Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s recent visit to the United States and his declaration that these two countries would work together to bring about regime change in Belarus caused shock waves in Minsk and brought about an immediate official protest (Belarusian Television, Vokrug Planety, April 9). At a meeting in Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka declared that his country was not threatened by revolution (RIA-Novosti, April 8). His denial raises the question of whether there is any realistic possibility of a change of regime in Belarus.
Though not a full-fledged dictatorship, since 1994 the Lukashenka regime has taken several steps that have singled it out as a particularly repressive regime. Parliament and the Constitutional Court have been deprived of authority. The president has enhanced and extended his own powers by dubious means, such as referenda and control of the media. Leading opponents have been removed, either through arbitrary arrest, fleeing the country, or simply disappearing. Elections are — if not rigged outright — carefully controlled by the authorities. The government has allied with the KGB, the Interior Ministry, and the army in order to be prepared to deal harshly with the opposition.
The other characteristic of the Lukashenka regime has been its orientation toward Russia, which has undergone several metamorphoses, from official state policy to a partial retraction when the Russia-Belarus Union threatened to deprive Minsk of any real authority (Putin’s public statements to this effect shocked Lukashenka). Efforts to adopt a common currency have been stalled (Belorusskiy rynok, April 4-10), but what might be termed a “reconciliation” occurred on April 4 at Sochi (Pravda, April 6).
In the face of potential crisis, the Russian partnership has now been cautiously resurrected because it has once again become mutually beneficial. For Putin, even an unpredictable quasi-dictator on the western border is preferable to a reformer such as Yushchenko. And for Lukashenka, there are few other friends on the horizon. The fall of “friendly” governments in Serbia (one he had embraced publicly), Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan has clearly unnerved him. But are conditions ripe for change?
That there is opposition to the government is clear. For over a year the opposition has been organizing a democratic coalition that is now concerned with the nomination of a single candidate to face Lukashenka in the presidential elections of 2006. Wisely it has not rushed the procedure, since this would allow the government to focus its energies on the designated single candidate. The difficulty, however, has been the potential choices.
What Belarus has been lacking, in contrast to Ukraine, is a credible candidate from within the ruling structures. The most prominent names are very familiar to the population: Stanislau Shushkevich, Mikalay Statkevich, Zenon Paznyak, Anatol Lyabedzka, Andrei Klimau, and Syarhey Kalyakin. The government has conducted a largely successful campaign to vilify them in the media, accusing them of taking handouts from foreign governments, campaigning to take the country out of the Russian orbit, to join NATO, etc. Shushkevich is also identified with a time of uncertainty and economic crisis (1991-93), as opposed to the guaranteed salaries and wages offered by the current government. Aside from Paznyak, all the above candidates have still managed to operate from within the country.
By contrast, potential candidates from within the ruling structures, i.e. people who have served in the Lukashenka regime and then been dismissed, are dealt with much more ruthlessly because they constitute a more authentic threat to the regime. They include former ambassadors Mikhail Marynich and Piotr Krauchenka, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, and General Valery Fralou.
Similarly, the activities of youth opposition groups, such as Zubr and the Youth Front, have also elicited overreaction from the government, which correctly perceives them as the cutting edge of any serious movement for change. The regime has also attempted in recent years to ensure the “ideological correctness” of university instructors, while eliminating private institutions as well as contact with Western counterparts (EDM, August 9, 2004). Realistically, regime change would have to combine youth protests and a leader acceptable to the population.
Belarus is not immune to change. But at present the key factor is Lukashenka’s often contentious but essential contact with Russia. Russian oil and gas remain lifelines for the Belarusian economy. Support for Lukashenka within Russia is stronger than opposition to him (politicians such as Boris Nemtsov have spoken out against him). And the president’s personal control is augmented by heavy security, the accumulation of personal wealth (see, e.g. Moscow Times, April 1) combined with public attacks on corruption and pernicious Western influences, and the alleged threat to the country from the United States and NATO.
Arguably the support base for the regime is rather limited, as it has focused traditionally on the elderly and the declining rural population (the two are somewhat synonymous). However, three factors are required either alone or simultaneously to bring about regime change: economic crisis; alienation of Russia; and public protests that embrace different sectors of the population and are large enough to withstand a brutal reaction. The most reliable surveys suggest that more than half the population opposes a third term for Lukashenka. Thus it is really a question of one or more of these factors being in place.