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Belarus: Lukashenka Anxious As Election Nears

Rainer Lindner, of the University of Konstanz, is one of Germany's leading experts on contemporary Belarus. He talked to RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten about the country's current economic and political situation and the upcoming presidential election.

Prague, 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In recent weeks, the government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has increased its anti-Western rhetoric, accusing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- among other organizations -- of trying to subvert upcoming presidential elections.

Rainer Lindner, a senior researcher of Eastern European studies at the University of Konstanz, says this is an indication of Lukashenka's increasing nervousness as the campaign kicks into gear. Lindner, a leading German expert on Belarus, noted that Belarus' continued economic decline was fueling Lukashenka's worries.

"Lukashenka is very nervous because his popularity is deeply affected by this economic crisis."

According to the latest independent polls, more than 70 percent of Belarusians are dissatisfied with the progress -- or lack -- of economic reforms. This correlates with an estimated 70 percent of the population who live below the minimum subsistence level of some $45 a month.

Lindner says Lukashenka retains a firm grip on power -- controlling all state institutions and the omnipresent state media. Unseating him in the upcoming election will be a very difficult task.

Nevertheless, Lindner says there are indications that Lukashenka's power base may be weakening.

"We can definitely see cracks in the monolith. A lot of people in the apparatus really want change -- also among the political leadership. In the Chamber of Representatives for instance -- Ivan Pashkevich, the former deputy head of the administration -- came up with a critical opinion about the role of the parliament and he gave recommendations on the election procedure. Then, the former head of the administration, (Leanid) Sinitsyn, is going to run for the presidency." Lindner says the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also staffed with several officials who would like the country to take a more pro-Western orientation.

"Especially also in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have a lot of people -- we can call them the Westerners actually, they are very cooperative with the West -- ready to cooperate and therefore I would really say that we can see some differences when we compare the situation with the mid-1990s."

Lindner says the open opposition can be divided into two camps: the more radical dissidents, many of whom were deputies in the 13th Supreme Soviet, or parliament, which was disbanded by Lukashenka, and former government ministers and trade unionists who have drifted away from the president.

"We have to differentiate between the party-based opposition at the moment, which is rather the figures from the 13th Supreme Soviet, like (Anatol) Liabiedzko and others, especially from the Popular Front. This is a more fundamental opposition, standing on ideological differences between Lukashenka and the opposition and the more technocratic opposition which is gathering around (ex-Premier Mikhail) Chyhir and the candidates from the trade unions." In Lindner's opinion, the second group of candidates has a better chance to unseat Lukashenka.

"I think these candidates, who are rather connected to the people, in terms of the trade unions and other organizations -- they are better prepared for getting support than the party-based ideological opposition."

Despite dissatisfaction with the economy, an estimated 45 percent of the population loyally support Lukashenka, and the opposition has yet to demonstrate that it can unite behind one candidate.

Western countries have expressed concern that Lukashenka may try to steal the election and not permit independent observers to monitor the polls. But Lindner believes that despite his invectives against the OSCE, Lukashenka is keen to have a ballot that is seen as legitimate and at least minimally democratic.

"He also wants to win not in a closed circle election, but with having foreign observers in the country, because without foreign observers, the elections do not make any sense for Lukashenka. He really wants to be accepted by the world and get rid of the shadow of illegality because, for the past two years, he has not been a legal president because his term ended in 1999."

Speaking this week at the all-Belarusian Popular Congress -- a government-organized gathering of presidential supporters -- Lukashenka unveiled a five-year program of socio-economic development and promised a 40 percent increase in the country's GDP by 2005 compared to 2000. Lukashenka also pledged that the average monthly wage in 2005 will amount to $250 -- a five-fold increase over the current sum.

Lindner says such results will remain a pipe-dream without Western investment. But he notes that there are some signs Lukashenka may be softening his stance on this front. Talks on forming new joint ventures, especially with German companies, have moved forward recently.

"They just started negotiating whether it's possible to sell land or to cooperate in more joint ventures. There are a lot of joint ventures, especially from Germany, at the moment. They are not so good at the moment, but anyway they are some kind of signal that Belarus is trying to attract these investors." Belarus is also making increasing efforts to find markets in developing countries for its manufactured goods.

"We have contacts with China, we have contacts with India, and other non-European countries. Lukashenka, every time, is trying to underline or to make a kind of ideological point in this direction, but mostly this cooperation is based on economic terms. Belarus is trying to find new markets for its goods, which are not accepted in the West, but which are pretty good when it comes to other developing countries. Because, for instance, the tractors or the TV sets which are manufactured in Belarus reach the standards of developing countries but not the standards of the Western world."

Initially, Belarus's president harbored ambitions of rapidly uniting his country with Russia and thus of playing an important role in the politics of both countries. He is still pushing those efforts.

But Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, has been less enthusiastic -- forcing Lukashenka to find ways of shoring up his own position, within his own state.