Belarus leader keeps West guessing

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 21, 2011 6:58 AM
Belarus leader keeps West guessing

By Richard Balmforth

MINSK (Reuters) - In a book-lined study which, in normal times, she shares with her husband, Iryna Khalip makes her point with sweeping hand gestures.

"Andrei will never ask for a pardon. He won't stay in jail if there is a political decision, of course. But there can be no trading (with the West) over his release," she told Reuters.

Andrei Sannikov is a former deputy foreign minister and co-founder of a human rights group called Charter-97, and imprisonment has reinforced his status as a major opposition figure in the former Soviet republic of Belarus.

Nine months after a crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko on protests against his re-election, the number of those still in jail has shrunk to a handful.

They include Sannikov and two others who ran against Lukashenko for the presidency. They were given jail terms for planning, and taking part in, mass disturbances.

A currency crisis is squeezing Belarus and Lukashenko is looking both to Russia and the European Union for new credit to keep his Soviet-style command economy running, bringing the issue of political prisoners to the fore.

Lukashenko has ruled since 1994 and was called Europe's 'last dictator' during George W. Bush's presidency in the United States. For years he played Russia off against the EU to secure financial aid and stay afloat.

Russia fears Belarus, which has borders with three EU countries, might drift into the Western camp if it is alienated by Moscow. The EU wants to ensure the country of 9.5 million, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy, does not return to Russia's sphere of influence.

Whenever the West appeared to be losing patience with him, Lukashenko would signal a commitment to reform or ease his tight grip to ensure more credit.

Most of Belarus's harassed opposition want a tougher line from the West.

ONGOING RELEASES

Over the past nine months, scores of others arrested on, or just after, election night in December have been released in dribs and drabs. A batch of 11 were freed under presidential pardon earlier this month.

But Khalip, 43, a campaigning journalist under a suspended two-year sentence linked to the December unrest, has no illusions about the strategy and Sannikov's prospects of release from a five-year jail sentence.

"I think Lukashenko will drag their release out to the very last. He is keeping the best goods to the end. The release of these youngsters recently is just a smokescreen.

"In reality, those who are his political competitors remain in jail," she said.

"Only a single principled position by the EU and the United States will bring real results."

Khalip and many others in the opposition believe Lukashenko may release Sannikov, 57, and the two other former presidential candidates, Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitry Uss, before an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on October 13.

Lukashenko and more than 150 officials face EU and U.S. travel sanctions, and new restrictions have been imposed on some Belarussian firms because of the continued detention of political prisoners.

But holding high-profile detainees gives Lukashenko a card to play when negotiating with the EU.

Welcoming the EU's new representative to Minsk on Tuesday, he said: "Don't believe what they write round here that we will trade these so-called political prisoners. If we want to make their fate easier, including in the interests of the European Union, we will do it, and do it honestly."

All the same, his options appear to be narrowing.

UNDER PRESSURE

The Belarussian rouble has been devalued twice this year -- each time by more than 30 percent. Prices of staples such as meat, dairy products and bread have soared.

He has to find $3 billion by the end of the year to prop up his heavily indebted economy, most economists say. Many expect rises in home heating, public transport and student education costs to hit Belarus families this autumn.

Khalip and others say all this is putting Lukashenko under greater pressure, which they argue could convert into real change if the West took a stronger line.

"We want the West to act in a principled way and accept the consequences," Khalip said.

"For me it is comical to hear European officials say that if they impose economic sanctions then the people will suffer. Look how they are suffering now.

"If normal sanctions are imposed, everything would be settled in a day . With Lukashenko one can speak only from a position of strength."

Sannikov spends six days a week making cardboard boxes in a Minsk jail, Khalip says. When she saw him this month for the first time in six months, he had shrunk three clothes-sizes.

"It was the first time I had seen him without a beard. But he is not broken and has no intention of asking for a pardon and bargaining over his release. He said he was not ready to legitimize Lukashenko," she said. (Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; editing by Robert Woodward)