Don't give up on Belarus

April 13, 2006|By LIONEL BEEHNER

Belarus is ripe for democracy.

Despite the weeklong protests and round-the-clock vigils that ended in mass arrests recently, hope is not lost. Nor is the next opportunity to usher in democratic change in five years, when Alexander Lukashenko, Europe's last dictator, is expected to seek a fourth term.

Opposition groups are saying privately that Mr. Lukashenko' grip on power has been weakened. With the right mixture of carrots and sticks from the West, and a little nudging from Moscow, his power will only further erode and Belarus will end its self-isolation, democratize and integrate into Europe.

More than any other post-Soviet state in Central Asia, Belarus has all the traits needed for democracy to flourish. Its 10 million people are highly educated, with literacy rates nearing 90 percent. Most live in urban areas, which is beneficial for developing social mobility and civil society institutions.

The country's proximity to the European Union allows for not only greater trade but also more education and cross-cultural exchanges. Belarus also has a relatively highly developed mass media infrastructure, with its wide array of newspapers, radio stations and television programs. True, all of them are state-owned and used for Mr. Lukashenko's propaganda machine, but the foundation is in place, should a more pluralist society emerge.

And from a security standpoint, Belarus, unlike Georgia or Uzbekistan, faces no threats from terrorists or separatists. Unlike Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan, Belarus has no energy resources, and that's not a bad thing. If Belarus were an oil-rich country, political reform would be next to impossible, and Mr. Lukashenko's palaces would be grander than they are. The downside, of course, is that Belarus will remain heavily dependent on Russia for its gas.

How can the United States help democracy along in Belarus? Washington was correct to condemn the recent government crackdown on protesters. But its moral and financial support to ensure free and fair elections, while nice, is not enough. Nor is it sufficient simply to make a statement critical of the regime, which is often replayed endlessly on state-run television to justify Mr. Lukashenko's xenophobic posturing.

Washington may lack leverage, but there is one lever it has not pulled: Russia. Handouts and subsidies from Moscow estimated at about $3 billion a year largely keep Belarus afloat. Without this aid and cheap gas, Belarus' economy would tank.

With Russia assuming the chairmanship of the Group of Eight this year, the United States and Europe should pressure Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to push Mr. Lukashenko to democratize or face Russian economic punishment. Targeted sanctions and travel bans by the EU and the United States will not do the trick. Russia must become more involved.

The decision by the Kremlin-controlled Gazprom to ask Belarus to pay steeper prices for its natural gas is a positive sign, though it's still unclear what motivated the unexpected move. But other signs are less welcoming. Russian election observers were quick to call the recent polls in Belarus free and fair, while Mr. Putin congratulated Mr. Lukashenko on his 82 percent victory, a number impressive even for a secretary-general of the Soviet Union.

Russia would benefit from a democratic Belarus, not only for economic reasons but also for geo-strategic ones. Opposition forces in Belarus don't intend to join NATO. Nor would Russian plans to build an airbase in Belarus be affected by a democrat in power in Minsk.

Indeed, Belarus' future is still up in the air. I was reminded of this while crossing into Belarus by bus before the recent elections and watching customs officers rifle through my books and documents, all of which were confiscated. I asked a border guard about Belarus' bleak outlook. "We have no resources, no oil, nothing," he told me dejectedly, before posing a puzzling question to me: "Why are you afraid of Belarusian people?"

Funny, I thought, I should ask your government the same question.

Lionel Beehner, who was in Minsk on a German Marshall Fund journalism fellowship, is a staff writer for the Council on Foreign Relations' Web site. His e-mail is lbeehner@cfr.org.

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