Several recent events suggest that changes are underway in Belarus as it emerges from isolation and begins new dialogues with the countries of the European Union. According to sociological surveys, the electorate remains behind the president; and after a brief shock engendered by sharp price rises at the end of 2007, Belarusian society rapidly returned to apathy, which is described in the official media as “stability” (Belorusy i Rynok, November 17-24). That allowed the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to enjoy a comfortable victory in the 2008 parliamentary elections, albeit in a restrictive environment.
After the much-touted removal of the travel ban to Europe imposed by the EU on Lukashenka and his associates two years ago, the Belarusian leadership has taken initiatives in a number of areas that suggest change is imminent. On November 18 a Belarusian Investment Forum opened in London, with the participation of Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski and senior European business executives. It took place at the Church House Conference Center, a venue originally built to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 (Belapan, November 18). Sidorski met with members of the two British houses of parliament as well as with Lord Mayor of London Ian Luder to discuss potential cooperation between the two countries at a time of global financial crisis. The Belarusian prime minister urged his British counterparts to visit Belarus (Narodnaya Volya, November 18).
Although relations with the United States have been less smooth in recent months, Lukashenka announced his desire for the start of a new dialogue in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on November 11. Much of this interview was shown on Belarusian Television’s Channel One on November 14, and it featured the Belarusian leader bemoaning the effects of U.S.-imposed sanctions on trade between the two countries (www.naviny.by, November 16). Lukashenka expressed his pleasure at the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States, referring to him as a “new, young, and unblinkered man” and drawing parallels to himself when he was first elected in 1994. Americans, according to the president, comprehend the importance of Belarus as “a key country in Europe” (Reuters, November 11).
The changing nature of elite politics in Belarus was also discussed by Valeriy Karbalevich, in a paper presented to the Second Conference of the Institute of Strategic Studies, held in Kyiv, Ukraine, on November 11 and 12 and published in an abbreviated format in a Belarusian opposition newspaper. Karbalevich noted Lukashenka’s self-appointed task of making Belarus’s investment climate one of the 30 best in the world as well as starting to “normalize” its relations with Europe. Belarus formerly revered its Soviet past and supported a union with Russia, but today the emphasis is on stability derived from the activities of the president and the strengthening of Belarusian sovereignty (Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, November 18).
However, Karbalevich continued, these new developments had in turn posed some problems for the regime. In 1998, after the financial collapse in Russia, Belarus strengthened its administrative command system; but a decade later its focus is on liberalization. This change of policy has led to changes in the social basis of support for the Lukashenka regime. A consumer boom period from 2003 to 2008 led to the birth of a new middle class. Increasingly, says Karbalevich, this group, which supports the president, is to be found in Minsk and the larger cities, thereby taking away the former areas of support for the opposition. The economic crisis, however, is forcing the government to satisfy this group by expanding economic freedom. The outcome in the long term could be the development of a new center of power in the country, creating what the author calls a nomenklatura-oligarchic regime that could restrict the previously unlimited authority of the president.
Lukashenka, according to this account, seeks a “Chinese” solution to his problems (economic reform while retaining a strong central government) rather than the sort of outcome that befell Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Though persuasive, the argument is not entirely convincing. One could make an equally plausible case that Lukashenka’s machinations are dictated more by external circumstances than any initiatives from Minsk. A feature of his long period in office has been his tendency to switch policies on an almost weekly basis. How does one equate a reluctance to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Belarus’s apparent agreement with Russia at Sochi last August to create a joint defense system? It was reported that Lukashenka recently discussed the possibility with Moscow of installing Russian Iskander missiles in Belarus, a prospect described by the United States as “unhelpful to regional security” (VOA News, November 14; www.belradio.fm, November 13).
Furthermore, although several political prisoners have been released in recent months, there is not the slightest indication that Belarus has created a more tolerant political climate for members of the opposition, unregistered youth groups, and other malcontents. Despite such repressive tactics, the Europeans have decided it is preferable to open a door to Lukashenka and his associates, mainly because of perceived threats from Russia and despite an election that fell well below acceptable standards. Finally, the changes in the sectors of support for the president will hardly be a lasting phenomenon if Belarus suffers the full effects of the current recession, as seems likely. The new middle class could disappear as quickly as it emerged.