Sell­ing air: What un­der­mines the Lukashenka regime in Be­larus

What un­der­mines the Lukashenka regime

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Syarhey Pul­sha

When some­thing ex­tremely un­usual hap­pens, Belarusians say, "Some­thing has died in the woods". In the evening on Septem­ber 11, some­thing very big must have passed away in the Bi­ałowieża For­est. Ac­cord­ing to elec­tion re­sults, two mem­bers of the op­po­si­tion made it into the lower house of par­lia­ment – the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. One is deputy head of the Be­laru­sian Lan­guage So­ci­ety, Alena Anisim, the other is Hanna Kana­p­atska, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of one of the lead­ing anti-govern­ment po­lit­i­cal forces,the United Civic Party.


There has been no op­po­si­tion in the par­lia­ment of the “blue-eyed repub­lic”[a nick­name given thanks to its large num­ber of lakes and rivers] since 2004, 12 years ago. The last more or less op­po­si­tional Peo­ple's Rep­re­sen­ta­tives were elected in 2000, their term of of­fice end­ing four years later.

And it ended with a bang: three MPs an­nounced a hunger strike in protest against Alyak­sandr Lukashenka's in­ten­tion to hold a ref­er­en­dum on his right to run for the pres­i­dency as many times as he wanted (un­til 2004, pres­i­den­tial pow­ers were lim­ited to two terms). Their ac­tions did not bring any re­sults and Batka ("Fa­ther", a nick­name for Lukashenka – Ed.) still held his ref­er­en­dum, but the way that the deputies left par­lia­ment was a nice ges­ture. Since then, no mem­bers of op­po­si­tion have been al­lowed into the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Un­til now.

How­ever, no one doubts that these new dis­si­dents were not elected, but ap­pointed. Elec­tions to the Be­laru­sian Par­lia­ment have not been recog­nised as free, fair, trans­par­ent and in ac­cor­dance with OSCE stan­dards since 1996, when Lukashenka dis­solved the 13thcon­vo­ca­tion of the Supreme Soviet and in­stead cre­ated a bi­cam­eral struc­ture for the leg­isla­tive branch. This par­lia­men­tary cam­paign is un­likely to have been an ex­cep­tion.

Ev­ery­one is ac­cus­tomed to the fact that West­ern ob­servers from the OSCE Of­fice for Demo­cratic In­sti­tu­tions and Hu­man Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Par­lia­men­tary As­sem­bly and the Coun­cil of Europe's sim­i­lar struc­ture first note "progress" af­ter any elec­tions in any coun­try, and then pro­ceed to crit­i­cism. The head of the OSCE Short-Term Ob­ser­va­tion Mis­sion, Kent Härst­edt, did not hide his dis­ap­point­ment at a post-elec­tion press con­fer­ence. Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial vote in 2015, the OSCE re­leased a list of rec­om­men­da­tions for Be­laru­sian au­thor­i­ties re­gard­ing what should be im­proved in the elec­toral process. None of them were fully im­ple­mented. The heads of the OSCE PA and PACE ob­ser­va­tion mis­sions agreed with Härst­edt and reeled off a long list of Be­laru­sian elec­toral flaws: from the opaque method in which elec­toral com­mis­sions were formed to the way votes were counted, which was kept se­cret even from com­mis­sion­ers. So why did Lukashenka let two op­po­si­tion MPs into par­lia­ment?

It is all quite sim­ple. As renowned Be­laru­sian writer Vik­tar Martsi­novich wrote on his Face­book page, "The eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion is such that there is not enough money for a com­plete ab­sence of the op­po­si­tion in par­lia­ment."


Over the past two years, Belarusians have fully ex­pe­ri­enced the eco­nomic cri­sis pro­voked by Rus­sia's slump and cheap oil. It is no se­cret that the lo­cal "eco­nomic mir­a­cle" was re­liant on pro­cess­ing cheap Rus­sian "black gold" and end­less fi­nan­cial sub­si­dies and in­vest­ments from Moscow. Even prior to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in 2015, many re­mem­bered that Lukashenka had promised monthly wages equiv­a­lent to US $1,000 by this date. In fact, the av­er­age was barely $500 – the level promised for 2010.

To­day, a monthly salary equiv­a­lent to US $500 is con­sid­ered ex­tremely high. The ma­jor­ity earn US $200.

An ex­pe­ri­enced Ukrainian reader will say "Ha! Our whole coun­try lives on two hun­dred a month!" In­deed, this is noth­ing new for Ukraini­ans. But their prices can­not be com­pared to Be­laru­sian ones: the lat­ter are twice as high. A sim­ple ex­am­ple: last week, I bought a bot­tle of Shus­tov co­gnac in Ch­erni­hiv for $4 (84 hryv­nias). In Minsk, the lo­cal ver­sion of the same prod­uct costs more than $7.

En­trepreneurs from Ch­erni­hiv that pro­duce sou­venirs pre­vi­ously found suc­cess trad­ing at the Slavic Bazaar fes­ti­val in Vitebsk. Even last year they brought two to three thou­sand dol­lars each home from there. This year, they sold US $300 worth of goods, barely com­pen­sat­ing their travel costs. They com­plained about the de­cline in Belarusians' pur­chas­ing power and were as­ton­ished by the prices. "How do you live here?" they asked lo­cals in as­ton­ish­ment.

The record de­cline in Belarusians' liv­ing stan­dards is also ex­plained by the fact that al­most all of the coun­try's in­dus­try is tai­lored to sup­ply­ing Rus­sia. It is our main trad­ing part­ner. Rus­sia ac­counts for more Be­laru­sian ex­ports than the en­tire Euro­pean Union. How­ever, oil prices have crip­pled the Rus­sian cus­tomers of Be­laru­sian prod­ucts. Last year, trade turnover be­tween Be­larus and Rus­sia de­creased by a third! Mean­ing that Rus­sians are sim­ply not buy­ing what their im­me­di­ate west­ern neigh-


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