The last dictator's last hurrah

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In 2005 Condoleezza Rice famously described Belarus in as ‘“the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe”. Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus since 1994, faces the voters on December 19. Nobody really expects him to lose; but the election comes at a time when his basic survival strategy is suddenly under severe strain. The informal social contract that he has with most ordinary Belarusians – relative prosperity in return for a relative lack of political freedom – is under threat. Neither of his traditional foreign policy strategies - milking Russia for subsidies and more recently travelling the world for money from the likes of Azerbaijan China and Venezuela - can provide enough cash to plug an annual balance of payments gap due to top 14% of GDP this year, or $7 billion. The global economic crisis has hit Belarus hard, as its export markets - Russia for Soviet-style manufactures and the West for energy and raw materials - have collapsed. Foreign loans have kept the system afloat till now, but there is no recovery model in sight. External debt has almost doubled, reaching a record 52% of GDP in 2010. Belarus has an IMF facility and launched a first Eurobond issue this summer; but is over-dependent on political loans from a constantly changing kaleidoscope of currently friendly states.

At the last election in 2006 the West, the USA and Poland in particular, was accused of backing the main opposition candidate Alexander Milinikevich. This time, with no apparent sense of irony, Russia is backing the two main opposition candidates Vladimir Neklyaev and Andrey Sannikov. Russian Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin has complained of $50 billion of subsidies in fifteen years for little return: Russian foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov claims that “Lukashenka has for some time been trying to establish himself as a systemic opponent of Russian policy”, refusing to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia and dragging his feet over Putin’s pet project of a customs union.

So Russia has been piling on the pressure in 2010. In July it aired a four-part series attacking Lukashenko as the ‘Godfather’; significantly on the NTV channel owned by Gazprom, which wants to take over Belarus’s gas transit system. The price of Russian gas and oil has been ratcheted up. Belarusian exporters are dependent on cheap gas, which is 80% of their energy mix: Belarus has two relatively modern oil refineries, whose shadowy mega-profits used to provide the regime’s main sustenance.

Russia does not think it can force Lukashenko out, but it wants to use the elections as a ‘primary’ to stress-test a leader capable of creating a pro-Russian lobby, and cutting Lukashenko down to size in the immediate future. Significantly, Russia also offered the carrot of a return to tariff-free oil at the last minute before the election.

Meanwhile, there have been cosmetic improvements to the voting process, particularly easier candidate registration and the novelty of TV debates between the challengers - though not of course Lukashenko himself. Nine other candidates have been allowed to stand, but this is in part to ensure that there will be no natural leader of post-election protests. The ‘counting’ process is unreformed. Opinion polls give Lukashenko 30-45%, but he may claim 75% or more.

Some protests therefore seem inevitable. Preparing to help manage a messy result is therefore one priority for the West. But the EU set a very low barrier with its official declaration in October demanding not a fair vote per se, but ‘clear and visible progress on the conduct of elections’. Despite the Belarus Democracy Act passed by Congress in 2004, US engagement this time has been minimal. Democracy promotion seems to be out of fashion in the ‘reset’ era.

Lukashenko is a great survivor, and wants to stay in power with minimal political change and enough economic assistance to maintain his social contract and avoid the kind of mass privatisation that will undermine his power base. He is likely to try yet another rebalancing act after the elections, reaching out to the West to offset renewed dependence on Russia. There are even rumours of opposition ministers in a new government. But Belarus cannot afford $7 billion a year - something has to give. The US and the EU should therefore use the economic climate to widen the political opening. Poland and Germany should be in the lead, following the example of the joint visit of the two countries’ foreign ministers to Minsk in November. But conditionality must be highly specific, so progress cannot be faked. Greater space for civil society, abolition of the more repressive parts of the criminal code, even a push for new parliamentary elections if the opposition does well on December 19, will all pave the way for a smoother transition when the time comes. This may be under or after Lukashenko, but even if he survives once again he cannot have it all.

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