On Saturday April 8, Alexander Lukashenka was inaugurated for a third term as president of Belarus, eight days later than originally scheduled and following the most controversial election campaign in the brief history of the independent country. The stability of his extended presidency rests on relations with Russia and on the status of the opposition movement under rival presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich, which gained significant momentum during and after the election.
The first major repercussion of the election has been a visa ban on Lukashenka and 30 other leading government officials following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on April 10. The ban includes most of Lukashenka’s top officials, including the head of the KGB (Stepan Sukhorenka), the Prosecutor-General (Pyotr Miklashevich), the head of state television and radio (Alexander Zimouski), the Minister of Interior (Vladimir Navumau), the Secretary of the Security Council (Viktor Sheiman), the Minister of Justice (Viktor Holovanau), the Minister of Information (Vladimir Rusakevich), and the Minister of Education (Alexander Radkau). The ban is in place for one year and can be extended. The EU has called on Belarus to hold a repeat election under free and fair conditions.
At a news conference in Minsk on the same day, Milinkevich requested that the ban be expanded to include hundreds of other figures, including “specific executives.” The opposition leader embarked on another European tour after the March 19 election, and has clearly been accepted by EU leaders as a viable democratic alternative candidate for the Belarusian presidency. The Belarusian government has reacted angrily to the ban on its leaders and promised reciprocal action against leading EU figures. According to Mikalay Charhinets, chairman of the international committee in the upper house of the parliament, Europe is blinding itself to the facts, listening only to one side, and funding oppositionists who are at liberty to travel to the West “to collect their pay.”
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso commented on April 11 that the EU is relying on Russia to put pressure on Belarus to end its harsh measures against the opposition and its sympathizers. Belarus, he informed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), would be excluded from the European Neighborhood Policy unless it established the rule of law. The issue of Russia’s attitude is a particularly sensitive one, given the threats of Gazprom to raise gas prices to Belarus to world levels in 2007 (see EDM, April 7).
However, the immediate reaction from Russia has been one of solidarity with the Lukashenka regime. Russia accepted the election results and President Vladimir Putin personally congratulated Lukashenka on his victory. The Russian ambassador to Belarus, Alexander Surikov, has maintained that the ban on Lukashenka and other officials is “an insult to the dignity of the Belarusian people,” and is unrelated to the pursuit of democratic principles. Gennady Seleznev, former speaker of the Russian State Duma, described the EU resolution as “immoral.”
In the aftermath of the election, hundreds of activists remain detained with short prison sentences, including opposition presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin, who was arrested after the demonstration on March 25. Kazulin, like the Milinkevich team, has demanded that the Supreme Court overturn decisions by the Central Election Commission about the final vote tally. His prior challenge to the CEC about the results was rejected. To date, the authorities have dismissed all complaints about the way in which the election was conducted.
Following the election, Belarus’s relations with its western neighbor, Poland, are tense and hostile. Former Polish ambassador to Belarus Mariusz Matusewicz, who was arrested at a demonstration and then hospitalized with suspected cardiac arrest, has been allowed to return to Poland without serving the remainder of his 15-day term. However, his release came only after a personal demand from the Polish president. The Belarusian ambassador to Poland, Pavel Latushka, has been recalled to Minsk and there is no prospect of his immediate return. Similarly, the Polish ambassador to Belarus, Henryk Litwin, will not leave for Belarus unless the political situation there changes radically. Poland has also sought more information about the death of the Polish deputy consul in Hrodna, Ryszard Badon-Lehr, who was found unconscious in his apartment on March 22 and subsequently died at the hospital.
The government and the opposition are now preparing for the April 26 “Chernobyl Way” demonstration in central Minsk, which will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the nuclear disaster that contaminated more than one-fifth of Belarusian land with long-living radio-nuclides. For Milinkevich it will be a test of the commitment of opposition groups — such as Zubr and the Young Front — to continuing the struggle against the Lukashenka regime. Traditionally, the Chernobyl Way is the biggest demonstration of the calendar year and it will take on a political hue, particularly since the government has begun to re-cultivate the contaminated regions and has restricted independent inquiries into the long-term health effects of the accident in the republic.
For Lukashenka, the election has brought increased isolation, bitter relations with East European neighbors, and a more organized and committed internal opposition. Exceptionally difficult negotiations lie ahead with Russia on gas prices and the likely referendum on a new draft of the terms of the Russia-Belarus Union. Overall, the Belarusian president appears to have been weakened by the election campaign, though not fatally.
(Charter 97, April 6 and 10; Belapan, April 6 and 10; Belarusian TV, April 10; BBC News, April 10; Pravda, April 11; Russia Journal, April 11; BBC Monitoring, April 6-10)