By Paul Goble
Faced with mounting economic difficulties at home and increasing isolation abroad, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is transforming his country into “a North Korea in the center of Europe,” an effort that involves ever more repression against the Belarusian democracy movement and the possibility of a political explosion against him.
Over the last week, the Charter 97 organization reports, Belarusian KGB and militia officers have fanned out across the country confiscating equipment and publications of the Belarusian opposition and arresting activists not only in Mensk but in all other major Belarusian cities (charter97.org/ru/news/2010/5/18/29082/).
But those actions are only a symptom of a broader problem, Belarusian commentator Yuri Baranchik says, Lukashenka’s efforts to convert his country into “a kind of analogue of North Korea in the center of Europe” in advance of presidential elections which are supposed to be held before the end of the year (fondsk.ru/article.php?id=3043).
The reasons behind this drive, Baranchik says, are to be found in the country’s current economic difficulties and the likelihood that they will get worse over the next months, developments that almost certainly would undermine the support the Belarusian leader has generated on the basis of his past ability to maintain Belarusians’ standard of living.
Belarus’s foreign indebtedness has grown so rapidly over the last few months, the analyst says, that “several days ago A. Lukashenka [was forced] to sign a decree increasing the state debt limit from 9.5 to 12 billion dollars.” Moreover, the current economic situation means Mensk has had to put off its plans to sell euro-denominated bonds abroad.
Worse, Belarusian industries are increasingly unable to sell their production, with most of them having three to four months of unsold inventory, Baranchik continues. And “the lost of the Russian market [ — something that is happening now — ] is bringing with it especially great risks for the Belarusian economy.”
Mensk has been forced to reduce pensions over the last six months, and it has frozen wages and salaries, especially difficult that inflation is far higher than the 10 to 12 percent that the Belarusian government claims and that is hitting people at all levels of the income pyramid because of the rising cost of the standard market basket of goods.
Meanwhile, Baranchik says, the country’s gold reserve has fallen by 50 percent to only 11 billion US dollars, and it faces the threat of even greater losses if Moscow routes oil across Ukraine rather than Belarus and thus stops paying the transit fees on which Lukashenka and his regime have relied.
Moscow has a particular interest in cutting back these payments because of “the adventurist foreign economic projects” Mensk has gotten involved with, including the purchase of Venezuelan oil, a product it doesn’t need and now can’t sell either to Europe or to Ukraine, following Kyiv’s rapprochement with the Russian Federation.
Even if Moscow does not stop all transit of oil, the Russian government this year will end its transfer of three to five billion US dollars a year. “Next year, these funds will not be coming” to Mensk. That almost certainly means that the standard of living of Belarusians will fall and that some of them will step up their efforts to oust Lukashenka.
In that event, Moscow would be unlikely to do anything to help the incumbent president, especially since he has refused to go along with Russian policy on many questions and has not shown any interest in building the union state with the Russian Federation that Belarusians have twice voted for.
Indeed, there have been rumors that Moscow might even be interested in orchestrating Lukashenka’s ouster (www.nr2.ru/policy/283265.html), although the likelihood that a successor to Lukashenka would be more pro-Russian and more anti-European than he has been off and on is far from certain.
Consequently, because of these economic trends and his personal fears, Lukashenka is circling the wagons much as the leaders of North Korea have done. But it is clear that his past bet on “economic nationalism” and “self-sufficiency” has not worked and that even before the presidential elections, the Belarusian president may be forced to declare his country in default.