The United States has launched a
massive campaign to subvert the September 9th Belarusian
presidential election in a effort to topple President Alexander
Lukashenka, who has been moving slower on "free market reforms" than
Washington would like. And Washington is using a strategy similar to
one it used to oust the Nicaraguan Sandinista government in the
80's, and to depose Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia last year.
The campaign, which involves
funneling money to non-governmental agencies (NGO's) opposed to
Lukashenka, a youth group reminiscent of the US-backed Serb
resistance group that was instrumental in toppling Slobodan
Milosevic, and Radio Free Europe broadcasts urging Belarusians to
vote for Lukashenka's US-backed opponent, was revealed by the US
Ambassador to Belarus, Michael Kozak.
Nicknamed "the weasel" by former
CIA director William Casey, Kozak served as Principal Deputy
Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, working in Panama
and El Salvador in the 80's, and in Nicaragua at a time Washington
was employing various shady and illegal means to topple the
Sandanistas, including illegally funneling money to the Contras. In
a startling letter to a British newspaper, Kozak revealed last week
that Washington's "objective and to some degree methodology are
the same" in Belarus as in Nicaragua, sparking fears that Washington
is prepared to up the ante if Lukanshenka wins the September 9th
In mid-August, according to
Belarusian TV, Kozak told ex-Grodno Region Governor Semyon Domash to
withdraw his candidacy for presidency and throw his support behind
Vladimir Goncharyk , a trade union leader and former Communist.
Goncharyk agreed to make Domash his prime minister should he win.
Last year, US Secretary of State
Madleine Albright had similarly directed the fractured Yugoslav
opposition to coalesce around a single candidate to contest a
presidential election in which Slobodan Milosevic, incongruously
branded a dictator, stood as Socialist Party candidate. Washington
funneled millions into the coalition's war chest, and insisted that
Vojislav Kostunica, admired as a Serb patriot, lead the coalition.
But Washington's hopes that
Lukanshenka will lose the election could be dashed. An August 23rd
AFP report says that Goncharyk "recorded only a 10 percent approval
rating in a recent opinion poll."
Lukashenka, long demonized in the
Western press, has come in for some particularly harsh treatment in
the runup to the September 9th election. The Wall Street Journal
calls Lukashenka's Belarus a "semi-fascist" state . The Washington
Times calls the country an "authoritarian police state" and an
"unabashed dictatorship." Lukashenka is variously described as a
strongman, hard-liner, tyrant, and Europe's last dictator, in a
reprise of the campaign that painted Milosevic in similarly menacing
hues. And, to top off the allegations, Ambassador Kozak calls
Belarus "worse than Cuba."
But the British Helsinki Human
Rights Group (BHHRG), which sent observers to the country, says the
charge that Belarus is worse than Cuba is puzzling. Belarus has
multi-party elections, allows the opposition access to the media,
and welcomes foreign human rights monitors into the country. Cuba
allows none of these things. And Cuba hasn't allowed an American
General into the country since 1959, yet Belarus allowed NATO
Supreme Allied Commander General Jospeh Ralston to visit the country
on July 23 to address a press conference critical of Lukashenka. And
while Cuba regularly jams US-sponsored anti-Castro Radio Marti
broadcasts, anti-Lukashenka Radio Free Europe broadcasts go
Moreover, says the human rights
group, "even President Lukashenka's most vehement opponents refused
to characterize him as a tyrant or dictator, and none of the
President's critics alleged even a significant degree of repression
in society in general."
Radio Free Europe broadcasts have doubled during the election
period, backing up an already substantial collection of US-funded
NGO's arrayed against the Belarusian president. A spokesperson at
the US Embassy in Minsk told The (London) Times that the embassy
helped to fund 300 NGOs, including media, many of which are opposed
to Lukashenka. And a youth group, Zubr, bearing a uncanny
resemblance to Otpor, the anti-Milosevic student group trained and
funded by Washington, has been putting up stickers that portray
Lukashenka as a criminal.
Despite its massive efforts to
sway the vote against Lukashenka, Washington is hedging its bets.
The State Department has already warned that the election will be
flawed. Critics point out that this is a
"heads-I-win-tails-you-lose" strategy, where Washington insists the
fairness of the election be judged on the basis of whether its
candidate wins. Washington used the same approach in last year's
presidential elections in Yugoslavia, warning, when it was clear
Milosevic would do well at the polls, that the election would be
pre-condemns as unfair elections its favored candidates stand a good
chance of losing, but is blissfully unconcerned about whether its
massive funding of opposition groups and the antigovernment press
severely limits the freedom and fairness of the elections it
intervenes in. Americans are prepared to tolerate no foreign
intervention in their own electoral affairs, or even to allow
monitors to oversee their own elections.
Key to Washington's campaign
against Lukashenka in the West is portraying the Belarusian
president as a repressive tyrant, an ominous sign that the White
House may be softening Western public opinion for more drastic
measures should Lukashenka win the election. But the BHHRG says
that "opposition criticism of Lukashenka's Belarus lays the emphasis
on matters such as foreign investment and the need to move closer to
the Western mainstream," not human rights abuses or political
repression. Political repression is a Washington invention.
Writing in the American
Spectator, Daniel McAdams says that Washington's real beef with
Lukashenka is that he hasn't moved fast enough on economic reforms,
not his human rights abuses, which are grossly exaggerated, even
fabricated, and, even if they were real, are hardly different from
those of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who Washington
supported. McAdams points out that the usual complaint about
Lukashenka is that he abolished the parliament, cheats on elections,
and is autocratic. But Boris Yeltsin ruled almost exclusively by
decree, cheated on every election, and blew up a parliament he
didn't like. Argues McAdams, the difference between Yeltsin, the
admired reformer, and Lukashenko, smeared as an autocrat, is that
Yeltsin was enthusiastic about embracing the free market, while
Lukashenka's passions for free market reforms have proved less than
Belarus produces a number of
consumer and industrial goods, including refrigerators, tractors,
televisions, trucks, buses, petrochemicals, fertilizers, tires, not
privately, but all under state control. Washington, and the
US-backed opposition would rather state owned enterprises be
privately owned, and Belarus throw open its doors to outside, and
mainly US, investment.
But Lukashenka, and many
Belarusians, fear that economic reforms will produce the disasters
that have befallen former Communist countries that have embraced
the free market, like Poland and Russia. Russia, once offering a
comfortable and secure material existence to all its citizens, has
seen the number of its citizens living on less than $4 a day grow
from 4 million to 147 million since adopting free market reforms.
Pro-reformers say Russian's
economic woes are simply "normal bumps on the road to a market
economy," but Belarusians have good reasons not to want to go over
the same terrain.
Soviet Russia cranked out more
engineers and scientists than any country in the world. Today, 10
million Russian children don't go to school. In 10 years the economy
has shrunk by half. Real incomes have plunged 40 percent. A third of
the country lives in extreme poverty, many on the verge of
starvation. Eighty per cent of the people have no savings. Life
expectancy for men has fallen to 19th century levels. The suicide
rate has doubled; alcoholism has tripled. Old diseases, once thought
eliminated – cholera, typhus, diphtheria – have come roaring back.
The last ten years has seen, as Stephen Cohen of New York University
puts it, the "endless collapse of everything essential to a decent
Lukashenka is said to believe
that the economy should serve the people, not the other way around,
an out-of-fashion idea, and not one Washington is prepared, or has
ever been prepared, to tolerate.
US governments have a long
history of subverting elections when it looked like electorates
might make irresponsible choices, as Henry Kissinger once said of
Chile's fondness for electing Slavador Allende, a man whose
commitment to the free-market was as lukewarm as Lukashenka's. In
those days, you could point to Allende's alleged cozying up to
Communism to justify the subversion of democracy. Today, with the
Communist menace inconveniently departed, another, equally contrived
menace, is pressed into service -- abuses of civil and political
Apart from the infamous
intervention of Washington into the electoral affairs of Chile, the
US has intervened in numerous elections to assure that its operating
principle prevails: we'll accept the outcome of democracy, just as
long as it's agreeable to America's vital interests, vital interests
being a vague, but high-sounding phrase, that reduces to: our right
to economically dominate any part of the world we choice, which
these days, on top of the Balkans, includes Belarus.
And so, as the days count down to
the September 9th election, Lukashenka gets, what researcher and
writer Rick Rozoff calls, "the Milosevic treatment." If Washington
can't turn Belarus's electorate against Lukashenka, it's prepared to
turn Western public opinion against him, and when it's prepared to
do that, Washington is preparing to show its darker side.
Lukashenka is a marked man. And
all because he thinks the economy should serve the people.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a
writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.