By Paul Goble
That Moscow would like to see Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili replaced isn’t news to anyone but that it would like to have someone else in the place of his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka may come as a surprise, although Russian analysts say it is far from clear who that might be or how Moscow could arrange it.
Last week, “Newsweek” reported that having claimed “two political scalps” in the last few months with the replacement of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev with more malleable leaders, Moscow was now looking to replace others in the former Soviet space with which it is unhappy.
Not surprisingly, the weekly suggested that Saakashvili was “target number one,” but more interestingly, it indicated that Lukashenka ranked just behind him in the Kremlin’s wish list. Now this week, in “Novaya politika,” Lidiya Adrusenko considers what may happen in Georgia and Belarus and concludes that Moscow faces enormous obstacles in both.
Some of the Moscow officials and analysts with whom “Newsweek” spoke suggested that a move against Saakashvili might begin as early as May 30th when elections are held for the mayor of Tbilisi and for the leaders of other local government bodies across Georgia (www.novopol.ru/-vremya-novyih-liderov-esche-ne-prishlo-text85198.html).
The possibility of using elections in Georgia as the occasion for a kind of “reverse orange-style revolution” was first put forward, Adrusenko points out, not by Duma deputy Sergey Markov as “Newsweek” reported but rather by Zurab Nogaideli, the former Georgian premier who “more often than his other colleagues visits Moscow.”
Nogaideli suggested that “if Saakashvili tries to falsify the vote, then an uprising will begin in Tbilisi similar to ‘the Bishkek revolution.’” But later, the Moscow commentator notes, Nogaideli reversed himself, saying that there would not be a Kyrgyz variant in Georgia, and that “scenarios” of this type were being dreamed up by Saakashvili but not in Moscow.
“Serious analysts,” Andrusenko continues, conclude that “the upcoming elections may turn out to be a complete defeat of the opposition figures, because they cannot unite and are competing among themselves.” Moreover, polls show that 51 percent of Georgians “positively assess” Saakashvili, while “12 percent support the opposition.”
Saakashvili’s ruling party should win without difficulty, these analysts say, “not because the population of Georgia is satisfied with him but because it is disappointed in other political forces” and is not prepared, as the failed counter-demonstration of May 6 showed, ready to follow its lead.
Thus, Andrusenko sums up for Georgia, “Saakashvili’s time has still not come to an end, and Moscow must carry out a lengthy search for an alternative leader on whom it might rely.” But Russia does have one advantage now: It won’t be acting alone because both the EU and the US are increasingly cool toward someone they had earlier enthusiastically backed.
The situation for Moscow in Belarus is more complicated for three reasons: First, although Russian leaders are “terribly tired” of Lukashenka, he is “formally” Russia’s ally, so moving against him is hard. Second, Lukashenka exercises much greater control in his country that Saakashvili does in his.
And third, the opposition in Belarus is far weaker than is its counterpart in Georgia. Those factors combine to mean that Moscow has had far fewer contacts with the Belarusian opposition than it has had with the Georgian one and that the Russian leadership thus has fewer choices about how to proceed to have any chance of success.
Later this year or the beginning of next, Belarus is scheduled to have presidential elections, an event that Moscow might seek to make use of. Lukashenka has indicated that he is ready to serve a fourth term, and all indications are that despite his international isolation he almost certainly could guarantee his “re-election.”
Despite that, Andrusenko continues, Russian officials are beginning to say “and quite openly at that” that they would like to be able “to deal in Belarus with another leader.” For them, the analyst says, the question isn’t so much about whether he would be “pro-Russian” or “pro-European” but rather more pragmatic and predictable.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the leader of the pro-Western united Belarusian opposition, is unlikely to get Moscow’s backing, but other leaders who have been discussed include Andrey Sannikov, the former foreign minister, who Andrusenko suggests views the relations Ukraine is now establishing with Moscow as “an example” for Belarus.
But some commentators in Moscow suggest that mentions of Sannikov are “only for cover,” while Moscow finds someone else. And they suggest that the Russiana powers that be might push current head of the Belarusian cabinet Sergey Sidorsky, even though he has expressed no interest in the race.
Consequently and despite Moscow’s desires, Andrusenko concludes, “the epoch of Lukashenka” in Belarus is not likely to come to an end as a result of the elections because the current Belarusian leader has created a political system in which “no one except for himself has a chance to become president” – at least by electoral means.