By Roland Oliphant
Belarus is Slowly Gearing Up for a Long-Awaited Election with Lukashenko Unpopular, the Opposition in Disarray, and Relations with Russia on the Rocks
Last week Alexander Milenkevich, a veteran opposition figure, declared his candidacy in the Belarusian presidential elections, scheduled to be held by February next year. He is unlikely to unseat the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, whose grip on power has been criticized by NGOs and Western governments for years, but the ticket Milenkevich is riding on - European integration - says something about Belarus' dilemma.
"At this stage it's clear to me that the West has halted all movement and is waiting for the elections," Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told Reuters in a rare interview on Tuesday. "This surprises me a little - the situation in Belarus is absolutely predictable."
Reluctantly, most of the Belarusian opposition would agree. Although Lukashenko still insists he has not decided whether he will run - and on April 27 he even told a Belarusian news agency that he'd "had his fill" of work and wouldn't mind if a replacement were found - no one is in much doubt that he will stand in and win the presidential elections, which according to the Constitution must be held by February 11, 2011.
The opposition is divided and finding it hard to find a single unifying candidate. And Lukashenko, who was called a "predator of free speech" by Reporters Without Borders this week, has a stranglehold on the press that effectively precludes any publicity for alternative candidates.
But that doesn't mean he's sitting pretty. In fact, according to a recent poll by the Novak public opinion center, the Belarusian president's approval ratings stand at just 37 percent, while 51 percent of Belarusians would like to see a "new face" in the presidential office. Without the "informational blockade" and the arrest and harassment of alternative candidates, he could well be in trouble.
Luckily for Lukashenko, his discontented citizens have not yet decided who that alternative is. It's certainly not Alexander Milenkevich, the leader of the For Freedom movement who declared his candidacy on Tuesday. A not especially charismatic academic who managed to take six percent as the principle opposition candidate in the last election in 2006, he has lost the backing of oppositionists outside his own party. And his platform for European integration does not resonate with most Belarusians, whose chief concerns are unemployment, inflation and the economic crisis.
"In 2006 practically all democratic opposition forces and civil society worked for Milenkevich, but he didn't entirely live up to the expectations placed on him," explained Lev Margolin, a member of the Interregional Group of the Congress of Democratic Forces, another opposition group. "This time he will only be representing his own For Freedom movement."
Others are more scathing. "His approval amongst the public is miniscule - around three or four percent - and his negative rating is on a level with Lukashenko's," said Jaroslav Romanchuk, an economist at the Mises Center in Minsk. "Lukashenko is using Milenkevich's ambition to divide the opposition and make sure a stronger candidate does not emerge." Milenkevich did not respond to emailed requests to comment on Wednesday.
There is still time for a credible, unifying candidate to emerge before September, but there are few obvious choices on the opposition's bench. The few who have already talked about putting themselves forward, including Andrei Sannikov, a coordinator for a civil group called European Belarus, do not have high public profiles or even a sure chance of collecting the 100,000 signatures needed to run. Other possible candidates include Vladimir Neklyaev, a prominent poet currently championing a "Tell the Truth" campaign, which encourages people to send postcards to Lukashenko telling him about the problems they are facing.
Change comes through the barrel of an oil pipeline
But while the domestic opposition is in disarray, Lukashenko faces a more serious fight with his main patron, Russia.
Belarus depends heavily on Russian energy supplies, but Moscow has shown increasing impatience with Minsk over issues like pricing and the Belarusian proclivity for selling its discounted Russian hydrocarbons on to Europe for a sizeable profit. On Tuesday Transneft, the state-owned company that controls most of Russia's oil pipelines, said it was pushing ahead with an export pipeline that would bypass Belarus.
Lukashenko has made a show of easing his dependence on Russian energy, including signing an oil deal with Venezuela (the first deliveries of which arrived this week via Ukraine, which for its part is hoping to make a tidy $120 million in transit fees out the deal), but the Transneft move is a threat he will have to take seriously. "The truth is that oil and gas from anywhere but Russia is a joke," said Romanchuk. "That's a truth Lukashenko has to deal with, and which anyone who succeeds him will have to deal with."
But it's not just about money. Suspicious Belarusians fear Russia's discontent is really connected with Lukashenko's inability to deliver on commitments to the "Union State," a bi-lateral arrangement that was one day meant to lead to the merger of the two countries. "Ultimately this is about transferring powers to Moscow and turning Belarus into a puppet state, or simply part, of Russia," said Romanchuk.
Many Russian commentators see that as an "anti Russian" paranoia that both Lukashenko and his critics have in common. But there is no doubt that Russia's support for the interim government that took power in Kyrgyzstan after the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April has genuinely rattled people in Minsk. Lukashenko has offered Bakiyev unconditional asylum and explicitly attacked Russia's abandonment of the hitherto sacred principle of opposing such revolutions in CIS territory. "Russia and the West created a terrible precedent when they support an illegal government that came to power through bloodshed," he told Reuters.
And, said Margolin, there's another reason to worry. "Kyrgyzstan was the first time Russia and the United States agreed about something like this. For Lukashenko, who tries to play one side against the other, a consensus between Moscow and Washington is the stuff of nightmares."