Moscow struggles with entrenched leader of Belarus

* Russia retreats from brink of rift before Belarus vote

* Little chance for Moscow to influence election * Kremlin seeking long-term sway to keep Belarus in orbit

By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW, Dec 15 (Reuters) - For a few months this year, it looked like Russia might try to push President Alexander Lukashenko out of power in neighbouring Belarus.

Kremlin officials lambasted Lukashenko in public comments, while the television networks they control aired programmes portraying him as corrupt to the core.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accused him of abandoning "basic human decency" in his hunger to win a fourth term in a presidential vote on Dec. 19.

But the fireworks fizzled out last week when Russia agreed to drop duties on oil exports to energy-poor Belarus and keep natural gas prices for the ex-Soviet state unchanged next year.

"Lovers' quarrels are soon mended," boasted Lukashenko, buoyed by a deal that will help him keep his centrally controlled economy afloat after a near-certain election victory.

Russia's retreat from the brink of a full-scale break with Lukashenko reflects the Kremlin's fear of alienating an important ally that has served since the Soviet collapse as a buffer against an expanding NATO and European Union.

It also attests to Lukashenko's dominance in Belarus, where he has combined a populist, paternal image with persistent crackdowns on dissent to increase control over the nation of 10 million since he was first elected in 1994.

If the Kremlin had any hopes of engineering Lukashenko's departure, the oil duty deal indicates it has abandoned them in favour of a longer-term strategy to ensure Belarus, a country bordering three EU states, remains in Russia's orbit.


During the campaign, Lukashenko and some of his opponents claimed other candidates were bankrolled by Russia. But Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that approach would have been a misguided waste of money.

"There simply are no candidates for whom Russian support could lead to a serious challenge to Lukashenko, let alone victory," said Lukyanov.

The very notion of a Russian campaign against Lukashenko is relatively new to relations between the mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian ex-Soviet republics.

For years, while the West was shunning a man U.S. officials once dubbed Europe's last dictator, Russia stamped its approval on the elections that prolonged Lukashenko's rule and kept subsidies flowing in the form of cheap energy supplies.

But the outspoken leader has irked the Kremlin with his bursts of anti-Russian rhetoric, his efforts to decrease Moscow's sway by improving ties with the West and appealing to countries from China to Venezuela for energy and investment.

For now, Russia will seek to wield its energy might as a tool in ties with Belarus and increase its sway over the far smaller country through its dominance of ex-Soviet economic and security alliances, analysts say.

Moscow can claim progress on both those counts in its energy deal with Lukashenko last week. By ceding to Lukashenko's demand that it drop duties on oil exports, it won a promise that Minsk will send Moscow the duties it receives from exports of products made from Russian oil.

The deal also removed a key obstacle to closer integration within a Customs Union and a planned free trade zone linking Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

"Russia needs to create institutions whose effectiveness will not depend on who is president of Belarus," Lukyanov said.

For the foreseeable future, that will be Lukashenko: Now 56, he used a 2004 referendum to scrap presidential term limits, potentially enabling himself to stay in power for life. (Editing by Maria Golovnina)


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