Human rights activists and Kremlin unite against Belarus

by Tom Washington

In an unfamiliar pairing the Kremlin and human rights activists are joining forces to condemn Belarus for keeping 11 Russian citizens in jail.

Moscow has often fended off criticism from civil liberties organisations over, among other issues, past clamp-downs on Strategy 31's opposition rallies and the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which has drawn accusations of political engineering.

But now Lyudmila Alexeyeva of Strategy 31 and the Moscow Helsinki Group and Yury Shmidt from Khodorkovsky's defence team find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the Russian foreign ministry.

Grigory Karasin, deputy minister for foreign affairs, told the Belarusian ambassador to Moscow after the Minsk Supreme Court's decision that the continued incarceration of the Russians would affect bilateral relations

Meanwhile Alexeyeva, Schmidt, Lev Pomaryov of For Human Rights and others signed a letter to the Russian government, urging them to put pressure on Minsk into releasing the 11 prisoners.

Case dismissed

The Belarusian Supreme Court dismissed 11 Russian citizens' appeal requests on Monday, upholding Minsk lower courts' decisions to commit them to jail. It now looks like the Russians, who were arrested during the post election demonstrations in Minsk earlier this month, will spend New Year in pre-trial detention.

Moscow had earlier given a half hearted seal of approval to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko's election victory.

A thorny issue

"It is not only a question of Russian citizens detained in Minsk during the clashes between the police and the opposition," Nadia Arbatova, of the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, told The Moscow News.

"The problem is much broader - how Russia, which has already started reset diplomacy with the West, can proceed with the integration of Belarus, ruled by an authoritarian leader, in a single Union state?" She wrote in an email. Russia and Belarus, with Kazakhstan, recently signed a customs union treaty.

A poor display to the west gives Lukashenko a weaker hand to play with Russia. "You can see that all the time there has been an affiliation but now: it looks like Lukashenko has backed himself into a corner in terms of his balancing act between Europe and Russia," Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Centre told The Moscow News.

With energy and energy transit between Russia and the EU ever a key issue, Belarus lies conveniently between the two, Lukashenko looked like he might be able to keep his financial house of cards standing.

But he cannot stand alone, say experts, and a weaker relationship with Europe means Russia looms larger than ever. The stronger relationship with Europe "did give him some leverage but that is not now the case and it will take a long time to restore the damage he has done," Petrov said by telephone.


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