Who's the daddy?

Tom Burgis
1 May 2006

Just before the Belarusian elections in March, a panoply of the country's musical stars went on national television dressed in flamboyant white outfits. There, they sang a song which some commentators suggested was not entirely neutral. We reprint an NGO's translation in full, not least for its subtle poetics:

    He is a hard nut to crack,
    He wouldn't teach you anything wrong,
    He can call everybody to order,
    He is really cool,
    He can easily redress all grievances,
    He is reliable and calm.
    When you look at him, you can easily see
    Who is the master in the house.

    Na na na na na na…
    Listen to Batka!
    If you have problems
    Listen to Batka!
    If everything is fine…
    Listen to Batka!

Alexander Lukashenko's PR people (yes, even dictators need spinners these days) gave him the epithet batka during the 2001 election campaign. The word means "father". The problem – and the reason why openDemocracy's readers chose to give Lukashenko April's "bad democracy" award – is that he has taken his paternal image a little far.

Click here to view this month's list of Bad Democrats, and cast your vote today

Since he came to power in Belarus twelve years ago, Lukashenko has increasingly resembled a jealous dad.

By way of compulsory ideology lessons for students, he lectures his offspring in filial obedience. Deeming the daughters of Belarus fetching enough to sell anything, he has banned adverts that display the faces of foreign models. When the country's athletes failed to clinch the gold at the Nagano winter Olympics in 1998, the old man hurled abuse at the "biased" judges. His Patriotic Union of Youth, modelled on the Soviet Komsomol, evokes some grotesque doctrinal crèche. And, when hundreds of youngsters protested after presidential elections that were roundly condemned as rigged, he decided not to spare the rod.

A spot of psychoanalysis points to the roots of his tough-love approach to executive parenting: as his official biography reveals, Lukashenko was "reared without a father". Casting around in his youth for a male role-model, it seems he found an uncle to idolise – Uncle Joe.

March's dodgy poll has secured Lukashenko another seven years at the head of the national household. But, says Iryna Vidanava, young Belarusians so long cowed by their authoritarian batka are now growing in confidence.

"The 'batka' appeals to women in their 50s and 60s. It doesn't appeal to the young", says Vidanava, who edits Student Thought, one of the few independent publications to have survived draconian media suppression.

"If you're a young person, you don't listen to your parents, you resist them. You look to find your own place in the world. This energy was hidden for a while. Now it's out."

Don't miss the background to our prestigious Bad Democracy awards:



Winner of the first award: Silvio Berlusconi

Winner of the second award: John Howard

Winner of the third award: George W Bush

Winner of the fourth award: Meles Zenawi

Winner of the fifth award: Abu Laban

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Polls have consistently shown that less than a third of under-30s support the president. "Lukashenko was trying to create an atmosphere of overwhelming fear; what he actually created was a resistance."

Vidanava says the effect of the post-election crackdown on protests was to broaden the pro-democratic movement.

Friends and family of the young, denim-clad activists who were beaten and jailed have, she says, hopped on board. The campaign is coordinated, like youth movements everywhere, with blogs, flash-mobs and magazines like hers (though November's issue of Student Thought was confiscated on the grounds that it was printed in "dangerous ink").

"The laws of nature are on our side", Vidanava says. "Over time, demographics will work for us. That's why the focus of the democratic campaign is the urban youth. What we're seeing now is the panic of a dictator. And he should panic – he's out of time."

Of course, not all in Belarus is quite as Condoleezza Rice would have us think. Nor is the situation as simple as some would have us believe, who say Lukashenko's apparent popularity is based on some heroic rejection of western liberal economics. But one thing is clear: in Belarus, the kids are revolting.

They will, perhaps, chuckle to see Daddio in such inauspicious company. Before unveiling our latest crop of miscreants, let us glance for a moment at the fate of those who have so far faced the public scorn. At this, the halfway point of Bad Democracy's year, it seems readers' vim has been well directed.

The five winners preceding Lukashenko have felt the burn of opprobrium. Although no one seems to have told him, Silvio Berlusconi has been ousted. (He can at least console himself by indulging once more in connubial bliss.) Faced with allegations that he knew Australian companies were fiddling the Iraqi oil-for-food programme, December's winner John Howard's approval rating has slipped to 49%.

George Bush, the third man to scoop the gong, must dream of a rating that high. Roughly a third of Americans now consider the president is doing a good job – the same proportion that believes in ghosts. The international community that once saw February's winner Meles Zenawi as their latest darling have deserted him. Abu Laban, the imam with a distaste for cartoons and March's worst democrat, has been questioned by Danish coppers over allegedly mooting a plan to unleash "complete havoc".

Of the thirty-six nominees to date, fifteen have been roundly harangued by their publics since being nominated. Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra, caught with his fingers in the till, has been elbowed from power. In Nepal, unflinching street demonstrations in the face of cosh-wielding heavies have forced King Gyanendra to loosen his grip. Jack Abramoff is looking at doing his next round of networking from a jail cell.

But too many of those you have singled out for disgrace continue to swan around in a Mercedes Benz purchased with food-aid, to govern on the winks of cronies and generally to cackle in the face of democracy.

Here, then, are six of this month's most egregious offenders for your scrutiny. Two of them – the trustees of horribly bent but rarely criticised ex-Soviet "democracies" – highlight the hypocrisy that oils the diplomatic machine. Our pair of Asian nominees continue to believe that their peoples' democratic urge can be suppressed if you distract them with flash cars and very shiny buildings – a sentiment not lost on our fifth candidate, effectively the bailiff of globalisation. Finally, a leader whose tactics rarely involve nuanced economic pressures – why bother, when state-controlled radio declares that you are "a god … who can kill anyone without being called to account"?

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