In an interview that appeared in Izvestiya in Moscow on August 27, the Belarusian President, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, maintained that the results of the 2006 presidential elections were falsified. However, rather than raising his total, Lukashenka had allegedly demanded that it be lowered to appear more realistic to the public. He maintains that his real total was 93 percent, but it was replaced by "something around 80 percent" (the official figure was 83 percent).
The Belarusian president made a similar comment in November 2006 at a press conference with journalists from Ukraine. In response to the latest statement, Anatol Lyabedzka, the leader of the United Civic Party, commented that the results of the election were determined solely by the president. He called for a criminal investigation by the Prosecutor-General and the removal of Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the Chairperson of the Central Election Commission (www.naviny.by, September 1).
Yarmoshyna, however, has denied that the election was rigged and informed Radio Free Europe’s Belarusian Service that her office had received no orders "whatsoever" during the election. She also stated that the commission is willing to publish documents received from its regional branches to substantiate her denial (RFE/RL, September 1). Polls gathered before and during the 2006 campaign had indicated that Lukashenka’s standing was between 50 and 60 percent, while that of his main challenger Alyaksandr Milinkevich, now the leader of the Movement for Freedom was around 15-17 percent. Thus, the official total of 82.6 percent for Lukashenka seemed inflated and that of 6 percent for the challenger considerably understated.
That election was also notable for the sustained protests that took place afterward in Kastrichnitskaya Square in the center of Minsk. At a press conference following his meeting with the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Sopot on September 1, Vladimir Putin was asked by a journalist from the Belarusian opposition movement Charter 97 how long Russia would continue to support a dictatorial regime in Minsk that "prolongs the suffering" of the people of Belarus. Putin replied that Lukashenka had been elected by direct, secret ballot of the people of Belarus, while noting the weakness of democracy in the post-Soviet countries (www.charter97.org, RIA Novosti, September 1).
The irony of using Putin as an assessor of the state of democracy in Belarus aside, the question came at a particularly sensitive moment in Russian-Belarusian relations, as the pendulum appeared to swing once again from Minsk to Moscow, rather than Minsk to Brussels, as a result of two recent developments.
First, following a meeting in Sochi between Lukashenka and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on August 27, Belarus finally agreed to take up the presidency of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and sign the long delayed agreement on the Collective Rapid Response Forces (CRRF). Evidently Belarus had played a major role in drafting the content of the CRRF document. In turn, Russia expressed understanding of Belarus’ improved relations with the European Union because of its trading links and the geographical position of Belarus "in the center of Europe" (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, August 28).
However, the two countries have mutual but different priorities. For Belarus, the key element in the relationship with Russia is trade, and particularly energy imports; whereas for the Russian side, military-security aspects are of prime importance. On September 29, Medvedev will travel to Belarus where, together with Lukashenka, he will watch the bilateral military exercise "Zapad 2009," which will simulate a conflict between the armed forces of the Russia-Belarus Union and NATO (Belorusy i Rynok, Aug 24-29).
The war game represented another potential source of friction between the two neighbors. There had been reports that two full Russian armies would take part, a statement attributed to the Russian Chief of the General Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov. The prospect of some 150,000 Russian troops on Belarusian soil alarmed not only Belarusians, but also the leaders of the EU and NATO. However, if indeed such a plan existed, it has now been shelved, and a more modest display is anticipated, as was evident from a meeting between Makarov and his Belarusian counterpart, Syarhey Huruleu, on August 14. The joint maneuvers were approved by Lukashenka on March 10 (Svobodnye Novosti Plus, August 19-26).
Zapad 2009 will take place from September 18 to 29. Its earlier exercises were held on Russian territory; hence this is a new phase. Some 12,000 troops will take part, including about 6,000 from Russia. The maneuvers will reportedly reflect the military scenario that arose during the fighting against "Georgian aggression" in Tskhinvali in August 2008, but it will also prepare to counter a NATO advance into Belarusian territory (Svobodnye Novosti Plus, August 19-26). In the event of such an action, Russian and Belarusian forces would combine according to the tenets of the Union agreement (Belorusy i Rynok, August 24-29).
Even on a reduced scale, however, and despite the recent dispute over Belarusian dairy exports to Russia, it is evident that Lukashenka has not renounced his partnership with Russia. His comments on the 2006 election results manifest contempt for his electorate that has not dispelled with time. Each rigged election has been approved first and foremost by Moscow.
Ironically, both for the E.U. and the Belarusian opposition, the main target seems to be Yarmoshyna. Still on the "banned" list for travel, the election commission chair vacationed in Kaliningrad this year while Lukashenka was in Rome, where Pope Benedict XVI "cried tears of joy" over his illegitimate son, Kolya (RIA Novosti, August 27).