By LUKE ALLNUTT
Something strange is happening in Belarus. In recent weeks, most of the country's political prisoners have been released in what authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has described as a "goodwill gesture." He also recently gave the European Commission the go-ahead to set up a branch in Minsk. This is an unprecedented opportunity for the West -- and in particular the European Union -- to engage Belarus.
Make no mistake: There is no real "goodwill" here. Rather, President Lukashenko is well aware that the West won't open relations with Belarus unless he releases the dissidents -- the politicians, journalists and youth activists who dared to disagree with his cuckoo economic policies and heavy-handed police tactics. And Mr. Lukashenko is now in desperate need of new friends.
The president's popularity depends on economic stability. With the help of heavily subsidized Russian gas, Belarus managed to avoid economic shock therapy throughout the 1990s. Look east to Russia, the president used to say, and see how your former comrades are suffering as a result of economic reforms. Take comfort in your run-down collective farms and cheap bread.
But ever since Russia doubled the amount Belarus has to pay for natural gas in 2007 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters from $46 per 1,000 cubic meters, Mr. Lukashenko's position has become far more precarious. Although Russia is still a benefactor -- in December, Moscow approved a $1.5 billion loan for Belarus -- it is a more prudent and less benevolent one. Mr. Lukashenko complained recently that Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, had threatened to double once again the price Belarus pays for natural gas.
So Mr. Lukashenko's change of heart is certainly tactical. But that change could still become permanent if the West prods him along while keeping in mind his record of erratic overtures and attempts to play Russia and the West off one another.
Western institutions should insist that their demands be met. For starters, that means releasing Alexander Kozulin, who after running for president in 2006 was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for staging antigovernment protests. (After going on hunger strike, and amid stout pressure from the West, Mr. Kozulin was released for three days to attend his wife's Feb. 27 funeral.) Mr. Lukashenko must also vow to put an end to the repression of dissenters, release all political prisoners, stop clamping down on media and NGOs, and hold free and fair elections.
Already back in 2006 the EU offered to ease restrictions if Mr. Lukasheno complied with these demands. Brussels would then make travel to EU countries easier for Belarusan citizens, increase trade cooperation and offer Belarusan students scholarships at European universities. As a further incentive for reforms, the West may want to rethink its policy of sanctions and travel bans on senior officials. In the end, the West may have little choice but to work with Mr. Lukashenko. With its woeful, fractious opposition, Belarus is not a candidate for a "color revolution" a la Ukraine or Georgia. A young and healthy leader, Mr. Lukashenko is relatively popular at home, particularly outside urban centers. Like other parts of postcommunist Europe, Belarus is a land of political chameleons and short memories; a reform-minded Lukashenko is less impossible than it might seem.
Belarus has always been something of an oddity for Western policy makers. There are no ethnic conflicts to pull on the heart strings, and it has decrepit refrigerator and tractor factories instead of oil and gas. But the country is still important. Twenty percent of the EU's gas imports from Russia go through Belarus. And with the Kremlin happy to play energy politics, sometimes turning off its neighbors' gas -- or at least reducing the flow, as Gazprom has done twice in recent weeks to Ukraine -- the EU needs stable and friendly transit countries on its borders.
But there is also a strong moral imperative for engaging, rather than isolating, Mr. Lukashenko. More than ever, Russia is setting the tone in the former Soviet Union, and its message is unhelpful to the people of the region. Whereas the West, trumpeting the virtues of civil society, democracy and the rule of law, once was seen as a beacon, now Russia, with its message of criminal capitalism, misuse of state resources and gross rights violations, is increasingly becoming a working model for many of its neighbors. Moscow has no interest in a more open Belarus. And beyond empty pan-Slavic rhetoric or the occasional dalliance with the idea of a Russia-Belarus union, the Kremlin likewise has no regard for the welfare of the Belarusan people.
If the Lukashenko regime is serious about opening up to the West and attracting foreign investment, political reforms will be unavoidable. Without secure property rights, a well-functioning judiciary and an end to corruption, foreign money is unlikely to pour into Belarus. And President Lukashenko seems to realize this. In another step in the right direction, he rescinded Tuesday the "golden share" rule with which the state could control private companies. Western engagement can ensure that more such steps will follow.