Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 223

Almost every major international conference involves tradeoffs of varying degrees of expediency or morality; and it was clear before the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit that the Western powers, set for a facedown with Moscow on some issues, were also prepared to give way and propitiate President Boris Yeltsin on other issues for fear of a break with Russia. One of those concessions came at the expense of the unrepresented nation of Belarus. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose legal term of office has expired and who officially seeks to annex his country to Russia, incurred no criticism at the OSCE summit and got away with only a vague remonstrance in the final document. During the plenary session, only Presidents Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania (see the Monitor, December 1) and Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland expressed serious concern over the situation in Belarus.

Lukashenka had hardly expected such an outcome. He and Yeltsin had coordinated their positions before the summit with a view to responding jointly to the anticipated criticism of the situation in either country (see the Monitor, November 19). Lukashenka was indeed the only European head of state–along with Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov among the Asian presidents–to support Yeltsin and Russia on all issues at the summit. In his address to the plenary session, Lukashenka urged support for Russia’s military operations in Chechnya and seconded Moscow’s opposition to NATO’s enlargement. His address contained many a leaf straight out of Soviet diplomatic and propaganda textbooks. Thus he called for the creation of a denuclearized zone in Central Europe [dusting off the Soviet-era Rapacki Plan], lashed out at Lithuania for “imprisoning Communist leaders,” and attacked the Polish authorities for “oppressing the working class” [a double swipe at market reforms and the Solidarity movement] and for “beating the peasants” [a familiar Soviet anti-Polish propaganda theme].

Lukashenka did not conceal his relief on returning to Minsk. He pronounced the summit’s stance regarding Belarus as “encouraging,” the attitude of leading Western statesmen as “a pleasant surprise,” and the outcome as evidence that “Europe now understands that it can not pressure and ostracize us simply because we pursue a policy of close relations with Russia.” The president’s internal agenda now focuses on next year’s legislative elections, which should replace the current, presidentially appointed parliament.

Lukashenka’s dual goal is to produce a fully reliable parliament and to obtain international recognition of that parliament through token concessions to the opposition. The OSCE’s Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk currently mediates a political dialogue between the authorities and opposition parties, with a view to preparing the conditions for free and fair elections. In the wake of the Istanbul summit, the OSCE’s Minsk Group called for completing the desired agreement by April 2000 at the latest, in time for amending the electoral and other relevant legislation ahead of the elections.

Lukashenka’s initial response consists of a big step backward and a small step forward. Overruling his own representatives in the OSCE-mediated talks, the president canceled a draft agreement which would have allowed the opposition a limited and heavily regulated access to the state-owned mass media. He followed up yesterday with the tactical concession of releasing one of the opposition leaders, Mikhail Chyhir, from pre-trial detention. Chyhir, prime minister from 1994 to 1996, resigned that post in protest against Lukashenka’s policies, ultimately joining the opposition and winning the alternative presidential election that the opposition parties conducted in May of this year (see the Monitor, May 10-12; The Fortnight in Review, May 21). He was jailed shortly before that election on charges stemming from his 1992-94 tenure as Agroprom Bank president. The charges seemed poorly substantiated and were modified repeatedly during Chyhir’s incarceration. Chyhir is one of several imprisoned and/or “disappeared” opposition leaders, whose situation needs to be clarified as part of the confidence-building set of measures that the authorities and the opposition are discussing under OSCE aegis. The Istanbul summit failed to produce a document which would have strengthened the OSCE Minsk Group’s hand in its mediating effort (Itar-Tass, Belarusan TV, Radio Minsk, Belapan, November 19-23, 28-29).