Sunday, December 06, 2009
Berlusconi To Belarus, Say What?
It was a visit that hovered below the media radar, but a biggy, nonetheless.
For the first time in fifteen years, a Western European leader has visited Belarus, referred to as Europe's last dictatorship due to Alexander Lukashenko's heavyhanded rule.
The European official to break the diplomatic boycott of the former Kolhoz director's country? None other than Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.
Birds of a feather....
Anyway, the three-hour visit to Minsk on Nov. 30 was filled with its moments of backslapping and smiles.
Berlusconi said Lukashenko was "loved" by his people. The elections, many say rigged or seriously flawed, prove that, opined Berlusconi.
Belarus opposition leader, Anatoly Lebebko, doesn't share that love.
"Berlusconi is a colourful politician. He resembles Lukashenko, he has a spirit of political adventure," Lebedko told AFP.
"He is coming to Belarus as a businessman. For him, everything is for sale at a price, even if this requires him to sacrifice European values."
The Italian firm Finmeccanica is eager to invest in Belarus.
Italian businessmen are casting their eyes beyond backwater Belarus.
It is worth saying that Italian businessmen coming to Belarus count not only on the tiny 9.8 million people in the Belarusian market. They also go for the 170 million joint market of the Customs Union approved by Presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia just three days before Berlusconi’s visit.
Lukashenko is no wide-eyed fool, however, and had his own motives, beyond the economic ones, for welcoming Berlusconi.
Alexei Korol, editor of the independent news weekly Novy Chas, said Berlusconi's visit would in particular strengthen Lukashenko's hand in managing relations with the Kremlin.
"This will make it clear that Russia is not Belarus' only political ally," Korol said.
The IMF doesn't find the Belarus leader so icky.
The folks at the IMF think enough of his "planning skills" they forked over $700 million in loans to the Belarus dictator.
Publically Brussels and Washington may wince at the mention of Lukashenko's name, but they are more and more willing to exploit the Belarus strongman's tense ties with Moscow to pull this small country out of Russia's orbit.
For now, Lukashenko will play one off the other. Stuck in the middle are the people of Belarus.