Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 140

Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s lawful five-year term as president of Belarus expired on July 20. Lukashenka is, however, staying in office on the basis of constitutional changes he imposed on the country in November 1996. Through that “velvet coup” and the ensuing simulacrum of a plebiscite, the president expanded his powers, dissolved the parliament, installed a new legislature by appointing most of its members and prolonged his mandate until 2001, at which time he will be eligible for reelection. Lukashenka’s regime has since experienced international ostracism. In all of Europe, only Russia–which backed his 1996 coup–and Yugoslavia regard Lukashenka, his government and his parliament as legitimate.

The European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued special, parallel statements on Belarus in connection with July 20. Both organizations asserted that Lukashenka’s lawful mandate has expired and that their relations with Belarus as a state are not to be equated with recognition of its president and government. The EU and OSCE urged the authorities immediately to release political detainees, “desist from political intimidation and inflammatory rhetoric,” and enter into a dialogue with the opposition with a view to revising the constitution and preparing free and fair parliamentary elections for next year, as “only democratic elections can provide a basis for establishing legitimate political power.”

Moscow took the opposite stance. In a special statement on July 20, Russia’s Foreign Ministry rebuffed “any attempts to question the legitimacy of President Lukashenka’s mandate which runs until 2001.” The statement described the 1996 “referendum” as a demonstration that “the people of Belarus is capable of making a correct choice.” Russia and Belarus will continue expanding their relations in line with Presidents Boris Yeltsin’s and Lukashenka’s December 1998 Declaration on Unification, the statement concluded.

The Belarusan authorities marked the July 20 watershed in their own way. They opened a Slavic solidarity festival, presided over by Lukashenka and the visiting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko. They lavishly celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Andrei Gromyko, the late foreign minister of the Soviet Union, who happened to be a native of Belarus. They also redoubled appeals to Moscow to increase the quantity and reduce the prices of fuel and raw material deliveries to Belarus.

But the authorities can not entirely ignore Western warnings. To avoid open confrontation, Lukashenka and other government officials have in recent days been meeting with EU and OSCE representatives in Minsk. Each of the two organizations has established a monitoring and advisory group, mandated to promote political dialogue and the development of democratic institutions in Belarus. The EU’s group, headed by West German diplomat Hans-Georg Wieck, is based in Minsk. The OSCE’s group, headed by former Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Severin–a strongly pro-Western figure, though marginalized by his own party in his country–is currently paying an extended visit to Belarus.

As a result of these developments, Lukashenka has virtually been declared illegitimate by the West, yet he remains an acceptable interlocutor in negotiations aimed–implicitly rather than explicitly–at winding down his rule in a peaceful and orderly way. Moscow needs Lukashenka in order to consummate the absorption of Belarus, for which purpose a “referendum” is planned to be held this coming September. If Moscow continues supporting Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule and encouraging his intransigence, the stage will have been set for an East-West tug of war over Belarus (Belapan, Radio Minsk, Itar-Tass, Russian Television, AP, Reuters, July 18-20).