Bush’s political opponents are playing the Belarus card, aimed at Moscow

In this exclusive interview, Dmitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center (Washington), analyzes US policy on Ukraine and Belarus, assesses the election situation in those countries, and explains how Russia’s approaches to the former Soviet Union are viewed in America.

Question: Why are the United States and Europe paying such close attention to developments in Belarus and Ukraine?

Dimitri Simes: In this case, the motives of the United States and Europe may not be entirely identical. Europe regards the situation in Belarus and Ukraine as a question of European stability. The Europeans don’t want any conficts in these states; neither do they want Russia too close to Europe’s borders. It’s a large country, after all, with an interesting history and still a large military. Moreover, the voices of Poland and the Baltic states are growing louder in the European Union, and they never miss an opportunity to speak ill of Russia. Finally, the impression of increasing authoritarian trends in Russia also plays a role. The European Union is united by common values, after all, in addition to common economic interests. There’s a growing feeling in Europe that Russia is less and less accepting of those values – and what’s more, it’s helping others who don’t accept those values to remain in power. This concerns Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The United States, like Europe, doesn’t want to see any conflicts in Belarus or Ukraine. President George W. Bush emphasizes democracy. What’s more, the Polish and Ukrainian ethnic communities in the United States also play a role here, and they were always opponents of the USSR. It’s becoming clear that they’re now opponents of Russia whenever there’s any friction between Russia and the countries these migrants or their ancestors came from.

A unique aspect for America is domestic politics. President Bush set himself up when he met President Vladimir Putin and discovered the kindred spirit of a Jeffersonian democrat within him. All of Bush’s political opponents are looking at Russia and asking how Bush managed to see all that. As the next presidential election in America approaches, some are seeking to attack Bush by criticizing Russia. And mid-term elections for Congress are coming up this November.

Question: What kind of results is the United States expecting to see in the Belarusian and Ukrainian elections? Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said recently that Ukraine’s election is likely to be as free and fair as possible, but in Belarus the results would be rigged. Do you share this opinion?

Dimitri Simes: All the objective signs indicate that Ukraine’s election will be more free than the election in Belarus. For example, I haven’t heard that the Ukrainian Regions Party, headed by Viktor Yanukovich, has faced the kind of attacks that Lukashenko’s opponents have faced. Despite all the flaws of Ukraine’s political system, there are some real opposition parties in that country, which are fairly free to function – they have access to the media and are free to hold rallies. You won’t find anything of the kind in Belarus. So it shouldn’t be assumed that America’s approach is entirely biased and not based on evidence.

Then again, the evidence can be distorted somewhat, and the conclusions drawn from it may not be entirely objective. I wouldn’t compare the situation in Belarus with Ukraine – I’d compare it with the situation in Azerbaijan, which isn’t such a cause of concern for Mr. Fried. And he should look at the situation in Pakistan, recently visited by President Bush, who praised Islamabad for its role in the war on terrorism and called it an American ally.

Despite all the flaws in the Belarusian political system, it’s clear that the criticism of Minsk isn’t based entirely on its domestic policies, but also on the fact that Lukashenko isn’t oriented toward cooperation with the West and the United States, not even as a formality; he’s more focused on an alliance with Russia.

The United States isn’t backing any particular candidates in either Ukraine or Belarus. In principle, it’s clear that Ukraine’s election won’t produce any kind of result that wouldn’t be acceptable to the United States. But there certainly is a group within the Bush Administration (Fried is one of its leaders) for which this isn’t just about fair elections, but a matter of pushing Russia’s influence out of the region.

Question: The US State Department has accused Lukashenko of covertly selling arms to members of the “axis of evil” – Syria, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Does this factor – Minsk’s alleged cooperation with America’s enemies – affect perceptions of the Belarusian regime in the United States?

Dimitri Simes: This factor probably does play some sort of role. But it should be kept in mind that Ukraine also sold arms to Saddam Hussein. At some stage, the United States itself supplied arms to Saddam Hussein. So that’s just one circumstance that increases distaste for the Lukashenko regime.

Question: In recent weeks we’ve seen Washington make several gestures in Kiev’s direction. Ukraine has been granted market economy status; the House of Representatives voted to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Ukraine; Washington and Kiev signed a bilateral agreement on market access as part of the World Trade Organization accession process for Ukraine. Meanwhile, the State Department was giving a warm reception to Belarusian opposition leaders, and President Bush met with the widows of some Belarusian opposition activists who disappeared. Can these steps be regarded as the United State interfering in the electoral processes in Belarus and Ukraine?

Dimitri Simes: If a friendly state is experiencing elections or any other events that might mean the incumbent government losing power, the United States is quite prepared to support that government with positive stimuli. This only refers to positive steps. In the case of Ukraine, one aim of these positive steps is to show Ukrainian voters that America likes the present authorities of Ukraine. It could just as well be said that America is “interfering” in Israel. It’s entirely clear that America’s preferences are with the current Israeli government – and America is prepared to meet it half-way. And no one calls this “interference.” The United States has the right to chose its friends.

There are some strong pro-Ukraine sentiments in Congress, along with some markedly strong anti-Russian sentiments. In other words, the Bush Administration didn’t need to push hard to get the Jackson-Vanik amendment repealed for Ukraine. Kiev agreed to more concessions than Moscow in WTO talks with the United States, so it was much easier for Washington to complete bilateral negotiations with Kiev. In this case, I think we’re seeing a convergence of Washington’s wish to support the Ukrainian authorities, similar attitudes in Congress and American society, and the opportunity to complete WTO negotiations with Ukraine.

As for Belarus – meeting with dissidents is an old American tradition. Moreover, the United States considers the present regime in Belarus unacceptable. It is believed here that Lukashenko used fraudulent methods in the referendum that enabled him to run for another term. Unlike President Putin, who has said that he’ll abide by the Constitution and won’t stay on for a third term, Lukashenko has gone in a completely different direction. He is perceived as an illegitimate and undemocratic leader who disrupts the balance of power in Europe and wants to help re-create the Russian empire.

Question: Will there be a color revolution in Belarus – and if so, when?

Dimitri Simes: In order for a color revolution to happen, the government has to be very unpopular – and in Ukraine that became possible partly because the media were relatively free under Leonid Kuchma. As president, Kuchma did not control the Ukrainian parliament; if he had, the Orange Revolution probably wouldn’t have happened. The Ukrainian authorities didn’t show immediate readiness to use force to disperse the tent city on Independence Square. This might have been possible before it attracted thousands of people. But I don’t think Lukashenko would show any such restraint – so I’m not expecting a color revolution. Look at the contrast between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan: wherever the authorities were prepared to use force quicly, color revolutions failed. Color revolutions succeed when the authorities are not only authoritarian, but also lack self-confidence.

Question: What kind of steps is the United States taking, or might take, with the aim of weakening Lukashenko?

Dmitri Simes: Economic sanctions against Belarus are already in effect, and there is no substantial cooperation with Lukashenko. So it’s hard to take away something that’s never been granted. Under the existing system, I don’t see any room for non-governmental organizations or organizing forces whom the United States or anyone else could support. Until President Lukashenko loses popularity in Belarus, I don’t think his regime will have any serious problems.

Some people in Washington want Moscow to help get rid of Lukashenko – but I’m not sure to what extent Putin’s government is capable of that. Finally, given that the anti-Lukashenko campaign clearly includes an anti-Russian element, it’s hard to imagine the Russian authorities helping Washington in this.

Question: In your view, is Moscow’s support for Lukashenko entirely due to the anti-Russian element in the West’s campaign against the Belarusian leader?

Dmitri Simes: As President Putin has said on a number of occasions, Russia is not aiming to destabilize existing regimes – especially those with which it has reasonably normal relations. I’d call this normal relations with Lukashenko, rather than support for him. It fits into Moscow’s diplomatic policy, which gives priority to predictability and stability ahead of encouraging democratic changes.

There are different opinions within the Bush Administration about Moscow’s policy on the Belarusian government. Some say that relations with Belarus offer further evidence of Moscow’s neo-imperialist policy course. But other point out that Moscow is distancing itself from Minsk, to some extent. They argue that although Moscow and Washington take different approaches to Belarus, this should not be a significant factor in Russian-American relations. After all, Moscow is not responsible for Minsk.

Question: How is the Russia-Belarus Union initiative viewed in Washington?

Dimitri Simes: It’s viewed entirely through the perception of Moscow having neo-imperialist ambitions. Under any circumstances, the expansion of Russia’s border to Poland would cause concern in Poland, the Baltic states, and Europe as a whole. But if Belarus was headed by a legitimate, democratically-elected leader, and unification with Russia was based on the lawful, democratically-expressed wishes of both peoples, there would probably be less criticism of this project.