Tag Archives: Belarus

The “Eternal Gulag”, a look inside Post-Soviet Countries resistance to changes

“Speaking in London with Mikhail Khodorkovskij we said to ourselves that we realize one thing. If a person has been in the Soviet Gulag, as soon as he leaves he cannot be free, he does not know what freedom means. The bandits have taken over and we continue to live by the rules of the Gulag. We can only prepare people for the future which could be quite far away.”

(Svjatlana Aleksievich, in an interview by Fabrizio Dragosei for the italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, March 28, 2017)

Welcome Back to Unpredictablepast.com,

This article is intended to be what we could define as the conclusion of the events concerning the protests in Russia, generated by the attempted murder of the main opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his subsequent arrest and conviction, through a lightning trial with fairly motivations and questionable sentence. As usual, when I say “conclusion”, I am not referring to the fact that the movement of events is over, and that I will stop following it in detail, but that the right moment has arrived to draw some conclusions from the facts previously analyzed.

Inside there will also be some reflections on Belarus, and on other ex-Soviet countries that have experienced similar events and of which it is good to talk again, also in this case trying not to limit ourselves strictly to the facts and trying to observe everything in the most wide range possible, and every possible example will help us in analyzing the situation, and to do this, we will go through a series of points that most of the situations considered so far have in common:

Державничество (Dierzavnichestva)

An incomprehensible term for a Westerner, but one that is crucial if one wants to understand what is the heart of the problem in some post-Soviet countries, above all the Russian Federation. Often, especially in English texts, it is simply translated as statism or, at times, nationalism: an error in my opinion, not just because russian language has specific terms to indicate statism (этатизм, etatiszm), nationalism (национализм, nazionaliszm) or patriotism (патриотизм, patriotiszm).

This word has a different meaning, however, in the sense that it includes and amplifies the previous terms and can be translated with the paraphrase “Either [Russia] is great, or it is not”. A concept that could be assimilated in some way to the politics of the French “Grandeur”, with the difference that, while progressively the latter succeeded in a more or less tragic way (think only of Algeria and what was called Indochina) to come to terms with the end of a historical era, that of Imperial Colonialism, the Russian Federation, which since 1989 has inherited much of what was the Soviet Union, has not been able to do so.

The issue certainly deserves a detailed study, but, speaking of the reasons that led to the current situation, it necessarily deserves a prominent position, as essentially all the others derive from it. If you think about the most important international events in the last twenty years, you will realize for yourself how this ontological vision of a state based on its “prestige” (the term is used by George Orwell in one of his most important writings, Notes on Nationalism) was the main impediment to a “normalization” of Russia within the world context, and also within it: every attempt made in this direction (yes, even by Vladimir Putin) has crashed into this insurmountable wall created by a Past that has progressively become both Present and Future.

The desperate attempt not to lose a prominent role as a Superpower can be found hidden in every attitude of the Russian government: from foreign policy, still mainly governed by a more or less veiled hostility towards the West, to the series of murders or attacks carried out towards political dissidents. Everything refers to an image of Undisputed Power, or at least of “new bipolarism” or “new Cold War” that the ruling class wants to give of the country, making it explicit both with concrete actions (but, to note, without ever exceeding), and through the propaganda that rages especially on the web (to date, the flagship product is the infamous Sputnik V vaccine).

Even smaller countries closely linked to Russia (such as many of those of the former USSR or adhering to the Warsaw Pact) still have similar problems, albeit in a “reduced” version: Belarus is a perfect example (in the articles I have I wrote about it extensively), but also the countries of Central Asia (those that Erika Fatland wittily defined as Sovietistan) have been heavily affected by this attitude: “imitative” in domestic politics and “limiting” in foreign policy.

Centralization of Powers

The second question which, in my opinion, is an obstacle to any change is that of the centralization of powers and the consequent “messianic” vision that is generated within the population, including both “the average man” and “the ‘intellectual”.

This problem stems from both historical reasons and purely political intentions. Without the need (as is done in some cases) to go back to Kievan Rus’, to the Mongols and so on, if you look at what was the “feeling” one breathed in the few years in which the decline of the USSR took a strong acceleration until its dissolution, it can be seen that the element that terrified those who at the time lived the events in the first person, was the terror of a civil war, especially within the RSFR. Once the Central Power lost its grip on a territory of such vastness and heterogeneity, the fear was not only justified, but concretely realized: not at the level, for example, of the Civil War following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but, for example, with the birth of movements with a strong ethno-nationalistic or religious connotation, which once the Soviet “Mastiff” disappeared recalled the ancient hostilities and unleashed a myriad of local conflicts, just think of the Caucasus area, where the conflicts and animosities of ethnic, nationalistic, religious are still there to make the whole area a powder keg.

The political clash between parties and factions was also very strong, fueled by both these fears and by the disastrous “economic transition” implemented by Yeltsin, leading to the “Constitutional Crisis” (in fact an attempted coup by some high grades of the Army, then used by Elstin as a pretext to center all the powers on himself, as the President of the Russian Federation) of 1993, resolved with the shelling of the Parliament, an episode that, in hindsight, became a tragic preamble of the following years.

The White House (The building in which the Russian Parliament reunites) burning after being shelled by artillery fire

Matter of fact, when Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation at the eve of the new millennium, he found the way cleared to do what he wanted, or rather, what, as we will see, the country expected from him.

His figure should have put an end to the internal clash by acting as a balance in the “redistribution” of powers, which subsequently led to the hypertrophic expansion of the presidential cabinet to the detriment of the constitutionally appointed bodies to guide the Russian Federation, which in the course of the years have become “facades”: legally they exist and their powers are constitutionally legitimized and regulated, de facto, everything passes through the presidential entourage (a body that only with the last referendum had a sort of de jure legitimacy) which imposes its decisions to all other state bodies.

“Political Messianism”

And it is precisely from this centralization of powers on the figure of the Head of State that another problem arises that should not be underestimated: “Political Messianism“.

If it is true that historically the Russians have had a very close and personal relationship with the figures in power, this is something that is more part of a medieval legacy than of a democracy (even under construction, as it was at the time). This is because in the population the conviction is created that only the apex of power can act on public life, disempowering them and at the same time generating peaks of ecstasy at every regime change and profound resignation in the following period: Gorbachev, Yeltsin and finally Putin have had all this “sacred aura”, which heralded an epochal change, then regularly disappointed. Of the three, the last is the only one who made sure that this aura was continually renewed in some way (and he did, for better or for worse).

In this sense, citizens are beginning to get used to this ambivalent thought: on the one hand, there is no alternative to the current state of affairs, or there is fear that the change will be disregarded and will lead the country towards disaster; on the other hand, the change at the top is seen as a New Advent, in the Christian sense of the term, something inevitable and that will surely open the doors to the Golden Age by sweeping away Evil. Both attitudes are the furthest away from a democratic process: they reflect an almost monarchical attitude towards power, the activity of the citizen is limited to being for or against a power that, although perceived in a highly personal, it remains something inaccessible, untouchable, but above all not contestable.

Political Messianism does not look at political figures in rational terms, but in emotional terms, which makes any public debate worthy of the name useless: everything is reduced to a Manichaeism that sees the Rightful on one side and the Damned on the other, creating a climate of perennial tension in which the entire social body is involved on a daily basis. We cannot know if Alexey Navalny will be the next President, or at least if he’s movement will led to a political change, but it does not matter as long as the centralization process is not reversed and the figure of the Man of Providence does not come to decline in the eyes of the population.

Corruption

As I have already stated, fighting corruption, especially in those countries where it is endemic, such as Russia (in fact, since the Soviet Union). But as usual, “the devil hides in the details”: perhaps few remember that, but corruption was one of the biggest problems even during the governments of Boris Yeltsin, a period in which the notorious figures of the “Oligarchs” emerged, of which “Tsar Boris” had to secure economic support especially during his second term, making many concessions to them, to the point that some went directly into the presidential cabinet or the government. Putin himself, at the time the right arm of the mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak, was embroiled in shady deals concerning the embezzlement of Western aid together with his boss, doing his utmost when he lost his power due to his own illness to make him expatriate.

St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchack and a young Vladimir Putin 
Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

This is why he was chosen as Yelstin’s successor. No machinations of the KGB / FSB, or other sort of spy-story conspiracies: two things were expected from him, a safe conduct for the President (also too ill to fulfill his duties) and for his family, and a continuity with Yeltsin’s line on power management. But those who hoped to be able to maneuver “Volodiya” at will, soon realized that they had made a big mistake.

Starting from his second term as President of the Federation, Putin unleashed the judiciary (in the meantime passed almost entirely under the control of the presidential entourage) against the Oligarchs: lightning trials, heavily mediated, found many of them guilty of financial crimes, causing them to end up in imprisonment or forcing them into exile, and, more importantly, the state seized their properties by reassigning them to the new “circle” that Putin had created in the first years of government. Thanks to this “Witch Hunt” its popularity skyrocketed, both at home and, unfortunately, in the West, a first sign, of which few realized, that the idea of ​​a democratic Russia had been set aside and that also in countries where the rule of law was not just a facade, something had changed, and liberal democracy had begun to be devoured by the cancer of the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”.

In Belarus, Lukashenko seize his personal power more or less in the same way: as we already saw in the essay on his ascent to power, he uses his position to launch a massive anti-corruption campaign, which basically cut off the head of the Belarusian State, and replace them whit himself.

Today, in both countries, the corrupt have changed, but not the system of corruption, which is inevitably linked to the concentration of power and the maintenance of a balance of forces that move under the apparently granite skin of the administration. We also have someone else who, very naively, thinks of eliminating corruption by eliminating the corrupt: whoever succeeds Vladimir Putin, tomorrow or ten years from now, will have to seriously ask themselves the question, and put it in front of the population, or the cycle will simply start again from the beginning.

Et Pluribus Unum

A third point never dealt with in a democratic way is the heterogeneity and complexity of territories, ethnic groups and religions that make up Russia, just as the relationship with the other former Soviet Republics has never been dealt with in the same way.

This attitude has mainly two reasons: the first, the more concrete one, is that many of the regions that claim more autonomy, or at least a more decentralized federal system, are strategic for the economic survival of the Federation, which is entirely based on the export of materials. the first that come largely from the transural territories, but whose control in the years passed, as mentioned, to Moscow, or, even better, to the circle created around the President. We have seen how, even during the pandemic emergency, resources continued to be drained from these territories in exchange for meager state subsidies and the burden of managing an unprecedented health crisis.

The second reason is that of the “prestige” of the “Dierzavna”: Vladimir Putin, in particular, represented, compared to his predecessor, the “champion” of the unity of the Russias, starting from the beginning of his mandate, which coincided with the Second Chechen war, passing through the war with Georgia up to the invasion of the Ukrainian territories considered “natural part of Russia”. A symbolism that is progressively decaying, due to the increasing intolerance of some Regions towards the central government, and above all because of the economic power of China, which is slowly eroding Russia’s influence on some territories, without this being able to counter it in any way.

The Russian Federation in this has inherited the behavior of the USSR in all respects, exchanging tanks and guns with threats of an economic or psychological war, but the principle remains the same and indeed, makes everything a house of cards even more shaky, with unpredictable consequences.

Smaller former Soviet republics have adopted the same attitude over the years: the confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh that I have repeatedly spoken of is the most striking example. Power is based on the ability or not of the rulers to gain prestige and superiority over the Enemy, seen as an atavistic nemesis with which there is no compromise: yesterday Ilham Aliyev was a hated corrupt autocrat, today a national hero, in the same way, his counterpart Pashinyan was the hero of the Velvet Revolution, now a traitor who lost Artsakh. There are places where coexistence is not impossible, it has been made impossible in order to rise to power and keep it at the expense of the population.

Lack of concern about Liberal Democracy

In conclusion of what has been written so far, you can understand how much the discussions made around Russia and other countries in recent months take on surreal connotations, at least as far as I’m concerned. We have pages after pages of analysis, forecasts, hypotheses with a common substrate: the constant avoidance of concrete problems.

Those who, including me, deal with these events, should try to free themselves from a debate that feeds the problems, rather than trying to solve them. This does not mean not taking a position or boasting an alleged objectivity, but understanding how much we are personally involved and why, without thinking of being immune to it just because we know a little more than the average reader. This would not only help those who try to fight seriously so that their country comes out of a situation considered unsustainable, but also to notice how much this attitude goes to question our beliefs, and personal prejudices, which contribute to fuel the problem, making it endemic.

This is the “Eternal Gulag” in which the post-Soviet countries have fallen (and they are not the only ones, but this is another story): a continuous struggle between factions that slaughter each other to divide increasingly scarce resources, under the close surveillance of guards “ideological”, armed and threatening, which do not let anyone leave the camp and do not send news from the outside world, which in the meantime is moving forward.

Can the West Really Save Belarus?

“Even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice.”

(George Orwell, 1984)

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during their November 26 meeting in Minsk. (Nikolai Petrov/BelTA)

Welcome Back to UnpredictablePast.com,

Let’s go back to Belarus, as promised, in case there was something new on the horizon. But this time I can go more straight to the point of the question, as the historical and social context has already been dealt with extensively.

Two recent events mainly brought me back to the issue: the first is an appeal to the West (therefore the United States and the European Union) made by the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to intensify the sanctions against the regime and thus push Lukashenko to yield, and the second, again in this sense, is the possibility put in place by the dictator himself to reform the Constitution and leave the office of president after 26 years, probably under pressure from Russia, and because, as I stated previously, something is falling apart within that part of the state that has remained faithful to him: the security apparatus.

Also, I happened to read this article by Natalia Radina on chapter97.org, titled “The Battle That Defines The Fate Of The Planet” or “Why the West Should Save Belarus”, and more than why it makes me wondered on how. yet, because in all this, there is still an unsolved question, to which everyone seems to avoid asking for an answer: what is the future of post-Lukashenko Belarus?

This is not a question I would like to ask analysts or experts, and it is not an “experiment” for making predictions (which, as you know, I am very suspicious of), but a serious request to the Belarusian Coordination Council and its members, that I have decided to put here in writing, who knows that it will not be possible to clarify:

1. Will the future Belarus try to join/get close to the European Union?

2. What will the relations of the future Belarusian government be with Russia?

3. What is the position of the Coordination Council on capital punishment?

4. Will a new Constitution be drawn up, taking into account the problems of the past one (eg, will “super-presidentialism” be overcome)?

5. How does a possible new government intend to relate to the bureaucracy and state apparatus build up during the past 26 years and currently in power?

6. How would a possible new government regulate itself on transparency and accountability issues (eg Covid-19 Pandemic numbers)?

7. What will the relations between State and Church be? Which ones with minorities and LGBT communities?

8. How will the new government approach the economic reforms needed to modernize the country?

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya delivers a speech as she holds a picture of politician and political prisoner Mikalay Statkevich while receiving the Sakharov human rights prize at the European Parliament in Brussels on December 16.

Obviously the previous questions must be taken according to the criterion of the right / duty to report. I am absolutely in favor of the end of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s reign of terror, and in solidarity with those who are unfairly in prison, exile, or who continue to suffer physical and psychological abuse, but this is not enough: the Belarusians seem willing to change their rulers, but they are equally willing to change their your lifestyle?

Unfortunately, sooner or later, even the most genuine idealism will have to face the reality of a country that has remained closed in on itself for almost thirty years, and which will inevitably begin to come under pressure from all sides, political and economic. This I have already explained in previous articles. It is not enough to speak of democracy for it to magically materialize, or of renewal for those who are closely linked to the old apparatus to give way.

The activism of the Belarusian opposition has done something extraordinary, but now is the time to put the cards on the table. Yes, as Tsikhanouskaya said, European leaders coul be more “brave”, but the issue for the moment remains in the hands of the Belarusian people and how strong their desire for change is.

Otherwise, the next “Lukashenko” is around the corner, it will only be a matter of time.

What we (now) know about Belarus – Shadows of the Past

It’s wrong to compare what’s happening to Kiev’s facts. In Ukraine people fought for independence. The antirussian feeling was the triggering factor of the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the 2014 Majdan revolt. This protest has a totally different appearance, purely material. It is a bread-uprising. The idea of freedom and independence in Belarus is not as strong as it is in Ukraine.

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

A poster displays the symbols of the united 2020 opposition campaign in Belarus (« we love, we can, we’ll win »). The Word “Вместе” means “Together” Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons

Welcome back my Friends,

This will be the third and last article concerning Belarus, not that we will stop dealing with it entirely, but here I would like to conclude the historical path that has brought us to the present day and add some reflections perhaps to be developed more extensively in specific articles: as you will have understood, when it comes to the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, nothing is as simple as it appears from the outside.

In the previous article we described Lukashenko’s rise to power and how he governed without too many problems until 2010, the year in which an increasingly strong opposition movement began to manifest itself, but which he always managed to repress, both through dirty (and violent) methods, but also thanks to the consent it continued to enjoy among a certain part of the population.

So what has changed this time?

The answer to this question obviously has multiple facets, but we can easily start with the most immediately evident one: the disastrous management of the SARS-COV2 Pandemic. On March 16, while the virus had spread across half the world, Lukashenko, interviewed by the Moscow Times, downplayed the potential danger represented by the spread of the virus and encouraged the population to “Drive tractors and work in the fields [… ] the tractors take care of everything, the work in the fields takes care of everything “(!), he states that playing Hokey is “better than antiviral therapy” and that the virus can be “poisoned” with Vodka and Saunas.

To date, official estimates give 77,289 infected and 813 deaths, but as we have already said, the Belarusian government is not very accustomed to transparency, indeed, on July 22, the President of the Central Electoral Commission of Belarus, Lidia Yermoshina, announced a strong limitation to the number of election observers due to epidemiological reasons (of an epidemic that, according to her government, does not exist).

The regime had no qualms about using the pandemic as an excuse to increase its control over the population: Sergey Lazar, chief of the Vitbesk Clinical Emergency Hospital was removed on April 30, shortly after publicly criticizing the government for the scarce countermeasures against the pandemic and the lack of adequate protective medical material for doctors. On the previous March 25th, the editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Yezhednevhik was arrested on charges of taking bribes, three days after an article that harshly criticized the Belarusian government and its reaction to the spread of the virus. On 11 May, two young activists from the Youth Bloc (Молодёжный Блок) were sentenced to 13 and 5 days of administrative detention respectively for participating in the protests calling for the cancellation of the Victory Day parade on 9 May, to prevent the contagion spread within the gigantic gathering.

Youth Bloc activists marching with a coffin alongside the military column during the 9 May Victory Day Parade rehearsal.

When the money runs out, Patriotism comes out.

(Anonymous, reported in “Second-Hand Time” by Svjatlana Aleksievič)

“And when Patriotism ends, the anti-riot departments come out”, I might add. As we stated earlier, the Lukashenko regime has survived for 26 years thanks to three factors: the maintenance of a strong “welfare state” network (but in the Soviet version, don’t think of something like social-democracy), the strong link with the Ideology and symbology of the USSR, and finally, a strong, faithful and efficient internal security apparatus.

But if we can learn anything from Belarusian history, it is just that it is impossible, no matter how hard we try, to keep a country “Out of Time” in this way.

The Belarusian welfare state began to collapse already in 2015, when the government was forced to reduce benefits and tax the unemployed – addressed as “social parasites”(!), making the regime much less popular in this respect; Patriotism, in the hard and pure image of the President, began to waver when he himself tried to implement what is called “multivectorialism” in foreign policy (or put your own foot in two shoes): the visit, on February 26, by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must not have been liked by those who have been educated to believe that the West is constantly conspiring to destroy your country. The same reason is behind Lukashenko’s refusal of almost all economic aid from abroad, which had clauses including lockdown and contagion limitation measures (and which would have forced the government to “back down” on its previous statements). What remains then?

A protester holds an old Belarusian national flag as he stands in front of police line during a rally after the Belarusian presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Police and protesters clashed in Belarus’ capital and the major city of Brest on Sunday after the presidential election in which the authoritarian leader who has ruled for a quarter-century sought a sixth term in office. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Correct: the departments of the Security Apparatus (OMON – Отряд Мобильный Особого Назначения, Mobile Special Police Unit), which went into action immediately after the declaration of Lukashenko’s victory (and even before, with the incarceration and intimidation of the members of the opposition, this time decidedly more convinced of a possible victory, or in any case of being able to bring Lukashenko to the negotiating table, without being completely ignored), who have arrested over 3,000 people across the country, and have made us witness the various brutalities they are capable of against unarmed protesters.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at a rally in Vitebsk on 24 July 2020

Unitary opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who took the leadership of the anti-government front after the arrest of her husband, popular youtuber and activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, was forced, after several threats against her and her family, to repair in Lithuania, and then in Poland.

From there, the Belarusian activist asked for, and obtained, that the victory in the elections be recognized by the countries of the European Union, which, under the pressure of the Lithuanian Parliament, responded to Lukashenko’s violence by imposing economic sanctions on Belarus and recognizing Tsikhanouskaya “as elected leader of the people of Belarus” and the recently established “Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power” as the “only legitimate representatives of the Belarusian people”. The resolution also declares that Lukashenko is an “illegitimate leader”.

On the other hand, the presence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia has returned to make itself felt, which, despite not having much sympathy with Lukashenko, must make the best of a bad situation to preserve its strategic interests in the area: the Kremlin is patiently observing the evolution of the situation, and for the moment has limited itself to acknowledging the victory to the outgoing President, with some vague promise of aid in case of “excessive violence”, but nothing more.

So, what should we expect from now on?

Lukashenko is still in his place, despite the protests in the country that have been going on for 7 weeks now and show no signs of stopping. The Coordination Council, from Warsaw, has begun “the procedures for a peaceful transfer of power”, but unlike the Belarusian government in office, it has no means to ensure that this happens (that is, it has no Armed Forces), while in the country the repression continues with an ever-increasing level of violence and abuse against the manifestants.

The situation is in fact stalled: Lukashenko does not seem to be willing to flee like Yanukovych (also because it is not certain that there is anyone willing to welcome him, not even in Moscow), but how long will he be able to withstand this storm? How long will it be before he is no longer able to secure the loyalty of the Security Apparatus?

On the other hand, the “Government in exile” has no one who is able to force the hand and help them in the “institutional transition” with more than words: not the United States, certainly not the European Union. As the Nobel Prize winner for literature Svyatlana Aleksevic rightly stated “this is not Majdan”: Belarus has no interest in looking to the West, on the contrary, even the opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya has reassured about maintaining good relations with Moscow, even after the eventual fall of Lukashenko.

Obviously, even a scenario similar to that of the annexation of Crimea, as hypothesized by some, is unthinkable: the russian enstablishment has no intention of getting involved in a war that would in fact bring them nothing but more “bad reputation” and international isolation.

Vladimir Putin held talks in Sochi with Alexander Lukashenko, who came to Russia on a working visit. February 7, 2020 Photo: kremlin.ru.

However, there is the possibility that “The Feast with the Statue” represented by Russia may be the one to unblock the situation: if Vladimir Putin and his colleagues find a way to appease the protests by saving the most of what remains of the thirty-year Belarusian system, Lukashenko will have to stop with his attempts at “multilateralism” and will become a de facto puppet in the hands of Moscow; if, on the other hand, the Russians decide to give the regime a “little push” and help the Coordination Council, they could take advantage of the economic changes that this one should (theoretically) bring, to enter the new Belarusian market and take those strategic assets firmly, up to now, in the hands of the Lukashenko’s government.

As usual, making predictions is a matter for astrologers. For the moment I hope to have clarified the situation to the best of my ability to those who were interested in knowing it better, and in understanding what is actually happening in a distant country and back in the “Path of History” only recently. For the moment, unfortunately, we just have to pay attention to the movements on the horizon, and try to get an idea with what we have available, but without ever looking away too much.

For any questions and discussions, I am available, find the contacts on the appropriate page.

Nay, come, let’s go together.

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

“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.

What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Land Taken Away

“Вораг польскі і рускі
Шчыра множыў курганы, –
Не было Беларусі,
Толькі быў “Край забраны”*

(From “Chronicles” by Yanka Kupala, Belarusian poet, writer and playwrighter, 1928)

This map shows how the German Empire envisioned reshaping Europe after the victory in the First World War: as you can see, it includes at least half of the Belarusian territory.

*The english version sounds like: “The enemy is Polish and Russian / Sincerely multiplied the mounds / There was no Belarus / Only the Land taken away.” Here “sincerely” must be translated as “light-hearted“, “without remorse“. Thanks to Yulia for helping me understand the meaning that the expression has in the Slavic language.

Welcome back to Unpredictablepast.com,

This week I would like to briefly introduce a topic to which I am very attached due to my studies on the development of the countries forming part of the Soviet Union, after its dissolution in 1991. In this article we will take advantage of recent events to introduce a more general topic, from perhaps develop in a special section.

During these weeks we have been literally submerged with news about Belarus, due to its “opaque” elections, to put it mildly, the protests that rose up and the repression that followed. Since Italy has a moderate community of immigrants from that country, I have often been asked about what was happening, by people who saw worried colleagues and friends without fully understanding the reasons: from here maybe they can get an idea.

For ease, we will start from a precise historical period and end in another one: the first is the one that goes from December 3rd, 1918 to December 10th of the same year, the other goes from July 27th, 1990 to June 25th, 1991.

In those days, after the defeat in the First World War, Germany abandoned the projects and interests it had in the Baltic area, part of the larger “Mitteleuropa Project” (to be precise, not the one theorized in 1915 by Friedrich Naumann in his essay of the same name, but its “chauvinist” version, as well explained here by Professor Maciej Gorny).

After withdrawing its occupation force on the 3rd, the germans create a power vacuum, in which the Red Army entered with its troops: the 10th the sovietic soldiers occupied Minsk and, under orders of the Supreme Soviet, exiled the Rada (the Council) of what was known since then as the Belarusian People’s Republic.

On January 2nd, 1919 the provisional Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus was created, only to be dismantled on February 17th of the same year: partly was incorporated into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR, i.e. the state entity that had supplanted the old Russian Empire and was now under the control of the Bolsheviks) and partly united with the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania (created on December 16th, 1918) to form the LitBel, or the Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, with its capital enstablished in Vilnius.

But during that chaotic post-war period, state entities in eastern Europa arose and fall very quickly: it was Lenin himself who dissolved the LitBet when, at the beginning of the Polish – Soviet War (14 February 1919 – 18 October 1920), Polish troops entered Belarus and captured first Vilnius and then Minsk, provisionally elected capital of the sovietic puppet-state during the war.

But the matter was certainly not over.

The new Polish state, drived by the victory and now allied with the Ukrainian People’s Republic, tried to go a step further: with the so-called Kiev Offensive, which aimed to retake the Ukrainian territories that had come under Soviet control. However, the armies of the two countries were not prepared to face such a war, and in June 1920 the counterattack of the Red Army overwhelmed the Ukrainian-Polish forces, pushing them back to the gates of Warsaw, taking back both Kiev and Minsk.

On July 31th, 1920 the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus was again constituted, and on March 15th, 1923, the League of Nations recognized the Soviet and Polish borders established by the 1921 Treaty of Riga.

In this iconic photo taken in 1920, Vladimir Lenin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (Prime Minister) of the Russian SFSR, delivers the speech to motivate the troops to fight on the Soviet-Polish war.
The territorial situation in 1920, before the Treaty of Riga.
This 1921 caricature shows the division of Belarus between Poland and the Soviet Union

Although the new Belarus had become part of the “Founding Republics” of the USSR, which gave rise to a certain cultural awakening (as per Stalin’s idea, but it will be good to write separately about this very complex subject), that involves poets like Jakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala, together with a revitalization of the country’s cultural minorities (which during the war had formed a sort of “Fifth Column” in favor of the Soviets),

The country was not spared by the Great Terror (Большой террор), or the infamous “Purges” carried out by Moscow against internal dissidents: most of the Belarusian intelligentsia were killed or deported to the Asian regions, while the Poles who remained in the Soviet territories were exterminated by the NKVD (Нароядный комиссариаят внуятренних дел, People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) labeled as counter-revolutionary “spies” or “agents”, as established in NKVD Order No. 00485. The same treatment was reserved for the Russian-speaking population who found themselves part of the new Polish state.

In spite of this treatment, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, a strong resistance movement arose immediately in Belarus that fought the Germans by all means, becoming one of the thorns in the side of the invaders, who tried in every way to infiltrate it or weaken its strength through mass killings.

The atrocities against civilians were innumerable: in the village of Katyn, near Minsk, 147 people, including 75 children, were burned alive and finished with machine guns (the place has become emblematic of the violence against the civilian population of the Belarusian villages); The Jewish population living in Belarus was wiped out by the Holocaust, and never recovered. During the war Belarus lost a quarter of its population, with more than 9000 villages set on fire and 1.2 million homes and buildings destroyed, including those of the two major cities, Minsk and Vitsebsk, which lost 80% of their homes and infrastructure.

The post-war reconstruction period was particularly difficult, given the total destruction of the country’s economy. The Soviet Union undertook the task to put it back on its feet and in a few years Belarus became one of the main manufacturing centers of the Eastern Bloc. But all this had a cost: the control of the Central Government over the region became practically absolute, and the massive forced immigration of the Russian population (with the relative “Russification” of the language and culture) towards those territories led to the end of the traditional Belarusian society, based mainly on the agriculture, and in fact made the country an appendage of Russia, rather than a republic in its own right.

It is therefore not surprising that the only noteworthy event in the years of the Cold War was another tragedy: the disaster caused by the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. Despite those tragic events being associated , not without reason, with Ukraine, the Central was located near what is now the border within that country and Belarus, which was fully invested by the consequences of the explosion. It is estimated that 60% of the radioactive fallout hit the Belarusian territory, which suffered the contamination of 50,000 square km (a quarter of the total territory) and of 2.2 million people (a fifth of the population of the time) who still require a continuous radiation monitoring. The occurrence of thyroid cancer in children increased fifteen times in the four years following the accident.

Mass protests in Minsk against policies by the central Soviet authorities in April 1991

Four years later, as the Soviet Union began to implode, Belarus was one of the first countries to take advantage of the weakness of the Central Government for take back its independence: on July 27th, 1990, the authorities declared their national sovereignty, and Stanislav Shushkevich became the Secretary of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet. On August 25, 1991, after the failed Soviet coup in Moscow, Belarus declared itself completely independent from USSR, and on December 8 of that same year Shushkevich, together with Leonid Kravchuk representing Ukraine and Boris Yeltsin representing Russia, signed the “Belovezhskaya Pushcha Treaty” which sanctioned the end of the USSR and the birth of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).

But history often takes strange paths and, having escaped from the dictatorship of the CPSU, the Belarusians, in the first free elections held in 1994, elected as president a figure of the old Soviet nomenklatura, who, thanks to his attitude as an ex-military, have to take charge of wiping out the rampant corruption of the country, the last poisoned legacy of the Soviet period.

His name was Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko.

And this is where our story ends and begins. We will resume next week with what happened from ’94 onwards, and that will take us to the present day and to what is happening. I will try, as far as possible, to clarify another very important issue, not specific to Belarus but widespread in almost all the former republics of the Soviet Union: the relationship between the population, the state, and the (authoritarian) figure of the ” President “.

I hope you have a general idea of ​​the context we are dealing with, as it is not easy to express the complexity of some situations with a brief summary: if you have any questions or doubts, I am at your disposal to answer, do not hesitate to contact me.

Nay, come, let’s go together.