The lost leader of Belarus
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- If the gods first make mad those whom they wish to destroy, then Alexander Lukashenko, the brutal autocrat in charge of Belarus, may be heading for problems. Since losing his last remaining ally in Europe in an acrimonious oil and gas dispute with Russia at the beginning of January, his behavior has become so erratic that many in the domestic opposition have begun to speculate he is losing control of his faculties.
Not that Lukashenko's psychological profile was particularly normal in the first place. This is a man who likes his people to call him, "batka", or "daddy." In 2003, he decreed that no one -- company chiefs, theater bosses and the like -- had the right to use the word "president" to describe their position on the grounds that he, and only he, was worthy of such a title.
But egomania aside, it is the sheer incoherence of Lukashenko's recent policy statements that has got people wondering what, if anything, is going through Lukashenko's mind and whether all this is a sign of a leader whose grip on power could now be as tenuous as his apparent grip on reality.
To wit, in the last week of January Lukashenko simultaneously pledged no substantial changes to his foreign policy, raised the prospect of joining not just the European Union but the eurozone as well, called for the establishment of proper relations with the West, and then issued an invitation for a state visit to none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran. Commenting on such strange behavior, Radio Free Europe analyst Jan Maksymiuk argued recently that: "(Lukashenko) seems utterly confused and at a loss to decide what course he should take."
In the first few days of February, Lukashenko was reported in the Belarusian media as calling for Belarus to become a "space power."
It is easy to laugh at the Belarussian leader. But his regime is no laughing matter. He has murdered political opponents, imprisoned people by the thousand and is rightly described by the U.S. government and others as the last dictator in Europe.
So what are we to make of current events in Belarus? Is this a regime which is finally entering its death throes?
It is perhaps useful to start with a few notes of caution. Lukashenko has been in charge of Belarus for more than a decade and has built up a formidable state security apparatus that has so far shown no signs of wavering in its support. Though he would almost certainly lose a truly free election against a united opposition -- especially if such an election were preceded by public debate about the billions of dollars he has stolen from his people, not to mention the people he has killed -- it is undeniable that he has a solid public support base, probably, Belarussian sociologists suggest, amounting to around a third of the population.
His control over the mass media has been Soviet style in its comprehensiveness making it almost impossible for oppositionists to gain a mass market for their views. Crucially, since the Belarussian economy is still 80 percent state owned, he is the effective boss of most of the country's workers, a reality which gives him enormous leverage over the day- to-day lives of ordinary people. He can and does have people fired people for the slightest expression of political dissent.
Lukashenko's grip on power is thus far tighter than that of the leaders of countries such as Ukraine and Georgia before they succumbed to revolutionary change. Tempting as it may be, it would be naive to draw comparisons with such cases.
But if it is prudent to be wary of naive optimism it is equally necessary to avoid slipping in to a lazy pessimism under the assumption that because Lukashenko has been around for so long the permanence of his regime is written in stone. The regime will fall one day and we must be alive to changes in the underlying dynamics when they are staring us in the face.
There have been three such changes in the last year or so that we need to consider.
Firstly, the domestic opposition, despite ongoing personality differences, has united as never before around the figure of Alexander Milinkevich. Following rigged elections, the softly spoken but deeply committed Milinkevich led an unprecedented wave of demonstrations last March and has achieved equally unprecedented recognition domestically and internationally for his efforts. Though one hesitates to tempt fate, the fact that, unlike other prominent opponents of the regime, Milinkevich is not behind bars or worse suggests that Lukashenko does not know how to deal with him. This represents a new and significant shift in the domestic balance of power.
Secondly, Europe has joined the United States in starting to turn the screws on Lukashenko. The European Union has banned him and his entourage from traveling to EU territory and has instituted a host of measures to make life uncomfortable for him. In December, the European Parliament awarded Milinkevich the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, increasing both his profile and his moral authority.
Thirdly and most recently, of course, there is Russia, from which energy price hikes have left Belarus with a gaping hole in the public finances. Losses accruing from the energy dispute may end up amounting to around $4 billion per year, more than 10 percent of gross domestic product. Since Lukashenko has made economic stability one of the cornerstones of official propaganda, the loss of huge de facto subsidies represents a new threat to regime stability.
But Lukashenko has lost more than hard cash in his falling out with Russia. The Russian media, which has greater penetration in Belarus than the media of any other country, has recently been carrying articles and broadcasts openly assessing the prospects for his demise. In mid-January, the Gazprom owned Izvestia newspaper, in widely circulated comments, referred to Lukashenko as an "arrogant parasite."
A little later that month, Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, strongly hinted in an article published by RIA Novosti that Russia had been mistaken in allowing Lukashenko to crush dissent thus leaving Belarussian oppositionists no choice but to turn to the West for help. "There would be more chances for a change of power in Russia's favor," he said, if Russia had also opposed Lukashenko's repressive practices.
Within that last thought there is both cause for hope and reason for the West to revisit the situation in Belarus with a new urgency. For while it is a hopeful sign indeed that it is no longer just Western analysts or Belarusian oppositionists who are talking as though Lukashenko may now be fatally weakened, it is also clear that Russia is thinking hard about how to turn the situation to its own advantage.
The bottom line here is that though we are in no position to make idle predictions about Lukashenko's imminent demise, it is obvious his position is now more precarious than it has ever been.
The Russians appear to have recognized this and are looking at ways to adjust their strategy accordingly.
If we are not to be outmaneuvered, the West must do the same.
Robin Shepherd is a senior transatlantic fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States