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Belarus: Lukashenka Plans No 'Democratic Change'

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo) Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered an annual address to the country's National Assembly on 19 April and unambiguously indicated that he is firmly determined to remain in his post beyond the 2006 presidential election without paying much attention to what the outside world might say about the legitimacy of such continuity.

"We categorically oppose scenarios for a democratic change of political elites that are displeasing to the West," the Belarusian president said in the National Assembly point-blank. "[Lukashenka] has left no doubt that he will do everything possible to remain for the third presidential term," the independent Belarusian weekly "Nasha Niva" subsequently commented on his 19 April address.

Referring to the 2002 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the recent political switchover in Kyrgyzstan, Lukashenka said no such option is doable in Belarus. "All those color revolutions were in fact no revolutions," he asserted. "It was sheer banditry under the disguise of democracy. The limit of such revolutions was fully exhausted by the Belarusian people in the past century."

Lukashenka made no secret that his political self-assurance comes from one source -- Russia. "There is the full understanding by the leadership, the president, and practically all people in Russia today that Belarus was and has remained -- which is regrettable, perhaps -- the only reliable partner and ally of the Russian Federation," the Belarusian president said on 19 April.

Indeed, there were several visible signs from Moscow this month indicating that the Kremlin, confronted with a string of ostensibly pro-Western "color revolutions" in the post-Soviet area, has decided to put its stake in Belarus on fiercely anti-Western Lukashenka and back his third presidential bid.

At a meeting with Lukashenka in Sochi on 4 April, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that Russian gas prices for Belarus in 2006 will remain at last year's level, that is, at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters. This pledge makes it easier for Lukashenka to maintain economic stability in Belarus in 2006 and ward off potential unrest over economic hardship ahead of the presidential election.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov clashed with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on 21 April when he objected to her earlier call for a political change in Belarus whose regime she described as the "last true dictatorship" in Europe. "We would not of course be advocating what some people call regime changes anywhere. We think the democratic process, the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside," Lavrov said at a news conference after a NATO-Russia meeting in Vilnius.

And Putin himself showed his benevolence to Lukashenka once again during their meeting in Moscow on 22 April, at which they discussed issues relating to the Russia-Belarus Union. "I would like to thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss these issues. I hope this meeting will take place as usual -- in a warm and constructive atmosphere," Putin told Lukashenka in the presence of journalists. Both presidents signed an agreement planning to give Russian and Belarusian citizens identical rights as regards pensions, health care, and income tax by the end of the year.

Lukashenka charged in his annual address to the legislature that the Belarusian opposition is sponsored by "bagfuls" of money channeled into Belarus through unnamed embassies. "No money will work in Belarus to depose the current authorities," he asserted. "We know practically everything. If we're remaining silent this does not mean that we don't know. We will disclose all kinds of charlatans to the Belarusian people."

Two days before Lukashenka's annual address to the legislature, Belarusian Television reported that Belarus's law-enforcement agencies had arrested a Lithuanian citizen who had delivered $200,000 to finance the political activities of former dissident lawmaker Syarhey Skrabets. But an unidentified official with the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry told Belapan that the detainee was not a citizen of Lithuania, nor did he have a visa to visit Lithuania. According to the official, the report was a frame-up against not only Belarus's opposition but also Lithuania.

Moreover, Lukashenka on 19 April accused diplomats of the Polish Embassy in Minsk of destabilizing the situation in western Belarus, including through the Roman Catholic Church, and putting pressure on Belarus's ethnic Polish community. Polish Sejm speaker Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz commented that Lukashenka's charge was "scandalous" in its form, "devoid of any sense" in its wording. "This is a statement of an irate dictator, displeased with the fact that not everyone in his country is scared," Cimoszewicz added.

These incursions against Belarus's pro-Western neighbors betray a well-known pattern of Lukashenka's behavior before and during major political campaigns in the country. Before the 2006 presidential election the Belarusian president is once again appealing to the Soviet-bred "siege mentality" of his compatriots and trying to convince them that they are surrounded by neighbors harboring highly negative and hostile intentions toward their country.

The United States, of course, is at the very top of Lukashenka's list of Belarus's ill-wishers and foes. On 19 April, however, Lukashenka did not fire anything heavier against Washington than a story about an unnamed U.S. diplomat in Minsk who allegedly sold his car and subsequently complained to police that the car was stolen. To make up for the lack of appropriate U.S.-related topics, Lukashenka mocked the allegedly futile attempts by Washington to discover his secret bank accounts. (Under the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in October 2004, the U.S. president is obliged to present annual reports to the U.S. Congress on the personal assets and wealth of Lukashenka and other senior Belarusian government officials.)

"What, can't you find [my bank accounts]?" Lukashenka sneered at Washington on 19 April. "You got at Iraq, smashed the country, but are unable to find the accounts. Well? It is $11 billion, not a laughing matter!" Which is funny and mystifying at the same time. Neither the Belarusian opposition nor Washington have ever mentioned such a specific sum in the context of Lukashenka's possible covert wealth. Was it not a Freudian slip of the tongue on the part of the Belarusian president?

In other words, as we are nearing the 2006 presidential election in Belarus, we need to be prepared to hear more disclosures of "all kinds of charlatans" coming from Lukashenka himself and his propagandists. The repertoire of such disclosures is limited but, unfortunately for the Belarusian opposition, it has so far worked out quite well with Belarusian voters.