Alexander Lukashenko has no friends (who matter)

Posted By Ian Bremmer

The most obvious clue that Alexander Lukashenko's MySpace page is a fake is that it claims he has 315 friends. The Belarusian President has no friends -- at least none that can help him maintain his political footing. It's nice to have pals in Venezuela and Iran, but Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have moribund economies of their own to manage. That's why Belarus could become the latest former Soviet republic to face an economic and political storm.

Elections are coming in Belarus sometime in the next six months, and it doesn't take a crystal ball to know who's going to win. The opposition remains badly divided, and Lukashenko still controls the levers of power. He probably didn't need to rig the polls in 2006, yet he did it anyway. The need for a boost is more obvious this time, and he's likely to cheat again. In 2006, the fraudulent result triggered large public protests and scattered violence on the streets of Minsk. This time it's likely to be worse, and Moscow, the only valuable ally Lukashenko has ever had, is highly unlikely to throw him a life preserver.

In fact, the Russian government has had it with Lukashenko because it considers him a freeloader and an ingrate. The Belarusian president has scored political points at home by criticizing Moscow. Belarus has provided asylum to ousted Kyrgyz leader Bakiev, another authoritarian president who has antagonized neighboring Russia. Lukashenko has held up establishment of a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan with demands for continuation of cheap oil and gas supplies from Russia.

The Belarusian economy is vulnerable. The economic slowdown among major trading partners in Europe and the former USSR has stalled the country's growth. Its current account deficit stands at 13 percent of GDP. Rising energy costs add to the problem as Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas monopoly, pushes Belarus closer to market prices for gas.

With elections looming, Lukashenko's government is highly unlikely to cut state spending. He's right to wonder how long he would remain popular if he cut subsidies to help consumers buy fuel, froze wage and pension increases, and ended state spending that protects jobs.

And in response to the phony election of 2006 and the state crackdown on demonstrations that followed, the United States and the EU imposed sanctions. There's little reason to think they won't do it again if Lukashenko turns to the same old tricks.

Moscow won't shed any tears as Lukashenko flounders. Russian media have opened up on him in recent weeks, portraying him as an obnoxious, narcissistic thug. Prime Minister Putin doesn't work very hard to disguise his contempt.

Moscow is in best position to make Lukashenko more uncomfortable. As his relations with Moscow have worsened, Russia has moved to sharply reduce the energy subsidies that fuel the Belarusian refining industry -- and the broader economy. This year, Russia imposed full oil export duties on supplies and threatened to charge netback parity prices for gas next year. When Russia cut gas deliveries by 60 percent, Belarus threatened to up the stakes by passing the pain onto Europe. Russia supplies a quarter of the European Union's gas demand and pumps about 20 percent of the total through Belarus. The Russians, who can simply reroute those supplies through Ukraine, were not impressed. The two sides reached a compromise on Moscow's terms.

Russian-Belarusian energy supply and transit contracts must be renegotiated by the end of this year. A fight over energy is likely, and Belarus may face more supply cuts and damage to trade relations in other sectors that could generate turmoil throughout the Belarusian economy -- in the dead of winter and the middle of an election campaign.

If Russia really wants to punish the Belarusian president, it could refuse to recognize the election results. Moscow is highly unlikely to push that hard, but Belarus certainly looks like the next former Soviet state that could see some dangerous upheaval in coming months.


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