EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Belarus' hardy autocratic ruler, Aleksander Lukashenko, is set to suffer a small blow to his image ahead of upcoming elections when the EU renews its travel ban on the President and 35 of his officials next month.
Preliminary talks by EU diplomats in September indicate the union will renew the travel ban for a further 12 months but at the same time suspend the measures for six months or 12 months.
Mr Lukashenka talks to the press: the EU believes he would win the elections even if the votes were counted normally (Photo: president.gov.by)
The renewal is to reflect the fact little has changed inside the country since President Lukashenko fixed the last elections in 2006.
The suspension reflects a change in EU foreign policy which took place around the launch of the Eastern Partnership in 2008. The union is keen to leave open the door to better relations with the post-Soviet country in order to protect its independence from Russia.
The eccentric Mr Lukashenko is the butt of grim jokes in Brussels salons. A senior EU diplomat speaking about his reported treatment for prostate cancer in Switzerland earlier this year, said: "Of course, we haven't had a look at his prostate, so we don't know for sure." But the Union does not see any alternative partners for doing business with Minsk.
The travel ban has already been suspended for the past two years. The European Commission is even open to starting talks on a political Association Agreement with Belarus after the elections so long as there are no gross violations of human rights, such as beatings or jailings of dissidents.
The EU sanctions snub is to fall just six weeks or so before the vote on 19 December. President Lukashenko's self-styled image as the "batka" or "daddy" of his people has recently come under attack from the Russian side. Russian diplomats in August accused him of being a liar and a vacillator over the issue of recognition of Georgian breakaway regions. A state-backed Russian TV show at the same time depicted him as a mafioso who ordered the killings of opposition activists in 1999.
Neither development is likely to have much impact on the election result.
EU officials and Belarus opposition leaders, such as Aleksander Milinkievic, believe that Mr Lukashenko would win the vote by 50 percent to 60 percent even if he today lifted media restrictions and the vote count was free and fair.
Mr Milinkievic, a presidential candidate in 2006, says the President's popularity is based on his stranglehold of the media for the past five years and his security forces' systematic dismantling of the opposition camp. "You would have to have political freedom for at least two years or three years to make a difference. In that case, I believe he would get about 20 percent," he told this website.
Mr Milinkievic has opted not to run in December because he says the election will be a farce.
Meanwhile, the pre-election climate has been tainted by paranoia. The recent death in suspicious circumstances of opposition activist Aleh Byabenin is being blamed by some on the Lukashenko camp and by others on anti-Lukashenko provocateurs. A man claiming to be a Russian secret service agent has posted a video on YouTube saying Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ordered Mr Lukashenko's assassination.
The biggest test for the stability of the Lukashenko government is likely to come in December when Russia aims to raise Belarus gas prices from the current $185 per thousand cubic metres to as much as $250, threatening social stability in the impoverished country.
The EU will be watching the gas talks with keen interest: Belarus-Russia gas skirmishes already saw Belarus cut transit volumes to EU states in June.
Threats of EU winter gas supply disruptions also hang over transit country Ukraine (which has renewed complaints that Russia is charging too much) and Poland (which is having trouble reconciling EU and Russian demands for a new contract with Gazprom).