Dyer: Belarus is a case of arrested development

Gwynne Dyer

The 10 million citizens of Belarus don't go to the polls until next Sunday, but the outcome is already certain: Alexander Lukashenko will win a third term as president. Most other governments in Europe, which see him as the continent's last dictator, will express their dismay and claim that the election was unfair.

They will be right in the sense that the opposition has been mercilessly harassed and that the counting of the votes probably won't meet international standards. But they will be wrong if they really think that Lukashenko would have lost a fair election.

Belarus has more policemen per capita than any other country in the world, and a few of Lukashenko's harshest critics have simply "disappeared." Opposition politicians are regularly beaten up or imprisoned, and people can go to jail for up to two years simply for openly criticizing the president. It is an ugly, petty, oppressive regime that is reminiscent in many ways of the old Communist tyrannies - but Lukashenko has won two elections and a referendum in the past dozen years, all with more than 70 percent of the vote.

He didn't win them just by stuffing ballot boxes, and although many people in Belarus feel intimidated by his rule, if they really constituted an outraged majority then the tool for their liberation is readily available. In the past five years, disciplined crowds of nonviolent protesters have overthrown similar "post-Soviet autocrats" in several other post-Soviet states. If the problem is just unfree elections and intimidation, why don't Belarusians get rid of their faintly Chaplinesque dictator that way?

The answer is to be found in the results of an international opinion poll that was published last week by the Social Research Institute in Budapest. The survey was conducted last year in 11 central and eastern European countries that were ruled by Communist tyrannies for at least a generation until the revolutions of 1989-91. The only country where a majority of the people polled preferred the "democratic" systems (some real, some sham) that they have lived under since then was the Czech Republic, where 52 percent actively supported democracy and only a small minority longed to have Communism back.

In most of the former Soviet-bloc countries the nostalgia for Communist rule was strong, peaking at 38 percent in Bulgaria and 36 percent in Russia (where only 13 percent favored democracy). But this is hardly surprising when you consider that most people's experience, in most of these countries, was that the end of Communist rule brought a steep fall in living standards and a sharp rise in insecurity and inequality. For Russia, it also brought the loss of a centuries-old empire, the "exile" of tens of millions of Russians as minorities in newly independent countries, and a huge decline in the country's power and influence in the world.

And here we have Belarus, where a former collective-farm manager who was legitimately elected to power in 1994 halted the privatization process before it had properly got under way. Lukashenko has preserved both the good and the bad elements of the Communist system almost unchanged (except that the actual Communist Party no longer rules). So there has not been the same crash in living standards in Belarus, and there is none of the soaring inequality and unemployment seen in almost all of its neighbors.

There are also no free media, secret police everywhere, the drab conformity typical of late-period Communist states and occasional state violence against "dissidents." But Lukashenko would probably have won a majority of the votes honestly in every election and referendum he has held.

Why has it happened this way in Belarus and not elsewhere? Partly pure chance, but Belarus was also an ideal candidate because it has a very weak national identity (most people there actually speak Russian). There is little of the nationalism that helped most other former Soviet countries to persevere with the changes, and many Belarusians would be happy to be reunited with Russia.

But even there they would have to undergo many of the painful changes that they have avoided by choosing to live in this time warp. Sooner or later they will have to go through them anyway, but not yet. Not in this election.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.