On July 2, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka was interviewed by Oleg Poptsov of the Russian TV Center, a company that covers nine Russian regions, in a program that lasted for three hours. The interview covered a variety of issues, but the key focus was on Belarusian-Russian relations and the need for the two states to unite against a common danger, that of a “color revolution” sponsored by outside forces.
The Russia-Belarus Union in some respects has been a nonstarter. Initiated in 1996, and given more scope and credence by the Lukashenka-Yeltsin agreement in 1999, it has foundered in the early years of the 21st century, ostensibly because of the very different personalities and policies of the two leaders. Lukashenka, however, exuded confidence by stating, “We will inevitably be together,” but the state union must provide equal rights for both partners, economic, financial, and political. To prevent a color revolution in Belarus, however, it is necessary to provide people with normal salaries, and the economy must function properly (Belarusian Television, July 2).
The topics of union and economic stability are closely related. For Belarus’s economy to operate “normally” it requires Russian support and compliance. For a decade, Lukashenka has been able to point to impressive growth rates under his leadership, attained largely through trade of Belarusian goods with Russia at favorable prices (and earlier based on a barter system). That growth, however, appears to be no longer sustainable. Over the first four months of 2005, the rise in GDP dropped below the required 10%, attaining only 9.5%. The apparent reasons were a slowdown in industrial development and Russia’s declining interest in Belarusian industrial goods (Belorusskaya gazeta, June 20).
Further, though the official media reported that, in 2004, the GDP exceeded the level of 1990 by 15.7%, the highest figure in the CIS, in terms of actual quantity of products produced (rather than what has been described as “mythical comparative prices”), levels have dropped in virtually every sector since 1990, from production of tractors and trucks (down by 66% and 50% respectively), to chemical fibers, food, and agricultural products, and livestock — despite the fact that agricultural production has allegedly been sustaining the country’s high growth rates (Narodnaya volya, June 29).
Belarus has also begun to acknowledge deep and worsening social problems, most notably drug addiction and criminal activity connected with the delivery and sale of narcotics. According to the head of the drug addiction sector of the Ministry of Health, Uladzimir Maksymchuk, though only 6,829 drug addicts are officially registered in Belarus, the real figure is around 55,000. Belarus has become an independent drug market for heroin from Afghanistan and amphetamines from Poland and Lithuania. Some of the blame for trafficking — whether correctly or not would require a deeper investigation — is being placed on gypsies, of whom there are now reportedly 15,000 living in Belarus (Belorusskiy rynok, June 27). It is also hard for the government to proclaim an improvement in the quality of life when the population continues to fall and mortality rates significantly exceed birth rates year after year. In 1995, for example, the population was 10.3 million; last year it was 9.6 million.
The myth of a stable Belarusian society and a thriving economy under Lukashenka is thus being undermined by current social and economic problems. In turn, these problems render the critical relationship with Russia more complex. Within Russia the attitude toward the Lukashenka government is far from uniform. Recently the new Human Rights Council affiliated with the president of Russia attacked the human rights situation in Belarus, noting that there remain missing politicians, well-known public figures are in prison, and the non-state media has been practically destroyed (Belorusskiy rynok, June 27). Conversely, Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Fund for Effective Politics in St. Petersburg, has warned, “The USA and other forces will carry out their training in Belarus” before turning on Russia, and added that despite “its capricious leadership,” Belarus remains a very reliable partner of Russia (Svobodnye novosti plus, June 22-29).
A recently published survey encompassing Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, originally issued by RIA-Novosti in March 2005, found relatively low support for integration in all countries — whether toward Europe or the CIS — but in Belarus, the results would have sent a red warning light to the presidential administration: 22% of those surveyed in Belarus declared they were oriented toward the West; and 25% to the Common Economic Territory (CET) with Russia (Svobodnye novosti plus, June 22-29). The proximity of these totals, despite relentless propaganda in the state media in favor of the CET, is startling.
The government thus faces two interrelated problems: the first is that the economic picture in Belarus is far from that reflected in official propaganda, with growth rates rivaling those of oil-rich sheikhdoms. Second, its relationship with Russia, arguably its lifeline and upheld by the president as the most important for the regime, may founder if integration merely brings economic burdens to the larger partner. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned in the past that the relationship cannot be an equal one. Lukashenka, in his interview on Russian television, appears to have missed or ignored that message.