A most Peculiar Election in Belarus: the External Factors

David Marples and Uladzimir Padhol

On Friday, Belarus goes to the polls, ending an election cycle that has seen all the usual assumptions turned on their heads. In the first of a two part analysis, David R. Marples and Uladzimir Padhol concentrate on a Russia-Europe tug-of-war that has dominated the campaign. Part II, to be published tomorrow, will look at the candidates and ask if a Lukashenka victory is anything other than a foregone conclusion.

About the authors

Uladzimir Padhol is a politcal analyst based in Minsk.

David Marples is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada.

Sixteen years ago, Alyaksandr Lukashenka won his first presidential election in Belarus, emerging with a surprise landslide victory against favourite Vyacheslav Kebich. He won on a populist platform, as a "man of the people", a champion of anti-corruption and fair play. The elections that followed consolidated his grip on the country, returning him to power with increasing majorities (in 2006, he claimed, with a vote of 83%, "lowered to make it look more respectable"). Rejected by the United States as "the last dictator of Europe," Lukashenka has always maintained that he has a special relationship or contract with the Belarusian people and that firm state control over most of industry represents a uniquely successful Belarusian path to the future. Until recently, the combination of high growth rates and cheap Russian resources had allowed him to maintain this somewhat misleading image.

For most of the years that Lukashenka had been in power, western agencies, such as the OSCE, have routinely rejected his validity as President, maintaining elections were neither free nor fair. The Belarusian leader has likewise, up till now, found a convenient ally in Russia, who has always verified the results promptly. What is so different about the current election cycle, which reaches its climax this week (19 December), is that those assumptions have been turned on their head. For most of the campaign the roles of the EU and Russia have been substantially reversed, while Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been unsettled by a very public spat with Russia. The opposition candidates have stressed the importance of ties with their eastern neighbour, whereas the Europeans offered incentives to Belarus and in one case suggested that a further term for Lukashenka in office would be the most preferable outcome.

Lukashenka Putin

Since 2002 Lukashenka has been at loggerheads with then Russian president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The Russia Factor

Until late last week, relations between Russia and Belarus were at a seriously low ebb. Several issues contributed to division: the failure of Belarus to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia after its abortive 2008 war with Russia; a dispute over the export of Belarusian dairy products to Russia, which the latter country claimed did not meet hygiene standards in the summer of 2009; Belarus' apparent reluctance to take up the chair of the CSTO as well as its failure to take part in meetings of the Customs Union established with Russia and Kazakhstan. Added to these have been the annual disputes over the price of imported oil and gas from Russia, which have several times resulted in cutoffs of supplies to central European countries, as well as the payment of duties on exported oil. In December, it was feared that gas prices might rise from the current $185 per thousand cubic meters to $250 (World News Forecast, 19 Dec). Lukashenka has of late resorted to importing oil from Venezuela, which, it is claimed could provide up to 50% of domestic needs. The oil is imported via Ukrainian ports: the new Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has proven to be a loyal ally of Belarus thus far and is a vocal supporter of another Lukashenka victory.

"There will be no pink, orange, or even banana revolution in Belarus." Alyaksandr Lukashenka, January 7, 2005.

However, perhaps even more important has been the sharp decline of personal relations between elites. Since 2002 Lukashenka has been at loggerheads with then Russian president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; more recently, he has had a similar rift with President Dmitry Medvedev who commented in his videoblog in September that the Belarusian president had crossed the boundaries of respectable behavior in his comments about Russia. From July to October 2010, Russia's NTV network, which is owned by Gazprom, aired four parts of a savage documentary about Lukashenka called Godbat'ka (The Godfather), depicting the Belarusian leader as a bloodthirsty tyrant with an admiration for Adolf Hitler and ruthlessly eliminating his enemies. Other networks ran scathing cartoons showing Lukashenka running from the Vatican to Moscow and European capitals pleading for money. Though not all Belarusians have seen these programs, there is no doubt that they have had an impact in Belarus.

By early December, Minsk had begun to fear that Russia would not recognize the Belarusian election results as valid. According to a recent opinion poll from SOCIUM (Ukraine), such a deterioration of friendship was of serious concern to Belarusians. Respondents were fairly evenly divided as to whether there really was a serious rift: 41% saw the relationship in October as one of conflict; 37.7% believed that the two states were still allies. Of those who considered the two sides in conflict, 45.3% considered the Belarusian side responsible for it, compared to 33.1% who think the Russian authorities should be blamed. More revealingly, over 65% supported the view that an authentic Union State was vital for Russia and Belarus, with only 22.6% maintaining that it was an obsolete relic of the past. Concerning integration with Russia on the other hand, a plurality favored a union of equal independent states, and only 20.7% favored a Union State in the more literal sense [www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1343458.html#ixzz14P6CaDjn].

During the election campaign, however, Russia was careful not to embrace any of the opponents of Lukashenka. Several candidates were invited to Russia for various functions and dinners, but never at the highest level. The attitude of Medvedev and Putin in this respect has been exemplary. No doubt it was conditioned by earlier, disastrous attempts to intervene in election campaigns, such as the one in Ukraine in 2004 that resulted in the Orange Revolution. Therefore although the authorities may accuse some of the opposition candidates of being pro-Russian-a topic we will discuss in the second part of this article-in fact, such sentiments, even if they exist, have not been reciprocated. The logical reason is that Russia is not relying on the December election to remove Lukashenka. It is far more effective for Russia to apply pressure through its exports to Belarus, the Customs Union, the Eurasian Economic Community and other organs than a thoroughly predictable presidential election, though it is evident that Russia deeply resents the derogatory rhetoric coming from the Belarusian president about relations with Russia. Moscow is weary of dealing with Lukashenka who has failed to live up to his role as a reliable ally in return for cheap, subsidized supplies of energy. Yet it has evidently decided that the wisest policy for the present is to ensure that he remains in power.

Westerwelle, Sikorski

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and his Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski have been ordered by the EU to pay a visit to Belarus during the election campaign.

The EU Factor

Under the circumstances of the impasse with Russia prior to 9 December, it is hardly surprising that Lukashenka has turned toward Europe as a way out of his difficulties. The endearment has, to some extent, been mutual. Since 2008, as a result of the shocking Russian intrusion into Georgia, the EU has made a sustained effort to assist EU neighborhood countries. The formation of the Eastern Partnership in May 2009 was the start of a program that included Belarus, along with Ukraine, Moldova, and the states of Transcaucasia. In October 2008, the EU suspended its sanctions on Belarus that prevented travel by several leaders. Lukashenka frequently points out the fact that more than 50% of Belarus' trade is with the EU countries. Several interesting developments have occurred during the election campaign. During their joint visit to Belarus in November, the German and Polish foreign ministers, Guido Westerwelle and Radoslaw Sikorski, promised the Belarusian authorities that if they satisfied the "four pillars" of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and fair elections, the EU would use its influence to free up about $3.8 billion in aid from various sources, including the International Monetary Fund, if the presidential elections were held democratically (European Voice, 10 Nov). The president of Lithuania, Dalia, Grybauskaite, whose country takes over the chair of the OSCE next year, visited Minsk on 20 October and later went so far as to declare her preference for a Lukashenka victory, as the best guarantee against further Russian intrusions, a comment that elicited contrary views from several of her fellow statespersons (Reuters, 11 Nov).

Clearly the EU has taken a decision to turn a blind eye to some of the deeper problems of human rights and violations of democracy within the Belarusian state, such as the detention and harassment of individual citizens seen as potential troublemakers. It insists on some minimal requirements, such as opposition access to the media during the campaign, freedom to conduct their campaigns openly, and a fair vote, but in general its attitude is more conciliatory than in the past (thenews.pl, 18 Nov). The EU is preoccupied with the impact of the financial crisis in countries like Greece and Ireland, and seems reluctant to embark on a sustained campaign to secure democracy in Belarus. Further, there is no guarantee that it would receive US support for such a campaign, as Obama's Washington has generally kept a low profile on the Belarusian question. Currently the United States has no ambassador in Belarus and it has recently improved relations with Russia despite some rather disparaging embassy cables cited by WikiLeaks (Moscow Times, 7 Dec). Thus it is difficult to anticipate any serious engagement between Washington and official Minsk in the immediate future. Under these circumstances, the EU countries, particularly those in the vicinity like Poland and Lithuania, have seemed to be more prepared than formerly to tolerate some transgressions of the Belarusian authorities.

Tomorrow: the candidates and their chances