Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Lukashenko Can Learn From Bakiyev

By Erica Marat

“Uhadzi!” (Go away), shouted protesters in central Minsk on December 19, the day when Alexander Lukashenko secured another presidential term for himself. Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Belarus’ capital to protest against the rigged presidential elections. Belarus Spetznaz (special forces) and OMON (special police unit) suppressed the protests by beating up hundreds, among them activists and journalists.

The scenes from Minsk’s downtown were déjà vu for another dictator, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who has ironically been residing in Belarus for months now. The Kyrgyz equivalent of “Uhadzi!”, “Ketsin!”, was the main slogan during the April 7 riots in Bishkek that resulted in Bakiyev’s ouster.

Lukashenko was the only leader to host Bakiyev and his family members (including Bakiyev’s unofficial younger wife). Bakiyev’s move to Belarus highlighted similarities between Lukashenko and himself. Both greedy for power and money, the two men are mocked by their own people for reeking idiocy and shortsightedness.

Bakiyev’s authoritarian policies were deepening as social discontent with him mounted. In the final months of his leadership he tightened control over the military, appointing relatives and cronies to key posts. Bakiyev also created special elite forces to ensure his own personal security. Reportedly, these special forces were ordered to shoot at protesters during the April 7 demonstrations. Eighty-six people were shot dead and hundreds were wounded that day.

Lukashenko has already created a loyal military that showed its unwavering support on elections day. Several layers of police and army personnel are trained to defend the leader against social unrest. Although the forces dispatched against the crowds did not shoot, Jamestown sources report that snipers were planted on rooftops of buildings surrounding the Nezavisimaya and Oktyabrskaya squares where most protesters gathered.

Some reports suggest that government provocateurs stirred unrest during the protests by smashing windows of nearby government buildings. Such imposed chaos presented an opportunity for OMON to purge crowds and arrest roughly 650 protesters. Similar ingenious techniques have been widely used by both Bakiyev and his predecessor, Askar Akayev.

As Lukashenko continues his rule, a lot will depend on the Belarus opposition’s ability to organize and pressure the regime. However, the experience of Kyrgyzstan, as well as that of other countries ruled by unpopular authoritarian leaders, suggests that clashes between the regime and civilians do not pass unforgotten. Rather, civic discontent continues to breed, creating more opportunities for opposition leaders to gain both domestic and international support.

Effectively, Lukashenko has three options lined up for him in the next few years: consider giving up his power, opening up to the opposition, or suppressing the next round of protests with more violent means. Bakiyev’s experience might come in handy, though Lukashenko should not rely too much on his friend in need.

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