The election in Belarus: thank you, everyone!

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No one in Belarus, Russia, or the West seemed to have any doubts about the outcome of the presidential election in Belarus on March 19. All the same, the election continues to dominate the headlines in Russia. The extraordinary results achieved by incumbent Alexander Lukashenko have led Russian observers to recall Soviet-era elections, with turnout at almost 100% and similar levels of support for the candidates recommended by the authorities.

“Lukashenko overdoes it” – that was the headline Nezavisimaya Gazeta used for its interview with Alexei Arbatov, leading political scientist and head of the International Security Center at IMEMO, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Arbatov (along with many others in Russia and the West) maintains that election results in Belarus were falsified: “Voter turnout never reaches 93% in free and fair elections.” The average turnout is 70%, or even 60%.

Arbatov says that there was a considerable amount of ballot-stuffing, as the Belarusian opposition claims, in order to boost turnout figures: “And since the ballot papers were faked, it isn’t hard to guess which candidate they were for.”

When Nezavisimaya Gazeta asked why Lukashenko would want to do this, given that all forecasts indicated he would win in any case, Arbatov replied: “Having so many votes allegedly cast for Lukashenko indicates that the president of Belarus lacks political common sense and tact, because he would have won anyway. It would have been much wiser for him to give explicit orders and assign monitors and observers to ensure a truly fair election. Then voter turnout may have been 60% or so, but his victory would have been unquestionable. Everyone would have had to accept it.”

But the nature of an authoritarian regime – its isolation and subordinates’ eagerness to curry favors with the president – led to the present result, which Arbatov describes as reflecting the nature of Lukashenko’s system: “A mini-USSR with some elements of free market relations and democracy thrown in to keep up appearances.”

“Why do the people of Belarus cling so jealously to their present head of state?” The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) attempted to answer that question by doing some special polls aimed at studying the mood among Belarusian voters.

In an article for the Vremya Novostei newspaper, VTsIOM international research manager Nikolai Popov reports the primary finding: “Most Belarusians don’t consider themselves unfortunate at all.” Thirty-six percent of respondents said they are wholly or mostly satisfied with their lives, and 42% were neutral. True, many (59%) still describe their material situation as average, with only 15% describing it as good.

These figures are similar to poll results in Russia, although the number of pessimists in Russian polls is 6-8% greater.

Belarusians are optimistic about their lives: 52% say the situation in Belarus has been improving of late.

Assessments of the performance of the authorities are also stable: 64% approve of the president’s performance, 54% approve of the government’s performance (with disapproval at 19% and 20% respectively).

When asked about Lukashenko’s effectiveness as president, 21% of respondents say he has consistently kept all his campaign promises, while 52% say he tries his best to keep his promises.

Respondents like Lukashenko for reinforcing Russian-Belarusian relations (49%) and improving social and pension benefits (43%). They value his achievements in restoring law and order in Belarus (37%) and strengthening national defense capacities (31%). Only 14% of respondents say he’s succeeded in developing democracy and political liberties. According to VTsIOM, 60% of respondents are in favor of democracy as the form of government for Belarus. Other priorities for Lukashenko’s third term include improving living standards (42%), restraining inflation (42%), raising health-care standards (37%), fighting bureaucracy and corruption (32%).

Thus, as Popov concludes in Vremya Novostei, it can be said that the people of Belarus are not tired of having Alexander Lukashenko as their president. He has the support of the overwhelming majority of voters.

The Vedomosti newspaper points out that before the election, Belarusian opposition leaders said they attached more importance to the size of post-election protest rallies than the official results. However, as Vedomosti reports, citing figures from the Belarusian Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the number of protestors at opposition rallies on October Square in Minsk is unlikely to increase substantially.

All the same, the opposition isn’t losing hope. One of Lukashenko’s rivals, opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich, told Moskovskie Novosti weekly: “The configuration in Belarusian society looks rather like this: a third of citizens want to keep the status quo, a third want changes, and the rest understand that although Lukashenko’s time has passed, there is no alternative to the present regime as yet.”

According to Milinkevich, the opposition set itself the task of “winning in people’s minds and hearts” rather than in the official election results, knowing in advance that these figures would be far removed from reality.

In Milinkevich’s opinion, “Lukashenko should not have been a candidate in this election at all. That’s what we are challenging – not his percentages.” The Belarusian Constitution was amended following a referendum in February 2004 to abolish the two-term limit for the incumbent, and the opposition considers those changes unlawful.

In another interview, with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Milinkevich acknowledges that “we cannot achieve this objective without Russia’s support.”

Alas – so far, the Kremlin is backing Lukashenko. But Milinkevich remains optimistic: “We have contacts with pro-democracy forces in Russia… In time, we hope the Kremlin will also want to listen to us.”

They’re relying on elections without Lukashenko: “If a new president of Belarus is lawfully elected, Russia will not create any obstacles. It will accept whoever is elected by the majority.”

“Belarusian society is becoming increasingly tense about Russia’s unqualified support for the Lukashenko regime,” says Vladimir Ryzhkov, who went to Minsk on March 19 as a special correspondent for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

According to opinion polls in Belarus, the public’s liking for Russia is decreasing with every year. Ryzhkov says: “It would be preferable to avoid repeating the case of Ukraine, when the Kremlin ignored changes in that country up until the very last moment, and managed to turn millions of Ukrainians against Russia.”

Then again, says Ryzhkov, the Russian authorities should be given some credit: neither Vladimir Putin nor Mikhail Fradkov made any public statements of support for Lukashenko before the election.

“Their behavior is understandable,” says Ryzhkov. “In a decade of ‘progressing toward a union state,’ just about the only progress has been in Lukashenko’s eloquent speeches about integration.”

We still haven’t introduced a common currency. Russian companies still aren’t allowed to buy into Belarusian pipelines or major industrial enterprises. Russia “has gained nothing, or almost nothing – while providing Belarus with cheap energy resources, opening up its markets to Belarusian products, and directly subsidizing the Belarusian budget.”

Ryzkov concludes that the “gas in exchange for talk” program is likely to be extended for Lukashenko’s third five-year term in office.

Indeed, says Profil magazine, the Belarusian economy appears to be in good order – on the surface. About 40% of its exports go to Russia, and the same percentage to EU countries. Petrochemicals and potassium fertilizers account for most of the exports to Europe, while Russia buys 60-95% of the output from Belarusian machine-building and chemicals enterprises, and most of the output of Belarusian light industry.

All the same, Belarusian exports to Russia fell by over 10% last year.

Profil explains that the economic system created by Lukashenko has enabled Belarus to retain the industrial capacities it inherited from the USSR, and a skilled labor force. Belarusian goods, still at Soviet-era quality levels, used to be quite competitive in Russia due to their low prices. By the start of this decade, however, these advantages were exhausted – for many reasons: state-sector wages rising ahead of labor productivity (also a problem for the state sector in Russia), excessive tax pressure (the total tax burden in Belarus is almost 45%, or 10% more than in Russia) – not to mention the fact that management at Belarusian enterprises remains “thoroughly Soviet.”

Another reason is the Belarusian government’s investment policy: according to Profil, private foreign investment either stays away from Belarus by choice or is denied entry on the pretext of fighting any attempt to “sell the Motherland.”

Then again, experts say that the slowdown in economic growth won’t necessarily lead to the collapse of the Belarusian economy – as long as oil prices remain high, enabling the Belarusian budget to make a lot of money from oil refining, and as long as Moscow doesn’t decide to bring down the “Belarusian economic miracle” – as it could well do, according to Profil.

Profil calculates that if Russia raises the natural gas price for Belarus to only $80 per thousand cubic meters (note that Gazprom recently demanded $200 from Ukraine and settled for $90), that would make every industrial enterprise in Belarus completely unprofitable.

Thus, Lukashenko’s fate is entirely in Moscow’s hands – especially given that the importance of Belarus as a transit country will decline substantially once work begins on the North-European Gas Pipeline, as political analyst Alexei Makarkin told Profil. Makarkin said: “Apparently, the day will soon come when Moscow asks Lukashenko to pay his bills.”

Profil concludes: “Of course, Russia could continue to keep Belarus afloat – but then the Lukashenko regime, from Moscow’s perspective, would seem more and more like a heavy suitcase with no handles: something you find hard to carry, but you’re reluctant to abandon.”

One way or another, says the Kommersant newspaper, the Minsk regime’s behavior should be considered entirely rational: by using the abovementioned “competitive advantages” of Belarus, Lukashenko has managed to find an economic niche in the markets of Russia and Europe. Although “Belarus has fallen far behind in terms of technology, politics, defense, and the economy,” Kommersant maintains that its example demonstrates that “in the absence of any external stimulus,” undemocratic and economically inefficient regimes are quite capable of retaining internal stability for a fairly long time.

It’s only a “comforting illusion” to assume that such regimes are short-lived aberrations, says Kommersant.

No wonder Lukashenko felt so confident at his post-election press conference in the Republic Palace.

According to a correspondent for Novye Izvestia, the newly-reelected head of state was in fine form: “He argued cheefully with journalists from Latvia and Ukraine, gracefully accepted flattery from international observers… He was quite interactive: expressing interest in the audience’s opinion, consulting his aides, kissing the observers who offered him bouquets.” He managed to express his opinion on all kinds of issues – claiming that “Milosevic was murdered in The Hague,” and explaining why he, unlike “some others,” hasn’t turned his back on his friend Saddam Hussein.

What’s more, a great deal was said about “the sponsors of color revolutions” and “all kinds of global conspiracies.” For example, when a Christian Science Monitor journalist asked why people in the Chernobyl zone are so poor, Lukashenko turned this against the United States: he said the Americans ought to help the victims of Chernobyl instead of spending money on a war in Iraq.

“Alexander Lukashenko spoke for some time, two-and-a-half hours,” said Novye Izvestia, “but he could have gone on for longer. Now he has five more years. At least.”

In general, says Moskovskii Komsomolets, all we can do is accept this as a given: Lukashenko remains the unchanging president of Belarus.

When asked what this means for Russia, Moscow politicians give contradictory answers. Neither is there unanimity in the Kremlin – despite official congratulations sent to the winner.

As Moskovskii Komsomolets notes, “the Kremlin and Lukashenko behave like close relatives who can’t stand each other. They smile and exchange kisses when they meet, but after leaving the room they slump against the door and breathe a sigh of relief.”

The surprising aspect, says Yulia Kalinina, author of the Moskovskii Komsomolets article, is that Lukashenko’s policy don’t have much impact on this relationship: “Even though it ought to elicit Moscow’s definite approval. After all, he’s doing exactly what Russia’s leaders consider strategically correct for Russia and other former Soviet countries.” For example, he takes steps to “strangle any orange revolutions at birth.” And he “doesn’t let the Americans get entrenched in Belarus.”

Of course, Lukashenko’s approaches and methods are overtly dictatorial: “But is that any obstacle if the Kremlin really wants to be friends with someone?”

As Alexander Podrabinek notes in Novaya Gazeta, “tyrannical regimes and dictatorships are far closer in spirit to today’s Russia than democratically-oriented countries.” The closest example is the president of Uzbekistan, “who mercilessly guns down any signs of revolution.”

All the same, the Kremlin clearly doesn’t like Lukashenko, says Yulia Kalinina, “despite his anti-Americanism and loyalty to Russia.”

The problem, according to Kalinina, is that Lukashenko is a leader who comes from a different formation than the Russian poltical elite: “He’s completely convinced that his own backward path is right, and he says some bizarre things.” Worse still, “he says what he really thinks.”

Our system is different: “Russia’s present-day rulers say what they don’t think. That’s the real difference between them and Lukashenko. Not a huge difference, essentially, but it does create insurmountable obstacles to mutual understanding.”

Then again, what do we care about Lukashenko? So he’ll remain in power in Belarus – “that means his time isn’t yet over,” says Moskovskii Komsomolets.

And even if unification with Belarus doesn’t happen as long as Lukashenko is in power, that might not be such a bad thing – “because nobody knows what would happen as a result of unification.”

Boris Nadezhdin, policy council secretary for the Union of Right Forces, was asked by Kommersant-Vlast magazine which politician he likes better – Lukashenko or Putin. He answered: “That means choosing the lesser of two evils… And we should be grateful that Lukashenko is still confining himself to Belarus.”

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