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Belarus: Analysis From Washington--The Utility Of Lukashenka

Washington, 3 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - The behavior of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is serving a variety of purposes but none of them are his own.

Unwittingly, Lukashenka has reduced the chances for the unification of Russia and Belarus that he said he wanted. He has provided a focus for other countries in the region that has helped them to get organized.

And perhaps most important of all, he and his policies have served as a corrective to the widespread notion in the West that a democratic choice by post-communist nations is in every case irreversible.

In each of these three cases, Lukashenka has had just the opposite effect that he said he intended.

First of all, his arrest of journalists working for Russian television in Belarus, his openly contemptuous attitude toward elections, and his unwillingness to pursue economic reform has made the union between Russia and Belarus that he claims to want that much less likely.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision on Wednesday to block Lukashenka's visit to two Russian provincial cities by denying his plane clearance is only the latest indication of Moscow's unhappiness with its putative partner.

Yeltsin's order was clearly driven by his anger at Lukashenka for continuing to hold under arrest two journalists as well as the Russian president's concern about the damage his own ties to Lukashenka have done Moscow in Western eyes.

But in fact, Russian government unhappiness with Belarus under Lukashenka is far broader and deeper.

Last month, for example, Russian deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais indicated that he did not believe that Russia and Belarus could unite because their economies were now as different as those of "North and South Korea."

Consequently and in spite of himself. Lukashenka may now be helping to solidify Belarusian independence even as he continues to call for union with Russia.

Second, Lukashenka's authoritarian behavior and his open admiration for Stalin and Hitler have provided a focus for many of the countries in the region.

On the one hand, the existence of Lukashenka and his regime have allowed them to contrast their behaviour with that of Lukashenka, to show that whatever their failings they are far from the worst, a demonstration that has won them support in Western capitals.

And on the other, Lukashenka's actions have given them someone to criticize other than Moscow and the Russians.

Both these Lukashenka contributions to Eastern Europe were very much on public display at the Vilnius summit in early September. One after another, the presidents of the countries participating in that session were able to say that they were not Lukashenka.

And almost all of them were able to use him rather than Russia as the object of their attacks. From their perspective, criticizing Belarus now appears to have been almost as satisfying as criticizing Russia in the past.

Moreover, attacks on Belarus rather than Russia had one additional virtue in their eyes: such comments were welcomed rather than opposed by representatives of the United States and Western Europe.

Indeed, one diplomat at the Vilnius session said privately that "if Lukashenka did not exist, it would have been necessary for us East Europeans to invent him."

Such East European assertiveness is exactly the opposite of what the Belarusian president says he wants.

And third, and most important, Lukashenka and his regime are a reminder that democracies can fail, that there is nothing inevitable or irreversible about them at least in the countries making the transition from communism to democracy and free markets.

Five years ago, Belarus had strong democratic credentials. Now, because of Lukashenka and his regime, it has lost them in the eys of almost the entire world.

Many people in the region and in the West have self-confidently assumed that the democratic revolutions in this part of the world are over and won. And they have assumed that as a result, neither the peoples in this region nor the West need to continue to struggle.

Lukashenka is a reminder that there is no justification for such views, that both the peoples of this region must continue the struggle, and that the governments of the West must stay involved.

Here too, Lukashenka is having an impact directly opposite the one he says he wants. And because of that, the Belarusian people may have a better future.