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Analysis & Opinion
09.07.09 The Fifteen Year Joke
Comment by Dmitry Babich

In 1994, a little-known collective farm manager ran for the Belarusian presidency. His reactionary Soviet-style platform and flamboyant populism caused the Russian government at the time to dismiss him as a Zhirinovsky-like joker. But Alexander Lukashenko won, and despite Soviet-style economics, a reputation in the West as a ruthless dictator and in Moscow as a troublemaker, he continues to rule Belarus to this day.

Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov have been presidents longer, but they came to power in their republics during the Soviet era.

Lukashenko is a self-made man who rose to political heights from the relative obscurity of a political officer and farm director.

His victory in the 1994 presidential election in Belarus came as a surprise to many. The Kremlin had supported his rival, Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, believing that Lukashenko was a bit of a joker, like Russia’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky. When he came to power, everyone expected Belarus, which he governed Soviet-style, to go bankrupt fast.

But these forecasts did not come true. Lukashenko is still president, and Belarus is so far not bankrupt.

How did he win? His former press secretary, Alexander Feduta, writes in a revealing political biography of Lukashenko that his boss learned politics not at boring party meetings but in the banya, or sauna, of his native village.

Lukashenko is still using the same old "banya" style in his speeches. He seems to think out loud, and uses simple, sometimes crude, words, which the people love but which shock his political colleagues in the East and the West.

In fact, this "thinking out loud" is often a feeler put out to test the potential reaction of the people and foreign partners to his new initiatives.

But populist methods would not have kept Lukashenko in power long if it were not for the material foundations - both economic and political - of his government.

The Soviet-style economy, which had long exhausted its potential in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, was still quite effective in Belarus when Lukashenko became its president. The political foundation is the West's irrational fear of a possible revival of the Soviet Union.

Belarus was the most conservative and relatively affluent republic of the Soviet Union. Hard-working Belarusians, who have become urban dwellers in relatively recent times, could not understand why their brothers in neighboring Russia destroyed the system that gave them enough bread and hot water. Russia's hasty - and therefore unsuccessful - privatization campaign of 1991-1995 only strengthened Belarusians' convictions.

Television, which Lukashenko has tightly controlled since 1995, compounded the people's fears by showing life in Russia as negatively as their Western colleagues did. But Western television ascribed the difficulties to lack of reform, while Belarusian television blamed them on reforms, thereby encouraging the people to support their conservative president.

"Lukashenko is a disease provoked by problems of the transition period," said Anatoly Lebedko, a leader of the Belarusian opposition and head of the opposition United Civil Party. "Market reforms do not come easy to people, and so they seek refuge in traditional forms of economic management."

In the 1990s, many analysts thought that the Soviet-style economy preserved by Lukashenko in Belarus would either eventually die or be absorbed by the Russian economy. However, neither has happened. On the contrary, Russia has begun emulating Belarus in some ways during the current economic downturn.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently called on Russian oil companies to give poor farms "a discount of five billion rubles" ($157 million) during the farming season, in exchange for a promise of "discounted food supplies" to the oil-producing regions.

This method is described as "patronage" in Belarus and has been used for years.

The political foundation of Lukashenko's power comprises many elements, apart from the police and KGB. Incidentally, people say that Lukashenko's police are less corrupt than their Russian colleagues.

One of the main reasons for the political longevity of the Belarusian system is the multi-vector nature of its foreign policy. Lukashenko keeps threatening the West with the prospect of surrendering his country's sovereignty to Russia, while simultaneously telling Russia that it will embrace the West. As a result, both forgive him his authoritarian style of government and try to involve Belarus in their sphere of influence. Russia supplies economic assistance, while the West has several times lifted the fence of isolation from around Belarus, the last occasion very recently.

The EU and U.S. financial aid to the nationalist opposition in Belarus is in fact supporting the regime, as nationalists cannot succeed in the Russia-loving republic. As a result, the Western-financed forces are pushing the real Belarusian opposition out of its political niche.

What's more, Lukashenko is using the Western pressure put on him to get additional economic assistance from Russia.

Analysts from the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of the Economy say that Belarusian energy companies were prepared for each of the recent hikes of Russian natural gas prices, but Lukashenko insisted that it was a complete surprise for him, and that the new price was completely unacceptable.

Oppositionist Anatoly Lebedko says that this tactic works every time, helping Lukashenko get concessions from Moscow. However, the Belarusian dictator recently went too far by lashing out at Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who had questioned Belarus's worthiness to recieve the last $500 million tranche of a Russian loan and speculated that the country might be insolvent by the end of the year.

"[Kudrin] joined ranks with our hoodlums who bark for Western money and teach us how to work," an angry Lukashenko said.

President Dmitry Medvedev retorted that the outburst was unacceptable. "We have never tolerated and we will we never tolerate giving personal characteristics to other countries' leaders," he said at an economics meeting.

Russia and Belarus first considered uniting in 1996, but the proposed Union State has not been established to this day, and the people are getting tired of waiting. But it is Lukashenko who is to blame for this.

When Boris Yeltsin ceded power to Putin in 1999 and Putin firmly took charge at the Kremlin helm, Lukashenko saw that he would never become president of the Union State. And so he lost interest in the unification project.

The Kremlin, aware of the Belarusian president's motives, launched a new, pragmatic policy regarding the fraternal republic. So, there will be no Russian expansion into Belarus, at least not while Lukashenko remains in power.
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