Belarus's message to Europe

Krzysztof Bobinski
22 March 2006

Belarus appears to be the one place in Europe where voters have chosen populism and protectionism without even trying democracy or liberalism first. Polish television journalists reporting on the aftermath of the presidential election there never tire of telling their viewers at home that the thousands of demonstrators in Minsk's Oktabrskaya Square have "surmounted their fear of the riot police" and come out to protest. But the numbers are too small and already – following three nightly assemblies since the election of 19 March 2006 – dwindling. The fact remains that for Alexander Lukashenko to be toppled his people will first have to overcome their fear not of him but of the free market and democracy.

Poland's rightwing government elected in October 2005 isn't doing much to help. In truth young Poles, seeking to relive their parents' adventure with Solidarity, are wholeheartedly behind Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate. The government is officially projecting the message of liberation. But at home the twin brothers Kaczynski (Lech the president, and Jaroslaw the head of the ruling party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc [Law & Justice]), are saying that the sixteen years since the fall of communism in Poland have been an unmitigated failure – a time dominated by crooks and crypto-communists as well as liberals and their cronies. If Poland is to be at peace with itself, they imply, it needs to be freed of ill-defined but definitely malevolent and cosmopolitan forces. This, not the juvenile voices of solidarity, is the message seeping through to Belarus.

Krzysztof Bobinski works at the Unia & Polska Foundation, a pro-European NGO in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's correspondent in Warsaw.

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"A stork's eye view from Poland"
(May 2001)

"Poland's nervous 'return' to Europe"
(April 2004)

"Poland's letter to France: please say oui!" (May 2005)

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (December 2005)


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Elsewhere in the region a populist wave is on the rise and the air is thick with cocks coming home to roost – be it of the failure since 1989 to combat corruption, strengthen state structures or reform welfare states so that those who fail in the brave new free-market world don't have to fear the abyss.

Who could blame the Belarusian in front of his television set watching all this (and keeping a wary eye on the far-from-perfect progress of reform in Ukraine or Georgia) for leaning over to his wife and whispering: "I think we should sit this one out"?

In bitterly cold Minsk some young people hold the European Union's blue-and-gold starred flag aloft – to them, the opposite of everything their ruler stands for – in their own gesture of solidarity. But isn't the message that the EU, or at least some of its member-states, is sending out today also one of protectionism and populism? The failure of the services directive exposed all the problems of bringing high- and low-cost national economies together into one single market. Sluggish economies such as Germany's have kept up the barriers to workers from the new member-states. Meanwhile, the process of ratification of the European constitution is stuck in the sidelines following the French and Dutch referenda of 2005.

At the same time, confident and high-growth economies like Ireland's are welcoming immigrant labour. This suggests that the solution to many of Europe's current problems must start with a refuelling of its economic dynamism: in particular, by spurring growth in the larger countries – France, Italy and Germany.

But will the current trend towards protectionism help? France, Spain and Italy are seeking to foster and safeguard "national champions" counter to the logic of the single market. In Germany too, the same impulses are at work. In France, hundreds of thousands of young people have come out to demonstrate against labour-market reform, and in a more widely defensive spirit.

Indeed the present revolt – like the rebellion of the immigrant banlieues in October-November – was heralded on 29 May 2005 when the French rejected the EU constitution in a gesture of disgust with their elites. The French are flirting with populism as they show an apparent inability to cope emotionally with the challenges of capitalism. The free-market project is suffering similar problems in several new member-states, most notably Poland.

Belarus appears to be most solid in its rejection of the free market and democracy. If that is to change then the major economies in the European Union must reform to regain their sense of drive. That renewed self-confidence can then be projected to the wobbly post-Soviet countries now part of a disparate EU, and supporters of the European project in Poland (and countries further east) will in turn gain arguments against the economic nationalists.

When all that happens, the beleaguered democrats in Belarus will begin to see the population lining up behind them. Until then, the mass of the population will stay at home watching Lukashenko on TV.

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