What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Last Dictatorship in Europe
Quello che (non) sappiamo sulla Bielorussia - L'Ultima Dittatura in Europa

Quello che (non) sappiamo sulla Bielorussia - L'Ultima Dittatura in Europa

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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 “Tempo di Seconda Mano“, 2013)

What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Last Dictatorship in Europe, An Unpredictable Past
Emblema Nazionale della Repubblica di Bielorussia

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.

Le prime elezioni presidenziali libere si sono svolte in Bielorussia il 23 giugno 1994, con un secondo turno di scrutinio il 10 luglio: ed hanno visto la vittoria di Lukashenko, contro il presidente uscente Vyacheslav Kebich, con una soglia di preferenze superiore all'80%.

Ma chi era stao Lukashenko fino ad allora?

Classe 1954, la sua carriera prima come soldato e poi come membro del PCUS non fu diversa da quella dei tanti Apparatiki che formavano la spina dorsale della burocrazia sovietica. Le cose cambiano nel 1990, quando per la prima volta viene eletto Deputato al Soviet Supremo di Bielorussia: da quella carica all'interno della nuova amministrazione, ora de facto ndipendente, egli, attraverso la sua eloquente retorica populista anticorruzione, riuscì a guadagnarsi una posizione ad interim come Presidente della Commissione anticorruzione del Parlamento Bielorusso.

Da quella posizione, cominciò ad accusare 70 ufficiali governativi di alto rango e molti altri funzionari, tra cui il presidente Stanislav Shushkevich e il Capo del Soviet supremo Vyacheslav Kebich di appropriazione indebita di fondi statali per uso personale: nonostante le accuse si rivelarono completamente infondate, Shushkevich si dimise per l'imbarazzo, lasciando Kebich a confrontarsi con lo stesso Lukashenko, che a quel punto non aveva più altri veri avversari nella sua ascesa al potere.

“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.

Come spesso accade in questi casi, non ci volle molto perché il nuovo presidente rivelasse il suo vero volto: due referendum, svoltisi nel 1995 e nel 1996, gli diedero il potere di sciogliere il Parlamento per decreto, e, dopo la crisi economica del 1998, che frantumò l'economia della Federazione Russa cosi come quella bielorussa, visto lo stretto legame tra i due paesi, Lukashenko ne approfittò per estendere il suo potere alla Banca Centrale della Bielorussia, che fu nazionalizzata e posta sotto il diretto controllo dei suoi lealisti, accusando i Paesi Occidentali di aver escogitato un complotto per sabotare il suo governo e quello della Russia.

What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Last Dictatorship in Europe, An Unpredictable Past
Aleksandr Lukashenko con Vladimir Putin, Presidente della Federazione Russa, dopo che il primo era appena stato rieletto Presidente della Bielorussia, Maggio 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:

What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Last Dictatorship in Europe, An Unpredictable Past
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.

What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Last Dictatorship in Europe, An Unpredictable Past
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!”

Ma qualcosa era cambiato in quegli anni.

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.

I vecchi slogan fanno più presa, soprattutto nelle grandi città (ma ancora molto nelle campagne); chi doveva scacciare i corrotti e gli oppressori era diventato a sua volta oppressore e corrotto; la decisione di mantenere un'economia modellata sul precedente modello sovietico si era rivelata una trappola che aveva bloccato lo sviluppo del Paese; gli alleati storici non potevano più sopportare Lukashenko, e trovarne di nuovi mantenendo invariato il regime era impossibile.

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.

Arriviamo così ai giorni nostri, e ai mesi appena trascorsi, in cui Lukashenko è stato riconfermato per un sesto mandato nel solito modo. Questa volta, però, le cose sono andate molto più storte di quanto previsto, ma ne parleremo nell'articolo finale.

Quindi grazie per la vostra attenzione e alla prossima volta.

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