Presidential elections will take place on March the 19th and there is almost no doubt about the re-election of Dictator Alexander Lukashenka. Whilst the opposition is trying to organize itself, pressure and reprisals by the state are on the increase. Following the “orange revolution” in neighbouring Ukraine, hopes have been growing that in Belarus, the country often described as the last dictatorship in Europe, democratisation and reforms will take hold as well.
The current president, Alexander Lukashenka, has been in power since 1994. Even though elections have occurred, these are severely flawed and do not met the norms set by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Opposition candidates and campaign volunteers have been imprisoned for political reasons and the state media either neglect these candidates or give only bad news on them. In the year 2005, president Lukashenka organised a referendum to ensure that he could run for president even after having served two terms.
Belarusian coat of arms
Opposition parties are no longer represented in the parliament. A large part of the opposition movement agreed on a joint candidate for the elections on the presidency. The physicist Alexander Milinkewitsh, a 58-year-old independent who is chairman of an NGO, was elected as opposition candidate to challenge Lukashenka. Still, there are other opposition candidates, like Alexander Kosulin, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, who stand for presidency themselves.
Human Rights Violations on the Increase
The regime violates human rights on a large scale, varying from the execution of the death penalty to the imprisonment of political opponents and from exclusion of education to the arrest of demonstrators.
Since 1999 and 2000, four critics of the regime have “disappeared”. The government has displayed a lack of interest to investigate the various cases, and some hints point in the direction of involvement by the regime in the disappearances of the four. Even now, six years later, in spite of repression of manifestations, the four people are commemorated monthly in public by the civil initiatives We Remember and Solidarity16.
Independent media is scarce. The state has several ways to cope with critical newspapers; for example, critique can be viewed as an insult to the president. Once a newspaper is declared illegal, distributing these can be followed by arrests. Manifestations and actions against the regime can lead to fines and incarceration. Even for such a small thing as wearing a mask of president Lukashenka, people can be imprisoned for several years. When people do demonstrate, they risk a violent arrest by the OMON Special Forces.
Belarus can be described as having a command economy containing elements of a private sector, with the state’s share of the economy about 75 %. The economic data, 11 % economic growth and 14% inflation in 2004, appear, at first glance, to be satisfactory. However, international financial institutions call these data into question. Obviously, the economic situation is made to look better by artificial means.
Macroeconomic development is driven by artificially generated surges in demand and can in no way be described as sustainable. State ordered wage increases (double the increases of productivity), forced provision of state loans, purchasing Russian energy at preferential rates and a preferential access to the Russian market dominate the economic picture. Against this background, there is a chronic lack of investment and underdevelopment in the sector of small and medium size enterprises (SME).
Obstruction of the private sector through unclear and contradictory legislation, delayed privatisation and a problematic customs system can be considered as politically motivated, insofar as an underdeveloped private sector can no longer pose a threat to the presidency’s hold on power.
The EU Position: Walking a Political Tightrope
The EU has reduced its relations to Belarus to a minimum and is focusing, in particular, on providing support to the country’s civil society. The foreign policy towards Belarus can be described as a two-pronged strategy: on the one hand, contacts with representatives of the regime, even though limited, are being maintained; on the other the EU offers support to the democratic opposition and organisation of civil society. The EU argues that a tougher policy approach, involving a total ban on contacts with members of the Lukashenka regime, would deprive the EU of any possibility of providing support to civil society.
Relations have been tense since the EU threatened Belarus with withdrawal of tariff preferences. The reasons for this are the continuous violations of major conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on trade union rights by the Belarus state.
Trade relations between EU states and Belarus make up around 1/6 of the country’s foreign trade. Germany (5%) is Belarus most important trading partner after Russia (58%). Therefore, according to information from the Council the withdrawal of trade preferences could mean a loss of 100 million euro per annum to the country.
The EU has imposed a visa ban on all high-ranking officials involved in electoral fraud, serious human rights violations and reprisals against demonstrators.
EU-funded Radio Shows Beam Information into Belarus
Mandated by the EU-Commission, the radio station “Deutsche Welle” started in November 2005 to broadcasts programmes in Russian by radio and internet to Belarus. An additional EU-sponsored consortium broadcasts a one hour-long radio bulletin and a TV show called “Window on Europe” into the country, containing news items and music.
The €2 million project has been dubbed “Cold War-type propaganda” by Minsk diplomats. While the EU-funded TV and radio shows start small, Lukashenka launched four new TV channels and plans to invest 61 million euro into state media in 2006, Belarusian independent press association head Zhanna Litvina reported on euobserver.com.
A January survey by Bratislava-based NGO Pontis/IVO found that 65 percent of Belarusian respondents see their country as “calm” and 81 percent “appreciate” president Lukashenka’s promises of good living standards. Seventeen percent expect mass protests after the elections, despite the fact that only a third believes the elections will be fair.
Russia, Belarus and the Never Ending Story of the Union of States
The future of the project to create a union of states is still unclear. Further steps towards a union between Belarus and the Russian Federation have been delayed. Apart from the major stumbling point that the Russian side is not prepared to recognise Belarus and its president as an equal partner, other obstacles persist, in particular on the Belarus side. The reforms that would accompany a possible economic and monetary union would mean a loss of power for the leadership in Minsk and are therefore not attractive.
In the course of the reforms in Georgia and Ukraine, the Russian government has increased its support for the Lukashenka regime. As regards energy supply, the country is completely dependent on imports of natural gas from Russia. Belarus allows supplies of Russian natural gas to be led through to Western Europe at almost no charge and in return receives natural gas at a preferential rate.