Belarus Dreams of Union with a Wary Russia ; President Lukashenko's Reelection Sunday Gets Wan Reaction in Moscow

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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. …