Backsliding in Belarus The EU's False Impression of Lukashenko

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko left little doubt about who was in control of his country following last week's elections. The European Union had hoped for more democracy. But it would appear that many in Belarus are happy with the status quo.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has left no doubt about who is in control in his country.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has left no doubt about who is in control in his country.

By and

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was one of the first to congratulate "the great European leader" Alexander Lukashenko on his re-election, calling the Belarusian leader's country a "bastion of dignity and prosperity in the middle of a Europe agitated by the insatiable greed of transnational capital."

In his congratulatory cable, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referred to "yet another golden chapter of the brilliant history of the great people of Belarus."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also offered his congratulations, though with a touch of a guilty conscience. The election in Minsk, he said, was an "internal affair," characterizing Belarus as one of the countries that is "closest to Russia, regardless of its political leadership."

The "golden chapter" Iranian President Ahmadinejad mentioned was a reference to the election in Belarus, in which, according to the official count, 7.8 million people voted for their next president on the Sunday before last. But the chapter was not golden; it was bloody.

It had hardly been announced that autocratic leader Lukashenko would remain in power (it was his fourth election victory in a row, and this time his official tally was 79.7% of the votes), when more than 10,000 citizens took to the streets in the capital Minsk. An attempt to storm the government headquarters building failed. The secret police, which appeared to have been well prepared, clubbed down the demonstrators, arrested several hundred and carried off seven of the opposition presidential candidates.

Weekend Raids

The old and new president said that "bandits" had triggered mass unrest, and that he would not allow a revolution to take place in his country. In expedited proceedings, he had about 600 regime critics sentenced to prison terms. His justice ministry threatened to ban all parties, movements and trade unions whose members had taken part in the protest -- as if many such organizations still existed. Over the weekend, police raided the homes and offices of several opposition activists.

It was an ugly reversion to former times, and it triggered a public relations crisis for Western Europe. Two days after the election, the 27 member states of the European Union noted that they had had a "bad feeling" about the images coming from Minsk. In January, the EU will decide whether to reinstate earlier sanctions against the regime in Minsk.

Only last year, politicians in Brussels, citing the easing of political tensions in the realm of long-time dictator Lukashenko, had lifted a ban on entry into the EU imposed in 2006 on Lukashenko and about three dozen of his followers. The Europeans had argued that the Belarusian had taken some positive steps, including the release of political prisoners and the acceptance of two opposition newspapers. He was promptly invited to attend the inauguration of the EU's Eastern Partnership program in Prague. The move prompted the Minsk newspaper Komsomolskaja prawda to rejoice, calling Lukashenko "a legitimate player in European politics."

But as the recent election in Minsk shows, this is precisely what he is not. Once again, observers are asking themselves what drives the 56-year-old son of a textile worker, and how he consistently manages to gain the support of a majority of his people, despite all protests.

A Silent Majority

Stability and modest prosperity, a nationalist course and a toothless opposition -- these are the three sources from which Lukashenko derives his power and self-confidence. In the months before the election, he gradually increased the benefits paid to 2.5 million retirees by more than 20 percent, and next year he plans to double the wage and salaries of doctors and teachers.

The country that was once both the engineering hub and weapons producer for the Soviet Union has indeed had some successes recently. The economy has grown by more than a third since 2005. Agricultural exports increased sixfold in the last 10 years, because Lukashenko had milk combines modernized and 15,000 tractors purchased. The government boasts that no other country in the post-Soviet region builds as much residential space per capita as Belarus.

According to a survey by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, which is based in Lithuania, 51 percent of Belarusians believe that their country is developing satisfactorily, up from only 38 percent in 2001. The poll also showed that a majority of young people is loyal to Lukashenko. It would seem as if the Minsk dictator is the president of a silent majority, one that will continue to tolerate him for as long as it feels that an economic recovery is underway.

Almost in the heart of Europe, less than 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) from Berlin, Lukashenko's realm symbolizes a development that is not in keeping with what the West had envisioned. Almost 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, authoritarian systems have become established in most of its former republics.

Sability, Order and Calm

President Nursultan Nazarbayev has controlled Kazakhstan for more than two decades. In Uzbekistan, dictator Islam Karimov once had his security forces shoot down hundreds of demonstrators. The pro-Western "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine was a failure, and now the country is returning to an authoritarian style of leadership. Finally, in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has established a system of one-party rule whitewashed with obedient bloc parties.

All of these regimes depend on an inherited system of repression carried out by the intelligence agencies and police. And the leadership in each country is counting on a population plagued by currency devaluation, crises and uncertainty rejecting change and betting on stability, order and calm.

This is also the case in Lukashenko's Belarus, where the intelligence service still goes by the name KGB. "Many feel that the Soviet system was not bad. The people perceived the early 1990s as a shock and believe that Lukashenko delivered them from it," says Minsk political scientist Pavel Morosov. "Many want things to be the way they used to be." Lukashenko also portrays himself as a champion of Belarusian sovereignty and a "man in the middle," holding the fort between the siren calls of the European Union and the increasingly brusque Russians, who want to put their junior partner on a tighter leash.

The Belarusians fear that closer ties to Russia could allow Moscow's state-owned companies to buy up their businesses, whereas the market economy reforms that the EU wants to see put in place would trigger rising inflation and unemployment. Instead, Lukashenko is pinning his hopes on new sources of capital: Venezuela, Iran and China. Beijing wants to modernize the railroad in Belarus and the Minsk airport, and it will receive a communications intercept station in return.

Missed Irony

The weakness of the opposition is one of the reasons Lukashenko will not be chided for the sort of police brutality that unfolded on the day of the election. The population does not hold the opposition leaders in high esteem. They are seen as narcissistic, authoritarian and controlled by foreign powers. But there is a reason why they depend on donations from the West: The opposition lacks the support of a private entrepreneurial class.

The US Embassy in Minsk, which is very active, has repeatedly pointed out this deficit in its reports to Washington. In a cable written in February 2006, before that year's presidential election, US Ambassador George Krol characterized Lukashenko's support as "considerable" and the regime as "strong." The opposition, Krol continued, had not been able to convince Belarusians that life would improve under a new leader. But the opposition also has little opportunity to discuss alternatives to Lukashenko, because the intelligence service constantly imprisons and demoralizes regime critics.

This fall, RockerJocker, a Minsk pop group, came out with the hit single of the year, a song called "Stay With Us, Sanja." Sanja is Lukashenko's nickname. The lyrics tout the country's blue skies and happy mothers, clean streets and reliable bus service, and describe Belarus as the "cleanest place on Earth."

Lukashenko shrewdly bought the rights to the song and had it played during his campaign appearances. It was also played several times a day on the government-owned radio stations. Most Belarusians were enthusiastic about the song and believed that the lyrics were promises their president was making to them. Hardly anyone noticed that the words were meant to be ironic.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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