also held last year in Minsk.

At the same time, Lukashenka's isolation from the West has risen steadily. Last November, all but one (Portugal) of the 15 European Union countries imposed a travel ban on Lukashenka and seven of his ministers. The United States and Norway quickly followed suit.

Klaskovsky said that Lukashenka is seeking friends where he can find them. "In one of his last speeches, made last Friday [31 January] during a press conference summing up the results of the informal Kyiv summit of CIS countries, Lukashenka took the opportunity to outline his political agenda. He spoke about Iraq there. He also spoke about North Korea, saying there is no need to taunt people who have nuclear weapons. Some note of compassion could be felt in his words. The implication was that [Belarusians] are also small but proud. Similar sentiments were voiced several times about Cuba and Libya. It's a known fact that representatives from Libya, Iraq, and Cuba can be seen at various diplomatic receptions in Minsk," Klaskovsky said.

But Lukashenka's foreign-policy agenda often puts him at odds with Belarus's closest ally, Russia. The Russia-Belarus Union -- first outlined in 1996 and aimed at merging the country's financial, economic, and political systems -- has remained a key policy goal of Lukashenka's administration.

Dmitrii Orlov, deputy general director of the Moscow-based Center of Political Technologies think tank, said that Lukashenka's recent declarations may sully Russia's reputation abroad. "Of course it does. I think it's one more strike against Russia's image, but this stab is not very powerful because everyone knows the relations between Russia and Belarus. Everybody knows the peculiarities of Belarus, [and the peculiarities] of the leader of Belarus. It's not the first time Lukashenka has had a negative impact on Russian politicians, on Russian policy. But I don't think his statement can do any serious harm," Orlov said.

Orlov admitted that Lukashenka might have intended for his public support of Iraq to resonate with Russian voters as well. But such sentiments, he added, would likely find a receptive audience only among supporters of nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskii and his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, i.e., Hussein's most ardent advocates in Russia.