What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Last Dictatorship in Europe

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“We are taking our leave of the Soviet era. Which is to say: from our own life.”

Svjatlana Aleksievič, (Incipit of “Second-hand Time“, 2013)

National Emblem of the Republic of Belarus

Here we are again, trying to understand the historical evolution of Belarus, from its indipendence in 1991, up to what is happening in recent months: to do so, it is impossible for us not to parallel the country’s journey with the figure of its president: Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko.

The first free presidential elections were held in Belarus on June 23, 1994, with a second round of ballot on July 10: they saw the victory of Lukashenko, against the outgoing president Vyacheslav Kebich, with a preference threshold of over 80%.

But who was Lukashenko until then?

Born in 1954, his career first as a soldier and then as a member of the CPSU was no different from that of the many Apparatiki who formed the backbone of the Soviet bureaucracy. Things change in 1990, when for the first time he was elected Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of Belarus: from that position within the new administration, now de facto independent, he, through his eloquent populist anti-corruption rhetoric, manages to earn an ad interim position of President of the Anti-Corruption Commission of the Belarusian Parliament.

From that position, he start accusing 70 high rank government officials and many other functionaries, including President Stanislav Shushkevich and the Head of the Supreme Soviet Vyacheslav Kebich of embezzling state funds for personal use: despite the accusations revealed completely unfounded, Shushkevich resigned due to embarrassment, leaving Kebich to confront Lukashenko himself, who then no longer had other real opponents in his rise to power.

“What happened today came as a sensation only to those who refused to face the truth about our country […] The poor and deprived people for the first time had a chance to elect somebody like them to this supreme post, and the people spoke” declared Lukashenko after his victory. After the separation from the Soviet Union, Belarus was in fact in a state of economic and social collapse: although Lukashenko did not have any kind of economic or deep reform program of the State, he managed to win by riding the mounting anger against “corrupted politicians” within the country.

As often happens in these cases, it did not take long for the new president to reveal his true face: two referendums held in 1995 and 1996, gave him the possibilty to dissolve the Parliament by decree, and after the economic crisis of 1998, which shattered the economy of the Russian Federation as the Belarusian one, given the close link between the two countries, Lukashenko took advantage of it to extend his power to the Central Bank of Belarus, which was nationalized and placed under the direct control of his loyalists, accusing the Western Countries of hatching a plot to sabotage his government and that of Russia.

Aleksander Lukashenko whit Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, after the first was reelected President of Belarus, May 2002

After being reconfirmed for a second term in the elections in 2001, also thanks to the concessions made to the Russian Federation of Vladimir Putin (also elected, in the year 2000, by popular acclaim, as a barrier against cecenian terrorism and corruption of the administration of Boris Yeltsin, who resigned on December 31, 1999), effectively giving russians the control over the strategic “Yamal – Europe” oil pipeline.

The growing isolation from the rest of Europe and the increasing dependence on Russia led the Lukashenko regime to react fiercely against the internal opposition, which in the meantime began to grow more and more. Obviously, within the country the consensus for the president existed and still exists: his most appropriate move in this sense, at least for the first period, was to avoid the direct passage to the market economy (as happened in Russia during the Yeltsin presidency) and, over the years, to keep intact the “Belarusian welfare state”, that is a mixture of patronage and maneuvers aimed at buying the consent of certain parts of the electorate.

In preparation for the electoral round of 2006, various political groups began to organize protests of various kinds , such as “The Day of Solidarity with Belarus”, held on October 16, 2005 from an idea of the journalist Irina Chalip and other pro-democratic organizations, such as “We Remember” and the youth movement “Zubr”: the organizers want the rest of the world to solidarize “with Belarusian political prisoners, the disappeared persons Jury Zacharanka, Viktar Hančar, Anatol Krasoŭski, and Dźmitry Zavadski, their families, and other advocates of a transition to representative democracy and to a market economy in Belarus.

“Let us all together switch off the light in our apartments for several minutes on October 16 evening, and put burning candles on the windows. We should imagine Belarus in which we could live. Maybe everything is to start with that. Dark cities, dark windows, where only shadows of burning candles are seen – this could become a mirror for us to see that we are really many!” (Irina Chalip)

When in 2006 the different parties found a single candidate, Aleksander Milinkevich, to be presented against Lukashenko in the presidential elections, he doesn’t take it well and says that “anyone going to opposition protests would have their necks wrung ‘as one might a duck‘”. Fear and violence gave Lukashenko a chance to “triumph” once again in the elections with 80% of the vote, despite the opposition being at its full potential and he carried on the protests for several days across the country. As the OSCE report explains:

Poster of the 2006 documentary “Lekcja białoruskiego” (A Lesson of Belarusian) by polish director Miroslaw Dembinski, depicting the violence occurred during the protest of 2005-2006

[Lukashenko] “permitted State authority to be used in a manner which did not allow citizens to freely and fairly express their will at the ballot box… a pattern of intimidation and the suppression of independent voices… was evident throughout the campaign”.

With the parliamentary elections of September 2008, the violence was replaced by the deliberate “bureaucratic hindrance” to the members of the opposition parties (another “idea” probably suggested by Moscow), so that they could not get any of the 110 seats in the Parliament , thus finding themselves cut off from the political life of the country: Lukashenko’s comment was, as usual, that the opposition was heterodirected from abroad, and that it was therefore right to remain outside the institutions.

“The West seeks dialogue with Lukashenko, but he is unreliable. He flirts with Europe only when he wants to intimidate and blackmail Putin to extort money from him. And it is absolutely unable to look to the West. If anyone does, they will be a younger leader, but I fear there will be no bloodless changing of the guard in Belarus.”

(from an interwiew of Rosalba Castelletti to the Nobel Prize winner Svjatlana Aleksievič, appeared on the italian newspaper “La Repubblica” on March 26th, 2016)

Lukashenko’s fourth (2010 – 2015) and fifth (2015 – 2020) presidential term were equally harbingers of violence, intimidation and “election tricks”. In 2010, two opposition candidates were severely beaten by the police, and, after protests in front of parliament, many others were jailed so that they could not stand for election: Andrei Sannikov, Alexander Otroschenkov, Ales Michalevic, Mikola Statkevich, and Uladzimir Nyaklyayew. Journalist Irina Chalip, was put under house arrest. Yaraslau Ramanchuk’s party leader, Anatoly Lebedko, was also arrested. Despite the release of political prisoners, the election for Lukashenko’s fifth term follow basically the same path.

Special police forces (OMON) surrounding protestors in Minsk in 2006. Over 40.000 marched on the Belarusian Government’s Building, chanting “Out!” and “Long live Belarus!”

But something has changed in those years.

The international situation was no longer the same that had characterized the first decade of 2000: Russia’s internal problems reverberated on Belarus, and so Lukashenko tried to approach Western countries, especially the European Union, a manouvre which in addition to failing its pourposes, aroused the ire of the Kremlin, which began exerting more and more pressure on Belarus and its president, through what is now called “Soft Power”, and which in Russian translates as “Veiled Threats” or “Backstabbing”. Secondly, the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 proved (with subsequent alternating fates, but that’s another story) that no one was “untouchable”, as several “Life-Term-Presidents” who settled in power in various Post-Soviet countries liked to think.

The old slogans no longer took root, especially in big cities (but still a lot in the countryside); whoever had to drive out the corrupt and oppressors had become oppressor and corrupt in turn; the decision to maintain an economy modeled on the previous Soviet model had turned out to be a trap which had blocked the development of the country; the historical allies could no longer bear Lukashenko, and making new ones while keeping the regime unchanged was impossible.

Like other post-Soviet leaders before and after him, Lukashenko worked his way to power through anger and resentment, and trapped himself and his citizens in a “Out of Time” country, until History began to move against him. This obviously does not mean that his regime has necessarily come to an end, but that the conditions for a change at the top are there, the question we could ask ourselves is whether all this will be positive: let’s remember that Lukashenko himself came to power by promising to oust the corrupt and end the abuses of the authorities.

Thus we come to the present day, and to the months just passed, in which Lukashenko was reconfirmed for a sixth term in the usual way. This time, however, things went even more wrong than expected, but we will talk about it in the final article.

So thanks for your attention and see you next time.

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