BELARUS: WHICH WAY FORWARD FOR WESTERN POLICY?
"That Alexander Lukashenko would be re-elected to a fourth term as president of Belarus on December 19 was never in doubt. Such is his popularity—and so strong is his control of the media and the political system—that he would likely have won even without the manipulations that heavily skewed the campaign against his fractious opposition....
This presents a problem for Europe. Belarus had been accepted into the Eastern Partnership on the basis of promises of political liberalization, in turn for closer political, trade, and visa cooperation, but against the advice of human rights organizations and Belarusian opposition leaders, who argued that Lukashenko’s promises could not be trusted. Brussels (and member state capitals) now face the uncomfortable choice of allowing Belarus to remain in the partnership—and thus eviscerating its democratization agenda—or booting it out, raising questions about further participation of other less-than-democratic members, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This is also a problem for Russia’s leadership. In the short run, of course, Lukashenko will inevitably turn to Moscow for solace and may become more pliant on issues of trade, energy, and even possible recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But sheltering Lukashenko will not help Russia’s own relationship with Europe and the United States. Even more troubling, as Russia’s ruling tandem face their own upcoming elections, they will not be heartened by Lukashenko’s failure to maintain a stable balance between tight control and international legitimacy.
In the end, though, this is a problem for Lukashenko. A master at balancing, he remains standing and will, in all likelihood, serve out his five-year term. But he has never before faced a set of circumstances this challenging: an opposition clearly capable of mass mobilization, on the one hand, and international partners in Europe and Russia that are growing tired of paying increasing costs so he can maintain the status quo on the other. Lukashenko’s fourth term will inevitably bring change to Belarus, but with his room to maneuver rapidly running out, the president may find that he is no longer fully in control". 1
'“The UK Government has extremely serious concerns about the conduct of the Belarus Presidential election and the reports that the Belarusian authorities responded with excessive and apparently coordinated violence. Seven Presidential Candidates and over six hundred protesters were reported to have been arrested on the day of the election.
“I understand that the conditions in which detainees are being held are utterly unacceptable and designed to punish and intimidate. I am also extremely concerned at what appear to be forced recantations, broadcast on Belarusian state media, reminiscent of the show trials of a previous era.
“I therefore call on the Belarusian authorities to release immediately all those detained for politically motivated reasons as a matter of urgency. In particular, I call on the Belarusian authorities to make known the whereabouts of the opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyaev who was forcibly removed from intensive care in the early hours of Monday morning and whose location and wellbeing are still unknown.
“I urge the Belarusian authorities to ensure that all detainees are given access to adequate medical care and legal representation, and call on President Lukashenko and his government to engage in a dialogue with political parties, NGOs and civil society with a view to allowing them to fulfil their natural role in a democratic society."' 2
"Belarus is really the last dictatorship in the center of Europe, and it's time for a change in Belarus." 3
It would appear that tovarish Lukashenko has committed what the British call an 'own goal', in the way that he managed the Presidential election in Belarus. Originally, it was supposed to be his stepping stone to get back into the good graces of the European Union (and to a lesser extent the USA). Make no mistake: he was not supposed to 'lose' the elections, the way that say Kuchima's candidate (Yanukovych) lost the elections (if one properly tabulated all the ballots) back in 2004 in Ukraine. What was supposed to occur, was that Lukashenko's victory was meant to be seen as plausible or at worst, semi-plausible exercise, and a sort of political semi-thaw. Instead, for reasons which are not entirely clear, Lukashenko lost control of the situation and events quickly got out of the control of the authorities on the ground in Minsk. The upshot being that now Lukashenko is forced to go back to square one (AKA full blooded repression), which diplomatically speaking leaves him very much in Moskva's corner. A state of affairs which both Minsk and Moskva have not been very happy with for close to half a dozen years now. In the case of the former: Lukashenko apparently has a need to be one of those 'puppets who pull their own strings'. Id est in reality not a puppet at all. In the case of Moskva: that Lukashenko was not, strictly speaking, paying this way. His favors diplomatically speaking to Moskva were diminishing in value, while the cost of subsidizing his regime were not. Hence the near constant conflicts between the two sides in the past few years. Particularly over energy supplies and payments for the same.
Ideally of course, Belarus is as close to being a 'natural' ally that Moskva could imagine, based upon all of the usual variables: nationality, history, proximity, religion, culture, economics, et cetera. It is evidence of the bankruptcy (or should we say more politely 'second-rate' nature) of Russian foreign policy in the Putin era, that this is not the case. And under normal circumstances, Moskva should be tasked with the job of dragging Minsk from the less than ideal circumstances that it finds itself. Yet given the overall deficiencies of Moskva's own regime, it is rather difficult to imagine that Russia could anytime soon, provide a model or even much in the way of concrete assistance to Minsk to allow the latter to engage in a programme of modernization. Either politically or even economically. With all that being said, that leaves the European Union as the only power who could possibly assist Minsk in a big way to modernize. And as the Financial Times recently pointed out, but for the presence of its President, it is quite likely that Minsk would be well on the way to European Union membership 4. Unfortunately, as the recent events have shown, this is quite impossible as long as tovarish Lukashenko remains in power. And make no mistake, whatever pour parlers the regime in Minsk may commit itself to verbally, the fact of the matter is, that Lukashenko will never voluntarily give up power if he can help it. Which means that any positive European Union involvement with Minsk is a non-starter. And should remain so indeed until Lukashenko quits the scene. However long that may take. Until then let Moskva be saddled with propping up its soi-disant 'ally'.
1. Sam Greene, "A Pyrrhic Victory for Lukashenko?" 20 December 2010, in www.carnegie.ru.
2. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, quoted in: "Foreign Secretary expresses UK concern following Belarus elections," 22 December 2010, in www.fco.gov.uk.
3. American Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice, quoted on 20 April 2005, in www.state.gov.
4. Jan Cienski, "Belarus juggles lure of West and reliance on East," The Financial Times, 23 December 2010, in www.ft.com.