More Vulnerable than Ever

Media: Lukashenka threatens he may withdraw from “union state”, CIS, CSTO and Customs UnionMore vulnerable than ever
By Vital Silitski

Russia has made clear that it wants Alyaksandr Lukashenka unseated as Belarus' president. December's elections are now crucial and unpredictable.
Suddenly, in the eyes of many, Alyaksandr Lukashenka's days as Belarus' president are numbered. In a videoblog on 3 October, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev accused the Belarusian strongman of spreading anti-Russian hysteria, said he was duplicitous for not recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia as states, and hinted that Russia may raise awkward questions about the disappearance of political opponents of Lukashenka ten years ago.

Medvedev's message leaves no doubt that the Kremlin, which has never had easy relations with Lukashenka, now wants Lukashenka out. With Belarus two months away from a presidential election, this was the moment to strike.

Medvedev's intervention has turned the election from an exercise in futility for the divided and self-absorbed opposition into a crucial and unpredictable affair. Moscow may not throw its support behind any candidate, but it may not recognise Lukashenka's victory as legitimate, using that as a pretext to intensify economic pressure, promote splits in the ruling elite and, eventually, force Lukashenka out.

But it will be some time before that happens. Lukashenka enjoys substantial public support and the loyalty of his henchmen – and he will reinforce that support by posing as a defender of Motherland against the oligarchs who, he will say, are using Medvedev as their puppet.

Still, if Russia maintains a consistent line, it will be sending a signal that Belarusians cannot ignore: you supported Lukashenka for stability, but from now on there will be no stability with Lukashenka.

To survive, Lukashenka needs a plan. In the past, when under Russian pressure, he has presented himself as the chief proponent of Belarus's independence (2004), then liberalised the economy (2007) and then freed political prisoners (after Russia's attack on Georgia in 2008). But Lukashenka has not compromised on big things – democracy and human rights. Dissatisfied with the EU's lack of interest in the bargains he has offered, Lukashenka has turned to China.

But Chinese help may take time to take effect and he needs a plan now. So Lukashenka will make token efforts to secure legitimacy for the elections in the West, possibly by announcing a more realistic winning margin (he said as much on 1 October). That may – and should – come as too little, too late for the EU.

So what does this mean for Belarusians? The campaign has begun vigorously, showing that Belarusians are shedding some fears, and Lukashenka's sudden struggle for survival will encourage opponents.

However, the chances for change will be lost if the election turns into a battle between Lukashenka and Kremlin.

Moscow is pursuing its interests, not Belarusians'. All the sins that the Kremlin now charges Lukashenka with (and others) can easily be identified within its own walls. Belarusians therefore have a choice between two evils – and for most Lukashenka is the lesser evil. That is also the view that many in the opposition would take: they may hate Lukashenka but few will want Belarus to lose its independence and with it the prospect of one day becoming a modern European state.

A choice between two evils is how the election will stay, unless the election acquires a European dimension. If Brussels is indifferent, it may well help Lukashenka wriggle out.

In the past, the EU has struggled to find ways to achieve something in Belarus. It may now have many options – diplomacy, political pressure, sticks and carrots. In using them, it should follow three principles.

First, it should support the process, rather than the result – that is, it should judge the election by the fairness of the campaign and of the vote count, rather than the size of Lukashenka's victory. Co-operating with Russia to monitor the election could prove very valuable.

Second, it should exploit Lukashenka's survival instincts: it should reiterate its offer of engagement and economic assistance, making clear, though, that he can no longer dictate terms and that democracy and human rights can no longer be compromised.

And third, it should encourage political participation inside Belarus and articulate moral support for candidates who campaign under a pro-European and democratic message.

Vital Silitski is the head of the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, an independent think-tank.
The European Voice