Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 16

Russia’s acting and prospective president Vladimir Putin may not be about to subsidize the economy of Belarus (see the Monitor, January 17), but he has quickly moved to back its ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, politically. Putin’s deal with the Communists in the Russian Duma, moreover, seems to include a common stance on building up the common political institutions of Russia and Belarus.

On January 19, the Duma’s Communist Chairman Gennady Seleznev approvingly confirmed that Putin has instructed Russia’s Central Electoral Commission to begin preparing elections to a parliament of the Russia-Belarus Union State. That exercise is to take place in conjunction with the Belarusan parliamentary elections, which are due this September. The Union State’s parliament will be bicameral, with its lower chamber to be elected under the proportional representation system and its upper chamber to be made up of members delegated by the Russian and Belarusan parliaments.

Holding the two elections simultaneously will almost certainly result in an illegitimate Union parliament, unqualified for international recognition. This is because Lukashenka seems poised to exclude the opposition from the parliamentary election, in effect setting the stage for having the Belarusan election invalidated at the international level, just as the 1996 exercise was. On January 17, 2000 in Vienna, forty-nine out of fifty-four countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) approved a resolution warning Belarus that its new parliament “will be deemed undemocratic and illegitimate” if proper conditions are not created, ahead of time, for the opposition’s participation in the elections. The OSCE’s Chairman-in-Office, Wolfgang Schuessel, supporting the resolution, similarly warned that the elections in Belarus “will have no legal effect” if the opposition is excluded.

The five countries which opposed the OSCE resolution were Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. That lineup seems to presage the level of recognition that the Belarusan parliament and, consequently, the Russia-Belarus Union State’s parliament might attain after the elections. The Belarusan presidency also poses an insurmountable problem of legitimacy, since Lukashenka’s legal term of office expired in July 1999. In Minsk, the OSCE-mediated dialogue between the authorities and the opposition has been mired since last September in a preliminary phase. The authorities refuse to meet the opposition’s and the mediators’ conditions for moving from preliminaries to the actual dialogue. Those conditions would require the authorities to guarantee free and fair elections.

On January 19, Mikhail Chyhir, one of the opposition’s standard-bearers, went on trial in Minsk after nine months of pretrial detention, ostensibly on charges of financial malfeasance and abuse of office dating back to the early 1990s. Chyhir was prime minister from 1994 to 1996, at which point he resigned in protest against Lukashenka’s policies. Last year, Chyhir won the alternative presidential election which the united opposition staged as Lukashenka’s presidency was about to expire (see the Fortnight in Review, May 21, 1999; the Monitor, May 9, 11, July 19, 21, 23, August 3, 1999). The opposition and Chyhir–in his own words in the courtroom–regard the case as “fabricated for political purposes.” Chyhir faces up to eight years in prison under the main charges against him. Conviction on even a minor charge would disqualify him from running in the 2001 presidential election against Lukashenka (Ekho Moskvy, Itar-Tass, Belapan, Minsk Radio, January 18-19).