Thursday, November 16, 2006 column "Europe View"

The sorrows of Belarus

Nov 16th 2006

A government in exile, a country in a mess

THE Belarusian National Rada, or council, seems preposterously peripheral. Via a tenuous chain of succession and inheritance it represents a Belarusian state that was founded in 1918 and existed for barely a year. It has had no surviving counterparts since similar émigré outfits, such as the Ukrainian and Polish governments-in-exile, packed up in triumph at the end of the cold war. Its self-perpetuating 80-strong assembly meets every second year. Its five “secretariats” (ministries) have neither officials to command nor taxpayers’ money to spend. Its worldly goods amount to little more than a shabby letterhead, a shambolic website, and a devoted if somewhat secretive circle of adherents made up both of diehard old émigrés, and keen youngsters from the new diaspora.

The Rada's main achievement is to have survived at all through the decades during which Belarus was part of the Soviet Union; and it was wise enough to keep its distance from the post-Soviet regime in Minsk after 1991. Its ambition still is to wind itself up, but only when Belarus has a democratically elected and truly independent government.

That is a brave hope. Russia casts a long, dark shadow. Belarus relies heavily on Russia for trade and investment, for energy, and for security. A “union state” with a common currency, passport and constitution has been a declared aim of the two countries, at least until recently.

Democracy is even more endangered than statehood. The Belarusian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, dominates the media, courts, economy and officialdom. His opponents often end up in jail, and sometimes disappear entirely. A professor who opposed him in a rigged presidential election in March this year, Alyaksandr Kazulin, was arrested, imprisoned, and is now on hunger strike. From his prison cell, he appealed to the BNR for help.

Alyaksandr the not-so-great

At a meeting last year in Washington, DC, the Rada struck up friendly ties with leaders of the often quarrelsome Belarusian opposition. They share the hope that Russia and Belarus will fall out. It may happen.

Russia has helped Mr Lukashenka in the past with cheap gas, flattery, and strong diplomatic protection against Western criticism. In return, Mr Lukashenka's Belarus has sold Russian arms to dodgy customers, and has provided almost the sole living example of that rare breed, a happy and grateful Russian ally.

But now the deal is fraying. Plans for the two-country “union state” are on hold, for which each side blames the other. Russia wants to raise fourfold the price of the gas it sells to Belarus; it also wants to claw back the profits Belarus makes by refining cheap Russian crude oil and selling it on. That squeeze is partly a Russian tactic aimed at grabbing control of Belarus's energy industries. But it is also a slap at the irascible Mr Lukashenka, for being unwisely critical of his counterpart in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin.

A Belarusian parliamentarian, Mikalay Charhinets, has accused Russia of waging an “economic war on Belarus”, and told Russia that it is putting at risk its military bases in the country. These are, chiefly, a vital naval radio station and an anti-missile radar. At a recent energy conference in Prague a Belarusian diplomat gave a remarkable speech in which he castigated Russia for unreliability and greed in its energy politics. Mr Lukashenka says he may impose customs barriers on Russian goods.

If Russia and Belarus do truly fall out, the future will be full of interesting possibilities. The Kremlin could topple Mr Lukashenka and seek the incorporation of Belarus into Russia. That would give the Belarusian National Rada a new if unwanted lease of life as the sole representative of an independent Belarus.

More trickily, Mr Lukashenka, until now an arch-pariah, might try to cosy up to the West. He is already putting out discreet feelers, saying that Belarus is “building a new foreign policy”. Given the opportunity, it may be difficult for the West to agree on whether to shun him or embrace him.

Whatever comes next, the veterans of the exiled Rada risk disappointment. But they do not risk boredom.

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