- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

U.S. and European security experts have become increasingly alarmed by the actions of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko — in particular, his growing diplomatic, economic and military ties to global antagonists China, Iran and Russia. With the support of this new “axis of evil,” Mr. Lukashenko — Europe’s last remaining dictator — has initiated a Cold War campaign against the West and the United States

Over the past year, Mr. Lukashenko has made a determined effort to strengthen his contacts with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an avowed anti-Semite and self-proclaimed enemy of the West. Since 1993, Iran has been a key recipient of Belarusian military and technology exports, receiving Soviet-made T-72 tanks and artillery, II-76 transport planes and conventional weapons from Minsk.

Mr. Lukashenko personally ordered Soviet-trained Belarusian chemists, scientists and technicians to work closely with Iran’s mullahs on the deadly Shahab missile system — designed to strike Europe and Israel — as well as on the country’s uranium enrichment and chemical warfare programs.

“Military cooperation with Iran will be carried out without danger to the world or security in the region,” Mr. Lukashenko has said.

European Union leaders, troubled by recently released intelligence assessments that indicate Iran is scouring Europe seeking nuclear bomb equipment and technology, are feverishly working to mitigate concerns associated with the emerging Belarus-Iran relationship.

At its November meeting in Brussels, diplomats of the EU Foreign Minister’s Committee listed Belarus and Iran as its two key external relations items, noting that economic sanctions may ultimately be necessary to convince Belarus to adopt democratization and to force Iran to give up its nuclear fuel processing efforts.

Bilateral relations between Belarus and China have also grown substantially over the past several years. Visiting Beijing in December, Mr. Lukashenko signed a declaration outlining further economic and political cooperation between Beijing and Minsk. “This document is about a strategic partnership that from now on will govern cooperation between the two countries,” the president noted.

As part of the agreement, China agreed to provide Minsk with non-reimbursable assistance and other unspecified loans. Most observers view the economic-aid package as a gift from Beijing designed to secure future cooperation from the Lukashenko government.

In early 2005, both countries signed a joint “Declaration for the 21st Century” document, agreeing to cooperate in the fields of economy, trade, science and military affairs. In addition, Wu Guansheng, a member of the Communist Party of China, and Chinese DefenseMinisterCao Gangchuan both visited Minsk last May. Not long after their visit, Belarusian Defense Minister Leonid Maltsev arrived in Beijing, where he signed documents allowing Chinese military personnel to train in Belarus.

But Moscow continues to have the greatest influence on the Lukashenko government. “We shall never betray Russia,” the Belarus president stated this month. For decades, Russia has provided its western neighbor with preferential economic, energy and security assistance. Russia remains the largest trading partner for Belarus and still provides the small, resource-depleted country with virtually all of its energy supplies.

During 2005 alone, several important political and security agreements were reached that strengthened the bilateral alliance. In April, both countries announced that their anti-aircraft defenses on the western border of Belarus would be strengthened with the delivery of several S-300 missile systems and the assignment of several hundred Russian troops to Belarus.

Further evidence of just how close the two countries have become was provided when Mr. Lukashenko visited Moscow in July to promote a reunification plan with Russia, “[Reunification] is much more of a reality than people think,” noted Ivan Makoshok, a spokesman for the Russia-Belarus Union.

Reunification talks had collapsed in 2002, when Mr. Lukashenko demanded equal status with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a combined union. But the recent talks have addressed the introduction of the Russian ruble as the local currency for Belarus and the management of joint property as a result of a proposed unified state.

Indeed, Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Putin seem to be advancing similar domestic agendas, with both reintroducing Soviet-era symbols, promoting religious persecution, adding tough new penalties against opponents and increasing state control over the country’s economy. “This is a return to Stalinism,” Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said in November.

To deter further instability as a result of Mr. Lukashenko’s domestic and foreign policies, the United States and its Western allies must begin a concerted push for democracy in Belarus by supporting the country’s budding “Denim” pro-democracy movement. Started in September when opposition activist Milita Sasim fashioned a flag from his denim shirt during a protest against the Lukashenko government, the movement gives hope to the countless Belarusian citizens looking for a change in the current regime.

Poland, a strong U.S. ally, should be approached to help pressure the authoritarian government in Minsk. The EUandUnitedNations should also use their combined influence to deter the erosion of human rights and political freedoms that has become synonymous with the Lukashenko regime.

Unified action is necessary to remove the growing cancer that is Mr. Lukashenko from Europe’s belly; otherwise, the disease will spread.

Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr. is a foreign-affairs writer based in Philadelphia.

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