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Lukashenko: Russia’s new Yushchenko?

Fresh from productive confrontation with Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Dmitry Medvedev has waded into the Belarusian presidential election campaign. Appearing in a videoblog on Sunday, he accused Alexander Lukashenko of hiding behind “external enemies” in an attempt to cling onto power. For all it tells us about worsening relations between Luksahenko and the Kremlin however, Mikhail Zakharov remains unconvinced that this alone will be enough to remove the Belarusian leader.
Mikhail Zakharov
5 October 2010

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently drew attention to the state of Russian-Belarusian relations when, appearing in a videoblog, he severely criticized his Belarusian counterpart. Medvedev, it seems, had become concerned by the way Alexander Lukashenko was building his 2011 election campaign on a wave of anti-Russian rhetoric, and how the Belarusian president had indulged himself with criticism of the Russian leadership.

Choosing his words carefully, Medvedev said: “recently, the leadership of Belarus has armed itself with anti-Russian rhetoric. The election campaign is built entirely on anti-Russian feeling, on hysterical accusations that Russia does not want to support Belarusians or the Belarusian economy. Behind all of this, there is a real desire to cause a quarrel between governments, and accordingly nations”.

Medvedev pointed out that this was not the first time he had used his blog in this way; he had, indeed, on several previous occasions left online comment on relations between Russia and other nations. In particular, brought up the example of an address he made to President Yushchenko in the summer of 2009. These comments aggravated an already deep crisis in relations between Moscow and Kiev right up until the first round of presidential elections in January this year. The Russian ambassador Mikhail Zurabov was only allowed entry into Ukraine until after the first round, which Yushchenko lost badly. It is no coincidence that elections are also approaching in Belarus. On 19th December, we will learn the name of the new (or perhaps old) president.

Medvedev was stark in his accusations: “the Belarusian leadership has always been distinguished by an aspiration to create the image of a foreign enemy in the public mind. [The only difference is that... ] in the past, this role was played by America, Europe and the West in general. Now Russia has been declared a main enemy”. In other passages, he claimed that Lukashenko had managed to transcend the boundaries “not only of diplomatic rules, but elementary human decency”. None of this, apparently, was new to Medvedev:  “I remember being surprised at our first bilateral meeting, when instead of concentrating on Russian-Belarusian leadership, [Lukashenko] began to discuss in great detail, and in an exclusively negative manner, my predecessors in the post of Russian President – Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. I had to remind my colleague that our talks were supposed to cover completely different topics”.

Dmitry Medvedev's videoblog, posted Sunday, is testament to worsening relations between Russian and Belarusian political elites (in Russian, transcript in English here)

An area that has caused particular disagreement between the two presidents appears is Lukashenko’s unhelpful position on South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence. Medvedev said: “Lukashenko’s peculiar way of understanding the notion of partnership is absolutely apparent in the way he has dealt with the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I have said it several times: it is the sovereign right of every country to recognize or not to recognize these two new nations. We have never put pressure on anyone in this issue, though the matter is by no means of no consequence for us. However, the Belarusian President announced that he was prepared to [recognize independence] in the presence of his colleagues, five presidents. There is a corresponding memorandum, contained within the minutes of a CSTO meeting (Collective Security Treaty Organization) to this effect. Yet the issue has since turned into a constant object of political bargaining”.

We note the present quarrel began on 2 August, when at a meeting with journalists in Sochi, Medvedev brought up a comment Lukasheko was supposed to have made at a 2008 CSTO summit. “He said ‘I solemnly promise that I will do everything within the shortest time”, relayed Medvedev. On 13 August, Lukashenko replied directly to this rebuke. According to Lukashenko, his Russian colleague was “unscrupulously taking certain things out of context”. Belarus could not recognize the independence of the two republics, as "Russia refused to take responsibility for any consequences in relations between Belarus and the EU, Belarus and the USA, Belarus and the CIS”. Medvedev kept quiet about this, Lukashenko explained to a gathering of Belarusian journalists.

In response to Lukashenko’s statement, the Russian president’s assistant Sergei Prikhodko said he was prepared to make a transcription of the CSTO summit public, and not only the passages where Alexander Lukashenko promised to recognize the two republics, but also other statements “which would be of interest both to Belarus and the international community”.

Medvedev directly threatened Lukahshenko in the videoblog: “Such behavior is dishonest, and partners do not behave like this. This is something we have to take into account when we consider relations with the current Belarusian President”. He continued: “Lukashenko’s entire election campaign has been built on accusations and rebukes. He is worried about many things: economic relations, the Russian media contacting the Belarusian opposition, and even the fate of some high-ranking pensioners and sacked officials”. Medvedev was, however, “certain this pointless period of tension will end”.

Elections in Belarus are scheduled for 19 December, and the current president has a full field of opponents. Besides Lukashenko, declared candidates include Viktor Tereshchenko, Chair of the Association for Small and Medium Enterprise; Vladimir Provalsky, an entrepreneur; Vladimir Neklyaev, director of the ‘Dvizhenie Vpered’ (‘Forward Movement’) research institute; Yaroslav Romanchuk, director of Strategy research centre; Sergei Ryzkkov, financial director of Vitebsk fruit and vegetable complex; Andrei Sannikov, a newspaper political commentator;  Alexei Mikhalevich, a legal consultant; businessman Dmitry Ussm, Grigory Kostusev, deputy director of a construction company; Grigory Kostusev, chair of the Liberal Democratic Party; Vitaly Rimashevsky, deputy chairman of “Christian Business Initiative”; Nikolai Statkevich,  leader of the Social Democratic party; Ivan Kulikov, head of a nuclear research lab; Petr Borisov, a pensioner; and Sergei Ivanov, currently unemployed.

Yaroslav Romanchuk was upbeat in a recent interview published on openDemocracy. He said: “Lukashenko is starting his presidential campaign with an approval rating some 25 percentage points lower than the campaigns of both 2001 and 2006. And the chances of him getting those voters back are limited, especially in context of the “cold war” he has decided to wage with Russia, and the growing pressures in the economy. [...] Lukashenko is losing the support of his core vote: those who voted for him for reasons of stability, security of wages and pensions, friendship with Russia, or because because “there was no one else to vote for”.  One thing is clear, Lukashenka will not win in the first round. For sure, he can paint himself some fake percentage or other. Indeed, he’s been doing this for some 15 years. But there is an obvious answer to such a turn of events.”

Belarus has a mountain of economic problems that could tell on the president’s popularity come the time of the election. As a result of the reduction of grants from Russia, the country is on the verge of a default. Minsk has apparently even contemplated not holding presidential elections at all. According to independent experts, the Belarusian ruble exchange rate may soon drop to 50% of its current value.

Several of the presidential candidates have already been declared “Kremlin” candidates by experts. However, Moscow has not yet outlined the conditions that would lead to an easing of the tension; it has not yet explained what exactly it wants from Lukashenko. Far from Viktor Yushchenko’s misdemeanours, Lukashenko has only been accused of breaking his promises. While Moscow has also made it clear that it no longer likes Lukashenko, this is not in itself enough to remove the “last dictator in Europe” from the throne. There needs to be much more powerful arguments, and the marshalling of anti-Lukashenko forces and feeling inside Belarus. Indeed, domestic problems — he problem of Moscow and its mayor — are likely to take precedence over the presidential elections in Belarus. Pointedly, Lukashenko congratulated Yury Luzhkov on his 74th birthday, but demonstratively ignored Dmitry Medvedev’s 45th birthday.

Unless Moscow is holding some trump of a political and economic nature up its sleeve (going as far as carrying out a velvet revolution, or forcing change of power in Belarus), the conflict is likely to have an increasingly negative effect on relations. The consequences of this may well be more serious than the profits from satisfaction of the personal ambitions of heads of state. Given the non-competitive political system in both countries, it is difficult to count on a Ukrainian post-Yuschenko scenario of improved relations. The Russian president’s internet post is interesting as an analogy of Medvedev himself, as a kind of comparison of Yushchenko and Lukashenko. Moscow clearly wishes Lukashenko will lose the elections. A mere wish, however, is not enough. 

Mikhail Zakharov is a Moscow-based journalist working for Russian ezine www.polit.ru
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