“You and I – but, forgive my impertinence, above all I – made this country. We did our best,” Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said in his closing remarks to the National Congress. “There were no well trodden paths ahead, and now we have what we have.”
This is a concise summary of Belarus’s recent history and the role played by Lukashenko, who is set to be re-elected president in several days time.
Unlike several other post-Soviet republics, which had influential national democratic movements, Belarus was never in the forefront of the pro-independence movement. Actually, it became independent almost by default, due to reasons outside its control.
Russian leaders’ desire to get rid of Mikhail Gorbachev and the union center, combined with separatist sentiments across the Baltic and South Caucasus, made the choice for Belarusian nationalists, who were both rare and quite marginal in the early 1990s. Theirs was an unexpected rise to power that was quickly followed by their fall in 1994. However, the event cannot be described as victory of forces from the past, bent on revenge, because power ended up in the hands of a young politician, who came from a new generation.
Lukashenko, who was considered a Russian puppet and actively played on the subjects of brotherhood of nations and integration with Russia, has created a new Belarusian identity virtually from scratch. This is something his opponents, who have since accused him of betraying the national interests, would never have succeeded in doing, because their purely nationalist project conceived in the spirit of “people’s fronts” stood no chance in post-Soviet Belarus.
A strange mixture of social rhetoric (“we must keep the best from the Soviet era”), advocacy of a union state, of confrontation with the West, and elements of ethnic myths (including the Battle of Grunwald, in which forces from the territory of modern-day Belarus helped defeat the Teutonic Knights) quickly took root in Belarus, which was not ready for a standard East European development scenario.
This created identity does not appear stable, the likelihood is it will change, but in the meantime Lukashenko has taught Belarusians to believe that they live in an independent sovereign state. It is not an idea they are likely to relinquish.
Lukashenko also reaped the maximum benefit from Russia’s desire to act as a kind of Big Brother. The idea of a Union State of Belarus and Russia, which first appeared on the scene in the late 1990s, envisaged swapping preferable economic terms for a demonstration of Belarus’s geopolitical loyalty to Russia. At that time, this swap suited both sides, but later the situation changed.
Under Putin, Russia shifted the focus from “a fraternal embrace” to economic advantage, attempting to advance integration to a higher level through adopting a common currency and a common constitution, and establishing a common issuer. But Lukashenko knew that should genuine integration take place his status would plummet so far he would essentially lose power, because there was too great a difference in stature between him and Putin (Putin rated the difference as being 97 to 3 in his own favor).
During his two most recent presidential terms, following elections in 2001 and 2006, Lukashenko managed to retain those economic privileges Russia afforded him, kept the conversation going about integration while cleverly avoiding any genuine rapprochement. The Kremlin found this increasingly infuriating.
The turning point came this year. Economic tensions escalated into an acute political conflict over a range of issues, from the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Belarus’s attitude to the ousted Kyrgyz leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to its policy in the CSTO regional security organization and the Customs Union. A personal spat between Dmitry Medvedev and Alexander Lukashenko was the last straw: since then neither side has minced their words.
The Belarusian president has long flirted with the European Union, where only recently he was known as “Europe’s last dictator.” But the EU has since moderated its criticism of Lukashenko, hoping to lure the unpredictable Belarusian leader away from Russia’s sphere of influence and subsequently tame him.
However, global economic meltdown scuppered their plans. The EU’s ambitions are now deflated, and Europe is no longer prepared to spend its money and effort on neighboring countries. But Lukashenko still hopes to be able to play the Europe card, if only to strengthen his bargaining position against Russia. He appears to have achieved his goal. No matter how Belarus’s presidential election on December 19 goes, Europe will not declare the results invalid or decry Lukashenko’s reelection as illegal.
Moscow is also unlikely to do that, even though it openly loathes Lukashenko. First, it would contradict Russia’s declaration that elections in a sovereign country are an internal affair. And second, this would drive relations with Belarus into a dead-end and seriously complicate their interaction in multilateral organizations. Therefore, Russia will most likely accept the election results as a fact.
There are two possible scenarios. The sides could pretend that their relations have turned a corner; Belarus would have to make the first step, and Russia would respond.
Vladimir Putin recently made several statements along this vein, indicating that Belarus’s economic requests could be met within the framework of the Common Economic Space, which is to be established on the basis of the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
However, if Lukashenko refuses to swallow his ambition and continues to attack Russia after his re-election, this would provoke a full-scale trade and economic war, with Russia closing its market to Belarusian products and raising its hydrocarbon prices sky-high. Each side would be damaged in this scenario, but it would be a question of principle.
During Lukashenko’s inauguration in summer 1994, few thought that this former state farm director and fiery rabble-rouser would be in power for two decades, even becoming a major European politician bold enough to engage the world’s great powers in a risky game.
This man, who many saw as the archetypal “homo Sovieticus” actually became the first to adopt a new post-Soviet and European policy. He has all the characteristics that many leaders from Vladivostok to Lisbon have acquired only recently, such as barefaced populism, an emphatic neglect of ideology and ethics, the keen intuition of a “political animal,” the conspicuous display of his superb physical fitness, a certain unscrupulousness and readiness to manipulate others.
Of course, he is not as glamorous or well educated as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi or French President Nicholas Sarkozy, which makes sense because after all, he used to be merely a state farm director, but he clearly is their equal in all other senses.
Only recently, Lukashenko looked like an unhappy exception in the new Europe, but he sticks out less now. Not because he has changed. No, it is the world around him that has changed.
The Old World is rapidly moving right; liberalism is crumbling under the impact of globalization and now only gives lip service to human rights. Over the past ten years, Russia has started using quite a few of the methods that Lukashenko pioneered back in the mid 1990s. For example, he was the first leader anywhere in the post-Soviet space to practice “managed democracy,” which, unlike Central Asia’s oppressive authoritarianism, has proved a more flexible and adaptable system. It is therefore not surprising that he is bathing in glory.
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Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the U.S., Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.