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Grateful Lukashenko Drops By

President Vladimir Putin offered warm support to visiting Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday as both leaders pointedly ignored criticism of Lukashenko's regime by the United States and the European Union a day earlier.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Thursday for political change in Belarus and said the country's 2006 presidential election offered "an excellent opportunity" for voters to have their say. She was speaking during a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Lukashenko told reporters on his arrival in Moscow that he had "no opinion" about Rice or her comments, adding, "At least she now knows where Belarus is."

At the start of their talks in the Kremlin, Putin told Lukashenko, "You are welcome here."

"Both in Russia and in Belarus, citizens must feel themselves equally confident and socially comfortable," Putin said during the televised part of their meeting.

In response, Lukashenko thanked Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who defended the Belarussian leader at the NATO summit.

"As president of Belarus, I want to thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, and comrade Sergei Lavrov for the huge support you are giving us at a difficult time for us in our history as a sovereign and independent nation," Lukashenko said.

"What Vladimir Vladimirovich said will decide the conceptual aspect of my fate," he added, Kommersant reported.

The latest demonstration of rapprochement between Minsk and Moscow came after Lavrov rejected Rice's criticisms of Lukashenko's authoritarian regime. Also speaking at the NATO summit, he rebuked Rice for her stance on Belarus, interpreting it as a readiness to support the removal of Lukashenko from outside.

"The democratic process and the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside," he said. Speaking in English, Lavrov also bluntly accused the West of wanting to foment "regime change" in Belarus.

EU security chief Javier Solana on Thursday backed Rice's criticisms of Lukashenko, telling the NATO summit that there was "no doubt that the time has come for change."

Rather than respond directly to the criticisms voiced by Rice and Solana, Putin and Lukashenko pledged to continue moving toward unifying their two nations, stressing the need to boost military, security and diplomatic cooperation, and set up mutual payment of pensions for each other's citizens.

Earlier last week, military officials tentatively agreed to set up a joint military communications and control system.

"We have to give further impetus to the development of the union," Lukashenko said.

The moves to build stronger ties between the two countries appeared to be an attempt to head off a possible revolt against Lukashenko similar to last year's Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine and the protests against that led to the ouster of Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze and Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akayev.

Talks between Putin and Lukashenko were followed by a session of the Russia-Belarus Security Council, which discussed measures to ease trade between the two countries, the proposed introduction of a common currency by 2006 and cooperation in the fuel and energy sectors.

Negotiations on a political union between the two countries, opened in 1996 under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, have been stalled for years, but the two countries have moved closer in recent months as the West has stepped up its criticism of Putin, calling his rule increasingly authoritarian.

But political analysts were skeptical about the chances of a Ukrainian-style revolution in Belarus anytime soon.

"Unlike in Ukraine and Georgia, there are no open splits in the Belarus political elite. Opposition to Lukashenko is external, which means that there is no one ready to take over power in the country quickly and smoothly," said Nikolai Petrov, a researcher with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Hardly anyone, including the West, wants serious destabilization in Belarus, he said, adding that by expelling international watchdogs from the country, Lukashenko had limited the ability of the West to intervene to help the opposition.

Also, Russia would be much more active in preventing regime change in Minsk than it was during the events in Tbilisi and Kiev, he said.

"Whatever opposition is in Belarus, it is outspokenly anti-Russian," Petrov said.

Since the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, the Kremlin has been on high alert against the possibility of pro-Moscow governments in the CIS being replaced by Western-oriented ones.

"Faced with the possibility of a Velvet Revolution, Minsk and Moscow have become staunch allies," said Sergei Mikheyev, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. "The Kremlin is interested in ensuring a smooth and quiet transfer of power to Putin's heir and does not want any new revolutions happening nearby."

In one way, Lukashenko has benefited from being regarded as a pariah in Europe, as it unties his hands in squashing dissent in Belarus, Mikheyev said.

Unlike the recently ousted regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, which have not called the army and police onto the streets, Lukashenko would not be afraid of using brute force against the opposition, Mikheyev said.

"After all, he has no reputation left to lose," he said.

(The Moscow Times 25.iv.05)

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