On May 23 Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka delivered a “state of the nation address” that was broadcast live on Belarusian TV and lasted a relatively modest 51 minutes. The speech was significant for being his first major post-election broadcast, and it provided some rationale behind his personal mode of leadership while outlining his world view. The speech was a curious mixture: some ideas seemed to be expropriated from the presidential campaign of opposition candidates Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kazulin, whereas others were more familiar to television viewers.
Lukashenka began by focusing on what he termed “people power” and the resolution of the most important issues through popular participation in elections, referendums, and all-Belarusian assemblies. In what may have been a response to Western criticism, he claimed that civil society already exists in Belarus and is expressed through labor collectives, more than 2,000 public associations, 41 trade unions, and other organizations that provide for partnership and cooperation between these organs and the state. He intends to adhere to the contentious labor contracts and maintains that the Federation of Trade Unions should expose abuses in the labor relations system.
In contrast to other states — none are cited but Russia may have been in mind — Lukashenka has no plans to create a “party of power.” Though he valued the role of the former Communist Party in the Soviet Union, he would not establish such a party from above; it could only be developed from the grassroots. In his view, there is no crisis in Belarus and therefore no reason for such a party to emerge at present. Belarusian society is based on four foundations, in his view: trade unions, councils of deputies, and youth and veterans’ organizations. Some local councils, he stated, have “run to extremes,” and the opposition is seeking “revenge” for its presidential electoral defeat by focusing on local elections. Thus there is work to be done by pro-government youth and veterans organizations with students and young people.
The concept of the “people” and popular support for his rule was repeated throughout his speech and is interpreted as confidence in officials, civil servants, and the president. However, Lukashenka was frank when it comes to his main problems, which are refined to two major issues: rising energy prices and constant threats of sanctions and other “preposterous measures” by the European Union and United States. He perceives a way out of this impasse by an aggressive “multidirectional policy” and support for a multi-polar world rather than one dominated by “barefaced diktat” — a direct attack on the United States.
How is such a world to be constructed? First, Lukashenka perceives the emergence of new centers of power, and China is mentioned several times as a close friend of Belarus with a similar outlook. High energy prices have benefited Iran and allowed Russia to get back on its feet. India, Latin America, and other regions wish to become more independent in their policies.
As for Belarus, it intends to stand closely beside Russia and to deepen its relationship because “the benefits of unification are indisputable.” It will also work within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States, though Lukashenka acknowledged the need for reform of this institution, and each state must take on more responsibility for its improvement. Belarus also wishes to expand significantly the role of the UN as an arbiter of international problems and to strengthen international security.
Overall the speech offered little of real vision for Lukashenka’s third term. Elsewhere he has expressed his outrage at the travel ban on himself and 35 leading officials imposed by the EU and the United States, and he has encouraged parliament to respond to the refusal by Canada and the United States to allow a Belarusian plane to refuel as it transported the Belarusian prime minister to Cuba. The problem for Lukashenka, however, is that he is in no position to forgo trade with the EU, especially in light of the recent Russian demands for tighter integration of Belarus through the structures of the Russia-Belarus Union.
Thus Lukashenka is assuring his own people and his foreign critics that his regime is based on popular enthusiasm and participation, a sort of dual power that masks the reality of a state run increasingly as a personal fiefdom. Such rhetoric has been deployed skillfully in the past, and it conveys the image that Lukashenka has rescued his state from economic privations and defended it from its enemies, while avoiding civil strife despite the machinations of the opposition. But many opposition supporters, particularly young people, are no longer deceived by what has been termed “symbolic rhetoric.”
A balancing act will now have to be performed: to maintain close links and friendship with Russia without giving up enterprises, resources, and even sovereignty; overt hostility to the EU while working behind the scenes to reverse sanctions and to maintain existing levels of trade; friendship with Iran and China, but never definitively closing the door to warmer relations with the United States, particularly after the Bush administration ends its term in office. Lastly, and most significantly, Lukashenka is implicitly warning his public that hard times are on the way. The much-touted “Belarusian path” of development is no longer viable.
(Belapan, May 23; Itar-Tass, May 23; Interfax-Ukraine, May 23; BBC Monitoring, May 23; Respublika, May 24)