Development of Situation in Belarus in the First Half of September 2009: Main Events and Comments

By Andrey Liakhovich
It is excluded that Lukashenka’s regime will come back to its policy of manoeuvring between the West and Russia, in case the West abstains from insisting on holding broad political liberalization in Belarus. 

Obviously, the Belarusian authorities will continue the policy line on amelioration of relations with the West, announced in August 2008.
Following a number of statements, delivered by V. Putin, the Kremlin adheres to this opinion as well. Having failed to make the Belarusian authorities renounce their participation in the Eastern Neighborhood program as well as recognize independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and sell the controlling shares of Belarusian enterprises to Russian companies, the Russian Federation will suspend its pressure on Lukashenka’s regime for a while.

The Kremlin will pay general attention to Ukraine on the eve of Presidential elections there. Russia will make an attempt to influence the voting results during the Presidential elections in order to recoup for its defeat in 2004. 

Apparently, the change of management in the BPF Party will result in foundation of a political coalition of Belarusian pro-European democratic forces. However, it is hardly possible that the present-day opposition will become a serious political force during the period before the coming Presidential elections in Belarus for the following reasons: the political opposition doesn’t enjoy broad popularity in Belarus nowadays; the democratic coalition-building process is quite complicated; the official authorities will continue putting pressure on their political opponents in the country.

In our opinion, the West shouldn’t advance the demands that appear to be absolutely unacceptable to Lukashenka’s regime, taking into account the existing threat to the independence of Belarus on the part of Russia. The West shouldn’t pressurize persistently the Belarusian official authorities with demands to liberalize the election law, include all independent media to the state-owned press distribution system, and broadcast opposition leaders’ speeches on the radio and TV on the eve of Presidential elections, which most probably will take place in December 2010.

The West should take into account that the Belarusian official authorities will not make any concessions on these issues, as the latter do understand that such compromises will create additional possibilities for Russia to put pressure (including the information pressure) upon Belarus. The Belarusian governmental authorities know pretty well the story of cooperation between Russia and a number of Belarusian oppositional organizations and political figures.

Taking into account the existing threats on the part of Russia, political liberalization in Belarus should be regarded as a forcedly slow process. Being in crisis, the opposition will not be able to make use of it for a long period of time. Excessive speeding of political liberalization may create additional opportunities for Russia to put pressure upon Belarus.

Development of cooperation between Belarus and the EU within the Eastern Partnership program shouldn’t be made rigidly dependent on the steps to be taken by Lukashenka’s regime towards political liberalization in the country. Firstly, it is necessary to make use of the existing possibilities of cooperation with the Belarusian government, including the development of trade and economic cooperation, trans-border cooperation, and cooperation within the EP program in order to strengthen independence of Belarus and foster collaboration of Belarus with the West.

Taking into account the present-day crisis of political opposition in Belarus and the existing threats on the part of Russia, it should be noted that the steps, taken by Lukashenka’s regime with the purpose of defending the sovereignty of Belarus in relations with Russia and developing cooperation with the West, have more importance for the interests of Western democracies and the Belarusian national interests in comparison with the political liberalization in Belarus.

Consequently, the policy line of putting moderate pressure upon Lukashenka’s regime seems to be the most efficient nowadays.

The Western democracies should insist consistently on the necessity to have all political prisoners released in Belarus. Also, they should urge the Belarusian official authorities to broaden opportunities for the civil society and independent press development in the country:

1. To cancel article 193-1 in the Criminal Code of Belarus that stipulates criminal liability for implementing activities on behalf of non-registered public associations and political parties.

2. To improve the conditions for office rent of non-governmental organizations and simplify the procedure of getting their legal addresses officially registered in Belarus.

3. To nullify articles 367, 368, 369 in the Criminal Code of Belarus that stipulate prosecution of journalists for carrying out their professional activity. 

4. To terminate the practice of politically motivated redundancies and expulsions from universities and colleges.

5. To remove legal and administrative obstacles for humanitarian and educational contacts of Belarusian youth and children with the external world.

In our opinion, it is untimely to grant the status of a specially invited guest of PACE to the Belarusian Parliament nowadays.

The Lithuanian government took a thoughtful step, having invited Lukashenka to the Lithuanian-Belarusian economic forum in Vilnius. Logically, it fostered positive changes in Belarus and development of cooperation between Belarus and the European Union. However, the invitation should have been postponed to another day of the forum. It should be reminded that an opposition leader V. Hanchar was kidnapped (and, in fact, assassinated) on September 16 ten years before. Appearance of Lukashenka in Vilnius, the capital of an EU member-state on the symbolic date signaled to the Belarusian authorities that the EU was ready to hold the dialogue with Lukashenka on his terms.

Belarus becomes a postponed issue for Russia. Russia will pressurize Ukraine in order to slow down its integration with NATO and the EU and prolong the rent of its military base in Sevastopol.
The Presidential elections in Ukraine have been announced to be held on January 17, 2010. Russia will exert pressure on Ukraine on the verge of the Election Day in order to show the Ukrainian voters that the Ukraine – Russia relations will become more complicated, should a supporter of withdrawal of Russian Black Sea Fleet from Ukraine and an advocate of integration with NATO and the EU win the coming Presidential election.
It is highly probable that Russia will pressurize Ukraine with the termination or reduction of gas supply during the winter months. Russia will manage to find a good reason for that step. However, in this case Russia will have to increase the amount of gas to be transported through the territory of Belarus in order to carry out its obligations before the gas buyers in the EU states.

There has happened a range of events recently that lead to deterioration of relations between Russia and Ukraine as well as stir up the Russian policy line in relation to the neighbor state.

On September 5, 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine proposed Russia to start consultations about the procedure of withdrawing the Russian Black Sea fleet from the country. (Russia rents territory for its military base in Sevastopol till the year of 2017.)

The propaganda of Ukrainian independence makes another factor for worsening relations between Russia and Ukraine. Russia abhors the Ukrainian version of history of bilateral relations between the countries.

The leadership of National Security Service of Ukraine has addressed to the President of Ukraine V. Yushchanka with a proposal to name its Academy in honor of R. Shuchievich, the Head of Ukrainian Rebel Army. (R. Shuchievich was murdered in 1950. He was awarded posthumously an honorary title of Hero of Ukraine by order of President of Ukraine.)

Tensions persist between Belarusian and Russian leaders.
Russia will not bring back to life acute issues of its relations with Belarus while exerting diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on Ukraine. Nevertheless, these contradictions remain. And after another fight with the West for Ukraine Putin's team will again try forcing Lukashenka into making concessions.

This is evidenced by tonality of Putin's and Lukashenka's statements which they address to each other. Since long, they do not call each other by patronymic names (as is customary among Eastern Slavs). And they rarely mention the status: prime minister, president.

Lukashenka confines himself to calling Putin by last name: "Putin solicited a meeting. Putin looks asquint at Belarus".

On September 1 Putin used a formula "Mr. Lukashenka …"

Belarus will diversify oil supplies in response to the construction of BPS-2.
On September 2 Lukashenka said: "We cannot depend on a single area, on Russia, for example, in our consumption of energy resources. Especially when we had problems… So far, it is profitable for us to get carbohydrates from the Russian Federation. It may become unprofitable – and we should see other ways already today".

Lukashenka pointed out at the Southern route (using Odessa – Brody pipeline) as one of the possible routes of getting oil.

Diversifying exports: bad starting conditions.
On June 1, commenting on the outcome of his talks with Vladimir Putin (held in Miensk on May 28) Lukashenka stated that Russia created obstacles for Belarusian exports. Also because it wants to buy Belarusian enterprises for next to nothing. It was said in response to Russia's pressure that Belarus would diversify its exports.

Efforts to diversify exports are unlikely to bring serious results during the economic crisis. According to January – July 2009 results, Russia's share in the total volume of Belarusian goods' exports is high - 32,9%. The Russian market is the main market for many commodity groups. So, Russia buys 82,8% of exports of road machinery, 85,6% of metal-working machines, 96,9% of TV sets, 79,1% of internal combustion engines, 76,7% of refrigerators, 99,9% of meat, 93,6% of shoes, 81,3% of fish, 70,7% of furniture.

To EU countries' market, Belarus supplies mainly oil products and products of gas chemical enterprises.

In conditions of significant orientation of economy to the Russian market Lukashenka's regime does a lot to develop relations with the West despite Russia's displeasure. Despite Russia's pressure, Belarus has not recognized independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Belarus participates in the Eastern Partnership despite Moscow's position: "The Eastern Partnership is an instrument of consolidation of anti-Russian States" (this statement was made by Dmitri Medvedev in April 2009).

The authorities refuse to sell enterprises to Russian companies and invite the Western business.
On June 1 Lukashenka stated that the reason for the "diary war" (Russia-imposed restrictions on exports of Belarusian diary products) was the desire of Russian companies to buy Belarusian milk processing plants. "We will be dying of hunger but we will not sell enterprises for next to nothing".

A Belarusian-Russian joint milk-processing venture was opened on the premises of the milk-processing plant in Shklou (Mahilou region) on September 4. Contrary to accounts of some Belarusian observers there is no question of selling the enterprise in this case.

Against the backdrop of inactivity in the dialogue between Belarus and Russia on building a nuclear power plant in Belarus a number of Russian experts stated once again: the Belarusian party asks Russia to issue a credit for building a nuclear power plant in order to use it for some other needs in the time of the economic crisis. According to Lukashenka, Russia should also pay a good price for the defense of the Belarusian anti-aircraft system taken individually.

The authorities maintain the policy of containing Russia. At the same time they invite the Western business.

On September 1 and 2 Prime Minister Siarhiej Sidorski had talks in Gdansk with several Polish companies regarding prospects of their work in the Belarusian market including their participation in the privatization of Belarusian enterprises. It was announced that a Polish company "Kulczik Holding" would invest about USD 2 billion in building electric power plants in Belarus.

Lukashenka offers a geopolitical contract to the West.
On September 1 British Ambassador to Belarus Nigel Gould-Davies pointed out: "The European Union has certain concerns that recently we have not seen the progress that there was previously". Several high-ranking representatives of EU countries have also reminded to the authorities about the need for further steps so that the European Union has grounds for re-extending the moratorium on sanctions.

On September 7 during his meeting with Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák Lukashenka once again offered to the West to conduct dialogue without conditions of political liberalization. "For us, it is important to have a close cooperation with you. And we do not make any conditions… Businessmen appreciate the order and do not like any kind of pseudodemocracy. If we have made arrangements we abide scrupulously by our commitments. We have a perfect order in this regard – something called "dictatorship" in some countries. Here you are able to work".

Lukashenka offers to the West to develop cooperation on the ground that Belarus abides by the terms of a certain geopolitical contract. He does not make concessions to Russia. He does not recognize independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He participates in the Eastern Partnership. He invites persistently the Western business. He is interested in developing trade and economic relations.

Lukashenka's team believes that the West will not go back to the policy of sanctions and will continue to pull Belarus away from Russia. Lukashenka speaks about those lines of cooperation where the West believes necessary to work indeed.

The authorities resumed repressions against opposition in February 2009 on the eve of the European Union's March decision on sanctions. The authorities believe it necessary to send a similar signal to the West again: one should not demand steps towards political liberalization.

On September 5 Kasia Halickaja, an activist of the Youth Front, was fired from her job at the demand of a KGB officer.

On September 6 in Miensk participants of a protest action against holding Belarusian-Russian military exercises on the territory of Belarus were beaten by riot police.

On September 12 a congress of the "Union of Poles in Belarus", created at the authorities' bidding, was held. The State TV channels called activists of the same-name organization unrecognized by the authorities "a bunch of provocateurs".

Change of leadership in the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front may lead to establishing a coalition of pro-European democratic forces of Belarus.
On September 5 a congress of the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (PBPF) was held. A change of leadership occurred. The group of politicians who defined PBPF's activities since its creation in 1988 lost elections to representatives of younger generation.

Vincuk Viachorka, first deputy chairman of PBPF and representative of the group of old politicians called changes "a raid takeover of PBPF". The meaning of this statement: PBPF was allegedly taken over by Alaksandar Milinkievich's supporters.

In point of fact, the majority of the congress' delegates spoke in favor of creating a coalition with those who are ideologically close to PBPF. The new leadership got a carte-blanche for disaffiliation with the association of "all who are against Lukashenka" – the United Democratic Forces.

The new leadership inherited a destroyed and numerically insignificant organization. As a result of several glaring errors of the former leadership during the last ten years PBPF lost three fourth of its present composition. Many stopped their participation in the organization's activities and became formal members. It will be an uneasy task to bring PBPF back to life.

It will also be difficult to implement the idea which was supported by the majority of the congress' participants (and which, in their opinion, may revitalize PBPF). The formal association ("united democratic forces" (UDF) which includes all who are against Lukashenka had been created under an external pressure.

Several sponsor organizations (IRI, NDI) worked to have precisely this kind of coalition in Belarus during the last ten years. Logical increase of centrifugal forces in the artificial association of conflicting and differently directed groups means that activities of IRI and NDI in Belarus during a long period of time were inefficient.

New chairman of PBPF Alaksiej Janukievich will have to withstand pressure from rather influential external forces. There are grounds to believe that if he gives in he will not stay for a long time in his position of the chairman.