Belarus braces for presidential poll

By Simon Saradzhyan for ISN Security Watch (17/03/06)

There is so little doubt that the strong-armed incumbent will win the presidential poll in Belarus this Sunday, even his rivals admit while campaigning that President Aleksandar Lukashenko will defeat them.

Perhaps, one of the few immediate problems related to the elections that still concern Lukashenko is whether his loyal police and secret service can avert violence if and when disgruntled and outnumbered opposition supporters hit the streets. They will do so to protest what they and Western countries have already condemned as an unfair vote.

Should authorities use force and blood is spilled, it will not only further strengthen arguments in the EU and US that Belarus needs a regime change, but it will also make it considerably more difficult for this regime's closest ally - Russia - to justify its support for Lukashenko.

"The elections in Belarus will be neither fair nor free [:] the main intrigue in Belarus is what will happen after the return is announced," according to Dmitry Trenin, senior analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Having sided with Uzbek authorities during the brutal suppression of protests there last year, Russia would probably side with Lukashenko in a similar situation, even if the Belarusian police used force to disband protesters. However, the issue will then become "a stumbling block" in Russian-Western relations, Trenin wrote in a comment published by the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily on 13 March.

"Use of violence would dramatically deteriorate the situation in the country and would lead to serious complications in relations between the US and EU countries on one side and Russia on the other," Trenin wrote.

So far, the Belarusian law-enforcers and secret police, which still goes by the Soviet acronym of KGB, have managed to keep their guns at bay, using mostly strong rhetoric to deter the opposition from staging post-elections rallies, which would be unsanctioned by default.

KGB chief Stepan Sukhorenko went as far on 16 March as to warn that protesters could be charged with terrorism - a charge that carries a sentence of up to 15 years, life imprisonment, and even the death penalty. "For those who take the risk of going out into the street and try to destabilize the situation, their actions will be qualified as terrorism," Sukhorenko warned at a press conference in Minsk.

He also alleged that employees of the Georgian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian embassies in Minsk were involved in plotting subversive activities for the 19 March vote. He showed officials a video in which he said the US was also implicated in subversive activities.

"What is occurring is a preparation not for a peaceful protest, as the organizers of the so-called revolution explain it, but for a planned forceful action including the detonation of explosive devices, arson, and the active provocation of law enforcement organs to use force," Sukhorenko said, according to the Associated Press.

In addition to strongly worded warnings, Belarusian law-enforcers have also carried out a series of preventive arrests of opposition activists and deported a number of foreigners, including Swedes and Poles, who have come to either observe or report on the election. Also deported were a number of activist from Ukraine's PORA organization, which was in Belarus to help local groups of opposition-minded youth plan peaceful protests similar to those that it organized in Kiev in 2004 to demand a re-run of the second round of presidential elections.

All these preventive measures may indeed suffice and police may do without using force in the wake of Sunday's elections, Nikolai Petrov, senior political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, told ISN Security Watch.

Official Belarusian polls give Lukashenko - who never tires of telling his voters he has turned Belarus into an island of social and political stability in the post-Soviet chaos - a lead with some 78 per cent. The former director of a state collective farm has been running Belarus for 12 years already. In comparison, a recent independent poll conducted by Minsk-based social scientist Oleg Manaev gives Lukashenko - whose core supporters live in rural areas or are retired - some 59 per cent, with the opposition's lead candidate Alexander Milinkevich expected to net 17 per cent.

Once re-elected, Lukashenko will continue to woo the country's 10 million people with guarantees of safe and stable lives, which include steady payment of average monthly salaries of US$250 and pensions of US$110, while suppressing political dissent.

On the foreign policy front, he will probably continue to play integration games with the Kremlin to receive discounted gas and oil, while at the same time avoiding any qualitative progress in the process of integration with Russia, which he ascribed to in the 1990s, both Petrov and Lukyanov said.

And given the fact that any regime change would probably put Belarus on a track towards Euro Atlantic integration, Russia has no option in the short-to-medium term but to continue backing Lukashenko, whose country is Russia's closest defense ally and through which the Yamal-Evropa gas pipeline runs to Europe, the experts said.

"In fact, Lukashenko will emerge stronger after the elections, Petrov said. Lack of legitimacy cannot get any worse than it is in the opinion of the EU and US [:] while Russia has little choice but to support him. And remember that he will be in a position to outlive both [US president George W.] Bush and [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin in office," Petrov noted.

However, Lukashenko will eventually face a serious challenge that could bring his regime down, the experts said. And that challenge is Belarus' state-dominated economy.

On the surface lies a rosy picture with gross domestic product (GDP) steadily growing by an annual average of 7.5 per cent in the past five years and both labor productivity and energy efficiency improving, if the official macroeconomic date supplied by the Belarusian authorities are to be trusted. But an in-depth study of the Belarusian economy reveals worrisome trends, including high concentration of the economy and excessive tax burden. The 100 largest taxpayers contribute about 30 per cent of total tax proceeds, while the tax burden amounted to about 45 per cent of GDP in 2003, according to a June 2005 report by the World Bank.

Other macroeconomic risks include low international reserves with no access to international capital markets and increasing pressure on the pension system, which is one of the pillars of Lukashenko's populist social policies. The combination of demographic trends and government social policies puts serious pressure on the country's pension system, which is not capable of supporting this level of benefits in the future, according to the World Bank study.

Yet another risk, according to the World Bank, is high dependence on a single and unstable export market such as Russia, which accounts for about a half of total exports, according to the report. While importing Belarusian goods, Russia is also subsidizing the Belarusian economy through discounted energy supplies. By supplying Belarus with the cheapest gas in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), at about US$47 per 1,000 cubic meters, and crude oil at prices well below market level, Russia subsidizes its most loyal ally to the tune of more than US$4 billion per year, according to estimates given to the Moscow Times by Stanislav Bogdankevich, president of the National Bank of Belarus from 1991 to 1995.

"It's an absurd system. But we exist," Bogdankevich told the daily when describing the Belarusian economy, in which 60 per cent of factories either operate on very low profit margins or at a loss but still survive through cross subsidizing and extension of credits.

Given these structural flaws and inefficiencies, the Belarusian economy may melt down. And it will melt down quickly if Russia stops subsidizing energy exports to Belarus, or more incrementally if cheap oil and gas keep flowing but no systemic reforms are launched to liberalize the economy.

But systemic liberalization of the economy would require shutting down scores of loss-making enterprises and reforming the Soviet-style social protection system in what would inevitably erode Lukashenko's power base, making such reforms unacceptable.

"Lukashenko is a skilled politician [:] but there will be a regime change sooner or later," Petrov said. "And it is best that Russia coordinate with the European Union to come up with a compromise figure in advance, rather that keep supporting a pro-Russian figure only to see a pro-Western one come to power as it has happened in Ukraine," the Carnegie expert said.

Simon Saradzhyan is a veteran security and defense reporter based in Moscow, Russia. He is a co-founder of the Eurasian Security Studies Center in Moscow.