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Frictions Emerge Between Belarus and Russia

Russia has praised recent parliamentary elections in Belarus while international observers criticized the balloting. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the relationship between Moscow and Minsk.

Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said the September 28 parliamentary elections were conducted in line with his country's laws and were an important step towards democracy. But observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said they fell significantly short of international standards.

One-hundred-ten seats were at stake with 78 opposition candidates appearing on the ballot. But when the final tally was counted, not a single candidate opposed to president Lukashenko won a seat.

Russia, Belarus' staunchest ally, defended the election results while criticizing the OSCE assessment.

Robert Legvold from Columbia University, says Mr. Lukashenko is very much dependent on Russia.

"He is dependent on it economically," he said. "He is dependent on it for political and diplomatic support. Each time he holds an election that is not recognized on the outside, the Russians sign off on it. He knows that and indeed the opposition in Belarus knows that in the long-run, the relationship with Russia remains close.

But analysts such as Legvold see cracks emerging in the Minsk-Moscow relationship.

"There have been frictions over energy because he sees the Russians as having been heavy-handed," he said. "The most recent episode of that was last fall, when [Russia's state gas monopoly] Gazprom threatened to cut gas deliveries by half, if the Belarussians did not pay the debt that that they have accumulated for the last six months supply about half a billion dollars. And he was forced to pay that."

In addition, Russia has increased energy prices for Belarus as it has done for other customers, such as Ukraine. Moscow says it wants to end subsidized gas prices and gradually bring them to world market levels.

David Marples from the University of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada says Belarus is trying to become less dependent on Russia for its energy supplies but that will take time.

"Belarus has announced the development of its own nuclear power station over the past year, in an effort to offset reliance on Russia for imports of energy," he said. "It is a long term solution and nothing is likely to be operational until 2017 and even that might be an optimistic prognosis. But in the long term, you can tell that Lukashenko would like to be more independent of Russia and have more freedom of maneuver."

Analysts point to another source of disagreement between Moscow and Minsk and that is Mr. Lukashenko's reaction to Russia's brief war with Georgia in August over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"Belarus was facing a situation where Russia was putting intense pressure on it to support its moves against Georgia," said David Marples. "And Belarus, for whatever reason - it is hard to read Lukashenko's mind - not only did not really support this campaign of Russia, but it has not recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states - despite Russia not only wanting Belarus to do this, but even announcing that Belarus was about to do this."

"So in that respect, Lukashenko defied Russia and I think this kind of symbolizes his ongoing disputes with prime minister [Vladimir] Putin and also suggests that his relationship with [president Dmitri] Medvedev is not very good either," he added.

Analysts say frictions between Minsk and Moscow could eventually pave the way for better relations between Belarus and the West, especially the European Union. Experts point out that president Lukashenko has taken positive steps this year, such as gradually releasing all political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin - a key demand from the West.

But analysts also say Mr. Lukashenko must take other important steps such as allowing free and fair elections before serious discussions with the West can take place. And they say Mr. Lukashenko must be very careful not to take steps that would alienate Russia, which still remains Belarus' closest ally.