Opposition Backs Off Lukashenko

By Andrei Makhovsky


MINSK -- The political opposition in Belarus, long the object of President Alexander Lukashenko's disdain, offered on Thursday to help him in his bid to repair ties with the West after an energy dispute with Russia.

Vintsuk Vechorka, leader of the opposition Popular Front, urged Lukashenko to use a traditional rally next month to promote his new campaign to reach an understanding with European states that have accused him of crushing fundamental rights.

Vechorka made his remarks after authorities reversed their stand and allowed a rights group to resume work in its Minsk office. The change of mind followed strong Western criticism.

The head of one of several disparate opposition groups, Vechorka said the opposition would meet ahead of the March 25 rally to rework its strategy toward the president.

"This time, it will not be a protest action," Vechorka said, referring to the planned demonstration.

"Given Belarus' situation, we believe it is vital to show that our people want to keep their independence and sovereignty," he said. "We believe this will allow Lukashenko to show the world by deeds rather than words his intention to create a real democratic transformation."

The opposition, whose rallies are often dispersed by police, gathers each year on March 25 to commemorate the short-lived creation in 1918 of an independent state, which was crushed by Bolshevik forces.

Last year's rally coincided with Lukashenko's re-election to a third term and drew unprecedented crowds of 10,000 people denouncing the poll.

Lukashenko, accused in the West of hounding rivals, muzzling the media and rigging elections, dismisses his opponents as troublemakers funded by the West who enjoy no public support.

Since the New Year, he has called for better ties with the West after a dispute in which Russia cut oil flows for three days through a pipeline crossing Belarus.

Moscow raised the price of oil to Belarus and doubled gas prices. Belarus briefly imposed a duty on oil being sent through to the West, but relented and the flow resumed.

Lukashenko has based 12 years in power on plans for a merger with Russia, but is now cool to the idea. This week he said the recent dispute exposed the difficulty of relying on Russian energy and accused Moscow of attempting to "choke and crush Belarus."

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin held his annual news conference Thursday, saying Russia remained committed to a "union state."

The head of the Belarussian Helsinki Group, meanwhile, said Lukashenko's office had told her group "within days" of U.S. and European Union protests that it could return to its office.