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Belarus: President Is Firmly In His Saddle, Despite A Bumpier Road


(RFE/RL) March 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka is set next week to complete the first year of his third term as Belarusian president -- and so far it has been a rocky ride.


The beginning of his third stint was met with an outburst of short but vehement political protests in Minsk. And the new year greeted him with a bitter dispute with Russia over gas and oil prices.

But if presidential polls were held tomorrow, 51 percent of adult Belarusians would vote for Lukashenka.

That according to a survey conducted in Belarus from 20-30 January by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) among nearly 1,500 respondents.


Honeymoon Over

It had appeared that Belarus's dispute with Russia over oil and gas prices had dealt a serious setback to Lukashenka's unwavering policy of integration with Russia. It also marked the end of Russia generously supplying Belarus with energy subsidies and political support in the international arena.

Lukashenka summed up the changed relationship during an interview with Reuters in February, in which he slammed Russia's "increasing imperial tones."

But the price hikes also threatened to hit closer to home: Would the added strain on their pocketbooks affect Belarusians' attitudes toward the government?

Belarusian political analyst Vital Silitski told RFE/RL that, for the time being, Lukashenka is not likely to face any social upheaval.

Would Belarusians protest against their government if their living standards lowered considerably?

"Society has amassed a great deal of complaints and questions to the authorities," Silitski said. "There is a great deal of diverse dissatisfaction but, in my opinion, it is not poised yet to grow into shared dissatisfaction because society as a whole still acknowledges and accepts the social contract that has been imposed on it by the state."

The "social contract," Silitski explains, means an unwritten pact between society and the government, under which the government delivers a generally expected volume of economic and social benefits to people in exchange for their political loyalty. According to Silitski, the Belarusian government is still capable of meeting its terms under this informal pact.

Would Belarusians protest against their government if their living standards lowered considerably as a result of Russia's efforts to bring gas prices for Belarus to Western European levels?

NISEPI found in January that 23 percent of Belarusians were prepared to participate in street protests in the event the economic situation deteriorates, while 67 percent said they would stay home.

Belarusian political scientist Uladzimir Padhol believes that this declared protest potential in Belarus is too small to bring about any political shifts in the country. And Padhol argues that in the near future the government's propaganda machine is capable of preventing this potential from growing.

"Even if life hardships doubled, the protest potential would not increase because of a very simple reason: The [state] propaganda would immediately leap into action at full swing and point to Russian oligarchs as the culprits," Padhol said. "This is the potential of the regime, which can blame any deterioration of living standards on the energy price hikes made by Russia's leadership."


Love-Hate Relationship


Padhol underscores that in all of his anti-Moscow tirades, Lukashenka takes the precaution to make a clear distinction between the Russian people (lauded as "the brotherly nation") and the Russian leadership (explicitly or implicitly vilified as "bad oligarchs").

NISEPI's findings in January indirectly confirm that this duality in the perception of present-day Russia is widely shared by ordinary Belarusians. When asked to choose between the two political options -- unification with Russia and membership in the EU -- 48.9 percent of those polled chose Russia, while 33.6 percent chose the EU. Thus, even after the sharp energy-price hikes, nearly half of Belarusians arguably do not perceive Russia as a hostile country.

According to Padhol, the weak protest potential in Belarusian society can also be attributed to what he sees as the Belarusian opposition parties' inability to take advantage of the changing political situation and to channel the people's dissatisfaction into the direction the opposition needs.

Lukashenka has endured a lot since his inauguration in April 2006 (epa)

Somewhat sarcastically, Padhol argues that Lukashenka not only shapes the economic policy of the country but also takes the lead in protesting against it, thus defusing any genuine protest potential in society.

"During the first two months of 2007, the only man who was furiously protesting against the deterioration of life [and] the price hikes for energy resources was Lukashenka," Padhol said. "The opposition remained silent, opposition leaders were busy discussing among themselves what to do, while Lukashenka was protesting against this deterioration. Lukashenka thus appeared to be the rescuer of the nation."

Money Isn't Everything


Political analyst Silitski believes that economic hardships, even if they are a sina qua non for initiating political changes in Belarus, are not sufficient on their own. According to Silitski, people can efficiently champion their cause in protest only if they additionally share a common set of values.

"The real protest moods, the real protest potential will appear when we see a crisis of the existing social contract and, second, when this dissatisfaction and the protest moods acquire not only a pragmatic dimension but also one linked to values," Silitski said.

Judging by what NISEPI found in January, such a situation may still be far away from Belarus. When offered four different options regarding the political future of their country, 27 percent of Belarusians said they want unification with Russia, 21 percent opted for integration with the EU, 16 percent wanted to integrate with Russia and the EU simultaneously, while 25 percent rejected both Russia and the EU.


(Yury Drakakhrust from RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

Russia And Belarus

The main Moscow-Minsk railway line(Tass)

TO MERGE OR NOT TO MERGE: For over a decade, Moscow and Minsk have been working on a project to form a single state, the Russia-Belarus Union. However, every time the two countries seem on the verge of making progress, one or the other steps back, leaving the entire effort in doubt.


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