Belarus dreams of union with a wary Russia

President Lukashenko's reelection Sunday gets wan reaction in Moscow.

Those in the West calling for NATO expansion, take note: All is not what it seems on the eastern front.

Dreams in Minsk of cementing a Russia-Belarus "Slavic" union - designed in part in 1999 to thwart NATO's eastward march - may appear, on the surface, to have received a fresh boost.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a 75 percent landslide victory in presidential elections Sunday, though the US State Department says the result "cannot be recognized," and European monitors decried the vote as "not democratic."

The result means that the man often called the "last dictator in Europe" can spend another five years at the helm, trying to force his square-peg, Soviet-style socialist regime into Russia's increasingly market-oriented round hole.

But while Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first - and among the few - to call the Belarussian leader to wanly congratulate him on his "convincing victory," analysts say that Russia is embarrassed by its hard-line, isolated, and bankrupt neighbor, and that the Kremlin is applying a new pragmatism to ties.

"The majority in Russia say they want union, but they are not ready to pay any price," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama, an independent think tank in Moscow. "And Russian leaders haven't answered the question: Is it necessary to unite with Belarus?"

The answer is clear in Minsk, where Lukashenko portrays Belarus as indispensable to Russia's strategic aims. Why, he asked while campaigning last week, is Belarus under constant rhetorical attack in the West?

"Because Belarus has not allowed the West to create a hostile corridor around Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea," the president answered. Union is an historical imperative "for ages to come," he said: "We could not betray our ally, brother Russia."

Campaign television spots showed Lukashenko holding court with Mr. Putin, shaking hands, or hugging at summit meetings. And in the aftermath of his victory, Lukashenko publicly thanked Putin "for his support," though the Kremlin never explicitly voiced any.

Still, Lukashenko does have powerful friends. Political chiefs lined up to visit Belarus before the vote, from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

In a surprising vote of confidence, ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - whose perestroika policy of the 1980s sought to liberalize the type of totalitarian regime that Lukashenko is trying to solidify - welcomed the election result. He called Lukashenko "a person who thinks about the people and the country."

Russian newspapers reported incidents of election fraud, including one local electoral commission chief who ate a copy of the "final results" discovered by observers as voting began on Sunday. Still, official Russian observers signed off on the results, saying it was "impossible" to say the vote didn't meet international standards.

Nevertheless, Russia is applying a new economic yardstick to its ties, and wondering if the heavy annual subsidies from Moscow - in the form of everything from tax benefits to free natural gas - is worth it.

Strategically placed as the western anchor of Russia's current sphere of influence, Belarus can serve either as the limit of NATO's eastward expansion in Europe or as a Russian gateway to the West. The West has made clear that ending Belarus's current isolation will depend on its respect for democracy.

Belarus gas, road and rail lines make it a key corridor for energy and other Russian exports to Europe. Putin has been reexerting Moscow's influence over many former Soviet states, but has little will, or cash, to prop up economic basketcases like Belarus.

During a "working meeting" between Lukashenko and Putin in the Kremlin last April, there was little talk about the bold vision once put forward of two states merging with a common currency, a common leadership, and a 300,000-strong "military group."

Instead, the economics of Belarussian debt to Russia topped the agenda, and analysts reported a chill between the two leaders that buried memories of the back-slapping warmth Lukashenko shared with the previous Russian president, Boris Yeltsin.

"Russia feels sorry for Belarus, so it accepts more payments in barter. But sooner or later, Belarus will be forced to pay with money," says Paulyuk Bykowski, a journalist with the Belarussian Market newspaper in Minsk.

"All Belarus's neighbors--even Russia - are trying to join the World Trade Organization, and are building or living in an open market," Mr. Bykowski notes.

"Belarus is a buffer between Russia and the West, and Russia's reliable ally, so Putin realizes the military necessity [of union]," notes Anatoly Shoutov, an expert on former Soviet states at the Russian Foreign Ministry's diplomatic academy.

"But time works against this idea" because "radical" differences are widening, Mr. Shoutov says.

Already, 80 percent of former state assets have been privatized in Russia, while Lukashenko calls private businesses "lice-ridden fleas" and insists on strong state control of the economy.

Some observers, however, see similarities in the way the two leaders have cracked down on the press, and advocated "order and stability" at the expense of individual rights. But the overall goals are totally different, analysts say, with the Kremlin aiming for an integrated place in the world economy, and Belarus stepping back into a Soviet illusion.

Still, the Kremlin may have little choice but to deal with Lukashenko, and hope that the taint of doing so doesn't compromise its future influence in Belarus, after Lukashenko is gone.

"Without Russia's economic support, there would have already been a catastrophe [in Belarus], but unfortunately this supports Lukashenko as well," says Pavel Sheremet of Russia's state ORT television. "Russia's attitude to Lukashenko absolutely corresponds to that of American politicians toward some dictators," he says: "He may be a [thug], but he's our [thug]."

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