Alexander Lukashenka’s new test

The Belarusian president’s latest election victory and the violent crackdown after it clarify the national challenge he faces, says Natalia Leshchenko.

The events of the two last hours of 19 December 2010 have thrown the political chessboard in Belarus up in the air. In that violent moment following the presidential elections, when police detained hundreds of opposition protesters on the streets of Minsk, the questions that had preoccupied Belarusian and foreign political minds in the previous weeks - about whether Europe would recognise the election results, Moscow’s stake in the outcome, the scale of demonstrations in the aftermath - became obsolete.

Now, the focus has sharpened; the differences between the opposition’s presidential candidates - some in detention, others still free - have faded; and the range of answers to “what comes next?” has narrowed.

The response of Belarus’s authorities to Alexander Lukashenka’s securing yet another presidential mandate is one of further confrontation with domestic and foreign critics alike. This means portraying local dissenters as enemies of stability, or at best brainwashed fools; and dismissing external concerns over the government’s democratic legitimacy as undue pressure. The result will be a Belarus that further turns in on itself and for years to come resists any perceived threat to its unique developmental path.

Such was the scenario played out around 1996 when Lukashenka (first elected in 1994) was still a relative newcomer in the presidency, consolidated his powers. Yet precisely because of this precedent, it is unlikely to work again. Belarus is approaching a new dramatic cycle, and the tasks required will not be accomplished with old tools.

Lukashenka has exploited the potential of the “us vs them” worldview with flair and imagination.This worldview befitted the period when the authorities’ main tasks were to assert Belarusian sovereignty and build an independent state. Lukashenka’s proud assertion that “Belarus is not run from Moscow, nor from Brussels, nor from Washington” was thus relevant to a society after its precipitous independence in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse left the country unsure how to deal with its new status.

But now, when the sovereignty milestone has long been passed and Belarusians know they belong to a state of their own, it is time for them to make sense of who they are. The prevailing models are little help here. Belarusians’ path has been very different from the classical European national-development one, and - despite a wealth of historical resources for nation-building - they still lack a shared, unifying understanding of themselves as a nation (including such components as common values, priorities, myths of loss and glory).

A time to move

The Soviet-style ideological material with which Lukashenka is associated no longer fits the needs of the Belarusian nation-state. But the European-centred discourse of his opponents which emphasises the country’s medieval inheritance is no more applicable to present-day Belarusian reality. Moreover, these polarising views on Belarusian identity pull the society further apart, producing the kind of bitter confrontations evident on the streets of Minsk this week.

The taste of confrontation is infectious on all sides. The regime’s repressive machine is working confidently and in full gear, while the spreading reports of the police’s treatment of the hundreds arrested during the protests intensify people’s frustration and anger. Yet counterintuitive as it may seem, Lukashenka’s coercion is working against him. He can silence his opponents and thwart their activism, impose another “big silence” over Belarus, and by dividing society earn himself a few more years in power. But in following this route Lukashenka will lose the chance of creating the legacy of a true national leader as opposed to a mere long-term power-holder.

Alexander Lukashenka has, as little today as on the day he became president, no feasible rival claimant to his power. But he does face an enormous challenge that the very logic of Belarus’s history and politics poses: building a Belarusian national identity, relevant to and owned by the whole society, not his supporters alone.

Divide and rule belongs to the past. The task now - even more after the painful experience of the December 2010 election’s afterrmath - is to seek the unique core that Belarusians have in common, in part by the very act of embracing their differences.

The unification challenge is an objective political and social need that cannot be ignored or dismissed. If Alexander Lukashenka does not stand up to it, someone else will emerge who can. Soviet-type ideology backed by oppression will no longer do the trick. After seventeen years in power, Alexander Lukashenka has to learn new skills. It is time for unite and rule.

About the author

Natalia Leshchenko is an analyst of politics and business in east-central Europe. She works at the Institute for State Ideologies (INSTID)

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Natalia Leshchenko is an analyst of politics and business in east-central Europe. She works at the Institute for State Ideologies (INSTID)

Also by Natalia Leshchenko in openDemocracy:

"Belarus: the shackles of sovereignty" (2 April 2007)

"Belarus's election paradox" (1 October 2008)

"Belarus: love and paranoia" (15 January 2010)

"Kyrgyzstan: the absence of mercy" (16 June 2010)

"Belarusians: in need of a nation" (8 December 2010)