In Belarus Campaign, a Veneer of Pluralism Emerges With the West in Mind


MINSK, Belarus - With campaign fliers promising "action instead of promises," Yegor Vasilievsky stood outside a busy shopping center here on Friday, drumming up support for a challenger to Belarus's president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. He had been at it for four hours and had managed, remarkably, to stay out of jail.

Campaign posters for Sunday's elections in Minsk, Belarus. None of the nine candidates running against President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko stand much of a chance of ending his 16-year reign.

"Handing out information used to be forbidden," said Mr. Vasilievsky, 20. "Now, it's allowed."

This is the high-water mark for political progress in Belarus, a former Soviet republic where, just a few years ago, Mr. Vasilievsky's electioneering could have gotten him tossed into a police van, beaten or worse. Mr. Lukashenko has long ruled what his detractors refer to as a dictatorship. But now, in advance of elections on Sunday, he seems to have decided to allow something approximating a presidential campaign to occur.

It would be hard to describe Mr. Lukashenko as a born-again democrat. None of the nine candidates running against him stand much of a chance of ending his 16-year reign. Rather, this veneer of pluralism, evidenced in the capital and elsewhere by a few campaign posters and scattered opposition rallies, appears to be part of an effort by Mr. Lukashenko to court the West amid increasingly sour and unpredictable relations with his longtime patron, the Kremlin.

"In general, Lukashenko badly needs money, and he knows that money will come from the West," said Andrei O. Sannikov, who is running in Sunday's elections. "That's why he has to show some kind of liberalization on the surface."

After a meeting with Mr. Lukashenko last month, the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany said that the European Union could be willing to give Belarus $3.5 billion in aid. The catch? Coming elections must be deemed free and fair.

And so, with his country reeling under the stresses of the financial crisis, Mr. Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator, has been learning - or at least pretending - to play by a different set of rules.

"We have become such a democratic country in these presidential elections that I'm afraid other heads of state will shy away from me, the strong democrat," Mr. Lukashenko told reporters this month.

Ahead of these elections, opposition candidates have received free airtime on national television and have been largely allowed to campaign across the country, though not without the occasional harassment by the local police.

For the first time, candidates were permitted to hold a televised debate. Mr. Lukashenko did not participate, though other candidates were able to criticize the president free of censorship live on government-controlled television.

"In comparison with the 2006 elections, these elections are going forward practically without repression," said Aleksandr Milinkevich, whose experience as a candidate in the last presidential elections was far more punishing.

"It looks like a celebration of democracy."

He warned, however, that most of the reforms were superficial. He quoted Stalin, saying, "It is not important how people vote, it is important how the votes are counted."

Indeed, Mr. Lukashenko's government maintains complete control over the vote count, with opposition figures making up less than 1 percent of local commissions tasked with providing the final tally. The president also received nearly 90 percent of all news coverage during the campaign, according to election monitors, who also expressed concern that ballots cast during a five-day early voting period could be tampered with.

"There have been a number of improvements in a number of areas," said Jens Eschenbaecher, a spokesman for the election-monitoring wing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"Whether this is enough to create an even playing field for all candidates is, I think, questionable."

For those campaigning for the opposition out in the snow-bound streets of Minsk recently, there was little question of who had the advantage.

Sergei Pradzed, a 23-year-old who was passing out fliers by the train station here, said he spent 14 hours in a frigid prison cell in October and was fined $400, as much as he earns in a month, for holding a sign that said, "Where are my rights?" on the capital's central square. His protest did not fall within the government's definition of campaigning.

"It does not matter to them how much we campaign," Mr. Pradzed said.

"They can get the results they want without effort."

Despite Mr. Lukashenko's dubious commitments to his new democratic experiment, the European Union and, to a lesser extent, the United States, have cautiously begun to engage him. Once a pariah in the West, he has recently been invited to European capitals and offered investment opportunities in exchange for at least a modicum of political openness at home.

In October, the European Union extended a repeal of travel restrictions for Mr. Lukashenko, "in order to encourage progress," according to a statement by the Council of the European Union. It left in place sanctions aimed at the financial holdings of Belarussian officials.

At the same time, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations have drastically rolled back financing for opposition movements and candidates committed to toppling Mr. Lukashenko, succumbing to what one member of a Western NGO said was a "fatigue with the fight."

Rather, it is Russia, a country with its own democratic shortcomings, that has become one of Mr. Lukashenko's biggest critics. This summer, Russia's government-controlled news media started a propaganda assault portraying him as a Hitler-loving tyrant in a series of documentary films.

The criticism became so intense that it appeared to many observers, not least Mr. Lukashenko, that the Kremlin was preparing the ground for his ouster. At one point, Mr. Lukashenko directly accused the Kremlin of financing opposition forces in Belarus. In response, Russia's president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said Mr. Lukashenko seemed to lack basic human decency.

The Kremlin had been Mr. Lukashenko's benefactor for years, buoying Belarus's Soviet-style command economy with cheap natural gas and discounted duties on oil.

Russia's leaders also praised elections that independent observers condemned as farce, and ignored persistent claims of trammeled human rights and civil liberties in this country of 10 million.

But the Kremlin seems to have grown weary of Mr. Lukashenko, who briefly cut off Russian natural gas flows through Belarus to Western Europe this summer amid a pricing dispute with Moscow, and refused to follow Russia in recognizing the independence of two separatist Georgian enclaves, among other offenses.

Russia has eased up a bit lately, deciding this month against imposing oil duties and raising natural gas prices for Belarus, in a move observers said might indicate Moscow's willingness to at least recognize Mr. Lukashenko's victory.

Still, as the elections near, Russian television has continued its attack, while giving fawning coverage to opposition candidates and reporting ominous warnings about potential fraud.

"Belarussian elections are like ancient theater," the correspondent for Russia's government-owned First Channel, said in a recent report. "The only difference between the ancient Greeks and the modern Belarussians is that the former gathered for the joy of the process, while the Belarussians just hope for some kind of finale."


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