The Wall That Didn't Come Down

by TOL

When change comes to Belarus, its leaders will likely be today's youthful activists rather than the aging, fractious "opposition."

Eighty-five millimeters. For many Belarusians, that remains the symbolic distance between their country and the West. Every train running from Warsaw to Minsk that arrives at the border town of Brest takes a short detour to a depot on the Belarusian side. The passengers wait inside, trying to sleep, while the cars are elevated and the wheels changed for wider ones to fit the tracks in Belarus. A trip that should take five hours ends up taking closer to eight.

With all the events this week commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and the impact on the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, a country that democracy never reached shouldn't be forgotten. Two decades after 1989, the Minsk tourist bureau sign that still in the mid-1990s welcomed visitors to the USSR may be gone, but the Soviet past is everywhere: no political plurality, no free market economy, a powerful security force (still known as the KGB), and a state-dominated media flooded with government propaganda.


Things are afoot, however, in Belarus, and the situation - so static and so depressing for so long - seems more in flux than in recent years. The long-time pariah of the West and devoted suitor of Russia, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has miraculously turned himself into the Man Who Would Lead Belarus to Europe and, at the same time, the Father of an Independent Belarus.

Lukashenka's motivations are multiple and interconnected. At the beginning of his presidency (he is the longest serving European leader at 15 years), his pro-Russian slant and nostalgia for the Soviet era secured a following among that similarly inclined part of the Belarusian population. He also probably thought that unquestioned loyalty to Moscow would ensure a lifetime of cheap Russian gas and oil.

Flash forward a decade later, to around 2005, and the situation had started to change, with then-Russian President Vladimir Putin finally calling Lukashenka out on past pledges of real integration (the Russian ruble as a common currency, a union constitution, common border controls, and so on). Faced with the prospect of handing over control of state assets and ending up little more than a regional governor, Lukashenka began looking for alternatives to stay in power.

A downturn in the economy accelerated the search: As financial analyst Sergei Korol has written for TOL, the Belarusian "economic miracle," already under pressure after Russia started to eliminate fuel discounts, started to collapse in 2007, with exports plummeting and the trade deficit skyrocketing. The world financial crisis meant the billions in short-term financing that had been available previously dried up, leading to the very real possibility of a financial meltdown.

In the end, the Belarusian government had no choice but to accept relief from Western financial institutions, including a $2.5 billion IMF loan. That new dependency has meant agreeing to some measure of economic liberalization, a process that some experts now consider irreversible. Private businesses and local entrepreneurs have found themselves freer to operate than in the past. If Belarus now needed the West, anti-Western propaganda made less sense.

The change in public opinion has been dramatic. According to opinion polls conducted by IISEPS, an independent research agency now based across the border in Vilnius, for the first time this fall, more people favored integration into the EU than into Russia (42. 7 percent versus 38.3 percent in September 2009, compared with 28.6 percent versus 59.2 percent in September 2005). And already by the end of 2008, over 63 percent of those questioned were against the restoration of the USSR, in contrast to around 51 percent five years ago. Favorable coverage from the state propaganda machine and Lukashenka's change of heart have clearly had their effect.

At this stage, there are even signs of a state-sanctioned re-emergence of the Belarusian language, symbols, and history - other bogymen of the Lukashenka era. State television, for example, seems to feature more Belarusian-language programming than ever before during the president's time in office. And the official attitude toward the Kurapaty monument - which commemorates Belarusians murdered by the Soviet secret police between 1937 and 1941 - appears to be changing. The day before a large, opposition-led visit to the monument, the state newspaper Belarus Segodnya wrote of the common importance of this memorial for the entire nation instead of largely ignoring Kurapaty as in the past.


All of the above doesn't, however, mean the situation is rosy. Yes, "administrative" detentions - a common form of dealing with enemies of the regime - have dropped dramatically, and some independent newspapers have been allowed back into the official distribution system. The EU and European officials are no longer regularly mocked and condemned. But political liberalization has been spotty and limited, without structural changes to the electoral or legal systems, such as a move to eliminate articles restricting the activities of NGOs. Activists may now be rarely detained, but they are regularly fined. Only two of 13 independent newspapers have actually been allowed back. The lack of progress, especially this year, will likely result in the EU later this month extending its suspension of the visa ban on top Belarusian officials rather than cancelling the ban outright.

All these points should be hammered home by Belarus's beleaguered opposition in an attempt to counter the country's supposed move West. But the political opposition has done a particularly poor job at that, and has, in fact, allowed Lukashenka's remake to happen. Before 2006, serious attempts took place to consolidate the opposition and nominate a single candidate for the presidential elections. Today, fragmentation, in-fighting, and division are the dominant trends, with no single force able to counter Lukashenka's monopolization of what should be the opposition's main pro-independence, pro-West mantra. Of course, very limited access to the media hurts, but Belarusian pro-democracy activists and donors constantly complain of the political opposition's inability to connect with voters, speak in sound bites, and present well internationally.

It took 16 days, for example, for the opposition just to issue a statement condemning the devaluation of the Belarusian ruble after Lukashenka flip-flopped and allowed that to happen earlier this yer, harshly impacting normal Belarusians.

The general disgust with the political opposition should not be taken for a sign that all of the opposition is in a generally sorry state. The civic sector, buoyed by years of training and millions of dollars in foreign assistance and expertise, is dedicated, brave, and often innovative. Young leaders in the NGO crowd have been abroad and seen, first-hand, life beyond their borders. They - and not the older political party veterans who celebrated the crumbling of the Soviet bloc 20 years ago - will likely be the ones to bring real change to Belarus and not the superficial transformation now occurring.

And that's the real benefit of the fall of the Wall for Belarusians so far. Even though their country has yet to join the wave, they can at least see the difference democracy and a free market economy can make, right next door. That is, just before the trip home and having to get the wheels changed again.


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