Belaru's Lukashenka - Europe's Pariah Strongman

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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Written November 18, 2002

Updated March 2005

Most of the post-communist countries in transition are ruled either by reformed communists or by authoritarian anti-communists. It is ironic that the West - recently led more by the European Union than by the USA - helps the former to get elected even as it demonizes and vilifies the latter. The "regime change" fad, one must recall, started in the Balkans with Slobodan Milosevic, not in Afghanistan, or Iraq.

Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist minister and the current president of Poland is feted by the likes of George Bush. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer and Russia's president, is a strategic ally of the USA. Branko Crvnkovski - an active "socialist" and the president of Macedonia - is the darling of the international community.

Vaclav Klaus (former prime minister of the Czech Republic), Vladimir Meciar (former strongman and prime minister of Slovakia), Ljubco Georgievski (until 2002 the outspoken prime minister of Macedonia), Viktor Orban (voted out as prime minister of Hungary in late 2002) - all strident anti-communists - are shunned by the great democracies.

The West contributed to the electoral downfall of some of these leaders. When it failed, it engineered their ostracism. Meciar, for instance, won the popular vote twice but was unable to form a government because both NATO and the European Union made clear that a Slovakia headed by Meciar will be barred from membership and accession.

But nowhere is European and American discomfiture and condemnation more evident than in Ukraine and Belarus.

Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's former president, has been accused by the opposition and by the international media of every transgression - from selling radar systems to Iraq to ordering the murder of a journalist. He hadn't visited a single European leader - with the exception of Romano Prodi, the chief of the European Commission - in the last five years of his much-maligned reign.

Kuchma was not allowed to attend NATO's Prague summit in November 2002 due to opposition by NATO and a few European governments. It was then that he began priming his new prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, erstwhile governor of the Donetsk region, to replace him as president.

Aleksander Lukashenka, the beleaguered president of Belarus is equally unlucky. The Czechs flatly refused him an entry visa due to human rights violations in his country. Minsk threatened to sever its diplomatic relations with Prague. In November 2002, the European Union imposed a travel ban on Lukashenka and 50 members of his administration. The EU has suspended in 1997 most financial aid and bilateral trade programs with Belarus.

In an apparent tit-for-tat Belarus again raised the issue of Chechen refugees on its territory, refused entry by Poland. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been ignoring Belarusian complaints, letting the impoverished country cope with the human flux at its own expense. Lukashenka threatened to open Belarus' anyhow porous borders to unpoliced traffic.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in a conference in Washington in November 2002, tellingly titled "Axis of Evil: Belarus - The Missing Link" and hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, then US ambassador to Belarus, Michael Kozak, chastised president Lukashenka for having "chosen the wrong side in the war on terrorism" and threatened that he "will soon face the consequences of his illegal arms sales (and military training) to Iraq." The Polish delegate mocked Lukashenka and his "friends in Baghdad". Poland used to rule west Belarus between the world wars and Poles residing there are staunch supporters of the opposition to the wily president.

Belarus implausibly - though vehemently - denies any wrongdoing but Minsk is still the target of delegations from every pariah state - from North Korea to Cuba. Saddam Hussein's Iraqi minister of military industry was a frequent visitor. But Belarus has little choice. Boycotted and castigated by the West and multilateral lending institutions, it has to resort to its Soviet-era export markets for trade and investments.

The October 2004 Belarus Democracy Act, and other proposed bills pending in Congress, grant massive economic assistance to the fledgling opposition and would impose economic sanctions on the much-decried regime. Hitherto supported by an increasingly reluctant Russia, Lukashenka, having expelled the OSCE monitoring and advisory team, remains utterly isolated.

Putin, as opposed to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, rejected a union between Russia and Belarus and instead offered to incorporate the 80,000 sq. miles (208,000 square km.), 10 million people, country in the Russian Federation. When Russia effectively joins the WTO, its customs union with Belarus will go. All that's left binding this unlikely couple together are two military bases with questionable relevance.

The friction between the neighboring duo is growing. Belarus owes Russia at least $80 million for subsidized gas supplies since 1999. An angry Gazprom, the partly state-owned Russian energy behemoth, accuses Belarus of pilfering a staggering 15 billion cubic meters of gas from the transit pipeline in the third quarter of 2002 alone.

In a meeting, in November 2002, between Mikhail Kasyanov, prime minister of Russia and Henadz Navitski, his Belarusian counterpart, Russia agreed to cover c. half the outstanding debt and to renew the flow of critical fuel, halved in the previous fortnight.

A possible debt-to-equity takeover of the much-coveted and strategically-located Belarusian pipeline network, Beltranshaz, was also discussed. It is an alluring alternative to the Ukrainian route and the Finnish-Baltic North European Gas Pipeline. The Belarusian potash industry is another likely target once - or if - privatization sinks in.

Should Gazprom cease to sell to Belarus gas at the heavily subsidized Russian prices, the country will grind to a halt. Other suppliers, such as Itera, have already cut their supply by half. Belarus' decrepit industries, still state-owned, centrally planned and managed by old-timers, rely on heavy-handed government subventionary, interventionary and protectionist policies. Heavy machinery, clunky and shoddy consumer goods and petrochemicals constitute the bulk of Belarusian exports.

Strolling the drab, though tidy, streets of soot-suffused Minsk, it is hard to believe that Belarus was once one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR. The average income was 1.2 times the Soviet Union's. GDP per capita was 1.5 times the average. Yet, Belarus has rejected transition. It tolerated only a negligible private sector and mistreated foreign investors.

It is even harder to believe that Lukashenka was once a zealous fighter against corruption in his country. He won the 1994 presidential elections on a "clean hands" ticket, being an obscure state farm director and then a crusading member of parliament. Re-elected in tainted elections in 2001, Lukashenka has imposed a reign of ambient terror on his countrymen. Human rights abuses and mysterious disappearances of dissidents abound.

The president's "market socialism" is replete with five year plans, quotas, and a nomenclature of venal politicians and rent seeking managers. The BBC reports that "farmers are being encouraged to grow bumper harvests for the reward of a free carpet or TV set from the state." In mid-2002 The Economist reported mass arrests of non-supportive company directors.

Some people are afraid to criticize the regime and for good reason. But what the Western media consistently neglect to mention is that many Belarusians are content. As opposed to other countries in transition, until fairly recently, both salaries and pensions - though meager even by east European standards - were paid on time. GDP per capita is a respectable $3000 - three fifths the Czech Republic's and Hungary's.

Official unemployment is 2 percent, though, with underemployment, it is probably closer to 10-15 percent, or half Poland's. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica 2002 Yearbook, Russia spends c. $1 billion annually to subsidize Belarusian energy consumption and to purchase unwanted Belarusian products. But even if true, this amounts to a mere 3 percent of GDP.

The rate of violent crime is low - though electronic crime, the smuggling of drugs and weapons and sex slavery flourish. The streets are clean. Heating is affordable. Food and medicines are subsidized. The ever-receding prospect of union with Russia now attracts the support of the majority of the population. Lukashenka was the only deputy of Belarus' Supreme Soviet to have voted against the dissolution of the USSR. In the current climate, this voting record is a political asset.

The opposition is fractured and cantankerous and has consecutively boycotted the elections. The few influential dissenting voices are from the president's own ranks. The truth is that 51-year old Lukashenka, born in a tiny, backward village, is popular among blue-collar workers and farmers. They call him "father". Granted, judging by his Web site, he is a megalomaniac, but many Belarusians find even this endearing. He is a "strong man" in the age-old tradition of this region.

As far as the West is concerned, Belarus is a dangerous precedent. It proves that there is life after Western sanctions and blatant meddling. Regrettably, the Belarusians have traded their political freedom for bread and order. But, if this sounds familiar, it is because the Russians have done the same. Putin's Russia is a more orderly and lawful place - but political and press freedoms are curtailed, not to mention the massive abuse of human rights in Chechnya.

Yet, no one in the West is contemplating to oust Putin or to boycott Russia. None in Europe or in America is suggesting to apply to the rabid dictators of Central Asia the treatment that the far less virulent Lukashenka is receiving. It is this cynical double standard that gaffe-prone Lukashenka rails against time and again. And justly so.

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