Belarus politics: No pain, no gain

By bne IntelliNews March 1, 2006

Ben Aris -

The World Bank warns that without liberalisation the economy will come under increasing strain, unless it finds new sources of income Voters in Belarus went to the polls in March to exercise their democratic rights. But as anyone who has tried to take some exercise after a long period of inactivity knows, getting on the treadmill hurts.

No one doubts that President Alexander Lukashenko's landslide victory in the March 19 elections was a stitch-up. This understanding brought out several hundred men and women onto the streets, who demonstrated for a week on the main square before the inevitable beating at the hands of the police a week later.

The prolonged and public demonstrations were unprecedented in Lukashenko's 12-year rule. However, while the tents that appeared in Minsk were reminiscent of the tent city that appeared on the Kreschatik during Ukraine's “Orange Revolution,” most observers agree that Belarus is unlikely to experience an “aubergine” revolution anytime soon. Nevertheless, it could mark the start of the radicalisation of the Belarussian people and the beginning of the end for Lukashenko.

Good, bad and ugly The irony of the Belarussian elections is that the violence was probably unnecessary.

If Lukashenko had thrown open the contest and given his opponents equal access to the media, he would have still won at least 58% of the vote, according to the Belarussian thinktank, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies. As it was, he won 82% in what was dubbed a “farce” and undermined his reputation further – if that were even possible. Apparently he likes to win a little more of the vote at each election.

Despite his thuggish mentality and murderous apparat, Lukashenko is applauded by the majority of his country for one very valuable gift: while many people in surrounding countries saw their life savings hyper-inflated away to nothing and the country’s social systems completely collapse, Belarussians were spared much of this pain. Indeed, a recent poll in Moscow found that one in five Russians wished the same thing had happened in Russia. The old are especially vulnerable and an entire generation has simply been “lost” during the transition in many parts of Eastern Europe. Can a country, democratic or otherwise, justify writing off an entire generation and a third of their population to poverty, misery and early death for the sake of “reform”? It is a question rarely asked.

If reform is like exercise, then Lukashenko has taken a leaf out of US comedienne Carol Leigh's book: “I am not into working out. My philosophy is: no pain, no pain.” But Lukashenko is not alone in this regard; Western governments too appear just as shy of pushing reform programmes if they cause material pain. When the German government hiked health contributions by €40 a year - a pinprick for most people – a quarter of a million people took to the streets in protest last year. Likewise, France was rioting again in March because the government wanted to pass a law to make it easier to sack young people.

Of course, not all Belarussians are indifferent to their lack of political freedom. And it is also becoming clear that without some liberalisation, Lukashenko's autocratic rule won't produce sustainable growth, despite the recent gains, and will ultimately end in collapse.

Belarus has been clocking some of the fastest economic growth of any county in the CIS in recent years. GDP growth hit 9% in 2005, incomes have risen to $214 a month from under $50 in 2001 and things like consumer credit have appeared for the first time.

The World Bank warns, though, that without liberalisation the economy will come under increasing strain, unless it finds new sources of income. At the moment much of this growth is subsidised by Russia. Paying only $47 per 1,000 cubic meters to Gazprom, Belarus enjoys the cheapest gas in the CIS - a quarter of the price it gets selling the same gas onto Western Europe.

Russian gas is equivalent to a $4 billion annual subsidy, to which you can add another $3 billion that comes from refining Russian oil in the country's two relatively modern refineries. Add in the soft loans and Russia subsidises nearly a third of Belarus' $30 billion economy.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the March elections is that it represents a missed opportunity. Russian companies are queuing up to invest into Belarus - a leading mobile phone company offered the government $1 billion for its 51% in the fast growing local mobile phone company in March - and market reforms are leaking over the border by osmosis.

By choosing to loosen up a little, Lukashenko could have secured his legacy as the only leader to spare his people the worst of the collapse of the Soviet Union and then turn the current strong growth into an explosive boom. As it is, Belarus can probably look forward to a people's revolution, a palace coup or, especially if the economy starts to falter, more political repression.

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