A Dark-Horse Victor in Belarus's Balloting
THE West hasn't yet digested the results of the presidential elections in Belarus, a small country situated in the heart of Europe and one of four ex-Soviet republics with nuclear weapons.
Everybody in Belarus and abroad was nearly certain that the country's first elected president would be Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, who had been in power since 1990 and who was supported by the old-guard majority in parliament.
The parliamentarians even drafted a new constitution in a way that gave a ``green light'' to Mr. Kebich and hope to the old ``nomenklatura'' forces that they could hold onto power for at least another five years.
But the socioeconomic situation in Belarus has been deteriorating, especially since the beginning of the year. Compared with the first six months of last year, production has dropped by more than 50 percent. Inflation is galloping with monthly rates of 40 to 50 percent. Unemployment mounts.
Instead of moving toward economic reforms, members of the Kebich government were trying to ``improve'' their own well-being - which led parliament member Alexander Lukashenko to accuse some 70 top government officials of corruption last fall - while creating an economic union with Russia, which they thought would help solve most of Belarus's economic problems.
This scheme didn't work. Belarussians, disillusioned and disenchanted with the policies of the old government and deeply dissatisfied with a drop in the standard of living, voted for Mr. Lukashenko. His election campaign looked like a hurricane: He promised to fire the entire government and send many high-ranking officials to jail for corruption.
Lukashenko's victory surprised Moscow. From the start of the campaign, Russian officials were calling Minsk and asking Kebich, ``How can we help you, Slava?'' Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin came to Minsk on July 2 and 3 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Belarus's liberation from the Nazis, to support Kebich. Lukashenko sought a meeting with Chernomyrdin, but all he got was a brief conversation with the Russian prime minister during a wreath-laying ceremony. The Russian leadership refused to believe in the possibility of an outsider coming to power in Belarus - even after the first round of elections, in which Lukashenko received 45 percent of the vote and Kebich received 17 percent.
In a second round on July 10, Lukashenko rolled to an astonishing victory, receiving more than 80 percent of the vote. Kebich got only 14 percent.
``This was a typical case of the rejection of a government's policy in a crisis situation. People were voting more against Kebich than for Lukashenko,'' said Zyanon Paznyak, leader of the Belarussian Popular Front and another presidential candidate, speaking by telephone from Minsk. ``I can predict a continuation of the collapse.''
According to Mr. Paznyak, a new Komosomol (Communist League of Youth) nomenklatura is trying to replace the old communist nomenklatura. He is probably referring to the fact that Lukashenko was leader of a chapter of the Komosomol from 1977 to '78 in Mogilev, a regional center in Belarus, and a secretary of the Communist Party committee of the Lenin collective farm in Mogilev region from 1985 to '87. Since 1987 Lukashenko has been director of the state farm. Real fame came to Lukashenko at the end of 1993, when he was appointed chairman of the parliament's anticorruption commission.
The struggle against corruption was essentially the only card he played during the presidential race, although it was difficult to imagine how he was going to defeat ``corrupt government officials'' who were linked by thousands of threads during the years of Communist rule. Another point in his program was economic and political union with Russia.
This point of Lukashenko's program may find favor in Moscow. Russia wants to keep Belarus in its orbit because of its geographic and strategic position and a big Russian military contingent on Belarussian soil. But Russia's government so far has not been very enthusiastic about Lukashenko's victory. The problem is that he is unknown and unpredictable. Given that Lukashenko is not backed by any political party and has little support among the old apparatchiks, his position in negotiations with Russia may be weak and vulnerable. Belarus may find itself in the sphere of Russia's influence - a point that may not disturb Moscow or Minsk, but may trouble the West.
All other points in his program are vague and inconclusive. In his program Lukashenko promised to reintroduce state control over prices and to initiate a ``regime of direct economic management of state enterprises.'' He promised to fire all directors who have not increased production by the end of the year.
``We have to resume production and return people to their jobs; otherwise the social outburst will be so powerful that ... such mercurial leaders will come to power that both Americans and Russians will feel very bad. Now the unemployment rate in Belorussia is about 50 percent. So our program today is to crank up production at any cost.''
How does Lukashenko expect to resume production when most enterprises work only three or four days a week because they cannot afford the gas or electricity they need to operate? An even bigger problem is the cost of production of Belarussian goods. Russia has been selling oil and gas to Belarus at prices that are four or five times higher than the prices of oil and gas in Russia itself. That automatically makes Belarussian goods uncompetitive in the Russian market, despite their higher quality.
His incoherent economic program is based on the administrative methods of the Soviet leaders. And Lukashenko has no incentive for economic reforms. Unlike Ukraine, which is receiving $700 million in economic assistance from the United States and was promised another $4 billion over two years at the Group of Seven summit if it pursues economic reforms, Belarus has received little attention, even though proportionately (by population) it should receive $1 billion.
This leaves Lukashenko only one way out: a close economic, political, and possibly military union with Russia in exchange for Russian assistance in overcoming Belarus's economic difficulties. Lukashenko hopes to negotiate the best conditions for Belarus, though he has no experience in either domestic or international politics. During most of his career he has managed collective farms.
However, Lukashenko has in his team a few professionals, including lawyers and economists, some of whom may determine policy behind Lukashenko's back. In any case, he will have to compromise with both the existing Belarussian political establishment over power-sharing at home and with Russian leaders in negotiations over a planned monetary union between Russia and Belarus.
If he doesn't achieve these goals, his presidency may bring more instability to a country already poised on the edge of economic collapse. In that case, despite all the differences between them, Lukashenko may follow the route of the former Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who also gained a thunderous electoral victory but later was forced to resign by the old guard.
Whatever happens in Belarus, the West must understand that a reemergence of the former Soviet Union cannot be removed from the agenda. And if the West wants to avoid such a development, it should genuinely support economic growth in the new independent states of Eastern Europe, stop defining the former Soviet republics as the periphery of Russia, and see this support as necessary to creating a united and more secure Europe. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.