Lukashenka’s Anti-Russian Alliance with Georgia Under Threat
This week Lukashenka lost one of his most important allies. Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili lost parliamentary elections and is going to switch to opposition. Belarusian ruler expressed his admiration for Saakashvili which was willing to give up the power.
Saakashvili has been an important channel for Belarusian government to communicate with the West. Of course, Lukashenka is known for his ideas of integration with Russia while Saakashvili is a symbol of pro-Western policy in the former Soviet Union. At the first glance any relations between them look improbable.
Their alliance, however, makes perfect sense and tells a lot about Belarusian regime and intricacies of post-Soviet international relations.
Vampires in Tbilisi
After the collapse of the Soviet Union Georgia opted for distancing from post-Soviet integration. For years it has been paralysed by civil strife and separatist conflicts. Belarus in those years maintained goo relations only with Armenia from the whole region. Such line corresponded to the general pro-Russian foreign policy of Belarus at that time. There was not much what Tbilisi could offer Belarus then.
The CIS department of the Belarusian foreign ministry followed this policy well into 2000s. Reviewing a series of extremely critical reports about Georgian government after 2003 revolution sent to Minsk from the only Belarusian embassy in the Caucasus located in Yerevan, Belarus foreign ministry official in charge of the region rhetorically wrote on the document: “Have the vampires come to power in Georgia?”
Initially, the Georgian officials after revolution undertook to promote democracy in fellow post-Soviet Belarus. Georgian parliament discussed the legislative prohibition on Lukashenka's entry to Georgia, Saakashvili wrote articles for International Herald Tribune about liberation of Belarus.
Belarusian authorities detained Georgian citizens for alleged helping Belarusian opposition and intimidated the people at the 2006 elections with tales about Georgian terrorists going to destabilise situation in the country. This situation changed in 2007.
Personal Friends against Putin
It was personal decision of Lukashenka who against advice of his foreign ministry decided to actively develop relations between Belarus and Georgia. Very probably that mediating role to bring two leaders together played a moderately anti-Russian leader of the Ukrain's Orange revolution Viktor Yushchenko. He had surprisingly good relations with the Belarusian ruler and is godfather of the second son of the Georgian leader. Yushchenko was probably also involved in rapprochement of Belarus with Azerbaijan confronting pro-Russian Armenia.
In June 2007, Tbilisi opened its embassy in Minsk. After Russian war against Georgia in summer 2008 Belarusian leadership verbally supported Russia yet effectively helped Georgia. In particular Minsk despite numerous promises did not recognise two break-away regions of Georgia and recommended Belarusians enter separatist regions only through areas controlled by Georgian central government.
Moreover, Belarus did not support Russian-initiated economic blockade of Georgia which was in place since 2006. Lukashenka maintained visa-free regime for Georgian nationals. Belarus actually provided them with an easy channel to visit Russia (which requires visas from Georgians) even at the most tense times in Russian-Georgian relationship.
In 2009, Georgian leadership explicitly changed their position on democracy problems in Belarus, explaining that Belarus “suffers from Russian aggression.” Georgian foreign ministry urged Western nation to abolish sanctions against Belarus.
Georgia Defending Belarus in the West
When the European Union launched the Eastern Partnership, Georgia supported Minsk in the 2010 dispute over who should represent Belarus in its parliamentary forum. Belarus wanted to send the members of its unrecognised parliament to the forum, while the EU invited only the opposition and civil society organisations.
In summer 2010 Minsk was mending fences with the EU and it caused wide-scale confrontation with Kremlin. Then Saakashvili appeared on the Belarusian state TV praising policies of his Belarusian colleague. A major Polish daily Rzeczpospolita even wrote about “Belarus-Georgian Alliance against Moscow.”
Interestingly enough, that did not lead to rise in trade. In mid-2000 trade between two countries was almost non-existent, yet by 2008 it reached just 45 million and later decreased again. Belarusian analyst Aliaksandr Cixamirau warns in an article for Belapan news agency that “anti-Russian ideological component which brings Belarus and Georgia closer to each other, lowers the quality of bilateral relations and makes cooperation between two countries look opportunistic.”
Gray Zone of Post-Soviet Politics
Tbilisi did not give up its Belarusian ally even after Lukashenka fell out with the West because of the 2010 elections. In April this year, Georgia welcomed release of the leader of radical Belarusian opposition Andrei Sannikau and his colleague Zmicier Bandarenka. Moreover, Tbilisi expressed hope that it would facilitate the renewal of direct dialogue between Belarus and the EU, as well as ensure full-fledged inclusion of the country into Eastern Partnership initiative.
Lukashenka appreciated this help. According to his recent statement: “We are grateful and I said that publicly both to Mikheil Saakashvili and all Georgian politicians which supported us at international forums – in Eastern Partnership, the UN, before Americans and Europeans. Saakashvili at all has been a defender of Belarusian policy, and that is true”.
Belarusian regime is clearly not staunchly anti-Western. It tries to survive, and to that end it avoids becoming a besieged fortress. In this context relations with Georgian leadership – pro-Western and well connected in the West – play a very big part.
Georgian leader was a good communicator, interpreter and messenger of Lukashenka to the West. Lukashenka also had similar relations with Ilham Alieyev of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan helped Belarus to implement potentially dangerous to Russian interests oil swap with Venezuela and borrowed money when Moscow put pressure on Minsk.
Belarus is not only an Eastern European but also a post-Soviet state. Nations which emancipated from former Russian empire still have a lot of common problems and interests. Among them is the sensitive issue of finding a balance between strengthening national independence and building democracy.
No wonder that Yushchenko and Saakashvili known as democratic revolutionaries in the West find themselves next to the "Europe's last dictator".
Dazhynki Festival: Belarusian Tradition or Lukashenka’s Propaganda?
Seventy years ago, on 4 October 1942 German authorities organised Dazhynki festival in Minsk. It was the first time the festival took place in Belarus with the highest level of state support.
On 21 September 2012 Aleksandr Lukashenka was opening a Dazhynki festival in Gorki, a small town in Eastern Belarus. Dazhynki is a traditional Eastern European celebration of completion of the harvest season. The Thanksgiving Day or Harvest festivals can be regarded as Western equivalents to Belarusian Dazhynki.
But today only Belarusian authorities celebrate it with such pomp. For Lukashenka, it is not just a holiday but also an important political show.
Lukashenko uses Dazhynki to demonstrate how much he supports agriculture. Belarusian towns compete for the right to host the holiday, as Dazhynki remains the best opportunity to improve their wellbeing.
Huge Costs for The Budget
State-level celebration of Dazhynki takes place in a new town every year. The state provides huge financial subsidies for urban reconstruction in the framework of the holiday. Comprehensive reparation works start a year before Dazhynki. The authorities build new roads, remove old and place new tiles, renovate residential buildings. Thus, it is not just an honour for local officials and residents to host Dazhynki, but also an opportunity to improve the welfare of their area.
The 2012 host of the festival is Gorki. The town with the population of 34 thousand people received around $110 mln for reconstruction. The money went mostly to refurbishment of roads and railway stations, construction of a 3D cinema and an amphitheatre.
Also, the local authorities refurbished Gotki Agricultural Academy, where Lukashenka used to study. They also built an Ice Hockey Palace, which has become an important element of Lukashenka's Belarus.
Of course, there was not enough money for a proper refurbishment for everyone. The authorities promised several town residents to repair their houses before Dazhynki. The houses looked as if they went through a war – there were holes in the floor and cracks in the walls.
The residents of the houses complained that there was an urgent need to change water pipes and sewers. The authorities really got down repairing, but they did not conduct the work they promised inside of the houses. Instead of that, the workers painted the houses from the outside, replaced the windows and cleaned the area.It was more important that the building looked nice from outside.
Struggle for the Right to Host Dazhynki
Belarusian towns compete for the right to host the holiday to receive additional funding. Each year a real “war” for the right to host the festival starts among the Belarusian officials class. Traditionally, the festival takes place in small towns, but now, after the financial crisis, big cities are also trying to get funding.
Previously, government appointed Rahachou as the host of the festival in the upcoming year. Today Rahachou remains a rather neglected town even by modest Belarusian standards. However, the Homel Regional Executive Committee was able to negotiate with Lukashenka to ensure that the following Dazhynki would be held in Homel.
Rahachou civil society activists community collected 2,500 signatures for returning the right to be Dazhynki host town. The attempts were in vain, but the authorities promised that they would fix Rahachou the following year anyway.
How the Regime and the Opposition Perceive Dazhynki
Dazhynki in Belarus is not simply an agricultural festival, but also a political one. On the one hand, the Belarusian regime is trying to show how much it cares about the Belarusian village. On the other hand, independent media often mock the rural grandiosity of the event. Interestingly, both sides are right here.
Lukashenka really loves Belarusian village. As a former director of a state-owned agricultural farm, he believes that the Belarusian village can be successful and he helps it. However, Lukashenka appeared to be stuck in his own past and simply refuses to see a reform path in the agricultural sector.
Independent media notice that just pro-regime musicians sing at Dazhynki in Belarus and the main aim of the event is to promote Lukashenka. The festival itself looks more like a drunken orgy for ordinary people and has little in common with Western festivals.
This year’s Dazhynki was held on September 21-23, during the parliamentary election. In order to settle the guests of the festival, the authorities decided to expel students from the dormitories for a few days.
University authorities "strongly encouraged" students to vote on the first day of early voting and go home. The result looked amazing – 71% of voters in the area where dormitories were located voted 6 days before the primary election day.
The Untold Story of Failing Belarusian Agriculture
Certainly, it is good that the authorities reconstruct cities, care about the prestige of agriculture and keep Belarusian traditional holidays. However, the grand pomp of the festival amid backwardness and poverty of Belarusian village looks out of place.
During 2001-2011 the Belarusian authorities spent $40 billion on agriculture. Despite massive subsidies, even the subsidised Belarusian export production often remains more expensive than in Western Europe. Weak material and technical base and high energy consumption do not allow Belarusian agricultural workers to make cheap products of high quality.
Although the state may provide free housing, people in villages have to struggle surviving on low salaries and suffering from alcoholism. A monthly salary lower than $190 is not rarity in Belarusian villages.
The main problem of agriculture is the lack of reforms and nearly complete dominance of state management. Today the Belarusian village has not improved much in comparison with the village of the former Soviet Union. Private investor still remains a rarity in Belarusian villages.
Rather than seriously dealing with these problems Belarusian authorities prefer to organise expensive political shows to create an appearance of wellbeing.