TCS Daily

Fear and Loathing in Europe's Last Dictatorship

By Ariel Cohen - March 20, 2006 12:00 AM

As Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, staged presidential elections this past Sunday, champagne corks popped in Moscow as well as in Minsk. Political operatives in Moscow were concerned that democratic opposition in Belarus may turn to violence as it loses elections to President Alexander Lukashenko. They believe that a successful overthrow of the Lukashenko regime would bode ill for Russia, which faces a parliamentary and presidential election cycle in 2007-2008.

After Belarus, fears of an "orange revolution" in Moscow may be subsiding. Kazakhstan elected the popular President Nursultan Nazarbaev with over 90 percent of the vote in December 2005. Now Lukashenko claims 88 percent with a record 92 percent participation rate after threatening to "wring necks of those who threaten a coup."

With Moscow's blessing, he conducted elections in an atmosphere of political repression, with snipers posted in the center of Minsk. Thanks to thuggish tactics, a crooked electoral system, and a large slush fund courtesy of Russia, the dictator may remain in place indefinitely.

Belarus's relationship with ??scow is a key to the survival of the Lukashenko regime. Despite disappearances and threats against Russian journalists who were critical of Lukashenko, most Russian TV coverage of Belarus remained pro-government. Moreover, Belarus opposition figures say that even a couple of hints from the Moscow channels, such as a meeting between opposition leaders and Putin, would trigger mass abandonment of the mustachioed dictator by Belarusian viewers. But beyond low-level informal contacts, Moscow paid no serious attention to the Belarusian opposition.

After all, the Moscow sources explain, Belarus is a strategic asset for Russia. First, it is a "bulwark" against the West. Squeezed between Catholic Poland and Lithuania - and President Victor Yushchenko's "orange" Ukraine -- Belarus is viewed by Russian strategists as a "cordon sanitaire" against Western expansion.

Second, it has a virtually unreformed, Soviet-style army, which is near and dear to any Soviet-educated officer's heart. And third, Moscow's military-industrial complex used Belarus as a conduit for exports to Iran. Such shipments have included tank parts, conventional weapons, and Soviet-trained Belarusian scientists to work with Iranians on uranium enrichment and the Shahab missile system. The two countries have pledged mutual support in the face of international criticism. Their close cooperation could blunt the effectiveness of sanctions on either country.

From the Pacific to the Baltic, Russia is preoccupied with strengthening the bloc it leads, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization it chairs together with China. In Lukashenko, Russian die-hards recognize an ally that is even more nostalgic for the former Soviet than they are.

If integration goes beyond the current CIS customs union, Russia views Belarus as potentially a part of its future empire, of which many a Russian leader and member of the political elite dream. There is already a joint secretariat of the Russian-Belarusian Union state, and there was a talk of electing Putin as the first president of such a state come 2008 - a plan Putin himself has denied so far.

Finally, a union with Belarus will greatly enhance Russia's demographic balance, adding 10 million Russian Orthodox Slavs to the population mix in which the Slavic population is declining due to alcohol-related diseases and a low birth rate. The numbers of Muslims from the former Soviet Union in Russia are growing much more quickly than of any other ethnic group.

Moscow is ready to pay for such dependent status of Belarus. It supplies Minsk with natural gas at one-quarter of the going market price in Western Europe. Russia sells gas to Belarus at a steep discount—$46.68 per thousand cubic meters (tcm)—which Belarus then resells to Europe at or just below market rates of about $250/tcm. Russia also provides subsidized oil. All proceeds go to Lukashenko's presidential fund. These proceeds fund an extensive social safety net, which assured Lukashenko's re-election, while keeping the population at subsistence level.

There are also reports of sales of cheap oil which Belarus is reselling in Europe, while profits benefit directly Lukashenko. Russian border guards for years looked elsewhere while Lukashenko's cronies made hundreds of millions of dollars smuggling cigarettes and illicit booze through the porous Russia-Belarus border. Lukashenko controls the country's finances, circumventing his parliament and cabinet. He has even admitted to the existence of a "presidential reserve fund" containing over $1 billion.

Thus, the Russian support of Lukashenko contributes to an illiberal climate in the CIS, its freedom-less future. Even before embracing dictatorships of Central Asia, such as those in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Russia enhanced Lukashenko's iron grip.

With Belarus's abysmal human rights record and its intimate relations with rogue regimes, including Iran, Syria, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the West cannot be complacent. The United States and the European Union should send a message to Russia that supporting dictators doesn't pay.

The Belarus Democracy Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004, provides for sanctions and visa bans against Belarusian officials, freezing Belarusian assets, banning government loans and investments in Belarus, and funding expansion of broadcasting to Belarus. Thus far, these tools have seen little use. Employed more aggressively, these measures could put pressure on Lukashenko to pursue a more democratic course.

The regime's more heinous acts, such as political killings, should trigger real repercussions. Interpol should begin criminal proceedings against Lukashenko and his supporters and Western courts should freeze Belarusian state assets in the West. Today, the message to Lukashenko and his Moscow benefactors should be clear: as long as you violate human rights and international law, there is a price to pay.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.


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