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.
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.
Belarus Censuses: Population Declines, National Identity Strengthens
Official population censuses in Belarus conducted in 1989, 1999 and 2009 reveal a number of interesting trends.
They show that the population is declining, the proportion of those who identify themselves as Belarusian is increasing and the role of the Belarusian language is weakening. The period of Lukashenka's rule has coincided with the sharpest decline of population since the collapse of the USSR.
The other important development is that the use of the Belarusian language has reduced dramatically, leading to the formation of a Russian-speaking Belarusian nation. It is remarkable that the largest share of Belarusian speakers is among those who identify themselves as Poles.
General Trend: Depopulation
Belarus, along with many other European countries, faces a problem of depopulation. The government seems to be aware of this, as they included statements on demographic security and policy in such important national documents as the Programmes of Social and Economic Development and Concept of National Security. However, the data from the censuses shows that the policies towards tackling demographic problems have been inconsistent and ineffective.
The total population decreased by 650,000 in 1989-2009. The main reason is natural ageing, observed in most European countries. Another major reason for depopulation is emigration – economic, and to a lesser extent, political.
While in the first decade (which was a stormy transitional period) the population decreased by 100,000, in the second decade, marked by consolidation of the authoritarian regime, the rate of population decline went up – to more than 500,000 between 1999 and 2009.
Of course, it would be wrong to assume that only changes in the political regime caused this. Rather, complex factors are involved. The obvious thing, however, is that the population of Belarus is still decreasing, indicating the failure of the demographic policy of Belarusian authorities.
Urbanisation: Soviet Legacy and Over-Centralization
The process of urbanisation continued throughout the period. The urban population reached 74 per cent in 2009.
Interestingly, the population of regional (voblasc) centres of Eastern Belarus increased only slightly or even decreased (as in Homel), while western cities, Hrodna and Brest, grew considerably (+ 50,000 each).
This is probably due to the fact that Eastern Belarus was incorporated into USSR twenty years earlier than its Western part. Hence, here Soviet industrialization, accompanied by urbanisation, was implemented earlier, while Western Belarus retained a considerable rural population.
Minsk, the capital, remains the most populated and fastest growing city of Belarus. As the main economic and educational centre, it attracts young people from all over the country. In terms of numbers, Minsk has grown by 230,000 in the last two decades. A fifth of the whole population lives there now. Such over-concentration of resources in the capital along with regional decline poses serious problems, which any government regardless its political regime will have to face in future.
Migration: Low Immigration and Hidden Trends in Emigration
Unlike in western countries, in Belarus the decreasing native population is not replaced by an inflow of immigrants.
According to official statistics, only 39,000 immigrants came to Belarus in 2005-2009, which is not sufficient to balance the native population decline. Most of the immigrants to Belarus originate from former soviet CIS countries (32,000) – predominantly from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The share of non-CIS citizens is insignificant and the biggest groups include Chinese, Lithuanians and Latvians.
According to official data, in 2005-2009 around 30,000 Belarusians left their homeland, but independent experts often dispute this figure. The official methodology does not include some important categories of migrants, such as labour migrants to Russia. Today this is perhaps the biggest Belarusian migration group, data on which is not officially published.
Identity: Belarusianisation without Belarusian Language
Belarus remains a relatively monoethnic nation state.
Notably, the number of people who consider themselves Belarusians increased from 80 per cent to 84 per cent over the last twenty years. Among the national minorities the largest are Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians.
Traditionally, the Russian minority resides in the central and northern parts of Belarus and big cities, while the Polish minority makes up a considerable part of the western oblast of Hrodna, and Ukrainians settle more densely in the southern Brest and Homel regions near the Ukrainian border.
As the diagram shows, the size of each of minority group (especially Russians) has been decreasing since 1989. This trend apparently shows that minorities assimilate and change their identities along with the development of the Belarusian independent state. On the other hand, this may be a result of growing national consciousness among Belarusians, who identified with the other nation previously.
However, this growing national consciousness is not based on language and culture of the dominating ethnic group, as is usually the case with modern nation states.
Here, a rather different picture is observed: over the period, the significance of Belarusian language has declined. While in the 1990s, before the Lukashenka regime had set in, national Renaissance policy improved the position of the Belarusian language, stabilisation of the regime brought the decay of the Belarusian language.
Speaking this language was associated with opposition to Lukashenka's pro-Russian regime. As a result, its speakers were implicitly or explicitly excluded from politics and public space in general. This is clear from the diagram below.
The same concerns such indicators as use of Belarusian language at home, which shows the actual viability of the language. Here, the decline is even more dramatic:
Belarusian Poles are an interesting phenomenon when it comes to the Belarusian language. They are the biggest national group in relation to the total number of a group who speak Belarusian at home. Out of 295,000 Poles, 120,000, or 40 per cent, speak Belarusian at home, while the share of Belarusians speaking Belarusian at home reaches only 26 per cent.
The term “Pole” in Belarus has a rather confusing and ambiguous meaning, as many consider Belarusian Poles as Belarusians of Roman Catholic tradition, who historically were under a strong influence of Poland. This group, though referring to the Polish tradition, evidently is a community that strongly preserves the features of Belarusian culture.
In Minsk, the number of people who indicated Belarusian as their native language has decreased almost two-fold within the last decade (1999-2000). In general, only a little more than 10 per cent of the urban population of Belarus speaks Belarusian at home, and for the largest cities this number is much smaller.
Thus, Belarusian remains a language of the disappearing rural population, and its future in urban centres does not look optimistic. The language policy of Lukashenka led to the formation of a particular type of modern Belarusian identity, with urban Russian-speaking population considering itself an independent community.