Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 92

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka used a Soviet-style Victory Day rally on May 8 to launch his presidential reelection campaign. In his speech he described the democratic opposition’s five declared presidential aspirants as “five traitors,” who have been “selected inside the country” to serve Western interests.

The five aspirants are: Mikhail Chyhir, former prime minister, who resigned that post in 1996 to protest against Lukashenka’s seizure of absolute powers; Pavel Kazlousky, former defense minister and retired lieutenant-general, who for similar reasons turned against Lukashenka; Uladzimir Hancharyk, incumbent chairman of the Trade Union Federation, a one-time apparatchik, who has recently acted as a genuine defender of union rights and ally of the democratic opposition; Syamyon Domash, former governor of the Hrodna Region, which is a western Belarusan equivalent of western Ukraine; and Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of one of the country’s two rival communist parties, of which Kalyakin’s stands for socialism in a Belarusan state and under parliamentary government.

In a joint statement on May 3, the five called for “friendly relations with the West as well as the East,” turning Belarus into “an East-West bridge,” and establishing “normal relations” with NATO. They also confirmed their previously stated intention to designate one common candidate after testing, in the campaign’s early stages, the electoral strength of each. The balloting is tentatively scheduled for September, but Lukashenka has yet to set a firm date.

In his kick-off speech, Lukashenka termed the election campaign “the hardest-ever test for our country,” and vowed to continue ruling as before: “I cannot and will not pursue any other policy.” He accused NATO and the United States of using political, economic, and military pressures to “impose their will” on Europe in general and on the “Slavic peoples” in particular. And he imputed to NATO a plan to turn Belarus into a “second Yugoslavia” and impose through military force the political and economic changes that he, Lukashenka, resists. “Huge money has been put into this [plan]. Savage and unprecedented pressure has been exerted from abroad. Five Belarusan traitors… promote the interests of foreign organizations. Their concern is not economic revival, not prosperity for the people, but the enrichment of a narrow circle of privatizers. This is why they need power in our state…. The country’s industrial plants and crop fields belong to the people. It would be a crime to give them up to unclean hands.” Praising the Soviet heritage in Belarus, he described the detractors of that heritage as “spiritual successors to Nazi toadies, trying to falsify the great and heroic history of our people” for the sake of “their infamous and dangerous project.”

Part of those remarks suggest that Lukashenka will go all-out to exploit the ill repute of Russian-style privatization in order to preserve state socialism in Belarus. At the same time, the president sounds confident that Russia will stick by him: “Those trying to terrify us should realize that Belarus is not Yugoslavia because the Russian people stands next door.” In two follow-up speeches on the actual Victory Day, May 9, Lukashenka underscored the permanence of his “alliance with Russia for joint resistance to the external threats” against a “unipolar world order.”

In the three speeches, Lukashenka announced that Belarus would hold a large-scale military exercise to demonstrate its opposition to NATO’s possible enlargement in the Baltic region. The exercise, involving armored forces, airborne troops and tactical aviation, in real-combat situation and using live ammunition, is scheduled to be held in August in the Vitsyabsk Region. According to Lukashenka, the exercise is designed to coincide with, and “commensurately respond” to, an exercise due to be held by NATO and the Baltic states in Lithuania. He described the latter exercise as an attempt by NATO to intimidate the Belarusan people during the final stage of the presidential election campaign.

That NATO-led exercise, Amber Hope-2001, however, has been held every other year in Lithuania since 1997. The country’s Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius, commenting on Lukashenka’s statements, observed that Amber Hope is a regular undertaking, planned well in advance and unrelated to any events in other countries. Linkevicius called on “neighboring states” to refrain from using “demonstrations of force” as an instrument of interstate relations. The plural form of address can be read as including Russia as well.

Lukashenka is clearly growing nervous at the prospect of international de-recognition, in the likely event that he secures reelection in fraudulent ways. In that case, Moscow will be forced to either back him up to the hilt and lose more points internationally, or look for an alternative to Lukashenka in Belarus. The incumbent president’s chief worry is that Moscow might discreetly initiate such a shift in advance of the balloting (Belapan, May 3; Belarusan Television, Minsk Radio, Itar-Tass, NTV, May 8-9; BNS, May 9; see the Monitor, January 18, 30, April 6, 10, May 4).