‘It could take long’

After years of negative reporting about silenced media, crushed street demonstrations, forged elections and political repression, this summer finally good news came from Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime released its most important political prisoners. Is there a wind of change blowing through Europe’s “last dictatorship”? The parliamentary election of September 28 will clear things out very soon.
Andrei Kim, Syarhei Parsyukevich, Alexander Kazulin and a few other Belarusian opponents were released from prison in the last couple of months. The European Commission opened up an embassy in Minsk and approaching the parliamentary election, the OSCE (Organisation for Safety and Cooperation in Europe) sounded hopeful: ‘The Belarusian government has assured that we can visit all polling stations unannounced’, the official press agency Belta cited the head of the OSCE observers. ‘We also have access to the facilities where the votes are being counted.’
Are the times in Belarus slowly changing?
‘Don’t be deluded by the coming election’, Pavel Radjuk says. ‘They may seem to be more democratically than ever, but looks deceive.’ Radjuk is vice-president of the Belarusian Centre, an Antwerp organisation of Belarusian refugees that strives for democratic reforms in Belarus and tries to improve the integration of Belarusians in Belgium.
‘The system is vertical and very tight, like a rigid building. Not one attempt to express a free opinion gets a chance. It must be admitted that the repression has become less in Belarus. Liquidation of people does no longer occur. But everything has become more sophisticated. Those not walking the line, for example risk losing their jobs. I would be really astonished if some members of opposition got elected this time. Only a few people in the parliament with a different mindset already would be a positive evolution.’

False appearance

During the last parliamentary election, all 110 seats of the House of Representatives went to pro-Lukashenko candidates. ‘As long as Lukashenko is in power, few things will change fundamentally’, also Katlijn Malfliet, professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, says. ‘In his autocratic regime, the restriction of the media and political criticism is an essential part of his power.’
‘For the elections, Lukashenko can mobilise all layers in his society. He can for example order all school principals to make sure all teachers vote in favour of the government. As long as there are no political parties able to take up opposition, elections are nothing but a show.’
According to Radjuk, the release of political prisoners –an obvious token of goodwill towards the EU– has everything to do with the shifted relationship between Minsk and Russia. For years the ties have been very strong. Not one of the former Soviet republics maintained such good relations with Moscow after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Both countries in 1999 even signed an agreement to create a union. However, this treaty never came into full operation – according to observers because Lukashenko would have preferred to be the head of such a confederation himself, something Moscow wasn’t fond of.

Energy bill

The relationship between both countries got seriously damaged when Russia, at the end of 2006, announced wanting to raise the cheap oil and gas tariffs for Belarus. The preferential rate of   47 dollars for one thousand cubic metres (tcm) gas would be replaced by 110 dollars – which for the record is still below the world oil price. The issue still hasn’t been solved. The Kremlin announced at the end of August that it would continue the negotiations on energy rates during fall.
Radjuk: ‘Lukashenko fears Russia. He suspects that Moscow prefers to see someone else in power, a strategy Putin has introduced. That is why Lukashenko now tries to improve his image in the West.’
As to Radjuk, the conflict with Georgia is another proof of the troubled relations with Russia. ‘Only after a consultation of the Russian president Medvedev about energy agreements, Lukashenko condemned the Georgian behaviour. And it was also very clear that Minsk didn’t rush to acknowledge the independence of South-Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is an obvious sign that Lukashenko doesn’t wish to support Russia publicly.’

Buffer state

It looks like Lukashenko is in deep trouble. The strong economic growth of recent years – which Lukashenko likes to refer to as ‘the economical miracle of Belarus’ – is largely based on the re-export of Russian oil and gas and derived products. Moreover, Russia is the most important trade partner of Minsk, with a share of 60 percent of the import and 36 percent of export.
Professor Malfliet: ‘In fact, Belarus is an independent state that from an economical point of view was born dead. The country just cannot live without Russia. The whole energy issue highlights the fact that those who don’t play the Kremlin game, will pay for it in their energy bills.’
According to Malfliet, Belarus’ importance to the Kremlin lies mainly in its function as buffer against the NATO, that continues to expand in the Russian sphere of influence. ‘Silently, Russia creates all sorts of mirror institutions. Year after year their size expands. A good example of this is the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), founded in 2002 by Russia, Belarus and another four former Soviet republics.’
In the treaty, aggression against one member is interpreted as aggression against all other members – a copy of the famous article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. Also the bilateral cooperation between Minsk and Moscow is growing. End of August, Lukashenko and Medvedev met in Sootchi, Russia, to discuss plans for a unified air defence system.

Political wealth

What often is not taken into account, is that Lukashenko has the sympathy of a great deal of his population. Malfliet: ‘The majority supports him. After all, Lukashenko is the one who after the implosion of the Soviet Union took care of some sort of minimum wages for all Belarusians. While in other former Soviet republics people went through rough times, in Belarus wages and retirements were paid. Lukashenko gives the people a feeling of security and was thus able to build a political wealth.’
Pavel Radjuk acknowledges that Lukashenko can count on some popularity at home, even though this popularity would be diminishing. Radjuk: ‘Especially the working class supports him. Together with the prices, also the wages have gone up. But among the elderly generation this support is going down. Because they can no longer benefit from cheap bus tickets and low tariff medicines.’
Still Radjuk doesn’t believe in a revolution any soon. ‘People are afraid, poorly informed and don’t see any alternatives. And Lukashenko? He is in good health. It could take long.’

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