By Andrew Rettman
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The US has urged the EU not to "go soft" on Belarus after president Aleksander Lukashenko fell out with Russia and turned to the EU for help, amid signs Brussels is beginning to take seriously Minsk's proposal for a new chapter in bilateral relations.
"We must not sacrifice our principles - democracy and human rights - just because the regime in Minsk is facing pressure from Russia. We should not throw a lifeline to this regime," US deputy assistant secretary of state David Kramer told EU officials at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday (8 February).
"Now is the time to maintain our resolve and not go soft...Mr Lukashenko says he wants dialogue, but his actions don't back that up," he added, listing allegedly rigged local elections in January and the arrest of 30 NGO activists last week as examples.
The shift in Belarus-Russia relations comes after Russia last month spiked oil and gas prices in a move set to cost the fragile Belarus economy $1.8 billion a year, prompting Minsk to call for fresh talks with Brussels and even suggest one day joining the EU.
On the face of it, the EU and US are singing from the same hymn sheet, with senior EU official Helga Schmid on Wednesday saying "We have to be sceptical. Serious engagement will not be possible without real movement on release of political prisoners and democratic elections."
But European Commission experts have already begun holding a series of expert-level talks on energy and immigration issues with Belarus colleagues, while some EU states are considering taking names off the 35-strong visa ban list when it comes up for review in March.
"This would just be a symbolic act, concerning people who are no longer in the administration," an EU diplomat said. "Brussels is taking this seriously. There is a feeling here that Belarus has really passed the tipping point in relations with Russia."
The belief that rapprochement with Lukashenko is possible is also entertained by Belarus' pro-EU opposition leader Aleksander Milinkevich, who on 7 February sent an open letter to the president urging "cooperation" on a "steady" path to normality, adding "it is not easy for me to write this."
Bratislava-based NGO Pontis and an official at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also report that an unnamed group of private western European banks is currently in talks to give Belarus a $1 billion loan.
In contrast, the US' Mr Kramer raised the prospect of beefing up sanctions after a recent bill giving him powers to restrict trade with state-owned Belarus firms. "I'm not saying we're going to do it, but it is possible," he said.
Mr Kramer added he wants to "hold accountable those responsible for human rights abuses and electoral fraud" echoing more hardline Belarus activists who feel Lukashenko should face justice over disappeared persons instead of sitting round a table with western diplomats.
"I would hope that people both inside and outside the regime are listening to what we are saying," Mr Kramer told EUobserver, in what could be interpreted as preference to do business with an alternative leader from within existing government ranks.
Meanwhile, kremlinologists are divided on Russia's game plan for Minsk: some see the hikes as a way of bulldozing it into state union, others as an "irrational" expression of Russian power in its near-abroad and others still as a simple grab for Belarus' gas pipelines.
Mr Milinkevich on Thursday warned the EU should not engage too deeply with Russia on political change in Belarus, as any Russian plan would not tend to democracy or independence. "In Moscow everyone tends to see us as part of a Russian sphere of influence."
One theory doing the rounds says Russia's Vladimir Putin is trying to derail a play by his defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, to become president of Russia in 2008 by attacking the coterie of Ivanov backers, which includes Lukashenko and the head of Russian oil firm Rosneft, Igor Sechin.
"Don't try to mix the Belarus issue with the Russian presdidential elections," Russia's EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov told EUobserver, calling the Ivanov idea an "invented story" and saying the hikes were designed to bring Belarus in line with market norms.
"We want a union...but the exact form of the union is negotiable," he added, saying talks are at a "relative standstill for now" and mentioning anything from a joint currency to Russia absorbing Belarus as options. "We're not pulling them or pushing them away, we are open for discussion," the diplomat said.
Mr Chizhov described Lukashenko as a "tough partner" and an "emotional person" but did not rule out a friendly outcome, saying "There are some rumblings at government level. But provided there is political good will there is no insurmountable problem."
"We have seen one thing here for sure: Moscow is the key player that can push for change in Belarus," the International Crisis Group's Europe director Alain Deletroz said.