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Today's Headlines for:
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lukashenko and Medvedev meet, Eastern Partnership, Illegal migration, Loans and debt, Kazulin, Palyakova, Hungary, Polish scandal, Sport and more...

  • From the Top...
  • #396

    Conversation between Belarus and Russia presidents lasts for 7 hours

    From: BelTA
    Alexander Lukashenko and Dmitry Medvedev
    The conversation between President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev lasted for about seven hours, BelTA informs.

    After the negotiations the two presidents continued the meeting in an informal environment. Alexander Lukashenko and Dmitry Medvedev went for a walk on the territory of the countryside residence Rus in Zavidovo. During the stroll, the presidents stopped at a campfire and tasted some hot snacks. Later the presidents had lunch after which the Belarusian leader left for Minsk.

    A member of the Belarusian delegation accompanying President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko during his working visit to Russia told BelTA that the heads of state discussed the whole range of issues including trade and economic cooperation, international and regional interaction, the relations between Belarus and the EU. The sides reached an agreement in all the issues. The presidents agreed to continue the discussion in the near future.

    The countryside residence Zavidovo was a hunting ground during the Soviet times. It was visited by Josip Broz Tito, Fidel Castro, Erich Honecker, Janos Kadar and other famous political figures. According to UNESCO, Zavidovo is one of the ecologically cleanest places on earth. The complex covers the territory of more than 125,000 hectares and is considered to be a national park.

    Sergei Sidorsky: Belarus is interested in more active work of Russian capital in the country

    Belarus is interested in more active work of Russian capital in the country, Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky noted during his meeting with Vice Premier - Finance Minister of Russia Alexei Kudrin on March 20.

    According to Sergei Sidorsky, the Governments of Belarus and Russia are considering the participation of Russian investors in projects of Belarusian food-processing and dairy branches.

    “Yesterday’s meeting of the presidents of Belarus and Russia has confirmed the progress in the energy area including the construction of the Belarusian nuclear and power plant. At the same time, Russian companies are studying Belarus’ proposals dealing with the cooperation in petrochemical branch,” Sergei Sidorsky noted.

    According to Sergei Sidorsky, the cooperation of both the countries in the banking area is too important as well. He reminded that Belarus has already signed cooperation agreements with Vneshtorgbank and Sberbank. The same agreements are expected to be signed with other financial institutions of the Russian Federation. Belarus intends to continue working with the biggest Russian banks. In turn, they express readiness to grant loans for the Belarusian economy.

    All that is very important during the global financial crisis. According to Sergei Sidorsky, the implementation of the plan of actions of Belarus and Russia to minimize consequences of the global financial crisis gives some results. Recently, working groups of the two countries have done a lot to settle the problems of the bilateral cooperation. For instance, Belarus is finishing the joint work with the Russian Ministry of Economic Development to adjust the provisions contained in the anti-crisis plan. “The main thing is that economic entities of Belarus and Russia should have equal access to the markets of both the countries. The presidents of Belarus and Russia discussed it yesterday,” Sergei Sidorsky said. According to him, it is necessary to make the work of the ministries of both the countries closer to settle all the problems. It concerns the work of the customs, transport and economic governmental departments.

    Sergei Sidorsky noted that recently Belarus and Russia have made progress in developing the cooperation ties. For instance, 60% of the trade between Belarus and St. Petersburg are cooperative deliveries. “I believe that during the global financial crises it is necessary to take the measures to develop new enterprises and new technologies,” the Belarusian Prime Minister underscored.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    UK wants Belarus to participate in Eastern Partnership

    From: BelTA
    The UK would like to see Belarus among participants of the Eastern Partnership programme, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to Belarus Nigel Gould-Davies told the press on March 18.

    According to the Ambassador, during Xavier Solana’s recent visit to Belarus matters regarding Belarus’ possible participation in the Eastern Partnership were discussed among other things. Nigel Gould-Davies remarked that in the near future the European Union will consider certain matters regarding the programme as a whole and all the six possible so-called eastern partners — Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Discussions about whether Belarus will become a participant of the initiative and in what form are in progress in the European Union.

    “I can say that the UK would like to see Belarus as an equal partner in this initiative,” stressed the diplomat.

    The United Kingdom also supports the European Union decision to suspend sanctions against several Belarusian officials for another nine months.

    “It is a very wise and good decision. There is gossip in Minsk that Great Britain spoke against this decision. I would like to refute it. The UK was one of the countries that played the key part in successful adoption of the decision,” said the Ambassador.

    The diplomat remarked that the common decision of EU member-states regarding the extension of the suspension of restrictions against officials fully reflects the UK view. The Ambassador underscored, there is an intention to analyse the situation after nine months and then the European Union may consider lifting these sanctions. “In principle nobody wants these sanctions to last for ever,” he said.

    Nigel Gould-Davies reminded that certain opposition leaders would like to re-institute these sanctions, however, the European Union intends to continue the dialogue with Belarus, hoping to advance the relations.

    Eastern Partnership should serve European unity, Belarusian Foreign Ministry says

    Cooperation within the framework of the Eastern Partnership should serve long-term mutual interests of the participating countries, the European Union and the entire European continent as a whole. Instead of separation it should promote unity, stability and prosperity of the Greater Europe, said Press Secretary of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Andrei Popov commenting on the European Union Council’s approval of the Eastern Partnership initiative. Belarus has been invited to participate in the initiative.

    According to the official, the decision made in Brussels is not discriminatory. It provides for equal and full-scale participation of all invited states in the Eastern Partnership initiative. “We expect the decision will be confirmed at consequent events of all levels, including its official launch in Prague on May 7, 2009,” stressed Andrei Popov.

    Budapest to host Belarus-Hungary consultations on Belarus-EU dialogue

    Belarusian-Hungarian ministerial consultations will be held in Budapest on March 25 upon the invitation of the Hungarian side, BelTA learnt from the Belarusian Embassy in Hungary.

    The Belarusian delegation will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Valery Voronetsky, the Hungarian side by State Secretary for Bilateral Cooperation at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry Jeno Faller. The consultations will focus on the ways to strengthen political, trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation between the two states, the development of the legal-treaty basis and collaboration within the framework of international organizations.

    The Belarusian delegation will also meet with State Secretary for European Integration at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry Gabor Szentivanyi. The meeting will be dedicated to the measures to step up Belarus-EU dialogue; the sides will also touch upon the cooperation between Belarus and the Visegrad Group which Presidency Hungary will assume in June 2009.

    The Belarusian officials will hold negotiations with State Secretary at the Ministry of Economy and National Development Abel Garamhegyi and head of the Hungarian parliamentary group responsible for links with Belarus.

    Hungary is an important trading partner of the Republic of Belarus. The economic cooperation agreement signed in Budapest on May 23, 2008 greatly contributed to the development of trade and economic cooperation between the two states.

    CSTO, IOM to step up joint efforts to fight illegal migration

    From: BelTA
    The CSTO and IOM will develop cooperation in fighting illegal migration, BelTA learnt from the press service of the CSTO Secretariat following the meeting between Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Nikolai Bordiuzha and Director General of the International Organization for Migration William Lacy Swing in Moscow.

    According to the participants of the meeting, the two organizations have developed successful and fruitful cooperation based on the July 2006 agreement. This cooperation will gain momentum in the future as the illegal migration remains a topical issue, Nikolai Bordiuzha and William Lacy Swing believe.

    The IOM has an expertise to deal with migration problems, it knows full well what its most sensitive issues are, and the CSTO has a working mechanism to handle these issues, in particular within the framework of the operation Nelegal which is regularly carried out under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organization,’ Nikolai Bordiuzha noted.

    The CSTO hopes that the IOM will help promote cooperation with the European Union in order to take control over the whole chain of the illegal migration: from the countries of origin and transit which include many CSTO participating states to the countries of destination.

    William Lacy Swing informed Nikolai Bordiuzha about the IOM activities and assured that he will visit all the CSTO states with a view to improving the interaction between the two organizations.

    UN to develop cooperation with Belarus in fighting illegal drug trade

    The UN will develop cooperation with Belarus in counteracting illegal drug trafficking, said UN/UNDP representative in Belarus Antonius Broek summing up the results of the implementation of the programme Belarus/Ukraine/Moldova Actions on Drugs (BUMAD), BelTA informs.

    The trade in illegal drugs brings up to 2,000% of profit and is second most profitable illegal business after trafficking in human beings. Geographically Belarus is at the crossroads of trafficking routes: heroin is smuggled from east to west and synthetic drugs from west to east. This is why the participation of Belarus in international programmes to fight drug trafficking and drug abuse is of great importance.

  • Economics...

    Belarusian ruble keeps stable against basket of currencies

    From: BelTA
    The National Bank of the Republic of Belarus maintains stability of the Belarusian ruble against the basket of currencies that includes the US dollar, euro and the Russian ruble, BelTA learnt from the information department of the National Bank.

    As of March 21, 2009, the exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble against the basket of foreign currencies made up Br960.01, slightly changed in comparison with its initial level (Br960). At the same time from January 2 to March 21, 2009, the exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble against the US dollar decreased by 5.09% to Br2785 per $1, against euro it fell 2.95% to Br3812.39 per ˆ1 and against the Russian ruble gained 7.58% to Br83.33 per RUB1.

    The National Bank stressed that in view of the stability of the basket of currencies the Belarusian ruble fluctuates against the currencies of the basket (USD, euro and Russian ruble) only when mutual changes in the exchange rate of the currencies take place on the world currency market.

    Thus, a dramatic fall of the exchange rate of the US dollar against the world currencies on March 19-20, 2009 conditioned by the monetary expansion of the US Federal Reserve System led to the exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble also strengthening against the US dollar. As of March 21, 2009, the official exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble against the US dollar gained 2.7%, or Br76 while it declined by 2.4%, or Br88.80 against euro and 0.3%, Br0.21 against the Russian ruble. The exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble against the basket of foreign currencies remained at the level of Br960.

    The stability of the Belarusian ruble entailed growth in profitability of national currency deposits in the banks of the country. In February 2009, the average interest rate on new fixed-time deposits in national currency reached 19.8% per annum and increased by 4.5% from December 2008.

    Heads of CIS central banks, finance ministries to meet in Moscow March 31

    Finance, Economy Ministers, Chairpersons of the CIS Central Banks are planning to meet in Moscow on March 31, Vice Premier – Finance Minister of the Russian Federation Aleksei Kudrin said during the joint session of the finance ministries of Belarus and Russia on March 20, BelTA informs.

    Aleksei Kudrin stressed that today the CIS and EurAsEC countries should mobilize their efforts in countering the consequences of the global financial crisis.

    According to the Russian Finance Minister, it is necessary to offer the world community proposals on setting up new conditions for regulating the financial markets as the world financial architecture needs changing. He also reminded, G20 Summit in London on April 2 will highlight anticrisis measures.

    Russia to grant Belarus $500m loan in nearest future

    Russia will transfer a $500 million loan to Belarus in the nearest future, Finance Minister of Russia Alexei Kudrin said at a joint session of the Finance Ministries of Russia and Belarus in Minsk on March 20, BelTA informs.

    Alexei Kudrin noted that beginning late 2007 Russia has granted Belarus a total of $3 billion, of which $1.5 billion were provided in December 2008- March 2009. ‘It is a considerable amount. In the near future we will grant Belarus another $500 million. We are also considering other forms of aid. We will always provide help and support when Belarus needs us. We are neighbours,’ the Russian Finance Minister said.

    In his words, Russia is providing loans for cushioning the consequences of the global financial and economic crisis not only for Belarus, but also for Armenia and other countries. At present, an anti-crisis fund is being established within the framework of the EurAsEC.

    Alexei Kudrin underlined that Belarus and the Russian Federation will have to work in the challenging environment when the GDP growth is slowing down, other economic indices are deteriorating. At the same time, the crisis provides a good opportunity to test an economy; it is time for analysis and new solutions. On March 20, the joint session will discuss the ways to overcome the crisis taking into consideration the circumstances of the two states.

  • From the Foriegn Press...

    Belarus backs Russia's proposals to reform financial system

    From: Ria Novosti
    Belarus supports Russia's proposals to reform the global financial system drafted for the G20 summit in London, the Belarusian president told his Russian counterpart Saturday.

    Alexander Lukashenko and Dmitry Medvedev are discussing international and interregional cooperation.

    "We have familiarized ourselves very well with your proposals, and our government fully supports them," Lukashenko said.

    Russia, due to attend the April 2 summit in London, sent its proposals to reform the financial system and overcome the consequences of the global financial crisis earlier this week.

    Medvedev said earlier Russia will prioritize the reform of international financial institutions, control of advanced economies' macroeconomic indices and audit and accounting issues at the G20 summit.

    Russia silent on loan request

    In arelated story There were no comments of the reported loan request made by Lukashenko on Thursday when he met Medvedev at the fabled Zavidovo hunting lodge outside Moscow where Soviet leaders once entertained their closest foreign allies.

    The Vedomosti business daily, citing anonymous sources in the leadership of both countries, reported Wednesday that Lukashenko would seek a loan from Russia worth 2.9 billion dollars (2.2 billion euros) at the meeting.

    The Kommersant daily on Friday quoted Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin as saying: "We are examining the issue of extending a loan to Belarus."

    Belarus, long a close ally of Russia, has also reached out to the West for help amid the global economic crisis, with the International Monetary Fund in January approving an emergency loan of 2.46 billion dollars to Minsk.

    The long-isolated former Soviet republic has recently seen an improvement in its relations with the European Union and the United States.

    Belarus hails as 'non-discriminatory' European Union's Eastern Partnership project

    From: Kiev Post
    Belarus has praised the European Union's Eastern Partnership project, which was approved by the EU Council on Friday before its definitive launch on May 7 and would extend to Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

    "Cooperation in the Eastern Partnership format must serve the long-term mutual interests both of the participant states of Eastern Partnership and those of the European Union itself and the entire European continent as a whole, working not for the disunity but for the unity, stability and prosperity of greater Europe," Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov told reporters.

    "We point out the non-discriminatory character of the decision made [by the EU Council] in Brussels, a decision that involves the equal and full-scale participation in the Eastern Partnership of all the states that have been invited to join it," he said.

    Belarus expects that "this decision will be confirmed at subsequent events as part of this initiative at all levels, including its official launch in Prague on May 7, 2009," Popov said.

    EU's New Eastern Partnership Draws Ire From Russia

    From: DW
    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized on Saturday the European Union's new partnership with six former Soviet states, suggesting the 27-member bloc was seeking to extend its own sphere of influence.

    "We are accused of trying to have spheres of influence," Lavrov said during the annual Brussels Forum in the Belgian capital. "What is the 'Eastern Partnership'? Is it a sphere of influence, including Belarus?"

    On Friday, after a two-day summit in Brussels, EU leaders approved the new partnership, which would allow the union to increase its aid to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and possibly Belarus by 600 million euros ($814 million).

    "Our dream has come true, we have been able to adopt the Eastern Partnership," said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

    Under the scheme, the EU is to negotiate new association agreements -- accords setting terms for cooperation with non-member states -- as reward for democratic and free-market reforms.

    The plan envisages the gradual creation of a free-trade zone with the countries. Of the 600 million euros in aid, some 350 million euros will be new funds for strengthening state institutions, border control and assistance for small companies.

    Giving Belarus a chance?

    The EU's interest in its eastern neighborhood has surged since Russia's August invasion of Georgia. The bloc is now keen to strengthen its ties with its neighbors to counter-balance Moscow's growing assertiveness in the region.

    As a gesture of goodwill towards Russia's staunch ally Belarus, EU foreign ministers on Monday extended until December the suspension of travel restrictions for the country's top government officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko,

    The EU put the ban into effect in 2006 in response to human rights violations allegedly committed by Lukashenko, whose regime former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once called "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe."

    But the bloc put the visa ban on ice in October in a bid to encourage the Belarus president to take a more pro-Western and pro-democracy course as part of a carrot-and-stick policy.

    A sore spot for Russia

    Lavrov, however, condemned the union's effort to draw ex-Soviet countries closer to the West as meddling into other countries' internal affairs.

    "When my good friend Karel Schwarzenberg publicly says that if Belarus recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia it could forget about "Eastern Partnership", is it blackmail or is it democracy at work?"

    "After those kinds of statements, we have questions," Lavrov added. "Is it about pulling countries (away) from the decisions that they are supposed to take freely?"

    Russia recognized the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions following its short war in Georgia in August to widespread international condemnation. Moscow has been urging its neighbor to follow suit.

    The official launch of the EU's partnership with six eastern European countries, which is backed strongly by Poland and Sweden, is set for May 7, although doubts remain about whether Lukashenko will be invited.

    "That will depend on the behavior of Mr. Lukashenko and the Belarus government in the coming weeks, but Belarus should be in the 'Eastern Partnership'," Schwarzenberg said on Friday.

    Pushed To The Brink: A Belarusian Suicide

    From: RFE/RL
    Neanila Palyakova grieves over her daughter's coffin on March 9.
    On a cold evening in early March, 69-year-old Neanila Palyakova wrapped herself in a shawl, bent down unsteadily to put on her shoes, and ventured out into the southern Belarusian city of Salihorsk to beg a psychoneurologist for a diagnosis of mental instability.

    Palyakova was seeking the diagnosis for her daughter Yana, a 33-year-old lawyer and human rights activist due to stand trial the next day, March 3, on charges of slandering a police officer. Her mother hoped a medical diagnosis could help postpone the trial.

    The case for medical diagnosis was also easy to make. Yana, under severe psychological stress in the weeks leading up to the trial, seemed increasingly unable to cope. Neighbors said she seemed shaken and unhappy. She refused offers of help; she didn't want to speak about the case, and seemed closed-off.

    Neanila pleaded with the doctor, saying her daughter desperately needed a "rest." Yana couldn't sit still. She was afraid to go outside.

    Even worse, she had threatened to hurt herself. Yana had said she "wouldn't want to live" if she was convicted, her mother told the doctor. Attending a trial while she was in such a vulnerable state, Neanila pleaded, "would cause her tremendous stress."

    But the psychoneurologist was unmoved. Yana Palyakova was pronounced "healthy," stable enough to stand trial.

    Neanila, who had already been similarly rebuffed by local prosecutors, felt there was nothing more she could do.

    So mother hurried home to the tiny flat she shared with her daughter and their two pet dogs. It was late; she wanted to be with Yana the night before the trial. For weeks, the police had been taunting her daughter, calling her in for questioning. At 10:00 at night, 2:00 in the morning, sometimes even 4:00 in the morning, the phone would ring with a police summons or threats from unidentified men.

    The women tried to joke about it. "See, Mother," Yana told her, "they're toying with me."

    The trial the next day proved an open-and-shut case. Within hours, Yana Palyakova had been convicted and sentenced to a $350 fine and 2 1/2 years under house arrest. Friends described her as "shocked."

    Four days later, Neanila Palyakova opened the door to Yana's room and found her daughter hanging from a noose tied to a pipe running across the ceiling. She had been dead for hours.

    Devastated, the grieving mother told RFE/RL that authorities had hounded her daughter to death.

    "There was pressure from the authorities and from the prosecutor's office," she said, her voice breaking. "I told the police, I cannot and will not forgive anybody for anything. You are healthy young men, and she was a poor, weak girl."

    A Country Questioned

    Life as an activist in Belarus is not easy. While the political "disappearances" that marked the dimmest days under strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka have ended, activists and members of the opposition are still routinely harassed, beaten, and imprisoned on the slightest provocation.

    Most recently, dozens of peaceful protesters gathered in central Minsk on Valentine's Day were beaten fiercely by police. Two days later, a Solidarity Day protest -- held on the 16th of every month to commemorate missing opposition leaders -- was broken up violently by riot police.

    The wave of crackdowns comes even as the West is attempting to bring Belarus in from the cold. The European Union has suspended a travel ban on top officials, and is preparing to usher it into its Eastern Partnership initiative meant to gently extract six post-Soviet countries from Moscow's sphere of influence.

    Within Belarus, Palyakova's suicide has raised angry questions -- is the country really ready for closer ties with the West? And what does the suicide of a 33-year-old activist say about life under Lukashenka, "Europe's last dictator"?

    Opposition leader and former political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin says the case shows the lengths to which authorities will go in order to drown out critical voices.

    "I think this shows the conditions people are living in. If a young woman cannot find another way out other than to kill herself, it means that she was led to this," says Kazulin, who organized a vigil in Minsk the day after Palyakova's death.

    Not Your Average Activist

    Yana Palyakova was a bright, young lawyer and part-time political activist well known for her legal work and political projects in Salihorsk, where she worked for Legal Assistance to the Population, a local nongovernmental organization.

    The organization's director, Aleh Volchak, says Palyakova "knew many people" and worked on a number of high-profile issues, including Kazulin's bid as an opponent to Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election.

    Kazulin, a one-time member of the political mainstream, became a sworn enemy of the regime during that race and in the public protests that followed Lukashenka's officially declared landslide. In July 2006, he was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in jail. The ruling drew criticism and sanctions from the West, and proved a profound political discomfort for Lukashenka.

    Palyakova worked actively on Kazulin's behalf during his time in jail. (He was released after two years.) Volchak says Palyakova's involvement in the Kazulin case was the start of her run-ins with the authorities.

    "The pressure on her started to be exerted when she began to work with us on the Kazulin case, after he was arrested," he says. "When she submitted a request to hold a demonstration for Kazulin's release, the cops staked out her apartment for two days."

    Such intimidation tactics are not uncommon in Belarus. But they proved unnerving to Palyakova, whose fragile, sensitive nature set her apart from the defiant, bring-it-on activists around her.

    Neighbors speak kindly about Palyakova but say she was "hypersensitive," like a "wounded child." One wrong word could bring on a long face, maybe tears.

    She was vulnerable. And the authorities knew it.

    Story continues...

  • From the Opposition...

    Lukashenka Nemesis Lists Belarus Abuses, Asks 'What Kind Of Values' EU Is Offering

    From: RFE/RL
    Alyaksandr Kazulin squared off against Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential race before being thrown in jail as a prisoner of conscience. While in jail, he endured a 56-day hunger strike and the death from cancer of his wife, Iryna. Now free, he has become one of the most vocal critics of Lukashenka and attempts by the EU to bring Belarus into the Western fold. In an interview with RFE/RL's Brian Whitmore, Kazulin said many of the Eastern European countries who now support Minsk's integration in the EU's Eastern Partnership program are "forgetting" about the totalitarian crimes they themselves endured in earlier eras.

    RFE/RL: I would like to start with a tragic event that was in the news recently. The human rights activist Yana Palyakova committed suicide earlier this month after being convicted of slandering a police officer whom she accused of beating her. What does this say about the current state of affairs in Belarus?

    Alyaksandr Kazulin: I think this shows the conditions people are living in. If a young woman cannot find any way out other than to kill herself, it means that she was led to this. It is obvious that she was baited. Those police officers who filed suit against her in court, the judge who ruled in her case, the atmosphere that existed around the case, the articles denouncing her in our main newspaper, "Sovietskaya Belorussia," baited her. They baited her because of her principles, her convictions, the ideals she believed in.

    RFE/RL: Palyakova worked on your behalf when you were incarcerated. How did her death effect you personally?

    Kazulin: For me personally this is a big wound, a wound that screams. And this scream comes from the soul. But nobody wants to hear this scream from our souls, this pain in our hearts. Often people forget how they lived earlier. The Czechs are forgetting about 1968, the Prague Spring, and the Velvet Revolution. The Poles are forgetting about Solidarity, the Germans are forgetting about fascism. But what is happening today in Belarus already happened to them.

    Too Quick To Talk?

    RFE/RL: You have been critical of the European Union's recent overtures to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka regarding the European Partnership initiative. Are you opposed to Brussels' policy toward Belarus in general?

    Kazulin: No normal person can be opposed to dialogue, cooperation, and aspirations to make the situation better. But no normal person should seek to achieve this goal by any means. The Europeans understand that their policy of the last 15 years toward Lukashenka hasn't resulted in anything good, so now they're pursuing a new policy. But they are rushing to achieve a result. For 15 years there were no results, and now they want one in half a year.

    RFE/RL: What specifically do you not like about the way this process is proceeding?

    Kazulin: It would be one thing if the last dictator in Europe changed and said, "Citizens of Europe, People from Humane Countries, forgive me, I have recognized my mistakes." But what is happening is just the opposite. Belarusian television is saying that it is the Europeans who have recognized their mistakes. They are saying that Belarus was right.

    So when we talk about a dialogue, what are we talking about? Negotiations behind closed doors between the European Union and the Belarusian political regime. But there needs to be a [wider] discussion in which civil and democratic society also participates. The only people at the table now are the Belarusian authorities and EU officials. Members of the democratic community are not participating. So who will evaluate the results?

    RFE/RL: I also understand that you thought it was a bad idea for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to visit Belarus [onFebruary 19]. What were your objections to this visit?

    Kazulin: Solana's visit came following harsh political repression. There was the arrest of former political prisoners who had been released. There was the beating of young people on St. Valentine's Day. They beat up girls, broke boys' ribs and gave them concussion, and then on February 16 -- on the day of Solidarity With Missing Persons and Political Prisoners -- there was also a violent dispersal [of demonstrators].

    But Mr. Solana did not cancel his visit. He could have delayed it by seven or 10 days for moral reasons. OK, Solana is an experienced politician and maybe he knows things we don't know. But after he met with Lukashenka, there was no commentary.

    So this leads to the question: For whose sake did Mr. Solana come, Lukashenka or the Belarusian people? If he came for Mr. Lukashenka, then this is a victory for the dictator. This is a huge political event for Lukashenka.

    If he came for the Belarusian people -- who expected European values to come to Belarus as a result of his visit -- then why was nothing said about the repression that took place on the eve of his visit? He said he was optimistic. And Lukashenka said he was very satisfied with Mr. Solana's visit since no conditions were placed on him. So this leads to the question: What kind of values is Europe offering us?

    Europe 'Under Thumb' Of Lukashenka

    RFE/RL: On March 16, the European Union extended an existing travel ban and asset freeze on 41 top Belarusian politicians and officials for another year. But on the other, Brussels extended a suspension of that same travel ban for nine months. What is your opinion of this decision?

    Kazulin: They have prolonged the suspension of sanctions. So consider this: If a judge knowingly condemns an innocent man and is not sanctioned, then he will feel he has carte blanche to continue doing this. If a police officer beats citizens and is not removed for this, then he will think he has carte blanche to act this way again. So when Solana's visit comes in the wake of repression, and the re-arrest of political prisoners, then the Lukashenka regime will think it has carte blanche to behave this way.

    Of course a dialogue is necessary, but a dialogue is a compromise where two sides meet. There are conditions from the Belarusian side and there are also conditions from the EU that lead to a plan of action. But for the past six months there have been no conditions [placed on Belarus], and all experts and analysts say that nothing is changing in Belarus. There have been cosmetic changes, but nothing more, there is no systemic change.

    Therefore, strong Europe is now under the thumb of the weak Lukashenka. It is useful to remember the 1930s, when strong Europe went under the thumb of the weak Hitler. And what was the result of that?

    RFE/RL: Do you think the EU's policy toward Belarus has implications for other countries in the region?

    Kazulin: We are not just talking about Belarus here. We are talking about all of Europe. To what extent is it prepared to act according to the values that are the foundation of the common European home? What is more important? Morality? Citizens' rights and freedoms? Values? Or the pragmatism and commercial interests that today we call realpolitik? Everybody is waiting for an answer to this question. Because if Europe is going to capitulate before a dictator, then it means that something is wrong with European values.

    East And West

    RFE/RL: Some analysts have suggested that there are larger geopolitical forces at work here and what Europe is really trying to do is to pull Belarus free from Russia's sphere of influence.

    Kazulin: On every level, Russia is being used as a kind of scarecrow -- so people say, "We need to save Belarus from Russia." And Mr. Lukashenka is a master of blackmail.

    With Europe and Russia, he is trying to see who will give him the most. Imagine a hypothetical situation where Russia, Germany, and Poland divide Belarus's economy among themselves. Everybody would be satisfied. Capital would come in. There would be jobs. Lukashenka would announce that in his office safe he has the shares of all the enterprises in Belarus. Let's do business.

    Well, we need to call things by their proper names. This is a pragmatic trade-off in which the rights and freedoms of citizens are given no consideration. There are only the interests of money. There are just financial, economic, and commercial interests, but nothing else. In such a situation, we would need to forget about our values.

    This is a very serious issue. They are trading with our lives, our fates. They are throwing us underneath the tanks. This is something Europeans have forgotten about. Today we are underneath tanks.

    RFE/RL: There is a possibility that Alyaksandr Lukashenka could be invited to Prague to attend the May 7 summit dealing with the EU's Eastern Partnership program. What does the Belarusian opposition think about this possibility?

    Kazulin: I can say firmly that 90 percent of the Belarusian democratic community is absolutely and categorically opposed to Lukashenka's visit to Prague. They see this as a betrayal -- a betrayal of an entire people by Europe. This needs to be clearly understood.

    RFE/RL: Let's end with a prediction. You have said several times that Lukashenka's position is actually weaker than it appears. He has been in power for more than 15 years. How much longer do you think he has left?

    Kazulin: As an academic, as a philosopher, I can say that everything in the world finds balance. When there is a lot of evil and injustice, then in the end the pendulum swings in the opposite direction.

    Today Lukashenka is holding back that pendulum with all his strength. But this won't be enough. The pendulum will swing the other way. I am absolutely certain that changes will come to Belarus in the next two years.

    The global economic crisis is a moment of truth for the Belarusian authorities. Our administrative command economy is something from the past. And Mr. Lukashenka runs the government as if it were a collective farm.

    We are in the same situation that the Soviet Union was in just prior to the breakup. And nobody predicted that that would happen. But it was possible because the giant turned out to be a man on stilts, and it is the same now. The Europeans can decide what to do, but history always returns to its proper place.

    In 2009 Belarus may lose all its reserves

    From: Charter '97
    Belarus is torrentially increases its external debts, due to which foreign trade deficit is financed. Such an economic policy can lead our country to a catastrophe.

    As an economy reviewer of “Belorusy i rynok” newspaper Uladzimir Tarasau writes, if negative tendencies in the foreign trade of Belarus won’t be overcome successfully, in 2009 the country can lose almost all its reserves.

    The newspaper reminds that another tranche of the Russian loan of $500 mln was received on March 12 by the Finance Ministry. The same sum should be transferred after amendments to the Russian budget-2009 would be made. After that extension of the stabilization loan of $2 billion on which Belarusian and Russian leaders agreed last year, would be finished.

    The money would be added to the gold and currency reserves of the country, which was equal to $3,814 mln on March 1. However, money won’t stay there long, as at the moment the National Bank has to spend its resources for satisfying the demands of the population for currency.

    In the next few months money would be primarily needed for financing deficit of the foreign trade of the county. In January this year, according to the preliminary information of the National Bank of Belarus, foreign trade balance was minus $293.1 mln, while it was plus $33.4 mln in the analogous period of the last year.

    The decrease is obvious. That is why one should expect that in general according to the results of the year 2009 at least not less sum of money would be needed as last year, when foreign trade deficit reached $4.4 billion. Meanwhile, the sum is growing with every quarter.

    As Uladzimir Usosky, Doctor of Science, Economics, stated earlier, the great increase of foreign borrowings caused significant growth of the gross external debt. The external debt of the government by 1.01.2007 was $589 mln, by 1.10.2008 $2.144 billion. The total external debt of Belarus as of 1.11.2008 reached 14.557 billion. It should be compared with $5.128 billion on 1.01.2006, $6.786 billion on 1.01.2007, and $12.494 billion on 1.01.2008. Such a speedy growth of debts has caused the economy’s “warming up” greatly.

    As compared to the expected deficit figure, the received $0.5 billion and expected 0.5 billion of the Russian loan seem an insignificant drop. All the reserves available today could be spent for paying for the annual import.

    The yuans received from the bank of China under the swap agreement concluded on March 11 wont save the situation. China and Belarus’ currency swap is worth 20 billion yuan ($2.8 billion), and the Chinese side is to receive about (8 trillion Belarus ruble).

    Thus, if the negative tendencies in the external trade of Belarus won’t be overcome, in 2009 the country could lose almost all its reserves, and only yuan would be left.

  • Around the Region...

    U.S. warship enters Black Sea

    From: Ria Novosti
    The USS Klakring (FFG 42) frigate has entered the Black Sea, and is being closely monitored by Russia, the Russian Navy said on Friday.

    "The Black Sea Fleet is monitoring the movements of the US warship in the Black Sea," a Navy official told RIA Novosti, adding that the frigate was the first U.S. warship to enter the Black Sea this year.

    The vessel will call at the Bulgarian port of Varna, before visiting Ukraine's Sevastopol, and Batumi in Georgia. The Sevastopol city administration said earlier it had discussed measures to ensure the security of US seamen during their stay.

    Last November, the USS Mount Whitney arrived at Sevastopol, but cut short its visit amid protests.

    Locals in Ukraine's Crimea, which has a largely Russian-speaking population, frequently protest against visits by NATO ships.

    Ukraine's pro-Western leadership has been pursuing NATO membership since President Viktor Yushchenko came to power in 2004. However, regular opinion polls show that the majority of Ukrainians continue to oppose NATO membership.

    Lavrov: Russia unhappy with NATO security role

    From: IHT
    Russia is unhappy with NATO's dominant role in European security and its dealings with neighbors that used to be part of the Soviet Union, the Russian foreign minister said Saturday in Brussels.

    Sergey Lavrov said both the European Union and NATO were involved in unfair dealings with Russia's neighbors.

    On Friday, the EU promised a hefty program of aid trade and closer political ties to six former Soviet republics where Moscow retains influence — Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus.

    "Russian foreign policy is not about fear. It is about fairness," Lavrov said. "We see unfairness in dealing with our partners."

    Europe's security should be run by the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lavrov said during the annual Brussels Forum security conference. "We should give that a try."

    The idea has been repeatedly rejected in NATO capitals, which view the 56-member OSCE as unsuited for the task.

    Lavrov's reiterating Moscow's demand for a new security compact showed an enduring divide between Moscow and its former foes of the Cold War era — 20 years after the Iron Curtain came down.

    Lavrov said NATO should commit to "legally binding" security arrangements through the Vienna-based OSCE to cure what he called the alliance's appetite "for more and more scenarios" of unilateral actions.

    "NATO bombed Yugoslavia without any legal justification," Lavrov said. "This bothers us. NATO takes it upon itself to judge everyone and everything."

    After the Cold War, the EU and NATO took in a dozen East European nations that had been part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

    Javier Solana, the EU's security affairs chief — and a former NATO secretary general — said the NATO security arrangement whereby the United States is the key guarantor of European security "was a very intelligent setup."

    "If there is someone who doesn't feel comfortable, he has the right to say it," he said. "I think the Americans and the Europeans are ready to engage the Russians and make them comfortable."

    Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli, whose country fought a brief war against Russia in August, said the EU's announcement Friday of the "Eastern Partnership" program with the six former Soviet republics was "an important step forward (to create) stability and in the end prosperity for our region."

    Hungary's premier offers to resign

    From: IHT
    Hungary's prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, offered Saturday to resign so that a new government could lead the country out of the recent turmoil that has made it among the most troubled economies in Europe.

    Mr. Gyurcsany's announcement, at a meeting of his Socialist Party this weekend, surprised even seasoned political observers in Budapest, the capital, who were trying to sort out whether it was a serious resignation or a ploy by an unpopular politician to shore up his position in a time of crisis.

    Either way, the latest upheaval reinforced the sense of instability in a nation that was once a magnet for investment among former Communist countries and had fallen on hard times even before credit markets began to seize up and the world stumbled toward recession.

    "I hear that I am the obstacle to the cooperation required for changes, for a stable governing majority and the responsible behavior of the opposition," Reuters quoted Mr. Gyurcsany as saying at the party congress on Saturday. "If so, then I am eliminating this obstacle now. I propose that we form a new government under a new prime minister."

    Governments in both the small Baltic nation of Latvia and Iceland have fallen this winter as a result of the economic setbacks those countries faced, and Hungary appears poised to join them.

    Mr. Gyurcsany asked his party to come up with a new candidate for prime minister within the next two weeks, but said that he wished to remain the party's leader. There are no plans for new elections in Hungary.

    Agoston Samuel Mraz, director of the Perspective Institute, a research group in Budapest, said the result would most likely be a politically weak leader, with a term of office lasting barely a year before the next election. However, he did not rule out the possibility that Mr. Gyurcsany would ultimately remain in office.

    "If there is nobody who is ready to do this job, Mr. Gyurcsany will strengthen his position and he will be the winner," Mr. Mraz said. "I could imagine it."

    There is no clear successor waiting to take Mr. Gyurcsany's place. He and his Socialist Party have been criticized for raising taxes and cutting benefits to rein in the country's budget deficit. Mr. Gyurcsany has ruled in a minority government since the Free Democrats, who propose even deeper spending cuts and economic changes, quit the governing coalition last year.

    The ballooning budget deficit, which rose to 9.3 percent of the gross domestic product in 2006, left the country burdened with debt, roughly a third of which was in foreign currencies.

    As a result, Hungary was one of the hardest-hit countries as capital began to flee emerging markets last fall. The more money investors pulled out, the weaker the country's currency, the forint, became and the more expensive those debts were to repay. The government's problems played out in miniature, but no less painfully, for people who had taken out mortgages and car loans in euros and Swiss francs.

    In October, the country's government was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union for a $25 billion rescue package.

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Corruption trial around power plant insurance policy

    From: Polskie Radio
    Former MP, Aleskandra Jakubowska, of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), has been accused of taking over a million zloty (220,000 euro) in bribes in connection to insurance for the PGE Elektrownia Opole, a coal-based power station in southern Poland.

    The former politicians husband, Maciej, has also been accused of accepting around 500,000 zloty (110,000 euro) in bribes.

    The couple was to receive the money from the power station’s insurance firm in 2002 as they brokered a 10 million zloty (2.2 million euro) insurance deal with the company. The ‘brokering fee’ for the deal was to be 20 percent of the total insurance policy – half of the sum was to be funneled straight into Jakubowska’s bank account.

    The power plant was originally insured by a smaller company – Heros – whose director, Stanislawa Ch., left and took the insurance policy with him to PZU S.A., Poland’s largest insurance company. Jakubowska supported Stanislawa Ch.’s move and was to allegedly receive payment in return for supporting her candidacy to the position as head of the Opole division of PZU.

    Jakobowska faces 12 years in prison. Eighteen people related to the corruption case await trial, including Stanislawa Ch.

    Poles to weave Webb into tangled finale

    From: independant
    HOWARD WEBB probably doesn't look back on last year's European Championships with too many fond memories.

    The English whistler was demonised by millions of Poles after awarding a controversial stoppage-time penalty for a shirt-pull on an Austrian player in the tournament's opening game, which finished 1-1 and ultimately killed off Poland's quarter-final hopes.

    The Poles were unforgiving, with prime minister Donald Tusk admitting he wanted to kill Webb. One headline in the tabloids called him "an English thief" while there were even reports of death threats.

    However, Mr Webb could be on the verge of an amazing reconciliation as he has reportedly been asked to ref this year's Polish Cup final.

    The news has generated plenty of publicity for Poland's cup competition, which has seen dwindling attendances over the years. The head of the company which sponsors the cup admitted that "time heals wounds and this is a good time for a reconciliation".

    But it's not just about gaining publicity. Poland has had a major problem with corruption and match-fixing over the years and a current probe has led to 192 arrests of referees, players, coaches and club officials. Hence the desire to get a big, respected name for the final.

    England's top ref might want to give this one the red card.

    Polish Fritzl on trial

    From: The News
    A court in Bialystok, northern Poland, has heard charges read out against a man accused of imprisoning and raping his daughter, in a case dubbed “the Polish Fritzl”.

    The 45 year old man from Siedlce, eastern Poland, was arrested last September and charged with imprisoning his daughter for six years, raping her repeatedly and fathering two children who were immediately put up for adoption.

    The man’s wife was apparently aware of the imprisonment but was reportedly too afraid to do anything about it.

    The accused admits having sex with the daughter but claims that the act was consensual.

    The opening of the case comes the day after Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life imprisonment in a mental institution in Austria for similar charges.

    Kidney for sale on the internet

    From: Polskie Radio
    A Pole put his kidney and bone marrow up for auction on the internet, with a reserve price of 40,000 zlotys (some 9,000 euros) each.

    The seller wrote on Allegro, the Polish version of Ebay, that he intends to sell his kidney and bone marrow because he is in a difficult financial situation.

    The auction was to last for six days but the seller closed it on Sunday evening without stating the reason for cutting short the auction.

    This is not the first time human organs have been put up for sale on the internet in Poland. Kidney and bone marrow went on sale for 45,000 zlotys (some 10,000 euros) in total. It is possible that the same person is behind both controversial auctions.

    The two cases are currently being investigated by the police. Spokesman for the police chief Mariusz Sokolowski explained that placing such offers online is against Polish law. “Such a deed is punishable by a fine, and or a jail sentence,” he said.

    If found, the kidney seller could face even up to three years in prison.
    Note: How much for both kidneys?

  • Sport...

    Victoria Azarenka upsets Dinara Safina at Indian Wells

    From: LA Times
    Dinara Safina's quest to become the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world fell two matches short late Wednesday night, when she lost a three-set stunner, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 6-3, to 11th ranked, eighth-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.

    Russian Safina needed to beat Azarenka and fellow Russian Vera Zvonareva in the semifinals to displace Serena Williams at the top of the WTA rankings after this tournament.

    Serena, and her sister, Venus, are not playing in this tournament.

    Safina won a first set tiebreaker, then got run over by Azarenka, a 19-year-old who lives in Scottsdale. Azarenka won the second set, 6-1, and then rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the third to beat a shell-shocked Safina, 6-3. She got the third set back to 3-3, then broke Safina at love, served a love game of her own before breaking once more for the match.

    Safina and Azarenka have played three times previously, Safina winning all three.

    Bykov, Ivanets Best at Belarus Cup

    From: INTL Gymnast

    Artyom Bykov and Galina Ivanets won the Belarus Cup, which concluded Thursday in Minsk

    The event, which included guest gymnasts from Israel, Lithuania and Poland, served as a warmup for Belarus' seven competitors slated for the upcoming European Championships in Milan.

    Bykov topped Pavel Bulavsky and Dmitry Savitsky in the senior all-around in Minsk. Bykov, Bulavsky and Savitsky will compete in Milan, along with Dmitry Kasperovich, Denis Savenkov and Alexander Tsarevich.

    Kasperovich won the vault title, and Tsarevich won golds on parallel bars and high bar.

    The top four competitors in the senior women's all-around are technically juniors. Ivanets, silver medalist Anastasia Zaitseva, bronze medalist Lilia Khoang and fourth-place Olga Mokhovtsova were born in 1994.

    Fifth-place Alina Sotnikova, born in 1993, is the Belarusian women's lone entrant to the European Championships, April 2-5.

    In finals, Ivanets won gold on balance beam and floor exercise. Zaitseva won vault and Mokhovtsova won uneven bars.

    The junior women's all-around medalists were Valeria Sukhoverkhaya (1996), Anastasia Miklashevich (1996) and Yekaterina Fedutik (1997).

    The top three in the junior men's all-around were Vasily Mikhalitsin (1994), Vladislav Grib (1993) and Alexei Kushnerik (1994).
    For full results, click HERE

  • Endnote...

    Is Europe blackmailing Belarus?

    From: RT
    Will the EU allow Belarus to join its ‘Eastern Partnership’ program without any preconditions? Comments by some European officials suggest that may not be the case.

    Minsk, which is looking to join the European framework for cooperation with several ex-Soviet republics, may be quietly coerced not to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

    Even though a Belarus-Europe dialogue is progressing, as witnessed by Javier Solana’s visit to Minsk last week to meet with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, the question remains: will Belarus become a partner country in the EU's "Eastern Partnership" program? And if so, will Minsk be presented with a lengthy list of conditions by the Europeans?

    A tentative agreement was reached by the European ministers of foreign affairs on February 23. It states:

    "The Eastern Partnership is a multinational forum formed by the EU member states and six Eastern Europe and southern Caucasus states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. It is intended to facilitate the negotiation of free trade zones for services and agricultural products, as well as partnership agreements and visa agreements."

    In this paragraph, there is no mention of some strict criteria that Belarus must adhere to. However, previous documents carried the wording, "the level of Belarus’ participation in the EaP [Eastern Partnership] will depend on the overall development of EU-Belarus relations,"


    "the Commission has launched the "Eastern Partnership Initiative" to step up cooperation with Belarus subject to fulfillment by that country of specific criteria relating to democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law."

    However, Czech officials have already warned that the EU has not yet made any final decision on Belarus’ participation in the program. The EaP program must be approved by the EU Heads of State in March and adopted at an Eastern Partnership summit scheduled for May.

    Although the EU seems to have dropped the idea of demanding the fulfillment of some "democratic criteria" from Belarus, some high-ranking European officials have recently made very interesting comments. On Monday (February 23), the EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Benita-Ferrero Waldner said:

    "If Belarus recognizes it [Abkhazia and South Ossetia], that will kick our relations back to the previous position. So far this has not taken place yet, but if it does, it will be a retreat, and freeze our rapprochement."

    Karel Schwarzenberg, Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, followed lead:

    "It is natural that Belarus [has] a sovereign parliament and the parliament of Belarus has its own decision [to make], but if they would recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia it would create a very, very difficult situation for Belarus, because Belarus would be out of the European consensus."

    Belarusian fulcrum point

    Does this mean that Europe is blackmailing Belarus, coercing it not to recognize the two Caucasus republics in return for participation in the "European Partnership" South Ossetian officials are certain this is the case.

    After all, it is no secret that Minsk wants to be included into the partnership program because inclusion will give the Lukashenko government the most extensive and financed framework for dialogue with Europe. Moreover, the program offers direct cooperation between the regions of the EU and the partner countries, extended cross-border cooperation, as well as cooperation among partners on pilot regional development programs.

    These sorts of programs receive initial financing of at least euro 600 million. Needless to say, if Minsk becomes a partner country in the program, there will be many new ways for it to solve its current economic problems, which are mounting.

    As the global economic crisis shows no sign of abating, Minsk needs options. And Russia alone cannot save it.

    Across Belarus, many factories have already switched to a three-day work week and many have their warehouses packed to the rafters because demand inside the country and abroad has dropped since the crisis began.

    Belarus needs money to fix its foreign trade imbalance, and the loans from Russia and the IMF that Minsk managed to secure in the last several months are insufficient. The country needs at least $US 4 billion of clear profit annually (9% of Belarusian GDP). <

    Perhaps such a financial windfall is possible in a fairy tale, but not when we consider the reality of Belarus’ present condition.
    Moreover, by 2010 Minsk will have to pay off its loans from the International Monetary Fund (approx. $US 2.5 billion), as well as from Russia (around $US 2 billion), who is also getting slowly into the lending business.

    Of course a "European Partnership"is hardly a panacea under the circumstances, but it is definitely a chance to get some financing from Europe, to attract more investment, and find new markets for Belarusian enterprises.

    Belarus understands that it cannot go too far in its rapprochement with Europe because this will rattle Moscow.

    Lukashenko wants its westward maneuvers to look like a mutually beneficial move, under the bold assumption that “Europe at last realizes that it needs Belarus”.

    Such a tactic allows the Belarusian leadership to save face, as well as a way to calm Moscow's misgivings in the run-up to the 2010 presidential election.

    Neighbor Envy

    Europe is also displeased that Belarus continues to increase its cooperation with Russia. In February, for example, the two countries were quite close to creating a single currency, as well as signing a Constitutional Act.

    Although they eventually concentrated on purely military and economic cooperation instead, the prospect of further Belarus-Russia integration disturbs Brussels. So, in many ways, the Belarusian demand for an unconditional dialogue with Europe is meant to appease Moscow.

    In this context, Europe is playing the Abkhazia and South Ossetia card in broader terms of Belarus-Russia relations. However, we must assume that Europe will not be terribly concerned if Belarus decides to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

    Belarus joining the company of Nicaragua would not change the overall situation, or make the two Caucasian republics more independent. After all, last fall the European Union, despite Georgia's heated objections, invited official representatives of the two republics to Geneva for official talks on the situation in the Caucasus.

    It is highly likely that the Abkhazia and Ossetia issue is used by European policy-makers as a means to apply some pressure on Belarus and show that its "flirt" with Russia is not welcome in Brussels.

    The reaction by the Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry to comments by Benita-Ferrero Waldner and Karel Schwarzenberg was quite indicative:

    "Development of strategic partnership with Russia is the top priority task for Belarusian foreign policy" said the first deputy foreign minister of Belarus Igor Petrishchenko on Wednesday. That comment was directed at both Moscow and to Brussels.

    However, these verbal exchanges do not seem to influence the current situation in Belarus-Europe relations, at least until the Belarusian parliament has made a decision on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

    Europe wants Belarus to play a fair game, and if Minsk wants to get its partnership pass in Europe without conditions it should not lay down any conditions itself. The EU is not going to let Belarus use the EaP as an argument for bargaining with Russia and it seems determined to persist in its opinion.

    The strangest thing about all of this is that Russia does not seem to care. At least at the present moment.