Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 139

Moving in tandem, Presidents Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus and Vladimir Putin of Russia are setting the stage for sealing the Russia-Belarus Union with a show of parliamentary approval. On July 13, Lukashenka decreed that parliamentary elections be held in Belarus on October 15, one month ahead of schedule. Within a day of Lukashenka’s step, Putin forwarded to the Duma his draft legislation on elections in Russia to the first common parliament of the union state.

Lukashenka’s main priority in these elections is to consolidate his personal rule in Belarus by producing a seemingly elected, but fully obedient parliament, in place of the existing legislature which he himself had appointed in November 1996. The president hopes that an elected body will eventually qualify for international recognition, unlike his appointed parliament, which has had to content itself with recognition by Russia and Serbia. And he expects, as does Putin, that an elected Belarusan parliament is better placed than the appointed parliament to affix a stamp of legitimacy on the Russia-Belarus Union.

The Belarusan president is in a hurry to launch and complete his electoral exercise. The electoral commissions are already being formed, nominations of candidates will start on August 6, and the electoral campaign on September 1 in 110 electoral districts. Lukashenka has evidently taken into account the political costs of his haste. It undermines the position of those officials in Paris and Brussels who were hoping to patch up the Belarusan constitutional conflict in a way that would slightly dent Lukashenka’s power while slightly saving the opposition’s face. And it leaves the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), its German representatives in Minsk and even the French scant choice but to draw close to the American position. This view has all along been that no deal is feasible with Lukashenka unless he holds a genuine political dialogue with the opposition, preparatory to democratic elections. The OSCE mission in Minsk and the French embassy had recently seemed prepared to settle for far less and to advise the opposition to do likewise, in return for a few parliamentary seats, which–the argument ran–would be better than no representation and no platform at all. On those assumptions, certain major West European governments and organizations repeatedly postponed a collective decision on whether to send observers to the Belarusan elections or not. Some were hoping against hope that Lukashenka might consent in August to terms which would at least approximate fair elections. These hoped also that he would perhaps postpone the election date by a few weeks to allow the opposition to campaign.

Lukashenka’s haste is partly inspired by the country’s rapidly deteriorating economic situation. Postponing the elections from October into the coming winter of social discontent would be a risky step for Lukashenka to take. Belarusan Prime Minister Uladzimir Yarmoshin obliquely admitted in a recent speech that the harvest will fall well below targets, in spite of massive–and inflationary– state subsidies to collective agriculture, and that Belarus will consequently have to import grain. He felt compelled to ask the population “not to be alarmed by the existing difficulties.” In another recent speech, he spoke of a “galloping growth of wage arrears”–an indication that the currency printing presses can no longer keep pace with those arrears. The decline in purchasing power notwithstanding, CIS statistics just released in Moscow show Belarus with the fastest rise in consumer prices: That index shot up by 45 percent in the January-May 2000 period. The increase is triple that recorded in the “runner-up” country (Tajikistan with 14.7 percent) and more than six times Russia’s (6.8 percent).

Moreover, a divorce seems to be looming between Lukashenka and the long-obedient Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB) with its 4.4 million members. The Soviet-era holdover as head of FTUB, Uladzimir Hancharyk, has for some time been inching toward a more independent stance, one that almost certainly reflects–even if trailing–the membership’s mood. In a confidential letter to Lukashenka and a series of public statements last week, Hancharyk complained of violations of collective bargaining agreements and union rights by the authorities. The metamorphosed Hancharyk urged the president and government to deal with the economic difficulties by reforming industry and agriculture and by allowing the private sector to operate and create jobs. And he protested against the authorities’ attempts to enforce union obedience by unseating incumbent leaders and appointing presidential loyalists as heads of the largest union branches.

To stave off those attempts, Hancharyk took the step of inviting Bill Jordan, General Secretary of the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) to Belarus. “The FTUB relies on Bill Jordan for support in solving these problems,” Hancharyk declared on Jordan’s arrival in Minsk. The ICFTU leader urged the government to cease violations of International Labor Organization conventions and to enter into a dialogue with the FTUB. Hancharyk’s step is doubly significant in that it coincided with a successful anti-Lukashenka initiative by the AFL-CIO in Washington. That initiative resulted in the withdrawal of General System of Preferences (GSP) trade facilities hitherto enjoyed by Belarus in the United States. Announcing that decision, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky cited the AFL-CIO’s findings about the suppression of union rights in Belarus.

Lukashenka has long averred that he fears the prospect of workers’ protests more than he does the political opposition groups. To shore up his position at this stage, he has two remaining cards to play: first, staging pre-winter parliamentary elections while he can still control them, ensuring an obedient parliament for the looming period of economic collapse; and second, political concessions to Moscow–in the framework of the union state–in return for Russian political support and economic subsidies (Belarusan Television, Minsk Radio, Belapan, Belarusskaya delovaya gazeta, July 11-15; see the Monitor, May 12, 31, June 30, July 11).