The Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, the oldest opposition group in that country, says that it will not ally itself with Moscow against Alyaksandr Lukashenka because a "pro-Russian" replacement would be at least as harmful to Belarus as the incumbent president has been.
Instead, as Moscow's "Novyye izvestiya" reported yesterday, the opposition group has called on its supporters to step up their struggle against "the strengthening of Russian influence" in Belarus even if that makes them appear allies of Lukashenka whom the Kremlin has been attacking in recent weeks (www.newizv.ru/news/2010-07-30/130512/).
According to a declaration released by the Front, "Europe and the United States during the election campaign will conduct themselves quite passively while Russia 'as the date of the holding of presidential elections gets closer, will strengthen the information campaign against Lukashenka."
Aleksei Yanukevich, the head of the Party of the Popular Front, told the Moscow paper, that the Russian authorities may even go so far as to publicize information about the bank accounts of Minsk officials abroad, something that the US did not have when it "introduced sanctions" against Belarus.
The Moscow paper reported that Yanukevich believes that "Moscow is preparing its own protege for the post of Belarusian president." But, the Popular Front Party leader said, "a pro-Moscow candidate for us is just as unacceptable as Lukashenka," because such an individual would cost the country its independence whatever he did domestically.
According to Yanukevich, the Russians have worked out the following "scenario" for changing the powers that be in his country. First, after the vote, many will complain that the results have been falsified, especially given how angry people are about the economy. Then, people will protest, and Moscow "will use its ties inside the Belarusian nomenklatura."
In the elections, the Popular Front Party plans to run its deputy chairman Grigori Kostusev, although the party supports continued talks with other opposition groups to come up with a single opposition candidate. Those talks are not going well, but if they do succeed, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, head of the "For Freedom" movement, is expected to be the candidate.
Who the pro-Russian candidate might be is still unclear, "Novyye izvestiya" reported. But many in Minsk assume that this role will be played by Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet and opposition figure who lived for a few years in Norway but has since "returned to the Motherland." He supposedly is backed by many in the force structures and nomenklatura.
The situation that the Belarusian opposition finds itself in is extraordinarily difficult, all the more so because most analysts in the West do not recognize its nature. While the opposition despises Lukashenka and all his works, they are not prepared to sacrifice their country to Moscow just because the Russian powers that be currently oppose him.
That impossible situation may be exactly the one that some in Moscow may hope to put the pro-Western Belarusian opposition parties in, all the more so because it may have the effect of making these parties look pro-Lukashenka to the Belarusian electorate when in fact they are nothing of the kind.
But unless Western governments recognize this situation and see that the Belarusian opposition is animated by long-term patriotism rather than short-term political calculations, those countries are likely to be unwitting players in a game that will either allow Lukashenka to continue his dictatorial ways or Moscow to rein in Belarusian independence.
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org