President Lukashenko refreshes his image of ‘strong leader’ amid events in Ukraine

April 22, 2016 18:49

Limbering up for the presidential campaign, Lukashenko has resumed his traditional rhetoric about fighting corruption, protecting sovereignty and restoring order. Despite failing to modernise industry or make any inroads in socio-economic development, President Lukashenko is attempting to portray himself as a strong leader and an independent politician against the backdrop of events in Ukraine. The Belarusian leader wants to smooth over the split in Belarusian society by enhancing rhetoric about tolerance toward opponents and readiness for evolutiona.

Last week, Belarus’ president Lukashenko delivered his annual address to the Belarusian people and the National Assembly.

The president’s choice of topics in his annual address was influenced by events in and concerning Ukraine. Lukashenko began his speech by referring to the geopolitical conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and focused on these major issues: ensuring Belarus’ independence, fighting corruption and restoring order in the country. It was only when wrapping up his address that President Lukashenko briefly mentioned Belarus’s role in the international arena. In addition, Lukashenko has not expressed any serious claims as regards Belarus’ relations with the EU and the U.S.A., he has merely emphasised his aspiration to build relationships. Meanwhile, the president did not say a single word about political prisoners, implying that his position on this matter remains unchanged.

Throughout his speech, President Lukashenko sought to emphasise his independence and portray himself as a strong leader. He underscored his determination to defend Belarus’ sovereignty by any means, and regardless of who might show aggression towards Belarus: “No matter where someone may come from, we will fight for our country”.

The Belarusian leader has repeatedly mentioned Russia in connection with possible threats to the country’s independence: “If Putin shows up here tomorrow, it is unknown which side the Russians will fight on. But I know which side! So do not intimidate us with Putin...” Lukashenko has also opposed Russia’s arguments that the Kremlin has to defend “the Russian world” with a thesis that the Russian language was a common heritage for the “three brotherly nations”. 

However, President Lukashenko has criticised opinions of those “who entertain the idea ... that, allegedly, we somehow have started clamping down on Russians or the Russian language”. He ordered the intelligence services to use harsh measures against pro-Russian movements which have denies Belarus’ national identity and expressed doubts about her independence. It should be noted that the Belarusian authorities have, for a long time, not been supportive of pro-Russian organisations’ activities in Belarus.

In preparation for the elections in 2015, the president is revisiting his favourite subject, i.e. the fight against corruption, which has become particularly popular amid the lack of economic success and failures in industrial modernisation. Anti-corruption rhetoric is high on the agenda also due to events in Ukraine: “stinking corruption and extortion were at the root of all events in Ukraine, people were brought to poverty and the economy slumped”.

In 2015, the authorities will not allow a ‘Euromaidan’ to happen in Belarus: “Everyone who is calling for a riot is not only an enemy of the government and the president but, above all, an enemy of our country, our people, of our unity and, consequently, the independence of Belarus. Such radicalism will be suppressed altogether”.

However, Lukashenko is aware of the dangers associated with using exceptionally rigorous measures against his opponents, especially amid dwindling resources, to buy people’s loyalty. Under the influence of events in Ukraine, the Belarusian president was prompted to bridge the gap in Belarusian society by expressing readiness to “gradual evolution dictated by life itself”. 

Meanwhile, the President’s rhetoric about the need to protect Belarus’ sovereignty has not stopped Belarus from becoming increasingly dependent on the Kremlin in several areas, including military activity, foreign policy, and the economy. In addition, consolidating Belarusian society, promoting dialogue and developing the socio-political system inherently contradict the core nature of the authoritarian regime constructed by President Lukashenko.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.