- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2008


Russia‘s invasion of Georgia not only cost it mightily from foreign investors pulling out, but it may have cost it the support of its most slavish admirer, Alexander Lukashenko, generally termed “Europe’s last dictator” for his heavy-handed rule of Belarus.

Mr. Lukashenko, a Soviet throwback, at one time proposed a union of Belarus and Russia as a first step toward reconstituting the old Soviet Union. The unity talks have stalled and Mr. Lukashenko who once spurned Western Europe is now actively courting the European Union.

The EU and the United States have both imposed sanctions on Belarus because of Mr. Lukashenko’s ruthless suppression of the political opposition. But he recently released the last of his political prisoners and did nothing to bar opposition candidates from running in recent parliamentary elections. None of them won, but in the previous election they weren’t allowed to run at all. And he allowed in 400 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to witness the balloting.

His police recently allowed an antigovernment demonstration to proceed instead of wading in with clubs and mass arrests to break it up.

The Belarusian ruler has been seeking warmed relations with the West for some time now but his efforts really accelerated when Russia invaded Georgia to protect the separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Mr. Lukashenko clearly believes, as do many others, that the two little states will be incorporated into Russia.

And there has been speculation the Kremlin would like to combine South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Belarus into some kind of Russian-ruled entity even though Belarus, bordered by Russia, Ukraine and Poland, is not contiguous to either. Mr. Lukashenko can see himself going from head of state to glorified provincial governor.

The OSCE chairman has urged that the West stop isolating Belarus and the EU is considering partially lifting its ban on travel visas for Belarusian government officials. A more complete lifting of sanctions should await Mr. Lukashenko’s ending lifting the government’s onerous restrictions on the press and the opposition’s access to broadcast media.

Mr. Lukashenko’s change of heart may not be for the most noble of motives but it’s enough so that Western Europe and the United States should cautiously reciprocate.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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