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After seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. It has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December 1999 envisioning greater political and economic integration but, to date, neither side has actively sought to implement the accord.
Update No: 263 - (26/11/02)
The EU Acts
The time may be nearly up for the Belarus strongman, Alexander Lukashenka, 'Europe's last dictator.' He and 50 members of his political entourage are to be banned from the EU in protest at his country's violation of human rights, which are notorious.
The ban is to cover not just the 15-member EU, but the candidate countries yet to join, including Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, Belarus's immediate neighbours.
As the US and the UK gird themselves to face up to Saddam, with French, Russian and Chinese approval in the UN Security Council, there is a resolve spreading in Western councils to remove the last dictator on European soil. Dictators are at last falling right out of fashion: Meciar, Milosevic - and now Lukashenka.
The EU decision coincided with the NATO meeting in Prague on November 21st-22nd, from which Lukashenka was debarred by the Czechs, another candidate nation, refusing him a visa. In particular he was debarred from the second day of the summit when the leaders of the 46-member Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council were due to convene. Belarus has withdrawn its ambassador in Prague for "consultations" and threatened to break off diplomatic relations.
The decision by the EU on November 19th had been occasioned by Lukashenka's refusal to allow the monitoring group of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to operate in Minsk after it had denounced his re-election as illegal. This was in September 2001, when he supposedly won 75% of the vote.
Lukashenka has now been given pariah status, a position likely to be extended if his regime carries out a threat to allow an estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants and numerous drugs to flood into the EU from Belarus. They would not be so easy to stop without a far wider ban than envisaged, not just on Lukasehnko and his 50 sidekicks, but on everyone coming from Belarus and on trade with the country too. Clearly for Lukashenka to carry out his threat would involve an escalation that could get out of hand and topple him. But he is nothing if not headstrong.
The ban will apply to Lukashenka, all his ministers and deputy ministers, key members of the presidential administration and the chairmen of certain state committees. It will also cover the heads of the national state television, the procurator-general's office, the central electoral commission and of the constitutional, supreme and arbitration courts.
Individual EU governments may choose to suspend the travel ban for various reasons, but must first make a case for an exception to the EU; any other member state has 48 hours to lodge any objections to the proposed concession.
All member states have agreed to the ban and all candidate countries, aware that Belarus has ignored warnings given in October not to disrupt the work of the OSCE monitoring group. Minsk has refused to grant visas to the group's members, effectively making it impossible for the monitors to operate.
It is not excluded that further measures could be taken, such as a freezing of assets. The EU is putting Belarus out in the cold.
The Russian angle
Belarus trades with the EU and candidate countries that are neighbours; but it has far closer links with Russia, which subsidises its energy in return for taking shoddy goods unsaleable elsewhere.
The bad news for Lukashenka is that even Russia is clearly looking for ways to oust him. A scheme thought up by Putin and proposed in the summer is that Belarus should hold a referendum to decide whether to become part of Russia. Putin is doubtless calculating that the beleaguered Belarussians, most of whom must be thoroughly fed up with their president, would be willing to trade their rather exiguous sovereignty for the pleasure of levering him out.
Lukashenka is aware of that and went off into a huff, rediscovering himself as a Belarussian patriot. The proposal was an "insult" to Belarus and its sovereignty.
Lukashenka wants instead a Union of Belarus and Russia on equal terms. Moscow has been going along with the idea up to now, with many Duma members and those in the security forces favouring a friendly outpost next to the Baltic states and Poland, themselves now outposts of the West. But the reformers in government are extremely wary of taking on full responsibility for the basket-case of a Belarus economy. There are plans to merge the rubel, the Belarussian currency, with the rouble by 2005. Some even want this by 2003. This does not look a realistic proposition.
The Old Believer
The regime's power rests upon the existence of a KGB, still called that, of 150,000 who receive special privileges and extend steadfast loyalty to the president. Lukashenka hankers back to the USSR, his vision of paradise when he was a collective farm boss like his father. A Soviet baron so to speak, he can imagine nothing more wonderful than recreating the Soviet Union; and the Union of Belarus and Russia is to be the substitute for that.
Lukashenka is a remarkable man in his own way. He is strongly reminiscent of the Old Believers, those Russian Orthodox faithful to the old rites as Peter the Great and other modernisers reformed Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Lukashenka's faith is of course communism or rather what one might call Sovietism, as the only MP to oppose independence in 1991.
His problem is that Putin, who fares from St. Petersburg, sees himself as a new Peter the Great. He can understand the nostalgia of Lukashenka and his like, not being an adept of the KGB for thirty years for nothing. But he does not think it a useful pointer to current policy. His one known witticism is to this effect: "he who does not regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart; he who thinks that it can be restored has no head." That is likely to be his take on the Old Believer of Belarus.
The new bullyboy
When Lukashenka, was running his collective farm, he was infamous for his bullying and beating up of errant tractor drivers. That is the way he now runs his country.
He has even been known to hit parliamentary deputies. A big, burly figures, of 49 years, he is an enthusiastic ice hockey, football and tennis player; to make daily time for his sports, he spends a bare five hours in the office. When there is snow, he enters cross-county skiing competitions (bearing the No. 1 label) and invariably wins.
He is increasingly erratic in his decision-making. In a gesture against the West, he has just banned McDonalds in favour of cabbage soup take-aways. But more seriously, his opponents mysteriously disappear and journalists reporting the fact are deported if they are lucky, or just disappear themselves.
Lukashenka openly admires Stalin, his model in many respects. Last year he paved over the graves of 250,000 people murdered by Stalin. One defecting secret police officer says that death squads had been set up, using the gun officially reserved for post-trial executions.
Yuri Chaschtschevatski, a film-maker, made a recent documentary about the Belarussian leader. He recorded Lukashenka saying approvingly: "German order reached its peak under Hitler." Other gems included: "freedom is the freedom to work" and "we are encircled by enemies, just as we were in 1941." The last point he is doing his best to make a reality.
When the president was shown the documentary at a private screening he smashed up two wooden chairs. A few days later the film-maker was visited by young men, who broke his leg in three places. Clearly the dictator does not know his own mind, whether he wants to be Stalin or Hitler, or like Saddam Hussien, a sublime synthesis of them both.
Domestic support seeps away
There was a time when Lukashenka was popular, especially just after winning the presidency for the first time in 1994. He vowed to fight crime and corruption and purveyed a populist image, his wife continuing to live on their farm rather than in the presidential palace. He speaks like a working man and has the popular touch, while such a beefy hunk of a man appeals to a lot of women voters.
But the wear and tear of everyday life in Belarus are turning the population against him. As often in dictatorships, the students are leading the way in open opposition. Some of them recently donned Lukashenka masks and raced through a Minsk park pursued by fellow pranksters wearing white coats and waving straightjackets. Even some of the police laughed - briefly.
The increasing international isolation of the regime is coinciding with a stagnant economy and 60% annual inflation. The population is increasingly restive and disaffected.
The gloss is wearing thin. The regime is under pressure from without and from within. Lukashenka needs to be preparing an exit strategy.
Belarus to auction its stake in two-nation oil major
Belarus held an auction for its 10.83 per cent stake in the Russia-Belarus oil company, Slavneft, on 22nd November, an official with Belarus's Economy Ministry told Prime-TASS News Agency.
Russia's Property Relations Ministry and the Federal Property Fund hold 55.27 per cent and 19.68 per cent in Slavneft respectively. The Belarusian government owns 10.83 per cent. Russia's Depositary and Clearing Company owns 12.98 per cent. It is not clear who owns the remaining 1.24 per cent...
EU suspends technical assistance to Belarus over tax discord
All projects under the TACIS [Technical Assistance for the Commonwealth of Independent States] programme have been suspended in Belarus, Belapan News Agency learnt from the executive director of the EU TACIS programme's coordination bureau in Belarus, Leanid Arlow.
Arlow said that a general regulation - the international agreement between the European Commission and the Belarusian government - provides the legal basis for the implementation TACIS programmes in Belarus. According to the agreement, individuals and legal entities working under TACIS in Belarus are exempt from taxes and duties. Until now, Arlow said, the general regulation was recognized by the Belarusian side and adhered to by the Ministry of Taxes and Duties. However, he said, because of changes in the Belarusian legislation, new legal acts contradict this international agreement. In particular, Leanid Arlow named a new law on the budget which does not exempt technical assistance projects from taxes.
In this connection, Arlow said, the European Commission has decided not to sign new contracts with technical assistance recipients under new projects. If the Belarusian side does not grant tax privileges in accordance with the general regulation in the near future, technical assistance to Belarus will be stopped by the EU.
Arlow recalled that the TACIS programme has been implemented in Belarus since 1991. Since then, 195 projects have been implemented, and their cost totalled 140m Euros.
Belarus receives last tranche of Russian stabilization loan
The National Bank of Belarus received the third and last tranche of a stabilization loan from the Russian Central Bank. The tranche equalled 1.5bn Russian roubles [about US$50m], Belapan News Agency learnt from the head of the bank's information directorate, Anatol Drazdow. He said that the tranche, as well as two previous ones, will be used to maintain the stability of the Belarusian ruble and to increase the circulation of the Russian rouble.
The Russian Central Bank's loan to boost the use of Russian roubles in mutual payments and to stabilize the Belarusian ruble's exchange rate has thus totalled 4.5bn Russian roubles [about US$150m]. The first tranche of 1.5bn Russian roubles was received by the National Bank of Belarus in summer 2001 and the second tranche of the same size was received this past June.
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