Byelorussia makes its choice

Posted in Russia | 22-Oct-04 | Author: Dmitry Udalov

There is a phrase in a famous Dostoevsky novel “The Brothers Karamazov” saying that you needn’t any power to conquer people, because under certain circumstances «they will bring their freedom to you and lay it humbly at your feet». Is this similar to what has just happened in Byelorussia?

On October 17, the Byelorussians were asked whether they agreed to change the constitution and allow Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power for 10 years, to be reelected for a third term in 2006.

"You are voting not so much for me," Mr. Lukashenko said in an address on the eve of the referendum, "as for the clear prospects of the country, certainty and stability in Belarusian society and the future of your children and grandchildren."

According to the official results, 89.7% of registered voters voted in the referendum and 77.3% of them agreed to amend the constitution.

Tone Tingsgaard, head of the OSCE observer mission, said that the election campaign in Belarus did not meet democratic standards. "Belarus could have made a step into the European family. It has missed the chance", she said. International experts watching the election noted such violations as biased canvassing in favor of the authorities (the OSCE said it occupied 90 percent of the air time and the reading matter in newspapers) and limiting the rights of observers. Representatives from the opposition said there were a lot of frauds; thus, the results of the referendum were actually far different. The opposition believes that Lukashenko could not have won more than 48% of the vote. Some western countries have already said the referendum was undemocratic and the United States has even threatened to apply economic sanctions.

Russia said the referendum was the internal affair of Belarus. The results of this campaign, Moscow thinks, are "the cross-section of public opinion in the republic". Meanwhile, one incident has put a wrinkle on Moscow's approach to the developments in Belarus. On the day of the referendum in Minsk, two unidentified people beat up newsman Pavel Sheremet of Russian Television Channel One, who upon arrival in Belarus had made critical remarks about the authorities' address. The camera of a newsman from Russia's NTV channel was damaged when he tried to film the opposition's demonstration.

The most sensational reaction came from Pavel Borodin. Borodin, secretary of the union state of Belarus and Russia, spoke in favor of Byelorussian experience and has suggested that a referendum be held on the possibility of the current Russian president being allowed to rule for life. In his speech, he emphasized the role of tsars throughout Russia’s history. “We are both Slavs! We’ve always had a natural need for the tsar!” Russian officials immediately began to justify themselves. The president's press secretary, Alexei Gromov, said that Mr. Borodin "must have been expressing his personal viewpoint that has nothing to do with reality." Besides, the current law on referendums does not allow a plebiscite to be held on constitutional amendments.

The outcome of the Belarusian referendum has indicated that the political regime is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Is a country that said goodbye to communism at the same time as other Eastern European states on its way back? Whereas Poland or the Baltic states are welcomed by the EU, Belarus has real chances of being classified a rogue state. Is it the desire of the Byelorussian people to build a new iron curtain or is it the desire of Byelorussia's authorities to strengthen their own positions in the country by controlling the press, political life and the economy? Why does this country (or its authorities) enjoy challenging the rest of the world?

Nevertheless, the recent elections have also shown that Byelorussians do support the policies of their president. I don’t think it is easy to engage in such massive frauds that would even surpass the predictions of the official Byelorussian authorities. In my opinion, there are two basic reasons that could explain the overwhelming support of president Lukashenko:

The first reason is the unfriendly attitude held by Europe, the United States and even Russia toward Byelorussia. Relations with its natural ally, Russia, were spoiled a bit in 2004 over natural gas matters. Belarus wanted to buy gas from Russia at a low “partner’s” price, but it demanded that Russia pay for the gas transit to Europe at European prices. Accusations made by European and US officials that there have been human rights violations in the country are understood by most Byelorussians as an attack on their country. The same attitude was in the USSR, where all human rights aspects were considered to be hostile propaganda of capitalist states. Today, many Byelorussians feel as if they are in a besieged castle. Who else do they need in this situation but a strong leader? President Lukashenko is of the same opinion. He views the results of the referendum as an answer to the international pressure placed on Belarus: "Pressure on Belarus was permanently building up and has assumed a very serious scope of late. The leadership of our country and I personally were in need of definite support. Support other than from our people would not have been enough to offset the pressure".

The second reason is the economy. Belarus has shown impressive growth in gross indices in recent years. According to the Statistics Ministry, since the beginning of this year, GDP has grown by more than 10% and inflation has dropped to 9%. Of course it is largely because of the advantages of the open Russian market and advantageous tariffs for Russian energy resources.

In Belarus, the state controls the economy and has refused to privatize state enterprises, which was criticized by Western experts and has upset Russian investors. The outcomes of Russian privatization, where most of the nation’s resources belong to a minority, indicate to the common citizens the right economic course of the Byelorussian government. Economic development in Belarus hasn’t results that are as impressive as those in Poland or the Baltic states. However, today the situation is more or less stable.

These two reasons turned out to be sufficient for the Byelorussian people to «bring their freedom and lay it humbly at the feet» of Lukashenko. Or it is simply a natural nation’s need for the tsar and we shall wait for his emergence in another Slavic country – in Russia…