Belarusian libertarian

By Yuri Drakakhrust

Yaraslau Ramanchuk's economic ideas have had a big impact in Belarus.

Issues such as democracy, national identity and geopolitics have for years served as the principal battlefields in Belarusian politics. But so too has economics. The opposition, even the Communist Party, has been united in its rejection of 'market socialism' a la President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; all favour giving business more freedom.

The man whose economic ideas are most conceptually opposed to Lukashenka's is Yaraslau Ramanchuk, and it is Ramanchuk who is the most unusual figure competing in presidential elections to be held on 19 December.

For Ramanchuk, both the EU and the US are too socialist. The ideal of this libertarian in the mould of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises is that of the economy of Hong Kong in its British era.

Such views seem exotic in a country whose ruling philosophy and economic practice remain close to that of the Soviet Union. Exotic maybe, but also influential. It was he whom the Union of Small Businesses asked to represent it in talks with the government. And it is this 44-year-old who has authored, or co-authored, almost all the economic programmes put forward by the opposition in recent years.

As have all in the opposition, Ramanchuk has repeatedly condemned and protested against the suppression of political freedoms. But his principal critique is of the regime's dirigiste economic policies. More than once, Ramanchuk has said he would serve under Lukashenka - if he could do as he thought fit in the economy.

In 2008, when Minsk and Brussels began a new dialogue, the government invited him to join a commission tasked with identifying ways to improve Belarus's image. He accepted - but resigned after the first meeting, convinced that the government was unwilling to heed his proposals.

The government has, though, paid some attention to "Belarus's leading liberal". It has made tentative steps towards liberalising the economy, and much of its critique echoes arguments that Ramanchuk has always made. On occasion, Ramanchuk has sided with the government. He says a highly unpopular measure - to eliminate numerous social benefits - was inspired by a correspondence he had with the presidential administration. Most in the opposition roundly condemned the move; he defended it.

Ramanchuk is, then, very much his own man - and many details of his life-story distinguish him from other opposition candidates. Ramanchuk, whose father is an electrician and his mother a dairy-farm worker, is the only professional economist among them: he came to politics through economics.

In the 1990s, after studying languages and economics in Minsk, he combined being a journalist with work as a think-tanker. He now heads the Ludwig Von Mises Centre run by an independent research institute, Strategy. There, he has established close ties with American libertarians at the Cato Institute, with associates of the 'architect' of Polish reforms, Leszek Balcerowicz, and with Russian liberals, in particular the late Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais and Andrey Illarionov.

In the process, he has become one of the country's best-known economists, though his frequent predictions of an impending economic catastrophe tended to raise smiles rather than alarm.

In 2000, he followed in Gaidar's and Balcerowicz's footsteps, by entering politics and becoming deputy chairman of the liberal, right-wing United Civic Party (UCP).

He has not risen from that post and so, at the start of the year, many assumed that the party's candidate in the election would be its leader, Anatol Lyabedzka. The decision to put Ramanchuk forward instead was doubly unexpected because Ramanchuk - or Jaroslaw Roman?czuk - is an ethnic Pole, from a town five kilometres from Poland. For a politician in a newly independent state still engaged in nation-building, belonging to an ethnic minority is a serious disadvantage. Nor does Ramanchuk try to hide his origins or his membership of the long-persecuted Union of Poles.

Even so, of the opposition candidates, Ramanchuk garnered the third-largest total of signatures in the registration process. He cannot readily be pigeon-holed by his Polish heritage. He and his party have always shown some sympathy for Russia - or, at least, they accept that some of its interests and claims are legitimate. By contrast, many others in the opposition tend to interpret any step by Moscow as an expression of imperialist ambitions.

Previous elections have followed a geopolitical scenario: Lukashenka aligned himself with Russia, the opposition with the West. But, this year, that scenario has been torn up, chiefly because of a series of clashes between Lukashenka and Moscow. Some opponents have seen an opportunity to enlist the Kremlin's support - or, at least, to secure access to the Russian media and, thereby, a mass audience in Belarus.

They include the men who are now the most popular opposition candidates: Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, of the Speak the Truth campaign, and Andrey Sannikau, of the European Belarus movement.

Like them, Ramanchuk has visited Moscow in recent months. Ramanchuk, who speaks English and French as well as Polish, Belarusian and Russian, has even described himself as the "the most suitable candidate for Moscow" and has said the Kremlin is studying his economic programme.

The chances of Minsk or Moscow heeding his advice have been made less remote because he has watered down his libertarian prescriptions for his election manifesto, called "One Million Jobs". Still, his ideas are radical enough for the deputy economics minister to have entered into a public polemic with Ramanchuk, calling his ideas ridiculous (as too has Lukashenka). That polemic has injected meaningful debate into the campaign, normally a rare commodity in elections.

But what previous campaigns lacked in debate, they made up for with ideological seriousness. By contrast, this campaign has a post-modern quality, with a focus on personality. Ramanchuk has contributed to that, with an interview that has caused a minor sensation: Ramanchuk, who plans to marry next year, said (among similar answers) that, in principle, he would have no objection to taking part in group sex.

Polls suggest that no opposition candidate would win this election, however free or fair. But there is a school of thought that these elections, however unfree and unfair, at least serve as a form of public debate about Belarus's options. If so, Ramanchuk has perhaps more to contribute than anyone else. His ideas may not influence the country's direction, but they may affect the manner in which it develops. His ideas have helped to liberalise the economy. His ideas, distinctiveas they are from the government's and the nationalist opposition's, may yet also influence discussion about Belarus's geopolitical options.


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