President Lukashenko appealed to the apparatchiks. They were fearful of the literati calling for human rights reforms, and raising the divisive issue of whether or not Russian should be Belarus’ official language, an issue that rankles to this day. He also seemed to rise above the intrigues of the post-1989 legislature, with his anti-corruption agenda, though post-mortems of his first campaign show that it was light on actual investigations, but high on image management.
The intimidation, vote-buying, media controls and physical violence observed since then had not yet come into the fore during this period. Lukashenko’s election in 1994 even offered hope that it would be a model for the other former Soviet republics, especially since the year before, tanks had besieged the offices of the Congress of People’s Deputies of Russia in Moscow. Even the Political Instability Task Force, a CIA-funded research group, judged that at the time, Belarusian political life was freer at its start than it was in Russia. Since 1997, the US agency’s project has ranked Belarus around the same level as it ranks Vietnam: better than North Korea and Saudi Arabia, but much, much lower than its EU neighbors, or even Putin’s Russia.
To Belarusians, Lukashenko’s security forces are men to be feared, but when compared with Putin’s FSB, they are not so bad … as long as you keep your head down. John Sweeney, author of the e-book Big Daddy, about the President’s rule, believes the 2011 Minsk Metro bombing was a false flag attack, part of a “strategy of tension” that claimed the lives of fifteen bystanders then and two young patsies executed in 2012. But in a country as badly mauled as Belarus was in the 1930s under Stalin, and then during WWII by Nazi occupiers (Lukashenko recently followed up on Putin’s New York Times op-ed about American exceptionalism by reminding an audience of what German exceptionalism did to the USSR in the 1940s, “people in the sticks may think [Lukashenko] is better than Hitler or Stalin, and not much worse than Putin.”
One only need look at Chechnya from 1991 on, or at Belarus’s own list of unresolved political disappearances, to understand why the fate of Lyuba Kovaleva’s son Vlad, one of those executed last year over the bombing, or of the families of individuals shot at night since independence with specially made executioners’ pistols, would garner so little sympathy from their fellow Belarusians. There are no suspect cover-ups in Belarus that people talk about in the same way that Russians discuss the 1999 apartment bombings that inaugurated the Second Chechen War, because crimes on such a scale have not occurred: that alone is enough for some to accept Lukashenko, while looking down on him as a “peasant” and a tyrant. Better the small-minded devil you know.
“The people of Belarus are not fools,” says Sweeney, and in particular “the people in Minsk know better” than to accept sweeping claims from the state about anything. But there is “no serious pressure from outside. Thus far Lukashenko has been smart at blunting, crippling or killing pressure from within.” He is at least, according to Sweeney, showing signs of fatigue: “back in 2001 he was more supple and subtle. A new protest, backed by the many, would see the end of him. But you need mass and a spark – and the KGB is good at putting out the sparks.” The 2010 elections – during the course of which several candidates and hundreds of demonstrators were detained – were the most serious challenge to the system in years, and Lukashenko weathered it no worse for wear.
There might be sparks, but even if the Belarusian KGB – named unchanged from from the 1954 Soviet incarnation – was worse at putting them out, the kindling is nonetheless damp. Since 1991, fear of turning out like Russia has discouraged calls for change, perhaps more than anything the unreformed secret police, or the OMON riot police, can threaten. If nothing else, it makes the jobs of those in uniform easier so long as protest turnout is neither overwhelming nor enduring because Belarusians aren’t demanding cheaper bread and warmer houses in addition to new elections and the release of political prisoners. It is not that conditions are so much better than they are in Russia; but given the widening gaps between rich and poor there, small wonder many Belarusians seem to accept the current state of economic affairs.
The former Soviet republic suffered employment problems enough when the bloated Soviet military-industrial complex collapsed, putting thousands of personnel in the new independent state out of work. As chronicled in Outlaws, Inc., which tells the history of former Soviet aircrews running guns and aid worldwide, discharged Red Air Force men turned to reselling surplus equipment on the black market, a billion-dollar business that began out of sheer desperation. Belarus has so far avoided the sort of crises that befell public sector employees in Russia in the late 1990s by pursuing a very limited privatization campaign. Whatever his true thoughts on the planned economy are as a former collective farm director, Lukashenko need not be a committed socialist to understand that releasing such market forces in his country – by allowing anything more than a few fast food places to open – could have the effect of putting thousands out of work and into the streets.
Belarus’ command economy’s guarantees of healthcare and housing stand in stark contrast to the helter-skelter privatization – or “piratization,” as Marshall I. Goldman has termed Russia’s 1990s economic reforms – that saw so many rich oligarchs close to President Yeltsin profit handsomely while ordinary citizens’ lost their pensions. Belarusians have not experienced hundreds of their factories being bought up, stripped down and shuttered by the newly rich, or seen stock shares they held in these companies become worthless overnight. That shock to the system – and resulting anger that Putin was able to use to turn the tables on many of the oligarchs once they outlived their usefulness – has not been present. There is a privileged upper class, of course – the families of the President’s entourage, plus his own relatives’ holdings – but while Sweeney says many see Lukashenko’s sons as thuggish princelings, the sons just does not seem to evoke the same level of public contempt among Belarusians that Yeltsin’s infamously corrupt daughters evoked among Russians.
And just as “many sophisticated Egyptians reason that Western political projects are ultimately more attuned to NATO security interests than Western ideals,” accounting for widespread mistrust of foreign NGOs working there, the view from Belarus is broadly similar when it comes to the foreign promotion of democracy, human rights, and those three dirty words that so often accompany the former: “the free market.” As EU and US donors have provided some Belarusian politicians and NGOs with grants, criticism depicting human rights activists, journalists, playwrights, and academics as being on Washington or Warsaw’s dole can be effectively deployed to silence these individuals.
Speaking of Warsaw, it appears that some Belarusians are heading there to seek their fortunes – or, at least, a living wage. The exodus from Belarus picked up after the 2010 elections, but has not turned into a torrent. Indeed, Belarusian border controls are often cited approvingly by supporters of Lukashenko whenever the EU mulls new sanctions (while at the same time cooperating with Minsk to interdict smuggling and undocumented persons.) But looking out at the rest of Europe, and at Russia in particular, Lukashenko does not seem like the worst possible fate.
As for longevity, if Vietnam is one point of comparison, then another East Asian communist state may be another. It is not China, though. Belarus, like the Romania that the BBC’s John Sweeney visited in the 1980s, will never agree to market reforms under its present leadership. North Korea is the model here, not for nukes (Belarus has none,) but on the principle of hereditary succession. The DPRK is three Kims in since the 1940s. In Belarus, Sweeney suggests, “a new dynasty is in the making” in which Lukashenko’s sons are being groomed to succeed him. Not that Batka – “Big Daddy” – is showing any signs of stepping down.
Photographs courtesy of El Bingle. Published under a Creative Commons license.