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Lukashenko the survivor –
By will, and by skill
Report - 8 October 2015
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Sunday’s Belarus election may yield no surprises, but it’s an apt occasion on which to observe and appreciate the president’s skilful handling of his country’s relations with rival powers in a tense period of history
By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Alexandr Lukshenko has succeeded in achieving what few others could have done – having Russia and the West both hoping for his re-election as Belarus president on 11 October.

It took a long effort. After all, it is something quite unusual in way of former Soviet republics where the only real political divide in election times is between those backing relations with Russia and those wanting integration with the Western world.

In fact, neither Russia nor the West can offer an alternative to Lukashenko, and the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine has led them to favour the status quo, however unpalatable, rather than see destabilisation in this buffer state between EU and Russia.

The older generation of anti-Lukashenko figures, from whom the West expected so much, is disappearing, worn down by age and repression. The new opposition is pretty much out of synchronisation with the population. None of the three candidates opposing the president managed to overcome the traditional weakness a Belarus opposition – an incapacity to gather round a single candidate; and the temptation to resort to confusing calls to a boycott as an election position. As a result, they have been unable to capitalise on the government’s real economic difficulties, and on the current rate of inflation, despite attempts to appeal to small and medium businessmen, and to workers of in troubled industrial sectors. Demonstrations against the construction of a Russian air base failed to gather strength outside the usual urban nationalist circles.


Recalling 1994

Recurrent impotence has inspired some verbal pricks from Lukashenko. For instance, he has said the opposition has in fact no real wish to win – comparing it with his own determination in the 1994 presidential election, when ‘I was not well known and lacked any solid political backing’.

Today he is even handling the closest thing close to a campaign. He wants to convince his country, and those foreigners interested, that he is the natural candidate to succeed himself. He is specially been keen to pre-empt any post-electoral troubles, on the model of ‘couloured revolution’, based on accusations of fixed results and corruption. To this effect, he sought to guarantee fairer elections and launched a fight against corruption among security and law enforcement forces. He has freed political prisoners, a gesture immediately saluted by the Council of Europe.

But foreign policy has also been a key part of the election campaign, a field where his record is a lot better than might have expected.

Economic necessity

For years, Lukashenko has followed a foreign policy dictated by economic necessity. This has meant countering the effect of his isolation from the West (and from January 2001, of sanctions against companies and individuals involved in human rights abuses). At the same time it has meant preventing a too deep integration with Russia such as would transform his country into an appendix of the Russian Federation.

To that end, he has cultivated relations with everyone interested in buying Belarusian products, including even ‘rogue states’, inviting investment in the country and anything to reduce its energy dependency on Russia. At the same time, Belarus has been one of the most active supporters of post-Soviet regional projects, from different CIS organisations to the Eurasian Economic Union. This attitude has ensured profitable relations with Moscow both at bilateral and multilateral level.

This purely pragmatic, non-ideological foreign policy has been tested by the conflict in Ukraine, which Lukashenko has handled with a subtlety few would have credited him with. Refusing to take sides, he has made sure that Belarus territory cannot be dragged into a military conflict by any of its neighbours; has reinforced its borders with Ukraine to prevent the passage of arms and men in either direction; and has even asked for the border’s demarcation with the help of the EU, of which neither state is a member.

Of course Lukashenko shares with Vladimir Putin a revulsion for regime changes through public demonstrations and refused to condemn Russia over recent events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but he has not shied from saying that any Russian move similar to that in eastern Ukraine would not go unanswered. In the meantime he has taken steps to safeguard official relations with Kiev, an important trade partner with good channels to the West.


Patriotism and leverage

For a man regularly described by the West as a ‘Kremlin puppet’, Lukashenko has demonstrated both patriotic sense and an ability to use his leverage on the Kremlin to extract targeted co-operation and financial facilities. And for a man credited with limited intellect, he has handled skilfully a crisis which could have dragged his country into the Russian-Western brawl.

Consequently he has made use of the geopolitical turmoil to switch from the role of the ‘last dictator of Europe’ to that of facilitator in the dialogue between Ukraine and Russia. Not for nothing, will the agreements between Kiev and Moscow, backed by French president Hollande and German chancellor, be forever called ‘Minsk agreements’; and the Belarus capital continues to host a whole series of negotiations at a more technical level on an Ukrainian settlement.

At the same time, Belarus is now a full member of the EU Eastern Partnership, Brussels having recognised that it’s only hope of gathering in the six members is to abandon ‘one size fits all’ in favour of a tailored approach. For Minsk it means access to funds.




Sanctions

Lukashenko’s ambition to obtain a lifting of Western sanctions may be premature. ( The sanctions, imposed after the brutal repression of an earlier post-election protest, could be prolonged when they expire on 31st October, but with their application suspended for one year.)

But he will continue to play on Western wishes to reduce Russian influence in post-Soviet space while advancing the idea, together with other countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, that it should be possible to develop good relations with both Europe and Eurasia.

Meanwhile, to make things clear, on a visit to Sochi on 18 September, he declared that Western dreams of a rupture of between Moscow and Minsk were just that – ‘dreams’.

8 October 2015
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