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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Europe Anxious About Belarus

MINSK, Belarus -- Saying that Europe was poised between "hope and fear" over the future of democracy in Belarus, a delegation from the European Parliament has severely criticized President Alexander Lukashenko's assault on his political opponents and threatened to withhold a team of observers for elections he is trying to orchestrate for the fall.

The election struggle puts the country of 10 million wedged between Russia and Poland at a critical junction. Lukashenko is seeking to restore the legitimacy of his government after he disbanded a democratically elected parliament in 1996, installed his own rump parliament and extended his term to 2001 in a referendum that was widely condemned as rigged

The opposition, which includes many leading figures who helped separate Belarus from the Soviet Union in 1991, is simply trying to remove Lukashenko by forcing him to submit to a fair election, which they say he will lose. And if he refuses to conduct such an election, several opposition leaders say they will carry on the battle as best they can.

Mikhail Chigir, who was Lukashenko's first prime minister before breaking with him over the 1996 dissolution of parliament, said Thursday that he intended to run for parliament this fall and for president next spring if Lukashenko would allow genuine elections.

"I am going to continue this struggle and I have no intention of stopping halfway," Chigir said after enduring eight months of imprisonment and a political trial that left him stripped of any right to run for office. He hopes that decision can be reversed by pressure from Russia, Europe and the United States.

Twice this spring, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk to protest Lukashenko's authoritarian rule.

"The goal is Lukashenko himself," said Pavel Zhuk, an independent newspaper editor whose publishing enterprises have twice been shut down. "I don't think it will end quietly. The pressure just keeps getting higher and higher. Something is going to happen. There will be an explosion."

The rebuke Thursday from the visiting Europeans, who have been trying to push Lukashenko into talks with the opposition to guarantee fair elections, comes as both the United States and Russian leaders are stepping up the pressure.

In Washington, the House of Representatives last month passed a nonbinding resolution condemning human rights violations and the suppression of democracy in Belarus. Several members of Congress are urging Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to meet with Belarussian opposition leaders. In Moscow, three prominent political figures, including former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the Yabloko party's leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, signed an appeal to Lukashenko this week to liberalize the election process by allowing opposition access to state-controlled news media and to election oversight. So far Lukashenko has refused to do both.

Instead of responding to his critics, Lukashenko flew to Moscow this week to meet President Vladimir Putin and the other leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States in their first summit meeting since Putin's election in March. In Moscow, the Belarussian leader indulged in his favorite sport of baiting NATO and the West, which he said feared a "strong competitor'' on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

For that reason, he said, "Belarus will do all it can to speed up integration with Russia rather than slow down."

"Belarus," he said, "will not turn away from our Russia f there is no other great nation in the world f I mean the Soviet entity."

In Minsk, as the European delegation arrived for meetings with political leaders, two opposition members were sentenced for political offenses related to their protest activities. In the past year, several of Lukashenko's opponents have been arrested, fled the country or disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

Jan Marinus Wiersma, president of the European Parliament's committee for relations with Belarus, said meetings with Lukashenko and his aides had yielded little sign that they had made any concessions in the talks on elections. In a preemptive move, Lukashenko sent 16 amendments to the electoral code of Belarus to the current parliament, whose legitimacy is in question, but none of the amendments give the opposition a role in the electoral process.