Pyrrhic Parliamentary Victory

The price of the question

There has been no opposition in the Belarusian parliament - not united, not right, not left, not even as a formality -for 12 years. None whatsoever. In the last parliament, there was no even an independent member who might say a word of criticism of the president and his policies. Before these elections, experts argued over whether Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko would allow opposition members of parliament this time. Optimists made reference to sources in Brussels who claimed that Lukashenko would allow the opposition 20 of the 110 seats this time, under pressure from Europe.

Lukashenko unexpectedly released political prisoners, including Alexander Kozulin, his sworn enemy and opponent in the last presidential elections, and gave interviews, under his own initiative, to several influential Western newspapers, and even talked about the future over the telephone with Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Many Western politicians had the illusion that Belarusian politics were turning from East to West, from dictatorship to liberalization. What happened for Lukashenko, who practically drove all American diplomats out of the country half a year ago, to now send the West signs of peace and friendship?

That question cannot be answered without acknowledging one simple truth. Moscow, and not Brussels, remains the main orientation for Belarusian politics. It was under Moscow's influence that Belarus tried to create the illusion of a political thaw. Fraternal friendship with Moscow has become ever more burdensome for Lukashenko lately. Both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are becoming more insistent about transforming the union of the two states into something more concrete, at least introducing the Russian ruble as a single currency. The ambitions of the Russian leadership seem to frighten Lukashenko.

The Belarusian president needs opposition MPs to use as a shield against more unpleasant demands by the Kremlin. They could help block or at least stall unpopular and difficult decisions for Lukashenko, such as recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia. An opposition-less parliament will fool no one. Blaming it for anything will only annoy the Kremlin. Under the Constitution, the Belarusian parliament has no influence over life in the country. It can never override the president, but it would provide an additional argument in bargaining with the Moscow for cheap gas or other political or economic benefits. At the same time, there would be dependable support and financial aid from the West, as promised.

Could Lukashenko play a game like that? It is difficult going for him so far. The day before the elections, by official count, a quarter of the electorate had voted early at polling stations beyond the purview of election observers. In educational institutions, military units, and even factories, up to 90 percent of the voters made their choice early. The state-controlled election commissions were unlikely to have made such efforts for the benefit of the opposition. Lukashenko's hatred of opposition has taken the upper hand over cold political calculation.

Pavel Sheremet, television journalist



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