The word is out that the presidential elections in Belarus will take place in 2001, probably in September. After an abortive presidential election staged by the opposition in May 1999—which the government blocked—and the government-rigged parliamentary election in October 2000—which the opposition boycotted—attention has shifted to the presidential election in 2001. Between now and then, Belarus faces four cardinal questions. First, can the opposition unite behind a credible challenger, perhaps a previously unknown figure like Serbia's Koštunica? Second, how would the current President, Aliaksandar Lukašenka, react to it? Third, what will Russia do? And fourth, what will the West do?
Belarus's democratic opposition, which enjoys Western support, has yet to name a single candidate for president. Moves in that direction are under way. In December, the Coordinating Council of the Belarusian Democratic Forces held a meeting in Miensk at which representatives of the largest opposition parties and movements nominated Mixal Čyhir, former prime minister; Uladzimier Hančaryk, chair of FTUB (the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions); and Siamion Domaš, deputy of the 13th Supreme Soviet and chair of the Coordinating Council of Belarusian Regions, as potential democratic opposition presidential candidates. The Council believes that through negotiations with other opposition groups it would be possible to nominate a single presidential candidate.
Some of the regime's opponents talk about a Yugoslav end to Lukašenka. But some foreign media, The Economist (21 October 2000) for example, thinks conditions in Miensk look very different from those in Belgrade. The newspaper notes that people in Belarus are more apathetic; the sense of nationhood, and therefore of patriotism, is far weaker; and the opposition is notably feebler. "Growing poverty makes people surly, but as long as Russia supplies cheap energy, the economy will not collapse."
Stanislaw Šuškevic, Belarus's former head of state and now one of the active opposition leaders, says that next year holds the promise of political change for Belarus "if the opposition plays its cards right." He shrugs off the possibility of a Yugoslav-style popular revolt, pointing out that, after centuries of suppressed national consciousness and 80 years in which personal initiative of any kind was stifled, Belarusians are not ready to take to the streets en masse.
Some opponents fear that when things get tough, Lukašenka might proclaim a state of emergency and pre-empt a presidential election altogether, with Russia deploying its security and military forces to occupy Belarus outright.
According to a recent survey of the Belarusian public opinion, 36 percent of Belarusians intend to vote for Lukašenka in 2001, while 42 percent say they will not.
To fortify his hold on power, Lukašenka, in late November and early December, removed or demoted native Belarusians and moved more Russians into security sensitive positions. For example, he replaced the heads of the KGB and National Security Council, both native Belarusians, with natives of Russia with backgrounds in the Soviet Union's and the Russian Federation's intelligence agencies.
Now, for the first time since the 1950s, native Russians control top Belarusian posts. This group also includes Prime Minister Vladimir Yermoshin, Defense Minister Colonel General Aleksandr Chumakov and the speaker of the new Chamber of Representatives. This Russian hold on power in Belarus guarantees Lukašenka's loyalty to Moscow and prevents the formation of a high-level native bureaucracy that could defend independent Belarusian statehood against absorption by Russia.
Exiled Supreme Soviet Chairman Siamion Šaredzki recently noted that "Belarus is witnessing the completion of a 'cleansing' of the regime from Belarusians." In its ethnic composition, he said, "our country's dictatorial regime is almost completely Russian and, in relation to Belarus, of an occupational nature." Some local observers believe that the recent shakeup was prompted by the Kremlin, which plans to support Lukašenka again in the next presidential election. Russia does not want another Koštunica.
Unleashing propaganda war
During a meeting with the KGB leadership in November, Lukašenka accused the West of funding his political opponents and contemplating plans to overthrow his government, using ideology, money and other tricks, even including the use of military means. He called on the KGB to be vigilant, ordered the surveillance of foreign diplomats and demanded to be warned of any foreign plans and intentions.
In December, Lukašenka directed the Belarusian State Television and Radio to take "extreme measures" to blunt Western influence in Belarus and to make sure that the population is provided with "objective information." Soon enough, the Belarusian state TV program "Resonance" aired a news feature which accused the democratic opposition of smuggling large amounts of weapons and explosives into the country to stage a bloody coup d'etat.
One of Lukašenka's targets has been the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Miensk. He said he would like to see it go. Addressing the upper house of his rubber-stamp parliament, Lukašenka said he would not tolerate any foreign interference in the country's internal affairs, especially any cash injection in the opposition's presidential election campaign. He said he was keeping an eye on Western bodies, including the Miensk mission of the OSCE, which, he said, "is preparing bands of collaborators." "If we make embarrassing facts public," he said, "they would have to leave our country."
Following the president's cue, Belarusian TV called the mission "an instrument of subversive anti-constitutional activity against the Belarusian state." And a day later, it broadcast a "documentary" in which OSCE Miensk mission head Hans-Georg Wieck was called a "German spy."
It has been reported that Lukašenka is about to sign a decree on restructuring the state administration of ideology. The decree would require all state institutions and organizations, and larger state-owned enterprises, to set up ideology departments. To ensure that Soviet-era ideology prevails, a Council for Ideological Policy, reporting directly to the president, will be established.
With Lukašenka in power for the last six years, Russia has gained most of what it wanted in Belarus: a deniable proxy in the international arms trade, a forward base for radar and eavesdropping, an agreement for placing extra troops or missiles, free transit of troops and fright and economic leverage through the control of energy supply. "Russia is practically doing for us what the IMF is doing for Russia," Lukašenka admitted. Some observers maintain that Moscow decides everything what happens in Belarus, including the fate of Lukašenka. And as long as Russia sees an advantage in keeping Lukašenka in power, it will do so.
Geographically, Miensk is much closer to Moscow than Belgrade, which makes it much easier for Russia to manipulate the events in Belarus. And, more to the point, more and more Russians appear to want to restore something like the borders of what was the Soviet Union. According to a recent poll, some 55 percent of Russians believe that it is Russia's "historical mission" to pull together the peoples and lands that formed the pre-1917 Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
Stanislaw Šuškevic noted in an interview that, with the willing help of Lukašenka to bring Miensk back into Russia's fold, Russia has skillfully manipulated events to make it look like Russia is keeping Belarus afloat and that, by itself, Belarus cannot exist as a sovereign state.
According to The Economist (21 October 2000), there are clear differences between America and Germany over how to treat Belarus. The newspaper noted that "the OSCE office in Miensk, headed by a German diplomat, Hans-Georg Wieck, preaches patience and engagement."
While some members of the opposition find fault with the German attitude toward Belarus, especially that of Ambassador Wieck, the United States seems to support the OSCE AMG activities in Belarus. Ambassador David T Johnson, US Representative to the OSCE, told the Permanent Council on December 14 in Vienna that the United States considers the activities of the OSCE AMG in Belarus not only consistent with its mandate, but also vital to ensuring that the forthcoming presidential elections in Belarus will meet international standards. The efforts of Ambassador Wieck and his colleagues are needed now more than ever to help Belarus meet its human rights commitments, Johnson said.
Currently, Wieck's organization in Miensk is engaged in training local monitors to be deployed during the forthcoming presidential election.
Michael G Kozak, the new US Ambassador to Belarus, said in an interview that Belarus has a parliament which the US cannot recognize as a legitimate legislative body and a president whose mandate has expired. Regarding next year's presidential election, he said that if the presidential elections do not differ from the recently held parliamentary elections, Belarus will have both a president and a legislature which lack authority to act on behalf of the nation.
Joe Price, 12 March 2001
This article originally appeared in Belarusian Review and is republished here by permission.
Belarusian Review was launched in 1989 and is an independent, US-based, English-language quarterly covering political, economic, societal and cultural developments and events in Belarus.
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