One president, three challengers

Assessing Belarusian election politics

To observers of Belarus, the landslide victory of President Lukashenko in the March elections seemed irreconcilable with reports of intimidation of the opposition. How could the electorate of a modern state bordering on Europe have voted so resoundingly in favour of an autocrat? From there it was a short step for many outside Belarus to conclude that Belarusians are satisfied with the security that Lukashenko’s controlled economy offers them; and that Western powers, irked by the obstacle Lukashenko presents to neo-liberal geostrategy, promote the pro-Western Alexander Milinkevich. The Belarusian opposition was thus discredited via a detour through an argument that was no more concerned with cultural and political factors within Belarus than were hopes for a “colour revolution” that would move elsewhere once the euphoria subsided. In an article written shortly after the Belarusian election, discourse analyst Nerijus Prekevicius looks at why Lukashenko’s policies won him votes, while those of Milinkevich and the other opposition candidates lacked mass appeal, “despite” their respective content.

The recent presidential elections in Belarus put the country temporarily in the global spotlight. The international mass media focused mainly upon issues of electoral fairness and freedom. Here I discuss issues that I consider crucial to Belarusian politics and how these issues are reflected in the discourse of the presidential candidates.1

Sources are drawn mainly from the websites of the presidential candidates2 and the election site of the BelaPAN information agency.3 I have used the electoral statements of the candidates, their interviews and their answers to questions, including those published on the Radio Liberty website.4 Unfortunately, the majority of citations do not allow detailed referencing. The background information was provided by various mass media, ranging from the firmly pro-government (Soviet Belarus) to the openly anti-government (Charter 97).

Why is Alexander Lukashenko the first and so far the only?

As a long-term observer of Alexander Lukashenko’s verbal skills, I would dare to define a broader social coalition that he considers his base of support and to which he often appeals. Although Lukashenko is not necessarily supported by these groups in entirety, his policies offer general benefits to them. First, Lukashenko appeals to Belarusian citizens who speak Russian in private (“our Russian language”). The proportion of such people in Belarusian society is as high as 62.8 per cent (according to a 1999 census). This section of the population is composed of various groups, including local Russians, Russian-speaking ethnic minorities, and Russian-speaking Belarusians. The union with Russia reassures Russians; the bilingual cultural policies promise equality to national minorities – “here they will not be perceived as strangers” – and the cultural status quo for Russian-speaking Belarusians is preserved: a privileged position to some extent.

The predominance of the Russian language removes the need to master the second language – barely 3.2 per cent of non-Belarusian citizens of Belarus use the Belarusian language at home: 72 per cent define themselves as Poles. Furthermore, Lukashenko attracts those who consider themselves Soviet citizens – there are both Belarusians and non-Belarusians in this category. His nostalgic references to the past – “We, the Soviet people, stood up to defend the greatest human right” – reaffirm Soviet identity and imply Soviet-style equality between the native population and the recent immigrants: “spiritually, we are the most internationalist nation”. To some extent, Lukashenko’s policies take away the minority stigma from the representatives of non-titular national groups.

The union with Russia has its limits for Lukashenko. He is not willing to adopt Russian currency (“it would be a suicidal step”). According to Lukashenko, the integration of Belarus within Russia would only create problems for Russia itself: “[Belarusian] nationalists and the West are just waiting to […] begin a ‘national liberation struggle'”. Lukashenko often stresses the pragmatic motivation behind cooperation – “above all […] huge markets for our products”. The ultimate goal of cooperation is the protection of Belarusian interests – “In these alliances we will advance as far as it coincides with the interests of our state and our nation”.

Lukashenko also appeals to those dependent on state intervention in the economy and redistributive policies. This section of the population can be divided into several sub-groups. For a long time, Lukashenko’s life was connected to rural Belarus; his identification with the rural population is considerable: “They are great labourers, whose labour feeds not only themselves, but the rest of the country’s population too. They are our parents.” The countryside is important simply for its proportion of the Belarusian population (30.7 per cent according to the 1999 census, though declining steadily). The experience of the rural population in post-Communist countries shows that market reforms bring few benefits and considerable losses to the countryside. These losses include the weakening of the social security net, deteriorating infrastructure, and increasing welfare discrepancy with urban centres. This is precisely the point that Lukashenko makes so often.

Furthermore, the President always stresses his contribution to preserving big businesses in Belarus. Large industrial enterprises in eastern Europe suffered a great deal during the transformation process and economic liberalization appears as a threat to Belarusians working in analogous industries. Lukashenko often claims that he supports privatization deals only if they bring in enough income and preserve the social welfare system: “We will not allow the social system to be destroyed and demand that kindergartens and dispensaries are built in the factories.” The President always stresses social equality in Belarus and ties it to political stability: “The ground for radicals is prepared where people are worse off than they should be, and people realize that.” Economically vulnerable groups and welfare recipients do better in most European states in absolute terms, but their relative standing is probably better in Belarus. People often evaluate their well-being in comparison with others; furthermore, nobody can guarantee that economic development without Lukashenko will lead to immediate improvements.

Finally, the role played by the Belarusian state plays in economic and social life requires a large bureaucratic machinery, including extensive security forces. Recently, Lukashenko has started suggesting de-bureaucratization: “The time has come to remove the barriers, to de-bureaucratize the country.” While Lukashenko’s policies create the raison d’�tre for the expansion of the state administration and give it special social status, the relationship between Lukashenko and the bureaucracy is not trouble-free. Lukashenko’s aspiration to maintain personal control over the state administration at every level leads to frequent personnel changes and persecution of distrusted or ineffective officials (and Belarusian officials find it difficult to be effective given the government’s frequently unrealistic objectives). However, this process removes the disloyal and inhibits the formation of the opposition within the government. When it comes to the armed forces, Lukashenko regularly talks about the threat from the opposition: “They think that our army can be dissolved”; “They all deserted from the military”.

The President’s success in keeping hold of government control for twelve years can largely be explained by the presence of large groups that find Lukashenko’s policies attractive. It is also important to mention that membership in these groups is overlapping – the Belarusian-speaking population is larger in the countryside, but many of its representatives may support Lukashenko because of his rural policies. Similarly, wealthy Russian-speaking businessmen may support Lukashenko because of his cultural and foreign policies.

Therefore, the overall number of potential opponents of Lukashenko is difficult to determine. One may look at the results of referenda in 1995 and 1996 that were less contested than subsequent elections. The referendum of 1995 drastically changed the national symbols and introduced Russian as the second national language. The first decision was disapproved by 989 thousand voters, the second by 614 thousand. These numbers may reflect a low level of disapproval of Lukashenko’s cultural and foreign policies. The subsequent referendum of 1996 included a question on land trade; this was approved by the majority and disapproved by only 949 thousand. This number possibly reflects a low level of disapproval of Lukashenko’s economic policies.

Of course, general attitudes to Lukashenko and the state-controlled mass media may have affected the voting on these specific issues. But to some extent the figures are still valid and we can observe their effects in Belarusian politics. While support for Lukashenko as president may have fluctuated over time, the policy issues remain. In other words, even if Lukashenko leaves politics, the demand for his ideas will remain, and the opposition should probably adjust to this.

The issue of natural gas prices

The presidential candidates have demonstrated their argumentative skills in discussing the recently popularized issue of natural gas prices. Though apparently simple, the issue is related to the central problems facing Belarus. In terms of foreign policy, natural gas prices are mostly a result of Russia’s interest in Belarus and Lukashenko’s Russia-friendly policies. In terms of economic policy, low natural resource prices make Belarusian products competitive. If the opposition were to find an alternative to Lukashenko’s policies it might convince citizens that it could govern better than him.

Lukashenko has tackled the issue of Russian natural resources on several occasions (for example, in his interview with the Russian Newspaper). He mentions the Ukrainian pro-Western position as the reason why Ukraine must pay higher gas prices. Lukashenko suggests that Ukraine’s movement towards Nato would lead to losses for the Russian defence industry: “Russian companies and the state will lose billions of dollars”. He then mentions the presence of Russian military installations in Belarus – “strategic objects that provide a genuine defence to the Russian Federation” – for which Russia is “not paying a dime”. The presence of the Belarusian army is also considered to be an asset for Russia. On the economic side, Lukashenko stresses that transporting natural gas is cheaper through Belarus than through Ukraine. The union between Russia and Belarus is implicitly connected to gas prices via the issue of fair competition: “If we had twice as high a price for natural gas than Russian consumers, what kind of competition would that be?” Lukashenko’s final analysis is that after services to Russia are taken into account, Russia owes Belarus US$ 750 million.

Presidential candidate Siarhei Gaidukevich’s opinion about the perspective of the natural gas industry in Belarus is striking: “A pipeline without gas – a pile of metal and nothing more.” He considers lower prices for natural gas to be a result of pro-Russian policies, while opposite policies would lead to an economic disaster – “prices for natural gas would become simply astronomic”.

Presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin considers the consumption of natural gas to be too high. He links low gas prices to the sale of Belarusian infrastructure to Russia and claims that in the long-term prices will grow anyway. No specific solutions are offered by A. Kozulin on this issue.

Presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich suggests that low natural gas prices are vital for Lukashenko – “without them he has no political future”. According to Milinkevich, natural gas prices should be connected to transit charges through Belarusian territory and the possibility of building new pipelines. Transit to the Kaliningrad region and Russian military installations on Belarusian territory are seen as bargaining chips. Milinkevich also hopes for an improvement of general economic situation – “Are we unable to earn enough money to buy natural gas at normal prices?”

After the opinions of the candidates are reviewed, it is obvious that presidential candidates have failed to produce an account that can seriously compete with Lukashenko’s. Milinkevich makes more elaborate arguments, but his suggestions are unspecific and do not diverge much from Lukashenko’s ideas (services to Russia as a bargaining chip). Gaidukevich and Kozulin have little to say.

Siarhei Gaidukevich – the (still) loyal opposition

The political slogans and principles of Siarhei Gaidukevich are similar to Lukashenko’s – “there must be a leader who takes all [duties] upon himself”; “stability, order, and welfare”. He criticizes NGOs on the same grounds as the President: “funding from influential foreign foundations became their priority”. Gaidukevich’s contempt for the united opposition is similar to Lukashenko’s: “complete political impotence, lack of recognition, offended that they cannot offer the Belarusian people anything different”. The opposition is presented as corrupt and anti-Russian: “eager to get into power and, under orders from their [Western] benefactors to […] destroy the Belarusian–Russian alliance”. Hence, Gaidukevich helps Lukashenko criticize the mainstream opposition, while trying to create the appearance of the constructive opposition. In other words, Gaidukevich’s presence is intended to show that Lukashenko is supported by social groups not directly dependent on the government.

Gaidukevich, like Lukashenko in 1994, emphasizes the issue of bureaucracy and corruption – “a whole army of totally unnecessary officials, who have considerable powers, but are dissatisfied with their salaries”. This ambiguous statement can be interpreted either as a suggestion to reduce the bureaucracy or a promise to increase civil servants’ salaries. However, accusations of corruption are a part of any opposition’s job; Lukashenko himself stresses his struggle to keep the bureaucracy under control. Hence, the civil service does not feel threatened by Gaidukevich’s claims, though has no great interest in changing the status quo either.

Gaidukevich considers the deepening of integration into Russian-led international structures to be a priority. Sympathy for Russia is stated explicitly – “I respect Vladimir Putin and welcome [the success of] friendly Russia.” Cultural policy is also clearly in favour of the current bilingualism: “the language of education and creation should be a personal choice “. On these questions, Gaidukevich is probably even further away from the mainstream opposition than Lukashenko, who often criticises the Russian economic system. Hence, Gaidukevich may be less acceptable to the Russian-speaking, sovereignty-oriented Belarusian population, which probably forms the backbone of the Belarusian society.

Cultural and foreign policy plays only a secondary role in Gaidukevich’s ideology, however. His main critique of Lukashenko’s policies is in the economic sphere. Gaidukevich presents himself as a supporter of market reforms: “private ownership should be developed.” He stresses the impossibility of efficient planning in the construction of the President’s “agro-settlements” and promotes private agriculture. The reduction and simplification of taxation is seen as a solution to the “shadow” economy and a stimulus for the economy as a whole. From Gaidukevich’s argument, one may deduce that taxation should be applied regardless of the form of ownership. He also requires a closer fit between education and the labour market, wants to draw a clearer line between paid and unpaid medical assistance (“people still do not understand which [assistance] may be received for free and for which they should pay extra”), and suggests the development of the housing credits and the stimulation of the housing market in general. While many of Gaidukevich’s ideas seem to support the current welfare state in Belarus, his solutions may ultimately lead to its demise.

Gaidukevich seems more ready to relinquish state control over the economy and is more in favour of privatization in particular. Combination with his willingness to deepen integration with Russia (“the provision of maximum openness of the economies through removing barriers for bilateral trade, business, and social initiatives”), this policy direction would certainly lead to the absorption of the Belarusian industries by Russian capital. In this respect, Gaidukevich’s position is probably far from that of the majority of the Belarusian population. However, this may be not so obvious, as on the surface he looks like a supporter of current welfare policies.

Gaidukevich’s ideas could become dangerous for Lukashenko if Russia decided to withdraw its support for Lukashenko and search for a friendly and more compliant political leader. Bearing in mind Belarus’s multifaceted dependence on Russia, Lukashenko could hardly preserve his control over the bureaucracy and the security forces if Russia explicitly decided to abandon him. However, Gaidukevich would hardly fit the role of Russia’s hand-picked president, due to the current insignificance of his administrative and economic power. Currently, he is certainly playing on the President’s side. His generally favourable opinion about the government’s achievements does not allow him to be a viable contender – why would Lukashenko’s supporters abandon the status quo in order to take a risk with Gaidukevich?

Alexander Kozulin – a populist opposition candidate

Alexander Kozulin uses rhetoric that often brings to mind the President’s charismatic style: “the government was confused, it did not know what to do with me”; “they trembled, because the people support me”; “I will open the doors to the civilized world”. His promise to maintain order and the image of strength is a response to the accusation that the opposition is destabilizing the state: “my hand is as firm and strong as Lukashenko’s”; “I will have to use [my] marine skills”; “I am used to fighting until victory”. Kozulin’s self-confidence reaches messianic levels – “there is a government that arises from God, but is also one from the devil”; “Belarusians […] lack the ruler of Light”. His belief in astrology is also characteristic – “as a scientist, I am interested in astrology and maintain friendly relationships with prominent specialists in this field of knowledge”. It is difficult to say how much of Kozulin’s statements reflect his real self, and how much is conscious audience manipulation.

Kozulin looks down upon other opposition forces: “The old opposition is even farther away from the people […] in 15 years [it] has been unable to achieve anything except defeat.” He repeats the accusations made by the government – “I do not have giant resources for developing and growing popularity like Milinkevich”. Kozulin occasionally refers to the “opposition” as “they”. It may be an attempt to distance himself from the opposition’s past failures while creating an image of an effective politician; or it might be an attempt to appeal to a greater audience than the mainstream opposition candidates.

Kozulin refers to Lukashenko using various derogatory epithets, even defining him as a criminal boss, and accuses him of various misdeeds, including personal corruption (“I demand that the money is returned to the people”). Impressive rhetoric sometimes leads to absurdity – “Even potatoes have degenerated during his rule” – and criticism leads to veiled threats: “[Lukashenko] hangs on to his position not only without thinking about the people, but even [his] own children and grandchildren”. On the other hand, Kozulin stresses that he does not like confrontation (“my sacred goal [is] to save the Republic from bloodshed and revolution”) and does not consider that the street protests may be an aim in itself. Before the elections, Kozulin claimed that the change of government would require at least one hundred thousand protesters, otherwise, “when twenty to thirty thousand people and two thousand prepared fighters come out”, the protests might lead to bloodshed. He also recognizes certain positive contributions made by Lukashenko – “[he] managed to create a strong government and to protect the country from social upheaval, and to strengthen the state’s sovereignty and independence”. Kozulin’s position often seems contradictory – which again may be related to his wish to convince not so much the long-term opposition supporters but Lukashenko’s admirers.

Kozulin makes repeated promises to the civil service that they would retain their posts after his victory (“90 per cent of officials will keep their positions”) unless they are ardent supporters of Lukashenko: “we will get rid of the watch dogs”. He argues that civil servants are appointed on the basis of their personal loyalty and have no certain future under Lukashenko – “Today, on duty, tomorrow, if you failed to please [Lukashenko], you’re out. All successes Lukashenko ascribes to himself, all mistakes […] to you.” This claim sounds even stronger if the audience recalls Kozulin’s background as an official and university rector. On the other hand, he mentions civil servants’ large salaries and their excessive powers with respect to businesses. The punishment for fabricating election results is colourfully described as “retribution for the betrayal of one’s people”. The overall message to the bureaucracy seems rather reassuring.

In foreign policy, Kozulin criticizes Lukashenko’s hostile relationships with other countries, including Russia (“I especially want to apologize to Russia”). He stresses Russia’s role in ensuring Belarusian welfare (“stability is based upon the assistance of the Russian Federation and the [trade] preferences offered by it”) and even claims that Lukashenko cultivates anti-Russian attitudes. Kozulin’s foreign policy slogan is “Russia strategic ally, Europe strategic partner”; he perceives Belarus as a bridge between these powers (typically for an eastern European politician). Kozulin supports EU integration (though as a long-term project only), but opposes NATO membership. Defence expenditure is criticized in terms of potential savings – “Why should we launch harvesters into the air?”

Kozulin gives a clear answer to the question of national symbols: “The national symbol of our country is the white-red-white flag and the Chase [the medieval coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania].” Bilingualism should temporarily remain: “for the moment there should remain two state languages in Belarus”. On the other hand, he does not connect the Belarusian language with Belarusian patriotism, and himself mainly uses Russian. To summarize, Kozulin’s message regarding foreign and cultural issues seems mixed – it is intended to appeal to both the pro- and anti-Russian citizenry.

Kozulin regards state regulations and taxation as the main obstacles for economic development, and promises to preserve the existing welfare system and even expand it. Additional income for such expenditures is to be generated by more effective allocation of financial resources and the expropriation of the funds currently controlled by the President.

Kozulin proposes privatization in agriculture: “We have so much land! It should be given to the owner.” He also suggests that there is a need for more competition in this sphere. His proposal to pay more attention to regional development (“it is not rational to invest only in the capital “) is focused on administrative reform: “Instead of six provinces we will create around forty districts that will be directly under the government’s control.” It seems that Kozulin has little interest in rural issues.

Kozulin admits that Lukashenko has high support among pensioners and is interested in their support (“he squeezes everything from the country in order to pay the pension on time, even if it is small”). Kozulin suggests that pensions are small but provides no solution for increasing them – “I will gather together a group of pensioners who will propose improvements”. On the other hand, Kozulin, as someone coming from the academic world, pays considerable attention to the education system and students in particular. The latter are promised the recognition of Belarusian diploma abroad and stable study procedures.

Kozulin, probably more than any other opposition leader, resembles the leaders of the “colour revolutions”. He came to the opposition from the governing elite and is more well-known than most mainstream opposition candidates. His academic career allows him to relate to the youth. Certain statements by Kozulin create doubts concerning his democratic credentials. The fact that he confronted the security forces on 1 March and led the demonstration towards the detention centre on 25 of March shows that under certain conditions Kozulin may be prone to aggressive measures. He is tries to appeal to all social groups and uses populist rhetoric. Kozulin’s programmatic statements, especially on economic questions, are vague, and he makes numerous enthusiastic promises. If economic conditions in Belarus deteriorate significantly, leading to greater opposition support in street actions, Kozulin or another opposition leader of his type may become a formidable opponent to the current government.

Alexander Milinkevich – a new and old opposition

Alexander Milinkevich considers the democratic system to be both a good in itself and a way to improve social and economic conditions (“a strengthened democracy will become a universal tool for solving social and economic problems”). He criticizes Lukashenko’s unpredictability and avoids using the term “revolution” (“I regularly stress that we are against revolutions”). This contradicts the government’s statements that the opposition is a source of instability, reduces the pretexts for persecution, and probably attracts more citizens to the opposition’s cause.

Milinkevich promises to maintain high salaries for managers if possible (“we will think […] how to support, primarily financially”), while civil servants’ salaries are also viewed as a possible source of savings (“the limitation of the state officials’ appetites”). The security forces should be reduced: “the ranks of various “public safety” agencies must be gradually decreased”. The same applies to the army, which “will be professional, mobile, and not very large”. Officers will receive a promise of assistance in finding new jobs. Milinkevich states that cuts should begin with those involved in the violations of law (those involved in persecution of the opposition, I presume). Pro-government journalists get no guarantees either: “[they] will not find professional for natural causes”. Milinkevich makes occasional remarks about the instability of the civil servants’ positions under the Lukashenko – “Who among them can be certain that he will not be sacked and jailed tomorrow?” However, this argument does not eliminate the overall negative message to the bureaucracy.

Milinkevich sees bilingualism as an undesirable situation that will be eventually changed (“the implementation of well thought-out policies to promote Belarusian language and culture and to increase its use in public and private life”). The status of Russian language and other languages should be guaranteed through the state support for national minorities: “we will provide the conditions for the free development of national minorities, their cultures, and languages”. In this respect, Milinkevich does not stray too far from the traditional views of the Belarusian mainstream opposition.

The statement over the equality of various religious denominations is formulated in terms that imply that the Orthodox Church is privileged by Lukashenko and that this situation will change – “we will not violate the interests and rights of the representatives of other denominations and we will not create state privileges for the Orthodoxy either”. Milinkevich occasionally uses religious elements in his public statements. Milinkevich’s attitude towards the past is fairly clear: “the next president of Belarus will be not a Soviet, but a Belarusian”. However, the return to the state symbols of the early 1990s is considered subject to the future referendum or parliamentary legislation.

The military presence of Russia is treated as a nuisance that should be tolerated as long as formal agreements exist (“we would be doing a disservice to Belarus if after coming to power we disregarded the international agreements of the preceding government”). Nato membership is also seen as subject to formal constitutional requirements – “According to the constitution, Belarus is a neutral state, so basically the question of entry into military alliances cannot be posed.” That leaves open the question of the military alliance with Russia. EU membership is seen as a long-term goal.

Russia is asked to believe that a new regime would be more useful for Russia (“predictable, agreeable, open and friendly”), though no specific reasons for such a belief are given. On the contrary, economic integration is seen as largely unsuccessful (“there have been no results from this undertaking”) and certain economic agreements are viewed suspiciously (“covering for various corruption ploys”). A single currency with Russia is also criticized. In general, Milinkevich perceives the Russian leadership as unwilling to keep Belarus independent (“many in Moscow are not ready for this question”).

Milinkevich views the state’s functions mainly in liberal terms: the state’s “function is to provide security, defence and public order, juvenile education and treatment of the sick, social support for those who for various reasons are unable to earn their living”. He also adheres to neo-liberal views of increasing state income through tax cuts. Unsurprisingly, much hope is placed in foreign investment and borrowing. Milinkevich proposes privatization of unprofitable small and medium-sized companies, while large businesses should remain state-controlled. The bankruptcy of unprofitable businesses is seen as normal: “Banks do not have provide loans to chronically unprofitable businesses”. Employees of companies proposed for privatization are left largely alone: they “will have the chance to work in the privatized business or will move to another workplace”. According to Milinkevich, income from privatization should be used for paying pensions and compensating for the devaluation of personal savings after the fall of the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, Milinkevich pledges to preserve the existing social welfare system, including free education and healthcare in public institutions. He proposes the regulation of prices in favour of agricultural producers and greater state investment in rural areas. Collective farming would survive: “We will never repeat the regretful experience of Lithuania, where during the upsurge of the anti-Communist zeal all collective farms were eradicated.” Milinkevich suggests that the state should support both the private and public sector. Youth is offered the elimination of the contractual system in education and opportunities to travel abroad. Milinkevich hopes that positive changes in Belarus will make the potential brain drain unfeasible.

Milinkevich has made a breakthrough in the opposition’s discourse. He has moved from the opposition’s idealized views on the Belarusian state-building to the pragmatic adjustment to the citizens’ values and opinions. The result is a more “user friendly” mainstream opposition. However, Milinkevich’s moderation is sometimes taken to the extreme and turns into vagueness. Here is rather characteristic answer from Milinkevich to the question concerning his ideological views: “I am a non-partisan who dreams that in the free and democratic Belarus, people with different opinions […] could without restraint express their ideological views and propagate their political programmes.” Here is his answer to a question about the legalization of marijuana: “The legislature rather than the president is authorized to solve such issues in the democratic countries.”

Milinkevich’s problem is that the change of the form of the message does not necessarily imply the change of its content. Support for bilingualism and alliance with Russia seems forced rather than sincere. On the other hand, enthusiasm for the market economy is too pronounced. This makes Milinkevich a favourite of western democracies but reduces his chances in the short-term. Large-scale changes in economic and international environment are needed before a victory Milinkevich becomes viable. His chances may grow as a result of increased pro-Russian policies of Lukashenko or if the Russian leadership loses its interest in Belarus.

Revolutions or what?

There is a need to state some definitions before discussing possible outcomes of the current events in Belarus. The word “revolution” was in the air both during the election campaign and after the announcement of its results. I personally would stress two features that separate revolutions from other types of regime change: a radical change of the political (and sometimes social and economic) structure and broad popular support for change. The size of the initial opposition is not so important – the events in November of 1917 in Russia were initiated by a party that was relatively small in respect to population, though the resulting social transformation was all-encompassing.

In this respect, the eastern European anti-Communist transformations in the late 1980s all qualify as revolutions. With the exception of Romania, they were mostly peaceful in nature, as the governments relied on the support of the Soviet Union which created the regimes in the first place. It is not surprising that in Romania, which under Ceausescu’s government often demonstrated its independence from the Soviet ally, the events were most bloody.

As I perceive it, the anti-Communist revolutions had six main actors: the governing (more or less reactionary) group; lower ranking civil servants (mostly moderate); security and armed forces; dissident (most often intellectual or religious) activists; the general population (especially workers); and external players (the Soviet Union and the Western powers).

Schematically, the anti-Communist revolutions can be described in the following way: persecution of dissidents converges general public discontent; political protests expand into mass demonstrations and strikes; security forces are unable to contain the protest (too few bullets or too conscientious); the discredited governing group is replaced by lower-ranking civil servants; the latter negotiate with dissident leaders. The end result depends on the initial extent of popular discontent and the strength of the dissident movement. Where the dissident movement was weaker, the new governing elite was more successful. Of course, this is only a schematic description that does not fully fit any case.

However, it raises several important issues. The success and largely non-violent nature of the anti-Communist revolutions depended on the estrangement of the governments and the overwhelming majority of populations, the presence of genuine dissident groups, and the differentiated (vertically and horizontally) system of the Communist governments. The role of the external players should be also taken into account – the rejection of the Communist regimes by their ultimate ally, the Soviet Union, and the need for Western economic assistance was crucial in preventing persecution and sustaining long-term changes after the regime changes.

The recent post-Communist uprisings in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005) were labelled by the mass media as the “colour revolutions”. I believe that they hardly qualify as “revolutions” due to the absence of lasting structural changes. There are crucial factors that make them different from the anti-Communist revolutions. First, popular dissatisfaction with the government was widespread but more concentrated in certain regions and social groups. That created tensions after the political change, allowing the legitimacy of the changes to be questioned. Second, the dissident movements were hijacked by former government officials, often with questionable democratic credentials. That created a danger that the new leadership was willing to sidestep democratic procedures. Third, they all happened in semi-authoritarian regimes that had a simple structure centred on one political leader, but that allowed a certain degree of pluralism outside the government. That created the danger of transitional violence, institutional instability, and limited the scope of countries where such change can happen. The final difference, which is not as important, is the planned rather than spontaneous nature of the uprising. The beginning of the anti-Communist transitions was largely unexpected by both the government and the dissidents, whereas the post-Communist transitions were reactions to the anticipated events: either parliamentary or presidential elections. In one looks at these criteria, the events in Romania in 1989 are a transition between the anti-Communist and “colour” revolutions.

What has happened in Belarus?

The descriptions above indicate that Belarus would fit more into the category of the “colour revolution” rather than the anti-Communist revolution. There is no overwhelming popular support for the opposition. The Belarusian opposition managed to bring up to thirty thousand supporters onto the streets (according to opposition sources). This is far fewer than in the communist countries in the late 1980s (for example, up to one hundred thousand in a medium-size provincial town Timisoara). To understand the opposition’s strength, one should bear in mind that its leaders concentrated all their attention on the capital, largely ignoring protest activities in the regional centres (with up to one hundred protesters in some). One may blame threats from the security forces, but these were at least as strong in the Communist regimes in the late 1980s. Another difference to the anti-Communist revolutions is that external influence comes mainly from Lukashenko-friendly Russia. Western countries have limited contact with the government, so they have little leverage or information. Moreover, the personal governing style of Lukashenko prevents the formation of opposition groups within the bureaucracy that could make the transition process smoother. Hence, dissidents have nobody to negotiate with.

However, it does not seem that Belarus could fully fit into the category of “colour revolution” either. The dissident movement at present is a mixture of the anti-Communist opposition of the 1980s and the government officials who lost their position in the 1990s. Most of the latter are not as well-known as the leaders of the “color revolutions”. The government allows little political pluralism in the society, and the alternative channels of information are limited, preventing the opposition mobilizing and directing its support. On the other hand, there are factors that speak for developments along the lines the “color revolution” scenario. The Belarusian opposition has increased its activity during the elections, since they present one of the few opportunities to access state media. The opposition’s strength lies in the capital city, and most important events take place there. Finally, the consolidated bureaucracy inhibits a fully non-violent transition.

All these issues present a challenge to those who desire a regime change. However, the Belarusian opposition also made some organizational mistakes, especially during the post-election week. Despite the predictable electoral outcome, the opposition leaders were confused over their strategy once the election results were made public. Kozulin and Milinkevich stated at least four different goals at the same time: a recount of ballots, the second round, new elections, and the formation of an alternative government. The arrangement of the public demonstrations was also strange: the protests of 19 March (probably the biggest) ended with the proposal to continue at the next day; “day X” was then moved to 25 March. By delaying “day X” twice, the opposition leaders showed their uncertainty regarding the objective of these public protests. It is not surprising that the last demonstration on 25 March attracted fewer people than the previous ones, despite the government having avoided using force openly (a small “tent town” was liquidated quietly overnight).

On the other hand, the government was well-prepared both in terms of control over the information channels and the deployment of the security forces. Some observers noted that the Belarusian opposition showed considerable creativity during the election campaign. I would say that this creativity was demonstrated in terms of the previous opposition’s activities, but not generally. The basic script was copied from the “colour revolutions”. Hence, the government knew quite well what to expect. The state-controlled mass media tied the opposition to the context of the “colour revolutions”, pointing at the disagreements among their leaders and inefficient policies, and quite successfully ridiculed its symbols (blue and jeans). The government accused the opposition of preparing for violence, and the opposition leaders were forced to justify themselves. This directed the public discussion towards the question of how far the opposition can go in its protest activities without being accused of terrorism. The government transferred the security forces from the regions to the capital, as they knew that previous “colour revolutions” focused on the capital cities. The government also prepared the means to prevent large-scale public gatherings, especially in the square selected by the opposition, and isolated “the tent town” from outside support.

The government’s expectation of a “colour revolution” might explain why it deployed significant security forces but used them sparingly. The blockade or occupation of government buildings is one of the key elements of the “colour revolution”, as it demonstrates the government’s powerlessness. It shows to the security forces that the government is unable to control the situation and signals to the government that it cannot rely on the security forces. Furthermore, passive supporters of the opposition feel secure to join active protests. The Belarusian government avoided the demonstration of its powerlessness. That is why Kozulin’s attempts to get inside to the All-Belarusian National Assembly and his march to the Okrestina detention centre were met by excessive violence. The liquidation of the “tent town” was most likely related to the government’s doubts regarding its ability to contain the support for the “tent town” if protesters were allowed to gather in the October Square again.

In a way, the opposition’s situation with regard to the government recalls that of a card player who plays with an open hand. Of course, if the cards are very good, the player will win the game anyway. However, I think that the opposition has mediocre cards at best. If the presidential challengers had commanded the support of a clear majority of the Belarusian population, none of their mistakes would have mattered.

Published 11 May 2006
Original in English
First published by Arche 4/2006 (Belarusian version)

Contributed by Arche © Nerijus Prekevicius/Arche Eurozine


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