Having attained through dubious means another overwhelming election victory last March, and having amended the Belarusian constitution yet again so that there are no limits to his term in office, President Alexander Lukashenka appears to be more firmly in power than ever before. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the so-called last dictator of Europe feels far from secure. He is seeking new friends and persecuting enemies, and his overriding mission is supposedly a foreign policy to create a multi-polar world that ultimately will succeed in developing a power base that can oppose the United States.
This situation was illustrated by the recent visit of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Minsk on July 23-25. The two leaders had already exchanged complimentary greetings earlier in the month on the official public anniversaries of the two states (July 3 and 5). Then Chavez arrived in Minsk, reportedly on the invitation of Lukashenka (although his subsequent visit to Russia casts some doubt on this statement) and the two presidents lavished praise on each other and their respective governments. Annual trade turnover between the two states is around $15.56 million, so, despite official rhetoric, the two countries are hardly essential to each other. But they both denounced “Western pressure” against their countries, allegedly intended to force them into adopting “an alien ideology” and “pseudo-economic reforms.”
Earlier in the month, at a workshop organized by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Russia and Belarus, Defense Minister Leanid Maltsau outlined the perspective from official Minsk. Both the United States and the European Union, he asserted, are elaborating various options for creating crises in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, with the goal of incorporating the countries into their own “system of global rule” and undermining prospects for integration within the CIS model. After the partial success of democratic “color revolutions” in some former Soviet countries, he claimed, the West wishes to build a “Baltic-Black Sea belt” around Russia. Thus far it has been unsuccessful because of the intransigence of Belarus. Therefore the West would like to see a change of regime in Belarus and the permanent committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has demanded a repeat of the March 26 elections. Belarus has responded to this pressure by improving its military cooperation with Russia and seeking to improve further the potential of the “Belarusian-Russian” regional group of forces.
Why would the Minsk regime make constant references to such pressure if Lukashenka truly felt secure? Domestically, the petty and vindictive persecution of real and alleged opponents has continued without abatement. Following the savage jail sentence imposed on presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin, the authorities briefly detained democratic opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, and, in a ludicrous miscarriage of justice, arrested United Civic Party chairman Anatol Lyabedzka on July 17 and imprisoned him for ten days on the grounds that he swore in a public place! Meanwhile the trial of the unregistered civic initiative “Partnerstva,” which has tried to monitor elections in Belarus, began on July 28 behind closed doors, with Judge Leanid Yasinavich presiding. The leaders of the initiative have been in detention since last February. One of the few remaining independent newspapers, Khimik (Navapolatsk), suspended publication in early July citing financial problems, while another, Komsomolskaya pravda v Belorussii, faces a criminal case and potential libel charges of R1 billion ($467,000) for its July 11 article about the personal finances of Hryhory Kisel, the head of the government’s ONT television station.
In what ways does the Lukashenka regime feel threatened? The United States and the EU have imposed a travel ban on the president and his leading associates, and they have frozen their foreign bank accounts (if such exist). In late July, Congressman Christopher Smith (R-NJ) proposed the renewal of the Belarusian Democracy Act, originally signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2004. The bill would authorize $20 million in assistance for each of the years 2007 and 2008 for NGOs, youth groups, independent media, and democratic political parties, and a further $7.5 million for the same two years for the creation of surrogate TV and radio broadcasts to the people of Belarus. Such measures might keep the opposition afloat, but they do not directly threaten the tenure of Lukashenka. Rather they are a sign that the United States fails to see any improvement in the harsh internal environment in Belarus.
As for the implicit foreign policy mission to create a new power bloc, it is surely a lost cause. The Russia-Belarus Union, if and when it materializes in full, would be of more benefit to the geostrategic interests of Russia than Belarus. Lukashenka has few friends elsewhere, which is why Chavez was made so welcome. Isolation both in the world and in office perhaps breeds fear and paranoia. On the other hand, exaggerated foreign threats are also calculated to maintain an atmosphere of trepidation within Belarus, and the perpetuation of the image of a small, successful country surrounded by states intent on overthrowing the Minsk regime. In reality, there are no discernible external threats to the Lukashenka regime and for the moment the internal ones have subsided.
(Belarusy i rynok, July 24; Sovetskaya Belorussiya, July 25; Narodnaya volya, July 26; Belapan, July 5, 23, and 25; Belorusskie novosty, July 25; and Charter 97, July 31)