Hands off Belarus

belarusOn 9 August Belarus went to the polls to decide which out of five candidates should be chosen as president. The announced winner was the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, with 80% of the vote. His nearest rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, attracted just 10% of the vote, whilst the other three trailed far behind.

Opposition activists accused former collective farm boss Lukashenko of rigging the election, as they have done routinely in every election since he was first voted in back in 1994. In the weeks preceding this most recent election the opposition worked themselves into a lather over the decision of the electoral commission to exclude from candidacy a number of oppositionists. These included the banker Viktor Babariko (arrested on 18 July on charges of tax evasion and money laundering), keyboard warrior Sergei Tikhanovsky (arrested on charges of obstructing elections) and Valery Tsepkalo (self-exiled since his candidacy was denied). Tsepkalo, no shrinking violet, announced his intention to do a world tour, holding press conferences in Moscow, Ukraine and the US to persuade everyone that the election (which hadn’t yet happened) was going to be rigged.

Tikhanovsky’s wife Svetlana stood as a candidate in his place. She stood on a single issue platform, promising if elected to hold new ‘clean’ elections. In reality, all the opposition candidates shared one simple common aim, the ousting of Lukashenko from the post which he has occupied since 1994, and opening the economy to domination by western imperialism. Tikhanovskaya was presented as a breath of fresh air, having had nil political record and coming across as just an ordinary wife and mum. She served as a handy poster girl for an opposition which all agreed about one thing: Lukashenko must go.

It was on Lukashenko’s watch that Belarus in 1999 signed up to a policy of moving towards an integrated Union State of Belarus and Russia. In the intervening years this has remained the theoretical direction of travel despite periodic tensions between the two countries, and the practical effects of this integration are visible in what the western media likes to describe as an old-fashioned Soviet-style economy. The fact is, however, that this way of doing things goes some way to answering the basic needs of workers, a consideration which at least in part explains Lukashenko’s enduring popularity at the polls.

Behind all the opposition talk about ending dictatorship and promoting freedom and democracy lies the real intention, to transform the country from its role as a defensive buffer against imperialist domination into a colonial outpost of monopoly capital, just like its unfortunate sister Ukraine. The opposition want Belarus to denounce the planned Union State and pull out of the CSTO defence union, leaving the country a prey to future NATO bullying. On the economic front, the opposition want to sell off state-owned agricultural land and break up the collective farms, giving a leg up to the kulaks and compromising the current ability of the country to feed its own people. State-owned industries are also anathema of the opposition, for whom economic planning is just a hindrance to the free play of private enterprise.

And, as with Ukraine’s Maidan counter-revolution, one has only to scratch the surface of talk about freedom and democracy to release the real stench of underlying fascism. The same bourgeois nationalist itch that impelled the Kiev reactionaries to deny equal language rights to Russophone citizens of the Ukraine and spark a civil war is likewise afflicting their soulmates in the Belarus opposition, who want to deny the Russian tongue equal status alongside Belarusian. No less disturbing has been the prominent display by anti-government protesters of the white-red-white flag so beloved of Nazi-collaborating nationalists, in preference to the green and red flag of Soviet history. Belarusian Soviet partisans remember with bitterness seeing the white-red-white flag floating aloft alongside Hitler’s banners. In Ukraine too we found this predilection among Maidan ‘freedom’ enthusiasts for the swastika.

Sadly the parallels with Ukraine do not end here. There the former democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014 by a fascist coup orchestrated by western imperialism. He had compromised his position by wavering over whether or not to sign up to a so-called ‘association agreement’ with the imperialist EU. At the last minute, he unexpectedly decided to postpone signing, perhaps in the hopes of securing a better deal by playing western imperialism off against Russia. If this was his game, he badly miscalculated. His tactical dithering just opened the door to the Maidan protest movement and the ensuing fascist coup.

Lukashenko is not the blundering despot he is portrayed to be in the imperialist media. On the contrary, he is a shrewd political leader with a strong grasp of the geopolitical realities which shape the choices Belarus must make if it is to survive and prosper. Russia, China and Turkey all broke ranks with the ‘international community’, congratulating the president on his re-election, with Xi Jinping in particular pledging to carry on improving bilateral ties. It will be remembered that last December the China Development Bank granted Belarus a loan of roughly $500 million. It is clearly in Minsk’s interests to keep all its trading options open.

However, it is of great importance that Belarus should never lose sight of who its real friends are in an unstable world, given its strategic location. Unfortunately even the level of political sophistication undoubtedly possessed by the current leadership may not be enough to avert the unpredictable consequences of trying to run with the hare and ride with the hounds.

One of the key economic relationships with Russia is to do with the oil industry. For a long time (and again this has Ukrainian echos) Belarus has enjoyed the supply from Russia of cheap oil, both for its own energy needs and also to be refined in Belarus and sold on. Recent changes in Russian taxation arrangements have reduced this effective subsidy, though Russian oil will still be supplied at below the world market rate.

Arguments about the price of oil triggered a temporary halt in deliveries in January. Although it all got sorted out by April, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had paid an official state visit to Minsk in March, and in May he announced with a flourish the departure of the first shipment of US crude oil, amounting to 80,000 tons. He bragged that “This competitive deal, by US energy trader United Energy Trading, with the assistance of US firm Getka and their Polish partner UNIMOT, strengthens Belarusian sovereignty and independence.” US imperialist respect for the sovereignty and independence of small countries is of course legendary. Belarus is also pressing on with building pipelines which will enable it to access crude oil from elsewhere, and is bringing in tankers with non-Russian cargoes, including a shipment from Saudi Arabia.

None of which necessarily need fundamentally undermine fraternal relations between Minsk and Moscow. Trade is trade, and Belarus must make its own mind up over which deals best serve the national interest.

More worrying is the hornets’ nest Lukashenko kicked over by his wild allegations about the 33 Russian private security employees intercepted at Minsk airport whilst waiting on a forward flight to Turkey. By claiming bizarrely that these men – openly togged up in military fatigues – were off on some cloak and dagger adventure to whip up chaos and dissent ahead of the election, the president only exposed himself to ridicule. There can be no doubt that foreign hands were active in the runup to the election and are redoubling their activity in its bloody aftermath – but not from the direction the re-elected president appeared to suggest.

Happily, a post-election briefing to the president from the Defence Ministry suggests that the president and the army are under no illusion about the real possibility of an external military threat being launched by imperialism, trying to take advantage of the domestic crisis to create another Ukraine or worse. The Defence Ministry reported that NATO exercises have been deployed in Poland, with over 500 US cavalry soldiers and 70 US armoured units having already pitched up in Dravsko-Pomorsk and another 1,500 troops expected soon. Meanwhile in Latvia a Canadian-led NATO battalion group has been deployed in Kadaga, NATO warplanes are sitting on an airfield in Lielvarde and there are three NATO bases established near the Belarus border. It is also reported that Lukashenko has discussed the situation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has been assured of a joint response to any external aggression.

The enthusiastic imperialist support for the attempts to unseat Lukashenko, and the dire consequences the success of such attempts would have for the Belorusian working class were explained by Henry Foy of the Financial Times in an extraordinarily frank article:

The strongman leader, who has ruled his post-Soviet state as if the Soviet Union never collapsed, has resisted western liberalisation efforts: state-run enterprises such as the Minsk tractor plant account for 70 per cent of the country’s $60bn economy.

“The decision for those big state-run businesses to rebel against him was a turning point in a wave of popular unrest that began this month with protests over Mr Lukashenko’s disputed election victory. But if he is ousted, the future of many of them will be thrown into doubt.

“While many of the businesses are outdated, inefficient and would probably require more cash to modernise than they would pay out in returns, others could be ripe for private investment if a different administration took charge.

“Belneftekhim, the sprawling state oil refiner, exports more than $7bn of petroleum products each year to some 70 countries, and is a critical part of the infrastructure that ensures the flow of crude from Russia to Europe. State-owned Belaruskali accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s production of potash, which is used to make fertiliser, and exports $2.75bn of it a year. Belaz is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of mining equipment and heavy-duty trucks, and the country is the world’s largest exporter of dairy products per capita” (‘Belarus’s skilled population will be a boon if its economy opens up’, 19 August 2020).

Such opportunities for imperialist profiteering! Get rid of all those workers eating up all the profits and keep going, on minimal staff, only those enterprises which provide monopoly returns! Mr Foy goes on to complain that unless the Belarusian government changes hands, Russian and Chinese investors will elbow western investors out of the way.

Hands off Belarus!