By Leon Mangasarian
The European Union needs to take a harder line with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko ahead of elections next month that are certain to be "a fraud," said a pro-EU and free markets opposition presidential candidate.
Lukashenko, 56, is vulnerable before the Dec. 19 vote because of the economic crisis "to which he has no answer" and the fact Russia's leaders no longer back him, Andrei Sannikov said in an interview in Berlin. Yet while Russia has shifted its stance, some in Europe are now courting the president, he said.
"Europe should proceed from the view that Lukashenko is the last dictatorship in Europe and nothing will change until he goes," Sannikov said on Oct. 27. Those politicians in the 27- nation EU who think they can "Europeanize" Lukashenko are pushing an "extremely stupid and extremely dangerous" policy.
Belarus, an ex-Soviet republic of 10 million that produces potash and tractors and borders Russia and three EU states, has been criticized by international observers for holding flawed elections since 1996. Lukashenko was first elected in 1994.
The U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of three subsidiaries of a state-run Belarusian oil company in 2008. The EU meanwhile extended the suspension of a travel ban aimed at Lukashenko and top members of his government last month, arguing that a policy of engaging Lukashenko is leading to limited human-rights improvements in Belarus.
Rather than backsliding, the EU needs to adopt "a more serious attitude" toward Belarus that closely links political, trade relations and credits to human rights and democracy, Sannikov said, citing the U.S. stance.
Sannikov, 56, a former deputy foreign minister of Belarus who resigned his post in 1996 and has been touring the country to gather support for his presidential bid, said that next month's election will also be flawed. One of about 12 candidates, Sannikov said the electoral process means the vote is rigged from the outset. He is still campaigning to win.
"Everybody in Belarus -- not only the opposition but ordinary people -- understand that votes are not counted," Sannikov said, speaking fluent English. He said his goal is to document the nation's flawed democracy to bring out opposition demonstrators. "People will be ready, more ready than in 2006, to go to the streets and protest the election results."
The previous presidential election in 2006 saw mass protests that were quashed by the authorities. Sannikov said he has been beaten, jailed and had his computers, disks and memory sticks seized by the authorities since he resigned. Asked if he fears for his life, he said: "It's a possibility; you have to think about it."
Russian Relations Sour
Russia has recently shown signs of losing patience with Lukashenko's government, threatening to reduce oil and gas subsidies to Belarus. For years Belarus got Russian oil at a 36 percent discount to Russia's export duties, a gap Belarus exploited by selling oil at higher rates to Western Europe. The subsidy is worth $4.8 billion this year, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said. Sannikov said Russia's total subsidies to Belarus have been worth over $50 billion.
Earlier this year, Belarus ended what OAO Gazprom, Russia's gas export monopoly, termed a "gas war" with Russia after debts were paid amid threats by Lukashenko to halt Russian oil and gas shipments to Europe.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Oct. 3 that Lukashenko is targeting Russia as an "external enemy" in his election campaign and that "anti-Russian rhetoric" and "accusations and invective" are going "beyond not just the rules of diplomacy but also of basic human decency."
Russia has changed its approach to Lukashenko, yet Europe has failed to do so, Sannikov said.
"Lukashenko is trying to sell his newly acquired status as Russia's enemy to Europe and not without success, I regret to say," Sannikov said. "There are some European politicians in Europe that are thinking of helping Lukashenko because he's becoming anti-Russian." Sannikov declined to name them.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last November became the first Western European leader to pay an official visit to Belarus since Lukashenko's election. Germany's vice chancellor and foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski are due in Minsk tomorrow to hold talks with their Belarusian counterpart.
"Europe has tried every kind of approach toward Lukashenko: carrots, sticks, promises, conditions, removal of conditions, dialogue, appeasement, strong language, soft language," said Sannikov. "You cannot change Lukashenko; he's about power."