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2000 In Review: More Stagnation In Belarus

The year 2000 saw no basic change in Belarus. The country continued to stagnate politically and economically under the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. RFE/ RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten looks at the country's past 12 months and examines what the future might hold.

Prague, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In what has become a familiar pattern, Russia and Belarus edged closer to union during the past year but set no final date. Belarus went through another set of elections, which were unrecognized by the international community and boycotted by much of the opposition. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continued in his attempt to solidify links with the few countries, apart from Russia, that have not ostracized him.

Belarus' political year got off to a rocky start in March, when Lukashenka rebuffed a visiting joint delegation of representatives from the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, the European Union's Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE.

Emissaries from the three European organizations traveled to Minsk, hoping to secure Lukashenka's agreement to hold democratic parliamentary elections in October and allow the opposition press to operate freely. But the Belarusian leader told his visitors their advice was not needed. Lukashenka said Belarus would run its elections as it saw fit. He further suggested that the OSCE close its Minsk office, calling its presence unnecessary.

After the meeting, the European delegation members issued a statement expressing what they termed their "shock at the derailment of the negotiation process" with the Belarusian authorities. The head of the OSCE mission to Minsk, Hans- Georg Wieck , publicly announced he would not leave the country.

As in years past, Lukashenka continued to court Russia. During a meeting in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized Moscow's desire to unite the two states, although he shied away from any specifics.

"The foundations of the new Russian-Belarusian statehood are being laid now. And it is very important that from the beginning, our work will be determined not by the quantity of paperwork and the speed of the document streams but by the quality of real decision to build a unified state about which we have been talking so much and paying so much attention and which is at the heart of our aspirations."

Cheap Russian oil and gas kept the Belarus economy afloat throughout the year 2000, but shortages, low wages and inflation remained the order of the day for most citizens. The average salary failed to rise beyond the equivalent of $30 a month, while wage arrears began to pile up for the first time in several years.

Given these circumstances, it remains hard for outsiders to understand how Lukashenka manages to remain in power. Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent political institute based in Minsk, told RFE/RL that Lukashenka's control of the media continues to give the Belarusian leader a huge advantage.

"The certain support he has in society is based on the fact that in Belarus the electronic media is fully monopolized by the government. The overwhelming majority of the population watch person on Belarusian TV every day. He is seen traveling throughout the country, helping to bring in the harvest, entering into stores and forcing them to sell a wider assortment of goods, visiting factories, etc. To believe Belarusian television, only one politician exists. There is no one else -- not even anyone standing nearby, so to speak."

The fact that the opposition continues to devote much of its time to internal bickering also plays into Lukashenka's hands. This was clearly illustrated during October's parliamentary elections.

Ever since the Belarus leader succeeded in changing the country's constitution in 1996, the parliament has been stripped of most of its powers. This year's election forced opposition groups into an awkward dilemma. Should they participate in the vote and risk legitimizing Lukashenka's rule, or boycott and possibly lose any influence over events?

Most opposition parties officially boycotted the poll, but several leaders of these very same parties ran as independents. This formula proved confusing and unsuccessful. Once again, Lukashenka was victorious, allowing him to taunt an even-more disunited opposition.

"Boycotting the election was a very stupid move on the part of those who today oppose Lukashenka. They simply wound up on the sidelines of this road. This speaks to the fact that they've lost the presidential election. Had they taken part in this campaign, most likely they would have lost -- but at least they would have demonstrated something to the nation."

Not surprisingly, the OSCE failed to certify the poll, noting that it fell short of minimum international standards. Once again, Lukashenka hinted that the OSCE should leave the country. As if to emphasize the point, he closed the year with a trip to Libya before returning to Minsk for a meeting with other CIS leaders during which more warm words were exchanged with Russia.

Lukashenka and Putin agreed that Belarus will start using the Russian ruble by the year 2005. But again, Putin warned his host against what he termed "excessive haste" in proceeding toward full union.

Last month, then-Foreign Minister Ural Latypov boasted that Belarus was "the only country in the post-Soviet area without any branch of the West's leading banks, without any hotel or shopping center built by foreign investors, and without any office of the world's major companies."

Lukashenka has announced that he intends to run for re- election next year. A planned reorganization of the security services to bring them under closer presidential control indicates he will leave nothing to chance.

As seen this year in Yugoslavia, elections -- even rigged ones -- can lead to unexpected developments. Whether 2001 will resemble preceding years in Belarus or bring change depends largely on the opposition and whether it will coalesce or remain disunited. If the current administration remains in power, the past is a clear guide to what can be expected in the future.