Belligerent in Belarus

By bne IntelliNews January 21, 2011

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If Belarus ever fulfils its dream of hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, the television execs responsible for producing the spectacular evening of disco-camp will simply need to dig out the set dressings from President Alexander Lukashenko's 2011 inauguration ceremony on January 21.

In an attempt to distract the audience of nervously smiling Lukashenkophiles from the questionable vote on which the whole shindig was based, the ceremony featured lavish performances from choirs, dancers and even a rousing rendition of a chorus from La Traviata - though perhaps given the large numbers of opposition figures still languishing in jail, something from the prison scenes in Act IV of Il Trovatore would have been more appropriate.

Arriving with his spookily omnipresent son Kolya, who looked as if he would have preferred to be listening to The Cheeky Girls, a husky-voiced Lukashenko swore to "respect and protect the rights and liberties of citizens," before more belligerently claiming that the "colour revolution virus only strikes weak countries," referring to events in ex-Soviet Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan that saw autocratic governments toppled.

Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic since 1994 with an iron fist and with a new five-year term under his belt, he shows no signs of allowing any political pluralism anytime soon.

Watching from afar

Rigged elections and threats of oppression have inevitably put relations between Brussels and Minsk back to the time when the West accused Belarus of being "Europe's last dictatorship." The EU refused to allow its member states' ambassadors and its resident European Commission representative to attend the inauguration ceremony. Instead, 12 of them took a trip across the border to Lithuania to visit the European Humanities University - set up to serve young Belarusians robbed of the chance to study at home for political reasons.

Witold Jurasz, charge d'affairs of the Polish embassy to Belarus, told Reuters that the move by the EU, "is basically a message to show dismay toward what had happened on December 19."

The official election results gave Lukashenko around 80% of the vote, while opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov received less than 3% of the vote. But Sannikov and other opposition candidates told bne at the time that independent calculations by their observers had put Lukashenko's true share of the vote at only 37%, meaning a second round of voting should've taken place.

Inevitably, the announcement of the results provoked protests, which ended in violence and mass detentions. More than 30 face lengthy prison sentences on charges of causing mass disturbances, while many opposition figures fled abroad and are now touring EU capitals, lobbying for measures to be taken against the Lukashenko regime.

Indeed, European lawmakers on January 20 adopted a resolution calling on their governments to slap fresh sanctions on the regime. (The EU imposed sanctions on Belarus after a disputed poll in 2006, but suspended them in 2008 to encourage democratic reforms in the country.) In response, Lukashenko claimed in an angry speech that he would reply to any EU sanctions with the "harshest" retaliatory measures," while also accusing Poland and Germany of being behind an attempt to stage a revolt against him.

Stage-managed democracy

Since relations with Russia started to sour in 2007 over energy prices, Lukashenko had rolled out a system of "stage-managed democracy" in an attempt to curry favour in the West without losing his grip on power.

Starting with parliamentary elections in October 2008, Lukashenko actively welcomed international observers and journalists to report on Belarus elections. This time round, the nine opposition presidential candidates had two 32-minute slots of airtime each, plus two TV debates during the election, in which Lukashenko declined to participate.

Even so, critics say that structurally all the cards were stacked in Lukashenko's favour. Besides the notorious early voting system and absolute state control of broadcasting, state ownership of most of the economy means that political activity can result swiftly in loss of employment. State control of the economy has also enabled Lukashenko to channel credit to support industrial production, to redistribute resource and transit rents to clientele population groups such as pensioners and agricultural workers, and to avoid contagion from the pre-crisis credit bubble.

However, the global economic crisis still hit Belarus hard, forcing a devaluation, borrowing from the International Monetary Fund and dampening economic growth. The economic downturn has thus, it seems, heightened discontent with the country's inflexible regime.

Much of the political divisions in Belarus run across generational lines, with young people largely against Lukashenko's pro-Soviet ideology. In the run-up to elections, a you-tube video called "Hide your granny's passport" - to prevent her voting for Lukashenko - became a cult hit in Belarus. Tellingly, the creators of the video promptly lost their jobs in state media or were ex-matriculated from their universities.

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