The Belarusian opposition

Preparation for the presidential campaign of 2006

On 16 October 2005, the Belarusian democratic opposition, the Congress of the Democratic Forces, launched its 2006 election campaign with the “Day of Solidarity”. The protest action involved lighting candles in darkened rooms in order to demonstrate support for “disappeared” opposition members. But despite its good intentions, is this kind of protest the best way to go about gaining support from floating voters? The election manifesto also contains some ill-judged rhetoric, including unlikely promises and revolutionary fervour. An outside observer offers constructive criticism of the Belarusian opposition.

The Belarusian opposition has already started its campaign in expectation of gaining a margin over the current president of Belarus in the presidential elections of 2006. The Congress of the Democratic Forces marked the start of the campaign by putting forward Aliaksandr Milinkevich as the candidate supported by several opposition movements. The Day of Solidarity action on 16 October 2005 was the first campaign event promoted by the joint opposition forces. What follows is a look at the opposition’s campaign on three levels: election promises, campaign preparation, and organized activities. In order to maintain control over the sources, I focus on materials representing the three campaign levels.

Programmes or promises?

The programmatic views of a major opposition movement – the United Civic Party – were recently represented in the article published on the party’s website under the name of the party’s chairman Anatol Lyabedzka (though the authorship seems to be collective). The article’s timing and contents indicate that the article was intended to serve as an election programme.

Although readers are addressed in the intimate “you” or the collective “we”, encouraging readers to identify with the party, the article is directed at various audiences (as party programmes usually are). The fact that only a Russian language version is present can be explained in a number of ways, but there are probably no deeper reasons for this. Bilingual or multilingual Belarusian websites are often inconsistent when it comes to language choice.

Russian and Belarusian speakers can interpret the author’s linguistic policy as they wish, since it is not clear if he believes that Belarusian culture will prevail because of cultural policy or because of its inherent superiority (“[Everything] Belarusian is high-quality and professional, harmonious, and melodic”). Similarly, it is unclear if the programme’s statements should be interpreted as an acceptance of non-Belarusian culture, or solely the state’s pledge to tolerate it (“there will be no prohibitions or restrictions regarding arts and cultural heritage of other countries”). If the state is culturally neutral, what is the point of stressing tolerance? The negation of the negative possibilities is a typical defensive tactic.

The text is written in terms of dichotomies that are frequently expressed in the same sentence; for example, “we are using the best [things] on the planet, not cheap substitutes”. This technique helps to contrast the past and the present, but it has a negative side effect: readers who perceive the current situation less dramatically are antagonized, and as a result may become sceptical of election promises. In order to show the feasibility of the promise, the author consistently uses the present tense. However, it creates considerable semantic confusion (as in the issue of the language policy) and may even diminish the strength of the argument. When the current situation, future decisions, and values are depicted in present tense, the opposition to the current situation becomes blurred, and the main purpose of propaganda – presenting oneself as a viable solution to the current situation – is destroyed.

The practical readability of the text for an average citizen varies considerably throughout the article. A bad feature of any political text is the use of unfamiliar or abstract terms that can hardly be connected to emotional images. As a result, they are ineffective in a political debate. Terms in the article that could be mysterious to the general audience include: “nanotechnology”, “innovative”, “capitalization”, “mortgage”. An extreme example of an ineffective argument is the phrase “Banks have commonly recognized investment ratings” (the context indicates that the author probably meant credit ratings). Even those who do understand the sentence will not find it very useful – the matter is hardly related to the immediate interests of an average Belarusian voter.

Some of the special terms have become meaningful over time due to the influence of the media, and may be used effectively. However, the context of their application should be taken into account. For example, the term “monopoly” is an entirely negative term in the US, where opposition to economic monopolies on the grounds that they obstruct free competition dates back to the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the term is tied mainly to the producers of natural resources, and is almost synonymous in Russia with a “powerful company”.

Similarly, the term “oligarchy” in the Western context is mostly related to the deficiencies of the democratic process; in the eastern European context, it is more related to social inequality and corruption. In the Belarusian case, the term “oligarch” is frequently used by the president, Alyaksandar Lukashenko, to criticize Russia’s political system. Lukashenko often stresses that he is preventing the emergence of the oligarchs in Belarus. By using the term “oligarch”, the author of the article does not present a critique of the current government, since he does not point to specific phenomena. Nobody can fight the oligarchs better than the president himself. Furthermore, given the real developments in eastern Europe, the change of the government in Belarus might even encourage the growth of so-called oligarchs, and the opposition has to address this problem.

Another problem is the abundant use of clichés, such as “The militiaman – the citizen’s assistant and partner. He works closely with the local community.” For propaganda purposes, clichés may be viewed from a dual perspective. On the one hand, they make the audience comfortable and help introduce more controversial statements. People tend to accept ideas in packages – it is easier to agree to something after some accord has already been reached. That makes clichés a vital tool when dealing with unfriendly audiences. On the other hand, a cliché itself cannot encourage anyone to change their mind. Too many clichés make texts excessively long, drown the meaningful phrases, and destroy readers’ interest.

Promises of a new and better life pervade the article. They are even more frequent than in Lukashenko’s speeches. However, Lukashenko connects his promises to past and present events. For example, his promises to increase salaries are connected to salary increases in the past. The article’s promise is left hanging in the air – specific proposals connecting promise and reality are scarce. Furthermore, the effort to paint an overall picture of possible prosperity leads to numerous contradictions. For example, statements such as: “70 per cent of Belarusian families have cars”, “40 percent of Belarusians regularly dine in restaurants”, “30 percent of Belarusian families go for holidays abroad each year” (promising drastically increased consumption) hardly match with the statement “annual inflation up to two percent”. Also, the increase of pensions and social benefits cannot easily be reconciled with tax cuts.

There are a number of completely fantastic statements, such as an increase in grain yield from 2500 to 10 000 kilograms per hectare. In the EU, only Belgium and Ireland have achieved an average wheat yield exceeding 9000 kilograms per hectare (Belgium once, Ireland three times) in the last ten years. A similar promise of a growth in average milk yield from 2000 to 8000 or 9000 litres per cow is undermined when seen against EU statistics showing that between 2000 and 2003, of all current EU member states, only the Swedish dairy industry has achieved an average milk yield of 8072 kilograms per cow (in 2003). Taking into account the density of whole milk, that makes about 7837 litres per cow in Belarus. Swedish statistical sources themselves indicate a record average milk yield of 8994 kilograms in 2004. Hence, one may claim that the upper limits of the promise have probably been achieved in reality.

Furthermore, the author’s statements contradict official Belarusian statistics indicating that the average grain (per harvested hectare) and milk (per cow) yield in 2004 was 2960 and 3211 kilograms respectively. One may question the official statistics, but no feasible alternative to nationwide statistics seems to be available. Any figures not derived from the official statistics can either be generalizations from smaller agricultural units, or not based on factual information. Some statistics, such as inflation rates, can be extrapolated without relying on the official sources, but that does not apply to all statistics. There is a possibility that the author wants to show the end developmental aims and all presented visions are long-term. Then, however, the time line should be made explicit. It is difficult to convince citizens to support a party that promises welfare in the afterlife.

Irish agriculture reached the current Belarusian yields of wheat around 1960; Swedish agriculture managed to do the same for the milk output around 1925. Perspectives on agricultural productivity growth can best be assessed by scholars, but one can hardly expect growth more spectacular than in the case of Ireland. The minimum time needed to achieve Irish agricultural productivity, depicted by the author as a realistic goal, is about 45 years. Moreover, a superficial look at the statistical data shows that geographic factors continue to play an important role in affecting the agricultural productivity. The grain yields of Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, or the UK, may never be achievable by Belarus.

One might ask if all these statistics are really important. In other words, who cares if the average milk yield is 3211 kilograms or 2000 kilograms in Belarus? However, the text is full of other visions that are often expressed even without relying on numbers, for example, “We will be able to travel around the world without visas and invitations”. Such promises are more difficult to check against empirical reality. This brings up a core issue – any promise is meaningful so long as it is based upon reality. The discussion of potential economic developments without referring to the historical trends and experiences of other countries lacks a tangible basis. Alternatively, the reality check helps make vision into a viable programme.

If the link between reality and promise is broken, it is difficult to predict what will happen if the party comes to power. There is a range of possible explanations for the empirical inaccuracies: the desire to increase popular participation by boosting national self-confidence, the desire to gain support by contrasting the past and the future, disregard for practical issues, lack of information, lack of competence. Only the author knows the real explanation.

In the best case, the article manipulates readers for apparently good ends. Then the crucial question is: how do the promises affect the party’s appeal to voters? The answer depends on the target audience. The text is monotonous and cannot reach a general audience without splitting it up into theses. Most of those able and willing to read the text in its initial form are convinced anyway. Probably, it is meant as an aid for convincing others. However, the lack of specific solutions makes appeals to the emotions less effective. In the worst case, the party is not prepared for the government. Its accession to power might be difficult, or once achieved, could lead to political and social instability. The history of anti-Communist dissident movements in eastern Europe can be summed up as the downfall of idealists who either lost their ideals or the power to implement them.

Preparing for elections

General promises are not the only interesting topic in analyzing the Belarusian opposition – the perceived inventory of practical solutions is also important. The online forum Svaboda, with the proclaimed joint opposition presidential candidate Aliaksandr Milinkevich on 8 October 2005, is probably one of the best sources of information available.

The steps in preparing for the election should depend first of all on expected outcomes. Milinkevich expects the following: “There will be no real counting of votes […] the Central Electoral Commission will announce the figures from which it will appear that Lukashenko has won, and what’s more, after the first round”. That raises a number of questions. First, how the will the opposition know if the results have been falsified, given that participation in the organization of the elections will be minimal? The candidate does not answer this question. Neither have I found the answer in other Belarusian sources.

Is it possible to prevent falsifications? The methods proposed do not seem impressive: “The members of the [local] commissions […] will receive warnings that falsification is the violation of the constitution leading to criminal liability.” Threats not based upon tangible resources are empty, as Milinkevich himself knows. The sustainability of such threats requires parity between support for the opposition and the government.

The emphasis on falsification implies that the opposition may be willing to proclaim any officially declared outcome of the elections false, and thus proceed to mass action: “We will lead people to the squares to defend our rights by using peaceful means”. In other words, the opposition’s goal is not to win votes, but instead activist mobilization: “We have a chance to come to people and tell them the truth, strengthen their spirits, and decrease the fear”. I believe that the assumption of falsified electoral results, and the simultaneous decision to resort to public protest, could damage the opposition in two ways. It could decrease opponents’ willingness to vote, and among the floating voters, stigmatize the opposition as troublemakers.

If the opposition wants to win, it must convince citizens that it would govern better than the current government. In other words, the opposition should be perceived as the alternative government. Belarusian society, like most societies, prefers evolutionary to revolutionary change. When opposition leaders talk about political upheavals, they scare away less-committed citizens. The latter are crucial for political change. From past experience, it is obvious that the number of activists that can be encouraged to take to the streets is limited. As a result, the disruption of the opposition demonstrations is easy.

The campaign tools are perceived by the candidate as very limited: “visits to the apartments convincing people face-to-face”. While it requires less media access, such a campaign needs a large numbers of activists, whose expenses must be covered. Hence statements of financial independence seem questionable (“there is no, and there never has been, funding from abroad”). What kind of assistance is expected then from the diaspora? (“We will be grateful for assistance from Belarusian emigrants.”) Door to door campaigning can be carried out only in a decentralized fashion, as the candidate himself admits: “The preservation of the multi-party team is the most important thing for me”. A poorly coordinated campaign may reinforce the image of the opposition as lacking consensus.

The discussion so far has led to a realization of the paradoxes of the opposition’s situation in Belarus. The opposition needs broad popular support in order to win the elections, and needs to win them in order to gain popular support. A greater number of opposition candidates makes the campaign easier (reducing coordination problems, increasing access to citizens, and revealing the candidates’ popularity), but scatters the opposition’s votes and leads to electoral defeat. Participation in elections provides legal channels for communicating with the citizens, but legitimizes Lukashenko’s victory.

Campaigning in practice: The Day of Solidarity

The Day of Solidarity on 16 October 2005 may be considered the opposition’s first significant political campaign following the Congress of Democratic Forces. The emphasis was placed mainly upon “disappeared” persons and political prisoners. The action consisted of simultaneously lighting candles at opposition sympathizers’ homes while other lights were switched off.

The “disappearance” of opposition activists is a phenomenon that raised greater interest in the world community during the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in the context of Latin American military dictatorships. “Disappeared” persons were secretly arrested and killed without leaving public records. Such a practice eliminates the need for legal procedures and is supposedly effective in creating fear among the acquaintances of the “disappeared”. The inefficiency of the “disappearance” as a tool of repression and methods of resistance may clearly be seen from the example of the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” in Argentina. From 1977 until the fall of Argentina’s military junta in 1983, the mothers of “disappeared” leftist activists gathered once a week in front of the presidential palace, demanding information about their children. Some of the mothers “disappeared” too, but the government’s repression was constrained.

First, where there is no public sentence, there is no public crime, so it was impossible to present the mothers as enemies or enemy relatives. Second, the persecution of the mothers was culturally unacceptable and bad publicity for the regime. The motivation behind the movement was humane rather than political; this made the women sympathetic to the public. Finally, the regularity and the centrality of the place of protest made the mothers attractive to the foreign mass media. Both of these things constrained the repression and had an impact on public opinion abroad.

What are the differences between Belarusian and Argentine cases? The number of persons who might be considered to have “disappeared” is comparatively low in Belarus, while Argentina’s “disappeared” persons numbered tens of thousands. The scale of difference affects the credibility of the “disappearance” phenomenon (some disappearances may be unrelated to the dissident activities) and the potential for protest – the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, while being a relatively small group, had a huge pool of human resources available.

In addition, Belarusian dissidents may be arrested after protesting in public, but most of them are eventually released. This was certainly not true in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. This raises the question as to why the government’s response is so varied in Belarus. While “disappeared” persons in Argentina belonged to the lower-middle class or represented its interests, the “disappeared” of Belarus belong to a small political and intellectual elite; this makes popular identification with them difficult. Finally, “disappeared” persons are represented almost exclusively by their immediate relatives in Argentina; this is not the case in Belarus. The same can be said about the political prisoners in Belarus and Argentina.

The Day of Solidarity can also be analyzed by looking at its form. It is true that switching off the lights and lighting a candle did not require much physical effort. However, the whole idea of the protest was related to visual identification of the opposition supporters. It also clearly revealed them as such to the government and its supporters. Therefore, participation bore certain costs, which were proportionate to the predominance of the government’s supporters in any given locality.

While strong opposition or government supporters may act according to their main preferences, hesitant or neutral citizens (who are crucial in the electoral politics) are likely to conform to trends predominant in their place of residence. Residential areas populated mostly by opposition supporters would have encouraged the conforming citizens to throw their support behind the action; the effects in the pro-government areas would have been the opposite. According to my sources, the opposition’s active support is among a small minority; this greatly reduces the protest’s effectiveness.

Moreover, since the choices available to citizens regarding protest are asymmetric (participation versus inaction), the government has the advantage – any window without candles could be interpreted as government-friendly. The purely visual effects of the action would have been less significant in the countryside, where the numbers of government supporters are higher; urban density provides more opportunities for any organized mass protest. Hence, the protest demonstrates the split in Belarus, rather than consolidation among the opposition.

The informative value of the action was limited, too – for the aforementioned reasons, the protest could not represent the real balance of support for opposition and government in Belarus. Strategically, the action was a mistake because it did not take into account the opposition’s strengths and its weak regional networks. Metaphorically, the action remained a scattered attack by small forces, instead of concentrating them in one place where local superiority can be achieved. An example illustrating this principle is the tactic used at the beginning of the last US presidential campaign, where the candidates spent considerable resources on relatively small states (such as New Hampshire and Iowa) that carried out the primaries earlier than larger states. This provided greater initial publicity and helped send a campaign message to the larger states.

The opposition’s protest may have brought results opposite to those desired. The demonstration of weakness could have a bandwagon effect – people tend to follow the side that is apparently winning.

Published 13 January 2006
Original in English
First published by Arche 6/2005

Contributed by Arche © Nerijus Prekevicius / Arche / Eurozine


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