U.S. Aims to Pull Belarus out from Russia's Shadow; Struggles for 'Balance'

Article excerpt

Byline: Nicholas Kralev, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Bush administration is offering Belarus' authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, better relations, hoping that a strategic opportunity created by Russia's invasion of Georgia can help weaken his longtime alliance with Moscow.

U.S. officials insisted that they have not abandoned their policy of promoting democracy. But they conceded that they are struggling to find a balance in dealing with a government headed by a man known in Washington as Europe's last dictator.

Leaders and populations in the region should look at the events in Georgia through the prism of their own national interests, one administration official said, adding that Russian intentions also should be viewed through that prism. He asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Washington has made clear that Georgia made a mistake by attacking the breakaway province of South Ossetia on Aug. 7. At the same time, it has criticized Moscow's response as disproportionate and heavy-handed.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides have been assessing the impact of Russia's newly demonstrated power on other former Soviet republics, and ultimately on U.S. and other

Western interests in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Latin America, officials said.

In Belarus' case, they said, it is time to point out to Mr. Lukashenko that his country's interests may be better served by stepping out of Moscow's shadow.

The Belarusian government has suggested that it seeks a different way forward with Europe and the U.S. after Russia's invasion of Georgia, a senior State Department official said. We want them to understand that this is possible, but they also have to take some steps.

The Sept. 28 parliamentary elections in Belarus were therefore all the more disappointing, the official said.

The elections put Washington in an awkward position. It agreed with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the vote, in which no opposition candidate won a seat in parliament, failed to meet international standards. But its criticism was much more tempered than in the past.

We'd obviously like to see democracy in that region, State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters last week. "We obviously want the government [in Belarus] to take steps in a number of areas. ... But we also know that we have to work with this government, and

we want to try to get it on the right path"

In private, officials said there was a deliberate change of tone toward Belarus. …