Chinese model in a European country
Belarus has changed a lot in 15 years in spite of (some say: thanks to) the dictatorship. Its economy has grown at twice the rate of neighbouring Ukraine. This is a Chinese, or rather a Singaporean model. Lukashenko is convinced that it is the one best suited to the Belarusian mentality and geopolitical situation.
Not everyone agrees with him. A parallel society has grown up. Rock music, samizdat and discussion clubs are all flourishing.
In order to ride this wave, Lukashenko is ready to commandeer what used to be the opposition's seditious slogan "For Freedom." "The principle that everything not expressly banned will be legal in this country:" he writes in the short version of his election manifesto.
Ahead of his fourth term in office, Lukashenko is promising prosperity, and a move towards European standards. Good-bye USSR! Gone are the dreams of "reviving the Great Country."
Lukashenko's manifesto sets some populist, yet realistic goals. "Belarus must become one of the top 50 countries with the highest human development index," he writes.
Lukashenko assures us that "private property will be developed." This is the same Lukashenko who ten years ago called private businessmen "lousy fleas" and described the country's system as "market socialism." He is now proudly announcing that "Belarus has become one of the top four reformers in the world, in order to facilitate the running of businesses."
Lukashenko 1.0 believed he could conquer the Russian throne. Lukashenko 2.0 attempted to thwart a "colored" revolution at any cost. Lukashenko 3.0 wants to wind up among the world's Top 30 business-friendly countries, while Lukashenko 4.0 is promising to introduce electronic government and judicial reform.
Lukashenko, a born populist, never fails to follow public opinion. In 1995, 70% of the population were in favour of reviving the USSR, but the figure is hardly 10% now: three times less than in Ukraine.
"Daddy" Lukashenko is no longer a father of nations, nor a Stalin. He is the father of an independent nation. Lukashenko demands just one thing in exchange for economic freedom: don't touch my authority.
The opposition's violations
"The parliament and president were never elected undemocratically in our country," Lukashenko stated bluntly to the Polish and German foreign ministers. "I've already said it openly: close your eyes to all the violations committed by the opposition," Lukashenko added.
It's true, these elections will be no worse than previous ones. The percentage of opposition members included in electoral commissions is 0.25%.
There are no changes in the media either. Opposition candidates are being allowed on television as talking heads, but only as often as stipulated by the liberalised electoral code, and no more.
"The opposition is necessary because the West wants it," says Lukashenko for the internal audience. The state officials conclude: "Don't you dare rock the boat!"
The man in the Belarusian street recalls how the Soviet NEP [New Economic Policy] was replaced by a wave of repression.
How to break through the concrete
The long-term leader of the Belarusian opposition, Aleksandr Milinkevich, refused to run as a candidate, saying "I do not wish to take part in a show controlled entirely by one director."
This boycott was seen as unproductive, however, and so the liberal-conservative camp has put forward its own candidates, albeit lesser-known ones. Neither the conservative Ryhor Kastusiou, nor the Christian Democrat Vitaly Rymasheuski, nor the liberal Yaraslau Ramanchuk have even been leaders of their own parties.
Tell The Truth
And there is a third force at work - the Tell The Truth campaign. "Tell the truth, where's the money coming from?" the opposition jokes.
Lukashenko has also stated that "Uladzimir Niaklayeu and Andrei Sannikau are people who are being financed by Russia today."
At the helm of the Tell The Truth campaign is a man who would seemingly have very little chance of success with the Kremlin: Uladzimir Niaklayeu, a former TV presenter, Belarusian-language poet, and author of an erotic novel.
Niaklayeu and Sannikau are in favour of improving relations with Russia. Lukashenko's manifesto does not even mention Russia or integration with it.
Russia and the West have changed places
"Russia and the West have changed places for these elections," says Vitaly Silitsky, director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.
The strongest signal came from Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite. She is supposed to have said "Lukashenko is a guarantor of economic and political stability, as well as independence" at a closed meeting with EU ambassadors.
Belarusian opposition websites got emotional following Grybauskaite's statement: "Europe's political prostitution!" fumed the commentators.
Civil society leaders fear being betrayed by the West. They are afraid of being left alone with authoritarianism, forgotten and disregarded.
Previously, Moscow called Lukashenko a son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch. Now, Polish and Lithuanian diplomats in Minsk are vying with each other to question local experts: is Lukashenko ready to function within a guided democracy? Is he prepared to maintain power while toeing the line?
"Recognition or non-recognition of the elections should be defined not by the [geopolitical] calculations, but only by the elections themselves," says Silitsky, a political scientist.
He's afraid of Russia
Ten years ago, Belarus was the most pro-Russian and one of the least democratic countries of the former USSR. That is no longer the case today.
Therefore, it is an erroneous cliche to think that no Western policies (either isolationist or engage) have been successful in Belarus. On the contrary, the West has shown the right amount of tenacity and flexibility at the right time.
In the past, many saw [Lukashenko] as an irrational dictator; a Caligula with a hockey-stick. Lukashenko has proved that he is capable of change.
If oil and gas will pass Belarus by as they flow through the NordStream and BTS-2 pipelines (which will happen as early as 2012), economic evolution will lead Lukashenko even further towards the West.
So far, political progress is impossible. The best ways to bolster Belarusian independence are economic cooperation, support for Belarusian culture and civil society, and opening up the borders for Belarusian citizens.
The first dictator in Europe
In his manifesto, Lukashenko mentions liberalisation for business initiatives: "Everything not expressly banned will be legal." But the manifesto says nothing about national identity or the Belarusian language, not to mention democracy. He wants the West to accept him just the way he is.
Condoleezza Rice once called him "the last dictator in Europe." Now he wishes to become the first dictator in Europe to have gained tacit acceptance. He is willing to be the West's client, as long as they do not demand too much of him.
Translation: Andrey Dynko