Oil deal boosts Lukashenko election hopes

By Jan Cienski in Warsaw

Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator, has clung to power in Belarus since 1994 by using a mixture of force and economic stability, and after presidential elections on Sunday his rule is likely to continue.

Any doubts about Mr Lukashenko's staying power evaporated last week when his powerful Russian neighbour renewed its embrace with a deal to supply the former Soviet republic with duty-free crude oil in return for agreeing to a closer economic union.

Mr Lukashenko has never been seriously threatened by a fractured and barely tolerated opposition.

"He would have always been the leading candidate, even had the Russian deal not taken place but now his re-election is much smoother," said David Marples, a professor at the University of Alberta who studies Belarus. "I think the result is pretty well preordained and I expect him to get 70-80 per cent of the vote."

But the 56-year-old strongman's relationship with Russia has been tested over the past year.

Russia decided to end duty-free exports of oil to Belarus in January, setting off months of tension, and prompting Mr Lukashenko to turn for help to Venezuela in a quixotic effort to reduce his country's reliance on Russia. Frustrated with Mr Lukashenko's unreliability, Russia unleashed a series of media attacks - giving the opposition hope that Moscow might have tired of him.

The European Union had also hoped Moscow's anger with Mr Lukashenko would open the way for free elections.

"Belarusian society and particularly its authorities have a choice to make - either remain on the path of self-isolation or to have an honest election and then reap the benefits of closer collaboration with the EU," Radoslaw Sikorski, Polish foreign minister, told the Financial Times.

However, the oil agreement has reflected a changed Russian tone.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister who has an obvious personal antipathy for Mr Lukashenko, admitted this week that there had been "sparks" between the two countries in the past. But he noted approvingly that the "Belarusian leadership has taken a clear course towards integration with Russia".

The obvious shift in Moscow's sympathies has deflated the opposition's nine candidates running against Mr Lukashenko.

"It is clear that Russia is supporting Lukashenko, which has dramatically changed the election," said Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet whom opinion polls have put in second place behind Mr Lukashenko.

Under pressure from the EU and squeezed by the economic crisis, Mr Lukashenko has lightened his touch in recent years. In the 1990s, opposition activists disappeared - now they face harassment and economic sanctions.

Although the opposition did have some access to public television, Mr Lukashenko did not bother showing up for a candidates' debate this month. His loyalists also remain in charge of the vote count, which has produced allegations of widespread fraud in the past.

Mr Lukashenko is being more careful because his country's model of "market socialism" has run into trouble in spite of providing growth and stability for more than a decade. Unlike its neighbours, Belarus has never undertaken far-reaching economic reforms but the ending of Russian energy subsidies has put enormous strain on the country's inefficient state-dominated industry.

Belarus was rescued last year, thanks partly to the International Monetary Fund, and this year the economy is expected to grow 7 per cent. But rapid credit expansion is fuelling inflation, and public debt is rising steeply, doubling to 30 per cent of gross domestic product in only two years - not helped by pre-election wage and pension increases.

The key moment for the elections will not be the outcome but whether the opposition succeeds in drawing a large crowd of protesters on Sunday evening.

"If Russia had not changed its opinion, I think we would have had enough people to shake him - now I'm not sure," said Mr Neklyayev.


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