Belarus: Friction with the U.S. and E.U. Will Remain High After Upcoming Elections

n March 19, 2006, presidential elections will occur in Belarus. No surprises are expected, as Alexander Lukashenko is set to win a new mandate. In October 2004, Lukashenko succeeded in winning a controversial referendum that allows him to compete for a third time after his previous wins in 1994 and 2001. Although his margin against competitors may be slightly narrower than in the past, Lukashenko is likely to comfortably win as his grip on the fundamental levers of power seems firm and hardly assailable.

The outcome of the Belarusian polls will be carefully monitored in Moscow, Washington and Brussels. Minsk plays an important geopolitical role for Russia since Moscow is striving to retain influence in Eastern Europe. Western powers have so far failed to cause a pro-Western political turn (such as in Ukraine and Georgia) to occur in the former Soviet country. The real issue is what consequences the expected Lukashenko win will bring for Russian-Western relations and Eastern European politics.

Actors and Stakes

Lukashenko has been repeatedly accused of undermining Belarusian democracy by using violent means against members of the opposition (intellectuals and politicians alike). Especially after his second win in 2001, many U.S. and European media organizations and institutions have issued reports about repression and even murders of some of Lukashenko's rivals. Minsk, however, has systematically denied such charges and instead points out that Washington has orchestrated a subversive campaign aimed at inducing a "regime change" in the country.

On March 19, Lukashenko's most popular rival will be Alexander Milinkevich, whose supporters often gathered in the streets of Minsk; these demonstrations have been severely repressed by the police. Early this month, another candidate, Alexander Kazulin, and his closer collaborators were reportedly physically beaten by Belarusian special forces during a meeting in Minsk.

Both Milinkevich and Kazulin look to the West for support, and therefore appear to be the ones who could usher in a dramatic change in Minsk's traditional pro-Russian stance.

On the contrary, Lukashenko is the symbol of an old Soviet nomenklatura whose political strategy is inseparable from that of Russia. In fact, Belarus is extremely dependent upon Russia, and Putin has consistently shown his determination to keep Minsk in Moscow's sphere of influence. In Yalta in October 2004, Putin re-launched the idea of a political and economic community among Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Obviously, Kiev's pro-Western turn in December 2004 complicated Russia's plans, but it also encouraged Putin to confirm his strong support to Lukashenko.

Belarus is dependent on Russia both politically and economically. For instance, Russia is practically Belarus' sole ally, and Belarusian exports are primarily fed into the Russian market. The West considers Minsk's state-controlled and state-assisted industrial core to be an old-fashioned, quasi-socialist economic model; there is no doubt if liberal and pro-Western Belarusian politicians won the elections, they would be immediately pressed by the E.U. and U.S. to dismantle these state-controlled structures.

The Belarusian economy measured 8.3 percent growth in 2005, and in spite of a reduction it is set to score six percent in 2006. Inflation rates are very high at 12.5 percent, and wage increases are often way ahead of productivity ones. In order to keep its national model alive, Belarus badly needs Russian help and cheap energy supplies that only Moscow can assure via favorable political arrangements.

On a geopolitical level, Belarus may appear today as a Russian wedge in Eastern Europe, where Poland is trying to further expand its influence by forming an axis with the Baltic states, the Czech Republic and Ukraine. Energy stakes and geostrategic factors work together to weaken Russian-Polish relations, as well as Russian-American relations.

As PINR noted in August 2005, Poland is backing a project that envisages using the existing Odessa-Brody pipeline -- which ends in Ukraine -- to carry Kazakh oil to Gdansk (on the Baltic shores of Poland) and then to Western Europe. Similarly, Warsaw is working to create a pro-liberal, pro-Atlanticist political bloc in the same area, causing friction with Russia since Moscow is attempting to regain influence in Ukraine and has preserved its influence in Belarus and Moldova. [See: "The Poland-Belarus Controversy and the Battle for Eastern Europe"]

Moscow's reasons for insisting on such a strategy are not only economic and energy-related, but also strategic. N.A.T.O.'s enlargement, for instance, causes Russia to lose decisive positions on its once-dominated western borders (especially in Ukraine).

Therefore, Lukashenko's predictable win will keep weak Russian-Polish and Russian-American relations in Eastern Europe. Moreover, Russia has allegedly used Belarusian companies to sell weapons to U.S. rivals in the Middle East, and Minsk has been accused by the U.S. in past years of selling arms to both Iraq and Iran. Lukashenko's departure would likely make it easier for Washington to control Belarusian arms sales.


Since the E.U. and the U.S. are suffering certain strategic difficulties -- in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Iranian nuclear crisis and as a result of the E.U.'s political impasse -- it is not easy for them to effectively support Belarusian pro-Western candidates.

Additionally, Lukashenko (and presumably the Kremlin) has launched a preemptive strike against Western interference in Belarusian affairs. Last month, Minsk's authorities disclosed an exit poll, allegedly performed by Gallup in Vilnius, which was said to be dated March 19 (the date of the presidential election) and aimed at boosting Milinkevich's popularity by stating his election victory with over 53 percent of votes. Whether the false survey was true or was fabricated by the government, it is certain that Lukashenko and his powerbrokers are well aware of the information war that will be fought during and immediately after election day.


Lukashenko's win will perpetuate the statist model of the Belarusian economy and the traditional state-assisted industrial and agricultural policies, whereby Russian firms will probably be the only foreign ones able to do business in the country.

However, it is not clear that civil and political groups that aim to open the Belarusian society to more liberalization will be successfully contained by Lukashenko in the next five years. As its current high G.D.P. real growth rates look increasingly difficult to maintain, and with inflation set to remain high, economic discontent in the country may fuel the fires of broader political opposition to the ruling party.

On the other hand, the wave of "colored revolutions" that struck former Soviet countries in the first half of the present decade hasn't succeeded in expanding further, and with Russia regaining at least in part its geopolitical influence in Eurasia, the U.S. and Europe will not have an easy job integrating Belarus into their Euro-Atlantic security and economic structures.

Report Drafted By:

Dr. Federico Bordonaro