The Limits of Western Influence over Belarus

By Dr. Lucan Way, Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto

Dr. Way Provides an analysis of Belarus “as lessons to be learned from” for Ukraine-watchers.

On December 19, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka orchestrated his re-election to a fourth term with an official vote tally of “80 percent”(http://www.rec.gov.by/pdf/prb2010/sved20.pdf) – a move that was followed by a large-scale “crackdown on opposition” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/world/europe/20belarus.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=Lukashenko&st=cse). Despite Belarus’s small size and proximity to Western Europe, ““Europe’s last Dictator” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/116265.stm) has remained virtually unchallenged since gaining power in 1994.  What can the West do?  Some have recently suggested that the West could more effectively promote democracy in Belarus by taking a “tougher stand.” (http://www.tnr.com/article/world/80138/belarus-betrayal).

(Media Credit/Associated Press)

Yet, the truth is that there are severe limitations on the West’s influence over Belarus.  First, Russia’s extensive support for Belarus has severely blunted the impact of Western democratizing pressure.  Thus, after Lukashenka forcibly shut down the legislature and imposed a dictatorial constitution in 1996, Western financial aid “fell dramatically” (http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/fs/107776.htm) and European powers deprived Belarus of its observer status in the Council of Europe. But massive support from Russia almost entirely inoculated Lukashenka against these measures. Russian assistance, which has included heavily subsidized natural gas and vast revenues via the resale of Russian oil and arms, accounted for an estimated “20 to 30 percent of Belarus’s GDP” (http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1343881.html). As a result, Lukashenka’s abuses only increased.  In 1999, four major opposition figures disappeared, apparently at the hands of government-sponsored death squads and elections throughout the 2000s were marked by extensive harassment of opposition and massive vote fraud.  During the 2006 Presidential elections, for example, a significant portion of the vote was stolen and “police repression and censorship made it effectively impossible for the opposition to carry out a national campaign.” (http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2006/06/19393_en.pdf.  Opposition failed to gain seats in parliamentary elections in 2004 or 2008).

Given Belarusian dependence on Russian assistance, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has ironically been the biggest impetus for change in Belarus.  Following years of uncritical support by Boris Yeltsin, tensions between Russia and Belarus increased markedly under Putin, who has sought to reduce Russia’s subsidization of Belarus. Tensions reached a climax this summer when Kremlin-controlled NTV broadcast a highly critical documentary of Lukashenka that was seen by as many as “40 percent of Belarusians” (http://www.belinstitute.eu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=786&Itemid=1&lang=en).  Lukashenka accused “Russian companies of funding Belarusian opposition” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11469027?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter).

It is a vast exaggeration to say that the “keys to the Belarusian Presidency lie in the Kremlin” (http://ru.delfi.lt/abroad/belorussia/article.php?id=36976435). Indeed, Russian criticism of Lukashenka appears to have had “little direct impact on Belarusian voters” (http://www.belinstitute.eu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=786&Itemid=1&lang=en).  Yet, Russia’s relations to Lukashenka have strongly influenced the degree of Lukashenka’s vulnerability to Western democratizing pressure. Deteriorating Russian-Belarusian relations forced “Lukashenka to seek financial assistance from the West” (http://belinstitute.eu/images/stories/documents/bb012009en.pdf) and likely convinced Lukashenka to partially ease control over the electoral process.  Thus, while Lukashenka continued to enjoy massive advantages during the most recent election campaign, the opposition was given “greater freedom to campaign” (http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2010/12/48240_en.pdf) and “far more access to TV and radio than it had enjoyed in 2006” (http://democraticbelarus.eu/files/docs/3/Pre-election%20monitoring%20report%20on%20campaign.pdf) These limited concessions to the opposition were clearly a response to Western demands.  But such pressure would almost certainly have been ignored in the absence of tensions between Russia and Belarus.

Such changes, of course, hardly made the elections democratic.  Thus, the government appears to have engaged in “massive vote fraud” (http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2010/12/48240_en.pdf) and, after the election, “assaulted and arrested a number of opposition candidates” (http://bdg.by/news/politics/13239.html) and “detained over 600 opposition activists (http://www.nr2.ru/inworld/313878.html).  (Lukashenka’s readiness to engage in such abuse was likely bolstered by the fact that on the Friday before the elections, Russia agreed to “provide Belarus with duty-free crude oil in exchange for a closer economic union”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3b63bd78-0a0d-11e0-9bb4-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz18lYWRUMr.)

The second and perhaps greatest impediment to effective Western pressure is the fact that the opposition has apparently failed to garner large scale mass support. Of course, given the degree of repression and authoritarian control in Belarus, it is quite difficult to adduce the actual extent to which the population backs Lukashenka or his opponents.  Yet, few in the opposition claim majority electoral support and “available independent polling suggests that Lukashenka has enjoyed much more support than anyone in the opposition” (http://www.boell.pl/downloads/Warmer_relations_Minsk_Brussels_Dilemmas_of_the_opposition.pdf.  Existing and highly imperfect evidence suggests that Lukashenka is backed by “about a third of the population” (http://bdg.by/news/politics/13039.html) — far less than the official election results but far greater than any of his opponents.  This fact deprives the West of a key mechanism for regime change and makes it much harder for either the West (or Russia) to dictate events on the ground.

All of this is not to argue against continued pressure on Lukashenka.  Europe needs to unambiguously condemn Lukashenka’s election fraud and post-election crackdown. Nonetheless, a weak opposition and continued (if uncertain) assistance from Russia put Lukashenka in the driver’s seat.  Sanctions and isolation are unlikely to yield significant results in the near-term.

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