by David Marples
David Marples examines the origins and implications of Belarus' widening rift with Russia and Europe in the run up to December's presidential election. Is the prospect of genuine change in Belarus finally at hand?
In May 2009, Belarus participated in the inaugural meeting of the Eastern Partnership in Prague, following the October 2008 suspension of a European travel ban on President Aleksandr Lukashenko and several members of his government. The EU was supportive of the progress of Belarus toward addressing and improving internal conditions, especially the release of political prisoners.
Sixteen months later, the situation has deteriorated. There have been renewed attacks on opposition members, non-government newspapers and websites, culminating in the apparent murder of Charter 97 founder Aleh Byabenin. The secret police have targeted and harassed youth activists. Several have been expelled from universities, including Tatsiana Shaputska, who attended November's Civil Society Forum of the EU Eastern Partnership Policy.
Mr. Lukashenko has drafted Bill 60, which increases government control over the Internet, a development which High Representative of the EU Catherine Ashton termed "a step in the wrong direction." Two political parties, Nasha Vyasna and the Christian Democratic Party, have repeatedly been denied registration by the authorities. The forum "Tell the Truth," headed by Belarusian poet Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, has been a prime KGB target.
These events derive from two related issues: the forthcoming presidential election on December 19 and the shocking deterioration of relations between Belarus and Russia.
Even before the election date was announced, opposition leaders enthusiastically declared their candidacy. Although several candidates may agree to join forces behind a united democratic choice, as in 2006 when Alaksandar Milinkievic represented the opposition on the ballot, it is by no means clear that there will be a consensus candidate this time.
The opposition's fervor derives from the fact that Moscow has relinquished its position as the guarantor of the Belarusian president's victory. Every indicator suggests that the Russians would like to see regime change in Belarus.
The rift originated with the "gas war" that began six years ago but resurfaced this summer when Russia demanded payment of gas debts. In the 1990s, Belarus paid subsidized prices for Russian gas, which it promptly resold for substantial profits in world markets. In January 2007, the two sides signed a contract by which Gazprom would acquire 50 percent ownership in the Belarusian Transit Company, Beltransgaz, by 2011.
President Lukashenko protested bitterly, stating that Russia had betrayed the partnership manifested in the Great Patriotic War. He demanded higher transit fees and balked at every effort by the Russians to consolidate the strategic partnership with Belarus.
Consequently, Belarus refused to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It dragged its feet on the Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan - Lukashenko declined to participate in the most recent summit. He has frequently used the EU as a counter to Russian influence in his country. Notably last November European isolation of Belarus ended with the visit of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who commented to the president that election results demonstrated "Belarusians love you."
This summer Russian Television ran a documentary about Lukashenko called Godbat'ka (The Godfather) that focused on the disappearance of opposition leaders in 1999-2000 and portrayed the Belarusian leader as a devotee of Adolf Hitler. Mr. Lukashenko responded by engaging in a public dialogue with Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, the politician most detested in Moscow.
Since April, Lukashenko has also been harboring deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, following the April coup in Bishkek that had Moscow's overt support. Infuriated, Russian leaders now seek a change of leadership in Belarus, though they have not singled out any candidate. Several opposition leaders have been hosted in Moscow and include improved relations with Russia as a key tenet of their platforms.
"The last dictator of Europe," Lukashenko is under constant pressure compounded by immense government debt to Russia. He has lost much of Europe's backing as a result of recent government crackdowns and is regarded as unreliable by Moscow. At the domestic level, his public support is around 33 percent - not enough for a first-round victory in an open election. Clearly, these are turbulent times in Belarus. The historic confluence of events offers the prospect of genuine change in the country, even if the outcome remains as yet undetermined.
David Marples is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Alberta and President of the North American Association for Belarusian Studies.