The presidential elections in Belarus

Confirmation of the independent way

by Prof Dr Peter Bachmaier*

Nowadays about no other country in Europe, the western media have reported in such a biased way as about Belarus (White Russia). The non-reporting is almost as bad, as thus the impression is created that the country was a “white spot» on the map, to write about it is not worth it.

Belarus is not that well known in the West, also because there has never been a state Belarus or White Russia and the Belarusians have therefore not left such broad traces in history. The Belarusian nation-building started only at the end of the 19th century and did not include all segments of the population.
Nation and history
In the 10th century the East Slavic Principality of Polotsk with the cities of Minsk and Vitebsk became part of Kievan Rus, then part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where the old White Russian language served as officialese, as well as of the Union Poland-Lithuania and finally in the wake of the partition of Poland part of the Russian Empire. In the Sovietunion, the Belarusians got their own Republic - the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), which acted in a guerrilla struggle against the German occupation during the Second World War. They are patriotic, but don’t want to completely separate from Russia and Russian culture.
They see themselves as a Christian country and maintain their cultural traditions. They are sceptical towards the trends of the global pop culture. The Orthodox tradition and the historical circumstances created a special sense of community and a belief that only by staying together they could overcome difficulties.
In the USSR the Republic was a model country, completely integrated in the Union, highly industrialised, urbanised, and with a high standard of education. The Belarusian nomenklatura promoted – similarly as the Ukraine – in the 1980s in the time of perestroika and in the early 90s the movement for national independence, because they wanted to catch up with the west.
On 24 August 1991, the BSSR declared its independence. In December 1991 it became a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) at the Conference in the government owned Datcha Wiskuli in the Below Heathland close to Brest, chaired by Michail Gorbatschow. In 1991 Belarus was admit to the IMF and the World Bank pursuing a pro-Western course until 1994. However, in 1994, Alexander Lukaschenko won the presidential election. He, formerly an ordinary head of a collective state farm, hasn’t been a member of the former nomenklatura as the only president in all the successor republics of the Soviet Union – and he did not advocate those interests. In 1991 in the Supreme Soviet of the BSSR he had voted as the only member against the dissolution of the Soviet State. He retained many social institutions of the Soviet system, but took all power away from the emerging new oligarchy.
In November 1996 with the help of a referendum, Lukashenko gave the country a new Constitution, which delegated significant power to the President and provided for a Union with Russia. At that time, 70% of voters favoured the Presidential draft of the Constitution. His program was a social economy in contrast to the neo-liberal reforms of the neighbouring countries and provided for gradual reforms without destructions.
Belarus, since the referendum of 1996, is a presidential Republic with a strong “vertical line of power”, in which the President sets up the Government and determines the basic lines of inner- and foreign policy. But the President is elected every five years, and on 10 July 1994 in the presidential election Alexander Lukaschenko has already received a majority of 81% of the votes against the then Prime Minister, Wjatscheslaw Kebitsch.

The socially oriented people’s state

Since then Belarus has been able to point to growth, stability and social security. In the year 2005 it was the first former Soviet republic to recover its gross domestic product of the era before the collapse of the Soviet Union, i.e. 120% of the level of 1990, compared to 85% in Russia and 60% in Ukraine. Belarus is among the leading exporting countries of the world in the field of potash fertiliser, trucks, tractors and construction machinery.
Special attention was paid to the villages. Collective and state farms were not closed like in other ex-Soviet republics, but reformed. “Agriculture is the area from which depends the welfare of the country,” Lukashenko said. The state programme of renewal and development of villages for the periods 2005-2010 and 2011-2015 had the objective of promoting, above all, the social development in the country. The production of food and raw materials now exceeds the demand of the internal market by double the amount, and the surplus goes to Russia and other neighboring countries.
According to official statistics, between 2009 and 2013 immigration (from neighboring countries) was by 55 000 persons higher than emigration from Belarus. In the years 2014 and 2015 about 150 000 refugees from the Ukraine were accepted and integrated into Belarusian society.
In his remarkable speech before the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2015 President Lukashenko championed the right of every people to choose its own way against a society of division between the rich and the common people, against destabilisation “in the Ukrainian style” and against the destruction of the traditional family.

Economic development

From 1998 to 2008 the gross domestic product (GDP) of Belarus rose by 8-10% annually, the unemployment rate decreased to 0.9% in 2010. The economy is export-oriented – tractors (7% of the world market), and other engineering products and fertilizer (9% of the world market) are exported.
Belarus is the only country in the post-Soviet space which has retained the scope of industrial and agricultural production as well as the system of gratuitous education and healthcare. Today it has a per capita national income more than twice as high as that of Ukraine or Moldova, and also higher than that in Russia.
However, the international financial crisis of 2008 contributed to an unsettling of the Belarusian economy. Since 2011 Belarus has been struggling against the negative effects of changes in foreign markets, which have led to unstable prices and a sharp decline in demand for Belarusian products in certain sectors.
Due to the high involvement of national production with foreign markets the crisis phenomena in the Russian and international economies caused an analogous decrease of 3.3% in GDP (in comparable prices) in the first half of the year 2015, in relation to the same period of the previous year. Lately the country’s economy has been working under the terms of a deterioration of the external economic situation.

The national culture as the cornerstone of independence

In the cultural sphere, the government targets a spiritual renewal based on the Belarusian folk culture and the classical Russian and European culture. “The national culture is the cornerstone of independence”, as Lukashenko said. In the 1996 referendum more than 70% of the citizens answered in the affirmative to the question whether Russian should be raised to the position of a second official language beside Belarusian. The government attaches a high value to the education system, and this finds expression in a – compared with other CIS countries – above-average share of the state budget (about 7%). The subject “State ideology”, a kind of civics taught in the upper classes, serves to instil the love of country, state and family. The patriotic education is also an object of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM). When young people reach the age of majority, they are presented with the citizenship certificate by representatives of the state at an official celebration.
The churches are “partners of the state.” This does not only concern the orthodox church, to which 83% of the population belong, but also the Roman Catholic Church (12% of the population), which has been able to quadruple the number of its priests since the proclamation of independence. In 2009, Lukashenko visited Pope Benedict XVI, Who sent a nuncio to Minsk. “The education of a true citizen and patriot begins in the family – it is here that spiritual values, the basis of personality and the country’s future will be formed,” the president explained.

Relations with Russia and the CIS

In the year 1998 Belarus decided to form a union with Russia. The relations between the two countries are very close, but negotiations on the formation of a Union State are not yet concluded. Belarus is the largest trading partner of Russia. Russia accounts for 60% of its trade and supplies 90% of its energy needs. Early in 2015 the Eurasian Union was formed between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia, and this is practically a common economic zone.
The pro-Western Russian liberals, who still have a strong position in the nouveau riche oligarchy, the opposition parties and even in the government of Russia, are enemies of the politics of Belarus. So for example Boris Nemtsov repeatedly expressed himself critically about Lukashenko.
Since Soviet times Belarus has had close political, economic and cultural relations with Ukraine. The Belarusian government opposed the Maidan revolution and the coup in Kiev as well as the secession of the Crimea and their return to Russia, as it opposes any border changes in Europe, including the secession of Kosovo from Serbia. It advocates the integrity of Ukraine and therefore negotiated the ceasefire agreements of September 2014 and February 2015 in Minsk. This led to an improvement in relations with the EU.
The result of the presidential elections in Belarus on 19 December 2010 was that the President-in-Office Alexander Lukashenko was confirmed in his office with 79.6% of the votes while the nine oppositional candidates together received about 6% of the votes. The rest were abstentions. This result was confirmed by the CIS observers’ mission and independent election observers.

The strategy of the West

When Lukashenko began to fight the emerging oligarchy, the EU changed their course. In 1997, the EU Council took the decision to restrict political relations with Belarus until the Belarusian authorities returned to the “path of democracy and rule of law”.
The US is still an intransigent opponent of the Belarusian separate path and its sovereignty. In October 2004, President Bush signed the “Belarus Democracy Act”, which provided that financial assistance to the country should not be of benefit to the government and the state, but solely to the “democratic opposition” and economic sanctions should be maintained. Thus substantial funding (up to 20 million dollars a year) is provided for non-governmental organisations, “democracy projects” and media campaigns. In his speech in Vilnius on 4 May 2006, American Vice President Dick Cheney attacked Belarus sharply and said: “There is no place in Europe for a regime of this kind.” In May 2008, the government in Washington cut off diplomatic relations with Belarus and closed the US Embassy in Minsk. Belarus was invited also to close its embassy in Washington and its consulate in New York.
On the evening of 19 December 2010, more than 20 000 demonstrators pro-tested against the presidential election results and a group of a few hundred radical activists tried to storm the government building to stage a coup as had been done in Kiev. One of their leaders was the presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich, who was later sentenced to six years in prison by a court, but was released together with a number of other ringleaders in August 2015. Due to the crackdown on the violent opposition movement on 19 December 2010 the EU imposed a travel ban on some 150 leading Belarusian officials, judges, prosecutors and journalists in March 2011, as well as blocking the accounts of this group and of 15 leading companies. Nevertheless, Belarus continues to regard the EU as an equal economic partner alongside Russia.
A memorandum of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (German Society for Foreign Policy) of May 2011 contains proposals which include supporting the emergence of a west-oriented oligarchy and also the integration of pro-Western parts of the Belarusian young elites, especially students.
Western media, who report on Belarus, focus on the manifestations of the “democratic opposition”. But fact is that almost all the opposition members are supported and trained by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Soros Foundation, the Euro-Atlantic Association or Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation or the OSCE observer group. Today most of these NGOs operate from the neighboring countries, as the government commands disclosure of financing. The EU Commission supports radio broadcasts of the BBC, “Deutsche Welle” and the Polish Radio that bring special news for Belarus News and rock music.
According to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the opposition parties in Minsk have more than about 20,000 members. These parties have the ability to put up candidates in the parliamentary elections. However, there is a majority vote, and in each constituency, the candidate with the most votes is elected. Opposition members are to some extent also writers, artists and other intellectuals as the editor of the magazine “Partizan”, Artur Klinov (Klinau), and the Nobel Prize winner Tatjana Alexijewitsch who had lived in Germany and other Western countries since 2000, but has returned to Minsk recently. Her books will be printed in Moscow, but can be purchased in the Belarusian bookstores.
Part of the western strategy against Belarus is the project “Intermarium” (Polish “Medzimorze”, the land between the seas, i.e. between the Baltic and the Black Sea). After World War I, the project was elaborated and supported by Polish President Pilsudski who wanted to restore the superpower status of Poland as among the Jagiellonian. Today it is supported by the neo-cons in the State Department in Washington. The aim of the project is a union between Poland and Ukraine and beyond with Belarus, the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary to erect a “cordon sanitaire” between Germany and Russia.

The presidential elections on 11 October 2015

Alexander Lukashenko won the presidential elections in Belarus on 11 October 2015 with 83.5% of the casted votes. The turnout was also very high with more than 80%. The pro-western candidate Tatjana Korotkevich from the “People’s referendum”, which was supported by the EPP-partner party Belarusian Popular Front and secondarily by the Social Democratic Party of Belarus came in second, with about 5% of the votes. Then, the candidate Sergei Gajdukewitsch from the Liberal Democratic Party with 3.5% of the votes which was followed by Cossack Nikolai Ulachowitsch of the “Patriotic Party” with 1.7% of the votes. “Against all candidates” were 6.5% of the voters. In the capital Minsk, Lukashenko received only 65% ​​of the vote, and 20% were “against all candidates”. The Second National Assembly Speaker of Austria, Karl-Heinz Kopf, who arrived in Minsk on the second day after the election with Economic Chamber President Leitl and a trade delegation, congratulated Lukashenko to the “convincing election victory”.
The motives for the big win of Lukashenko’s were primarily the “socially and welfare oriented state”, security, stability, full employment, free health care and education and a modest but secure and regular income, while on the other hand, the worrying international situation, the migratory crisis, the euro crisis in the EU, the crisis in neighboring Ukraine and the war in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are looming – as I was able to learn in many conversations with people in Belarus.
As an independent international observer, I could visit about ten polling stations, where everything was in perfect order. The voters went to the polling booth; the ballot was put in a sealed and transparent ballot box. I tried to speak to the electoral observers of the opposition in order to hear their arguments, but they did not raise any serious objections or complaints.
The Austrian political scientist Christian Haerpfer from the Institute of Political Science at the University of Vienna, who observed the elections as an independent expert, expressed the opinion that the elections “meet all internationally recognized electoral standards”. In a by-election survey (exit poll), which he carried out with western and Belarusian people, he came to almost exactly the same result as the Central Electoral Commission. On the evening of 11 October 2015, about 200 people gathered in front of the Palace of the Republic in order to demonstrate even before the announcement of the election results with the white-red-white flag, which has been used as a national flag from 1991 to 1995, against the “dictatorship” and for the “connection to Europe”.
This time, the EU had chosen the tactics not to support the opposition, but to go the path of “soft power” by proposing a loan to the country, which is, however, bound to further steps of the “democratisation”. The EU decided after the election, that the sanctions against Belarus – EU travel bans and account lockouts, of which 175 individuals (President Lukashenko and all leaders of the state and the economy) and 14 organizations were impacted – are “suspended” for four months.

Prospects

Belarus tried in recent years to maintain a certain balance between Russia and the EU. The term of the bridge was used to described the Belarusian space in geopolitics. Lukashenko explained: “We are the bridge between East and the West. We cannot ignore this fact. This is our geopolitical allocated position and our heritage.”
Lately it can be stated that the Belarusian model exerts a certain attraction to the neighboring countries, while the support for the EU among all peoples of East Central Europe is dwindling. The stable standard of living, full employment, security and especially the sovereign state defending its borders, making an increasing impression on Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, the Baltic nations and others; also, because they were not impacted so much from western nihilism. Since the elections of 11 October 2015, the Serbian president, a Slovakian parliamentary delegation, the president of Azerbaijan, as well as an Austrian business delegation were visiting Belarus. Lukashenko is probably the only president of an ex-Soviet country who has followers in western as well as in eastern Ukraine. Also, among the anti-globalization movements of the West Belarus is increasingly recognized as a role model and it is therefore worthwhile to get to know this beautiful country in person by a study trip.     •

*     Prof Dr Peter Bachmaier, expert on Eastern Europe, from 1972 to 2005 associate of the Austrian Institute of East and Southeast European Studies, since 2006 President of the Austria-Belarusian Society and freelance publicist. Email: p.bachmaier(at)aon.at
(Translation Current Concerns)