On September 28, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made a speech at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit. His remarks contained sharp criticism of the United States’ policy of forceful democracy promotion across the world as well as of arbitrary and self-centered unilateralism that became possible after the US-Soviet strategic balance of power ceased to exist following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lukashenka also criticized the strongest world power’s inadequate understanding of the actual diversity of world cultures and ways of life. In addition, his speech contained a message of pride in the achievements of Belarus. According to Lukashenka, the country that lost about one-third of its population in World War II has not only eradicated hunger and poverty but also achieved 100 percent literacy, gender equality, and eliminated discrimination on ethnic and religious grounds. Lukashenka underscored the success of Belarus reducing its maternal mortality in childbirth to zero and achieving the world’s lowest infant mortality. While the latter (3.4 deaths per 1,000 live births, in 2014) is not exactly the lowest infant mortality rate in the world, it is indeed on par with that in Western European countries and significantly lower than in Russia and Ukraine. Referring to these achievements, Lukashenka exclaimed: “This is what democracy is about, not what our Western teachers want to implant” in our country (President.gov.by, September 29).
Some opposition-minded observers paid close attention to the fact that Lukashenka’s criticism of US policy at the UN summit echoed that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In this regard, scathing remarks by the prolific literary scholar Alexander Feduta, published on Naviny.by, stand out (Naviny.by, September 29). His article, entitled “Where was Lukashenka’s speech written?” suggests that Lukashenka may have had the same speechwriter as Putin. The piece also argues the Belarusian leader’s remarks foreshadowed the worsening of relations with the West that is expected to follow the October 11 presidential elections. Feduta was Lukashenka’s press secretary in 1994–1995, but subsequently became a prominent critic of the regime and spent more than three months in detention following the elections on December 19, 2010. In 2005, he published a highly critical Russian-language book, Lukashenka: The Political Biography. In his more recent caustic Naviny.by article, Feduta claims that after a speech like the one Lukashenka gave at the UN, Belarus will not receive any money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Furthermore, as he did several times in the past, Lukashenka has once again nullified his minister of foreign affairs’ efforts at rapprochement with the West, Feduta asserts.
Such an interpretation seems to miss several points of importance, however. First, a critical attitude toward US interventionism in the Middle East, particularly under George W. Bush, is quite common around the world—including in the US itself, as was on display during the September 17 Republican Party presidential debate. Against this backdrop, Lukashenka’s critique can hardly be considered scandalous. Second, IMF funding, which is still highly probable, in any case is hardly contingent on the content of Lukashenka’s speech. Third, the Belarusian president’s direct contact with the President of the United States—the first such meeting in ten years—in fact occurred after Lukashenka’s UN speech (Belta, September 29). Additionally, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei simultaneously held important meetings at the State Department (Belta, September 29). Fourth, making authoritative and strong statements at prestigious international forums raises Lukashenka’s prestige at home.
Already, the September national survey by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), a pollster funded by the West, showed that 45.7 percent of Belarusian adults would be willing to vote for Lukashenka, an increase from 38.6 percent in June. Considering the variable likelihood of the various age and sex cohorts in the overall electorate to actually show up to the polls, as well as their differing political preferences, this rating translates to Lukashenka probably winning, at minimum, 56 percent of the votes cast on October 11. According to the IISEPS’ forecast, Tatyana Korotkevich, the opposition candidate, can expect 22 percent of the popular vote on election day (Naviny.by, 29 September). Notably, only several weeks ago, Korotkevich was entirely unknown.
Yet, the traditional leaders of the Belarusian opposition who, unlike Korotkevich, have enjoyed two decades of name recognition, still appeal to the electorate to refrain from participating in the election. Such appeals are issued by recently released Nikolai Statkevich, by Anatoly Lebedko, who leads the United Civic Party, and by Vladimir Neklyaev, the former boss of Tatyana Korotkevich. But the idea of boycotting the elections is unpopular. According to the aforementioned September survey, 72.5 percent of eligible Belarusians are likely to vote; 47.6 percent believe that the elections will be free and fair; and the same exact share of the electorate claims that maintaining “peace and stability” is the most important issue, even more important than the overall quality of life, price hikes and employment. Such a priority ranking is a direct reflection of the conflict in Ukraine. Furthermore, the opposition’s inability to consolidate and its internecine fights for visibility in the West have resulted in only 13 percent of Belarusians trusting the opposition; six months earlier, 18.8 percent trusted it. The collective rating of all those leaders who are vociferously in favor of the election boycott is just 8 percent, significantly below the rating of Korotkevich alone (Naviny.by, September 30).
It is worth remembering that in 2010, just eleven days before that year’s presidential elections, Rodger Potocki, of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), called Belarusian opposition leaders “the enemies of themselves” (Tol.org, December 6, 2010). Today, his words have become even more relevant than they were five years ago. Apparently, Belarus’s political culture is being sustained through the common efforts of the government and the opposition, not the government alone.
In the meantime, the incumbent president continues to avoid straightforward campaigning and yet manages to boost his rating by participating in timely, well-organized and large-scale patriotic endeavors. Such was the solemn ceremony “Prayer for Belarus,” held on October 2, in Minsk, at the Temple-Monument named in honor of All Saints. Although an Orthodox shrine, the leaders of Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities participated as well (Belarus.by, October 2).
Thus, with the election around the corner, the winner is more assured than ever before.