Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Belarus opts for its Batka

From Moscow Shohdy Naguib assesses the intricacies of the presidential elections in Belarus

Click to view caption
Supporters of the main opposition Belarussian presidential candidate Alexander Milikevich

Sunday's presidential poll in Belarus resulted in a landslide victory for the acting President Alexander Lukashenko who was re-elected with 82 per cent of votes in his favour and a record-breaking attendance rate for the event -- 92 per cent of registered voters. The opposition leaders could do nothing but laugh at the figures, calling the whole affair a "pathetic farce". Aleksander Milinkevic who won six per cent of the votes refused to recognise the results and demanded new run. Meanwhile the Central Elections Committee announced a "deafening victory" for Batka (Father) -- as he is commonly referred to by Belorussians -- who had come up with a referendum back in 2004 that gave him the chance to run for a third term, a chance he could not have possibly missed.

The presidential elections -- "wickedly" conducted three months ahead of schedule -- gave the opposition little time to adequately prepare its campaign. Belarus capital Minsk witnessed a tense standoff in the city's central square with several thousand opposition supporters threatening to re-enact the "orange revolution" that took place in Ukraine a year ago. The color of choice for the anti-Lukashenko thrust was "blue-jeans". However the would-be revolutionaries had little to support their claim for power. Belarus lacks the minimal number of opposition media outlets for the purpose and the grip on power of "Europe's last dictator" -- as Lukashenko is commonly referred to in the West -- is too strong and the opposition too feeble and extraneous for any such exercise to have been feasible.

Lukashenko's ascent to power began in 1993 when he became the head of the anti-corruption committee in the republic's parliament. A year later he was riding the wave of popular support that put him at the helm of power. He carried on with populist style of government routinely rotating cadres, perfecting a state propaganda machine and relying heavily on the KGB structures that were never dismantled in Belarus and routinely used to subdue descent. The Lukashenko regime has been accused of disappearances and killings of some opposition figures, yet none of the cases has been pinned on the government successfully.

The protectionist economic system that Lukashenko created in the 1990s has allowed Belarus to retain its manufacturing facilities and qualified personnel inherited from the USSR. The political course of the country is almost totally dependent on the economic model adopted by Belarus, which is specifically Soviet in nature. Thus, Belarus eventually found itself isolated amongst its neighbours who at least nominally have chosen a different course, disassociating themselves from the Soviet past and proceeding to integrate into the newly formed European structures. Unlike Ukraine and the Baltic States, Belarus has relied on the perspectives of integration into post-USSR regional structure. The issue of integration with Russia has remained central for the Belarus leader throughout his political career. It fully answers the aspirations of a significant portion of the Belarus population; however the polls on the issue have come up with mixed results. Russia considers Lukashenko's regime as a sort of buffer-zone between itself and the West.

At certain points in his political career Lukashenko has even nurtured ambitions to ascend to the leadership of the "USSR-lite" -- if it would only materialise. It hasn't.

After the initial "saw cutting" of the USSR property and facilities that took place during the 1990s, the most lucrative pieces of Soviet-built infrastructure are now to be found outside Russia, namely in Kazakhstan and Belarus. Unwilling to "sell out" his country to foreign investors, Lukashenko is also reluctant to let the Russian mammoth corporations in on their terms.

There is a growing feeling within the Russian business community that Russia has made great efforts to ensure the preservation of Lukashenko's regime, having paid the price of the "economic miracle" attributed to Belarus, while getting nothing in return.

One sore point in the relations between the two countries has been the unsuccessful attempt on the part of "Gazprom" -- the Russian petro-gas giant -- to gain control of the "Beltransgas" natural gas pipe-line infrastructure. Such efforts have been met with little understanding on the part of Lukashenko who is asking 10 times more than "Gazprom" is willing to pay. Along the same lines Lukashenko has repeatedly let his Russian partners down on issues of privatisation of major Belarus enterprises and allowing Russian goods into Belarus market.

If Russia chooses to raise prices on natural gas, it would crush the Belarus economy in one blow -- a drastic move it has showed itself capable of doing to Ukraine earlier this year. But why would it do such a thing? Why would Russia want to get rid of its "pocket Chaves" who is comfortably at odds with the entire "democratic world", one who is reckless enough to call George Bush "Terrorist Number 1"? Perhaps future geopolitical shifts might change this disposition but this will be unlikely in the near future. Meanwhile, Western support for the Belarus opposition is giving it little impetus and further alienating the conservative electorate who are mainly driven to vote for the stability that the "Father of the Nation" has infallibly managed to maintain. The current economic situation in Belarus is generally favourable -- supporting claims that the average Belarus citizen is faring well under the current leadership.

In light of these factors, the overwhelming success of the incumbent president in the present elections and the overwhelming figures do not sound that unreal. Next week's parliamentary elections in Ukraine -- which promise to be as scandalous -- will no doubt distract public attention from the "re-election process" in Belarus, attenuating its rigged elections favourably in the eyes of its people.

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