On Sunday the 19th, a crowd estimated to be as large as 40,000 people attempted to storm the main government building in the city of Minsk, Belarus. The demonstration was engendered by the re-election of long-term president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the country since 1994. The protesters contend that last Sunday’s election totals were the result of “large-scale vote-rigging” after the central election commission announced that Lukashenko had garnered 80% of the popular vote. Police there cracked down heavily, and hundreds of demonstrators, along with at least seven opposition election candidates, were being held. “There will be no revolution or criminality in Belarus,” said the re-elected Mr. Lukashenko.
Slightly less than 25% of Belarus’s 7 million registered voters took part in early voting the previous week which opposition candidates contend allowed for much abuse, as ballot boxes were “poorly guarded’ and election precincts “poorly monitored.” They also contend that this follows a similar pattern to what they consider an equally rigged election which took place in 2006. The European Union apparently agreed with that earlier assessment, enacting a visa ban on top Belarusian officials which was renewed as recently as last September. That followed a 2008 exemption from the ban, during which the EU allowed several dozen officials, including Mr. Lukashenko, to travel to EU countries, including a 2009 trip to Rome and the Vatican City, where he met Pope Benedict XVI.
Belarus is a former member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It declared its independence on August 25, 1991 after the collapse of the Communist Empire. Yet it has maintained closer ties to Russia than any of the other republics once constrained by the Iron Curtain. In 1999, both countries signed a “two-state union” treaty to promote greater economic and political integration. Lukashenko has relied heavily on Russian support for his regime. He returned the favor during the 2003-04 Rose and Orange Revolutions during which former Russian satellites Georgia and Ukraine respectively instituted their own civic reforms, by maintaining his allegiance to the Russians.
In 2007, the relationship soured. Belarus was antagonized by gas taxes levied by the Russian giant, Gazprom, which eventually led to other political disputes between the two nations. As late June 2010, the dispute was still simmering: Russia slashed gas supplies to Minsk over an unpaid $200 million gas debt even as Belarus insisted Gazprom owes a greater amount for transit fees from pipelines used to supply Western Europe with heating fuel.
Shortly before the latest election, however, things quickly changed. Russia, recognizing that Belarus had come perilously close to establishing ties with the European Union, invited Lukashenko to Moscow to sign an energy deal and join a Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan economic union, which Vladimir Putin described as a “a clear course towards integration with Russia.” Russian president Dmitry Medvedev rewarded Lukashenko’s loyalty: despite the reports of vote-rigging and post-election brutality by police breaking up demonstrations, Mr. Medvedev contended that the election was “solely an internal matter.”
The rest of the world was unpersuaded. “The foreign ministry condemns mass beatings and detainments of demonstrators on the streets of Minsk. The brutality of security forces is unacceptable,” said Poland’s foreign ministry. EU diplomatic chief Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement “condemn[ing] all violence, especially the disproportionate use of force against presidential candidates, political activists, representatives of civil society and journalists.” The statement continued:
Taken together, the elections and their aftermath represent an unfortunate step backwards in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights in Belarus. The people of Belarus deserve better.
U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and John Kerry (D-MA), sponsors of the Belarus Freedom Act of 2004, which authorized assistance for entities working to promote democracy and human rights in that country, were even more direct:
We condemn the actions and human rights abuses of the Belarusian government, which demand a strong, determined, and vocal response. We also condemn the palpable fraud that characterized Sunday’s election in Belarus, which clearly violated international standards…The sweeping arrest of opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights activists, and the use of violence against civilians by security forces illustrate precisely why Aleksandr Lukashenko’s dictatorship has no place in modern Europe.
Lukashenko is unrepentant. After last Sunday’s crackdown, Mr. Lukashenko defiantly claimed that a time of “senseless democracy” had come to an end and that opposition media would be held accountable “for every written word” of post-election criticism. With respect to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which characterized nearly fifty percent of the vote counts its observers monitored as “bad” or “very bad,” Lukashenko again defied his critics. “We did everything they had asked of us,” he countered.
The OSCE assessment was seen as important prior to the election. A positive report by that organization was considered a necessary component for the commitment of financial aid by the European Union to a country which has long relied on Russia to prop up its command-and-control economy. Lukashenko’s ability to hold onto power has been due in large part to his ability to continue delivering a degree of Soviet-style economic predictability. And it is likely that, despite the facade of a freer pre-election atmosphere raising hope of genuine change, Mr. Lukashenko ultimately decided that guaranteed aid from Russia was a better bet than promised aid from the European Union. No doubt the OSCE’s final assessment that “Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments” with respect to fair and transparent elections was a critical factor, especially since observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an organization comprised of former USSR republics, endorsed the election results and claimed them “free and fair.”
Such an arrangement is likely a devil’s bargain at best. By rejecting Western European overtures, Mr. Lukashenko may have successfully consolidated his hold on power, but he has put himself in a tenuous position with Moscow, which will likely demand concessions in return.
The Obama administration has joined the chorus of international condemnation, with press Secretary Robert Gibbs calling for the “immediate release of all presidential candidates and the hundreds of protesters who were detained on December 19 and 20.” But it is unlikely the administration will pursue anything that might overly antagonize the Russians. A “re-set” policy which included withdrawal of a missile shield for Eastern Europe and the just-ratified New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by a lame-duck Senate reducing the size of both countries’ nuclear arsenals, more likely puts concerns about the legitimacy of the Belarus election and Lukashenko’s abusive response to his opponents on the diplomatic back burner.
Retired Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, who helped negotiate previous arms deals with the United States may have inadvertently revealed the true nature of Russian ambitions with respect to Belarus–despite the fact he was talking about the new START: “This treaty is important for the Russian leadership because it formally preserves the nuclear balance with the United States, the last attribute of a superpower.”
The last attribute of a superpower? More accurately, a yearning to re-visit the same level of “respect” Russia enjoyed during the “glory days” of the former Soviet Union, during which Russia maintained a totalitarian grip on all of Eastern Europe, Belarus included.
Mr. Lukashenko apparently likes the latest arrangement. “We are no longer going to be trying to please people. We don’t have to bow down to them (the West).” Thus, the country which has been seen as a buffer zone between Russia and NATO allies has stationed itself firmly in the Russian camp. How firmly? It remains to be seen whether jailed opposition leaders will be freed, and whether or not a full and open investigation into last Sunday’s activities will be conducted. It certainly behooves the European Union and the United States to demand one, if human rights and fair elections remain high on the agenda of both entities.
So far, nothing along those lines has been reported. Maybe the EU is far too involved in its own financial crises to demand anything which might be construed as confrontational by Russia. Or perhaps one of the coldest winters on record there has tempered its desire to do anything which might result in interrupted deliveries from Gazprom which supplies Europe with much of the energy used for heating. The United States? A nation which once considered human rights paramount with respect to diplomatic relations has become decidedly less enthusiastic. Perhaps the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with an Obama administration which views America as no more “exceptional” than any other nation has brought us to the point where we no longer believe in “universal freedom” or the idea that freedom “is God’s gift to mankind.”
One might be forgiven for thinking that, above all else, such desires constitute the genuine “last attribute” of a legitimate superpower.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the politically conservative website JewishWorld Review.com
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