What was the head of the Russian Olympic committee up to when he criticised the IOC for not inviting Belarus’ president to the Games in London? Alexander Zhukov had no hope of changing the IOC’s mind, and Lukashenko is not the sort of person to invite to a dinner at Buckingham Palace or any other Olympic event. He is a dictator who has dominated the former Soviet Republic of Belarus since 1994.
Zhukov must have been promoting Russia’s interests in Belarus. There are two. The major economic interest is energy supply, including control over a significant gas pipeline running through Belarus to the West (though it is less important now that there is a pipeline running direct to Germany under the Baltic) and two oil refineries which by a quirk of Soviet planning were built in Belarus and are supplied through pipelines from Russia. The rest of Belarus’ economy (one-thirtieth the size of Russia’s) is grossly inefficient, badly in need of investment, renovation and innovation, and something of a liability. Belarus is, however, one of the few producers of potash in the world, and its potash industry would attract investors if there were any genuine prospect of reform.
Russia’s political preoccupation with Belarus is a hangover from Tsarist, Soviet and Cold War days. Russians still see Belarus as part of their natural homeland: a back yard, a barrier against an aggressive NATO poised in former buffer States in the Baltic and Poland.
It seems Russia is not only prepared to subsidise Lukashenko’s economy in return for economic and political peace of mind but is also losing interest in moving toward a decentralised post-Soviet democracy, increasingly admiring Lukashenko’s more familiar, backward-looking set-up.
The result? Lukashenko is able to preserve the political and economic straitjacket which is today’s Belarus: an executive presidency with himself at the head of every political and social structure, taking all major decisions and making all significant appointments. The rigid top-down structure is maintained by State-controlled media, rigged elections, a subservient judiciary and a command economy with a small, oppressed private sector. The opposition is cowed, harassed, jailed and even ‘disappeared’, too weak to have an impact. He keeps everyone in line through his ferocious secret police, still known as the KGB.
Lukashenko is young (58 this year), fit and very much in control. He intends to be in power for life. Moreover, the widespread suspicion that he was involved in the disappearance of three political opponents in 1999-2000 means he is most unlikely to step down even if his economy collapsed; he might lose more than his job if he did.
Zhukov just wants to send a signal to Belarus and the West that Russia prefers Lukashenko to any alternative leader and is not interested in exerting pressure to force him out. He is also softening the blow to Lukashenko’s pride, knowing that he loses face from the IOC’s rejection. A fanatical sportsman and a keen ice hockey player as well as a supremely conceited leader, Lukashenko desperately wants recognition.
There is not much the West can do to help Belarus apart from express our horror, but targeted sanctions would put pressure on Lukashenko and we should think about some good old-fashioned diplomacy aimed at trying to move Russia and others away from support for his heartless regime. We should take every opportunity to make clear that Lukashenko is not legitimate in Belarus and should step down, and that until he does he is not welcome at any international event.