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.

Julia Darashkevich/Reuters
Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov stands in a guarded cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, May 14. Sannikov, one of President Alexander Lukashenko's main political opponents, was sentenced on Saturday to five years in jail on a charge linked to a rally last December against the leader's re-election.

The US and European Union are threatening stepped-up sanctions against the increasingly isolated regime of Alexander Lukashenko after a Belarusian court sentenced a former presidential candidate to five years in prison Saturday and handed his wife a two-year suspended sentence Monday, in what Western governments are calling a wave of politically-motivated repression.

More sanctions would seem to be the last thing Belarus's tanking economy needs right now. The battered Belarusian ruble has lost more than 50 percent of its value since Russia unexpectedly declined to back a $3-billion bailout for Belarus last week, leading to massive price hikes for struggling consumers and hundreds of business closures around the country, experts say.

Mr. Lukashenko blamed his political opponents for an April terrorist attack that killed 14 people in a Minsk subway station, and ordered a wider crackdown on civil society activists and independent media, leaving little hope of reconciliation with Western governments and global financial institutions.

Moscow, which has continued to do business with Lukashenko, might yet throw its erstwhile ally a slender lifeline when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Minsk on Thursday, but Russia is likely to demand a very high economic and political price for any aid, analysts say.

Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and runner-up in disputed December polls overwhelmingly won by Lukashenko, was one of 700 people, including seven presidential contenders, subsequently arrested and charged with organizing election night protests against alleged vote-rigging. His wife, independent journalist Irina Khalip, was finally freed from detention Monday after being sentenced to two years' probation for taking part in the rally. Four other presidential candidates, and scores of other opposition activists, remain on trial.

"The United States condemns the conviction of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and other democratic activists in Belarus," acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Saturday. "We consider the five presidential candidates ... and other activists, who are being tried after being arrested as part of the crackdown related to the December 19 presidential elections, to be political prisoners."

The EU said in a statement that it would immediately "consider new restrictive measures [sanctions] in all areas of cooperation," in addition to those leveled against Belarus after the crackdown began in December.

Mr. Sannikov's mother-in-law, Lutsina Khalip, says she is stunned by the harshness of punishments meted out to him and her daughter. "They are trying to destroy our family – it's sheer vindictiveness," she said by telephone from Minsk Monday.

For the past five months, she says, two agents of the KGB security service have been stationed around the clock outside her tiny apartment, and all her movements have been scrutinized. At one point, authorities threatened to take the couple's 4-year-old son, Danil, away from her on grounds that she was not "competent" to care for him, but desisted after an international outcry.

"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.

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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