MINSK, May 13 (Reuters) - President Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday he hoped a parliamentary election in September would deliver some seats to the opposition to disarm Western criticism of human rights in former Soviet Belarus.
In an interview with Reuters, Lukashenko warned the European Union against joining the United States in imposing economic sanctions and reminded the bloc that Belarus was a transit country for Russian oil and gas exports to Europe.
The United States and European Union accuse Lukashenko of rigging the presidential election in 2006 and have imposed a travel ban on him and other top officials. The jailing of opposition politician Alexander Kozulin has further strained relations with Washington and triggered U.S. economic sanctions. “I would like for at least a few opposition figures to win support so that you cannot accuse us of not having an opposition in parliament. But that will depend on the people. People who deserve it will get into parliament,” Lukashenko said.
The opposition currently has no seats in parliament.
Lukashenko said his opponents had minimal support in the country and were more interested in winning friends and funding in the West than in putting their case to voters.
Washington and the European Union say Lukashenko denies basic freedoms by preventing opposition rallies, rounding up his opponents on minor charges and muzzling independent media.
The president in recent months ordered the release of five detainees seen in the West as political prisoners but two activists were jailed last month. Kozulin remains the most prominent prisoner, serving a 5-1/2 year sentence for helping stage demonstrations after Lukashenko was reelected. Pressing for Kozulin’s release, the United States last year put sanctions on oil firm Beleneftekhim which accounts for one fifth of Belarus’ foreign currency earnings.
In March, Washington made clear the sanctions also applied to majority-owned subsidiaries. In retaliation, Belarus urged the U.S. ambassador to leave and ejected most embassy staff.
“Why do we need diplomatic relations if it means putting pressure on us? We don’t. If the Americans think they can build relations from a position of strength, then we don’t need such diplomats or relations,” Lukashenko said.
He warned the European Union against taking the same route.
“And now they want the Europeans to join in....You can if you wish. But don’t forget that 50 percent of your oil and oil products and 30 percent of your gas passes through Belarus and we have always been an effective partner.”
He accused the United States of operating double standards. If Belarus had vast oil reserves, the United States would seek it out as a friend on an equal footing with Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t think there is any more democracy there than in Belarus. But Saudi Arabia is the Americans’ best friend.”
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, remains broadly popular in Belarus, a country of almost 10 million in the centre of Europe.
Unlike its neighbours Ukraine to the south and Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to the west, many in Belarus approve his notion of strong government. Its economy retains characteristics of the Soviet system of stte control and is slow to open to foreign investors.
The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other analysts have said Belarus’s economy is at risk from Russia’s plan to hike the price of oil and gas supplies to its neighbours in order to bring them into line with world markets.
For years heavily subsidised Russian energy has powered Belarussian industry and been a major foreign currency earner. Belarussian refineries turned cheap Russian oil into gasoline, diesel and heating oil for export to Europe.
In terms of economic growth, Belarus has outstripped other former Soviet states. This year Belarus is projecting growth of 10-11 percent versus 6.8 percent in Ukraine.
Lukashenko expressed confidence the economy would continue to expand and inflation would remain in check.
“The increase in the cost of energy imports is important, but not as important as in Britain. This year inflation will be a little higher but it is not damaging or critical for our economy. It is lower than in neighbouring countries. Instead of three percent we are seeing five percent.”
He relished the prospect of running for another term as president. A referendum in 2004 changed the constitution to remove any limit on the number of terms a president can serve.
“If the situation remains as it is today in the country and for me personally then, of course, I will run again,” he said.
“For the moment, I am healthy. The people are not especially critical of me and the West is beginning to understand... So you can expect the worst.” (Minsk newsroom, +375 17 2281278)