The result of the presidential election in Belarus is hardly in doubt. Alexander Lukashenko will certainly serve a fourth term. It’s unlikely, though, that this time the result will be attended by a storm of controversy in the west.
In 2006 President Lukashenko’s victory sparked protests in Minsk, aimed at overturning the result. Demonstrators hoped to replicate the much vaunted ’Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine and the media in the EU and the US responded with a great deal of criticism of ’Europe’s last dictator’.
Times have changed. Lukashenko, often portrayed as a Russian patsy, no longer enjoys a warm relationship with the Kremlin. In fact over the last term, the Belarusian President has devoted much energy to playing footsy with the EU, in order to play it off against Russia.
That is turning out to be a game of rapidly diminishing rewards. The European Union no longer has a surplus of money with which to woo countries at its borders and Moscow’s incentive to heavily subsidise the Belarusian economy is evaporating.
Still, Lukashenko is making an international public relations push for this election. It's unlikely to be hailed for its freedom or fairness, but OSCE will monitor the results and a degree of competition has been allowed.
For anyone it suits to be selective about their criticisms, that will be a sufficient fig leaf. The President is certainly a clever operator.
His attempts at state building since assuming the Presidency have been masterful. Whereas Belarusian nationalists attempted to jettison all attachments to Moscow and the Soviet Union, Lukashenko fostered the notion of a nation inseparably linked to Russia and its Soviet past.
The idea of a single ‘Union State’, spanning Belarus and Russia, underwrote the President’s new Belarus, but he knew that the balance of power in such a state would heavily favour Russia. When Moscow pushed too hard for Union, Lukashenko applied the brakes. Thus far he has banked the economic benefits without being swallowed up.
It was his judgement that there was no appetite in Belarus for a nationalist rewrite of the Belarusian identity. He was right. His version, which could look like a bizarre hybrid from the outside, made sense of Belarus’ status as an independent state which was nevertheless inseparable from a larger cultural whole.
For a successful opposition to emerge in Belarus, it needs to be similarly realistic about the Belarusian identity and jettison wild nationalist fantasies. That doesn’t appear to be the case for the time being. So the Lukashenko regime, with all its flaws, won't face a credible challenge.