Belarus: Lukashenko's state of nostalgia

'No respect for the rules of democracy'

Belarusians go to the polls this month, but it seems likely that the less than democratic President Alexander Lukashenko will retain power. The economy is in fair condition for a former USSR republic, even if it is overreliant on cheap energy from Russia. The young, active and broadband opposition doesn't stand a big chance.

By Alexandre Billette and Jean-Arnault Derens

The young academic driving us down Minsk's busiest thoroughfare said: "The regime is perfect, of course." He was an opposition supporter, and so said it with deep resignation. As we trundled past Stalinist blocks of flats on both sides of the road, there was an atmosphere of order and security. No aggressive publicity from western brands, other than McDonalds, blights the eyelines of Minsk. But just a few weeks before the presidential election on 19 March, there was a more sinister purity: there was not one poster for an opposition candidate visible.

President Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko has no intention of abandoning Belarus to "opposition vermin" or the "pesky fleas" of the private sector. Lukashenko, an ardent ice hockey fan who ran state farms under the Soviet Union, was elected in 1994, in the relatively free and fair first post-Soviet election. Although even then a western diplomat expressed alarm at Lukashenko's "utterly vague programme", describing him as "the definition of populist, with no experience of power". But batka or "little daddy", as he is known, won 80% of the vote without cheating. That put him in an ideal position to set about constructing an authoritarian regime.

Belarus's first parliamentary elections were in 1995. Lukashenko combined the poll with a referendum designed to increase his grip on institutions, and 75% of voters said yes to giving the president the power to dissolve parliament (1). To show how little he cared for parliamentary government, Lukashenko declared on live television that he would not bother voting for his local MP. He followed the referendum with another in 1996, further strengthening presidential powers.

Petr Martsev, a journalist, said many of Lukashenko's current opponents remember 1996 as the year things got tough. That year the independent newspaper that he edits, the Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, lost its licence to be distributed through official channels. The paper battled the government until 2003 when Lukashenko had it shut down. The total ban worked for three months, although the paper just about survives thanks to subscribers who receive it in unmarked envelopes, and a small amount of advertising revenue. But problems with printing as well as distribution, along with administrative fines of tens of thousands of dollars, are a constant threat.

'Fear is everywhere'

Human rights organisations are severely repressed in Belarus. Vesna (Spring) is based in a private flat and visitors are scrupulously vetted before being allowed in. A representative of Charter 97, which campaigns for democracy, preferred a meeting in an anonymous cafe, where he said that "the regime is beginning to sense something happening. The proof is that Lukashenko brought the election forward to March [from July]. He has realised that society is beginning to stir. But fear is still everywhere - at work, within families, especially this year, because of the amendments."

He was referring to amendments to the penal code that were adopted in January. Among other things, they allow criminal law to be applied to what had been previously treated as civil offences. The code has been expanded to include such offences as "discrediting the Republic of Belarus" (article 369-1), which is defined as "fraudulent representation of the Republic of Belarus or its government agencies". This may just be a scare tactic before the elections, or it may reflect a serious intention to purge the pro-democracy movement, and soon.

The amendments have intensified the climate of fear. Even organisations such as the official Union of Belarussian Republican Youth (BRSM), considered above suspicion of opposition to Lukashenko, watch what they say. The BRSM's unflinching loyalty to the government has earned it the nickname Lukamol, in reference to the old Soviet komsomol that it resembles so closely. Its leadership in Minsk refuses to speak to foreign journalists, and members at regional offices in Grodno declined to talk about the organisation's activities. Yet these are inoffensive events: ,dances, competitions to honour the best farmers, sporting galas. "Most young people enrol in the Lukamol for the material benefits," said the head of an NGO. "Especially outside the capital, members' benefits include free entry to nightclubs."

Lukashenko, unlike his counterparts in Azerbaijan (the Aliev dynasty) or in Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbayev), has not developed a personality cult. True, he is constantly on television but he has not felt the need to adorn the streets with posters of himself. Though no party officially represents his programme, he enjoys total support in parliament. Most MPs in Belarus are without a political label, but there are two noteworthy groupings in the assembly: a faction of the Belarussian Communist party and the far-right liberal democrats, who have close links with Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party in Russia and with the French National Front.

'State ideology'

Is the regime a return to the Soviet system? A former university professor, now in charge of a semi-clandestine research centre, said not: Lukashenko was "just keeping up a Soviet-style facade, behind which lies a new kind of statist system. It is all based on state ideology, a doctrine that they have to teach now in universities. And an ideological director has been assigned to every factory. But this is a meaningless concept. Unlike in the USSR, state ideology has no real impact on reality. And unlike communism, it has no vision for the future."

In fact state ideology is a collage of references that the regime began to promote in 2003. It pays lip service to values such as pacifism and tolerance, which it deems to be those of the Belarussian people, but teaches only fidelity and subservience to the state.

Lukashenko's slogan is stability and prosperity. Belarus does enjoy relative economic prosperity. The average wage reached $250 a month in December 2005 and salaries are paid in full and on time, as are pensions of more than $100 a month. There is little unemployment: the official figure is 1.5%. But, says Alexander Yarashuk, head of the Congress of Independent Unions, "there is a high level of latent unemployment, since large numbers of people are underemployed".

Moreover, $250 a month is not always enough to make ends meet. According to the CIA world factbook, 27% of the Belarus population lives below the poverty line (2). Basic products are often cheaper in Poland. Many of the 300,000 residents of Grodno, which is 40km from the Polish border, cross into the European Union to shop for groceries. For a couple of dollars, regular buses ferry them between the city centre and the nearest Polish supermarket.

Belarus's relative prosperity can be seen as a minor economic miracle. But it has only been achieved because of generous Russian energy supplies. Transporting and refining Russian oil and gas is one of the few pillars of the Belarussian economy. There is also some heavy industry, and fertiliser production, thanks to the country's peat reserves. The industrial infrastructure inherited from the Soviet Union is still intact. But as Stanislav Bogdankevich, former governor of the Belarussian national bank, explained, the system only works because of heavily discounted oil and gas from Russia: "In 2004 the International Monetary Fund calculated that these direct gifts from Moscow were worth $4bn. The country's gross domestic product is only $22bn, so you can see how dependent we are."

Union with Russia

In 1996 Belarus signed an agreement for political and economic union with Russia. This has produced a customs union, but plans for a common currency have come to nothing. The idea of political union is in limbo, probably because of continuing mutual mistrust between Lukashenko and President Vladimir Putin. Belarus serves as a buffer zone between Russia and the EU. Selling off old Soviet weapons has also shored up Belarus's relative prosperity and placed the country 13th in the world league table of conventional weapons exporters (3). This distinction was one of the reasons why the Bush regime in the United States placed Belarus on its list of six "outposts of tyranny" (the other countries, which constitute an expanded axis of evil announced in January 2005 by Condoleezza Rice, are Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe).

The Belarussian system of market socialism has kept many large companies in the public sector. Those that have been officially privatised are in reality usually 99% state owned. But recent reforms to the employment law are beyond the wildest dreams of most neoliberals in western Europe: a year ago the applicability of fixed-term contracts was expanded to cover all jobs in all sectors of the economy. Most employees are now on one- or two-year contracts, rarely longer. The government's boasts of full employment seem less impressive.

The new rules have also allowed many independent trade union activists to be sacked. Grodno's nitrogen plant, which employs 6,000 people, was until recently a bastion of the Congress of Independent Trade Unions. But since December 2005 350 of its 850 union members have handed in their membership cards for fear that they will otherwise lose their jobs, according to union leader Syarhey Antusevich.

There is none of the ostentatious display of wealth that can be seen in Russia and other formerly communist countries. "The only rich people are company bosses, high-ranking civil servants and a few businessman close to the regime," explained Bogdankevich. "The country is not open to foreign capital. Lukashenko is afraid of the Russian oligarchs, who could threaten his power. They don't have access to the Belarussian market. There's only one oligarch round here: the president."

The regime has shown private enterprise no mercy, and 7,000 small businessmen are currently in prison for economic offences, usually corruption cases involving trifling sums. Alexander Vasiliev was among them until last year. His business card proudly reads "former political prisoner, detained from 7 September 2004 to 7 July 2005". Of Russian origin, Vasiliev served as a commanding officer in the Red Army, and moved to Grodno after being withdrawn from East Germany. He set up a carpentry business that soon failed. As the founder of a protest movement defending small business owners, he was arrested for organising a counter demonstration against the May Day festivities.

"The authorities have turned entrepreneurs into dissidents through legislative harassment," said Vasiliev. "We have returned to a kind of modernised communism, but with no party and no ideology."

Nor have political dissidents been spared. Paval Sieviaryniec, 29, the leader of the Youth Front, is serving two years of enforced residence in Malaya Sitna, a tiny logging community near the Russian border. He was arrested because of demonstrations after the 2004 elections and was sentenced to internal deportation last year. His offence was to block traffic in the centre of Minsk for 21 minutes. From his exile dormitory, he explained: "There are not many street protest specialists in Belarus; so the authorities got scared. The president's motorcade blocks the streets every day, though."

In the face of this repression, most of Belarus's major opposition groups came together in October 2005 to create the 10-plus Coalition, backing a single candidate, and unexpectedly chose an independent, close to the Belarussian Popular Front (BPF), Alexander Milinkevich. No parties objected to this choice and Milinkevich enjoys solid support. A charismatic figure, he also has the major advantage of never having been embroiled in any of the opposition's internal quarrels.

A broad coalition

The coalition is broad, though, and Milinkevich has had to be careful in setting a unifying programme. The BPF is liberal on economics and conservative on social policy. At the other end of the spectrum, Milinkevich's backers also include the Belarussian Party of Communists (PKB, not to be confused with the Belarussian Communist party, which supports Lukashenko in the government). The coalition has so far avoided answering the most difficult questions facing Belarus: its programme makes no mention of European or Euro-Atlantic integration (an idea that the BPF approves). Nor is there any reference to the strong central government desired by the communists.

"For us to split over those kinds of disagreements would be unacceptable," said Syarhey Kalyakin, first secretary of the PKB's central committee. Kalyakin is Milinkevich's campaign director, an appointment that shows how successful the opposition has been in uniting political forces. While Milinevich is a typical western-orientated central European academic, Kalyakin is more like a Soviet-era apparatchik. He was a local administrator under the USSR, and spent decades moving up the party ranks.

Another member of the coalition is the liberal United Civic party. "Europe must get more involved," said Anatol Lebedzka, the party's leader. Belarus's EU neighbours Poland and Lithuania know what is at stake, and have been happy to shelter opposition groups. But foreign aid to Belarus's democratic forces faces bitter opposition from the government and can only play a supporting role.

Lebedzka insisted: "We need action, not words. Otherwise, I'm worried the regime may come to a violent end, like Ceausescu's Romania did. But our chance lies in the streets. That's where victory can be achieved."

The Zubr (Bison) youth movement has been organising street protests for five years. Linked to Serbia's Otpor, Kmara in Georgia and Pora in the Ukraine (4), Zubr has chosen blue denim as its symbol. At a flash mob demonstration outside the GUM department store on Minsk's Independence Avenue, a hundred or so protesters took scraps of cloth from their pockets and pinned them to trees or their coats. They arrange these spontaneous gatherings via text messages and the internet. Despite the obvious presence of plainclothes policemen in the crowd, the atmosphere was calm and cheerful, more like a university faculty at the end of a day's lectures. However, according to a Zubr spokesman, about 50 of its 2,000 militants have been expelled from their places of study.

Does the regime really have anything to fear from this opposition? Those who would oust Lukashenko on 19 March have the odds stacked against them. As well as simple electoral fraud, there is pressure on voters. It is wellknown that directors of kolkhozes (collective farms) were demoted after the last election if they failed to persuade 60% of voters in their areas to vote for the government. The opposition will be able to organise some demonstrations, but will have trouble launching a mass movement. Some western diplomats in Minsk are not ruling out a worst case scenario with the regime resorting to extreme violence to crush a major demonstration.

Lukashenko cannot expect his beloved stability to last forever. But change probably depends more on Moscow than on Minsk. Lukashenko is an important pawn for the Kremlin, particularly since the revolution in Ukraine. His survival depends on how the geopolitical landscape of the post-Soviet world evolves and what game the Russians play.