Colour revolutions fade in Russia's shadow

Simon Tisdall

The Guardian

For a man apparently assured of victory, Alexander Lukashenko is going to unusual lengths to ensure the "right" result in Sunday's presidential election in Belarus. His anticipated triumph may mark a glum turning point for pro-democracy movements in the former Soviet sphere.

In recent days dozens of Belarus opposition activists have been arrested, European poll monitors and parliamentarians have been turned back, and independent newspapers have been denied newsprint by Russian suppliers. The pro-Moscow Minsk government has also accused the west, and Poland in particular, of seeking its overthrow.

Mr Lukashenko, first elected president in 1994, has been described as an authoritarian holdover from the former Soviet nomenklatura. "The state is us!" declared a banner headline yesterday in the government-run newspaper Sovietskaya Belorussiya, driving home the old collectivist message in a country where 80% of the economy is state-owned.

But nothing is being left to chance. "No one seriously doubts, especially not the opposition, that the election outcome will be fixed," wrote Charles Grant and Mark Leonard of the Centre for European Reform.

The likely collapse, for now, of hopes of democratic reform in Belarus coincides with a broader loss of confidence in the future of the "colour revolutions" that swept countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Serbia in recent years.

In Belgrade reform, renewal and the open embrace of Europe remain hostage to lingering shadows of nationalism, long-nurtured notions of victimhood, and the unfinished business of the Balkan wars - notably, Milosevic's still unburied legacy and the half-hearted hunt for Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. In Georgia, Russian-fuelled separatism and political disputes have taken the shine off the rose. And in Kiev President Viktor Yushchenko, hero of the "orange revolution", is fighting to avoid humiliation in parliamentary elections on March 26. His party's likely nemesis is the man he accused of fraud and defeated in 2004 - Moscow's favourite, Viktor Yanukovich.

Mr Yushchenko said this week: "The opposition has no programme which can stand up in intellectual terms with that of the government." But voters appear fixated on more mundane issues these days, such as economic stagnation, unemployment and a doubling of Russian-supplied gas prices. They suspect Mr Yanukovich may do a better job of handling Moscow.

For his part, he says Ukraine was fooled by the west's "empty promises". The prospect of EU membership, never strong, had been discredited. If elected, he said, he would halt talks on Nato membership.

If a backlash is under way against the populist revolutions that shook the post-Soviet space, a much-distracted US and EU bear some blame. The benefits of "joining the west" have not proved impressive so far.

But hanging over the heads of all these countries is the increasingly baleful influence of President Vladimir Putin's Russia, says a new report by the independent US Council on Foreign Relations. "At the same time as President Bush has made democracy a goal of American foreign policy, Russia's political system is becoming steadily more authoritarian," the report said. Regressive trends inside Russia were impacting on its neighbours, as seen in Moscow's use of oil and gas as a "foreign policy weapon" against Ukraine, and in its planned revival of a political and economic community linking Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The Russian bear was back on the prowl, intent on regaining lost geopolitical influence, and tougher responses were required. "The US should cede no veto or undue deference to Russia over American relations with states of the Russian periphery," the report said.

"There is nothing legitimate about limiting the opportunity of neighbours ... to choose security allies or pursue democratic political transformation. Post-Soviet states that share America's approach should be able to count on greater support."