Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin met Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk on June 7 and announced that agreement had been reached–in principle–on the introduction of the Russian ruble as the single currency in both countries by January 2005. But the terms of the proposed currency union are unclear: Specifically, how much cash (20 billion rubles? 50 billion?) Moscow would be prepared to hand over to Minsk to replace the Belarusian notes. And in an interview on Belarusian TV on June 18, Lukashenka warned that Russia could not be trusted with sole control over emissions. Lukashenka insisted that he would accept nothing less than equal voting rights with Russia on the board issuing the joint currency–clearly something that Russia would never accept.
Thus the appearance of amity is deceptive. Ever since the announcement of the Russian-Belarusian “Union” in 1996, declarations of intent have run ahead of either country’s willingness to bring the unified state into existence.
The general trend of recent months has in fact been for the dictatorship of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, now entering its tenth year, to distance itself from Moscow. Russia in turn has been increasingly dismissive of Belarus, paying little attention to the public statements of the Belarusian president. Lukashenka’s domestic popularity is declining, but there is as yet no credible challenge from either an individual or a political party. Where does this leave Belarus? What options are open for Lukashenka or for the Belarusian opposition?
The problems of the Russia-Belarus Union were vividly illustrated by the speeches made on May 8 and 9 to mark Victory Day in Minsk and Moscow. Lukashenka praised the Belarusian military forces and spoke of a growing threat from the United States. He drew a parallel between the way Hitler occupied one European state after the other, and the present-day United States, which, he declared, would follow up the defeat of Iraq by occupying Iran, Syria, North Korea, and other countries. In order to defend itself against military attack aimed at “regime change,” Lukashenka proposed a military union among the states of the CIS, above all between Belarus and Russia.
In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia would stand alongside the United States in an “international coalition of civilized states” united against global terrorism. Subsequently, in St Petersburg at the celebrations marking the city’s 300th anniversary, Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush appeared to bury any differences remaining from the Iraq war.
Putin’s speech made no mention of the Union State with Belarus, nor of a possible military union with the western neighbor. Publicly, Putin continues to ignore Lukashenka and his speeches on various topics. In Petersburg during the 300th anniversary celebrations, the two were never seen together, and Lukashenka kept company with the leaders of the Central Asian states or with a similar pariah president, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine. The question therefore is how Lukashenka can reconcile the contradictory positions of Belarus and its closest (indeed for the most part “only”) ally.
Lukashenka has marked out for himself a new world role as the leader of a nation under threat and surrounded by external enemies–variously, the United States, NATO or “the West” in general. This may have bought him some public sympathy: A nation under siege must make sacrifices and allow for shortages and hardships. On the other hand, his harsh regime continues–most recently he has closed down or threatened to close down several newspapers, including the respected business newspaper Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta. Lukashenka has even declared a monopoly on the term “president,” which can now only be used to refer to his office and not to the heads of other organizations such as corporations.
Putin, on the other hand, has clearly grown tired of the repressive regime in Belarus and the demands of Lukashenka to an equal role in the Russia-Belarus Union. To maintain his partnership with the United States, Putin may find himself obliged to press Minsk to cease its abuses of human rights, arbitrary arrests, and control over the press. But going from that to bringing about a regime change would be considerably more difficult.
The Russian media has likewise ignored Lukashenka’s initiatives. On April 26, the anniversary of Chernobyl, the Moscow media gave broad coverage to a march organized by the opposition in Minsk, but ignored Lukashenka’s own visit to the radiated zone. The Belarusian president has periodically banned Russian TV coverage in Belarus and harassed reporters who tend to portray his administration in a critical manner.
THE ALIGNMENT OF POLITICAL FORCES IN BELARUS
A new survey released in April of 2003 provides important insights into the thinking of ordinary Belarusians.  Asked who they would vote for as president should an election be held tomorrow, Lukashenka received 26.2 percent, compared to 2.6 percent for Uladzimir Hancharyk, his closest rival in 2001, 2.6 percent for Stanislau Shushkevich (leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic “Hramada”), 2.4 percent for Anatol Lyabedzka (leader of the United Civic Party), and 2.3 percent for Syarhey Haydukevich (Liberal Democratic Party leader who came third in the 2001 election). Clearly, there is currently no candidate in a position to challenge Lukashenka. On the other hand, the president’s popularity is falling (it was 30 percent in an earlier survey and over 40 percent less than two years ago) and a substantial 45.9 percent of respondents declined to support any candidate.
A second question asked which Belarusian politician best represented their interests. In this case, Lukashenka received 16.5 percent, followed by Shushkevich with 4.9 percent and Haydukevich with 3.7 percent. Given Lukashenka’s control over the media, this rating is remarkably weak. Shushkevich, the former parliamentary chairman who led Belarus to independence but was then ousted on unproven charges of corruption in January 1994, seems to be making a modest comeback. No opposition leader enjoys widespread prestige in the country, and perhaps only Shushkevich has the stature to mount a credible challenge to the president.
When asked whether Lukashenka merited yet another term in office, 64 percent of respondents said another person should take over and only 23 percent felt that he could continue. If a Union State was formed, 42 percent said they would vote for Putin as president, 18 percent for Lukashenka, and 18 percent for neither candidate.
If one turns to the rating of the democratic political parties, the situation is equally obtuse. Eight parties received more than a 2.5 percent rating, but none of them have a high degree of public support. Haydukevich’s Liberal-Democratic Party was backed by 6.2 percent, Lyabedzka’s United Civic Party by 4.7 percent, and Shushkevich’s Belarusian Social Democratic Hramada (Shushkevich) by 4.5 percent. The other parties drew even less support.
Clearly, the public has a hard time discerning differences between the various parties, and does not believe that any of them stand much chance of success. Two parties once looked to by the West are now in decline: Mikalai Statkevich’s Social Democrats (once favored by the Germans) and Zyanon Paznyak’s Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian National Front.
Is there any chance that a new party could appear–such as Our Ukraine, which achieved notable success in last year’s parliamentary elections in Ukraine? There is little sign that the electorate is ready for yet another political party. More likely is another coalition of the opposition groups, which had some success in the past, and culminated in the choice of Hancharyk as a united candidate in the 2001 presidential election. Unfortunately, the Belarusian opposition remains deeply divided over policy, and over relations with Russia and with Europe.
Though isolated within Belarus, the opposition has strengthened its contacts with the outside world through foreign trips, meetings with Western embassy staff, and the presence in Minsk of an Advisory and Monitoring Group from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The latter office (recently reopened after a lengthy dispute with the Belarusian authorities) is less intrusive than in the past.
The failure of the Belarusian opposition over the past twelve to fifteen years has been as notable as the machinations and resolve of the Lukashenka dictatorship. The survey cited above indicated that the chief concern of Belarusian residents is the poor state of the economy, especially inflation and unemployment. Prices are increasing at 40 percent per year, the highest rate among all the former Soviet republics. Despite the gloomy economic outlook, the electorate seems unconvinced that a change of regime would necessarily improve their standard of living.
In foreign policy Belarus has been associating mainly with rogue states and leaders (including until recently Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic). Why then does the president still retain some credibility, especially given that even his closest ally now treats him with disdain?
There are several possible answers to these questions. The present situation is one of familiarity. The regime continues to recognize former Soviet occasions and holidays. It has deliberately formed close ties with the military and those sectors of the population that still equate with the Soviet past. Extensive preparations are under way to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Minsk from the Germans on July 3, a national holiday. The population has been subjected to a barrage of propaganda about the war years, some even extolling the virtues of Stalin.
The voice of the opposition is muzzled, its internal disputes accentuated, and its scope for operations severely limited. The very nature of the political structure tends to place emphasis on party leaders, thus individualizing the parties in question. Hopes of a coalition, therefore, also depend on individual friendships. It is possible, for example, that the Party of Communists of Belarus or the Liberal Democrats may form an alliance with the Belarusian Popular Front because the leaders of each party can communicate with each other. But personal antagonism would prevent an alliance between the above two parties and Poznyak’s Christian Conservative Party or for that matter between the two branches of the Social Democratic Party.
Lukashenka does not face an immediate threat from the opposition. Public demonstrations tend to be small–less than 5,000 people–and are dealt with brutally. However, the president badly needs an issue on which to revive his sagging popularity. That issue is the messianic foreign policy of the United States, bent on world hegemony. Yet the public allegiance of Russia to the international coalition against terrorism appears to be leading the two states down very different political paths.
Lukashenka must therefore tread very carefully, and try to improve relations with President Putin while convincing his public that Russia is still prepared to cooperate in the development of a Union state without incorporating Belarus into the Russian Federation or impinging upon its current independent status. He must also maintain the facade that he and Putin are close allies. His greatest fear would be a coalition between Putin and one of the opposition parties or leaders. Nevertheless, some opposition parties remain adamantly opposed to an approach to Russia because of the potential threat to Belarusian independence that it would imply.
Lukashenka does not have many political cards left to play. Economically and politically, he is very much tied to Russia. He has to play the game even if his partner is no longer willing.
1. The National Institute for Social-Economic and Political Studies, headed by Oleg Manaev, conducted direct interviews with 1,488 people.
David Marples is a professor history at the University of Alberta, and a vice president of the Association for the Study of Nationalities. His most recent books are Belarus: A Denationalized Nation (1999) and Motherland: Russia in the 20th Century (2002). Uladzimir Padhol is a professor and political consultant based in Minsk. He heads the informal group Information and Social Innovation.