Europe and the US decide the winner before the vote

Belarus's government will be targeted if the west doesn't get the result it wants in this month's elections

Jonathan Steele

The Guardian

Would you expect a European leader who has presided over a continual increase in real wages for several years, culminating in a 24% rise over the past 12 months, to be voted out of office? What if he has also cut VAT, brought down inflation, halved the number of people in poverty in the past seven years, and avoided social tensions by maintaining the fairest distribution of incomes of any country in the region?

Of course not, you would say. In Bill Clinton's famous phrase, "it's the economy, stupid". Unless there are overriding issues of political or personal insecurity - incipient civil war, ethnic cleansing, mass arrests, pervasive crime on the streets - most people will vote according to their pocketbooks. And so it is likely to be in Belarus in nine days' time.

Why, then, are western governments, echoed by most western media, developing a crescendo of one-sided reporting and comment on one of Europe's smallest countries? Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, last year called it an "outpost of tyranny". Stephen Hadley, the US national security adviser, recently complained that "there is not enough outrage and international attention on Belarus". As if on cue, we now have thundering editorials and loaded reports in America and Europe claiming the imminent election is a farce and the regime deeply unpopular.

We saw similar conformism little more than a year ago in Ukraine, when one side was glorified to the skies, as if only a tiny minority of benighted Sovietera automatons did not support the pro-western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. His opponent actually got 44% of the vote, and may even emerge with the highest number of votes in Ukraine's parliamentary elections in two weeks.

In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko is certainly no liberal. He manipulates state television; he bans distribution of critical newspapers from state-owned kiosks (which are the majority), and often has those that are printed abroad confiscated at the border; he makes it hard for opposition parties to hold rallies; and he uses the police in a partisan and frequently brutal way. Students fear expulsion and government employees the sack if they join protests.

This was already true in 1996 when I monitored a constitutional referendum on behalf of the European Institute for the Media and reported that the electoral climate was neither free nor fair. At that stage Lukashenko had only been in power for two years. An authoritarian populist and control freak then, he has remained true to form (not, however, a communist; Belarus has two communist parties, one of which is illegal).

The change is in the economy. Like other former Soviet republics, Belarus suffered a massive collapse after 1991, with output dropping by more than half thanks to "shock therapy" reforms. But in 12 years of power Lukashenko has righted that, as my opening statistics show (all taken from the IMF's country report on Belarus in June 2005).

I haven't been in Belarus for 10 years, but residents I speak to on the phone, as well as western visitors, report that most people are satisfied with their living standards. Many have family or other ties to Russia, their giant neighbour, and feel grateful for the stability, moderation and absence of an oligarch-dominated economy that Belarus enjoys.

Contrary to claims that Lukashenko's repression has produced an "information black hole", the choice of news is wider than in 1996. The EU-funded EuroNews channel is available on cable, which millions of people have, and access to uncensored websites is easy in internet clubs and cafes or at home.

Despite this, there is a huge campaign by foreign governments to intervene in the Belarussian poll, even more controversially than in Ukraine in 2004. While Russia is hardly engaged in this election, Europe and the US are pumping in money. According to the New York Times, cash is being smuggled from the US National Endowment for Democracy, Britain's Westminster Foundation and the German foreign ministry directly to Khopits, a network of young anti-Lukashenko activists.

Poland has reopened a state-owned radio station on its eastern border to beam programmes across Belarus, while the German government's Deutsche Welle started broadcasts to Belarus this year. Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, has been touring European capitals and getting endorsements that amount to blatant interference in a foreign electoral contest.

Some of this foreign money will be used to fund street protests promised by opposition activists if Lukashenko is declared the winner. They have already dubbed it the "denim revolution", giving supporters little bits of the cloth as symbols to copy the successful demonstrations in Ukraine and Georgia.

But why is the US, with the EU in its wake, so concerned about Belarus? Is it because Belarus stands out as the only ex-Soviet country that maintains majority state ownership of the economy and gets good results? Is ideological deviance forbidden? (The IMF, while admitting Lukashenko's economic success, calls it "ultimately unsustainable", being based on cheap Russian energy imports and wage increases that outstrip productivity growth.) Is the problem Lukashenko's independence, his friendliness to Russia and resistance to Nato, his abrasive, don't-push-me-around style? As one Minsk resident put it to me, he's a "Slavic Castro".

The revolt against Lukashenko within Belarus is genuine, idealistic and, in some cases, courageous. As in the rest of eastern Europe, nationalist intellectuals and the urban elite, particularly in the capital, include many who want change and feel the rewards are worth the risk. They want the west's moral support and its freedom, as well as its money. But they are not the majority. A poll in January by Gallup/Baltic Surveys, and reported in the emigre Belarusian Review, found only 17% in favour of Milinkevich and nearly 55% supporting Lukashenko.

Western funders claim their motives are innocent, with help offered merely to develop "democracy" and "European values". In that case they should insist that the groups and the media they aid in Belarus are fair, accurate and intelligent, rather than one-sided demonisers of their opponents, mirroring Lukashenko's approach. But when western media, despite their vaunted objectivity and years of democratic experience, also report on Belarus in a way that is narrow and partisan, this is asking a lot.