|Is Belorussian regime change a naked lunch? One thing is for certain: any kind of foreign-funded 'democracy' in Belarus will offer few table scraps for "the people" to enjoy.|
Belarus Under Siege: Joint Onslaught by US and Russian Oligarchs
by Michele Brand
Published in Counterpunch
Weekend Edition July 8-10, 2011
Images and captions added by Color Revolutions and Geopolitics
Addendum added July 27, 2011
|click on image for details|
I’ve just returned to Paris from a second extended trip to Belarus. Western media faithfully relay the monstrous picture of Belarus that our governments want to convey, and so I’d like to report on the situation in this little-known country, and encourage others to visit it in order to experience for themselves the Belorussian culture, economy, hospitality and character. Among other visits I attended an international conference on the resistance to Nazi fascism, in Brest on June 22, the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. In a country which lost between a third and a quarter of its population during the war, the memory of the ravages of foreign attacks and the heroism of those who resisted it is very strong and alive. Located dangerously between Europe and Russia, entirely flat and endowed with few natural resources, Belarus has fought hard to build a successful independent state. It is not inclined to lose its sovereignty now.
This seems to be one reason that the attacks against the Belorussian economic model and its government have recently gone into higher gear. Its economy is an isolated pocket of export-oriented production next to the Western economies of consumption. Belarus was the most highly industrialized area in the Soviet Union, manufacturing machines, petroleum and chemical products for the whole Soviet sphere and receiving its energy and raw materials from the East. 75% of the economy is exports; 80% is state-owned production, and there are many public-private partnerships. Smaller businesses are mainly private. The country has recently benefited from a good deal of foreign investment, for example from China, which has invested in infrastructure projects and with whom Belarus has a unique commercial credit swap program. GDP grew 7.6% in 2010. Signs of growth are to be seen everywhere, much more so than during my first visit to the country two years ago, and the skyline of Minsk is dotted with cranes.
|Metro station train platform in Minsk|
|Cathedral of Holy Spirit, Minsk, Belarus|
Western governments claim that the presidential election of last December 19 was fraudulent, and use this to justify their recent round of attacks. I have spoken with a number of international observers of that election who affirm that they saw no fraud or irregularities, and exit polls confirmed that the majority of Belorussians voted to reelect President Lukashenko. One such report can be read on Counterpunch. The CIS observers reported that they had witnessed a fair election, while the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], predictably, stated the opposite. The selective coverage of this election in Western media is astounding, and to understand the events I recommend this short documentary: “Ploshcha: Beating Glass with Iron” .
|Riot police block demonstrators trying to storm the government building in the Belorussian capital, Minsk, late Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010.|
Many of the ex-presidential candidates (there were 10 candidates in all) have well-documented relations with the West, which isn’t surprising given the millions that the US and Europe spend on “democratic transition” in the country. They generally call for privatization of state enterprises, liberalization of the economy and adhesion to NATO. A number of them have spent time studying regime change at the George C. Marshall Center European Center for Security Studies in Germany, a partnership between the US military (US European Command) and the German government, which, according to the US embassy in Minsk, hosts 25 Belorussians per year. Since 2001, the US has enacted a series of Belarus Democracy Acts, applying economic sanctions, visa blacklists and asset freezes on government-related people and companies, and providing tens of millions of dollars per year for the promotion of “democracy.”
In February of this year, citing the recent elections, the US State Department announced an increase of its “democracy assistance” to Belorussian civil society by 30% to $15 million for the year. In 2009, the National Endowment for Democracy gave $2.7 million to finance Belorussian “independent” media, civil society (promoting “democratic ideas and values... and a market economy”), NGOs and political groups. A Wikileaks cable (VILNIUS 000732, dated June 12, 2005) confirmed money smuggling into Belarus on the part of USAID contractors, though such proof is hardly necessary. Also in February, the EU, individual European countries, Canada and the US put together a “war chest” of 87 million euros aiming toward regime change in Belarus. With so much money being offered to anyone who wants a job as an activist, it’s not hard to find takers. Youth who run into trouble are offered free education in the West. There is evidence that many of those who partook in the violent acts of the night of December 19th were paid for their participation, by either Western or Russian elements.
|Freedom House and CEPA (Center for European Policy Analysis): two of the primary policy drivers behind U.S.-sponsored regime change in Belarus. On March 29, 2011, CEPA published an unequivocal foreign policy recommendation for the U.S., stating in clear language that it is preferable for Belarus to undergo an "Egypt-style" or "Tunisian-style" uprising "from below." In late-June, 2011, CEPA partnered with Freedom House to publish an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, publicly airing the earlier proposals. And since July 9th, both organizations have officially partnered together in a "working group on Belarus," a forum which will undoubtedly dictate which levers to pull, and when.|
According to Minsk residents, the main problem this Spring has not been a lack of products on the shelves, as one reads in the West, but rising prices, a shortage of foreign currency and hoarding, which has somewhat disrupted the supply chain. When I was there in mid-late June, the shelves were fully stocked, the stores and markets were full of shoppers and there were no lines at gas stations, contrary to what Western media have been reporting. Inflation is apparently stabilizing now. Protests on the Western borders by cross-border traders have been widely covered by Western media who are seeking signs of unrest, but who rarely show that the traffic of cheap Belorussian products and gasoline for sale at a profit in the West is a practice that is harmful for the Belorussian economy, especially in the context of the current economic difficulties. This is why the government recently limited such border crossings to once every 5 days (formerly traders would often go 5 times per day) and to limit the products that can be individually exported. The scarcity of foreign currency explains the late payment of bills to the Russian electricity supplier (which demands payment in dollars), prompting it to temporarily halt delivery of electricity to Belarus a number of times recently. This strong-arming, reported extensively in the international press, is more bark than bite since Russia only provides around 12% of Belorussian electricity and there have been no blackouts.
Because of the spiraling Belorussian ruble, the government has had to seek foreign loans. It has appealed to the IMF for a loan of $8 billion, though the IMF replied on June 13 that a loan would come with the usual strings attached -- structural adjustment programs, privatizations, a freeze on salaries, letting the Belorussian ruble float, etc. The IMF admonishes the government that it has not yet enacted similar conditions that were set with the last loan it received in 2009 during the world financial crisis; for example, a government agency to oversee privatizations was created but no privatizations carried out. On the other hand, it was rarely reported that the IMF also hailed measures by Belarus' government to end the country's financial crisis, for example raising interest rates and supporting the unemployed and poor.
Whether the country will get an IMF loan or not, the traditional refusal to privatize is now ending, since the country was granted a $3 billion emergency loan from the Russian-controlled Eurasian Economic Community, which also had strings attached for the privatization of $7.5 billion of state enterprises over 3 years. This is part of what the Russian oligarchs have been working toward. The first disbursement of this loan, $800 million, was released on June 21, putting an end to the immediate financial problems. However, the Russians may not be getting the cheap deals they had wanted, nor will they necessarily be the beneficiaries of the privatizations. The actual sales and IPOs are in negotiation, and President Lukashenko has been very clear that by Belorussian law, privatizations of state enterprises must follow strict conditions. On June 17, he stated, “The conditions have been spelt out: the company should develop, it should not be closed, the workers' pay should increase each year, they should be protected socially and, most importantly, the company should be modernized. That is, if you come and buy it, you should invest in its development.”
On June 30, Venezuela, with whom Belarus has close economic and diplomatic ties (among other agreements, Venezuela has provided oil to Belarus), announced its interest in acquiring shares in Belorussian state companies. Analysts in Minsk say that the country is reorienting itself away from Russia and toward China. An IPO on foreign stock exchanges of a minority stake in the huge state potash and fertilizer company, Belaruskali, is in preparation, and the national gas pipeline will most likely be sold to Gazprom. Other state enterprises are on the block, and the future is unknown; but President Lukashenko stated recently that “I would like to give you firm assurances that we will not accept risky experiments or an unacceptable lowering of living standards. We will continue implementing a Belorussian economic model, which has proved to be stable under different and complex circumstances for over 15 years.”
|The targeted three: Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe (L), Belarus' Alexandr Lukashenko (Center), and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (R).|
In June, coinciding with these financial problems, Western governments returned to the attack, as though to take advantage of the momentum to destabilize the Belorussian government. On June 14, President Obama renewed and reinforced US sanctions against the country, declaring a “national emergency” (that is, for the US, not Belarus) and citing, incredibly, “the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” that Belarus constitutes. The only way in which he may be right is simply in that the success of the Belorussian economic model constitutes a threat to neoliberal dogma. On June 17, the UN Human Rights Council voted to condemn “human rights violations” following the recent presidential election. On June 20, the European Union in their turn reinforced its sanctions against Belarus, adding companies and names to the blacklist (the Belorussian government has stated its intention to sue the initiators of the sanctions), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has reoriented its financing activities away from the government and toward “civil society.”
|Western-backed OTPOR! clone, Zubr (bison)|
|Texas Congressman Ron Paul|
“I rise in opposition to the Belarus Democracy Act reauthorization. This title of this bill would have amused George Orwell, as it is in fact a US regime-change bill. Where does the United States Congress derive the moral or legal authority to determine which political parties or organizations in Belarus -- or anywhere else -- are to be US-funded and which are to be destabilized? How can anyone argue that US support for regime-change in Belarus is somehow promoting democracy? We pick the parties who are to be supported and funded and somehow this is supposed to reflect the will of the Belorussian people? How would Americans feel if the tables were turned and a powerful foreign country demanded that only a political party it selected and funded could legitimately reflect the will of the American people? I would like to know how many millions of taxpayer dollars the US government has wasted trying to overthrow the government in Belarus. I would like to know how much money has been squandered by US government-funded front organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and others.... It is the arrogance of our foreign policy establishment that leads to this kind of schizophrenic legislation, where we demand that the rest of the world bend to the will of US foreign policy and we call it democracy. We wonder why we are no longer loved and admired overseas. Finally, I strongly object to the sanctions that this legislation imposes on Belarus. We must keep in mind that sanctions and blockades of foreign countries are considered acts of war. Do we need to continue war-like actions against yet another country? Can we afford it? [...] We have no constitutional authority to intervene in the wholly domestic affairs of Belarus or any other sovereign nation.”
I can only agree wholeheartedly, and wish the government and the people of Belarus courage in their resistance to the current attacks, and success in protecting their independence. At the international conference in Brest on the resistance to Nazism, participants described again and again the heroic courage and strength of the Belorussian people during the war years under the invasion coming from the West. Belorussians will need to continue to draw on that strong character for some time to come, as the attacks are not yet finished, but they have proven they are up to the fight.
Michèle Brand is an independent journalist and researcher originally from the US, living in Paris. She can be reached at email@example.com