TCS Daily

Battle for Belarus

By Jan Czurylowicz - February 28, 2006 12:00 AM

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, widely recognized as the fall of communism and the Soviet Empire, was only the first step in a long process. The stagnation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, built on the ruins of the USSR, constituted the second part. Now, as new elites, with few connections to the Soviet past, rise to power in Georgia and Ukraine, we are witnessing the final stage. What's missing from this picture? Belarus, one of the three founding countries of the USSR, which still finds itself under a Soviet-style dictatorship.

During his 12 years in office, President Aleksandr Lukashenka has managed to replicate the once mighty Soviet Union on a smaller scale -- complete with propaganda, censorship, political repression and a centrally managed economy. He has had considerable success in pacifying his political opponents and the Belarusian population in general. The secret of Lukashenka's unrestrained power is in the significant of concentration of resources he has been able to achieve since he was elected in 1994. He consolidated the scope of presidential authority. State-owned mass-media, local authorities and the state economy were subordinated, bound by strict coordination and made to work towards the goals outlined by Lukashenka himself. The next in line were other sources of power, authority and wealth -- political opposition, criminals and private business. The first were marginalized, the second physically eliminated, and the third made to collaborate with the authorities. Those who did not were bankrupted, imprisoned or, if they were lucky enough, exiled.

For years the Belarusian democratic opposition was in disarray -- divided, frustrated and under-funded. It had almost no access to independent media nor any state-owned channels of information distribution. But Belarusians, although in complete isolation from independent information and from the democratic opposition, still managed to see the striking resemblance between Lukashenka's regime and those one of Brezhnev and Stalin. The obvious Soviet-style oppression, a significant discrepancy between information in the state media and reality, and the growing distance between the bureaucracy and the people have all damaged Lukashenka's popularity.

The opposition is starting to take advantage of this opportunity. In their Congress of Democratic Forces (UDF) in October 2005, the opposition overcame past personal ambitions and nominated Alaksandr Milinkievic as their single candidate for the elections, which will be held on March 19.

Despite this new unity, Belarusian democrats face a tough challenge. Opposition activists are constantly arrested, fired from their jobs, expelled from universities, their apartments searched, property confiscated. Milinkievic and his 5,000-strong campaign team are traveling the country in a door-to-door effort to make up for their lack of access to the media. The Belarusian KGB is close behind, following Milinkievic everywhere he goes, while local authorities, defending the status-quo, do everything possible to limit meetings of the opposition leader with voters.

External factors also play a significant role in Belarusian politics. The European Union and the United States see no other way of development for Belarus except through democratization. And that means Milinkievic. During his recent tour of EU countries Milinkievic met almost all important European leaders. But it's more complicated than just western countries trying to influence Belarusian politics. The Russian Federation has military bases deployed in Belarus, and the secret services of Belarus and Russia are almost merged; Lukashenka has no choice but to depend on the Kremlin. The $3 billion in annual profits from the re-export of Russian oil and gas gives Lukashenka enough resources to appease Belarusians by paying pensions and salaries on time.

Milinkievic's goals are pure -- freedom, democracy, and the market economy. Implementing them is where things become difficult. Belarusian society has never experienced real democracy and is deeply locked in fear. The economy, which according to official Belarusian statistics is the fastest growing in Europe, according to the IMF could plunge into deep recession and even crisis at any moment. Recent opinion polls show 60 percent of the Belarusian population wants to see the changes in the country, yet nobody knows their willingness to tolerate meaningful reforms.

As the March 19 election approaches, the tension on all fronts is escalating. Repression is increasing and no one knows how far it will go. Both sides of the political conflict are willing to continue the political siege until the very day of victory. Lukahsenka will certainly do his best not to allow any color of revolution to happen in Belarus. He will not hesitate to abuse the power he wields. The Belarusian opposition has serious reason to expect the worst, in which imprisonment would be the least danger. The greatest danger for the opposition, though, is in itself -- in case it fails to show the strength and determination -- and in its democratic supporters around the world if they turn their backs on Belarus.

The author works in the cabinet of European Parliament Vice-President Janusz Onyszkiewicz.


1 Comment

Gratulacje !
Szukalam czegos o wyborach na Bialorusi i natknelam sie na ten artykul. Janek, dobrze by bylo porozmawiac. Napisz co sie dzieje na moj stary adres hotmail, ok? Pozdrawiam - Grazyna.

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