- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2001

MINSK, Belarus Democratic reformers in Belarus are putting a brave face on their chances to topple Europe's last dictator in presidential election tomorrow.
But the ties that link Moscow and Minsk are likely to keep President Alexander Lukashenko around for another five years, insiders say.
As the ex-Soviet republic gears up for its second presidential election since independence in 1991, the opposition says trade union leader Vladimir Goncharik can still defeat Mr. Lukashenko, despite a virtual television blackout on the campaign and severe harassment of the independent media.
"Goncharik is moving up in the polls," opposition campaign official Vyacheslav Orgish said this week.
Privately, however, opposition leaders and Western diplomats shake their heads, saying that Mr. Lukashenko has cut a deal with Moscow to remain in power for another term.
"You could say the elections have been sold," one Western diplomat said on the condition of anonymity. "It's like an Italian Mafia restaurant. Russia has told Mr. Lukashenko he can keep about 20 percent of the shop but if he doesn't want it, Goncharik and his allies will gladly accept it."
Moscow, which has ruled over Belarus for two centuries, continues to hold enormous sway over the minds of the people as well as the economy here. Belarus is totally dependent on Moscow for oil and gas, and about half its exports are sold in Russia.
Russian state television stations ORT and RTR, widely viewed in Belarus, have virtually ignored the election campaign as well as the dramatic news of recent weeks that a government-appointed death squad may have been behind the disappearances of four dissidents.
Mr. Lukashenko, who extended his term in office by two years and increased his powers through a rigged referendum in 1996, has long been considered Moscow's man in Minsk. He has been the driving force behind an effort to forge a "union state" linking Belarus and Russia.
In 1997, the bureaucratic infrastructure to govern the union state was established, but in reality, little progress has been made despite an open border between the countries, a customs union and plans signed last December to issue a common currency starting in 2005.
"Anything can still happen," said Alexander Kivel, a professor of law at Belarusian State University in Minsk. "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has put the breaks on the union for now, but it is possible that after Mr. Lukashenko is re-elected, it will be accelerated.
"The question is what form the state will take. It could be something like the Soviet Union. … Belarus could be swallowed up, or remain somewhat independent."
Opposition leaders say that besides economics, Belarus and Russia are uniting on the level of secret services and the military. Russian border guards are in place in Belarus, which also maintains Russia's western air-defense system in the city of Baranovichy.
Belarus is also believed to be a convenient departure point for the sale of weapons both Belarusian and Russian to rogue states like Libya and Iraq. "Russia can always deny anything that Mr. Lukashenko does, on the pretext that he's uncontrollable," the Western diplomat said.


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