EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski has told Belarus that democratic reforms could see it scoop ?3 billion in international aid over the next three years.
Mr Sikorski made the offer during a joint visit to Minsk with German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle on Tuesday (2 November). He dangled the big carrot just six weeks ahead of Belarus' presidential elections in December and in the context of Belarus-Russia gas talks, which could see Russia put political pressure on Belarus with a big price hike.
That handshake - the anti-gay Lukashenko (r) warmly greeted the openly gay German minister (Photo: president.gov.by)
Mr Sikorski's massive number puzzled EU officials working on the Belarus dossier.
"[It's] not at all clear to me where this figure comes from," one contact said. The commission currently spends less than ?50 million a year in Belarus on modest education, energy, health, environmental, pro-civil-society and pro-independent-media projects.
EUobserver understands that the Polish foreign ministry calculated the ?3 billion figure on the basis of what Belarus could get from the EU's Neighbourhood, Eastern Partnership and Northern Dimension policies; the IMF; international banks such as the EBRD and EIB; and a potential international donors' conference. A donors' conference for Moldova in March this year saw $2.6 billion of pledges for the much smaller post-Soviet country.
"Belarus is to Poland what Cuba is to Spain. They are looking for all sorts of creative ways to engage with the administration," an EU diplomatic source said.
Tuesday's meeting between Belarus' authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and the two EU ministers, jangled nerves.
According to the Polish news agency PAP Mr Lukashenko responded to the financial offer by saying: "It has never yet happened here that elections were carried out in an undemocratic way." His chief of staff, Vladimir Makey, added on Thursday: "We do not need billions for the sake of billions, investments for the sake of investments ... And if they surround themselves with political conditions, we need nothing."
The EU mission also caught people's attention because Mr Lukashenko - known for his homophobic views - shook hands in front of cameras with the openly gay Mr Westerwelle.
Nobody in Brussels expects the December elections to be "free and fair" by international standards.
Putting aside the problems of political prisoners, harassment of government-critical journalists, jail threats for unofficial NGOs and restrictions on freedom of assembly, a recent snapshot of the country's media output paints a sad picture of pro-Lukashenko propaganda.
The survey by media experts such as Belarusian academic Ales Antsipenka reported in the independent Nasha Niva newspaper says that the main TV, print and Internet news outlets are giving vastly more coverage to sports and weather than to the upcoming vote. Political programmes, such as the Panorama evening news show, tend to give 70 percent to 80 percent coverage of Mr Lukashenko and less than 1 percent to opposition candidates.
"People will be ready, more ready than in 2006, to go to the streets and protest the election results," opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov told Bloomberg this week.
"Taking into account that visits of senior EU politicians are successfully used by the Belarusian authorities as a sign of support to the incumbent president Aliaksandr Lukashenka ahead of the upcoming election, we ask to keep questions about democratic values of freedom and human dignity high up on the agenda," a joint letter to Mr Sikorski and Mr Westerwelle by five Belarusian, Czech, German and Lithuanian NGOs sent on 1 November said.