U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), whose application for a Belarusian visa was rejected in late August, has declared that the world community will help the people of Belarus to overthrow the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. McCain emphasized that a regime change did not imply a military incursion, but would be achieved by “international pressure.” At a subsequent meeting with McCain in Riga, Vitaly Fralou, the leader of the Respublika group in the Belarusian parliament, added that Lukashenka is now approaching his last years in power (Associated Press, August 23).
McCain’s statement echoed earlier comments the senator made about the Lukashenka regime in Riga on February 6, 2004, at a meeting hosted by the Foreign Ministry of Latvia. At that time, McCain declared that Lukashenka’s “tyranny over Belarus cannot last forever,” and greeted leading opposition members present at the meeting as “heroes who serve and sacrifice under the most trying of conditions for the cause of a free, democratic, and sovereign Belarus.”
The government of Belarus did not receive an invitation to the conference in Riga (or to a subsequent one in Vilnius), but the message was taken seriously. Belarusian television sent a crew to Riga, and the main sessions there have been replayed frequently on Belarusian Television. That Senator McCain did not receive a visa was hardly surprising, as Belarus has regularly rejected visa applications from persons deemed likely to be outspoken in their opposition to the Lukashenka government.
McCain, a senior figure in the U.S. Senate, symbolizes the American commitment to regime change in Belarus, as well as the isolation of a president referred to by McCain as a “dictator,” who is about to supervise “bogus” elections on October 17 (Associated Press, August 23). The dismissal of the election as a sham so far in advance suggests that the Belarusian president has no chance of redeeming himself in the eyes of the Americans. McCain also declared that the Belarusian population had lost faith in Lukashenka. In Riga, he met with the leader of the Five Plus opposition group, Anatoly Lyabedzka; as well as with Fralou; Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka; the head of the disbanded Party of Labor, Alyaksandr Bukhvostau; and the sons of imprisoned activist Mikhail Marinich, the former Belarusian ambassador in Latvia, who was arrested in April (Charter-97, August 24).
McCain is also one of the authors of the draft document on democracy in Belarus, currently before the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. The bill specifies financial support to the opposition, a reduction of foreign aid to the Belarusian government, banning strategic exports to the republic, and a veto on the travel of certain government officials in Belarus to the United States (Pravda, August 23).
Lukashenka’s response to Senator McCain’s remarks was subdued. He declared that only the Belarusian people may remove him from office, and that several previous attempts to unseat him have failed (Charter 97, August 24).
How seriously should one regard the veiled threat to Lukashenka’s future tenure? The ban on the travel of Senator McCain, as well as Republicans Susan Collins (Maine), John Sununu (New Hampshire), and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), suggests that the government is not taking the campaign lightly.
At the same time, the allusion to Lukashenka’s falling popularity seems unsubstantiated. Recent polls indicate that Lukashenka’s popularity among those surveyed dropped significantly from the time of the 2001 election to a low of 27% earlier this year. However, it has since risen to around 34% and appears to be quite stable (iiseps.by/epress2.html). An impressive GDP growth of over 10% in the first half of 2004 has also received extensive publicity in the official media (president.gov.by/rus/president/speech/2004/foreign.html).
Equally important is the manifest failure to date of opposition leaders to reach a rapport with the Belarusian electorate. It is more than a matter of their being denied media outlets and the repression of opposition parties and democratic protests — though these are undoubtedly a factor. Respublika, for example, was once linked to the Five Plus group headed by Lyabedzka. Today it has moved closer to the European Coalition, led by Social Democratic Party leader Mikola Statkevich. Lyabedzka has remained hopeful, but his attempt to create one unified opposition party prior to the October election has clearly failed.
The lessons of September 2001, when a united candidate was chosen too late to affect the results of the presidential election (in addition to the apparent lack of wisdom of the choice made), have not been learned. At a time when the international community, and particularly the United States, is prepared to criticize publicly the Lukashenka regime, the opposition, even combined, in an optimistic scenario of what might happen in a new presidential campaign, cannot muster enough support to rival the president. The lack of synergy between the Belarusian electorate and the opposition has led some analysts to maintain that Belarusians are satisfied with, or are prepared to tolerate Lukashenka as the best of alternatives.
Thus the question of Lukashenka’s removal is one issue; the matter of who should replace him is another altogether.