Tag Archives: Institutions

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.

Democracy under Social Pressure

“[…] And everyone must lose his mind, everyone must! The sooner the better! It is essential — I know it.” (E. Zamyatin, “We”, 1924)

(The headquarters of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, 1934, Rome, Albert Harlingue, Gettyimages)

Definitions and Reality

In the past month we have talked about words, their fraudulent use, and their influence on our life. We also talked about the human desire to be part of something bigger, and how many totalitarian regimes in history have done nothing but offer this possibility to millions of people. In this short interlude I would like to ask a question that partly concerns what we have discussed.

The question I would like to ask is inspired by the Italian political and social situation, but this does not mean that it can be less valid for those who live in other countries where a similar situation is present. The question is:

If a Country where the misuse of language has led to a situation of social pressure such as to question freedom of expression, without the use of real coercive means, but only through strong social harassment, can that country still be defined a democracy?

The first answer I would have to give, if asked to me, would be simple: “The vote is secret, so where is the problem? Nobody would ever know if you say that you vote X and then you vote Y instead”. As an old, anti-communist slogan of the Christian Democrats in the postwar years states: “In the secret of the urn, God sees you, Stalin does not”.

And that’s a good observation. Almost.

But let’s consider the whole thing from a broader perspective.

Let’s think about what is created in the time before one enters that cabin. We have talked about the insincerity of political language and the confusion it creates when it spreads between civil society: how conscious can a citizen be, considered exercising his or her right under this form of “self-hypnosis”, to which society, media, parties, colleagues, friends, family subjected it? How much social pressure can the average individual withstand? And how much democratic institutions can?

Electoral propaganda has always been part of the game, since politics has existed.

But in this case we talk about confusion caused on purpose. To what extent, empty a word (or, well, many words) of their meaning, can undermine democratic institutions to the point that they can no longer be considered such?

Democracy derives from the Greek (δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā, from dēmos ‘people’ and kratos ‘rule’) and, over the centuries, its political theory has developed up to our concept of liberal democracy, with the balance of powers, the rule of law and the individual rights. But the basic concept remains: rule of the people. And what happens then, if the people have developed and internalized a different “Meaning” of all this? Or worse, if it is not aware of any meaning at all?

In short: if the “meaning” of Institutions and basic democratic principles had been profoundly altered, can we still claim to be in a Democracy?

[Obviously the subject is complex and will certainly be treated in further writings. This short piece is intended to ask the reader a question that I have been asking myself for quite some time. I would be really happy to know what your thoughts are in this regard.]