Election violence set to push Minsk back towards Moscow

by Tom Washington

Violent crackdowns in Minsk following presidential elections in Belarus may have blown Alexander Lukashenko's big chance of moving closer to Europe.

EU observers have given a thumbs-down to Sunday's poll, which saw Lukashenko romp home with 79.67 per cent of the vote.

And that could mean an end to efforts to cosy up to Brussels and a swift effort to mend fences with Moscow after a year of squabbles between the two neighbours.

Foreign dependence

Belarus has been hailed as an economic miracle, at least in comparison with similar CIS states.

But that all depends on shrewd negotiations and a balancing act between east and west.

After Europe expressed concern over the elections, experts warn Lukashenko needs to remain in someone's good books.

"He needs to pay close attention to someone, the Belarusian economy is something of a miracle when you compare it to its [former soviet republic] neighbours, such as Moldova. That's all of foreign provenance," Tomas Valusek from the Centre for European Reform told The Moscow News.

Limited progress

International observers from the OSCE have condemned the presidential vote, "Belarus is on the right track but her goal is still far away," Georg Schirmbeck, German MP, told Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung on Monday.

He said that although there was progress made on previous elections the latest one was neither free nor fair.

And the scenes of riot police violently dispersing protests in Minsk after opposition groups took to the streets to cry foul have done little to endear Belarus to the west.

The enemy within

Despite Lukashenko's authoritarian stance, he may have been undermined by pro-Russian forces in the security services.

"Lukashenko had everything on his side. He has the deal with Russia and the EU hinted that if there were improvements they would recognise the elections, which it seemed it would do until the election day," Jana Kobzova of the European Council of Foreign Relations told The Moscow News.

But she added that Sunday night's brutal crackdown highlighted the lack of clear direction in the corridors of power.

"One side wanted liberalisation and relations with Europe, and the security services were not happy about this. And it was the security services who carried out the attacks," she said by telephone.

"Lukashenko had all the cards," she said. "And this shows you that not everyone is really happy with this closer attention to the EU.

"It is now really difficult for Europe to say that nothing happened and that the elections were cleaner."

Back to Moscow

Russian handouts have amounted to $50 billion in the last 10 years, Valusek says, citing Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

"The Belarusian economy has always survived on subsidies, so if Lukashenko is to maintain his social contract, which requires low levels of unemployment and relatively generous welfare, he will have to turn to someone."

That someone looks likely to be Russia.

"He has effectively closed off the European option for now and will have to rely on his relationship with Russia. The economy is going to need more help. The inference I can draw from this is that he will have to turn to Russia, or possibly other sources, like the Chinese," predicted Valusek.


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