The latest opinion poll from the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research (IISEPS) offers encouraging news for the Alyaksandr Lukashenka regime in Belarus, and the agency states that the “economic well-being” of Belarusians is becoming more stable. Accordingly, the personal rating of the President, which was at 20.5 percent only six months ago, is reportedly now at 34.5 percent, whereas none of the opposition candidates has reached double figures (Telegraf.by, March 29). What is one to deduce from such figures? Has Belarus overcome its economic problems despite its current rift with the European Union? And what accounts for the sudden turnaround in the fortunes of the president?
The questions arise amid a lengthy dispute between the Belarusian authorities and the European Union. The Europeans have applied sanctions to Belarusian leaders because of their harsh treatment of and failure to release political prisoners detained prior to and after the 2010 presidential elections. According to President Lukashenka, the dispute is entirely the fault of the Europeans. In an interview with Russian television he stated: “The crisis in the relations with Western states – rather with the European Union than the United States – remains. […] Belarus is not its cause: the real cause (for the crisis) is the pressure and blackmail by Western European countries.” And yet, continued Lukashenka, “our” response to the Europeans must be “dignified,” “beautiful” (RT, April 5).
But the President is not going to give in to “blackmail.” Twenty-seven EU ambassadors have left Minsk but when they want to come back, he stated, they are to be screened individually rather than be allowed to return in some sort of coordinated fashion. Besides, no one asked them to leave (EurActiv.com, April 6).
Plainly then, here is a political leader who has been unfairly maligned and one, moreover, who has refused to sell out his country to Russia despite such ham-handed treatment from his Western neighbors. He adds that the poor Latvians and Lithuanians would like to behave differently toward Belarus but are restrained by their membership of the EU. Yet, clearly Belarusian residents are more aware of the importance and talents of their President, and rate him much more highly than the enfeebled and fractious members of the opposition.
There is more. The president is even willing to pardon former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau and his lawyer Dzmitry Bandarenka, two of the twelve designated political prisoners, as long as they comprehend the “destructiveness of their positions and policies” (Telegraf.by, April 5). Thus the Europeans may have all their wishes fulfilled as soon as these prisoners make appropriate confessions. It is all rather reminiscent of Stalin’s treatment of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev in the thirties. Sannikau should apologize for being beaten and arrested at a peaceful gathering following an election campaign. His lawyer presumably should apologize for taking him on as a client though in truth he did not manage to see him very often.
In fact Sannikau has allegedly asked for a pardon following a prolonged period of ill-treatment in a detention center – the methods involved have been described at length by Ales Mikhalevich (EDM, March 7, 2011), now a refugee in the Czech Republic – though fellow prisoner and ex-candidate Mikalay Statkevich has refused to recant.
Why have the Europeans acted unfairly, according to Lukashenka? There have been numerous accusations against them both individually and collectively over the past fifteen months. According to Minsk, European countries sent spies to Belarus. More recently they have funded the opposition – the “fifth column” – while refusing to speak with Belarus’s government ministers. The Belarusian leader dismissed the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, with the statement that he [Lukashenka] would rather be a dictator than gay (Democraticbelarus.eu, Mar 5).
But let us revisit some of these issues. Belarus joined the Eastern Partnership in 2009 after it was invited to take part at a summit in Prague (RIA Novosti, March 20, 2009). In so doing, the two sides agreed to work toward institution building in Belarus, in return for the eastern state’s adherence to respect for human rights and the rule of law. Following a brief period of conciliation that included the release of prisoners detained after the 2006 elections, the Belarusians lapsed into state violence after December 2010. Worse, they have made a mockery of the Partnership (Ukraine and Azerbaijan have admittedly played impressive supporting roles).
The European ambassadors left Minsk after the EU representative and Polish ambassador had been requested to return to their respective capitals. Just four years ago, it may be recalled, Belarus also asked US Ambassador Karen Stewart to leave (BBC News, March 12, 2008). There has been no US ambassador in Minsk since that time.
The opposition has failed to gain popularity because its leaders have been incarcerated, tortured, harassed, and denounced ad nauseam in the state media as public enemies. In an interview in late March, Stanislau Shushkevich, Belarus’ first independent leader, noted that the regime is propped up by a combination of oligarchs and security leaders, citing the lengthy career of Viktar Sheiman who was promoted for his use of “murder and kidnappings” (EU Observer, March 27).
It is true that Lukashenka has not rushed to Moscow with demands to strengthen integration. On the other hand he has done more than any other Belarusian politician to promote it. He, after all, was the architect, along with Boris Yeltsin, of a series of measures from April 1996 onward culminating in the so-called Union state, in addition to the more recent Common Economic Space and Eurasian Economic Union. Russia and Belarus have exploited each other as far as possible and engaged in a number of petty squabbles over dairy exports, airlines (ITAR-TASS, April 6), and derogatory programs about the Belarusian leader on Russian television. The fact, nevertheless, is that the Russian state and its businessmen have kept Lukashenka afloat with loans, energy exports, and purchases of banks, insurance companies and the national gas transit line. That is why the regime has endured.
As the IISEPS poll indicates, Belarusians remain skeptical about restoring their former standard of living, and almost half (48.6 percent) still think the President is responsible for the crisis (Telegraf.by, March 29). Belarusian society is run from the top and maintained by force, and thus people are grateful to receive some temporary relief from their troubles. What the poll demonstrates more than the popularity or non-popularity of the leadership is the high level of cynicism and disbelief among respondents who by now perhaps believe that their rulers have nothing new to offer them other than invective against Brussels and other “hostile” agencies.