The joint parliamentary election and referendum campaign in Belarus is well under way. Last week, President Alexander Lukashenka outlined his platform to students at the Brest State Technical University. He has developed three main themes for the campaign: the nature of the presidency; the economic performance of Belarus under his leadership; and the so-called “Belarusian path” of close cooperation and partnership with Russia according to principles devised in the Soviet era.
According to official accounts, the president spoke with the students for 4.5 hours rather than the designated two. It was pointed out that the talk was arranged more than a year ago, and that the president has already spoken this year at the main universities in Minsk. Lukashenka declared in his speech that the result of the referendum “will be the best and most objective appraisal” of the work of his government, and that “only the people” and not the opposition parties can properly appraise the results (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, September 24). The referendum therefore, in the view of the president, is less about amending the constitution than assessing the ten-year record of his government. It is, in effect, a trial presidential election.
If he is supported in the referendum, Lukashenka stated, then he will work with “redoubled energy” prior to the presidential elections. As for his job, he added, it should not be seen as that of an emperor (tsar), but as exhausting and very severe work, the “most difficult in the state.” If another candidate runs for the post and understands this situation, then that would be good, but if the person is more concerned with his own ambitions, not comprehending what awaits him, then this would be unfortunate (president.gov.by, September 23). It is not difficult to deduce from such a comment that potential contenders for the position are being dismissed as incompetent even at this early stage.
The president elaborated on his “Belarusian model” of development, which arose not from Cabinet discussions but from the “experience of Belarusian life” and the creation of an independent state. Ten years ago, he noted, the average wage was $20-$30 per month and inflation had reached a yearly level of 2,000%. There were protests in the streets, and children did not have enough food to eat. Corruption, privatization, and the division of people’s property were in evidence everywhere. Today, however, the economy has practically recovered; 90% of Belarusian factories are working “normally.”
The economy has few external debts, according to the president, and real income in 2003 exceeded that of 1995 by three times. By the end of 2004, the average monthly wage will be $250, and by 2010, it will have risen to $750. Pensions and grants have also risen by three times during the present year.
Concerning state policy, Lukashenka pointed out that Belarus has not turned toward Europe because “Belarus was never part of Western culture and the Western lifestyle. Ten years ago, he maintained, the electorate overwhelmingly voted him into office to protect the Belarusian way of life and to support the union with Russia. In his view, there was no other choice, since if Belarus turned away from Russia it would be cut off from its sources of raw materials and the country with which it was most closely linked during the existence of the USSR (president.gov.by, September 23).
The Soviet theme emerged again on Belarusian Television with an attack on the December 1991 Belavezha agreement as one that left society disoriented and 240,000 troops demoralized. During this program, opposition leader Stanislau Shushkevich was singled out as the person responsible for this situation. During his time, it was pointed out, people were ashamed to wear a uniform, but now “It is [once again] a great honor.” The Union with Russia, implicitly a continuation of the Soviet legacy, is “the guarantee of our life” (CTV, RenTV, September 24), against the threat of NATO on the western border.
Lukashenka intends to win the October 17 referendum using these themes. The electorate is being asked to set aside constitutional issues and accept the referendum as the most democratic form of decisionmaking. Moreover, it is being advised to vote less on the dubious issue of constitutional change than the government’s alleged record, bearing in mind that alternative candidates are likely to restore the “chaos” of a previous era and move the country away from its Russian links.
The speech to the students, however, illustrates above all the president’s static political outlook. The Belarusian population, by contrast, has evolved from one nostalgic for the Soviet Union in 1993 (a 55% positive rating) to one that was clearly negative toward it by the summer of 2004 (a 39.5% positive rating) (iiseps.by, June 2004). The issue of union with Russia and the form it might take has elicited strong doubts as to the wisdom of such a path. Yet the nature of the Lukashenka regime has isolated the republic and left him with few alternatives.