Denim and democracy: what Belarusians need

Margot Letain

Whatever some in the west may hope, Belarus is not another domino ready to fall as soon as elections are held, like Ukraine and Georgia, for recent history has made Belarusians wary of democratic reform. Change will come, but at a different pace and in different way, says Margot Letain.

The spectre of revolutions is still alive in the former Soviet bloc. At least, so some people hope. Its next incarnation is expected, and even allegedly being prepared, in Belarus. "Europe's last dictatorship", as it is often called now, will have its third presidential election on 19 March 2006.

The previous two presidential elections, in 1994 and 2001, brought overwhelming victories for Alexander Lukashenko, a man charismatic, eccentric and bold enough to opt out of any democratic or international norm that inconvenienced him. Defying frequent predictions of his imminent downfall, Lukashenko continues to exert a firm grip on the political, economic and social development of Belarus. It is even possible that he will be president for life, since a referendum in October 2004 lifted the constitutional limitation of two presidential terms per person.

For many policy-makers in the west, and for an unknown number of Belarusians, his regime is a thorn, and this year's election appears a convenient opportunity to pluck it. Elections, after all, have already brought the end of post-communist authoritarian regimes in Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Now the Belarusian opposition has picked a single candidate in Alexander Milinkevichh, chosen its "brand" or emblem (denim), and started training independent election observers, thus following step by step the "electoral-revolution" instruction manual.

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The regime's strength

Except that the opposition has already done this once. At the presidential election in 2001 it played this game and lost. The then single democratic candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk, gathered 15% of the official vote, as opposed to 75% for the incumbent, and only a few hundred people responded to Hancharyk's call to take to the street afterwards. The referendum of 2004 yielded a similar outcome: those who answered the opposition's plea to protest against the result numbered several thousand at most.

This apparent impotence of the opposition has a long history. It has not been able to rally any significant popular protest since 1997, and the ratings of the opposition leaders, even by "sympathetic" non-state pollsters, have hardly ever reached double digits. For a long time this was blamed on a lack of credible leadership, but this is not an adequate explanation: the challengers to Lukashenko have come from a variety of backgrounds and surfaced at various times, all with the same result. Baffled by this, the opposition, and many western observers, pointed to an entrenched Soviet mentality among the people, who were said to feel comfortable with following the president's lead, living on state wages and expressing any dissatisfactions they might feel through excessive drinking.

This is a blind alley. The opposition certainly needs to challenge popular mindsets, but what they should be contesting is not Soviet memories, but the virile and active collectivist national ideology that Lukashenko has constructed over the years of his rule.

Alexander Lukashenko's is not an ethnically-exclusive nationalism which seeks a polity for every ethnicity, of the kind associated with the bloodbath in former Yugoslavia. On the contrary, in the manner of European democracies (France in particular), the Belarusian regime espouses an inclusive nationalism which calls every resident of the country, irrespective of origin, to join in the celebration of common values.

Those common values, however, are not of the kinds to be found in western democracies. Instead of praising the individual, the Belarusian ideology upholds the collective, and argues that the good of the nation is more important than the good of any of its individual members. Hence the imperative of social consensus, the deploring of material pursuits and the praise of egalitarianism and hard work for the good of the nation - all features that benefit and even require an authoritarian style of politics.

Also, this ideology describes any attempts by western or domestic actors to promote democracy as a jealous attempt to destroy the Belarusian nation's particular model of development - Lukashenko famously likened the European Union's effort to support democracy with the Nazi aggression. Without creating a personality cult, he has offered Belarusian people a coherent outlook and a prescription for a way of life that makes them feel secure, safe and proud.

The task before any democratic opposition, therefore, is to challenge not merely Alexander Lukashenko as a person, but a whole view of life, and what makes this even trickier is that alternative ideologies, upholding democracy and liberalism, are already tainted in Belarus.

In the early 1990s, immediately after Belarus gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the intelligentsia believed that the cause of democracy would be advanced if people were "purified" of their Soviet experience. Nation-building policies were adopted that aimed to obliterate any reference to the Soviet period, and also to make people speak Belarusian, a despised language in Soviet times. All experiences under the Soviet system were dismissed as tragic mistakes and people were treated as objects to be improved rather than a population whose support had to be won. In this way the intelligentsia not only buried its own political careers, but it also discredited democracy altogether, opening the way for Lukashenko, who could relate to people so well that he persuaded them to trust in his sole and unlimited leadership.

The opposition's task

Given this history, the opposition must tread a narrow path as it promotes democratic and liberal sentiment. On the one hand, in mounting a credible challenge to Lukashenko it must offer not merely an alternative leader but an alternative national mode of life. On the other, that alternative mode should operate the notions of democracy and nationhood in a way that will not remind people of the "democratic nationalism" of the early 1990s. The way to do this is to persuade people that under a democratic system they will keep the security and pride that Lukashenko's rule has given them, but also have more diversity, opportunities and freedom.

So far, the opposition seems to be managing well. The candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, spends little time criticising Lukashenko and offers instead a wholesome vision of life after a democratic victory. He casts himself as "pro-Belarusian", promising to maintain economic cooperation with Russia and improve relations with Europe and the west, and, unusually for a liberal, he promises to preserve major industrial companies in public ownership and privatise only small and medium enterprises, or loss-making state factories.

Thus Milinkevich wisely relates to two ideological cornerstones of Lukashenko's authority: state independence and collective ownership of the country's assets. At the same time, he promises to uphold democratic rights and freedoms and to create a favourable investment climate. His website is written in both Belarusian and Russian, and while he cautiously promotes Belarusian he argues that people should be free to use whatever language they prefer. Above all, Milinkevich promises to return people's "dignity", demonstrating a liberal alternative to the collectivist regime. All of this indicates that the opposition may eventually have found the right pitch to speak to people.

The remaining question is whether they have the time to make this pitch known to the voters. Recent months have seen detentions of activists, bans on hustings and confiscations of leaflets and publications, all of which suggests that the opposition may not manage to turn the tables on 19 March. That pro-democratic forces in Belarus have departed from a one-size-fits-all approach to "electoral revolutions" and have the courage to find a national form for their liberal programme, means, however, that there may be a chance of democratic change in Belarus in the future.