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Sid Walker

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Interesting counter-spin by Eric Walberg in Al Ahram.

Is Belarus "a living reminder of what a successful perestroika could have produced"?

Belarus: bucking the tide

Europes lone populist muddies the Eurowaters, says Eric Walberg

The post-Soviet New World Order that the West is trying to impose not only in Iraq, but around the world, is its version of democracy, meaning elections, preferably with short terms making for weak presidents, the whole process tightly controlled and monitored by a "free" media (read: privately controlled) and Western NGOs. It's a very expensive racket -- the winner is generally the best-funded and most widely advertised in the "free" media.

Occasionally a populist -- maybe a movie star such as Joseph Estrada in Philippines gets over all the hurdles, but such attempts to buck the tide are usually easily quashed -- Estrada was "replaced" by his vice-president and darling of business Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. This is really rule by big business, and presumes that what's good for General Motors is good for Joe Public. With the spectre of communism no longer haunting Europe, governments and their patrons sleep soundly, knowing that no matter what party wins, little will change. The fine tuning of one set of businessmen might be slightly modified by another set, but with no radical changes in sight.

Where are the charismatic leaders today? For the most part, gone are the days of the real democrats -- leaders like Gamal Abdel-Nasser or Kwame Nkrumah, for whom democracy meant giving real hope to the Joe Publics, real input in the form of nation-building and devotion to social good, to uniting against imperialism as opposed to accommodating or even wallowing in it as their present day counterparts do. The nostalgia that Egyptians feel for bygone days is not misplaced. Businessmen are by definition focussed on their profit sheet which has a timeframe of five years, not the logic necessary in a national leader, who must be concerned about future generations. Is it any wonder that the world's descent has accelerated in the past 15 years, without such truly national leaders?

My rule of thumb in this international political wasteland is: look at who gets dumped on the most and start from the premise that that person/ country is probably trying to buck this tidal wave of democracy-for-the-business-elite. It's not failsafe -- there are the North Koreas and Myanmars, but there are the Chavezes, Castros and yes, the Lukashenkos. But this is key -- all these renegades are lumped together as if they all come from the same mould.

The leader is indeed a "strongman" -- he refers to his style as "authoritative", he's not particularly photogenic or eloquent and he lets fly untoward comments which come back to haunt him. Aleksandr Lukashenko's ascent to power began in 1993 when he became head of the anti- corruption committee in the republic's parliament. A year later he was riding a wave of popular support that put him at the helm of power and he hasn't looked back since, having been re- elected twice. By refusing to follow Western advice for "shock therapy", i.e. destroying people's savings through inflation and selling off local industry to foreign interests, he managed to maintain much of the social welfare of the Soviet system and keep the economy stable and growing. A 2005 World Bank report judged that, "economic growth in Belarus has been genuine and robust" and the benefits widely shared among the population. Official unemployment stands at less than two per cent, poverty has fallen, and the average monthly income is around $200 -- better than in many former USSR republics, including Ukraine.

There is little corruption, certainly none within the presidential fold -- Lukashenko's two sons are modest engineers with no political ambitions. Despite the West's loud protests, Lukashenko's re-elections have been a genuine demonstration of the popular will, there is no systematic torture, and there is a vocal if lacklustre opposition. Parliament is a mosaic of various parties. The main problem with Lukashenko's opponent last time, Aleksandr Milinkevich, was that he is seen as Europe's spokesman and had no real social base. However, the West took an instant dislike to Lukashenko and he's variously lampooned and denounced in the Western media and shunned in the US and Europe. So what's the problem?

Well, like Hugo Chavez, Lukashenko is really a socialist populist -- and a successful one at that, the only real heir to the SU. A collective farm chairman, he plodded to the top with the devoted following of babushkas and middle aged people who saw with horror what the once peaceful, secure SU was turning into in Russia. Russia's savage society has kept Belarussians returning to the polls ever since to re-elect the only politician in sight who seems to recognise just how much was lost in creating the capitalist alternative to "mature socialism".

Yes, much of the economy is state-controlled. Yes, there are subsidies on basic goods. Yes, there are state controls on the press and media, but with lots of room for differences of opinion. People can watch Russian and Ukrainian TV and use the Internet freely. No, Belarus does not jump every time the US shakes its fist. No, it does not denounce Iran or Venezuela, or support Israel, like a well-behaved Western puppet.

So it is angrily consigned to the international waste bin by the US and Europe. As a living reminder of what a successful perestroika could have produced, Belarus is a danger to both sides of the former Iron Curtain. Reminiscent of those days, Europe has even enacted a travel ban against top Belarussian officials, though compared to the other ex-Soviet country with such a ban (and a much milder one) -- Uzbekistan -- Belarus is a model of pluralism and real democracy. Lukashenko is regularly called "Europe's last dictator" despite being elected in fair elections. But then the same goes for the US and Chavez in Venezuela. For anyone who is not braindead, it doesn't take much effort to see through these propaganda campaigns.

One of his less successful efforts has been the proposed union with Russia. He argues that the ex-Soviet countries should try to reunite and preserve the best of the old system. Yelstin was too cynical to bother much about this, Putin was interested, but more from a Russian imperial point of view, expecting Belarus to just join the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, this major concession -- how many presidents of independent countries voluntarily give up any power to a larger power? -- appears to have ended up dead on arrival due to the new Russian oil chauvinism.

Russia has entered a new quasi-imperial phase in its "nearby" foreign affairs, as relations with ex-Soviet countries are quaintly called, trying to gather back into its fold these republics. This is not the Soviet-style brotherhood of nations, however problematic that family was, but the more orthodox imperial agenda of centre-periphery political economic hegemony, and involves forcing these ex-brothers to pay world prices for energy and other once non-market-priced exports. Lukashenko's palsy attitude and support of a Slavic union was most likely taken as a sign of weakness, and the state-owned Gazprom pulling the energy plug on Belarus last December, trying to more than triple the price of Russian natural gas to world levels, from $47 to $150 per 1,000 cu m.

However, this seems to have backfired -- Lukashenko is no fading violet, and recently strutted and snipped at Russia, saying he just might make up with the West or that he would jack up transit and border fees to make up the $5 billion deficit. Certainly, rather than forcing Belarus to dissolve itself and meekly join the Russian Federation, this action just made such a union even more unlikely. Lukashenko's protests yielded some results: the proposed increase was whittled down to $105 and then again to $100, though the contract includes further price increases over the next five years, and includes selling Gazprom half of the value of the Beltransgaz pipeline. By the way, I wonder why Russia wants controlling interest in the pipeline to Europe? The negotiations have been ongoing since last year and were only just completed. Lukashenko does not give in easily.

It's unlikely that Belarus will suddenly become another NATO/EU clone, or that the EU will play Putin's cynical game and accept Lukashenko's peacepipe. But there is another trump up his sleeve. He has increased Belarus's economic and political ties with the Muslim world. He visited Egypt in 1998 and has visited Iran twice, first in 2001 and then last December, followed by a state visit to UAE in March this year, and just hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his first state visit to Belarus in May. The UAE is the main trade partner of Belarus among the Arab Gulf countries with a trade turnover of $26 million last year. When Lukashenko came to power in 1994, trade with Iran was a measly $89,000. After his second state visit to Iran last year, the total value of contracts signed was $350 million and Ahmadinejad told his "close friend" this was just a step towards achieving a trade turnover of $1 billion. This chummy language is more than just rhetoric, as the Iranian leader is very much a man of the people too, and both countries see eye-to-eye on major international issues, primarily their relations with the US/EU. Oh yes, Belarussian nuclear physicists are advising Iran on its nuclear energy programme.

Belarus has been exporting arms to Arab countries, including Egypt, and Iran since the mid- 90s. In 2002-03 the Belarus firm Minotor- Service provided the Egyptian army with 100 armoured troop carriers. Belarussian arms are a vital part of Iran's arsenal. Do these relations mean Luke is "supporting terrorism"? No. It does mean he is helping to undermine the West's anti-Arab/ Iran policies.

There is no end of Lukashenko in sight -- he looks like he'll run again for a fourth term -- with the Belarussian economy doing just fine, thank you very much, though the Russian squeeze on energy prices and the attempts to diversify away from Russia, especially in energy, have yet to play themselves out. Even if it can import gas from Iran, as planned, the gas will still have to transit Russia. Who knows? Maybe like Fidel Castro, he'll find his inner green self and promote bicycles, solar power and conservation.

So take the media's vendetta against him as a boorish commie bastard with a grain of salt, and remember my rule of thumb. We can be thankful that there is some colour in European politics thanks to the rare phenomenon that Lukashenko represents -- an honest socialist with the power and will to make business serve the interests of the people. Perhaps Putin will see his error and treat his stubborn little brother with a bit more sympathy. He too is noted for his unpremeditated comments, recently deriding West-East relations as depicted in the West as "immaculate, white fluffy partners on one side, and on the other a monster who has just come out of a forest with claws and corns growing instead of legs." Luke couldn't have said it better.

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