Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 179

Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is fostering a sense of isolation and national grievance against the outside world, in advance of next month’s parliamentary elections. As part of pre-electoral tactics, Lukashenka is attempting to cast himself as the defender of national interests against what he portrays as predatory and overbearing countries all around Belarus. Increasingly, Lukashenka tends to include official Russia among those ill-wishers.

On an “working” inspection visit-cum-electoral swing last week in the Mahilyou Region–his early political base, and a favored territory with him ever since–Lukashenka declared: “I will agree to uniting [with Russia] only on equal terms. Until Russia recognizes that we should have equal rights in a union, I can not agree to unite. To be stepson in a foreign state–that is not what you elected me for. You should understand this clearly, regardless of any attempts to speculate on the subject of Belarus-Russia relations. We stand for equality.” (Belarusan TV, September 22).

Two days later, Lukashenka went on national television to accuse Russia of attempting to grab the lion’s share of posts on “union state” bodies for Russian government representatives, so as to reduce the Belarusans to a minority in those joint bodies. Lukashenka demanded strict parity of Russian and Belarusan representatives (Belarusan TV, September 24). More to the point–as Lukashenka himself went on to admit–those joint bodies have yet to be formed, funded and housed; the Russian government has not even allocated a building in Moscow for the “union state’s” would-be Standing Committee. This particular failure Lukashenka blamed on the Kremlin itself.

Upping the ante in an interview for Russian television, recorded yesterday, Lukashenka warned: “Imperial positions must be kept out of the relations between Russia and Belarus. Such attitudes are harmful to Russia itself. Only equality of rights can eventually guarantee a viable union.” Local observers could not remember any previous imputation of “imperial positions” to official Russia by Lukashenka. In the same interview, the president complained that officials in Moscow have their ways of “humiliating the Belarusan officials.”

With calculated ambiguity, Lukashenka declared that “should the idea of Belarus-Russia unification sink, then one out of four components of the Belarusan president’s policy will have sunk.” He was referring to his four-point, 1994 electoral platform, one point of which had envisaged closest relations with Russia. The wording in yesterday’s statement appears designed to put the importance of that goal in perspective and even downgrade it.

At the same time, Lukashenka’s anti-Western rhetoric continues unabated. His pre-election speeches describe Western policies as inimical to both Belarus and Russia, the Belarusan opposition as instruments of the West, and even the Russian officialdom as infiltrated. “Just think how much the West paid out to those who concluded the Belavezh agreements [1991 acts on the dissolution of the Soviet Union]. Some of those involved continue to hold posts in Russia’s governmental structures… Russian officialdom includes more than a few people with pro-Western inclinations,” he warned (Itar-Tass, September 26).

Lukashenka has always been unwilling to take practical steps toward political unification with Russia, inasmuch as the union would undermine his personal power in Belarus. He has in the past systematically blamed certain Moscow officials for blocking “economic unification,” by which he understands Russian direct or indirect subsidization of the Belarusan state economy. But he has never attacked Moscow in the terms that he is now using.

This unprecedented rhetoric probably reflects Lukashenka’s reading of public opinion trends in Belarus. The president is known to pay attention to those trends as reported to him by the intelligence services. As he prepares to stage elections next month, Lukashenka apparently recognizes that the idea of unification with Russia has steadily been losing popularity. The national-democratic opposition has recognized that trend long ago. His KGB (still so named) is now probably drawing Lukashenka’s attention to that trend (see the Monitor, May 12, September 1, 6).