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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: 265 - (28/01/03)
The return of the repressed
The Belarussians are living in a sort of limbo. They have a dictator ruling over them who is out of the Dark Ages, as though renewed for modern edification, because there may be lessons to be learnt from his benighted rule. The dictator in question is Alexander Lukashenka, former collective farm manager and the one member of the parliament in 1991 who voted against the independence of Belarus.
Lukashenka has had an extraordinary career. Why should he have become the ruler of the country in whose independent existence he disbelieved?
He believed in communism and still does - hence his longed for re-union with Russia; but as he must by now be painfully aware, times have moved on. The Russians no longer do so themselves.
His ardent hyper-communist internationalism, hyped since the end of communism itself, is in practice an ardent fascism. He now celebrates the nation that he wanted never to appear. He after all rules it, so why not.
The pique of a slighted dictator
Yet Lukashenka has deservedly had a very rough time lately. In October his regime, the regime the last fully dictatorial one on European soil, looked secure. Not so any longer after a severe rebuff at the hands of the West, delivered in tandem by the EU and NATO.
Lukashenka for all his apparent self-confidence craves international recognition. He has been smarting at the absence of any acknowledgement of the message of congratulations he sent Bush on his victory in the US presidential election of October 2000 and Bush's failure to offer commendation on his own presidential re-election. He was re-elected himself with a 75% endorsement in September, 2001, charged at the time as having been rigged, by Western observers. Lukashenka has recently refused to allow the monitoring group of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to investigate the matter further in Belarus.
Lukashenka got his own back at Bush at the time by pointing to the 'Florida angle' in the US president's victory. He ironically commiserated with Bush's predicament in having his legitimacy disputed in such an 'unfair' manner.
Europe act tough
The EU on November 19th banned Lukashenka, as well as 50 leading figures in his regime, from visiting its member states or those about to join.
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.
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 Lukashenka 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.
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 manufactured 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 as a nation state.
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.
Lukashenka lashes out at home
Lukashenka's position may be deteriorating rapidly abroad; but he remains very powerful at home. On October 31st he signed a new law on religion which took effect on November 16th: "On the Freedom of Confessions and Religious Organisation," a bewildering piece of legislation with 40 articles, outlawing regular meetings of worships of any faith not registered with the state. It strictly limits the places where even registered faiths can hold services. Restrictions govern church publications, visits by foreign priests, religious schools, charities and a wide range of other activities. No individual church may have fewer than 10 members and no organised creed less than 20 churches. Crucially, no organised faith is eligible to function unless it can prove it had a church in Belarus before 1982, in the Brezhnevite epoch of widespread religious repression in the USSR.
The bill's authors are explicit about its intent to protect the Russian Orthodox Church and its dominant role from dangerous sects, which are proliferating in the aftermath of communism.
The Belarussian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church is a pillar of support for the autocracy of the regime and helped draft the new law. It comes at the culmination of a campaign of persecution of people of other faiths not approved by the government. A Belarussian chapel of the Russian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was bulldozed in August, a punishment for its split from the main Russian Orthodox faith. Several Minsk branches of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church, an evangelical Protestant faith that is among the largest religious minorities in Belarus, were notified in September that their prayers services were illegal. In October the head of the New Life Protestant Church was summoned to a Minsk district administration office and informed that unspecified complaints had been filed against his church.
The campaign and the new law are directed not just at the Christian rivals of Russian Orthodoxy, but at all non-orthodox religious faiths. In Belarus Hindus who gather together in their gods' names are almost always by definition in violation of established law, and now doubly so. Minsk's Hare Krishna temple received a notice in September that its prayer meetings were illegal. Individual Hindu worshippers have been arrested, sent to jail and heavily fined, or just been beaten up by police, who think nothing of invading their apartments. The religion which has as its demotic trinity the gods of creation, preservation and destruction has every reason to carry meaning for its devotees in Belarus.
But there is one non-Christian religion which is of particular anathema to Lukashenka and his like-minded henchmen, Judaism. He has often made anti-Semitic statements in public, echoing a common Russian predilection. In an interview with the Russian TV network RTR, he insisted that Jews in the Russian government and media are "responsible for anti-Semitism because they have damaged Russia's economy." The chief rabbi of Belarus, Sendor Uritsk, head of the country's Reform Jewish community, has publicly warned that the new law could create serious problems for Jews, a judgement endorsed by Nikolai Butkevich, of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, based in Washington DC.
It is not surprising that the US has named Belarus as a main culprit, along with Ukraine, in providing arms to Iraq. The US Administration would, doubtless, rank Belarus as another country overdue for 'regime change.'
The Old Believer
Lukashenka's inclinations in the religious sphere, are all of a piece with his authoritarian style of politics.
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 his concept of 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 Belarusian MP to oppose independence in 1991.
His problem is that Putin, who hails from St. Petersburg, sees himself as a new Peter the Great. Putin 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 figure, 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 sinisterly, 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 Hussein, 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.
Austrian bank buys into leading Belarusian bank
The shareholder's meeting of Priorbank has approved the sale of a 50 per cent stake in the bank to Raiffeisen Zentralbank, a major Austrian bank, for US$31.4m, Belapan News Agency has reported.
The head of Priorbank's board of directors, Syarhey Kastsuchenka, said on 17th January that this deal was very important not only for the bank but also for the Belarusian economy as a whole, as it demonstrated the national economy's potential.
Russia, Belarus agree on joint venture to ship gas to Europe
Russia and Belarus will set up a joint venture to ship Russian gas to Europe in July, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the press following a session of the Supreme Council of the Union of Russia and Belarus in Minsk on 20th January, Interfax News Agency has reported.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said he had signed a relevant decree. "Nothing is preventing us from putting this plan into practice by July," Putin said.
There were "some delays" in the creation of the unified gas distribution system that have already been eliminated, he said.
The main condition for the union's economic development is the creation of a unified economic zone in Russia and Belarus, the president said. The countries in the union must follow the same economic laws "for otherwise there will be constant arguments and we will never know who is right and who is wrong", he added.
Putin insisted on the need to work towards the economic equality of Russian and Belarusian citizens.
Putin also said the Russian rouble will be introduced as the union's common currency on 1st January 2005. The preparations for this transition will call for extensive organizational efforts and "a certain technical plan for joint steps," he said.
Both countries are prepared to introduce the rouble as the common unit of currency starting on 1st January 2005-2008, he said.
Putin reiterated the importance of taking such steps in order to create a common economic zone and to coordinate Russia's and Belarus's plans in pursuit of a social policy to improve the lives of the citizens of the two countries. He repeated: "Nothing is preventing us from putting this decision into practice."
Belarusian president confident of adopting Russian currency on schedule
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is sure that the process of bringing in the single currency in both Russia and Belarus will be completed by 1 January 2005, ITAR-TASS News Agency has reported.
Speaking at a Minsk news conference on 20th January, he also said that he sees no obstacle to setting up a Belarusian-Russian joint enterprise transporting Russian gas to Europe. "The joint enterprise will be set up by the middle of this year," Lukashenka said.
FOREIGN ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Belarus, US sign trade memorandum
An intergovernmental memorandum on supplies of Belarusian products of petrochemical and light industries to the American market was signed on 10th January in Washington after talks at the Office of the US Trade Representative. The Belarusian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Mikhnevich at the talks, who visited Washington on 6-14th January.
As Belapan News Agency learnt from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry's press service, the memorandum, which will remain in force till 2006, takes fully into account the interests of Belarusian manufacturers of women's clothes and fibreglass. There has been stable demand for the goods on the American market for several years.
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