By Alan Crawford
Relations between Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Russia have deteriorated so far that the Kremlin is seeking to oust him, a Belarusian opposition leader said.
At least one Russian-backed candidate is standing against Lukashenko in presidential elections on Dec. 19, even though the electoral system means he has no chance of winning, Alexander Milinkevich said in an interview in Berlin. Russia will step up efforts to replace Lukashenko after the vote, probably resulting in his removal within the next 18 months, he said.
"The elections are only the beginning of the period of change," said Milinkevich, who won't run in this year's election after losing to Lukashenko in 2006. "The decisive period will be after the election," he said. "The status quo cannot last."
Russia's leadership has lost patience with Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 at the head of a regime dubbed by the U.S. "the last dictatorship in Europe." President Dmitry Medvedev said Oct. 3 that Lukashenko's election campaign targets Russia as an "external enemy." Lukashenko threatened to halt Russian oil and gas shipments to Europe this year and on Oct. 1 blasted "unscrupulous lies" about Belarus he said were flowing from the Russia media.
Russia is likely to try to force Lukashenko out of office before the 2012 Russian presidential elections, said Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
"The Kremlin is more determined than ever to end its unhappy marriage with the Belarusian ruler," Forbrig said in an interview. "Lukashenko drains Russian resources, via cheap oil and gas deliveries, but does not deliver on any of Russia's political demands. He has become an embarrassment for the Moscow leadership."
Relations between Lukashenko, 56, and his Russian neighbors are "irreversibly" damaged, said Milinkevich, who advocates a pro-European stance for an independent Belarus that also espouses "partnership relations" with Russia.
"Moscow most probably now feels it's very important that there's another president instead of Lukashenko who would be ready or open to put the country fully under Russian control," halting any move toward Europe, Milinkevich said.
Belarus, an ex-Soviet republic of 10 million that borders Russia and three European Union states, has traditionally looked east to Russia rather than west to Europe. While the rhetoric has heated up between Lukashenko and the Kremlin, Belarus and Russia are members of a customs union with Kazakhstan and plan to create a common economic space in 2012. Belarus turned to Russia and the International Monetary Fund to help rescue its economy in 2009.
Russia and Belarus have been partners since the mid-1990s in a "union state" with a Parliamentary Assembly and Supreme State Council that includes Medvedev and Lukashenko. Day-to-day affairs are handled by a Permanent Council headed by Pavel Borodin, a former Kremlin property chief.
Russia sees in the election an opportunity to exert its influence, according to Milinkevich. "Lukashenko will once again appoint himself," and Moscow may respond by refusing to recognize the election for the first time, Milinkevich said. It will probably follow through on a threat to introduce market prices for gas and oil that transits through Belarus, he said.
Belarus gets Russian oil at a 36 percent discount to Russia's export duties, a gap Lukashenko is able to exploit by selling oil at higher rates to Western Europe. The subsidy is worth $4.8 billion this year, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in March.
"Lukashenko is in a difficult situation, a dilemma," Milinkevich said. "Either he fights with Russia" for cheap oil and gas, "or he starts to introduce small steps of liberalization hoping on economic support from the West. Russia has a lot of instruments to try to remove Lukashenko."
Milinkevich, who said he's campaigning on behalf of several pro-democracy candidates, pulled out of the running after securing the requisite 100,000 signatures, citing his inability to unite the opposition or secure the right to appoint an electoral observer from his camp to be present at the ballot. He ran as the opposition's unity candidate in 2006.
Yet he said he's more optimistic now than at the last election in 2006 that change is coming.
"I don't believe that a dictator can become a democrat," Milinkevich said. "But for us it's a good situation, because if you take reforms or democratization it's positive for us. For the regime there's no easy or good solution."
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