Macbeth of Minsk

by TOL

For those used to the grand one-scene news dramas of recent years, Belarus' nonrevolution may have been a disappointment. But in the real drama of Belarusian politics, a page has turned: President Lukashenka is entering the troubled Act III of his rule.

For international media now used to the single-scene dramas provided by the revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, Belarus' nonrevolution seems to have come across as something of a nonevent. In the coverage of many media, including the BBC, this was a dull affair. The demonstrations, portrayed as small at best, petered out until a late flare-up - by which time most journalists had gone. The figures given for the largest demonstration, on 20 March, were bizarrely small; many football clubs who know what a crowd of 5,000 to 10,000 looks like would envy the opposition its crowd of "5,000 to 10,000" on election night. And, until violence grabbed headlines on 25 March, you could be forgiven for thinking everything was peaceful.

For Belarusians themselves, the drama was choreographed by Lukashenka. In this Soviet pastiche, of course, the pre-election threat was played up and the postelection threat played down, all the better to show what a good job Lukashenka had done to protect Belarusians from people the head of the security services labeled "terrorists." Before the election, the traditional, decade-old rhetoric - labeling the opposition nationalist fascists - was supplemented with accusations that they were pro-Western revolutionaries, complete with grainy pictures showing captured provocateurs trained in Georgian and U.S. camps. And Soviet rhetoricians' fondness for likening enemies to vermin was given literal expression: The head of the KGB, Stsyapan Sukharenka, claimed that the opposition was trained to dump rats in the drinking-water system. When the opposition held its biggest demonstration, on election night, television showed no pictures. When the crowds dwindled to a small tent city, the television cameras returned. When police broke up the tent city, state commentators seized on the peaceful departure of some demonstrators as evidence that they had merely been paid by the opposition. Pictures of those dragged away and beaten were not shown. When serious violence erupted on 25 March, some pictures had to be shown. Inevitably, though, they showed the Interior Ministry's military unit at its gentlest.

The third, real drama tells a tale of careful, petty harassment combined with broad, sweeping repression. Security forces allowed a large crowd - packed into a square capable of holding about 20,000 - to gather on election night and on subsequent nights for 18.30 rallies. They did not try to break up the tent city until the international media were largely gone, but they tried to starve them out (anyone entering the square with food or supplies for the demonstrators was arrested) and to make their lives intolerable. A portable toilet was taken away, local shops and restaurants (McDonald's included) were closed to prevent demonstrators from finding toilets, and when demonstrators opened up a manhole to serve as a toilet, the police sealed the manhole (television duly showed the demonstrators "poisoning" the water supply). But slightly off center-stage, hundreds of people were rounded up and imprisoned, and, when attention had shifted to Ukraine, the police broke up the tent city with force. The next day, 25 March, the scenes were violent and, in some instances, bloody.

Each of these differing dramas is instructive. The dull accounts might be superficial and in some cases inaccurate, but they underline a point clear well before the elections: that Belarus was not going to be a Ukraine and that the opposition remains relatively weak. Lukashenka's pastiche underlines that he is in near-complete control of the media. And the real drama played out on October Square shows that Lukashenka is perfectly willing to use his fists but is also concerned enough about appearances to adopt an attritional approach of petty repression.

But it is easy to make mistakes when repression has such a wide net. Among those arrested was a young woman who had voted for Lukashenka and was heading across the square to her mother's flat with some shopping. She is now in prison sitting out a 15-day sentence. Could Lukashenka, for all his dominance, now be entering a stage where he might make similar mistakes on the political stage? The answer, it seems, may increasingly be "yes."


On the face of it, that seems an odd statement, because Lukashenka's election to a third term in office was a finely managed operation. Lukashenka's control of the judiciary long ago ruled out the possibility of "revolutions by the law book" seen in Georgia and Ukraine. The opposition geared itself up for a summer election, the usual period for presidential elections; Lukashenka short-circuited that by bringing the election forward by at least three months. March in Belarus is wintry, very wintry, and so, of course, all the harder for a series of pre-election rallies and any long vigil of post-election rallies. It also came one week before Ukraine's parliamentary elections, ensuring that international attention would be short-lived. Opinion polls were forced to gain official accreditation, losing almost all value, though some pollsters continued to try to piece figures together. Those independent media still printing in Belarus found themselves fined by the courts and rejected by printers and distributors. The independent press published just over the Russian border in Smolensk had copies seized at the border, and as the election approached, the Russian printer withdrew from the contract. The opposition had difficulties on the campaign trail, typically gaining access only to small venues, sometimes being refused any venue. Then, in the closing stages of the election campaign, first local opposition activists and then Milinkevich's leading aides were arrested and put in jail for 15 days, long enough to prevent them from coordinating postelection demonstrations. Five days before Election Day, early voting began and duly produced the type of results that suggest massive ballot-stuffing (of the 30 percent or so of Belarusians who supposedly voted early, well over 90 percent voted for the president). And then, as attention turned toward October Square on 20 March, opposition websites were taken down and the mobile phone networks closed down.

But a few years ago Lukashenka did not need to go such lengths. Until the last two years or so, opinion polls in Belarus have been independent. The results showed that Lukashenka, though his ratings were well down from the highs of the 1990s and falling, was still the country's most popular politician. Serious flaws marred every election, but the opposition knew that Lukashenka had won. Though opposition media had a difficult life, Lukashenka did not destroy them. The same was true of nongovernmental organizations. Economically, Lukashenka kept key sections of the electorate happy with a clever system of redistribution and provided an economic vent by allowing a reasonably sizable, but still small, private sector of traders and services. He was the adept controller of a sophisticated system and a man whose canny political judgment prompted us once to call him a "man for his times."

In short, Lukashenka managed a system that was not monolithic. Now, though, it is beginning to look that way. Street traders, the media, NGOs, the opposition, and the state administration all find themselves under tighter control.

So while these elections did not produce a revolution, they do introduce a new act in Lukashenka's drama. In Act I, Lukashenka rose to power from relative obscurity and rose to genuine popularity sustained over many years by a fine show of political skill. In Act II, the ruler becomes anxious, his confidence less convincing, his fist becomes harsher, and his judgment less assured.


Act III has begun. It may or may not be the last act, it may be just a small beginning of a very long ending, but it will be a difficult one for Lukashenka, because he is entering fog-shrouded, treacherous political terrain.

First, Lukashenka needs somehow to restock his political capital. Perhaps his great political asset - that Belarus avoided the 1990s collapse seen in Ukraine and Russia - will become less potent as the 1990s recede, the older generation dies off, the younger generation matures, and the economies of Russia and Ukraine continue to recover from the 1990s. Throughout his rule, Lukashenka has created room for political maneuver by nurturing the Soviet legacy, retaining a special tie with Russia, yet asserting Belarusian independence. But the space for his form of Soviet Belarusian nationalism will become tighter: Soviet nostalgia will become less powerful; his maverick, often tauntingly tantalizing approach to Russia will become harder to maintain as the authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union continue to form a more cohesive and distinctly anti-Western bloc; but, with Belarusians now used to their own state, asserting Belarus' independence may be seen as an obligation, rather than an achievement.

Second, the opposition is now a more potent force. There can be disappointment that the number of demonstrators was not higher. At 1.7 million, Minsk's population is large. But an opposition movement largely associated with nationalists in the 1990s has matured and found a large-ish base in the younger generation and a broader set of themes, and - courtesy of Ukraine's Orange Revolution and the proximity of the European Union - feels far less isolated. Independent Belarusian journalists also note an upswing of interest in the provinces, with some sizable rallies. Ukrainians at the demonstrations in Minsk likened the opposition's current position to that of the "Ukraine without Kuchma" movement in the early 2000s. The Belarusian opposition might have hoped that Belarusian society was a few years closer to the stage that Ukraine was in 2004, but, come the next elections (when Lukashenka will have been in power for 17 years), there may be a powerful desire for change at ground level.

And, third, the Belarusian opposition may, in Alyaksandr Milinkevich, have found a leader who will last more than one campaign. On a Western political stage, he would play very well: a one-time basketball-league player and academic, with experience in local government and a leader of the NGO sector, mild-mannered but clearly determined, a polished performer, and with the presentational and linguistic skills of a diplomat (in Strasbourg in January, for example, Milinkevich - a former university lecturer in Algeria - won points by addressing the Council of Europe in French). On a Belarusian stage, he also has powerful credentials. For nationally conscious Belarusians, he has pedigree: His ancestors were repressed both by the Tsarist and Polish authorities. During the campaign, he proved a calm and unifying figure on a frequently fractious scene. He has advocated a nonviolent, calm, long-term approach. And when events took an unplanned turn, he reacted well: When some demonstrators chose to set up the tent city, the 58-year-old and his wife showed their solidarity by sleeping on the square for two nights in temperatures 10 degrees or more below freezing.

Is his the type of character to beat Lukashenka? As Lukashenka's popularity shows, the Belarusian stage is well-suited for another character type - and a character type that Lukashenka may himself most fear. In the most Macbethian episode in Lukashenka's rule so far, four public figures disappeared in 1999 and 2000, two of whom - Viktar Hanchar and Yuri Zakharanka - once came from Lukashenka's inner circle. If their disappearances were the work of a Lukashenka "death squad" - and the Council of Europe published a report in 2003 with very tough questions - then their deaths indicate that the type of rival that Lukashenka most fears are tough former insiders. But Milinkevich during this election campaign showed he was the most popular opposition leader, and in a political drama that will run a long time he may be better cast than Alyaksandr Kazulin, a former Lukashenka insider and a strong and provocative performer.

This is a political drama that demands audience participation. These elections certainly won more attention from the media and from the EU than any in the past. But that attention needs to continue, in part because it will help sustain the opposition and in part because it may help protect the central actor, Milinkevich. Like Ukrainian politics in the era of President Leonid Kuchma, Belarusian politics is a dangerous profession. There are, of course, the disappearances. But there is also the experience of the opposition candidate Syamyon Domash, whose campaign Milinkevich helped to lead in 2001. During the campaign, Domash suffered a mysterious heart attack, which some trace to water that he drank while appearing on state television. When Milinkevich went to the studio to prepare his speech, he took his own water. Given the disappearances and the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's presidential elections in 2004, this is not paranoia.

For a short period, the spotlight has been on Belarus. But this is a compelling, complicated, and dangerous play, one that deserves a large audience - and, of course, one that demands that the audience condemn the chief protagonist, Lukashenka.