Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko
Washington had preempted the events. A few days before the Ukrainian presidential election in September 2001, the prestigious London newspaper The Guardian had referred to the destabilizing methods used in Belarus by the American Embassy as well as to the similarity of these methods with those used in Nicaragua in the late 1980’s, after a decade of a civil war that claimed at least 30.000 lives [1].

The State Department officials were already uncorking a bottle of Champaign, but Alexander Lukashenko was reelected by his people. Then, the September 11 attacks on New York forced the White House to temporarily ease its pressures on Russia and its satellites. Nevertheless, having conquered Afghanistan, Eastern Europe had once again become one of the major priorities of the Washington Hawks.

Due to its strategic position, Belarus certainly constitutes a place of interest for the United States. However, its history and culture inevitably link the country more to the Russian Federation, as proved by the attempts to topple Lukashenko’s government in September 2001. Belarus is a 207.000-square-kilometer country, with a population of nearly 10 million inhabitants. It still maintains strong links with Moscow and continues to be one of Russia’s main allies in the Community of Independent States that was established after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Likewise, an important part of the population still speaks Russian, in spite of the fact that Belarusian is spoken by the majority of people. These are some of the elements that explain the closeness between both countries, which have benefited economic relations between them. Being a great manufacturer of industrial machinery, Belarus exports a significant part of its production to the Russian market and it imports its essential energy resources from this country.

Washington looks for a new strategy

Since the mid 2002, hostilities in Belarus gained strength and the United States continued to have its presence in that country through its representatives to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On May 24, the head of the Belarus State Security Council (KGB), Leonid Yerin, accused the Organization of going beyond its mandate and interfering in the country’s internal affairs. He especially referred to Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck, former head of the OSCE mission in Minsk until December 2001.

Parallel to that, the opposition organized itself around a new "democracy champion", Anatoly Lebedko, who led the United Civic Party. This organization established the George Soros’ Open Society Foundation in the country on October 22, 1993 [2]. The Charter’97 site became then a point of reference to obtain information on Belarus, freely uploading Web articles about the Human Rights situation in the country, geared towards the West journalist interested in writing about this topic. Charter 97 was created as a result of an initiative of the National Assembly of the Belarus democratic NGO’s in the autumn of 1997.

In Washington, things were picking up fast. During a conference held in the American Entreprise Institute, in November 2002, known as «Belarus -next target in the "axis of evil"», Ambassador Michael Kozak attacked President Lukashenco accusing him of having «chosen the wrong side in the war on terror». In a threatening tone, he asserted that the Belarusian president «will have to take on the consequences of his illegal sales of arms and military training to Iraq» [3]. Minsk (capital city and headquarters of the state government) is therefore accused of having sold weapons of mass destruction -which were never found in situ- to the Saddam Hussein’s regime. According to Mark Palmer, former US ambassador to Hungary, and follower of Gene Sharp’s theory on non-violence: «there is an informal alliance between all these thugs (in the world). That Belarus works with Iraq should be no surprise. They are unconstrained internationally. Until all these thugs are drummed out of power, we will have more hunger, misery, and terrorism» [4]. A symptomatic position of the new era of permanent war was started by Washington: according to this doctrine, every organization in the world that resorts to the armed struggle, since the Hezbollah to the FARC, belongs to the same Al-Qaeda network, in the same way in which any country that challenges the American authority is necessarily linked to the «Axle of Evil».

Nina Shea

The objectives proclaimed by Thomas Dine, chairman of Radio Free Europe-RL and former director of the American-Israeli Public Affaires Committee, are no less violent: «People ask me (...) «isn’t Europe already free»? I say to them, "start by looking at Belarus and go eastward." (...) There is a Stalinist in Minsk.»

The conference allowed the emergence of new complaints against Lukashenko’s regime, which from now on will be accused of oppressing the freedom of conscience. This is at least what Nina Shea attempts. She is a member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House. According to her, Belarus is today «the worst religious oppressor in Europe», especially of Catholics and Jews. The government has even printed copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in its national printing houses.

This new problem continues to exist. In August 2003, bishop Vaclav Maly visited Belarus and returned with an alarming vision of the situation that he found. In his view, if Lukashenko’s regime is apparently less repressive than that of Cuba, in fact that is not the case, therefore we must support «the opposition and the civic initiatives [that] are weakened» [5]. Vaclav Maly is very well informed about the US interference networks in Central and Eastern Europe. He used to be an outstanding figure of the former Czech dissidence and one of the main protagonists of the «velvet revolution» that overthrew the pro-communist power at the end of the 1980’s, benefiting Vaclav Havel.

During the same period, several Czech deputies and senators made a request in relation to the Human Rights in Belarus.

Monsignor Vaclav Maly

The Czech weekly publication Respekt published Prague’s official position on the matter: «The daring projects to establish a democracy in Iraq and the concerns about the nuclear Stalinism in North Korea seem to hide the Europeans the fact that a somber dictatorship still prevails in the old continent. Lukashenko’s Belarus already drags ten years of existence». These words remind us directly of the bishop’s words.

The «revolution» did not come into being

Washington’s arguments are vague [6], as well as the establishment of Non-Governmental Organizations and a new opposition. Only an electoral defeat is needed to stage a new coup d’état attempt. Especially when the success of the "rose revolution" in Georgia showed that the "popular" overthrow of governments that were hostile to Washington was an advantageous strategy. This consists on subsidizing an opposition to the existing government; then, on criticizing the electoral process a priori, above all, in a way of mobilizing the voters in the opposition list; then, in the event of an electoral defeat, on justifying the taking of power in the "street". This is somehow like in the game in which a decision is made by tossing up a coin: «if it is heads, I win; if it tails, you lose».

The US determination cannot be clearer. After declaring in Riga, Latvia that «the tyranny in Belarus will not last forever», Senator John McCain, president of the International Republican Institute (NED), said in the summer of 2004, in a report submitted to the Congress, that Lukashenko’s overthrow must not be achieved through the use of weapons but through «international pressure». Then he met in Riga with the leader of the Five Plus Opposition Group, Anatoly Lyabedzka, with the leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, Vintsuk Vyachorka; with the president of the recently dismantled Labor Party, Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, as well as with the children of activist Mijail Marinich, former ambassador of Belarus to Latvia, who was arrested in April 2004 [7].

This electoral defeat took place on October 17 2004. The Belarusian citizens were convened to go to the polls to a referendum that would authorize president Lukashenko to request a third term after reviewing the constitution. This reform was supported by 90% of the voters. This new victory of the Belarusian Head of State was unacceptable for Washington, which was convinced that the opposition to the «tyrant» was a majority. Nevertheless, a number of specialists in the region agreed on the fact that, since there was no credible opposition, Alexander Lukashenko was seen by the Belarusian population as the only leader capable of representing it. This was proved by the fact that the «popular» movements mobilized by the Belarusian NGO’s, thanks to the foreign financing, were not able to crack the established power, a need to resort to a wave of repression by the Government.

This broad support to Alexander Lukashenko is very easy to explain: the Belarusians witnessed how the standards of living of their Russian neighbors declined when Boris Yeltsin "liberalized" the country. They don’t believe in the western illusion and they want to avoid this painful experience in their country. It is not easy for them to adapt to their president’s authoritarianism, but they thank him for having maintained the achievements of the socialist period. They also appreciate his ability to keep good relations with Russia and, despite the appearances, to increasingly benefit from these relations.

For example, 99% of the natural gas supply comes from Russia and this is for a national consumption of nearly 18 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year. It is essentially imported from the Gazprom Company, which is mainly controlled by the Russian State. In February 2004, Gazprom increased its prices, and Lukashenko refused to pay the balance to Moscow. As a result, Gazprom shut down the supply. The following day, Lukashenko, being upset but realistic, decided to pay [8]. However, this was not a real retreat; it was in fact a very well thought step to obtain major advantages.

Belarus is, in fact, the second possible channel for the future and massive exports of natural gas from Russia to Europe [9]. The production of natural gas in Europe, after having reached its pick practically, should experience a brutal decrease soon [10]. After having seen the US pressure on Ukraine, Belarus can wait, maintaining relations of trust with Moscow, to serve as a channel for the gas exports and to make billions of dollars to obtain the transit rights.

Washington does not desist

The United States is still hopeful to eventually overthrow Lukashenko. At least, this is what is perceived with the series of measures taken by Washington as a result of this new setback. On October 20, 2004, President George W. Bush approved the Belarus Democracy Act-2004. The text provides the setting-up of a régime of sanctions against Belarus if the authorities insist on oppressing the opposition and the "independent media". Likewise, the United States attempts to oppose any international aid going to Minsk and plans to spread the news on the sales of weapons made by Belarus, as well as on the financial assets of the Belarusian leaders, especially Lukashenko. The Belarus Democracy Act also authorizes Bush’s administration to provide material aid to the opposition groups.

The opposition has been urged to organize itself with a view to confronting the next attempt of a "velvet revolution". That is what many members of the Belarusian opposition, mainly from the Zubr movement, understood in Kiev during the "orange revolution", in December 2004 [11].

Panic in Moscow

The success of the «rose revolution» in Georgia and the «orange revolution» in Ukraine has proved the gaps in the Russian foreign policy towards its old allies. This is at least an analysis by Vitaly Tretyakov-a political analyst close to the Kremlin- who affirms that a "Kiev scenario" could also take place within two years in Belarus, Moldavia and Central Asia. Sergei Alexandrovich Markov, Director of the Political Studies Institute, considers that the "Orange revolution" in Moldova is about 80 per cent ready; in Kyrgyzstan it is 40 per cent ready, and in Kazakhstan it is 30 per cent ready...». According to Grigory Yavlinski, president of the Yabloko Party in Russia, Ukraine’s «domino effect» could spread to Russia as well.

Belarus is seen today as the last bastion. It is a strong bastion because it has already outlived two overthrow attempts. Nevertheless, it is also true that Vladimir Putin is looking today for means to strengthen the resistance capability of its allies. Sergei Alexandrovich Markov has expressed: «our main mistake lay in being too passive towards Ukraine over a long period of time. The Americans started work on «Project Yushchenko’» about five years ago. Over that period, Russia investe orders of magnitude less in its Ukrainian project than the United States, the European Union, or even Turkey. In my view, at the outset Russia’s ruling elite ignored the need to work with its allies in Ukraine».

Unlike the rhetoric that has often been used again by Western Europe, Moscow, as a matter of fact, has not mobilized so many means like Washington in Ukraine; it has been far from doing so. This could also be seen in Vladimir Putin’s statements the day after Víctor Yuschenko’s victory. He said: «We cannot develop any activity behind the backs of incumbent authorities, it’s our natural limitation. There are pros and cons in such a policy, but nobody can bring accusations against us that we act behind the back of the government; the government should explain itself and its policy to the people» [12]. The recent events in the region are likely to force Moscow to develop its own interference means soon in order to preserve its sphere of influence and especially its territorial integrity.

[1«US adopts ’Contras policy’ in communist Belarus », by Alice Lagnado, The Times, September 3, 2001. See Michael Kozak’s answer, on the web site of the American embassy to Belarus

[2About Open Society Foundation, Data. Minsk

[3« Belarus - next target in the "axis of evil" », British Helsinki Human Rights Group, November 27, 2002

[4Mark Palmer is the founder of the Central European Media Enterprises and president of the Capital Development Company (Washington). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and manager of the National Endowment for Democracy, vice-president of Freedom House y administrator of Friends of Falu Gong

[5« L’évêque Vaclav Maly : la Biélorussie n’intéresse personne », Radio Prague, August 7, 2003

[6See «La Biélorussie sous pression», by Paul Labarique, Voltaire, February 15, 2004

[7« McCain Seeks End to Lukashenka Regime », by David R. Marples, Eurasia Daily Monitor, (Volume 1, N°74), August 31, 2004

[8« Furious Belarus Bows to Gazprom », [Moscow Times], February 24, 2004

[9See map of the existing and the proposed European natural gas pipelines, based on EU data.

[10« Future of Natural Gas Supply », by Jean Laherrère, ASPO, March 2004. The chart at the end of the page shows the annual European production and annual curve of discoveries shifted by 20 years to show the future production. These data are cleverly concealed by the media linked to Anglo-Saxon multinationals, for the purpose of hiding their real objectives in Ukraine, as especially in Belarus

[11«Belarus opposition members stream to Kyiv protests», Associated Press, December 10, 2004

[12All the quotes were taken from "A quiet cold war", by Charu Singh, Frontline, February 11, 2005