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West threatens more sanctions as Belarus hits opposition with tough sentences

President Alexander Lukashenko may face further isolation after a Belarusian court sentenced a former presidential candidate to five years in prison and put his wife on probation. Moscow may help economically, but on tough terms.

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"At least Irina will be able to live at home, but she'll be under a tight regime of regulations. If she violates any of them, she'll be sent straight to prison," Ms. Kalip says of her daughter's sentence.

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Putin visit targets financial aid

Mr. Putin is due in Minsk Thursday to discuss limited financial relief from Moscow. But last week, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin announced that Moscow will not fund a planned $3-billion stabilization fund for Belarus, and the amount still on the table is just $1 billion from the Russian-dominated EuroAsian Economic Community, far short of the $6 billion that experts estimate is needed.

"Lukashenko must realize that his only hope is Russia at this point," says Alexei Vlasov, a post-Soviet expert at Moscow State University. "These awful prison sentences against his opposition pretty much rule out any hope of coming to terms with the West."

The Belarusian ruble, pegged by the National Bank at 3,037 to the US dollar, has virtually collapsed since last week, and was reported to be trading at 6,500 to the dollar on unofficial exchanges Monday.

"For the average Belarusian, this is a catastrophe. At the beginning of this year, his or her salary was the equivalent of $500, but by last week it had slid to just $360," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, an economist and former presidential candidate for the liberal United Civil Party. "Hundreds of businesses have been forced to close and official statistics suggest over 600,000 workers have already been laid off due to the currency crisis. Even if Lukashenko gets the $1-billion loan the Russians are talking about, it will be far too little to pull the country out of this dive."

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While the Kremlin is far less sensitive than Western countries to the human rights allegations against Lukashenko, Russian leaders have been losing patience with the erratic Belarussian leader for some time over his refusal to back Moscow's political initiatives and open Belarus's economy to Russian investment.

"Russia is still working with Belarus, and has no interest in driving it into bankruptcy," says Konstantin Zatulin, a Duma deputy and head of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States. "But Lukashenko might take some steps to help himself. Right now, there is excessive control over Belarus's economy, and he might introduce some measure of privatization and economic liberalization. That would require a very different policy from the one he is pursuing."

Mr. Romanchuk suggests that Putin will probably make Lukashenko the proverbial "offer he can't refuse."

"Russian intentions are perfectly clear," he says. "They will urge Lukashenko to sell off state assets – which will be bought by Russian investors – break down barriers to Russian goods on the Belarusian market, and liberalize his economy in ways that will benefit Russia. Lukashenko has very few options, and none of them are good."

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