Belarus: the shackles of sovereignty

Natalia Leshchenko
2 April 2007

For a country reasonably well-endowed economically, the choice of independence as the main national asset may seem rather odd. Yet, the notion of independence has in Belarus as much frequency as that of "liberty" in the west and "faith" in the middle east - and provides the country's elite a surprisingly high yield in legitimacy.

In its most widespread interpretation, independence is synonymous with absence of coercion, free choice and liberty. Yet, in the post-Soviet context, and in highly notably in Belarus, it has meant exactly the opposite: the opting out of the internationally accepted - democratic - rules of the game. Independence, and the following 'the nation's true national/spiritual/unique traditions' have been used by authoritarian leaders an excuse for bullying their own people and the international community alike.

An appreciation of the nation-state's independence is the only issue in Belarus that cuts across political divides and provides the foundation of consensus between otherwise staunch political adversaries. President Alexander Lukashenko [Lukashenka] is not alone in adamantly praising Belarusian independence and sovereignty as the "sacred treasure of the Belarusian nation". This opinion is shared far more widely than by Lukashenko's supporters. Even many of those who oppose his rule viscerally - such as the thousands who rallied in Minsk on 25 March 2007, the anniversary of Belarus's "Freedom Day" - still approve of him (in part-disbelief) for "having at least secured our independence".

In the face of this apparent strong social consensus in Belarus over the paramount importance of national sovereignty, this article argues that independence is not always a virtue; and that indeed it may at times run counter to freedom and democracy.

Natalia Leshchenko is an analyst for Global Insight, specialising on the CIS states

A country of whispers

The domestic and foreign policies of the Belarusian president, emanating from the imperative of state independence, work alike to justify and sustain his authoritarian rule. The foreign relations of Belarus demonstrate with clarity how the currency of independence can trade well in the radically different contexts to the country's east and west.

When western governments tried to hurdle Lukashenko's accumulation of power by supporting human rights and freedoms, and pressing his regime for the obedience of democratic rules and procedures, Lukashenko presented this pro-democratic effort as a threat to Belarusian sovereignty: he proclaimed the European Union policymakers the "heirs of Nazi occupiers", and branded the recommendations of the United States's Belarus Democracy Act "conditions of surrender".

At the same time, to Belarus's east Lukashenko mere promise of eventual reunification of the brotherly Slavic nations was enough to guarantee a continuation of Russia's policy of supplying cheap energy resources and giving favourable treatment to Belarusian produce. In 2002, the Russian leadership tried to claim the bill when President Putin offered the choice of state merger or termination of preferences, but Lukashenko was swift to rebuff the demand as a Russian attempt to annex Belarus.

This response again went down well with the population during the gas cut-off in February 2004, and by January 2007 a desperate Russian leadership risked its international reputation and relations with five European countries simply to make the Belarusian government accept economically reasonable and justifiable energy price hikes.

The Belarusian leadership immediately ran crying to Europe, asking it to protect Belarusian independence and offering to be its "humble pupil". Lukashenko even revoked the 1992 treaty between the US, Britain, Russia and Belarus guaranteeing the country's independence following nuclear disarmament. While the US stayed unmoved, insisting on the "rotten nature" of the Belarusian regime, Europe apparently swallowed the bait. The president of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, René van der Linden, visited Minsk on 18-19 January 2007 to start a dialogue without Lukashenko having lifted a finger to fulfil Europe's conditions of engagement in terms of improving the democratic climate in the country.

The lesson seems clear: a promise of sharing sovereignty can win miraculous prizes from interested foreign partners, whereas the claim to protect it places limits on any actual attempts to harvest the desired yield.

The Belarusian opposition, which knows what a deft political manipulator Lukashenko is - though wary too of offending its European allies - has welcomed Europe's move while cautioning that this is Lukashenko's last chance to implement political and economic reforms. It seems, however, that the opposition did not believe in the possibility of Lukashenko's proving to be flexible even as they spoke about it. After all, Lukashenko's opponents need do no more that draw on the reality of their everyday lives to demonstrate how the rhetoric of independence can be skilfully used to stifle dialogue and debate, essential features of a democratic society.

The Belarusian president does not engage with their ideas; instead, he uses ad hominem rhetoric to point to the opposition as national traitors, working on behalf of foreign forces to "sell and partition" Belarus. The most vivid of many examples is the state-produced feature film Anastasia Slutskaia (2003); in one scene, a traitor opens the gate of a besieged city to the enemy because he is angry with the ruler who (as the director Yuri Elkhov says) "had done away with the council and took all decision-making into his own hands".

These traitor's words could be borrowed directly from the Belarusian dissidents' description of Alexander Lukashenko, in a way that makes a parallel between opposition to the ruler and surrender to a foreign enemy. The president, who has audaciously pushed Belarusian state ideology into his people's everyday lives - and making the kitchen the only acceptable place for debate - is here given aesthetic support for his political intransigence.

The concept of independence thus serves as an essential means of thwarting dissent and disregarding international obligations and rules in the interest of supporting Belarus's authoritarian regime. Indeed, Lukashenko's presentation of any assault on his authority as simultaneously a jeopardising of Belarusian sovereignty has never yet failed to boost his popular support for and give him the upper hand in any crisis.

Also on Belarusian politics in openDemocracy:

Margot Letain, "Denim and democracy: what Belarusians need"
(15 March 2006)

Amy de Wit, "Belarus on the eve"
(15 March 2006)

Amy de Wit, "Belarus’s contested landslide"
(20 March 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Belarus’s message to Europe"
(22 March 2006)

Margot Letain, "The 'denim revolution': a glass half full"
(11 April 2006)

The Belarus bullying-stick

The fact that the most prominent incidence of a retreat of independence rhetoric in Belarus occurred during the energy-price conflict with Russia makes clear that the questioning of Belarusian independence does not mean arguing for its unification with Russia. After all, Russia itself has little to offer in terms of freedom and liberal development.

Yet there are examples in the post-communist zone of countries which have made independence secondary to liberty and thereby managed to achieve democracy. These are the countries that aspired to and won membership of the European Union. Societies in the most successful of the European Union's new (2004) members - such as Lithuania, Poland or Slovenia - have survived the perils of transition by embracing the existing European values and mode of life and social organisation as part of their national culture. By becoming members of the EU, they surrendered some of their independence, and secured their liberal development in exchange.

A search for a uniquely independent way out of communism, at the same time, became characteristic of authoritarian post-communist regimes in central Asia and Belarus, and is currently gaining salience in Russia. National independence provides such an important pillar for authoritarian leaders because as a grand idea it is bigger than even the strongest of personalities. It is much easier to dislike and criticise a leader than to oppose an idea of national freedom he successfully seeks to embody. Authoritarians root themselves as founding fathers of a nation, enjoy security and support throughout their lives, and then their "cause" is picked up by one of the administration coterie once they pass. Turkmenistan is the freshest evidence to make the point.

The 20th century is remembered as the age of national sovereignty. At its end, 203 nations achieved statehood, and only a handful of claimants remain. But contrary to expectations, the struggle for independence has not yet moved onto the history pages. Instead, the concept of national independence is receiving a second lease of life from authoritarian politicians seeking unlimited powers within already existing nation-states.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData