Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe

Belarus: Background and U.S. Policy Concerns *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe

Belarus: Background and U.S. Policy Concerns *

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko snuffed out Belarus's modest progress toward democracy and a free market economy and created an authoritarian regime shortly after being elected as president in 1994. His regime is in rhetoric and policies a throwback to the Soviet era. Those advocating a stronger U.S. role in trying to bring democratic change to Belarus say that the country is important to the United States because Belarus is an obstacle to the U.S. goal of making Europe "whole and free." Another concern is Belarus's support for pariah regimes, including through arms sales.

In 2008, the United States and European Union changed tactics in their policy toward Belarus. They moved to suspend some sanctions against the regime in exchange for what were, at best, very modest improvements on human rights issues. Analysts have attributed the policy shift, in which the EU played the leading role, to a variety of factors, including concerns about Russia's increasing assertiveness in its relations with neighboring countries, especially after Russia's military assault on Georgia in August 2008. However, after Lukashenko's brutal repression of the opposition after fraudulent presidential elections on December 19, 2010, the EU and United States have imposed strengthened sanctions against key Belarusian leaders.

POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC SITUATION

Lukashenko was first elected as President of Belarus in 1994 on a populist, anti-corruption platform. He dominates the Belarusian political scene, controlling the parliament, government, security services, and judiciary through a large presidential administration and substantial extra- budgetary resources. He has reduced potential threats from within his regime by frequently removing or transferring officials at all levels, often claiming they are incompetent or corrupt. Former regime figures who move into opposition are singled out for particularly harsh punishment. His tight control over an unreformed economy has prevented the rise of powerful "oligarchs," as occurred in Ukraine and Russia. The Lukashenko regime also controls almost all of the media, which it uses to burnish Lukashenko's image and attack real and imagined adversaries. Lukashenko is known for his political unpredictability and for making rambling and rhetorically colorful public statements.

Opposition groups and leaders in Belarus have so far posed little threat to the Lukashenko regime. The opposition's weakness is in part due to the regime's repression, but divisions over ideology and the conflicting personal ambitions of its leaders have also been factors. Lukashenko also appears to have succeeded in convincing some Belarusians, especially in the countryside, that his leadership has provided them with stable (if very modest) living standards and public order, in contrast to the vast disparities in wealth and rampant crime prevalent in neighboring Russia.

The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights for 2009 judged Belarus's human rights record to be "very poor." It says the government has harassed, arrested, and beaten opposition figures. The regime has forced the closure of independent media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) dealing with political issues and human rights. The regime sharply restricts activities of independent trade unions and some religious groups.

Belarus held its most recent presidential elections in December 2010. According to monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the elections failed to meet international standards for free and fair elections. The observers noted a few positive trends, including limited but uncensored television airtime for opposition candidates. However, the observers also detailed serious shortcomings in the vote. The government used its administrative resources to support Lukashenko's candidacy and broadcast media (entirely state-owned) focused overwhelmingly on positive coverage of Lukashenko. …

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