Belarusian President Is Firmly In His Saddle, Despite A Bumpier Road
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.
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.
"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."
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.
"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.)
U.S. General Discusses Missile DefenseMarch 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A top Pentagon official today held talks with Ukrainian officials to discuss a U.S. plan to deploy part of a missile-defense system in Central Europe.
Lieutenant General Henry Obering, the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, was in Ukraine today in a bid to win the country's support for the Pentagon's missile shield project.
Under the plan, the United States would place part of its defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Obering, together with a U.S. delegation, met with officials at the Defense Ministry, Ukraine's Security Council, and president's office.
No Ukraine Plans
Speaking at a news conference in Kyiv, Obering vowed his country had no plans to deploy other parts of the shield in Ukraine.
In response to a question by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Obering rejected reports that the United States sought to place a radar in one of the Caucasus nations.
Obering reiterated that the system is designed to protect Europe from potential missile attacks by "rogue nations" such as Iran and North Korea.
He also said that Ukraine has nothing to fear from a potential missile intercept over Ukraine. In that case, he said, the entire warhead would be destroyed and no debris would fall over the country.
Ukraine, which neighbors Poland, is still divided on the U.S. missile plans.
Some, like Western-leaning President Viktor Yushchenko, have given the plan a cautious welcome. Yushchenko says it could help Europe create a unified defense system.
Others are worried about its impact. The Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has cautioned that Ukraine, by allowing the U.S. defense system to be set up on its doorstep, could damage relations with its neighbors.
Ukraine's government has yet to give a formal response.
The U.S. plan has sparked an angry reaction from Russia, with Russian military officials warning Poland and the Czech Republic that hosting the U.S. defense system on their soil could make them targets of a Russian missile strike.
Obering said Russia's anger is unfounded.
"Of course, we had a reaction from the Russians that was unexpected and they referred to changing the strategic balance between the United States and Russia. We disagree with this, respectfully. We're talking about no more than 10 interceptors and they would have no effect against the hundreds of missiles or thousands of warheads that the Russians have," Obering said.
While Obering today was able to address some of the worries caused by the Pentagon's missile initiative, his visit to Kyiv also gave him the opportunity to witness firsthand Ukrainian hostility to the plan.
Demonstrators disputed his press conference, chanting "Yankee go home!" and holding a banner reading "Ukraine is against NATO."
Obering's Ukrainian visit is part of an information campaign around Europe about the U.S. missile shield.
Obering travels to Berlin on March 15 and then Paris to discuss the project with senior officials of both countries.
In Brussels today, a NATO spokesman said the alliance will "in the coming weeks" begin talks on the missile defense system.
The spokesman, James Appathurai, said, however, that NATO does not want to "interfere" with current U.S. plans to build interceptor and radar sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, but to "complement" them.
"The challenge is not, certainly from NATO's view, to -- as I say -- interfere with or slow down the U.S. bilateral discussions with allies. The challenge is, a), to get a common view [among the allies], and, b), to see how we can potentially complement this initiative," Appathurai said.
Appathurai said that NATO wants to ensure the same level of protection for all its member states.
What's Behind Moldova's Harsh Criticism Of Romania?
Recent statements by Moldova's government have made headlines for their caustic tone toward neighboring Romania. President Vladimir Voronin in early March attacked Romania for "financing a fifth column" in Moldova and not respecting Moldovan independence.
The Moldovan government has also criticized the Romanian leadership for "concocting and artificially aggravating" the issue of Moldovan application for Romanian citizenship. Romanian President Traian Basescu recently estimated that the total number of Moldovans seeking to obtain Romanian citizenship could exceed 800,000.
The statement also argued that Romania's refusal to sign a basic political treaty and a border treaty "cannot but be interpreted as a proof of the neighbor state's true intentions."
About the same time, Andrei Stratan, Moldova's minister of foreign affairs and European integration, reversed an earlier decision to open new Romanian consulates in Balti and Cahul.
The additional facilities were meant to ease workload on visa applications for Moldovans looking for work in Romania. Stratan, announcing his decision, said the new buildings were no longer necessary.
For its part, the Romanian government has refused to respond to these accusations, defending their policies as an attempt to re-establish free trade and movement that existed between the states before Romania's accession into the European Union on January 1, 2007.
To some extent, the harsh tone of Moldova's rhetoric toward Romania is an extension of Moldova's general foreign policy. However, the timing of these statements suggests that this is also part of an effort to improve relations with Moscow and the breakaway region of Transdniester.
Ups and Downs
Moldova and Romania have experienced many ups and downs in their relationship since Moldova's independence in 1991. While pan-Romanianism has been a consistent part of Moldovan politics, and was adopted in the Popular Front of Moldova's platform in 1992, it has played only a minor role in Moldovan policy.
The Front's term in office under Prime Minister Mircea Druc was brief, and its successor, the Christian-Democratic People's Party, has only entered government in coalition with the Communist Party.
After calls for unification failed to gain widespread support, relations with Romania cooled considerably. In 1992, Moldova and Romania started negotiations on inter-state political and border treaties. Both treaties were prepared for signing in 2000, but they have yet to be approved by the Romanian government.
One of the low points in bilateral relations came during the 1994 parliamentary elections, when several Moldovan political parties denounced Romania's interference and its assertion that the Moldovan language and culture were Romanian. Romania, in turn, accused the Moldovan government of using the identity question to stifle dissent.
The 2004 elections in Romania began a period of improved relations. The newly elected Romanian president made Moldova his first official trip abroad, and the states found common ground as Moldova set EU integration as the country's main strategic foreign policy goal.
Two States, One Nation?
Romania's official policy toward Moldova is "one nation, two states," based on shared history, language, culture and traditions.
In contrast, Charles King, a professor at Georgetown University, describes Moldovan foreign policy as "Bessarabism."
This policy orientation defines Moldova as "a distinct cultural and political space, a region whose traditions and interests derive both from its position as a small region surrounded by large neighbors and from the overlapping identities of its multiethnic population."
From this perspective, recent statements from Romania about citizenship rules may seem hostile, and the magnitude of citizenship applications claimed by Romanian officials are somewhat embarrassing to the Moldovan government.
In addition, the government has already expressed its concern about the size of its population working abroad -- as many as 1 million Moldovans -- and has encouraged its citizens to stay home. It is understandable that they would be concerned about the easing of citizenship requirements, which would allow easier exit to EU labor markets.
The current government has an incentive to reassert its commitment to an independent Moldova with local elections approaching. Many Moldovans do not support unification, and this is especially salient among Moldova's linguistic minority groups.
The Price of Transdniester
Yet, the harsher tone of Moldovan officials toward Romania started well before these most recent statements. A month before Romania's formal accession to the EU, President Voronin slammed Romania's offer of help in Moldova's EU integration, saying "Romania is trying to impose certain rules of the game and principles of Moldova...this should be qualified as interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state."
It is interesting that the December 1 statements from Voronin came only a couple of days after Russia announced that it would end its ban on Moldovan wine. It also fell between the September referendum on independence and the December presidential election in the breakaway region of Transdniester.
In his New Year's address, President Voronin expressed his belief that 2007 will be "the year when the genuine and final reintegration of our motherland will start."
It makes sense that, as part of this strategy, Moldova would increase its efforts to resurrect the inter-state political treaty and border treaty with Romania as a method for allaying the concerns of Eurasianists in Transdniester and the regime's sponsors in Moscow.
As Nicu Popescu, a research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies, puts it, "[T]he true architect of the foreign policy of Moldova since the declaration of its independence has been neither Mircea Snegur, nor Petru Lucinschi, nor Vladimir Voronin, but [Transdniester President] Igor Smirnov."
The Shorter Long Shot
With EU enlargement put on hold indefinitely, and territorial integrity an important part of Moldova's EU integration strategy, Moldova's cooling of relations with Romania can be interpreted as an attempt to reassure leaders in Tiraspol and Moscow that this administration is not moving closer to Romania.
Reintegration with Transdniester is a long shot, and Russia continues to delay the restoration of economic ties that are essential to Moldova's economy. But criticism of Romanian policy still presents a low-cost method for Moldova to further a number of its political goals.
(Ryan Kennedy is a Ph.D candidate and a Fulbright researcher from Ohio State University who recently returned to the United States after living in Moldova.)