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 election.
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 unchallenged.
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.”
US-sponsored anti-Lukashenka 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 fraudulent.
Ironically, Washington 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 overwhelming.
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 é cholera, typhus, diphtheria é 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 existence.”
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 rights.
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.