Belarus, which belonged to the former Soviet Union and is located at the border of Europe and Russia, is facing political turbulence.
Known as "Europe's last dictator," Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for the last 16 years with highhanded methods, was elected president for the fourth time. After the election, however, he cracked down on demonstrations staged by former opposition candidates who pointed out irregularities. Nearly 700 people, including reporters, were detained.
Despite international criticism, including from the United States, which condemned the suppression, seven former candidates were indicted on charges of organizing a riot. The crime carries a punishment of up to 15 years in detention. Many people are are still detained as tensions soar between the opposition and the administration.
As it is, Belarus has been an unstable factor in Europe and the world. In disagreements over prices, Russia has repeatedly stopped the flow of oil and natural gas to Belarus. Each time, European countries that buy resources from Russia which must pass through Belarus have suffered.
In the past, Soviet nuclear weapons were deployed in Belarus. Although they have been removed, some 200 kilograms of highly enriched uranium that can be used to make nuclear weapons still remain there. Belarus reached an agreement with the United States in December to remove the uranium by 2012 in exchange for financial aid and other assistance. However, if the festering situation causes the delay or failure of this plan, any illicit sales of this material could lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. Congress and others have pointed out that Belarus may be engaged in black market weapons trading with countries involved in conflicts, such as Iran.
Russia has supported the current regime in Belarus. It wants to keep Belarus on its side as it serves as an important buffer with Europe and the influence of the United States.
For that, Moscow has been providing Minsk with favors, such as supplying oil and natural gas at a low price in return for advancing integration in the areas of politics, economy and security. This arrangement has allowed Lukashenko to maintain an old Soviet-style welfare state that provides the public with daily supplies, medicine and education at low cost. The situation has also served as the foundation of his support.
However, Russia, which is unhappy that integration is not making expected progress, has started to re-examine the preferential treatment it has been giving to Belarus these last few years. The situation has prompted Belarus to approach Europe and the United States along with Russia in an attempt to draw aid from both sides. But unless Belarus changes its autocratic ways, Europe and the United States will remain reluctant to develop stronger ties.
The situation is about to reach an impasse. The old Soviet-style economy, centered on inefficient state-owned corporations, also suffered serious losses in the global financial crisis. If Minsk's isolation continues, it is clear that a collapse may be unavoidable. There is no other path for Belarus but to advance democratization and build good relations with the world.
International society should also urge Belarus to advance reform with patience. Russia, in particular, must re-examine the fickle way it deals with Belarus to suit its own interests and focus on constructive engagement.
Belarus suffered serious damage from the fallout of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in neighboring Ukraine. As a nation that experienced atomic bombings, Japan has been supporting Belarus for many years and maintains good relations. It should play a positive role to promote stability in Belarus.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 31