Springtime for Lukashenka?

Effective opposition in Belarus has traditionally been limited by a limited sense of nationhood, a deeply controlled society and a social contract that exchanges rights for “stability”. The country’s deepening financial crisis undermines all three of these pillars. Could it be that the time for change has come, wonders Janek Lasocki?

Janek Lasocki
29 June 2011

Belarus is a country that doesn't often make the headlines. It is, after all, not known for its football teams or its Eurovision entries; it has a less than negligible tourism industry, no natural resources of its own and no vocal Diaspora to make a fuss on its behalf. Compared with any of its neighbours, Belarus seems distinctly lacking. Its one “commodity”, as one analyst recently put it, is its leader's “image as Europe's last dictator”. As summer draws closer, however, this medium-sized economy is being tested by an unprecedented financial crisis, which, coupled with a sharp increase in repression and a return of EU sanctions, has led some to ask whether the tide of peaceful revolution could finally come – and succeed – in Belarus.

15 June 2011 protest

Is opposition to Belarus's authoritarian regime growing? This demonstration in Minsk on 15 June 2011 followed the sizeable and mercilessly surpressed election protest of 19, 20 December 2010. (Photo: Demotix / Uladz Hrydzin)

Authoritarianism, but not as you know it

To an outsider, Belarus can seem surprisingly normal and functioning for a regime routinely described in similar terms to any number of authoritarian regimes in the developing world. A few weeks ago colourful bunting was up in Minsk for “Victory Day”, streets were bustling in the sun, street cafes were filling up and couples were holding hands and smiling. You could visit this perfectly dull city before the crisis and yet really have to know where to look in order to find what the commotion is all about. There may be widespread cynicism about the chinovniki (bureaucrats) and their privileges, but there is little to indicate a rich-poor divide. Economic basics seem to be present: there is food in the shops and people have jobs. Cinemas also show the latest American blockbusters and internet access is largely unimpeded. People don't complain about the state of higher education or public transport. You can grow up, it seems, in relative comfort.

That is, unless you should show a desire to get involved in any type of independent political activity.  For this is also country that routinely expels students brave enough to go and protest for any cause, recruits people to inform on their friends, imprisons journalists and campaigners on the most farcical of charges for months or years at a time, and is led by a man who blames all problems on foreign conspiracies. Elections have been repeatedly falsified and Belarusians (and neighbours) have been but teased with pretences of liberalisation. Most recently, multiple candidates were allowed to 'contest' the presidency with even had access to some television coverage. But the result was never really in doubt, and when a crowd at least 10,000 strong came out on election night, 19 December, the candidates and hundreds of others were detained, many beaten. Today, not far from the same sunny bustling streets, a conveyor belt of political trials are sentencing many of these to years in prison.

President Lukashenka's social contract with the
people of Belarus has relied on economic
stability in return for political tyranny. With the
economy now in dire straits, will his authority begin
to decline?

For many Belarusians this is part and parcel of the social contract President Lukashenka guarantees: limited freedoms in exchange for stability and relative prosperity. Both now seem threatened. The atmosphere of stability was violently punctured when an explosion ripped through the busiest metro station in Minsk in circumstances that lead many to doubt the government investigation. And people are also starting to doubt whether their “prosperity” can withstand the current crisis caused by rapidly falling hard currency reserves, a lack of competitiveness, and a large trade deficit. The talk on state television and between friends is of bailouts which do not seem to be coming quickly enough and which, even if they are forthcoming, may still not save the situation.  Belarusians are genuinely worried about how much worse it could get. That uncertainty scares them.

Stubbornly Soviet

And yet Belarusians seem on the whole incredibly apathetic, uninvolved and content accepting the status quo. Demonstrations and opposition movements in different forms have blossomed at different times across the former Soviet world, sometimes just opening up the political space to different public opinion, sometimes forcing a change in government: think back to events in Moldova, Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan, or most recently the significant demonstrations in Armenia, Georgia and Russia itself. For many it seems curious that this has not happened in Belarus. Revolutionary public unrest and major organised opposition is usually rooted in poor or declining economic conditions and then a spark, for example a falsified election or a vendor setting himself aflame. But there are reasons why effective opposition was always less inevitable in Belarus and why even this impending crisis isn't likely to bring the “spirit of Tahrir Square” to Minsk. 

"The regime controls the economy, bribes students with course places and crucially controls employment, with one-year contracts, which can quickly be terminated in the event of any unwelcome political activity, the norm in the public sector."

First, Belarusians have a weak sense of nationhood, as a result of which there is neither a tradition of activism nor a strong motivating shared identity. 1991 witnessed the emergence of the first viable independent Belarusian state. The nationalists who took power traced Belarusian heritage back to the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was succeeded by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But although the Ruthenians (or Rus'ians), today's Belarusians, made up the largest ethnic group in both, after the sixteenth century it was Polish that became the language, culture and self-identity of the elites. The region was then Russianised after the partitioning of the Commonwealth. The complex intertwining and changing relationships between peoples and identity in this part of Europe is well explained by Professor Timothy Snyder. As he writes in The Reconstruction of Nations, “Belarusian peasants regarded Polish (and as time passed Russian) as languages of attainment...to advance from the peasantry into society was to speak and become Polish or Russian.”

Lublin Union

Jan Matejko's painting The Union of Lublin, depicting the 1569 union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, incorporating today's Belarus. Historically Belarus has far weaker a sense of national identity than its neighbouring countries, which may explain apparent apathy in the face of the regime's Soviet-style despotism.

From this weak position, Belarusian intellectualism developed in the nineteenth century (envisioning Vilnius as its capital), culminating in the short lived National Republic in 1918. Stalin’s purges then effectively eliminated the nationalists, any remnants of which were destroyed during World War II. All this has meant that a modern nation state, as commonly understood, has not materialised. Instead there is a pliant Soviet-educated population with small, dispersed organisations (such as the Belarusian National Front, BNF, and independent newspaper Nasha Niva) which struggle passing on the legacy of the intellectuals of the past. The majority do not speak Belarusian as their main day-to-day language, while there is no single religion nor a Belarusian national day that unites the people. Meanwhile President Lukashenka now models himself as a guarantor of the sovereignty of a new Belarus in competition with the opposition’s vision.

It is easy to take for granted that most European peoples have a strong concept of nationhood passed down through generations, or regional or religious collective loyalty, with a built up intellectual base and familial traditions of activism. Tales of common struggles and common heroes can be invoked in a common language and this tradition was key in pushing for change in countries such as Poland. Belarusians lack this kind of tradition. Most never felt the Soviet Union was an occupying power but rather that they were enjoying unprecedented living standards and empowerment. This is a major factor feeding into the inability to create a coherent, appealing alternative for Belarusians, with the opposition described by one observer as “a ragtag mix of idealists, has-beens, never-weres, turncoats, nationalist extremists, and eccentrics” – although it would be unfair to dismiss valiant if disparate efforts by these groups.

Ordinary life in Belarus

Belarus is often considered the most Soviet of the
FSU republics. A majority view the Soviet Union not
as an invading force, but a proud system that
empowered the weak and offered better living
standards.  (Photo: Demotix / Julia Kommisaroff)

Second, Belarus today is a deeply controlled society with a regime that strives to submit every aspect of the lives of its citizens to a vertical that leads ultimately to the presidential palace. This is control over access to the media and informed analysis, over decisions of nominally non-governmental organisations, over movement of people, investment and jobs. There is also the gargantuan machine of the KGB which aims to know everything on everyone. This means some live in genuine fear, while others have resigned themselves to every day uncertainty or to simple apathy.

Access to information is controlled via the domination of state press and television, which is almost Stalinist in its portrayal of reality. Foreign media is not easily accessible while independent journalists struggle with press badges, advertising and occasional detaining, if their paper is not actually summarily shut down, which the regime is able to do at will. Freelancer Tatiana Bublikova, whose blog gained a following after the “election”, was detained for two weeks in December and knows she was better treated than many of her colleagues who were beaten. When she was finally released, she lived in paranoia for weeks, feeling unable to open her door or pick up the phone. The fear goes away, she says, but you know the threat is ever-present and that they could be back. Andrei Dynko, editor of independent paper Nasha Niva, was working in mid-renovation offices, scribbling notes to to cover the first political trials in April when he suddenly got the call: they were closing the paper down (and the only other independent paper, Narodnya Volya, which had only been able to re-open in 2008). Mobile phones and internet connections have to be registered by name and can be tapped at will. Many on 19 December were detained simply because their phone was detected in the area. Legally registered NGOs are aware that their offices are bugged and now a new decree requires all men to put their fingerprints on record. This monopoly on information kills informed debate and the most well-intentioned Belarusians come to absurd conclusions like members of the state-backed youth organisation BRSM who believe their future is with the EU but are convinced their president is the one to take them there. Even discounting the current regime, few Belarusians understand how else life could be. EU visas seem prohibitively expensive to them and life in the west is consequently very remote.

December 2010 protest

Activism is undoubtedly growing amongst young
people, but the regime's control over employment is
an effective enough counter-balance.
(Photo: Demotix / Kseniya Avimova)

The regime controls much of the economy, with up to 70% state owned. Movement is restricted, as are any public gatherings that are preceded by interviews with the KGB. Students are bribed or blackmailed with course places and accommodation (as happened in many universities during in December). Key, however, is how places of employment are controlled. One-year contracts that can quickly be terminated are the norm in the public sector. This is what stops so many people coming out, knowing how much they are risking. Neither Anna, a teacher with two young sons, nor Dmitry, a commuting builder who needs to pay for this wedding this summer and aspires to go to university, have any faith in the regime. Yet they know that they cannot risk being “brave”. The KGB’s efficiency in wearing people down showed at this year’s Chernobyl March, which was a damp squib of a gathering, unnoticeable in the suburbs. Many young activists now plan to find new jobs or emigrate, disheartened by lack of any success. Seeing all this, it is hard not to leave Belarus pessimistic, as indeed many analysts and diplomats dealing with the country remain.

What lies ahead

In the coming months we know that the state economy will continue to feed a sense of uncertainty as the situation gets worse. This will happen with a significantly weakened opposition and media and a continued international spotlight on the Southern Mediterranean. Indeed it is easy to paint a grim picture for Belarus, but it would be wrong to see Belarus as hopeless and eventual change as unachievable. The key is to loosen the regime’s stranglehold over life and for an active society to develop.

Ultimately, even if Lukashenka were to vanish, Belarusian society has to be willing and able to change its mindset. Quietly though, there does seem to be a new generation of dynamic groups and individuals building a more modern Belarusian idea. Based in the capital, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) withstands KGB attention to bring together journalists for seminars, training, networking and rights defending. Many members work with foreign media or cannot be registered but work to support the independent press, printed and online. The digital magazine 34 is non-political but was forced to stop publishing so went online and to CD format, determined to continue. Its young editorial board brings together culture and intellectual discussion. There are interesting initiatives on a new national idea bringing together the nationalist and Soviet legacies by those leading the Belarusian delegation the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, most symbolically bringing together the two competing national flags. This being the age of the internet especially young people are using web news sites and blogs and new forums for discussion are popping up such as the “national programme” founded this year by the movement headed by former presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich. Numerous other, less high-profile projects are taking place regionally, from community activities for pensioners, to training initiatives for young writers and environmental work.  

That society is changing in its attitude and awareness is demonstrated by statistics that show that compared with 2006 (when the last presidential election was held), more Belarusians are distrustful of their President and pessimistic about the economy, and a majority would now support EU accession. This is probably caused by the numbers of those watching cable TV and using the internet, which have both shot up, as well as a rise in the numbers travelling abroad. Although these changes are gradual, it is possible to foresee this speeding up with an ever-deteriorating economy and more effective help from outside actors such as the EU. 

History has bequeathed Belarusians its current society and state, and we should understand that the context there is different to other countries with which Belarus is often compared. But this is no way means they deserve any less than other Europeans. While we must hope that in the future Belarusians will pro-actively take their fate into their own hands, it would be wrong to expect that in today’s circumstances. At the same time we cannot forget the growing, albeit gradually, number of those who yearn for an alternative and those working innovatively and tirelessly in that direction. Belarus is not a black hole where everyone is the same. As outsiders, we should be realistic in our expectations, but optimistic in our efforts to bring Belarusians closer to Europe.

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