Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 151

In an interview with Belarusan and Russian journalists, published yesterday in Minsk and Moscow, president Alyaksandr Lukashenka expressed apprehension that the Kremlin might jettison him, once he has served the purpose of uniting Belarus with Russia. Pointing to Russia’s recent welcome of the Montenegrin president and inclination to consider switching horses in Yugoslavia (see the Monitor, August 4), Lukashenka asked the Kremlin aloud: “If you invited Djukanovic, maybe you will go on to invite [Belarusan opposition leader Syamyon] Sharetsky in Moscow tomorrow? Where are my guarantees?”

Lukashenka’s outburst caps a recent series of expressions of mistrust in the Kremlin’s intentions toward Belarus and himself. In all these statements Lukashenka ruled out any type of unification other than “on equal terms,” with “Belarus preserving its sovereignty”–meaning retention of his full control over Belarus even within a union state. It is in this context that Lukashenka announced yesterday his intention to run for reelection as president in Belarus in 2001 under the present constitution–in other words, to remain the absolute ruler in his republic, irrespective of any unification with Russia or the terms of such unification.

On July 29 Lukashenka had warned that he would reject any symbolic unification document tailored to Russia’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. He would not serve as an “electoral Trojan horse”–that is, as a vehicle for the Kremlin to make inroads into Russia’s leftist and nationalist electorates. On July 30 Lukashenka described the Russian officialdom’s treatment of Belarus as “contemptuous, snobbish, humiliating.” He compared the Kremlin’s concept of Russia-Belarus unification unfavorably to Soviet-era arrangements. “Even Stalin did not go so far as to deprive Belarus of sovereignty,” Lukashenka complained, citing trappings of formal statehood which Soviet Belarus had enjoyed.

In unprecedented remarks, Lukashenka alluded to internal political constraints on his latitude to unite Belarus with Russia. Outright opponents of unification are–he claimed–few in Belarus, “yet we have to take their view into account at least to a degree.” Moreover, “generations who yearn for the former times are gradually dying out; and, as for the younger people, you know their [negative] attitude toward integration. There is a danger that our two peoples will end up in opposite camps” (Radio Minsk, Itar-Tass, July 29-30, August 4).

Whether Lukashenka’s rhetorical shift will be matched by internal and external political steps is far from certain, however. Such steps should, if only on a tactical level, entail a dialogue with the opposition and some genuine overtures to the West. But Lukashenka is not known for coherence, and his latest actions on those two fronts presage continuity rather than a revision of policy. Yesterday the president publicly instructed the repressive apparatus to prepare trials of prominent oppositionists, and he vituperated against NATO’s enlargement, expressing yet again his regret over the withdrawal of ex-Soviet nuclear missiles from Belarus.