Is the Russian Ruble Coming to Belarus?
Establishing an ever more strict regime in Belarus after December 2010, Lukashenka so far faced no serious resistance. Numerous democratic activists fled abroad, many are incarcerated or awaiting trials, others are nearly paralyzed by police and security agencies surveillance and harassment, as well as fear.
For the first time in two decades the opposition failed to organize a traditional Chernobyl Rally on 26th of April, as only a few hundred people came to a meeting surrounded by police. Every participant searched at the entrance. The main opposition party – the Belarusian People’s Front – is about to lose its headquarters – one of the last remaining places in the center of Minsk where the opposition could still held its events. On 27th of April, the news came that the Ministry of Information and Print submitted petitions to close down two independent newspapers – Nasha Niva weekly and Narodnaja Volia. There is almost no doubt that the court will agree with the ministry.
The security checks in the Minsk underground are overwhelming and comparable to similar procedures in international airports. Belarus police have nearly completed fingerprinting of all men. Comments by opposition politicians on the terrorist attack led to their interrogation and resulted in effective silence on a range of topics by opponents of Belarusian government. This time the worn-out words about Belarus’ returning to the USSR will not be just a metaphor, but an ultimate reality. The country resembles a totalitarian state more and more.
The regime of Lukashenka is on the offensive against opposition, yet it is losing its battle on all other fronts. The desperation was evident for weeks, and exploded in Lukashenka’s derogatory remarks on named and unnamed European and Ukrainian politicians. The Belarusian leader seems to find himself in a trap of economic and foreign policy problems, yet he fails to come up with any new ideas how to run the country differently.
The absence of any new ideas was clearly demonstrated in Lukashenka’s yearly Address to Belarusian People and National Assembly last week. His intimidating passages against opposition were not new, as he vowed “to eliminate any ‘fifth column’”. More interesting was his will to continue current policies and stubborn unwillingness to admit any failures of his government.
Some were expecting economic liberalization from the new cabinet of ministers led by Mikhail Myasnikovich. However, Lukashenka accused the government of too much liberalism. The Belarusian leader himself did not put forth any economic program or proposals and seems to be merely waiting for new Russian loans. At the same time he reiterates his mantra – the current crisis has come to Belarus from abroad. Of course, nobody can expect him to say it has been caused by massive money injections to please the population before the elections.
Though Moscow is in no hurry to give the promised loans, Lukashenka is not going to admit any mistakes of his own in foreign policy either such as the complete derailing of Belarusian relations with Europe. In his annual address he characterized the state of relations with Europe just as a ‘time out’ and assured that this “time out will not last for a long time, we need each other”.
As for the United States, Lukashenka proclaimed, he is willing to speak to them if they are willing, but the US is not a priority in Belarusian foreign policy. The Belarusian leader also suspiciously made little mention of Russia in his annual address, and yet again praised China and the Chinese model.
The problem is that Belarus is not a self-sufficient country and it cannot struggle against the whole world on its own. It cannot rely on the EU or the West now, so it will depend on Russia, and all other ideas of the Belarusian leadership like friendship with China or other imaginative games are merely fiction.
In this context crackdowns on opponents and tirades against the West serve no populist agenda as in some third world countries, but undoubtedly push the nation into dependence on Russia. No wonder, one popular opinion in Belarus today is that the nation stands before some major development, like introducing the Russian ruble in place of the Belarusian national currency. On 27th of April the Russian ambassador proposed exactly that. The Belarusian National Bank said for a moment it is not an option.
However, the Belarusian government under pressure of economic problems and squeezed by Russian conditions for the awaited credit line can easily and very quickly change its mind. Behind closed doors of course, as so many times before. No one will hinder its actions, the political and public sphere are silenced and sterilized. Ordinary people are longing for a solution to current tensions with money and prices, and do not have any trust in National Bank and the national currency now. The last, but not the least, point is that such a move would serve a key candidate in the 2012 Russian presidential election – Vladimir Putin – as well, since it would grant him neo-Imperial glory – a helpful asset in Russian politics today.
Lukashenka Insults Barroso Protesting Against His Isolation
Recent personal insults addressed to the EU Commission’s top official José Manuel Barroso and Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovich demonstrate that the policy of personal isolation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka already has an effect on him, at least psychological. However, to make this policy truly effective, it is important to be consistent in isolating Lukashenka personally while maintaining contacts with high-rank Belarusian bureaucrats not directly implicated in human rights abuses.
Earlier this week commenting on the fact that he was absent at the official commemoration ceremony of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, Alyaksandr Lukashenka burst out with a word assault on Barroso. He literally said as follows:
On the subject of bastards like Barroso and others – who is Barroso anyway? There was a Barroso in Portugal. But they kicked him out and put him to work in the European Commission. The last thing I want to know about European officials is who said this or that. There are thousands of them. They’re all crooks. So I don’t want to talk about any Barrosos or other bastards.
The European Commission’s reaction to these insulting comments was polite but quite sarcastic. According to an unnamed source in the European Commission, they do not recognize Lukashenka as a democratically elected president of Belarus, and the European Commission does not comment on statements by ordinary individuals.
This situation needs to be put in context. On 19 April the Ukrainian capital hosted the Nuclear Safety Summit and Chernobyl Pledging Conference. Both Lukashenka and Barroso were initially on the organizers’ list of the invitees. But Barroso put out a condition for his participation: Lukashenka should not be there. And as a result, Lukashenka was absent at the summit.
sort of oral warfare has become a usual thing in the Belarusian politics. However, this time it is of interest not only for media. It also gives us certain ‘food for thought’ in the context of the EU’s Belarus policy.
It has been suggested before to personally isolate Lukashenka fallowing the 2010 falsified presidential elections and rapid deterioration of situation with human rights in Belarus. Barroso’s unwillingness to sit at the same table with the ‘last European dictator’ looks like a move in that direction. And it immediately produced an expected effect – causing Lukashenka considerable psychological discomfort demonstrated by his insults. But this is only a tiny element of the isolation strategy.
This isolation should be consistent and comprehensive if the EU policy makers want not just another media occasion and yet another battle of words. As proposed, one of the mechanisms of Lukashenka’s personal isolation should be lowering the level of diplomatic presence in Minsk from ambassadorial to charge de’affaires. This way, the EU diplomats will not have to present credentials to the president they see as illegitimate and shake hands with him. But the EU Member States have so far seemed not to share this logic.
Just a few weeks ago the new Polish Ambassador Leszek Szerepka officially presented his credentials to Alyaksandr Lukashenka. All the state TV channels showed the ceremony at prime time. That ceremony seriously undermined all discussions about Lukashenka’s external illegitimacy in the eyes of Belarusian people and bureaucrats. It does not really make sense to send an extraordinary and plenipotentiary representative of the President of Poland to the President of Belarus if Poland does not recognize that particular person as president. The Belarusians also saw Lukashenka reprimanding and mentoring the new ambassador about Poland’s policy towards Belarus, which in the eyes of common people is proof of the former’s ideological victory over all Western enemies.
Summing it up, even fragmented isolation of Lukashenka’s personality does have an effect. But this effect will remain insignificant for the Belarusian society and bureaucrats and limited to Lukashenka’s psychological discomfort without a consistent and fully-fledged strategy of his personal isolation.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk