Obama or Romney? Belarusians Decide

Even in Belarus political decision-makers will spend their time behind TV sets waiting for the US election result on the 6 November.

The Belarusian regime functionaries and Belarusian opposition will refine their strategies of relations depending on the new president’s policy. Which candidate is preferable for Lukashenka, and which for the opposition?

Belarusian Americans have split in their preferences. Former President of the Belarusian-American Association Walter Stankievich conducted a mini-poll among Belarusian Americans for this article in order to find out whom American Belarusians support.

Differences between Republicans and Democrats do matter for the world's only superpower policy towards Belarus. During his presidency, George W. Bush paid significant attention to Belarusian problems. Barack Obama did not have the same take on it. Will this change if Americans elect Mitt Romney?

Since coming to power, Barack Obama has made clear that Europe is not a priority for the US foreign policy. In particular, Central and Eastern Europe, or more specifically Belarus. Naturally, the policy of "resetting" relations with Russia also has an impact on US-Belarusian relations. For many US politicians Belarus is still an "exclusive sphere of Russian influence".

The Legacy of George W. Bush

However, Barack Obama has not disposed of the inherited legacy of George W. Bush's policy towards Belarus. In 2004, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed the Belarus Democracy Act, and renews it every two years. Under this law, the U.S. helps political opposition, civil society and independent media in the fight against the authoritarian dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenka. At the same time the Act prohibits any U.S. public institutions donating any funds to the Belarusian regime.

Moreover, the current U.S. administration have introduced additional economic sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime. In 2007, the Bush administration imposed sanctions against "Belnaftakhim" - a Belarusian state oil conglomerate. From 2008 to 2011, the American authorities suspended sanctions because of the  short-term "liberalisation" of the Belarusian regime.

On 1 December 2010, Foreign Minister Syarhei Martynau made a joint statement with Hillary Clinton for the first time in many years. Pro-Lukashenka analyst Vadzim Hihin celebrated it as "the beginning of a great friendship." However, already on 9 December Lukashenka flew to Russia and met with Russian President Dmtiryi Medvedev. The Presidents met behind closed doors and did not allow the press even to take official photos.

After that meeting Lukashenka agreed on "tighter friendship" in exchange for supply of cheap energy, which provided an opportunity for Lukashenka to attack and dispense the civil protesters in the main Square in 2010. It seemed that Russia felt threatened by the "excessively pro-Western" policy of the Belarusian leadership.

As a result, the United States renewed the sanctions and imposed additional ones against four Belarusian enterprises: "Naftan", "Hrodna Azot", "Belshyna" and "Hrodna Hkimvalakno". According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Belarusian export to the U.S. fell from $348.5m in 2007 to just $86.1m in 2011.

Presence Matters

For Belarus, the principal difference between Democrat and Republican policy lies in personal presence. During his presidency, George W. Bush repeatedly met with representatives of the Belarusian opposition. Barack Obama has not publicly met with Belarusians even once. Obviously, such meetings promoted greater interest in Belarus in the world and irritated Alexander Lukashenka. 

It seems that Mitt Romney, if elected, would continue the approach of George W. Bush. Even during his visit to Poland, the Republican candidate publicly expressed his support for the Belarusian opposition.

For sure, Mitt Romney will direct Belarusian issues to his more experienced team. Two months ago Foreign Policy magazine named the most influential foreign policy specialists in both parties. According to the magazine, the most important and experienced person in international relations among Republicans is a friend of Mitt Romney, John McCain.

Mitt Romney lost the 2008 Republican nomination to McCain, but then kept assisting him as a fundraiser. If Romney wins, John McCain may receive a position in presidential administration, or at least will have a great influence on the White House. McCain indeed has good knowledge of the situation in Belarus and has repeatedly met with the Belarusian opposition. Moreover, McCain attempted to visit Belarus, but the authorities denied him a visa.

Senator McCain became a key co-sponsor of the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, whose author was another longtime friend of Belarus -- Republican Congressman Chris Smith.  In 2002 Senator McCain said at an international conference titled "Axis of Evil: Belarus – the Missing Link”:

Lukashenka`s rule is an offence to the values whose victory was secured almost everywhere else in Europe with the end of empire. His rule will threaten America and Europe as long as the civilised world pursues the mission of our age: to work from within and without to change the very character of regimes that threaten us.

Ironically, Lukashenka can use Mitt Romney’s victory in the election. Romney has repeatedly said that he sees Russia as a potential enemy. In this situation, Lukashenka can aggravate relations with the United States up to the point of severance of diplomatic ties. Thus he would testify his loyalty to Putin, which would ensure continuous financial support of his regime by Russia.

As for the Belarusian opposition, they hope that the Belarusian issue will be among the priorities of the US foreign policy. 

How Will Belarusian Americans Vote?

Former President of the Belarusian-American Association (BAZA) Walter Stankievich organised a quick poll among Belarusian Americans specifically for this article. 108 Belarusians from all over the United States responded-  from New York to California. The youngest respondent is 19 years old, the oldest 88.

Both candidates had almost equal support. 48% of respondents would vote for Romney and 45% for Barack Obama. So far, 7% have not decided.

44% of respondents were born in the United States or have lived there for a long time and 56% are those who immigrated to the United States after the 80s.

There is a difference between generations. Older people remain pro-Republican and Romney wins among them – 56% against 37% for Obama. The situation with the younger generations changes – Obama and Romney are equal. As for the later immigrants, Obama wins among them – 55% against 45% for Romney.

Belarusian Americans consider that domestic problems are more crucial for the electoral campaign. Walter Stankievich thinks this happens due to “the influence of mass media, where most of the time and place is devoted to the domestic American issues. That is why Belarusians have a great preference for domestic issues, as a major in the election of a new president.”

American Elections, not Belarusian

Nevertheless, U.S. elections will not play a determining role in Belarus. U.S. government policy has been stable and predictable for many years.

At the same time the election of Mitt Romney would make policy towards Belarus more defined. The Republican administration is more likely to raise the Belarusian issue at international forums and meet more frequently with representatives of the Belarusian opposition, civil society and independent media. 

But after all, America's impact should not be overestimated. Changes in Belarus remain the task of the Belarusian opposition and civil society, not American presidents. 

Ryhor Astapenia

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