Lithuania exploring 'exit strategy' for Belarus leader

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - EU state Lithuania and EU neighbour Georgia are working on an exit strategy for Europe's "last dictator" - Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko - amid concern that Russian gas and oil hikes against Belarus are part of a wider process threatening the country's independence.

"I recently visited Georgia and I had a lot of discussions with our Georgian colleagues - some of them think we need to propose an exit strategy for Lukashenko," Lithuanian prime minister Gediminis Kirkilas told EUobserver in Vilnius on Friday (23 February).

The prime minister declined to speculate whether such an "exit strategy" could one day see Lukashenko retire to a friendly country such as Venezuela, or whether it would mean a full rapprochement with the EU starting with, say, Belarus' release of senior political prisoner Aleksander Kozulin.

"For the preparation of this strategy we have to have some informal consultation with envoys, such as a former president who can speak Russian [and go to Minsk]," Mr Kirkilas added. "Lukashenko has to take some steps [such as releasing Mr Kozulin]...but we have to work with him, to speak with him."

The prime minister explained that Belarus' conflict with Russia is "much more deep than it seems" in the context of a proposed Russia-Belarus state union that is being resisted by Minsk. "Belarus sovereignty is the main issue. Lukashenko will step down sooner or later, but to have an independent Belarus is very important [for the EU]."

Old allies Russia and Belarus fell out in January when Russia imposed gas and oil hikes set to cost Minsk $1.8 billion a year and that could push it to the edge of economic crisis, with European kremlinologists scratching their heads as to why Moscow made the move.

Russian ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov recently said it is simply designed to fit in with market prices, adding that the old talks on state union are at a "relative standstill" but that all options are still on the table, including the annexation of Belarus by Russia.

Of all the EU states, Lithuania has kept the closest contacts with Minsk since EU-Belarus relations began to deteriorate in the mid-1990s, with Lukashenko and 34 of his officials currently on an EU visa ban list and with EU trade sanctions worth $530 million a year to kick in by July.

The Belarus game is being played out amid EU concern for Mr Lukashenko's mental health. The 53-year old autocratic ruler is a gifted orator and a match-fit ice hockey player. But he is wildly unpredictable in policy terms, prone to emotional outbursts and increasingly self-contradictory statements.

The prospect of Mr Lukashenko one day leading a reformed government and shaking the hands of a European Commission president in Brussels is laughable to most EU diplomats working on the Belarus dossier, while some hardline Belarus activists want him to face justice over alleged personal involvement in disappeared persons.

Other candidates wanted

"We are looking for other people in the Belarus administration that we can talk to," Lithuanian foreign ministry eastern Europe director, Arunas Vinciunas, said last week. The US has also recently hinted it would prefer to work with an alternative leader from the existing government.

EU diplomacy is focussing on approaches to potential reformers at the "low and medium" levels of the Belarus government for now. Lukashenko's former EU ambassador and current foreign minister, Sergei Martynov, was once considered a reformer but lost that reputation after returning to Minsk.

Meanwhile, Mr Lukashenko seems to be grooming his eldest son, Viktor, for succession, having recently appointed him as a senior member of the country's security council and given him two assistants to underline his importance.

The president has also carried out an extensive process of derussification of the Belarusian KGB and military to reduce the risk of a Russian-led palace coup, but many Kremlin-loyal Belarus KGB and military officers remain in the system adding to Mr Lukashenko's unease.

Historically, Belarus has only been independent twice in its entire history - briefly in 1918-1919 and since 1991, with Lukashenko taking the reins in 1994. Ethnic Belarusians make up 81 percent of the 10 million-strong population, with Russians (11%), Poles (4%) and Ukrainians (2%) also forming large groups.

Belarusians remind that the surrealist painter Marc Chagall, Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas (a.k.a. Issur Danielovitch) and proto-existentialist writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky have Belarusian origins. "We are not just a territory underneath a gas pipeline," Belarusian activist Natalia Koliada once told EUobserver.