The Minsk Maneuver

By Balazs Jarabik and Alastair Rabagliati  

Government of Belarus photo

A bomb that exploded during an Independence Day celebration attended by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka may mark the beginning of the end of Belarus’ era as a mini, updated version of the Soviet Union.

Belarus has only one political option, one (state-controlled) economy, and one leader. During Lukashenka’s 14-year tenure he has been able to charge a large part of the bill for that system to Russia.

However, in the days after his “re-election” in 2006, Gazprom announced a gradual gas price increase, and Russia started to collect duties on crude oil at the Belarusian border. Lukashenka suddenly found he was not only out of contact and isolated from the West but also out of Russian money.

Nevertheless, from of this no-man’s land he has been able to gradually maneuver his country between East and West – attempting to take as many benefits as possible from both. Without introducing any major reforms, although introducing some slightly more liberal regulations, Minsk is working hard to attract private investment. Without making any serious political concessions, Minsk is influencing a change in the policy of the European Union that could lead to the de facto acceptance of Lukashenka by Europe. He needs to clear one hurdle, however: the parliamentary elections on 28 September.

Belarusian authorities have been taking advantage of Brussels’ desire to engage them. Although the 12 points of the European Commission (from the “What the European Union EU Could Bring to Belarus” report of November 2006) are still in force, the office of EU foreign policy representative Javier Solana has managed to strike a five-point “memorandum of understanding” on the main conditions for restarting a deeper dialogue and engagement with Belarus. These conditions include that that opposition would have their candidates registered, their representatives would be included in the election commissions, campaign meetings would be allowed, and opposition representatives would be present in the new parliament. In addition Minsk, through its ambassador in Brussels, has promised to release former presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin from prison just before the elections.

There are signs that Minsk is moving toward fulfilling these conditions, although it is yet to be seen whether all will be fulfilled (notably the release of Kazulin) and what Brussels will consider sufficient opposition representation in parliament. Of particular interest will be whether Minsk will allow duly elected opposition representatives in Parliament, or whether Lukashenka will simply select them.

Paradoxically this agreement might mean that Belarus, for the first time since the flawed 1996 referendum created an all-powerful presidential system, could meet some key Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election commitments by allowing opposition groups a seat on the electoral commissions. While such an election may still be far from genuinely democratic, opposition representation would mark a verifiable improvement in Belarusian politics.

Another paradox is that while the opposition is, at least on paper, well prepared for these elections, it may end up boycotting them and seeking instead to maintain the status quo. The United Democratic Forces – albeit with Alexander Milinkevich’s For Freedom Movement outside of the process – was able for the first time to agree on a unified list of 110 candidates, one for each electoral district. But the opposition groups have identified four conditions for their continued participation in the election and threaten to withdraw if these are not met.

Two of these conditions -- registration of nominees as candidates and inclusion of representatives in election commissions at all levels -- are relatively verifiable, while one of the others -- proper conditions for campaigning -- can be very subjective. Signs are that the opposition will be represented on only one-third of the constituency election commissions, illustrating that the authorities may only be paying lip-service to the EU conditions. This means that discussion of a boycott is likely to continue through the election campaign and is liable to overshadow the opposition’s campaign message.


If ever, now is the time when the opposition should run its campaign without fear of the elections results, especially as there is a chance that the votes will actually be counted. Should the opposition instead choose to boycott the vote, it could become completely discredited both at home and in Brussels. Such a last-minute boycott, especially if the EU conditions were met, could render the opposition irrelevant while the regime gets a green light for deeper engagement with Brussels. This would likely lead to agreement with Belarus on a European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan and taking high-ranking officials, including perhaps eventually Lukashenka himself, off the EU visa ban list.

Moves to meet the EU conditions may also be more likely following the fallout from the 3 July bomb blast, which wounded more than 50 people, with Lukashenka taking the opportunity to fire two of his most senior hard-line officials.

Both Viktar Sheiman, chairman of the Security Council, and Henadz Nyavyhlas, head of the Presidential Administration, were sacked on 8 July. They were considered the old guard who were perceived as obstructing rapprochement with the West. While Sheiman was a core part of Lukashenka’s team since 1994 and chairman of his election campaigns, he was heavily implicated in the political disappearances of the late 1990s. As a result he was placed on the first EU visa-ban list and was known to be very hostile to the West and a serious obstruction to dialogue.

The old guards are losing ground to an emerging group of technocrats led by Prime Minister Sergey Sidorsky and backed by Lukashenka’s son Viktar. Indeed, the new heads of the Security Council and Presidential Administration, Yury Zhadobin and Uladzimir Makey, are directly loyal to the president and his son.

The sacking of senior officials was a very strong indication that the different parts of the bureaucracy are fighting one another for power and influence, and that the Lukashenkas are not in full control of the domestic situation. There are also reports that the security services are demoralized and that rival agents may have been behind the Minsk bombing.

Meanwhile, the authorities are using the bombing to carry on their usual tactics of harassing the opposition, sparking fear among potential opponents, and discouraging any opposition activity. Even though Lukashenka said he would not “tighten the screws” on them, the government mouthpiece newspaper Belarus Sevodnya blamed the opposition for inspiring the attack, and numerous arrests of opposition activists have followed.

As all these events unfurl, Moscow is monitoring the changes in Minsk. Belarus continues to pay $119 per 1,000 cubic meters for gas supplied by Gazprom, despite the agreement on a formula to increase prices for gas supplies to Belarus. Revisions to the agreement have meant that there was only a $9 increase for this year, although Moscow may push that higher after the elections. The softening of its policy since 2006 is a clear signal, nevertheless, of the sensitivity of Moscow toward Minsk, especially at a time when Lukashenka is in open dispute with the United States. This gives Lukashenka further leverage in his tactics, increasing his ability to use the West in its negotiations with Moscow and vice versa.

The key question is whether Minsk is willing or able to take steps toward relatively normal elections. Insiders know that the United States was engaged with Minsk earlier this year in a similar process to the one the EU is now. However the U.S. offer to open up relations if political prisoners were released failed as the authorities refused to free Kazulin. Washington held its ground and introduced "clarifications" to its previous sanctions on the state-owned oil exporter Belneftekhim. This led to the recent high-profile diplomatic row and the reduction of staff in the U.S. Embassy.

Lukashenka clearly needs the EU, but there is no guarantee – similarly to the engagement with the United States -- that Belarus will fulfill its obligations. His vision of Belarus, being in between East and West and taking full benefit from both, is unlikely to change. However, Lukashenka’s mission to achieve de facto acceptance from the West plays well with the growing influence of the pro-Western technocrats.

Therefore, the EU must be prepared to react swiftly. It should have a plan in place on how to react if there are verifiable improvements in the election process, but it should not compromise if its conditions are not met. Brussels must be prepared to further isolate Belarus if there is no progress in elections.

But Brussels also must be careful not to isolate the opposition in a dash to engage the Belarusian authorities. The EU should reward only a credible process, not a farce where Lukashenka selects a small number of opposition representatives to sit in parliament just to keep the EU happy, playing divide and rule within the opposition in the process. For their part, the opposition factions must stay in the race. A boycott of the polls would allow Lukashenka to declare a transparent election without any danger of his critics being elected.

If there is legitimate progress in the elections, that will be the real shock in Belarus. But we should learn a lesson from the recent bombing in Minsk and not trust that everything is really the way it is presented. After all, this is still and will remain Lukashenkaland.

Balazs Jarabik is the Kyiv-based representative of the Pact for Belarus and Ukraine, associate fellow of FRIDE in Madrid and senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council in Washington. Alastair Rabagliati is the author of numerous analyses on developments in Belarus.
He works for the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.

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