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Posts tagged ‘Belarus’

The Cold War Was Only on Vacation.

The Crimea is lost. The challenge now is to avoid a wider conflict with a Russia bent on absorbing more territory and further extending its influence into Eastern Europe.

To avoid an eventual choice between feeding Russia’s appetite for its lost empire and a hot war, European and U.S. leaders must embrace expensive and politically tough economic and defense choices.

Save petroleum, aluminum and a few less significant products, the Russian economy is broadly uncompetitive in global markets. Oil and gas account for 75 percent of exports and 50 percent of Moscow’s revenues, and Russia depends on imports from the European Union for technology and many consumer goods. It even buys ships to modernize its navy from France.

U.S. and European economic sanctions on Russian political and military leaders responsible for the Crimean invasion would make a statement, but are unlikely to have any tangible impact on Vladimir Putin’s behavior. However, if the Europeans phase out purchases of Russia’s gas, it has few options to sell it elsewhere. Putin would be starved for cash to finance his military and spread benefits to political cronies.

Replacing Russian gas — which accounts for 30 percent of European supplies — won’t be cheap or pleasant. They must frack to develop shale gas, re-embrace nuclear power and accelerate solar and other alternatives.

For French shipbuilders, German equipment manufacturers and technology and consumer goods producers throughout Europe, cutting off Russia’s most important source of hard currency to buy what they make would be wrenching. Still, it would impose far more systemically destabilizing penalties on Russia.

More than Russian guns won the referendum in the Crimea for Putin. The sad state of the economy and political corruption in the Ukraine made the former Russian possession vulnerable to reacquisition.

To halt Russian expansion, the European Union must do much more to assimilate the Ukraine and other former Soviet states into the Western economy by building infrastructure and moving significantly more industry into these regions, buying a lot more of their exports and imposing aggressive conditions for economic and political reforms in exchange for those benefits.

All of this would be provocative to Moscow and require rebuilding NATO forces, and moving those further east into Romania, the Baltic and aggressively courting cooperation with Belarus.

The Germans and the Americans have the economic resources, but have demonstrated inadequate commitments to giving real meaning to the economic and security commitments the West made to Eastern Europe, for example, through the 1994 Ukrainian security agreement, at the end of the Cold War.

Now, Putin and his political allies, chastened by the loss of an empire and emboldened by Russia’s petroleum wealth, are exploiting western neglect of former Soviet states.

In America, President Obama’s economic policies have boiled down to raising taxes, cutting defense spending and building out a European-style welfare state — universal healthcare and broadening the earned income tax credit. And he has ducked pension and benefits reform that greatly limit the punch of the U.S. military.

Stiffening NATO commitments to Eastern Europe would require German and U.S. governments to step up and pay for stronger militaries, and for the Americans to reform a bloated Pentagon.

In Germany and the United States, taxes are already quite high, even by Cold War standards, and the obvious tradeoff between guns and butter would hit the Obama and Merkel governments where it hurts most — their standing with voters who have come to expect wider and wider welfare benefits.

The greatest courage will be required from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or each will bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.

Russia will enjoy a stranglehold over European energy supplies and boast a modernized military to gradually coop and reclaim former Soviet states and expand its influence throughout Europe.

The Cold War never really ended, it just took a Black Sea vacation.

© 2014 Moneynews. All rights reserved.


Rep. Mike Rogers: Probe Belarus Ties to Obamacare Site.

House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers has demanded an immediate security investigation of the Obamacare website after U.S. intelligence agencies warned it was vulnerable to cyber-attacks following a shocking disclosure that Belarus software developers helped build the system.

But U.S. health officials said late Tuesday that their investigation had found no evidence of any of software being written in the former Soviet republic, contrary to what had been reported.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said investigators for the Department of Health and Human Services had “found no indications that any software was developed in Belarus.”

Rogers, a Michigan Republican, called for the investigation when queried by the Washington Free Beacon on Monday, especially given that Cheryl Campbell, a CGI Federal executive, told Congress last year that had been developed solely in the United States.

We need an independent, thorough security evaluation of this site, and we need the commitment from the administration that the findings will be acknowledged and promptly addressed,” Rogers told the Free Beacon.

“I continue to call on HHS to shut down and properly stress-test the site to ensure that consumers are protected from potential security risks from across the globe.”, which covers 36 states lacking their own healthcare exchanges, has been plagued with technological and accessibility issues since the rollout of the Obamacare individual mandate in October. It has been taken down several times for repairs — and Capitol Hill legislators, both Republican and Democrat, have expressed concerns about the site’s security.

U.S. intelligence agencies had warned HHS to check for malicious software, the Free Beacon reports.

Hayden confirmed that a U.S. intelligence agency had recently issued, then retracted, a report related to possible involvement by a Belarus company in writing the software.

Intelligence officials said the spokeswoman was referring to a U.S. security agency’s report on an interview in which a Belarusian appeared to say that elements of the Obamacare website had been written by his organization.

In the interview with Radio Russia, dated June 25, 2013, Valery Tsepkalo, director of the government-backed High-Technology Park in Minsk, said: “One of our clients is the health ministry of the United States. We are being paid to help Obama with the healthcare reform.”

It was unclear from the interview exactly what work the company was doing and what U.S. entity it was working with.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, a section of the HHS that oversees much of Obamacare, issued a statement on Tuesday that did not directly address the possibility that software may have been written in Belarus.

“To date, there have been no successful security attacks on and no person or group has maliciously accessed personally identifiable information from the site,” the statement said.

It said the site complied with federal rules and that independent security contractors found no problems when they completed a “security control assessment” in December.

According to the Free Beacon’s report, an anonymous official was quoted as saying that “the U.S. Affordable Care Act software was written in part in Belarus by software developers under state control, and that makes the software a potential target for cyber-attacks.”

James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, said on Tuesday that he had no knowledge of the withdrawn intelligence report about Belarus when asked about it during a congressional hearing.

His spokesman, Shawn Turner, said in an email that it was “an Open Source Center daily update that was recalled because it failed to meet internal requirements for classification review,” Bloomberg News reports.

A U.S. official said intelligence officials were wary of widely circulating a summary based on uncorroborated media reporting that could cause serious concerns because it was not confident of its validity.

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© 2014 Newsmax. All rights reserved.
By Todd Beamon and Drew MacKenzie

Sudan violating sanctions with Darfur air strikes: U.N. panel.

  • UNAMID airlifts wounded civilians from the El Sireaf locality to El Fasher for medical treatment, in this handout photograph taken by UNAMID on February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Rania Abdulrahman/UNAMID/Handout

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – UNAMID airlifts wounded civilians from the El Sireaf locality to El Fasher for medical treatment, in this handout photograph taken by UNAMID on February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Rania Abdulrahma …more 

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Sudan’s government has violated U.N. sanctions on the Darfur region by carrying out air strikes and using aircraft from Belarus and Russia despite pledging not to in the vast arid area in the country’s west, U.N. experts say.

The U.N. Security Council‘s independent panel of experts – who monitor sanctions imposed on Darfur in 2005 – also said it was investigating whether Sudanese troops had violated the sanctions by using Iranian armored personnel carriers in Darfur.

Mainly African tribes in Darfur took up arms against the Khartoum government in 2003, complaining of political and economic marginalization. African Union peacekeepers were deployed in 2006 and replaced in 2008 by a joint AU-U.N. force.

In a report to the Security Council’s committee on Sudan, made public on Friday, the panel said Sudan violated a Security Council resolution and written pledges to Belarus and Russia to not use aircraft purchased from them in Darfur by carrying out “aerial bombardments and intimidating flights.”

“The panel received reliable information that the Sudanese armed forces had conducted several offensive military overflights and bombardments in Darfur using Antonov aircraft, Mi-24 attack helicopters, MiG-29 aircraft and Su-25 aircraft,” said the report, which covers most of 2012.

The panel said the Sudanese government told them that the aircraft “had only limited-scale use and were in conformity with the rights of a sovereign state” and that “it emphasized that it would never use, nor had it previously used, its Darfur-based aviation assets to target its own people.”

The arms embargo does not ban supplying military hardware, but countries must have a Sudan government guarantee that equipment and arms will not end up in Darfur.


The Security Council warned earlier this month that foreign military support such as spare parts, weapons systems and other materiel may be used in Darfur to support the aircraft deployed there in violation of Darfur sanctions.

The panel of experts report said that Sudan had started using a new weapons system – S-8 air-to-ground rockets – that Khartoum had purchased from Belarus in 2011 and promised not to use in Darfur in violation of the arms embargo.

“The panel observed many locations in the general area east of the Jebel Marra massif where remnants of these weapons are present,” the report said.

During a visit to Darfur in December 2012, the panel also said it saw an unfamiliar type of armored personnel carrier at a Sudanese armed forces position. It said research showed the vehicle appeared to be a Rakhsh, manufactured in Iran by the Shahid Kolah Dooz Industrial Complex.

“The presence of this vehicle in Darfur is quite possibly an embargo violation. The panel is making further inquiries,” the report said.

The panel saw Su-25 fighter jets – delivered to Sudan from Belarus between 2008 and 2010 – in Darfur, along with Mi-24 military attack helicopters bought from Russia in 2011. Russia and Belarus had both been given written pledges by Sudan that the aircraft would not be used in Darfur, the panel said.

Among several recommendations made by the panel, one was that states exporting military aircraftto Sudan “incorporate an electronic-tracking system … to ensure that they are not used in violation” of Darfur sanctions and that the exporting states report any violations.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)


By Michelle Nichols | Reuters

Russia clashes over energy with Belarus, Ukraine, EU.

  • Pipes are seen at a gas compressor station in the village of Boyarka, outside Kiev, December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Anatolii Stepanov

    Enlarge PhotoReuters/Reuters – Pipes are seen at a gas compressor station in the village of Boyarka, outside Kiev, December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Anatolii Stepanov

MINSK/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia plunged back into the disputes over energy with Ukraine and Belarus that have repeatedly disrupted oil and gas supplies to European Unioncountries, and it also termed EU energy policy as “uncivilized”.

Russia on Friday denied remarks by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko that it had agreed to increase its crude oil supplies to Minsk, vital for the Belarus economy, and said that it still intended to cut them next year.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Ukraine for failing to agree on a deal, in return for cheaper gas, under which it would lease its pipeline network to Moscow and the European Union.

Russia, the world’s top energy producer, supplies over a quarter of Europe’s gas and oil needs. Ukraine ships around two thirds of Europe’s imports of Siberian gas through pipelines across its territory, while Belarus is mainly responsible for oil deliveries

Clashes over energy pricing and pipeline transit with Ukraine and Belarus have led over the past decade to cuts or halts in Russian oil and gas supplies to Central and Western Europe. These have most often happened over the New Year, when Russia failed to agree on energy supply terms with the two countries.

The European Union has accused the Kremlin of using its energy might as a political tool, while Moscow has argued it wants its neighbors to pay fair prices promptly for energy.

On Friday, Belarussian state news agency BelTA quoted Lukashenko as saying Russia had agreed to increase oil supplies next year to 23 million tonnes (460,000 barrels per day) from 21.5 million this year.

“We have really agreed on the supply … We will get the oil without any issues,” he said.

Moscow was quick to deny the report, insisting it was offering 18.5 million tonnes, an effective cut in supplies.

“As of today, an agreement on supplies to Belarus in 2013 has not been signed,” Russia’s Energy ministry said in a statement. “The Russian side’s offer is supplying 18.5 million tonnes of oil. Supplies in the first quarter of 2013 will be based on the suggested volume.”

Russian oil is crucial for the economy of Belarus and is supplied free of Russia’s normally hefty export duties as Moscow seeks to keep the country within its political orbit.

Belarus has two large oil refineries that process Russian crude and export gasoline and diesel to the West.

The refining business earns vital hard currency, but Moscow has occasionally bridled over supply terms, part of a complex arrangement that also covers pipeline supplies of Russian oil and gas to Europe via Belarussian pipelines.

Belarus, which suffered from a balance-of-payments crisis in 2011, faces a foreign debt repayment crunch next year when about $3 billion of its liabilities fall due.


The stand-off with Belarus comes as Moscow is struggling to reach a deal with Ukraine over gas deliveries. Ukraine’s reluctance to strike a deal on its gas transit system led to the last-minute cancellation of a visit to Moscow by its President Viktor Yanukovich this week.

Although Moscow has regularly been at odds with both neighbors, it has never faced a situation of simultaneous cuts through both countries to Europe.

At the same time tensions between Moscow and the European Union have risen over economic, political and human rights issues.

Putin, in Brussels on Friday for a Russian-EU summit, said it was unacceptable that EU rules were applied retroactively. He was particularly referring to the Third Energy Package of EU legislation to create a single energy market and prevent those that dominate supply from also dominating distribution.

An EU antitrust case against Russia’s gas export monopoly Gazprom as well as EU attempts to diversify its energy suppliers away from Russia and legislation to encourage competition have angered Moscow.

“Of course the EU has the right to take any decisions, but … we are stunned by the fact that this decision is given retroactive force,” Putin told reporters in Brussels.

“It is an absolutely uncivilized decision.”

Russia presented the European Commission with new proposals on the legal status of its gas pipeline infrastructure to accommodate its export projects in Europe, Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters.

Russia has been seeking exemptions from EU regulation that would allow it to make full use of pipelines bringing gas to Europe by routes that skirt around Ukraine.

(Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk in Brussels; Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by Anthony Barker)


By Andrei Makhovsky and Vladimir Soldatkin | Reuters

Belarus leader relishes reputation as dictator.

MINSK (Reuters) – He is a pariah in the West, viewed suspiciously by Russia and loathed by opponents in exile or jail, but Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is relishing his notoriety as Europe’s last dictator.

After 18 years in power, the blunt, forceful and heavily built former state farm manager shows no sign of bowing to Western pressure to relax his grip on the former Soviet republic squeezed between Russia and the European Union.

Always defiant, often cantankerous and sometimes provocative, Lukashenko has added irony to his armory to deflect Western politicians’ criticism, touting their dictator tag as a badge of honor.

“I am the last and only dictator in Europe. Indeed there are none anywhere else in the world,” he told Reuters in a rare interview in the capital Minsk in which he repeatedly referred to himself as a dictator and to his rule as a dictatorship.

“You came here and looked at a living dictator. Where else would you see one? There is something in this. They say that even bad publicity is good publicity.”

Lukashenko’s words are delivered with a wry grin and a wave of his immense hands, and appear intended to taunt the critics whose calls for more economic and political freedom have gone largely unheeded since he first became president in 1994.

The 58-year-old leader does not tire of telling guests that Belarus is the geographical centre of Europe. But the country of 9.5 million does not share the same democratic values as its western neighbors.

Minsk’s broad thoroughfares are still lined with monolithic Soviet-era buildings. There are streets named after Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, though some may now boast smart Western shops, such as a showroom for Porsche cars and McDonald’s fast-food restaurants.

There is not a single opposition deputy in parliament. Lukashenko, if re-elected, can rule indefinitely following a referendum that allowed term limits to be lifted, and the opposition has been all but crushed into submission.

His strongest rival, Andrei Sannikov, once a deputy foreign minister, took political refuge in Britain last month after 16 months in prison in which he said prison staff tortured him and tried to get him to commit suicide.

Years of diplomatic spats with the West have left Belarus isolated, but a European Union travel and assets ban on people and companies associated with his government has had no obvious impact on Lukashenko’s policies.

He is promising to modernize the largely state-run economy and possibly one day build a party-based political system. But he scoffs at talk of rapid change or the possibility of upheaval like the “Arab Spring” that swept away Middle East leaders.

“There’s no point in comparing the policy of Belarus and the Middle East. A few people tried through social networking to make the situation explosive,” he said, referring to “silent” protests last year when opponents gathered in public places to applaud ironically.

“But nothing came of it. Nor will anything come of it. Every day we have changes here. There is no scope for revolutions coming to Belarus,” he said, sitting in an ornate armchair in a luxurious room with green carpets and a chandelier in his cavernous presidential residence.


In mid-2010, after signs Lukashenko was easing pressure on the political opposition, it seemed that Western governments might be ready to relax their harsh criticism of him.

But all that ended in December 2010 when, after he was voted in for a fourth consecutive term, riot police broke up rallies by tens of thousands of people against his re-election.

Several politicians who ran against him for office were detained by security forces, including Sannikov, and scores of opponents were picked up in their homes. The EU and the United States tightened sanctions on Lukashenko and his inner circle.

This week the Justice Ministry closed down the Minsk office of the human rights organization Viasna whose head Ales Beliatski is serving a four and a half jail term after a trial for tax evasion described as unfair by Amnesty International.

Lukashenko’s message to the West is one of defiance, coupled with a sense of seething injustice at being ostracized for not following Western-style policies.

“You (Europe) do not like the course Belarus is taking. You would like everything here to be sold off – in the interests of Russia or in the interests of Western companies,” he said, shifting forward in his chair and almost shouting as he denounced the West, his face coloring with anger.

“You do not like the fact that we have good relations with Russia. This is determined by our history. During the last war we fought together in the trenches against the Nazis. We saved you, Europe, from being slaves to your own Fuehrer.”

In a veiled threat to Europe to stop “choking” Belarus, he reminded Europe that it receives much of its oil and natural gas from Russia via pipelines that run through the country.

“Who needs these double-standards? Who needs instability in the heart of Europe? Not you, not us, not Russia. Let’s talk, we are people,” he said.

Lukashenko rejected Western charges of holding political prisoners, saying specific cases raised by the West relate to people who committed criminal offences.

Asked about alleged abuse of human rights, he waved the question to one side, saying he was the guarantor of the most important right – the right to live.

He seethes too as he recalls a pro-democracy stunt by a Swedish PR company in which hundreds of teddy bears were dropped from a light airplane over Belarus last July.

“You recently sent over a plane with humorous toys and this was a violation (of Belarus’s air space). And what if the military had opened fire and people had been killed?” he said.


Lukashenko has sought to foster an avuncular image and revels in the affectionate sobriquet of Bat’ka – meaning ‘father’ – in his dealings with ordinary people, many of whom tune in to his earthy way of handling problems.

He has kept the loyalty of industrial workers in big factories by awarding them pay rises when economic times get hard, even though critics say this has contributed to the country’s economic problems and rising debts.

Inflation in 2011 was 108 percent and, although it fell to 18 percent in the first 10 months of 2012, this is a coinless society where all banknotes and bills end in zeroes.

Belarus also has a $12-billion debt pile, a large amount for a country which Lukashenko says has an annual gross domestic product of about $60 billion.

Despite this, stability has been his by-word for two decades as he waged war on corruption and as neighboring Russia wilted under mafia-style crime, violence and sometimes political chaos.

“A simple nation put me in this chair. I have never moved away from my promises to people,” he said.

Dismissing any concern about economic instability after a parliamentary election in October, he blamed fluctuations in the value of the Belarussian rouble last month on opponents he often describes as a “fifth column”.

But the economy is a concern for many Belarussians.

“How can we live when there is a crisis every year?” said Andrei, 45, a Minsk resident who declined to give his last name.

An effective state security machine, still bearing the Soviet name of the KGB, ensures public protests against his rule are snuffed out fast. A statue to Soviet security police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky – long since removed in many former communist east European countries – stands opposite the KGB headquarters.

Lukashenko was the sole member of parliament in Belarus to oppose the agreement that preceded the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, and has been quoted as saying he regrets the country gave up its nuclear weapons.

Foreign observers have repeatedly refused to give elections in Belarus a clean bill of health.

Lukashenko dominates Belarus to such an extent that he feels comfortable admonishing even its sportsmen. Last month he rounded on Belarus’s sports bosses for the country’s “complete failure” at the 2012 London Olympics – 12 medals including two gold – and accused its soccer players of quaking in their boots before a 4-0 defeat to world champions Spain.


Despite his hostility to western Europe over criticism, he is wary of Belarus being drawn back in to Moscow’s orbit.

Lukashenko has long played Russia’s interests off against those of western Europe – but he has also gone to lengths to shut out large-scale Russian investment from an accessible market of potentially rich pickings for the Russian investor.

Despite their economic inter-dependency, and moves towards a customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, Moscow still shows signs of wariness about Lukashenko’s unpredictability and, Belarussian political analysts say, he and Putin do not enjoy a particularly warm relationship.

The balancing act appeared to tip in Russia’s favor last year, however, when it bailed Belarus out of a financial crisis.

Under the bailout package, Belarus made pledges to allow the privatization of some state companies that could interest Russian investors, and allowed the sale of the Beltransgas pipeline network supplying western Europe.

Lukashenko hopes for a new deal with the International Monetary Fund to help Belarus through an anticipated debt repayment crunch in 2013, if the international lender stops “playing politics”. The country has to find $1.6 billion in repayments to the IMF alone next year under an old program.

There is nothing in the constitution to stop Lukashenko seeking a fifth five-year term in 2015, or then a sixth.

But the president, who has two adult sons and an eight-year-old son, Kolya, who attends some official functions, denies he is grooming a successor.

“I am reproached for allegedly preparing my children, my eldest son as a successor. But I swear to you: I have never discussed this idea even with my family or with my sons. These are dreamed up by the Fifth Column in our country,” he said.

“I shan’t be holding on to this job for life. As soon as people decline my services, I’ll put my brief case under my arm and I’ll be off.”

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

(Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky)


By Timothy Heritage and Richard Balmforth | Reuters

Belarus elects entirely pro-government parliament.


MINSK, Belarus (AP) — International observers on Monday condemned a weekend vote in Belarus in which not a singleopposition politician won a parliament seat. The election looks set to deepen the former Soviet nation‘s diplomatic isolation.

Critics also said the 74.3 percent turnout reported Monday by the country’s Central Elections Commission chairman was way too high and indicated widespread fraud.

The main opposition parties, which were ignored by state-run media, boycotted the election to protest the detention of political prisoners and the ample opportunities for election fraud.

The vote filled parliament with representatives of the three parties that have backed the policies of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

“This election was not competitive from the start,” said Matteo Mecacci, leader of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “A free election depends on people being free to speak, organize and run for office, and we didn’t see that in this campaign.”

Belarus’ parliament has long been considered a rubber-stamp body for Lukashenko’s policies. He has ruled Belarus since 1994 and Western observers have criticized all recent elections there as undemocratic.

Local independent observers estimated the overall turnout as being almost 19 percent lower than the official 74.3 percent figure.

“Belarus gets ever closer to the worst standards of Soviet elections,” said Valentin Stefanovich, coordinator of the Rights Activists for Free Elections group.

At least 20 independent election observers were detained, according to rights activists.

Political analyst Leonid Zaiko said the way the elections were held highlighted Lukashenko’s desire to prepare for another beckoning economic crisis.

“He plans to control the situation with an iron fist. He has no time for any opposition, not on the street and certainly not in parliament,” Zaiko said.

Lukashenko’s landslide win in the 2010 presidential election triggered a mass street protest against election fraud that was brutally suppressed. Some of the 700 people arrested at that protest are still in jail, including presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich.

Opposition politicians have cautioned supporters to refrain from holding protest rallies this time.

The opposition had hoped to use this election to build support, but 33 of 35 candidates from theUnited Civil Party were barred from television, while the state-owned press refused to publish their election programs.

The United Civil Party and another leading opposition party, the Belarusian Popular Front, pulled their candidates off the ballot and urged voters not to show up at the polls a week before the election.

The United States and the European Union have imposed economic and travel sanctions on the Belarusian government over its crackdown on opposition groups and independent news media.

“The aim of giving President Lukashenko’s regime the appearance of democratic legitimacy has clearly failed,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. “In view of the glaring irregularities in these elections, it is clearly visible for everyone what Belarus is today: the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”

Westerwelle said Germany and its European partners would step up their efforts to push for the release of political prisoners and isolate Lukashenko and his regime.

EU foreign ministers hold talks in Brussels next month on political freedom in Belarus. They are expected to consider possible revisions to sanctions against the country aimed at more specifically targeting those in the leadership deemed responsible for the political crackdown.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule lamented that “the elections took place against the background of an overall climate of repression and intimidation” and described it as “yet another missed opportunity to conduct elections in line with international standards in Belarus.”


Geir Moulson in Berlin and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.


By YURAS KARMANAU | Associated Press

Amid opposition boycott, Belarus leader praises ‘boring and calm’ election.

Belarus opposition parties boycotted, urging people to go fishing instead of voting in parliamentary elections marred by intimidation and fraud. President Lukashenko called the move cowardly.

Belarussians voted for a new parliament Sunday in one of the mostempty and one-sided elections to be held in the former Soviet republic of about 10 million since the demise of the USSR.

The country’s two main opposition parties were boycotting the voting, citing fraud and impossible conditions for campaigning. About 40 candidates from small leftist parties are still in the running, but are given little chance.

Most Belarussian observers say the token parliament’s 110 seats will almost certainly be filled with loyalists of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus in an increasingly top-down and heavyhanded way for the past 18 years.

Think you know Europe? Take our geography quiz.

Mr. Lukashenko treated journalists to his usual colorful jibes after voting Sunday, with his 7-year-old son by his side, in Minsk.

“They are cowards who have nothing to say to their people,” he said, referring to the decision of theUnited Civic and Belarussian People‘s Front parties, and four smaller groups, to ask people to go fishing or mushroom-gathering rather than participate in a “rubber-stamping farce.”

Explaining their choice to pull out of the election, the United Civic party pointed out last week that 33 out of 35 of its candidates were barred from using their legally guaranteed television time, while no newspaper would publish the party program as required by law.

“Either we restore genuine elections of the president and parliament in Belarus, or it is better to cancel this imitation of democracy we are witnessing,” United Civic leader Anatol Lyabedzka told Radio Liberty last week.

They also argued that many key opposition leaders remain in prison, including almost all of the candidates who ran against Lukashenko in presidential polls that were won by Lukashenko in a deeply disputed landslide.


Since then, a crackdown against all forms of civil dissent has picked up in Belarus, including large-scale arrests of people who participate in hand-clapping flash mobs to protest Lukashenko’s tough rule, and harsh measures directed against anyone allegedly associated with a summer teddy-bear drop initiated by a Swedish group that hoped to mobilize the power of laughter against Belarus’s strongman.

“Every political race follows certain laws, and everyone knows that,” Lukashenko told journalists Sunday. “You’re a coward or a pseudo-politician if you don’t go all the way to the finish. If you have negative information, bring it up when the election is over. First you need to test your popularity and learn if people know you at all. Try and see if you should continue leading your party or give room for somebody else,” he added.

After the 2010 post-election crackdown, Belarus faced increased sanctions from a disappointedEuropean Union – which had promised better relations if there were fair presidential polls – and even a colder shoulder from its only ally, Russia.

Relations with Russia have improved, and Lukashenko told journalists that he hopes ties with Europe will get better as a result of Sunday’s voting.

“I have to hope for improvement. But we do not hold elections for the West, the real ‘author’ of the vote is the Belarussian nation,” Lukashenko told the Russian official RIA-Novosti news agency.

“If this time anyone criticizes and shows suspicion about the elections, then I do not know what other acts we could possibly pass…. Let them be jealous of our elections. Boring and calm elections – this is a bliss for our nation. We do not need revolutions, clashes or civic outrages,” he added.


By Fred Weir | Christian Science Monitor

Go fishing on election day, Belarus opposition urges people.

MINSK (Reuters) – Belarus’s two main opposition parties said they would boycott a parliamentary election next Sunday, denouncing it as a fake exercise and are calling on people to “go fishing or visit your parents” instead.

The poll for the 110-seat chamber takes place two years after police cracked down on street protests after a presidential election which installed hardline President Alexander Lukashenko for a fourth term in power.

Scores of opposition activists were arrested in the December 2010 unrest and many people, including several candidates who stood against Lukashenko, were handed prison terms.

“Honest people cannot take part in pseudo-elections to a fake parliament,” Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civic Party, said at a weekend rally at which the party announced it was withdrawing its 38 candidates from the election.

“I know I shall not be elected. And that is in no way because people will not vote for me,” said Grigoriy Kostusev, deputy head of the Belarussian People‘s Front, which also opted to pull its 31 candidates out of the poll.

The two parties appealed to voters to boycott the ballot which they said could not be considered democratic because opposition activists remained in jail. Human rights agencies say there are about 15 political prisoners in the former Soviet republic.

“Go fishing. Visit your parents. Have some coffee with your friends. Don’t take part in a farce,” Lebedko said.

Authorities reacted sharply to the boycott call. “Those who do not want to take part in the electionsand want to disrupt them have shown (by their action) that we need to perfect the law here. We need to make it much stricter. It seems that democracy is not to everybody’s liking,” Lidiya Yermoshina, head of the central election commission, told Belarus 1 television.

Lukashenko, a former Soviet state farm chief described as Europe’s last dictator by the last U.S. administration, has been in power for 18 years. Western monitoring agencies have not judged an election in Belarus free and fair since 1995.


There is no organized opposition in the parliament, which essentially rubber-stamps Lukashenko’s policy directives, and neither the United Civic Party nor the Belarussian People’s Front are represented. The election is expected to have little impact on the political scene.

Despite U.S. and EU sanctions, which prevent Lukashenko and his inner core of officials travelling to anywhere in the West, the small country of 9.5 million people has managed to weather a currency crisis which drained it of dollars and caused two big devaluations of the national currency.

This was largely thanks to Russia, which provided about $4.5 billion in loans and investments in exchange for access to industrial assets such as pipelines pumping Russian gas to Europe.

Senior opposition figures who have dropped out of sight following the government crackdown include Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister, and Vladimir Neklyayev who heads the Tell the Truth movement. Both of them ran against Lukashenko in 2010 and subsequently spent time in jail.

Despite television debates this time among candidates – a novelty in Belarus – election campaigning has been unusually listless, something conceded by the authorities.

“If the candidates were fake, then so was the political campaigning,” election commission secretary Nikolai Lazovik told Reuters. “There has been no effective competition, weakening the intensity of the political struggle,” he said.

Elena, a 34-year-old voter asked for her views on the forthcoming election, said: “Well, in principle I know we have elections … But nobody has come to me to ask for my support.”

Sociologist Oleg Manayev said: “There will be many who say that the elections were not democratic and open. But to expect that the outcome of these elections will be a factor in reviving political activity and bringing people out en masse on the square – that is not realistic.”

(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Pravin Char)


By Andrei Makhovsky | Reuters

Ecuador judge rejects extradition request for Belarusian, orders him freed immediately.

QUITO, Ecuador – A high court judge in Ecuador has rejected the extradition request for a formerfinancial crimes investigator from Belarus who has been jailed since June and ordered him freed immediately.

Judge Carlos Ramirez found Tuesday that the political refugee status granted Aliaksandr Barankov to be sound.

A court official notified The Associated Press of the judge’s order. The official was not authorized to be identified by name.

Barankov’s case drew attention after Ecuador granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange earlier this month.

The 30-year-old Barankov had argued he could be killed if sent back to his former Soviet bloc homeland, whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator.”

Barankov says he fled Belarus after unearthing high-level corruption involving relatives of Lukashenko.


By The Associated Press | Associated Press

Belarus sacks foreign minister after teddy bear row.


  • Belarussian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov answers reporters questions in Brussels, January 12, 2011, following a meeting with EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton. REUTERS/Thierry RogeBelarussian Foreign Minister Sergei …

MINSK (Reuters) – Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenkosacked his foreign minister on Monday, weeks after a diplomatic row with Sweden and the European Union over a pro-democracy stunt in which hundreds of teddy bears were airdropped over the country.

Lukashenko’s office, which announced the dismissal of Sergei Martynov, 59, who had held the post since 2003, did not provide any reasons for the decision. Lukashenko named 54-year-oldVladimir Makei, previously his chief-of-staff, as the country’s new foreign minister.

Earlier this month, Belarus expelled Sweden’s ambassador after a plane chartered by a Swedish public relations firm dropped about 800 toy bears over the authoritarian country in July, each carrying a message urging the former Soviet republic to show greater respect for human rights.

Lukashenko sacked two generals, including the head of air defense, and told the incoming border guards chief to use weapons if necessary to shoot down any future foreign intruders into Belarussian air space.

The move damaged already strained relations between Minsk and the European Union, which has long criticized Lukashenko’s policies and has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on him and other senior officials.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko has tolerated little dissent and routinely locked up political opponents, earning the title “Europe’s last dictator” from the U.S. administration of George W. Bush.

The latest wave of sanctions was triggered by his government’s crackdown on opposition after a December 2010 presidential election. Lukashenko won a fourth term in office at the time but faced large public protests and allegations of vote-rigging afterwards.

(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Andrew Osborn)



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