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Alexander Lukachenko

Since the proclamation of its independence, Belarus continues to be an enigma for foreign press correspondents. The country has refused, first in a democratic election and then in the framework of a more “populist” regime, to follow the only road decreed as unavoidable in 1991 – to adopt a deregulated economy and seek a closer relationship to NATO.

Currently, unlike the former neighboring Soviet republics, “the Bisons” - a group of youths formed under the aegis of “Optor”, the Serbian organization created with the support of the U.S. authorities to overthrow Milosevic - have not been able to find enough candidates to overthrow the regime in Minsk.

In spite of its turbulent reputation, Belarus continues to put into practice policies impossible to classify: maybe a Chinese-style “market socialism”, “Soviet nostalgia”, or a project to that seeks to create “non-chaotic liberalism”.

Lukashenko is certainly authoritarian, but he enjoys a popular base that probably surpasses most of the leaders of the former USSR potentates. His longevity is a result of a de facto commitment to a people that are not very nationalist and who are generally distrustful of the liberal pattern - a nomenclature linked to industrial sectors that generally require the participation of the State (space industry, military, conversion) and the pressures of the “globalized” world market.

Historically, Belarus has suffered the consequences of its position on the route to Poland and Western Europe to the west, and to Russia and the Euro-Asian continental mass to the east. Local elites were traditionally Polish or Russian. Belarusian society was almost completely rural until the 1920s, and was attracted by populist components of Russian culture that later became revolutionary.

The Russian revolutions of 1905, February 1917 and October 1917 found a particularly resounding echo in Belarus, even though a nationalist undercurrent evolved at the same time [1].

After a short period of political autonomy during the 1920s when the country awoke both socially and culturally, Stalin eliminated most of the literary elite of the republic and industrialized the country in a mandatory way, favoring the massive social rise of officials from rural origins.

The Nazi massacres caused the emergence of a powerful resistance movement that contributed to sowing a Soviet patriotism in this “partisan republic”, with territorial and “multinational” bases.

Veterans, often relocated at the end of the war in the military industry and in the army, constitute to this day a social group endowed with great influence which has contributed to legitimizing the powerful military-industrial sector. After 1945 Belarus surpassed the economic level of Russia and became one of the industrial center vanguards of the USSR’s “assembly line”.

In spite of perestroika and the Chernobyl catastrophe that directly affected them, Belarusians were perplexed by nationalist demands that threatened to deprive the country of its traditional economic links. The liberal ideology that implied the disappearance of the social achievements of the Soviet era, caused, as soon perestroika ended, considerable concern in a country that had just left misery and insecurity behind.

The anti-communist and nationalist opposition had, from the outset, to face the reticence of many sectors of society, either those who continued to follow communist values, or those that dreamed of a “social democratic” populism still to be invented, or those that gave priority to the autonomy of businesses within the framework of active state policy.

The Soviet nomenclature that remained in control after 1991 without truly preserving the advantages acquired during the socialist period, or introducing necessary changes, quickly lost the authority needed to continue down the parliamentary road.

This favored the rise of Alexander Lukashenko whose words addressed public concerns and who did not hesitate in speaking a mixture of Russian and unqualified Belarusian, of which the intellectuals immediately made fun of, thus awakening a feeling of closeness between himself and the people on the street.

Thus, he could “go to a town meeting” with more ease since, as a true salesperson, he knew how to renew, visit after visit, the economic and commercial ties with the regions and companies of the remaining post-Soviet states.

Thus he put into practice a disorganized state control that nonetheless allowed his people to partially avoid the economic suffering and social degradation that their neighbors lived through after the disappearance of the Soviet Union.

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Sticker distributed by the “Bisons”

In this context, the nationalist and pro-West forces, the liberals and Russophiles, all had to face the incomprehension of the best part of the population. Lukashenko knew how “to keep the flame alight” among his supporters through social measures considered to be demagogic by western politicians, such as his repeated use of the referendum, the repression of opposition forces, the condemnation of officials that become too independent or whose propensity for corruption is too visible.

On the other hand, he has always refused to reconstitute a one party system. He has maintained under his control political competitors (“pro-state” parties, Russophiles, or of communist orientation) with a presidential administration spread across the entire country using security ministries, the army, the Russian Orthodox church, etc.

The presidential administration counts today on more than 40,000 officials and duplicates state administration down to a local level. The President administers complete sectors of the economy, controlling the security forces and various mass media. Opposition forces are barely tolerated. The line that cannot be crossed is to threaten his power or to be in a position to question his perennial nature.

Militants or journalists, but with more frequency, officials that fall from favor, are intimidated and on occasion the victims of open repression, with human rights organizations pointing out cases of disappearances or of suspicious murders.

Electoral results are questionable, but we should not consider that the people are rejecting the President’s personal power - at least not in the immediate. The opposition parties have never been able to mobilize enough militants let alone votes.

President Lukashenko’s power controls the national mass media, but the population has access to the Russian press which is frequently quite critical of him. As for the opposition press, in the best of cases it is only sold outside the distribution points controlled by the State.

We have to note that these “tough” methods differ little with those applied in most of the post-Soviet states or in other parts of the world, and that the “revolutions remote-controlled through Interflora” have not achieved big changes in that sense - as Georgia increasingly proves.

Due to force of habit, post-Soviet state apparatus everywhere gives priority to expeditious methods with conditions for thinking of long term coherent policies few and far between, since people lost their “ideological compass”.

In that the only road the United States and its partners propose is that of the uncertainty of the conditions of life, it can be understood why international denunciations of Lukashenko’s regime cause hesitation in Belarus, since the reasons behind these denunciations are geopolitical and have little to do with real concerns for human rights.

President Lukashenko’s personal power also rests upon a constitution which is comparable to that in force in Moscow as well as in many states considered fully democratic according to the criteria that prevail in today’s world.

The Belarusians know better than anybody that the payoff for the “constitutional changes” organized by Yeltsin in Moscow in 1993, was a bloodbath for the Russian parliamentarians, followed by a falsified referendum that had at that time the support of the “liberal” West that gave priority to the “economic opening” of Russia before respect of democratic norms and human life.

Today, those same “liberals” clamor for democracy in Russia with greater vigilance at a time when elections are developing in a less questionable manner, but when in fact Moscow has decided to reconstruct a national policy of development and once again play an important role on the international stage.

Nothing can therefore explain in the eyes of many Belarusians why their country remains outside the Council of Europe. Everybody well understands that the initial reason was opposition to a government that refused to apply policies of privatization without limits and cooperates with Russia, China, Iran, Vietnam and Venezuela, that continues to export weapons, aeronautical industry parts and relatively inexpensive products to Third World markets. Belarus provides competition to more developed countries whose products may be of better quality but are far more expensive.

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And will everything be more beautiful?

Without a single party, and also without a true multiparty system, there are divisions in the government that reflect those that exist in society. Some people are in favor of the restoration of a strong state that controls the economy, while others lean toward sensible, controlled privatization.

The maintenance of inherited USSR industrial and economic structures and later the reestablishment of close ties with post-Soviet countries - in particular those belonging to the Euro-Asian Economic Community (EAEC) that from the year 2000 comprise Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, allows us to understand why the collapse of its economy was, in the first place, clearly smaller that in neighboring countries and why the recovery there has been quicker [2].

Minsk didn’t suffer a deterioration of social, educational, sanitary, and economic services as intensely as that which has befallen all the other former Soviet societies. Seen from Minsk, the “shock therapy” that Yeltsin’s Russia experienced or the wiser “oligarchic market reforms” applied in Kiev, are both a failure.

The “bright flash” of the Polish and Baltic models don’t work well either, and even if some Belarusians are tempted, most of them know what the social costs will be because there are many that work in those countries under illegal conditions. Also, the setting-up of the “Schengen wall” as a result of the enlarged European Union, has contributed to developing the feeling that “the freedom of movement and ideas” wielded by the western powers in the Treaty of Helsinki, was no more than a watchword dedicated to weakening the image of the Soviet camp. Lukashenko found in it a helpful argument for his own propaganda.

However, Belarus is an impoverished country and its economic system continues dragging a lot of baggage from the Soviet era, besides which the economic innovations that came later were made hesitantly. This is beginning to worry the government since recovery is evident in Russia and even in Ukraine.

To stay afloat and to continue to truly develop, Belarus needs more and more investment in the sphere of high technology. Government without future vision, privatizations by certain regime power brokers that continue to depend on the government, state controls and the creation of a bartering system with the EAEC or the Third World, won’t always be enough to maintain political stability.

The establishment of a new balance between public power and the economic actors has become indispensable [3].

For more than five years, the government has been buried in the creation of an unedited “model” of “non-chaotic liberalism” that enables it to retain macroeconomic control. This intent at reform is resisted at many levels. It requires ideological and national authenticity to obtain stability. The rejection of the Minsk government by western neighbors has left some with a feeling of wounded pride.

Vladimir Putin has also expressed his irritation in the face of hesitation by the regime and the ambitions of Alexander Lukashenko in the post-Soviet scenario. Lukashenko has tried to build a “local” authenticity that is not nationalist nor “Slavophile”, and still less systematically “Russophile”. He plays the respect-for-the-interests-of-his-country card within the framework of the integration of post-Soviet space.

Also taking advantage of the strategic position of his country for the transit of oil and Russian products, these policies have allowed President Lukashenko to negotiate with the Kremlin with several victories to its credit. Belarus oscillates between “post-Soviet” administration methods and “controlled” liberalization attempts, between national independence and regional integration, between democratization and authoritarianism. But Belarusian society is very educated and its youth ever more impatient - a factor the Serbian Otpor emissaries that helped form the “Bisons” in Belarus have tried to take advantage of without much success.

From his election in 1994, Lukashenko established a centralized regime because the old nomenclature didn’t know how to constitute coherent political parties after 1991, and because opposing forces - nationalist, later liberal, and lastly communist – rarely have the capacity to deal with the concerns of the majority of their people.

The Belarusian People’s Front was founded after the disappearance of perestroika, and quickly fell into an overt and almost xenophobic nationalism. This was unacceptable to most Belarusians, especially when the support given to a “de-russification” program was on a par with an increasing yielding to the material wealth built up by those who had migrated to Western countries. But these resources were often viewed with distrust, suspected of coming from old Nazi collaborators who have always been repudiated in Belarus.

This “Front”, therefore, was never able to obtain more than 15% of the votes before 1995. The other liberal or social-democratic opposition groups were also unable to build a stable social base. After 1994 the communists were divided between an opposition faction to Lukashenko on the basis of the old rediscovered “all power to the soviets” watchword, and those that supported him on the basis of a rapprochement with the post-Soviet states and the preservation of the inherited social achievements of the USSR.

The high officials allied with the old Soviet nomenclature hesitated after 1991 between adopting an attitude of passive biding-their-time and a policy of “Russian way” reform. This conceptual gap allowed for the sudden appearance of Alexander Lukashenko, an “outsider” and former sovjos boss who knew how to present himself through speeches and style, as the spokesperson of the “inner Belarus that had been betrayed by elite careerists” who were from the communist opposition or former nomenclature [4].

Due to his strategy of close ties with Moscow and his use of “populist” speech, Lukashenko received the support of that part of the population which felt nostalgia for the USSR. Calling himself “atheistic orthodox”, he combined this Soviet nostalgia with support for the Russian Orthodox Church. Also, to the benefit of numerous directors of companies in danger, he organized a return to post-Soviet markets. [5].

The Russia of Boris Yeltsin and, later, that of Vladimir Putin, reluctantly supported President Lukashenko in spite of his firmness in negotiating commercial agreements; his postponement of payment of invoices for imported oil products; and the fact that he put the brake on privatizations from which Russian oligarchs had profited. But he also rebuilt cooperation with the Russian military as well as the military industrial sector, thereby facilitating the recovery of both countries, and – especially since the arrival of Putin - partially blocking the growth of NATO.

Alexander Lukashenko also knows how to use fairy-tale ideas to guarantee the sympathy of those that distrust the West. Nobody ever believed, for example, in the project he presented during the Yugoslav war in 1999, when he suggested a “union” with Russia and Serbia. Nevertheless, he was thus assured of the sympathy of a number of his people and of influential political sectors in the orthodox world.

At the beginning of his presidency, Vladimir Putin let it be known that he preferred a leader in Minsk that would be more “presentable” to the rest of the world – above all less independent in his policies and less ambitious in the post-Soviet scenario. The Kremlin seems to also worry about satisfying the appetites of Russia’s “new capitalists” that lust after Belarusian companies susceptible to privatization.

Fighting between factions within the Minsk government indicate the Kremlin may be seeking to place its peons there - in particular those “reformers” of the local KGB and those linked to the Russian FSB [6]. But the Kremlin’s deceptions in relation to its policy of openness toward the United States - especially after the “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet world - seem to have forced Moscow and Minsk to find a modus vivendi.

This doesn’t prevent Lukashenko from making periodic purges against elements in his government that seem to have particular sympathy for the Kremlin. Putin probably prefers to find a Russophile candidate less tenacious in the defense of Belarus’ specific interests.

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Moscow, however, can only hesitate when faced with rushing to a test of strength with President Lukashenko, at least while his government doesn’t manifest, as happened in Kyrgyzstan, visible signs of asphyxia and come into conflict with the tenacious opposition of the United States. Above all, Belarus allows Moscow to skirt a part of Ukraine to provide Russian oil products to Western Europe.

The unresponsiveness that Minsk has shown with regard to calls from the West, as well as the tough nature that Lukashenko has demonstrated as much toward foreign powers as toward his opponents, have contributed to put a stop to the emergence of mafias and “independent” oligarchs. Nevertheless, delinquency and social disintegration exist, although they appear to be under control at the moment. Within certain limits, corruption seems to be tolerated in exchange for loyalty to the political power.

For several years, Minsk has been given to the task of elaborating a new “state ideology”, but not succeeded in solidifying it into a coherent form. At the moment, although his people don’t show too much enthusiasm for their president, neither do they seem willing to rebel to obtain a change that the current experiences of neighboring countries make doubtful.

History, in particular the horrors of the Second World War and the central military role later played by Belarus in the Warsaw Pact, seem to have taught its inhabitants the importance of geopolitics, which makes the efforts of the “Bison” youth to proclaim a star-spangled democracy much more difficult. But Belarusian society, and in particular its youth, is well-educated, which makes them increasingly impatient. They want a well thought policy of openness to the world via Europe, Russia or, more expansively, Eurasia.

[1] On reasons that justify the use of the term rusianos (or rutenos) to designate the diverse populations coming from Rutenia (or Rus) from Kiev, and from which the Russians (or Great Rusianos linked the Muscovite State or Rossiya) are only one component, see B. Drweski, La Biélorussie, UGH, Paris, 1993, pp. 5-9. The use of the term “Belarus” from 1991 was imposed by Minsk to highlight this difference, but this term is artificial for the French because it takes the German transcription of “Bielarus” used during the Nazi occupation, which naturally provokes major reservations.

[2] In 2002, production, calculated on the base of the index 100 for 1990, was 90 for Belarus against 75 for Russia and 50 for Ukraine. However, recovery in these last two countries seems to be faster. In the EAEC, neither Uzbekistan nor Belarus have suffered a significant fall in production after 1990. (Source: Collected works directed by J. Radvanyi, Les États Postoviétiques - Identities in construction, political transformation, economic trajectories, Armand Colin, 2003, 235 p.). The per capita GDP was of 2.198 US dollars in 1999 in Belarus against 2.138 in Russia and 837 in Ukraine (EAEC 1999-2000. Faits et chiffres, Op. Cit.). As for the HDI, Belarus occupied 61st place in the world while Russia has just managed 60th and Ukraine occupies the 80th position (Idem).

[3] Bruno Drweski, “Biélorussie. Les limites d’un système”, Le Courrier des pays de l’Est n°1010, November-December of the 2000, pp. 27-40.

[4] See Alexandra Goujon, Jean-Charles Lallemand, Virginie Symaniec (direc. by), Chroniques sur la Biélorussie contemporaine, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2001.

[5] See Alena Lapatniova, Biélorussie: Les mises en scène du pouvoir, L’Harmattan, 2001, 133 p.

[6] The inherited security apparatus of the Soviet KGB was divided into several different structures, some of which seem to have been responsible for the disappearances or murder of opponents, especially corrupt officials or those who had fallen into disgrace.