Belarusian Opposition Figure Sees Economy As Authorities' "Weak Spot"

Text of report by anti-Kremlin Russian current affairs website Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal on 20 June

[Interview with Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civil Party of Belarus, by Yekaterina Shmelkova; date and place not given: "No One Is Going To Send a Crew to Belarus To Build Us a Bright Democratic Future"]

Whenever there is an active discussion on the Russian Internet about the latest crackdown on the Dissenters' March, the criminal prosecution of dissidents, or the Kremlin spin doctors' latest methods, sooner or later some resident of Belarus inevitably joins the conversation with something like: "What are you so surprised about? We went through all of that ages ago." All of that happened here, too, they say, and one always feels that what they really mean is: "And you did not say a word when they were strangling us." One actually hears very little about Belarus these days: everyone has grown tired of criticizing [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, and there is nothing to praise him for. In the meantime, Belarus is about to hold parliamentary elections. Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal decided to speak with one of the people who are trying to change things in the country - United Civil Party of Belarus leader Anatol Lyabedzka. Where does he see a way out of the current political dead-end?

[Shmelkova] What is the Belarusian opposition hoping to get out of the upcoming elections?

[Lyabedzka] We currently have a fairly black-and-white situation. One the one hand, there is Lukashenka, who has usurped power and established total control over everything that moves, and on the other there is the united democratic opposition, which, after overcoming its internal disagreements, actually acted in a consolidated fashion during the presidential elections and is now jointly preparing for the so-called parliamentary elections - elections to the Belarusian House of Representatives [lower house].

We have formed a single list of parliamentary candidates - Belarus has a majority system and 110 electoral districts, and we now have 110 candidates representing 11 political organizations and structures, as well as a common message, the main idea of which is to establish the people's control over the authorities. Right now it is important for us to make the upcoming vote at least a little bit more like democratic elections, to ensure that representatives of the opposition get at least some form of representation in government. There is still only one person representing the opposition in the House of Representatives, and that means the other 199 have been representing Lukashenka's interests. Under these circumstances, of course, one cannot say that our elections are fair and open.

[Shmelkova] As I understand it, you are currently being accused of pretty much the same thing that SPS [Union of Right-Wing Forces] and Yabloko were accused of during Russia's State Duma elections - that by taking part in the elections you are playing into the hands of the authorities, creating an illusion of democratic elections. What do you think about this?

[Lyabedzka] Our decision to take part in the elections was not an easy one. But after weighing all the arguments for and against it, we rejected the idea of a boycott. The most important thing for us now is to communicate with people. Unfortunately, absolutely all of the media in Belarus belong to one person: Alyaksandr Lukashenka. He is both our main oligarch and at the same time our ruler. But by taking part in the elections, our candidates will at least get the five minutes of airtime to which they are entitled by law - and they will be able to use it. This does not mean they will break through the information blockade, of course, but it is at least a tiny opportunity to bring to the people's attention certain thoughts and ideas that have not been reaching them for the past 4-5 years since the last election campaign. We have therefore decided not to boycott the elections.

[Shmelkova] Do you feel you are getting any support from Russia's democrats?

[Lyabedzka] We do of course have partners in the Russian Federation (in the case of the United Civil Party, for example, we have SPS) - we are working together, we have a common ideology, and we agree about our assessment of the situation. But as far as help is concerned, given that we have achieved far greater success than Russia's democrats in uniting the opposition and consolidating supporters of change, you might say that we could teach a thing or two to our Russian colleagues.

Our support from Europe, which is talked about so much, is often highly exaggerated. But we have always urged international support and assistance for proponents of democracy in Belarus. In my meetings with voters during the presidential elections I asked people: "What if resources were allocated for the creation of an alternative Belarusian television channel, and you got the opportunity to choose from not only the five state-run channels but a sixth one as well - what would you think about that kind of assistance?" Usually just one or two people would raise their hands in opposition this idea. People welcome this kind of assistance. A channel called Belsat has just been created in Warsaw, and if it gets the opportunity to broadcast in Belarus, where half a million people already have satellite dishes, then naturally we will glad to receive this kind of support.

On the other hand, I am completely convinced that the Belarusian issue cannot be resolved in Moscow, Brussels or Washington, but only in Minsk, and it is the people who live here who will determine whether change will come. No one is going to send a crew to Belarus to build us a bright democratic future - we must do everything ourselves.

[Shmelkova] When I was in Minsk, I was struck by the young men with swastikas who walked freely throughout the city. Is neo-Nazism a serious problem in today's Belarus?

[Lyabedzka] The problem is that this is not a problem for our authorities. The Belarusian authorities do not see neo-Nazism as a threat at all. Many of us remember Lukashenka's famous interview with a German newspaper, where he said that not everything about Hitler's rule was so bad, that some of his approaches to building the state coincide with our (i.e. his) notions about the place and role of power. Not much has changed since then: the law-enforcement agencies actively catch people with opposition symbols while taking a fairly relaxed approach towards people with swastikas. That is why neo-Nazis do indeed feel quite comfortable in Belarus, and in a way they support the authorities. I would not be surprised if they decided to hold some sort of international neo-Nazi congress in Minsk - that would be logical.

[Shmelkova] So the authorities are essentially supporting the neo- Nazis?

[Lyabedzka] Well, at the very least they create fairly comfortable conditions for them. The same is true of the criminal underworld: the opposition cannot find a venue in which to hold a meeting, but the crime bosses do not have such problems.

[Shmelkova] One gets the feeling that the Russian authorities are largely copying Belarus's experience, wouldn't you agree?

[Lyabedzka] In my opinion, it is generally a big political mistake - and, by the way, an extremely common one outside of Belarus - to view the things that are happening in our country as some sort of specifically Belarusian problem. What we call "Lukhashism" is in fact nothing more than a neo-authoritarian ideology that emerged during the difficult period of transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Neo-totalitarianism is an export commodity that is being produced in Belarus and enjoys strong demand throughout the former Soviet Union. Russia is indeed repeating, in its own way, the things that Belarus went through 7-10 years ago. This includes the system of management, the struggle against dissent, and the methods of holding election campaigns. It is just packaged a little differently.

[Shmelkova] Another similar problem in Russia and Belarus is that there is one argument against every point raised by the opposition: that the people actually love the authorities.

[Lyabedzka] Lukashenka does indeed have a lot of public support, but you cannot say that he is supported by a majority of people. This simply is not true. As long as Lukashenka was getting an energy grant from Russia to the tune of around 8bn dollars, this money could be used to bribe part of the population through social programmes. But, first of all, this assistance is now shrinking - not so quickly, but it is shrinking, and Lukashenka has been forced to adopt such unpopular measures as abolishing social benefits and guarantees for 5.5 million Belarusian citizens, such as public transport discounts for pensioners and students. For the most part, these were the very people who traditionally made up Lukashenka's base of support, and now they are disappointed. I am not even talking about other population groups, such as individual entrepreneurs, who are simply being liquidated as a class in this country: there was a whole series of by-laws passed that were aimed at destroying this social group.

[Shmelkova] Then why is the regime so stable?

[Lyabedzka] Belarus's opposition can be divided into types: the street opposition and the kitchen opposition. The street opposition consists of several tens of thousands of active people who are not afraid and who are the least financially dependent on the authorities. The kitchen opposition, on the other hand, consists of the majority of the population. These are people who are not satisfied with the current situation, but for one reason or another they are not prepared to take to the streets and openly voice their protest.

Lukashenka's regime is propped up by three things. The first is fear: in our country they did not even rename the KGB, and this is symbolic. The second is people's financial and economic dependence on the authorities: 80 per cent of our people receive pensions, benefits, or salaries from Lukashenka, and there is no alternative to this - Lukashenka simply destroys this alternative. And the third factor, as I have already mentioned, is significant support from Russia, which is expressed not only through the energy grant, but also through Russia's use of its surplus oil dollars to buy a significant proportion of Belarusian goods for which there would otherwise be little demand. It is because of these factors that Lukashenka remains on a fairly stable footing. This is why we are not predicting an economic collapse in the next year or two, even though people's lives are becoming more and more difficult. Our prices have virtually reached European levels, but we do not get European salaries - the average salary in the country is 350 dollars [a month]. A lot of people are just surviving.

And of course Lukashenka is largely being propped up by the media, which have essentially become a tool of state propaganda. To put it briefly, Lukashenka's supporters' main argument is: "It does not matter if we are poor, at least we are not at war."

[Shmelkova] Do you think this situation will change in the foreseeable future?

[Lyabedzka] We try to look at things realistically. We see the upcoming parliamentary campaign as an opportunity to prepare a platform for the next presidential election. I think it would be naive to expect any serious social upheavals in the near future that would be capable of turning the situation around, although there is a trend - the economic situation in the country can only get worse. Our analysts say this will become a serious problem in 2010-2011. Especially if Lukashenka stops getting help from Russia. The thing is that Lukashenka has not done anything for the Belarusian economy, and this is in fact the regime's biggest weak spot. Since he tries to control everything that moves, privatization becomes a political issue. He is therefore forced either to accept certain economy reforms, in which case the political situation will start to change independently of his will, or to leave everything the way it is, in which case the economic situation will inevitably deteriorate, and protest sentiments will grow.

Originally published by Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal website, Moscow, in Russian 20 Jun 08.