While the date of the next presidential election in Belarus has not been determined definitively –February 6, 2011 has been mentioned as a possibility– Belarusian President, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, during a visit to the Homel’ region, declared that “a very hard campaign” awaits him because “some people, both in the East and the West, don’t like the incumbent president,” adding: “I have had enough of this job” (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, April 27).
By his own account he is “tired,” however, fatigue has not dulled his perceptions or his readiness to take preparatory steps to ensure yet another “elegant victory” (RIA Novosti, April 28). The first months of 2010 witnessed a return to the sort of repressive actions last seen in 2006 (Narodnaya Volya, April 28).
The recent decision to allow the deposed Kyrgyz President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, along with his family members, refuge in Belarus was carefully calculated. Not only has Lukashenka appeared in public with him, he has encouraged Bakiyev’s candidacy in the next Kyrgyz elections (BelGazeta, April 19). In doing so, Lukashenka appears to have taken into account two key factors.
First, he presented an image of once again opposing Moscow on a major policy issue –he also attacked Russia for not paying for its military bases in Belarus and threatened to boycott the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in May (Interfax, April 25). Russia has supported calls for the extradition of Bakiyev as a result of his role in the killing of dozens of people on the streets of Bishkek last month. Second, Lukashenka may have acted from personal motives. Every would-be dictator fears a coup and being forced into exile. It is ironic that Bakiyev came to power originally in the sort of color revolution that Lukashenka feared might happen in Belarus in 2006.
External events also present potential dangers. The success of Viktor Yanukovych in the presidential elections in Ukraine in February, and the subsequent rapid abandonment of anti-Moscow policies pursued by his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko (Ukrainska Pravda, April 28) serve to isolate Lukashenka as the outstanding figure opposing Russian policies in what was once known as the Near Abroad. While the Russian focus was on Ukraine, Lukashenka was free to cast himself as the proud leader of a defiant nation –at least on issues such as gas prices, and the results of the war in Georgia.
Similarly, the tragic air crash that killed the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, and some 90 Polish officials near Smolensk on April 10 has heralded a new Russian-Polish rapprochement that, given the occasion (the commemoration of a massacre by the Soviet NKVD of Polish officers in 1940) could hardly have been predicted (www.russiaprofile.org, April 23). Lukashenka has a long-standing feud with Poland over his treatment of the Union of Poles (EDM, Feb 19), but has remained on good terms with several other EU countries. However, any move by an EU country that ends the practical isolation of Russia that has been in place since August 2008 is bad news for Lukashenka, because it undermines his policy of operating between two inherently hostile forces.
As Lukashenka considers neighboring states, he can draw some obvious inferences. Russia elected its third president in 2008, Ukraine its fourth last February. Moldova has had three as well as the current acting president. However, he remains Belarus’ only president, despite his relative youth at 55. Judged by his physical appearance his sixteen years in power have exacted a heavy toll. He has taken to traveling with his illegitimate third son, Kolya (Kommersant, September 29, 2009), a reflection perhaps of a need for family ties that were severed as a result of his lengthy separation from his wife.
His policies have varied, but were always based on a “pact with the people” that reflects his essential populism and a form of civic nationalism connecting with the population’s general lack of recognition for the distinctiveness of a Belarusian nation or familiarity with its language, a consequence of the success of the Soviet policy to eradicate the culture of a small nation under construction. Lukashenka positions himself as a defender of this nation against external enemies, and as the upholder of domestic peace and harmony. He is careful to stress that any alternative leader would bring chaos. Though his reverence for the Great Patriotic War and Soviet achievements would suggest common ground with Moscow, he has, typically, made clear that he will attend the celebrations on May 9 in Minsk, rather than those in the Russian capital (Focus News Agency, April 28).
Recently Lukashenka created a new self-image, that of a privatizing capitalist (http://www.president.gov.by/press86216.html#doc, Apr 20). Yet, privatization to date has benefited what one observer calls “nontransparent” and “murky” investors who often take over bankrupt companies (BISS Trends, January-March 2010). A democratic election campaign, if it were possible, would highlight both the alarming economic decline and wholesale dependence on Russian and International Monetary Fund (IMF) largesse.
The Belarusian leader may indeed be tired of such problems, but he dare not resign. The opposition might be feeble, but it continues to snap at his heels like a worrisome terrier. So, instead he embarks on his fourth campaign (to which can be added three referendum campaigns), hoping once again that his rhetoric and harassment of his opponents, as well as careful control of all aspects of the campaign, can carry him through.