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Sunday, March 15, 2009

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  • From the Top...
  • #394

    No country is enemy for Belarus, President says

    From: BelTA
    In the course of the discussion of the concept of the operational-strategical exercise 'West 2009'
    Belarus pursues a peaceful foreign policy and considers no country as its enemy, said President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko on March 10 during discussions about the concept of the strategic exercise West 2009.

    The head of state said, Belarus is not a militarised country and does not pursue such a policy. “We don’t want problems for anyone. We would like to live in peace with everyone,” noted the President. He stated regretfully that “the world is not getting safer” and many facts testify to it. “Nobody writes off the military force and we cannot guarantee that at some time such a military force will not be directed against our country and our nation,” underscored the President.

    The head of state remarked that Belarus cannot but be concerned about the actions taken by the troops and the NATO bloc on the whole at the Union State border. “This is why we should take into account these factors in determining our military policy and strategy,” said Alexander Lukashenko.

    In his opinion, the army should be trained in warfare in order to keep the peace. The President reminded that in 2008 new fundamental documents were developed, namely the armed forces development concept, which runs till 2020, and the national defence plan, which determines main principles of the military policy and directions of the Belarusian army development. These documents were prepared in view of demands of the national defence, modern armed warfare tendencies, the existing level of military threat and the economic capabilities of Belarus, added Alexander Lukashenko.

    Andrei Yevdochenko: Belarus, EU need new agreement on partnership and cooperation

    Belarus and the European Union need to conclude a new agreement on partnership and cooperation for successful development of economic and political relations, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Yevdochenko said at the workshop “Improving the conditions for attracting foreign investments”.

    “The primary objective is to strengthen legal-treaty base that is to institutionalize the relations,” the diplomat said.

    The Deputy Foreign Minister noted that the Belarusian side is expecting the effective implementation of the Eastern Partnership. “We expect the Eastern Partnership to be democratic, to take into account points of view of all member countries and those who are not hurrying to formalize their relations with the EU in the form of an EU membership application,” Andrei Yevdochenko said.

    Commenting on some projections about such Belarus-EU cooperation forms as a free trade zone and even a common economic space, the diplomat called to be realistic. “At first we need to sort out our economic relations,” he said.

    “Today’s motto “Europe without boundaries” introduced by the Czech presidency appears very topical to us,” Andrei Yevdochenko summarized.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Sowing campaign in Belarus to start late March

    From: BelTA
    This year the sowing campaign is to be launched at the end of March, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Food Vasily Pavlovsky told reporters on March 13, BelTA informs.

    In 2008, the campaign was mounted on March 18. This year, given the weather conditions, another 1.5-2 weeks are needed to launch the spring field works. The southern oblasts and southern regions of the Minsk oblast (Slutsk, Soligorsk) are already spreading fertilizers.

    According to Vasily Pavlovsky, in autumn 2008 about 1.3 million hectares was sown with winter grain crops, which is 52% of the total area under grain crops.

    Spike cereals account for 47.7% of the area which has to be sown in spring. ‘In recent years, the yields of winter grain crops have been higher than those of spring grain crops. They survived winters well (not more than 50,000 hectares of grain died). Now we have all the prerequisites to gather a good harvest,’ the Deputy Minister said. This is why the areas under winter wheat and triticale have been increased. The areas under winter rapeseeds were expanded by 93,000 hectares to cover about 374,000 hectares.

    Glyphosate-containing products were spread over 1 million hectares, the amount of mineral fertilizers per one hectare was increased. About 1.743 million hectares were fall-plowed. All the necessary land treatment operations were carried out to prepare soil for the sowing campaign.

    ‘If there is a need to speed up sowing, we can launch the sowing campaign right after fall-plowing – all the necessary machinery are available. The agrotechnical measures carried out in autumn allow completing the sowing campaign in a very short time,’ Vasily Pavlovsky underlined.

    The spring crops will cover the area of 2.315 million hectares, of them grain and grain legumes will be sown on 1.197 million hectares. The agricultural enterprises of the country are provided with the sufficient amount of seeds. The breeds are renewed and shared between agricultural entities, new varieties are purchased.

    Belarusian MPs to partake in discussing draft Belarus report in PACE

    From: BelTA
    A delegation of Belarusian parliamentarians will take part in a session of the Commission for Political Affairs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Paris on April 17, BelTA learnt from a spokesman of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus.

    The Belarusian MPs have been invited to participate in discussing a draft report about the situation in Belarus. The report is supposed to be discussed at one of the forthcoming PACE sessions.

    The Belarusian delegation is expected to help authors of the report to make their document balanced, correct and filled with the most truthful information about the situation in the country.

    Chairman of the Legislation and State Development Commission of the Council of the Republic Yevgeny Smirnov will lead the Belarusian parliament delegation at the PACE commission session.

    A PACE delegation visited Belarus on February 16-19. The delegation was led by Goran Lindblad. The delegation included Sinikka Hurskainen, Chair of the PACE’s Sub-Committee on Belarus, and Andrea Rigoni, PACE Rapporteur on Belarus. Members of the delegation held meetings in both chambers of the National Assembly, the Belarus President Administration, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, the General Prosecutor Office, the ministries of foreign affairs, information, education, justice as well as meetings with the administration, teachers, and students of the Belarusian State University.

    Belarus’ neurology centre introduces new method of TN treatment

    From: BelTA

    A new method of surgical treatment of trigeminal neuralgia (TN) has been introduced at the National Research and Practical Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery. The surgeons of the Centre have already operated six people using the new method, several other patients are waiting for the surgery, BelTA learnt from researcher of the neurosurgery department of the Centre Dmitry Shkout.

    It is the first time this surgery has been performed in Belarus. A special team of experts of the Centre is responsible for diagnostic evaluation, surgery and follow-up check of the patients who undergo this treatment.

    According to Dmitry Shkout, this method has practically no post-surgery complications which attributes to its high efficiency. The essence of this method is thermal destruction of trigeminal nerves that cause pain. The procedure is usually carried out under anesthesia.

    Trigeminal neuralgia is a neuropathic disorder of the trigeminal nerve that causes episodes of intense pain. The pain may be so severe that patients have to take up to 10-12 pills of pain-killers a day.

    This surgery however allows to eliminate the pain almost immediately. As it is a low-invasive method, patients return to normal life soon after the surgery is performed. They can be discharged from hospital the following day. The surgery leaves no scars, Dmitry Shkout added.

  • Economics...

    Germany suggests founding energy agency to Belarus

    From: BelTA
    The German side has suggested setting up a joint energy industry agency to Belarus. The proposal was voiced by representative of the Eastern Europe Relations Committee (Germany) Rainer Lindner at a seminar “Improving conditions for attracting foreign investments” in Minsk on March 11.

    “We set up a similar agency with Russia a while ago. Using the example we can say that it is a very important and profitable project for both the interested parties,” said Rainer Lindner.

    In his words, in H2 2009 the Eastern Committee is organising an economic forum in Germany, with Belarus representatives invited. Rainer Lindner also informed about the invitation of Belarusian companies to participate in the Hannover fair.

    In 2008 Belarus-Germany trade turnover totalled €2.5 billion. According to the representative of the Eastern Europe Relations Committee, there is still a huge untapped potential here. “For comparison: the trade turnover between Germany and Czechia, which population is also close to 10 million, stands at €56 billion,” he remarked.

    Rainer Lindner pointed out the need to reinforce the class of independent entrepreneurs in Belarus, who have spare business instruments and are capable of taking certain risks.

    Belarus to negotiate $125m loan with World Bank in late March

    Belarus is expected to hold negotiations with the World Bank in order to borrow $125 million for a new energy-effectiveness project in late March 2009, BelTA learnt from representatives of the Energy Effectiveness Department of the State Standardisation Committee after World Bank experts visited Belarus. The visit took place on March 10-13.

    The loan negotiations are preliminarily scheduled for March 30-31. They are expected to be held as a teleconference, noted the source. The parties are supposed to discuss a draft agreement. The document is expected to be forwarded to the World Bank for approval of the Board of Directors. After that Belarus and the World Bank will sign the agreement.

    BelTA reported earlier, Belarus President decree No 121 of March 9, 2009 approved a draft agreement between Belarus and the World Bank as the basis for the negotiations. Chairman of the State Standardisation Committee Valery Koreshkov has been authorised to hold the negotiations.

    The $125 million loan will be used for implementing energy saving solutions at municipal boiler houses and large-scale power engineering enterprises. The project provides for rebuilding two facilities run by the Energy Ministry (remodelling of regional boiler houses in Borisov and Mogilev into cogeneration plants) as well as two municipal objects — in the town of Ruba (Vitebsk oblast), Oshmyany, Borisov, and Rechitsa.

    The initiative is preceded by Belarus’ successful implementation of previous World Bank projects. In particular, the modernisation of social infrastructure in Belarus (the first loan amounted to $22.6 million, the additional loan — $15 million) and rehabilitation of Chernobyl-affected areas ($50 million was borrowed).

    Eurasian agribusiness credit association set up in Minsk

    A Eurasian agribusiness credit association has been set up in Minsk, Belagroprombank Chairman of the Board Sergei Rumas told a press conference on March 13.

    “Two landmark events, which determine the level of Belagroprombank’s cooperation with credit and finance institutions of Eastern Europe and Central Asia that specialise in servicing the agrarian branch of the economy, took place today,” said Sergei Rumas.

    The foundation meeting of the Eurasian Agribusiness Credit Association took place. The association unites credit organisations of ex-USSR countries. Set up following the initiative and with active participation of Belagroprombank and Russian Agricultural Bank, the non-commercial interstate organisation will unite about ten agribusiness, agricultural, land banks and other credit institutions, which operation is related to the functioning of the agribusiness industry.

    An agreement on cooperation between Russian Agricultural Bank and Belagroprombank has been signed as well. The document is another step towards expanding interbank cooperation for the sake of more effective use of financial capabilities of the parties, expanding trade and other forms of economic ties. The agreement will contribute to financing projects for development and retooling of agriculture, food and processing industries of Belarus and Russia.

  • From the Foriegn Press...

    Economic Problems Beset Belarus

    From: Jamestown
    To date, there has been little other than optimistic prognoses from Belarusian government circles about the state of the economy. Unlike the situation in neighboring states, Belarus is not facing recession, and economic growth continues. Moreover, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has assured citizens of government protection, should the situation become difficult. The Belarusian economy has a unique structure, in which state intervention has been common until recently; and the official media has proclaimed a specific Belarusian path to prosperity. Is it possible that the country has been unaffected by the international recession that is affecting its neighbors such as Poland, Ukraine, and Russia so strongly?

    The answer is that the Belarusian government is treading a fine line between myth and reality. Nothing is quite as it seems. While its leader Lukashenka, aided by the head of the presidential administration Uladzimir Makey and Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, make overtures to the European Union and fulfill the requirements for the next tranche of an IMF loan, they also seem to be drawn irrevocably further into the Russian orbit, not only politically—as a base for Russian anti-missile defense—but in particular economically. And its population is increasingly anxious about the economic situation the country finds itself.

    In late February the Belarusian authorities reported an anticipated growth in GDP of 2 percent in 2009, though the rise for the manufacturing industries will be only 1 percent (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, February 24). That figure stands in contrast to the fall of GDP in neighboring states, even though the GDP growth overall is significantly less than in previous years. The country also announced that in 2009 it would have a balanced budget without deficits. As a result, the IMF was happy to disburse the first tranche ($800 million) of the $2.46 billion "standby arrangement" agreed to last January (Belapan, March 10). In April an IMF team will visit Belarus to ensure that it is adhering to the stringent conditions.

    In addition to its negotiations with the IMF, Belarus has begun to open up to its European neighbors as well. Yet in other respects, the state seems to be drawn back to Russia. First of all, Russia has become a virtual banker to Belarus. In 2008 it loaned Belarus $2 billion, and it received a request from its smaller neighbor for a further $3 billion for 2009 before the midway point of the first quarter of the year had even been reached (, March 2). The government has requested loans from other sources, including the United States; but the fact remains that it is indebted most of all to Russia.

    In the winter of 2008-2009 Belarus avoided the sort of unseemly row that occurred over gas prices between Russia and Ukraine. Belarus currently pays $140 per thousand cubic meters for Russian gas and is confident that the price could fall to $100 by the end of the year. In the long term it has resolved to circumvent its dependence on Russia for energy imports by building its own nuclear power plant, the construction of which will begin in 2010. Russia, however, is set to provide the funding, materials, and even fuel for this station; and the Russian firm Atomstroyexport has been accepted as the "prime contractor," according to Russian Ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov. There is some logic to using Russian technology, given Russia's proximity and experience in nuclear energy; but this choice draws Belarus further into the Russian economic orbit. The Russians have offered a $5 billion loan for the completion of the station, which, in contrast to earlier reports, will now be built in Astravets, in Hrodna region, close to the border with Poland and Lithuania (, February 6).

    In a recent survey conducted by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research (IISEPS) in December 2008, 1,500 respondents from different regions of the country were asked what the most serious problem "facing our country and its citizens" was. Over 82 percent stated price rises, well ahead of the next three categories, which predictably were impoverishment of the population, unemployment, and the collapse of production (37.8 percent, 35.7 percent, and 31.7 percent, respectively). Incidentally, the answer "fear of the loss of Belarusian independence" was the choice of only just over 5 percent. More than one-third of respondents maintained that their personal economic situation had worsened over the past three months, and almost half (46.4 percent) anticipated serious shocks for the Belarusian economy in the future. As to who was responsible for the economic deterioration in the country, 52 percent declared it was the government, 42.5 percent the president, and only 27.4 percent blamed "the West" (

    Thus, the Belarusian leaders, despite a more benign international political climate, are facing two growing problems: increasing indebtedness to and reliance on Russia, Lukashenka's rhetoric notwithstanding; and a loss of public faith in the government. The survey elicited the most negative reactions in many years, and it suggests that the public is no longer satisfied simply to accept official statements that there is no economic crisis in Belarus. For many of them, the crisis is already manifest. The shock of the 20.5 percent currency devaluation in January has been followed by a further 10 percent drop in the value of the Belarusian ruble, which is now traded at 2,880 to the dollar (3,000 on the black market). Discontent with the Lukashenka regime is rising.

    EU countries split between hard and soft approaches to Belarus

    From: EU Business
    EU nations are split, ahead of a foreign ministers meeting Monday, on how to persuade Belarus and its hardline President Alexander Lukashenko to boost democracy and keep Moscow at arm's length.

    A draft agreement prepared for the ministers' meeting welcomes "certain positive steps" made by Belarus and its leader --- dubbed "the last dictator in Europe" in Washington -- notably cooperation with the OSCE on electoral legislation.

    However the statement, obtained Friday, also decries "recent cases of violations" of human rights in Belarus.

    The argument on how to handle Minsk is as much a tactical one as a political one, a European diplomat explained.

    "If one of these regimes does something bad some people in the European Union say: 'well that means we should try even harder to reach out to them' and other people say: 'no I think we should be tougher'."

    The most urgent EU-Belarus matter facing the ministers when they assemble in Brussels on Monday is the issue of the travel bans against Lukashenko and 35 of his associates.

    Last year the 27 European Union nations made a major, if largely symbolic, step by suspending the visa bans for six months.

    While, according to diplomats, no European nation is arguing against extending the suspension for a further six months, differences remain over the longer-term treatment of Belarus, which borders Russia to the east and EU members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to the west.

    Some nations would like to keep the option of sanctions as a lever for longer, even if they are further suspended, while others would prefer to see them lapse altogether in six months if human rights and democratic improvements are made.

    The debate is made more urgent as the European Union must decide whether to invite Lukashenko to a summit in Prague on May 7 along with EU leaders, and those of five other former Soviet states, to launch the Union's "Eastern Partnership" initiative.

    The partnership is aimed at encouraging economic and democratic reforms in the eastern nations and cooperation with Europe and among themselves.

    Unlike Ukraine and Georgia -- definite invitees to the Eastern Partnership talks -- Belarus has remained close to Moscow.

    "Whatever you think about the regime at the moment, Belarus is an immediate neighbour of the European Union and it's a country that clearly sees itself as being torn by the EU on one side and Russia on the other," the EU diplomat said.

    "We think it is worth engaging it and demonstrating to Belarus that there are things that it can get from this relationship" with Europe, he added.

    Diplomats said that if there was no agreement on the sanctions at Monday's meeting of EU foreign ministers then the sanctions would automatically reapply.

    Therefore those nations, like Germany, most opposed to the sanctions will have to agree a deal with the others, diplomats explained.

    Belarus president cancels EU meeting

    From: IHT
    Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has postponed a meeting with one of the European Union's highest-ranking officials, raising new questions about how independent his government wants to be from Russia.

    Belarus is one of the closest allies to Moscow but has moved closer to the West in the past 12 months. That process, which included the release of some political prisoners, led in October to the suspension of the European Union's political sanctions against much of the Belarussian leadership, including a travel ban on Lukashenko.

    But Lukashenko's office said Wednesday that he would not be in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Friday, when he was expected to meet Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner. This prompted a postponement of the visit, just one day before she was expected to arrive in Belarus.

    Engagement with Belarus is seen by some as the ultimate test of Europe's soft power in the region and of its ability to lure nations out of Moscow's sphere of influence. The European Union, with 27 member nations, is debating whether to invite Belarus to a meeting May 7 in Prague that would provide Eastern states with a perspective on closer integration with the Europe Union — and an alternative to Russia.

    Lukashenko on Wednesday left for Armenia, where he will meet President Serzh Sargsyan, a trip that is believed to be the cause for the postponement of the EU meeting. Scheduling changes at a very late stage are unusual, particularly with nations that have fewer high-level diplomatic contacts.

    The timeframe of the Armenian visit was decided Monday, according to the official Web site of the president of Belarus. Ferrero-Waldner's visit had been confirmed more than two weeks earlier. The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said the meeting would now take place in "mid-April." Ferrero-Waldner would have been one of the two most senior EU officials to visit Belarus in a decade. The only other high-level EU visitor recently was Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief.

    From the European perspective, the timing is puzzling because EU foreign ministers could decide Monday whether to continue the suspension of political sanctions against Lukashenko. That is despite reports that the authorities in Minsk have recently arrested three critics of the government and worries that Belarus could ultimately bow to political pressure from Moscow and recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

    An EU diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, suggested that Lukashenko could, for domestic political reasons, be seeking a lower profile on the policy of closer engagement with Europe. That might mean that Belarus is represented at a less senior level than that of the president if Belarus is invited to the meeting May 7, the diplomat said.

    Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million people, has had a difficult relationship with Europe since Lukashenko came to power in 1994 and imposed an authoritarian regime that has tended to gravitate toward Russia, with which Belarus shares cultural and linguistic ties.

    Analysts say they believe that Belarus's rapprochement with Europe is becoming a growing irritant to Moscow.

    Nicu Popescu, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Lukashenko might be seeking to distance himself from the process of closer rapprochement with Europe.

    "Minsk has tried to become less dependent on Russia and maybe turned to the EU to blackmail Russia by saying that, if it made too many demands, then Belarus would move to the West," Popescu said. "But what we see is that it is much more difficult to Belarus to do this than for example, Moldova, because of the degree of integration of the Belarus political, economic military and intelligence elite with Moscow."

    Belarus Seeks to Double Russian Gas Flows, Challenging Ukraine

    From: Georgian Daily
    Belarus is offering to double the capacity of its natural-gas pipeline network to lure transit fees away from Ukraine, through which Russia supplies a fifth of Europe’s gas, Belarusian Energy Minister Alexander Ozerets said.

    OAO Gazprom, Russia’s gas export monopoly, could pump an additional 34 billion cubic meters of the fuel a year via the Yamal-Europe pipeline that runs through Belarus by building a parallel line, Ozerets said in an interview in Minsk yesterday. The first part of the two-stage project could be ready in two years and cost less than $3 billion, he said.

    Russia cut shipments to Ukraine in January for the third time in three years over a payment dispute, renewing concern over the reliability of the two countries in supplies. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is pushing the Nord Stream pipeline to Germany under the Baltic Sea and the South Stream link to Bulgaria under the Black Sea to avoid Ukraine and Belarus.

    “We’ve offered Yamal-Europe-2, which will bring a kind of harmony to European deliveries and add some diversity to Russian transit,” Ozerets said. Russia boosted supplies via Belarus by 30 percent during the feud with Ukraine, he said.

    The first of two Nord Stream lines, with a capacity of 27.5 billion cubic meters a year, may be ready by 2011, the Russian- German joint venture operating the project said in January. Nord Stream AG increased its budget for the two links by half last year to 7.4 billion euros ($9.6 billion).

    Yamal-Europe-2 “will be considered in time, but after the building of Nord Stream,” Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said by phone today. “It depends on how much demand there will be from consumers along the route.”

    Polish Support

    Gazprom owns 25 percent of Beltransgas, the state-run Belarusian company that operates Yamal-Europe, and plans to increase that to 50 percent by 2011. Gazprom shipped 33 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe via Yamal-Europe last year, versus 120 through Ukraine.

    The first stage of the proposed 1,660-kilometer (1,000-mile) addition would run from the central Belarusian city of Nesvizh across Poland to the German border. That would add 24 billion cubic meters of capacity. The second stage would expand the line linking Nesvizh and the Russian town of Torzhok and increase Belarus’ total annual transit capacity to 66 billion cubic meters, or almost half of the amount Russia exports to Europe.

    “Of course Polish gas demand will be key for the project as Germany should cover most of its needs with the Nord Stream route,” Ozerets said.

    Poland’s government supports the Belarus proposal and considers Yamal-Europe-2 an alternative to the 1,200-kilometer Nord Stream, Economy Minister Waldemar Pawlak said last week.

    China sets 20 bln yuan currency swap with Belarus

    From: Reuters
    China's central bank said on Wednesday it has agreed a three-year currency swap with Belarus worth 20 billion yuan ($2.93 billion).

    The People's Bank of China (PBOC) said on its website,, that the deal aimed to promote economic growth in the two countries by facilitating trade and investment.

    The swap, which may be extended, complements a $2.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund approved last year to help the ex-Soviet state overcome the global economic crisis.

    Belarus has already received the first $788 million tranche of IMF funding, and the rest will be disbursed by next year if the government meets agreed policy targets.

    In Minsk, a central bank spokesman said the purpose of the operation was to simplify trade by eliminating the need for third currencies, like the dollar and euro.

    "This was the aim of completing an exchange of deposits that could be put to good use," Anatoly Drozdov told Reuters. "This is a measure aimed at stimulating trade."

    Funds received from China, he said, would become part of Belarus's reserves.

    "This means in practical terms that our reserves have nearly doubled," he said.

    "It does not mean that the funds will be used. But it is important that they have a psychological effect on the currency market. In any case ,it is an increase only in national terms as the IMF does not take yuan into account." Belarus's reserves hit a high of $5.7 billion last August, but have been declining since as the central bank spends to support the Belarussian rouble.


    At the end of its latest mission to Minsk, the IMF said on Tuesday that Belarus was introducing appropriate measures but was facing tougher economic conditions than earlier anticipated. [ID:nLA330031]

    At the beginning of January, Belarus proceeded with the IMF's recommendation for a 20 percent devaluation of the Belarussian rouble and tied the currency to a basket of currencies made up of the dollar, euro and Russian rouble.

    The Fund had previously said that Belarus could restore high growth rates if it implemented an anti-crisis programme. It forecast a decline in growth to 1-2 percent of gross domestic product in 2009 and 2010 from 10 percent last year.

    Belarus has also received credit of $1 billion from Russia and anticipates getting a further $500 million soon.

    The swap is the latest example of China using its financial clout for diplomatic ends.

    China lent Pakistan $500 million last year to build up its foreign reserves and it has bought $300 million of Costa Rican government bonds as part of an agreement by the central American country to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of Beijing.

    The PBOC in December established a 180 billion yuan swap line with the Bank of Korea and said it was exploring possible deals with other central banks. [ID:nBJC000246]

    Belarus imported $1.415 billion of goods from China in 2008, an increase of 73.4 percent, and exported $624 million of goods to China, up 22.5 percent from the year before, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. ($1=6.838 Yuan)

  • From the Opposition...

    Fantasies of the Ministry of Justice about ‘Nasha Viasna’

    From: Viasna
    New Refusal to Register the Human Rights Group "Nasha Viasna":
    On 11 March the press-release On denial of the state registration to the Civil human rights association ‘Nasha Viasna’ appeared on the web-site of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Belarus. We, human rights defenders, cannot leave this information without notice.

    In particular, the Ministry of Justice explains that ‘on 26 January 2009 the Ministry of Justice received the documents on the state registration of the Civil human rights association ‘Nasha Viasna’ (further referred to as CHRA “Nasha Viasna”). During examination of the presented documents there was found a number of mutual discrepancies in the information that was presented in the documents. The list of the founders of the association contained incomplete information.

    Taking into consideration the existence of incomplete information in the presented documents, the Ministry of Justice thoroughly studied the circumstances of the constituent assembly of the CHRA ‘Nasha Viasna’. It was found that the assembly, in which 67 people allegedly took part, was held in the premises with the floor space of 35 square meters. Taking into account the items of furniture, computer appliances and placement of the presidium, there is less than 05, square meters for one person. Thus, the constituent assembly of the CHRA ‘Nasha Viasna’ was not held with participation of the number of persons that was stated in the documents that were presented to the Ministry of Justice…

    It was also found that more than a half of the founders of the CHRA ‘Nasha Viasna’ have been drawn to administrative responsibility, many of them for several times. Some of the organization founders were also drawn to criminal responsibility. A criminal case under Article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (fomentation of racial, national or religious enmity) was brought against one of founders of the organization. Besides, from the presented documents it follows that at the constituent assembly there were adopted the aims of the organization activities that were not included in the charter, which contradicts to one of the fundamental principles of the establishment and activities of civil associations – the principle of publicity.

    There are also other violations.

    On the basis of all abovementioned on 26 February 2009 the Ministry of Justice decided to deny state registration for CHRA ‘Nasha Viasna’.

    The initiators of the establishment of the association were informed about this decision in the term established by the law and can appeal against it at court.

    Due to the fact that insinuations concerning the reasons of the denial of the state registration for CHRA ‘Nasha Viasna’ appeared in some mass media, the Ministry considers it as necessary to point, that in Belarus the right to association is guaranteed by the Constitution. However, the realization of this right must not be connected with violations of the law or abuse of this right by initiators of the establishment of civil associations.’

    The press-release of the Ministry of Justice makes us, founders of the civil human rights association ‘Nasha Viasna’ to state it again: we consider the refusal to register our association a completely unlawful, discriminative and politically motivated step of the authorities, doubtlessly aimed at prohibition of our activities.

    The arguments of the Ministry of Justice are grounded on insinuations and conjectures that exceed the frames of juridical argument. The statement of the Ministry of Justice that not all founders of the association took part in the constituent assembly with reference to the floor space of the premises is wiredrawn and unprofessional. We’ like to remind to the Ministry of Justice how complicated is the way for holding constituent assemblies of organizations in Belarus. We propose the specialists of the Ministry of Justice to find it on their own, what difficulties the BHD Party had to face to receive premises for holding its constituent assembly and how many times many organization were refused in accommodation of such assemblies.
    The next statement, that the majority of the founders of our association are delinquents is also beyond any criticism, because it is not a reason for refusal to register a civil association. In our turn we would like to state: we are proud that among the founders of Nasha Viasna there are well-known human rights defenders from all parts of Belarus, and the fact that they have been many times persecuted, first of all within the frames of Administrative Code, again emphasizes the importance and effectiveness of their work.

    We would like to emphasize, that the case brought against the human rights defender from Vitsebsk Leanid Svetsik under Article 130 of the Criminal Code (fomentation of racial, national or religious enmity), is suspended. The case concerns the treat letters to civil activists from Vitsebsk on behalf of the Russian neo-Nazi organization RNE (Russian National Unity). The human rights activist actively assisted these citizens in preparation of addresses to the appropriate state organs. If the Ministry of Justice lets itself boast of a thorough study of documents, it must know about the state in which the case against Leanid Svetsik is.

    Moreover, in its press-release the Ministry of Justice distributes imprecise information about the criminal punishment of one of the founders of the organization, which gives us reasons to file a civil lawsuit on finding this information false and insulting to the honor, dignity and business reputation.

    Apart from all abovementioned things, the Ministry of Justice shamelessly lies that it informed the founders of the organization about the registration denial in the legal term. The Ministry of Justice violated the law and informed us about its decision five days after the expiry of the maximal term for consideration of documents, envisaged by the law.

    Referring to the Constitution, the Ministry of Justice states that the realization of the right to association is incompatible with abuse of this right from the side of the initiators of the establishment of civil associations. However, Article 5 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus enumerates the associations and parties, the activities and the establishment of which are prohibited: ‘The establishment and activities are prohibited for the political parties and other civil associations that are aimed at forced change of the state system or propagate war, social, national, religious and racial enmity.’

    ‘In the Republic of Belarus the civil right to association is guaranteed by the Constitution’, categorically states the Ministry of Justice. Let the authorities explain to the society, which twelve people have been punished under Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code (activities on behalf of unregistered organization). We remind that this outrageous article contradicts to the provisions not only of our Constitution, but also to that of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

    We have many times tried to draw the attention of the Ministry of Justice to the fact that we consider registration of our organization as a remedy of our right to association that was violated by liquidation of the Human Rights Center Viasna, concerning which there is an appropriate ruling of the UN Human Rights Committee. We also insist that by another refusal to register the association the Belarusian authorities, represented by the Ministry of Justice, violate our rights and the international undertakings of the Republic of Belarus.

    We will appeal against the actions of the Ministry of Justice on refusal to register ‘Nasha Viasna’ at court in the near future.

    Lukashenka: From Serbian resort to Armenian one!

    From: Charter '97
    The visit of the Belarusian dictator to Armenia in reality has become a continuation of his vacation, which started in Serbia at Kopaonik resort. Now Lukashenka is skiing in the town of Tsakhadzor.

    But president’s servants have drawn certain conclusions from the visit to Kopaonik, and the visit to the mountain resort of Tsakhadzor was masked more carefully.

    As we have informed, Lukashenka visited Serbia almost anonymously. In the airport of Nis he was met in fact like a private citizen, without any solemnities like honourable guard.

    In the Armenian airport Zvatrnotz Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan personally came to the ramp when the leader of the Belarusian state came out of the plane with his youngest son Nikolay and bread and salt where presented to them. A short conversation of Lukashenka and Sargsyan took place in the airport. Since that time it was the only conversation of the “working” nature of the visit to Armenia.

    As “Belorusskiye novosti” has found out, directly from Yerevan Lukashenka went to the town of Tsakhadzor, 55 km from the Armenian capital. He stayed in five-star hotel complex Multi Rest House. He plans to stay there till Sunday. At least, the rooms for Belarusian guests had been reserved till March 15.

    Guests of Multi Rest House which opened about two years ago, are offered not only comfortable rooms, but also two- and three-storey VIP-cottages, characterized by a bathroom in each bedroom.

    Multi Rest House has been chosen not by accident. It is not just the newest and most modern hotel of the resort, it is ideal for active rest lovers, to whom the Belarusian president belongs. There is a fitness-room, sauna, pool, football and basketball grounds, tennis grounds and billiard room in the hotel. Besides, the hotel is proud of its playground for children.

    A little Armenian town of Tsakhadzor is well-known as a ski resort. It is mostly visited from December to April, when three is snow there. There are 5 levels of hills’ difficulty, so the resort is good both for inexperienced and skillful sportsmen.

    The hotel complex Multi Rest House is situated almost in the centre of Tsakhadzor, with a 5-minute trip in a car from funicular and skiing courses. But most guests prefer to walk and enjoy local sceneries.

    By the way, the press-service of Armenian president does not have information whether Lukashenka and Sargsyan are to meet again. According to the spokesperson of the Belarusian president, Pavel Lyohki, Lukashenka to return to Minsk “not earlier than tomorrow”. “There still will be meetings in Armenia,” he noted.

    As previously informed by the press-service of Lukashenka, the program of the visit includes meetings of Lukashenka with the leadership of Armenia and representatives of business circles.

  • Around the Region...

    Russia’s Richest Woman Seeks Aid, Drawing Double Takes

    From: NYTimes
    A year ago, Yelena Baturina unveiled the grandest plan yet in a building career that has remapped swaths of Moscow. It was called Project Orange, an avant-garde Norman Foster complex shaped like slices of fruit, with a tinted facade that would cast an orange glow over the Moscow River.

    Last week, in a sign of the extraordinary times, Ms. Baturina applied for about $1.4 billion in government loan guarantees for her construction company, Inteko. The fortunes of Ms. Baturina, a onetime factory worker, had soared along with those of her powerful husband, Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov of Moscow. She is Russia’s richest woman, with a personal fortune that Forbes magazine estimated in 2008 at $4.2 billion.

    Reports of oligarchs seeking financial aid have come to sound commonplace this year, and it is hard to detect much reaction, let alone outrage, among Muscovites. But Ms. Baturina’s request did capture some attention, particularly among those who took a dim view of the city’s recent building boom.

    “It’s effrontery,” said Sergei S. Mitrokhin, an opposition lawmaker in Moscow’s city legislature. “She has no understanding of ordinary life, or ordinary people. She lives in her own golden world, from which she looks out at the reality that surrounds her, and of which she has no understanding.”

    In a statement, Inteko said it would use the government loans to expand its manufacturing base, replacing obsolete cement factories and other facilities throughout Russia. After hearing the request, a working group at Russia’s Ministry for Economic Development asked the company to return in two weeks with a more detailed analysis of how the money would be spent.

    Ms. Baturina disappeared from Forbes’s annual ranking of billionaires this year, along with the eight other Russian developers who had appeared there. It has been a grim season for Russia’s construction titans, as credit has vanished and real estate prices have gone into a swoon.

    Banks are facing the problem of whether to accept half-finished construction projects as collateral, and brand-new offices — planned when high-end commercial spaces were selling for $2,000 per square meter — are standing empty.

    Vladimir Pantyushin, a Moscow real estate analyst, said the government would be well advised to step in, despite the “shock of having a gold mine and seeing it in front of your door asking for money.” Otherwise, he said, major developers may begin defaulting on loans, sending panic rippling through the market.

    “We are near the borderline,” said Mr. Pantyushin, the head of economic and strategic research for Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate firm. “We really are in danger of facing major bankruptcies.”

    Ms. Baturina, 46, is one of Russia’s few female industrialists. Inteko, the company she founded in 1991, made plastics, including cups and dishes for one Mr. Luzhkov’s pet projects, a fast-food chain called Russkoye Bistro. In 1997, the company won a major contract to produce 82,000 plastic seats for Luzhniki Stadium.

    As high-rise condominiums and office buildings crowded into Moscow, Ms. Baturina became a billionaire and a power broker. Mr. Luzhkov has lashed out at billionaires who “bought yachts and luxury items” during the boom years, and said “incompetents working for big money — that is one of the causes of the crisis.” More recently, though, he has spoken in favor of nationalizing construction companies, “not in order to pursue state capitalism, but in order to minimize the pain of surviving this period, and restore those sectors to a normal financial condition.”

    Ms. Baturina’s application drew scant notice on television, but dozens of angry readers sent in comments to online news sources, complaining of “thieves” and “mobsters” and “brash gamblers.” One reader, who identified herself as Lyubov, said she would like to ask Ms. Baturina for “at least 100,000 rubles,” about $2,900.

    “It is so difficult to live on my 4,000-ruble pension,” she wrote. “I have forgotten the smell of apples.”

    Norwegian Stake in Russian Joint Venture Seized

    From: NYTimes
    Already jittery investors were alarmed on Thursday when a Norwegian cellphone company announced that a Siberian court had seized its multibillion-dollar investment in a Russian joint venture and would turn it over to a company thought to be allied with a Russian oligarch.

    The decision signaled an escalation in a long-running dispute between the Norwegian company, Telenor, and the Alfa Group, an alliance of Russian businessmen that was also at the center of a separate fight with the British oil giant BP last summer. That dispute also shook faith in the Russian market.

    Russia’s stock market fell on the news of the asset seizure.

    Telenor has accused the Alfa Group, whose principal partner is Mikhail M. Fridman, of filing groundless lawsuits to gain control of Vimpelcom, the cellphone company that they own jointly. One such lawsuit prompted the ruling Wednesday.

    A judge in the Siberian city of Omsk ordered court bailiffs to seize Telenor’s 29.9 percent share in Vimpelcom. The judge had earlier ordered Telenor to pay a fine of $1.7 billion after Alfa accused Telenor of obstructing the expansion of Vimpelcom into Ukraine to protect other Telenor businesses in that country. Telenor denied the accusation and refused to pay the fine. The shares were seized in lieu of the payment.

    Telenor has called the original ruling and the decision to allow seizure of its shares groundless and is appealing to a higher court in the Siberian city of Tyumen.

    Lawyers for the Norwegians, however, were not hopeful about the outcome of that appeal.

    “It’s like going from the frying pan into the fire,” said a lawyer for Telenor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of angering the Russian courts.

    The beneficiary of the Omsk lawsuit was a little-known company, Farimex Product, which Telenor contends is affiliated with Mr. Fridman’s Alfa Group; Alfa, which already controls 44 percent of Vimpelcom, has denied it is linked to Farimex.

    “This is a yet another escalation of the attempts to steal our Vimpelcom shares with the aid of Russian courts,” Telenor’s director for Central and Eastern Europe, Jan Edvard Thygesen, said in a statement.

    The business dispute has spread to other jurisdictions. The Norwegians and Russians are also in court in Ukraine and in the Southern District of New York.

    The Siberian court ruling came the same day Telenor won a judgment against Alfa Group in New York, in a case related to a Ukrainian cellphone company also jointly owned by Alfa and Telenor.

    Alfa Group issued a statement Thursday saying its assets were at risk of being seized in the New York case.

    Russia pressuring European Union to postpone conference on modernization of Ukraine's gas transport system

    From: Kiev Post
    Russia is trying to exert pressure on the European Union to postpone for an indefinite term the conference on Ukraine's gas transport system modernization slated for March 23 in Brussels, a source close to the organizers of the conference told Interfax-Ukraine.

    "Russia has been trying to exert pressure on the EU to postpone the conference on Ukraine's gas transportation system modernization slated for March 23 in Brussels for an indefinite term," the source said.

    According to the agency's interlocutor, this is principally due to Russia's desire to raise its chances of getting the credit resources for the construction of gas transportation routs alternative to the Ukrainian one, in particular the Nord Stream and the South Stream natural gas pipelines.

    Another motive may be Russia's desire to return on the agenda the issue of the formation of a consortium on controlling Ukraine's gas transportation system, the agency's interlocutor said.

    The source said that it doesn't suit Moscow that the European Union is planning to count on Ukraine's gas transportation system as a result of the conference as "a strategic artery" of natural gas transit to European customers. Besides, Russia believes that by providing considerable funds for the modernization of Ukraine's gas transportation system the EU will get levers on to influence the decisions related to Russian gas transit through Ukraine.

    Besides, the issue of transferring the point of Russian gas purchase from the western to the eastern borders of Ukraine will be seriously discusses at this conference for the first time, he added.

    Brussels is expected to host the European conference on the investments into the modernization of Ukraine's gas transportation system on March 23.

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Pawlak tries to put out corruption blaze

    From: Polskie Radio
    Waldemar Pawlak
    Minister of economy and deputy PM Waldemar Pawlak has met with Prime Minister Donald Tusk in order to explain press revelations accusing him of nepotism.

    “All my activities are transparent and the governing coalition is functioning well,” assured Pawlak after the meeting on Thursday.

    On Wednesday the Dziennik daily claimed that the minister has been involved in dubious arrangement whereby many of Pawlak’s relatives and friends are in business relations with the Polish Voluntary Fire Brigade, an organization that he is president of.

    “I informed the PM about the full transparency of my activities connected with the Voluntary Fire Brigades. Already this year the association’s finances have been inspected by the Supreme Chamber of Control and the Ministry of the Interior and Administration,” said Pawlak.

    Polish police arrest 56 in Internet child porn raids

    From: AP
    Polish police said Wednesday they had arrested 56 people in the latest of a series of Internet child pornography swoops.

    Magdalena Zielinska, spokeswoman for the police in the central Polish city of Lodz which steered the operation, told AFP investigators had identified 65 addresses from which child pornography was distributed.

    "A nationwide operation on Tuesday enabled the arrest of 56 people suspected of involvement," she said.

    Several people have already been charged and others questioned as witnesses, she said. Police also seized dozens of computers, CD-ROMs, DVDs and memory cards.

    Three weeks ago, Polish police had arrested 78 people in a similar nationwide operation and warned that further raids were likely.

    They acted on a tip-off from Austrian police via Europol, the European Union agency that helps the bloc's 27 member nations exchange information on criminal suspects.

    Thirty-five people were snared in another crackdown in January.

    Several hundred people have been arrested in Poland in recent years in raids against child pornography networks which have often been part of Europe-wide police operations.

    The possession and distribution of child pornography in Poland carries a prison term of eight years.

    Polish hitman wanted for Germany killing held in Goa

    From: Times of India
    Crime branch sleuths on Saturday arrested a Polish contract killer in Chopdem, Pernem. He is wanted by the German police for killing a businessman in that country in November last year and had been hiding in Goa since January.

    According to police sources, Adam Pyotr Mancic was paid e25,000 to get rid of the businessman. On November 3, 2008 he shot the man in his head, heart and back and on November 20 landed in Mumbai on a flight from Berlin.

    “We had information that Mancic, who is wanted by the Interpol, was hiding in Goa. We received the arrest warrant issued against him by a German court through the CBI and the warrant was executed by the crime branch. He will be handed over to the CBI soon,” said Atmaram Deshpande, SP (PRO).

    Mancic, who is believed to be in his early thirties, has been constantly changing his base in Goa.

    “Somewhere in January he came to Goa and first stayed in Arambol, then shifted to Canacona, later moved to Ashvem and a week ago shifted to Chopdem,” sources said.

    The contract killer was picked up because the rival businessman who ordered the killing was arrested in Germany and spilled the beans, sources said.

    4m pound tractor gang caught

    From: Mirror
    Police have arrested two members of a Polish gang thought to have stolen 4million of machinery from farms in Britain.

    The gang snatched tractors and combine harvesters and shipped them to Poland.

    Police have recovered equipment and cash thought to be from the sale of stolen goods worth over 800,000. They believe the final total could be five times higher.

    Two men have been charged with selling stolen goods. Police say: "We have not ruled out further arrests."

  • Sport...

    Olympic champion Aramnau gets ban for drinking

    From: Reuters
    Olympic weightlifting champion Andrei Aramnau of Belarus was handed a two-year suspended ban from competition on Friday after driving while intoxicated for the second time in less than three months.

    The 20-year-old, who won gold in Beijing by breaking several world records in the 105kg weight class, was first caught driving drunk in December before he repeated the offence last month, just a day after receiving keys for a new apartment.

    Belarus Sports Minister Alexander Grigorov, who headed the disciplinary hearing, told Reuters: "The Olympic success obviously went to his head. He is young and he couldn't handle it in a right way. We gave him a suspended sentence because we didn't want to lose him as an athlete."

    Aramnau, who also faces criminal charges for being a repeat offender, was stripped of a presidential monthly stipend worth more than $5,000.

    However, Grigorov said Aramnau, who won his first world title in 2007 as a 19-year-old, could be given a second chance.

    "If he retains the world title this year, he would get the stipend back," Grigorov said.

  • Cultural Scene...

    Прэзентацыя кнігі “Мінск – горад-прыклад сацыялізму”

    Прэзентацыя кнігі

    “Мінск – горад-прыклад сацыялізму”

    Гарадское планаванне і ўрбанізацыя ў Савецкім Саюзе пасля 1945 года

    аўтар - праф., д-р Томас Бон (універсітэт Мюнхен)

    з подыўмнай дыскусіяй

    дата: пятніца, 13 сакавіка 2009
    час: 19.30-21.00

    месца: канферэнц-заля Мінскага Міжнароднага адукацыйнага центра “Йоханес Рау” (праспект Газеты “Праўда”, 11)

    уступнае слова: Фрыд Нільзен, нямецкая амбасада ў Мінску

    удзельнікі: праф., д-р Томас Бон, Фелікс Акерман (Універсітэт Віадрына, Франкфурт на Одэры), праф. Захар Шыбека (Беларускі дзяржаўны эканамічны універсітэт, Мінск), стар. выкладчык Сяргей Харэўскі (Еўрапейскі гуманітарны універсітэт, Вільнюс)

    мадэратар: д-р Астрыд Зам, ММОЦ “Йоханес Рау”

    Пасля выдання кнігі Артура Клінава “Мінск. Горад СОНца” ужо ніхто не здзіўляецца, калі Мінск называюць горадам-прыкладам сацыялізму. Кніга Томаса Бона прадстаўляе значна больш, чым пацвярджэнне гэтага распаўсюджаннага міфа. З прычыны амаль поўнага разбурэння горада падчас Другой сусветнай вайны, Мінск, насамрэч, асабліва добра падыходзіў для таго, каб рэалізаваць уяўленні аб ідэальным сацыялістычным горадзе. Але савецкія ўлады не маглі абмежаваць прыток насельніцтва з сельскай мясцовасці і здавальняюча вырашыць пытанне жылля. Такім чынам, даследаванне працэсаў урбанізацыі з’яўляецца ключом для разумення правала намераў панавання савецкай улады на поўнае іх ўладаранне.

    Па заканчэнні подыўмнай дыскусіі ва ўдзельнікаў будзе магчымасць працягнуць размовы ў нефармальных абставінах за кубкам віна і іншых напояў, прадстаўленных нямецкай амбасадай.

    Мерапрыемства праходзіць пры падтрымцы Фонда імя Герды Хенкель і пры інфармацыйным суправаджэнні Інтэрнэт-часопіса “Новая Эўропа”.

    З фрагментам кнігі Томаса Бона на беларускай мове можна азнаёміцца ў часопісе ARCHE 6-2008, які можна спампаваць тут.

  • Endnote...

    On Eve Of Partnership Offer, Belarus Stands Up EU

    From: RFE/RL
    EU officials were left scratching their heads on March 11 when Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka unexpectedly cancelled a key meeting with the bloc's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, in favor of a snap trip to Armenia.

    Lukashenka's sudden decision clearly caught the EU off-guard. Ferrero-Waldner learned of the cancellation just 24 hours before she was due to leave for a long-scheduled, two-day trip to Minsk. Citing "scheduling difficulties," a spokeswoman told RFE/RL the trip has been rescheduled for mid-April.

    EU ambassadors were caught unawares as well. Meeting on March 11 to prepare the agenda of next week's foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, the ambassadors were surprised to learn only at the end of a four-hour discussion that a scheduled discussion on Belarus had been postponed.

    That meeting, rescheduled for March 16, will now take place only hours before EU foreign ministers gather to debate, among other things, whether to extend a visa-ban freeze offered to Minsk last October as a goodwill gesture. The freeze resumed travel privileges to more than 40 Belarusian decision makers who had been blocked from entering the EU.

    Lukashenka's latest antics have left Brussels embarrassed and at a loss as to where the bloc stands in its efforts to pry Belarus loose from Russia's sphere of influence.

    Partnership Offer

    The Belarusian leader's decision to stand up Ferrero-Waldner is all the more puzzling as the EU is less than a week away from a summit at which it is expected to invite a group of six ex-Soviet neighbors -- including Belarus -- to join its Eastern Partnership program.

    The Eastern Partnership plan is meant to offer funds, free trade, and visa-free travel to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus.

    The inclusion of Belarus in the partnership initiative is considered critical in Brussels, where it is viewed as a vital element in the bloc's drive to steer its neighbors away from Russia and closer to the EU.

    Until last year, however, Minsk had spurned most advances from Brussels, including an offer to join its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which was held out in exchange for democratization.

    The Russian-Georgian war last August prompted the EU to upgrade the ENP offer and relax the attendant demands. Minsk, apparently rattled by Russia's show of aggression in Georgia, finally responded to the EU offer, and took a number of conciliatory steps -- releasing political prisoners and easing restrictions on some opposition movements and media. In October, the EU lifted the visa ban.

    Political dialogue was quickly resumed and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana became the highest-ranking EU official in a decade to visit Minsk, during a two-day trip in February. Many observers saw the Solana visit as a coup for Lukashenka.

    EU diplomats tell RFE/RL that although reservations about Belarus now exist among some member states, a British compromise proposal was gaining support this week that would see the EU extend a current list of sanctions until April 2010, leaving in place an asset freeze but suspending the visa ban for another six months.

    Small Steps

    The assumption in Brussels has so far been that Belarus is amenable to a gradual normalization of relations. The occasional tendency of Lukashenka and his foreign minister, Syarhey Martinau, to lecture the EU on the need to recognize Belarus as an "equal" partner has been largely written off in Brussels as empty posturing.

    Increasingly preoccupied with Russia's growing aggressiveness, Belarus's Eastern European EU neighbors, led by Poland, believe that turning a blind eye to some of the regime's eccentricities is a small price to pay for keeping the country from falling under Moscow's sway. Opposition leaders Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kazulin have expressed similar views in meetings with EU officials.

    After his trip to Minsk, Solana reiterated the conviction that Lukashenka is prepared to make concessions to the EU in order to gain a counterbalance to Russian influence. In a briefing note to EU capitals, Solana said the Belarusian leader was worried about growing pressure from Moscow and was worried about his country's "survival." Solana also said Lukashenka had expressed gratitude for the EU's support on securing an International Monetary Fund loan and asked, in broad terms, "not to be left out" of Europe.

    Lukashenka refused to commit himself, however, on a key EU request not to recognize the Georgian breakaway territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. He said the decision would be taken, in due "democratic" fashion, by the Belarusian parliament in May.

    The timing of the vote could prove an embarrassment for the EU, as it is likely to follow on the heels of the May 7 Prague summit in Prague, at which the Eastern Partnership is due to be formalized.

    The EU will need to decide weeks in advance of the summit whether to invite Belarus, and Lukashenka himself, to the gathering. (Some member states have indicated they will accept the country's inclusion in the partnership, but have demanded that a lower-level official stand in for the president at the summit, fearing Lukashenka could "spoil the party.")

    An added complication is the reported warning from Georgia that it will boycott the summit if Belarus chooses to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia and is offered an invitation to Prague nonetheless.

    Diplomats in Brussels say that the need to include Belarus is being seen as relatively uncontroversial by a majority of member states. All agree that Minsk's isolation has not produced results. And without Belarus, the Eastern Partnership would lose much of its regional clout.

    Getting Cold Feet?

    However, there have been signs in recent weeks that Minsk may be having second thoughts. The relative thaw visible in recent months has suddenly been replaced by crackdowns. Five activists have been indicted on criminal charges, opposition rallies were broken up by police on February 14-16, young activists have been forcibly conscripted into the army, and there has been increased interference in the activity of religious organizations.

    In what she evidently believed were previsit remarks, Ferrero-Waldner offered measured criticism of Belarus in a speech in London on March 9. She said reforms in Belarus were being done in a "two steps forward, one step back" fashion, noting the recent new political arrests.

    Lukashenka's abrupt change of plans could be an attempt at retaliation. The Belarusian leader's ire would have been aggravated by the red-carpet treatment given by the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week to a Belarusian opposition delegation led by Kazulin.

    Lukashenka also canceled a scheduled March 10 meeting in Minsk with Joao Soares, the resident of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly. Soares had also used his time in the Belarusian capital to demand more democratization.

    Any pressing financial woes that may have pushed Lukashenka closer to an EU embrace were also alleviated by Russia's release last week of the second $500 million tranche of a $2 billion loan deal.