Belarus juggles lure of west and reliance on east

By Jan Cienski in Minsk

When tens of thousands of outraged Belarusians took to the streets of Minsk to demand new and fair presidential elections, the revolutionary banner that many of them chose to wave as they marched was the European Union's blue flag with gold stars - with "Belarus" superimposed in the middle.

"We want to be a civilised country - we just want to be normal," said Valentina, a middle-aged lawyer, moments before President Alexander Lukashenko's riot police attacked the crowd rallying in front of the parliament building, beating many and arresting hundreds.

Most of the detained have been tried and sentenced to 10-15 days in jail, while the remainder, including at least five of the nine opposition presidential candidates are still under arrest, provoking a growing chorus of international outrage.

Mr Lukashenko's crackdown comes after an election in which he won almost 80 per cent of the vote. But its conduct has been condemned by international observers and has made the prospect of Belarus moving towards the EU even more distant.

Instead, Mr Lukashenko has few options but to move closer to Russia.

Had Belarusians chosen differently when they first elected Mr Lukashenko in 1994, there is little to suggest that the country would not now already either be in the EU or close to joining. With per capita gross domestic product slightly above $5,000, Belarus is only a little poorer than Serbia, which is in accession talks with the EU, and Bulgaria, which joined the bloc in 2007.

Part of the problem is that Belarus - which has existed as a state only since the collapse of the Soviet Union - has one of the weakest senses of national identity in Europe. It is stranded between the intellectual and material attractions of the EU and emotional and historical ties with Russia.

Another issue is that Belarus has avoided the wrenching change experienced by the rest of the region. Buoyed by subsidised energy from Russia, the state continues to play a dominant role in the economy. For many years the deal produced stability and growth - GDP expanded by 10.1 per cent in 2008.

However, Russia's increasing exasperation with Mr Lukashenko, combined with its desire to stop subsidising its former empire, has in recent years seen Moscow increase prices for gas and end the duty-free export of crude.

Combined with the global crisis, which saw demand for Belarusian exports such as trucks and tractors wither, the economy eked out 0.2 per cent growth last year, before rebounding to 7 per cent in 2010, in large part owing to monetary and fiscal loosening.

With public debt doubling to 30 per cent of GDP over the past two years and the trade deficit rising steeply, the present course looks unsustainable - even with Russia's resumption of duty-free crude exports in 2011. Having driven his economy into a dead end, Mr Lukashenko is trying to bring in some reforms, proposing the sale of some state companies and loosening controls, but the effect so far has been marginal.

Rejected by the west because of its autocratic ruler, Belarus can only look to Russia. Those EU flags will have to wait for many years before being put to official use.


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