March 21, 2006

March 21, 2006 | Commentary on Russia

Minsk electoral miscarriage

On March 19, Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, held presidential elections. President Alexander Lukashenko claimed more than 80 percent of the vote after threatening to "wring necks to those who threaten a coup."

About 10,000 protesters gathered in Minsk's central square but dispersed quickly due to a blizzard -- and without violence. No expected "denim" revolution there.

Mr. Lukashenko conducted elections in an atmosphere of political repression, with snipers posted in the center of Minsk, the nation's capital. Thanks to thuggish tactics, a crooked electoral system, and a large slush fund courtesy of Russia, the dictator may now remain in place indefinitely.

To top it off, Mr. Lukashenko called President Bush "terrorist No. 1 on the planet."

The country suffers from Mr. Lukashenko's cult of personality and his 12 years of heavy-handed rule. He took office in 1994 and extended his term two years later via an illegitimate constitutional amendment. A rigged "referendum" in 2004 abolished presidential term limits. In 2006, Mr. Lukashenko criminalized "disseminating lies" about Belarus abroad -- that is, criticizing his regime and making jokes about himself.

Political power is concentrated in Mr. Lukashenko's hands. Travel in and out of the country is restricted, unexplained arrests and kangaroo courts substitute for rule of law, and citizens have little freedom of speech.

Mr. Lukashenko also controls Belarus finances, circumventing parliament and his Cabinet. He has even admitted there is a "presidential reserve fund" of more than $1 billion.

Belarus' relationship with Russia is key to the Lukashenko regime. Russia sells gas to Belarus at a steep discount -- $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters (tcm ) -- which Belarus then resells to Europe at or just below market rates of about $250 per tcm. Russia also provides subsidized oil. All proceeds go to the Lukashenko presidential fund. These proceeds fund an extensive social safety net, assuring Mr. Lukashenko's re-election, while keeping the population at subsistence level.

Mr. Lukashenko's friendly relations with rogue regimes, particularly his willingness to sell arms to Syria, Iran and (until March 2003) Saddam Hussein's Iraq, are a source of unease in the West. Belarusian exports to Iran have included tank parts, conventional weapons, and Soviet-trained Belarusian scientists to work with Iranians on uranium enrichment and the Shahab missile system. The two countries have pledged mutual support in the face of international criticism. Their close cooperation could blunt the effectiveness of sanctions on either country.

In the run-up to presidential elections, human-rights abuses and political abuses have run rampant. Mr. Lukashenko has slashed the time candidates had to fulfill eligibility requirements and banned political protests. Secret police have targeted opposition groups, and hundreds have suffered arrests and prosecution. U.S. envoy to Belarus George Krol has described the odds of these elections being free and fair as "dismal."

Two opposition candidates campaigned for the presidency: the leading democratic candidate Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kozulin. Authorities declared illegal an earlier election rally for Mr. Milinkevich, attended by thousands. Security forces dispersed the crowd, later sentencing scores to 15 days in prison for "participating in an illegal demonstration."

Throughout the campaign season, opposition candidates have been denied access to media outlets. The government has shut down several newspapers. Others publish in Russia but their shipments are blocked at the border. Journalists have been beaten and harassed. Members of the Lukashenko entourage are suspected in the disappearance of two prominent journalists investigating stories damaging to Minsk officials.

Their presence of foreign media in Belarus has been insufficient to counteract Mr. Lukashenko's intimidation. Belarusian-language broadcasting by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is popular but not enough to compete with the state-run media.

The U.S. and countries in Europe have condemned Mr. Lukashenko's electoral tactics. Now that Mr. Lukashenko is "re-elected," the West should support opposition forces in Belarus and the movement for future democratic change.

The Belarus Democracy Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004, provides for sanctions and visa bans against Belarusian officials, freezing Belarusian assets, banning government loans and investments in Belarus, and funding expansion of broadcasting to Belarus. Thus far, these tools have seen little use. Employed more aggressively, these measures could pressure Mr. Lukashenko to pursue a more democratic course.

The U.S. and the European Union should step up promotion of democratic change in Belarus. Western media should shine a spotlight on the elections. Western officials, human-rights activists and nongovernmental organization representatives should speak up on behalf of Belarusians. To make an impact, Radio Liberty should increase its broadcasts in Belarusian.

The West should avoid conferring legitimacy on Mr. Lukashenko's presidency. The elections are not free and fair, and the West should announce its governments do not view Mr. Lukashenko as a legitimate head of state.

Intelligence communities need to step up monitoring Belarus' relations with rogue states. This should also include investigation of its criminal activities, such as arms smuggling, illegal arms trading and possibly money laundering.

The regime's more heinous acts, such as political killings, should have consequences. Interpol should begin criminal proceedings against Mr. Lukashenko and his supporters and Western courts should freeze Belarusian state assets in the West.

Strong pressure for change from the democratic opposition within Belarus and from foreign countries may prove effective in dislodging Eastern Europe's last Soviet-style dictatorship.

Ariel Cohen is research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Russia

First appeared in  the Washington Times