December 21, 2006
The last three months in Belarus were characterized by the two dominant trends. On
one hand Alexander Lukashenka appears to be desperately seeking new allies
abroad, which could bring Belarus closer towards Europe. On the other hand the
repressive course of domestic policy has continued or even further increased. The
suggested re-thinking of the geopolitical orientation of Belarus - as expected - has
not been accompanied by the political liberalization within the country. Meanwhile,
substantial changes on the political map of the democratic opposition seem
The Russian economic pressure could forced a policy change in Belarusian foreign
policy: instead of the unilateral orientation on Russia or on the CIS, Belarus has
started to shift into a multi-vector foreign policy. The question for Minsk is where to
find the other vector to balance the pressure from Moscow? However, according to
another scenario, the Belarus-Russia gas war is a mere rhetorical exercise, which
makes Russia`s argumentation to finish using double-standard in energy policy
within the CIS, and forces the West to accept Lukashenka.
Either way, what Pontis Foundation finds more important, Belarus is positioning itself
in relations with Russia increasingly as an independent state with Lukashenka
gradually adopting the previous policy of the Belarusian nationalists from the early
1990s. Also important to notice are the various divergences within the regime either
tolerated or even coordinated by Lukashenka. This patriotic rhetoric and policy –
despite persisting deep political gap within the society – force the emerging political
consensus regarding the country’s independence. The question is whether this won’t
be too late, if Russia conquers Belarus economically.
Paradoxically this development takes place without any significant influence of the
West, particularly the EU, which has failed to provide real incentives for Belarus, or
as a result of any significant contribution of the democratic opposition. The political
opposition remains aside from this development, currently focusing mainly on itself.
Thus, Lukashenka is enjoying the shift within society being the pragmatic choice as
the only alternative for many Belarusians.
His position as pragmatic choice increased that the united democratic opposition is
shrinking in numbers, as the lack of opposition candidates (4% for the total seats
available) in the upcoming local government elections scheduled for January 14,
2007 suggests. However, the on-going leadership crisis of the opposition might be a
natural development in the post-election environment and help to seek new political
unity strengthening center right around Aliaksandr Milinkevich and the left forces
around the Communist leader Sergei Kaliakin. This is one of the reasons why the EU
and USA assuring their own interests – the preservation of the independent Belarus -
might be forced to launch a dialogue with current regime in Minsk.
The Regime’s Foreign Policy: New Geopolitics or Mere Rhetoric?
The last political conflict between Belarus and Russia emerged after the threat of
Gazprom to quadruple the gas prices for Belarus after December 31 to 200 USD per
1 000 cubic meters instead the current rate 47 USD per 1 000 cubic meter . Such
step will seriously damage Belarusian economy which currently is dependant on
cheap gas. Russia underlines a lower prices of gas ($135) by the transfer of 50 %
stake in the Belarusian state pipeline company Beltransgas, which owns not only the
pipelines leading to Europe, but the retail of the gas to the enterprises and
households in Belarus.
Independent Belarusian analysts warned that the key issue is not the price itself, but
what financial mechanisms Belarus will pay (e.g. how much Belarus will really pay
and how much comes from a credit line provided by Russia under a “grey” scheme)
and whether Russia’s intention is destroy the Belarus independent economy, thus
Lukashenka at all. It is, however, unlikely that Lukashenka would turn Beltransgaz,
the country only leverage, into Russian hands, since that would buy him maximum
two years of lower price. As the Economist Intelligence Unit warns the similar
situation of Armenia, which turned its energy structures to Russia, but only slightly
delayed the “European” gas price is a clear warning. On the other hand, another
scenario developed by Belarusian independent analysts suggests that the current gas
dispute is a mere rhetoric by both sides for the West. As the scenario goes Russia
may interest in to beef up its argumentation that there is no double standard in its
energy policy in CIS, while Lukashenka is positioning to gain acceptance by the West
by raising Belarus` geopolitical stake. Indeed, if the West will start talks with
Lukashenka due to the Russian “threat”, Moscow could easily argue with double
standards of the West.
Pontis believes the real situation lies between the two scenarios. The additional
economic pressure from Russia indicates the at that change in Moscow this time is
real: the newly added export duty of around US$180/tonne on crude oil exports to
Belarus will cost around US$1,6-2 billion loss for the Belarus budget. Up until now
Belarus sold refined oil products made of cheap Russian crude on to west European
markets at world prices.
The growing pressure of Russia has forced Lukashenka to seek the new partners
abroad, primarily with the aim to ensure the alternative energy sources. China has
become a new “strategic direction” already a year ago. After the visit of the
president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez in Minsk on July 24, 2006 the Belarusian-
Venezuelan commission was created which would be personally controlled by the
heads of the states. From the Belarusian side the State Secretary of the Security
Council Viktor Sheiman was nominated as the head of the commission that was an
evidence of its strategic importance. Minsk has been increasing its Iranian contacts
to the highest possible level and the Teheran visit of Lukashenka on November, 6
2006 and the official “military cooperation” statement suggesting possible arm deals.
In the meantime, Belarus is also proposing processing of the Azerbaijan’s oil and gas
in the Belarus’ modern powerful equipment of petrochemical complexes. The both
presidents discussed oil deliveries from Azerbaijan to Belarus via the Ukrainian
Odessa-Brody gas pipeline. This was toped by the most surprising proposal to create
so called “gas union” with Ukraine declared on November 23, 2006 on the eve of the
summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States hosted by Minsk. The real
question is whether Belarus achieves anything with its special relations with China,
Iran, Venezuela except exchanging nice words (and maybe a few old soviet
Beside the Belarusian threat to increase rent of the two Russian military bases (in
Vileyka and Baranovichi) – Minsk will likely to play with the political threat/context
behind the change of Russia’s subsidies toward Belarus. Lukashenka’s political
communication is strengthening this scenario: he has been shifting to emphasize a
very hard next year due to the gas price hike and increasing the nationalistic
messages. That would lead into a similar war (of words) between Belarus and Russia,
like in February 2004, when Russia stopped gas delivery for Belarus. “This is an act
of terrorism on the highest level” stated Lukashenka at the Belarusian TV. Unlike
Ukrainian politicians, he has influence in Russian media and public, which can win
him a better position in a political battle with Russian President Putin.
At the same time, when the gas and oil conflict between Belarus and Russia
culminated, the EU on November 21 presented a proposal of the advantages that EU
could offer to Belarus in case of Belarus would choose the path of democratization,
respect of human rights and rule of law. Despite of the efforts of the EU diplomats in
Minsk, the effort is so far unheard both by citizens and the regime. The financial aid
side of the EU offer – the only incentive the regime would hear these days - is
“smaller than the costs of plutonium causing the death of Litvinenko” as a joke in
Minsk goes, so Belarus` ignorance is obvious. Without serious incentives the EU
won’t be considered as a serious player neither in its “neighborhood”, Belarus,
Moldova or Ukraine. On the other hand, the EU seems ready to play harder with the
regime, another believed factor toward effective Eastern policy. The suspension of
the trade preferences under the GSP might be supported by the end of the year and
European diplomats have - first time in a press conference in Minsk on the occasion
of the EU Offer – said that the proposal on the opening of the EU Delegation is based
on reciprocity, e.g. if Belarus not comply with the (formal) request, the EU may close
down its Embassy to the European Union in Brussels.
Nevertheless, the former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski statement in favor
of the direct dialogue with Lukashenka arguing that the next few months will be key
for Belarus may have a prophetic character. Of course, there’s the rub: in any case
the West seems continuing to loose Belarus. This will be apparent if Russia acquires
the strategic economic assets. On the other hand, the direct dialogue between EU
and Lukashenka would mean the recognition of Lukashenka, thus the failure of the
policy based on the promotion of democratic values, in Belarus sacrificed to the
geopolitical interests. Even the EU chooses the lesser evil, i.e. the direct dialogue
with Lukashenka regime, the prospects of democratization of Belarus will be
postponed for a long time. EU could lose its supporters within Belarus with a minimal
prospect to win its current adversaries.
The Regime’s Domestic Policy: Business as Usual
The re-thinking of the foreign policy and the change of the image of Russia are not
accompanied by any political liberalization of the regime. Moreover, the growing
intensity, but small-scale character of the repression has been further confirming.
Obviously, any kind of liberalization sign would weaken the position of the regime.
The repressions started to penetrate not only in the political sphere and professional
life of the citizens, but even in the families. The intention of the regime to total
elimination of the oppositionists confirms the presidential Ordinance no. 18 of
November 24 “on additional measures for the state protection of children in
unfavorable family conditions“. According to this ordinance the children, whose
parents are considered as the people with asocial or pathological behavior, could be
deprived from the parents and taken to the orphanages even without the decision of
the court. Such law could be easily used against the families, where at least one
member was sentenced for the political reasons.
The atmosphere of the small scale persecutions characterizes the electoral campaign
before the upcoming local election as well. Small, since there is almost no opposition
candidates left to harass. In September the Chamber of Representatives adopted the
changes of the Electoral Code, according to it any meeting of the candidates with
voters should be approved by the local officials. The chair-woman of the Central
Elections Commission Lidziya Yarmoshyna announced that on the local election
appointed on January 14, 2006 will be held without international observers. To the
precinct election commission got only single member of the opposition party,
nominated by the United Civil Party. Few independent candidates and activists, who
were for example collecting the signatures for the opposition candidates, are fired
from the work or evicted from the universities. The former candidate of the United
Democratic Forces for the presidential election Alyaksandr Milinkevich was three
times detained by the police within a week.
Most importantly, the continuous, growing, but well targeted (opposition only) smallscale
repression strategy was enough to continuously pushing the opposition out of
the mainstream, but also challenge the dictator image of Lukashenka within the
society. According to the fresh analysis of the newly established network of
Belarusian analysts, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, the shifting
geopolitics, the policy change in Russia and the patriotic and well targeted (economic
and social issues) political communication of Lukashenka has made him pragmatic,
rather then charismatic choice. He keeps add new topics: most recently he worries
about the state of Belarusian language, once he basically banned by minimizing
Belarusian language in schools, closed down the only Belarusian Lyceum with
instruction in Belarusian, and preferring Russian in every state run media. He simply
might be preparing for changing its stability and prosperity messages for patriotic
ones when necessary.
Democratic Forces: Decomposition or New Concept toward Unity?
This shift within society was possible also due to the intact politics of the opposition
forces. The effective campaign of the regime drove out active opposition supporters
out of mainstream. The lack of hope in the elections and the general political climate
(threat of losing jobs) make look the opposition almost virtual, since it managed to
field around 800 candidates for registration, which is around 4% of the total
available more than 22,000 seats. There is 1.1 candidates per seat, which makes
many candidates run unopposed.
The concept of the creation of the single opposition, the non-party based movement,
has been proved as mission impossible. The movement “Za Svabodu” inspired by the
pre-election civic campaign and announced by the Milinkevich in the wave of postelection
protest, have not manage to replace the United Democratic Forces. One of
the main reasons is that it stacked with the announcement and developed no further.
Milinkevich is, still, acknowledged as the symbol of the fight for freedom enjoying
high name recognition both abroad and at home. However his position as the “leader
of the opposition” is strongly contested – at home. His political rating is notably
decreasing: according to available public opinion polls (IISEPS) in April 2006 18,4 %
of the respondents were decided to vote for him while in October this number
declined to 10,3 %.
Milinkevich clearly lost his political battle about the next Congress, when 60 % of the
participants of the regional conference of United Democratic Forces that took place in
Kiev in early November decided in favor to organize it before 25 March 2007. While
those attacking Milinkevich seems miscalculating his rating as a political symbol both
at home and abroad, the former oppositional candidate has clearly overestimates his
ability to “unite” the opposition merely takes his narrow circle advices into account.
If he continues within this line, he will soon the new leader of the center
right/conservative opposition force uniting the Belarusian Popular Front structures
with likeminded NGOs under the brand “Za svabodu”.
At the conference of the activists of democratic forces that took place in Kyiv on
November 5 and 6, 2006 the common strategy of the campaign before local election
was adopted. Despite the common strategy adopted one month after conference the
(regional structures of) PCB separate decision on the withdrawal from the elections.
Moreover, the unification process at the left wing of the opposition led by Sergei
Kaliakin, the Communist leader could give a different dynamics to the whole
opposition movement. The integration of the left forces including the PCB; the Social
Democratic Party of Belarus (National Hromada) led by imprisoned candidate for a
president Alyaksandr Kazulin and Women’s Party Nadzeya (Hope) topped at the
founding congress of the Union of Left Parties on December 17, 2006 in Chernygiv,
Ukraine. Seemingly, the Belarusian opposition (Kaliakin) was able to attract local
support for this process, while the new Union could give a chance to Kaliakin, whom
many see as the most capable leader within the opposition, to re-brand himself from
the Communist leader to a more acceptable social-democratic one. This integration
process could also lead to a more transparent and understandable opposition (for the
citizens) based on clear ideological distinctions.
Much depend on the new Congress of Democratic Forces, although currently not sure
whether this will take place at all. A poorly prepared – both agenda and participation
wise - Congress could degrade itself on the unrestrained decomposition of the
opposition if the whole energy of its initiators will be focused on the de-legitimization
of Milinkevich. On the other hand with a clear agenda to focus on enhancing
representation for the UDF and election of a new decision making body for UDF the
Congress could be the beginning of the controlled process of the new diversification
of the opposition leading to a new unity.