MINSK, BELARUS — The moment seemed ripe for revolution. Rose-laden protesters in Georgia had ousted leader Eduard Shevardnadze; mass public demonstrations had brought an opposition democrat to power in neighboring Ukraine; even the small republic of Kirgizstan had dumped its autocratic government. So why not my country, wondered Aliaksandr Atroshchankau, as he joined a pro-democracy demonstration in front of this capital’s Republican Palace recently.
He soon had the answer: The thousand or so protesters who bothered to show up were scattered by police; the organizers were roughed up and tossed behind bars; state-run television stations barely acknowledged the incident. “Everyone is moving forward, and we’re going back, back to the U.S.S.R.,” said Atroshchankau, 24, whose political activities got him expelled from the university in Minsk. “Revolution can’t happen just because you want it to.”
Maybe not, but calling for a political transformation in Belarus has become a hallmark of President Bush’s international campaign for democracy–a theme he is addressing during this week’s visits to Russia and Georgia. The Bush administration decries this former Soviet republic, a nation of 10 million, as an “outpost of tyranny” –and denounces its leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, for running the “last remaining dictatorship in Europe.” Unlike its erstwhile Soviet brother Ukraine, though, Belarus may not be ready to overthrow its leader, whose archaic regime and centrally planned economy are best described as “Soviet lite.” Still, change seems inevitable–the question is, how and how soon? “Lukashenko is a powerful individual as a politician, and the economy has not collapsed,” says a senior western diplomat in Minsk. “What will set people off in feeling that a change needs to be made is hard to judge.”
Look around the streets of this sleepy capital, whose law-abiding residents rarely jaywalk, and one wonders whether the Soviet Union ever really collapsed. In the center of town, a statue of Vladimir Lenin is adorned with fresh red carnations. Down the block, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, medals dangling from his epaulet, is buying stale bread at a Soviet-style grocery called, simply, Bread Store. But turn the corner, and there are dozens of giant yellow cranes and brightly painted billboards heralding luxurious business centers and shopping malls. There are also a Benetton and a dozen McDonald’s restaurants and several sushi bars–capitalist eye candy against a backdrop of grim Stalinist architecture. Russian hinterland or European backwater? Belarus can’t make up its mind.
Beneath the veneer of a crime-free society and nascent market forces is a corrupt system of tight control and limited personal freedoms. It may not be tyranny–opposition figures still distribute anti-Lukashenko literature, and a handful of independent papers criticize the president–but it does smell of dictatorship. In fact, Belarus is the only post-Soviet state where the secret police continue to be called the KGB. “The Belarussian opposition operates under the harshest circumstances, and the regime is only becoming more and more oppressive,” says Anatoly Lebedko, an opposition figure with the centrist United Civic Party. On the wall behind him hang framed photographs of six political dissidents who disappeared or were arrested in the months leading up to Lukashenko’s re-election, four years ago. “If we can break the information blockade,” Lebedko says, “then we can win.”
It may take more than that to claim victory at the polls next year, when Lukashenko will run for a third term. The opposition remains weak and divided. At a recent gathering in neighboring Lithuania, a frustrated American expert working with the opposition candidates played the Elvis Presley hit with the lyrics “A little less conversation, a little more action please” and told the candidates, “It’s going to be the theme song for all of you.”
It will also be an uphill battle. The presidential elections next year are expected to be rigged to give Lukashenko a massive majority. “It’s not Election Day; it’s the day after that’s important,” says a senior European diplomat. “It’s a tossup between Lukashenko staying in forever and a violent overthrow where unpredictably people say they’ve had enough. [But] there has to be something that is the last straw.”
For now, many Belarussians seem to prefer the status quo to the possible alternative, the kind of economic turmoil they have seen befall other former Soviet states. Products here are cheap, the official unemployment rate is low, and the government pays pensions regularly and relatively amply. “Lukashenko has given us a good life,” says pensioner Maria Balzevich, 61, who lives in a dilapidated village an hour from the capital. When asked if she misses the Soviet Union, Balzevich looks around her two-room dacha, smiles, and replies, “What do you mean? I still live in the Soviet Union.”
“Total control.” While Belarus lacks the level of paranoia characteristic of Soviet rule, there is a culture of fear, enforced by a bureaucracy with far-reaching tentacles. “There will always be a rule you will break, there will always be a way to punish you, and this way you’ll always have something to lose: your money, your job, your life,” says attorney Vitali Braginets. At least 80 percent of the Belarussian economy is centrally planned, and what little private business is permitted is heavily regulated and taxed. The laws and regulations change practically daily. “We have a joke in Belarus,” Braginets says, “that psycho asylums have a separate room just for accountants and lawyers.”
Last year, Lukashenko pushed a law through the puppet parliament requiring that all government jobs be reviewed and renewed annually. “As soon as a person complains about what’s going on, he loses his contract, and this is done publicly in order to instill fear in others,” says a leading pro-western opposition figure, Sergey Kalyakin of the Party of Communists of Belarus. “And this system will be sustainable as long as fear trumps people’s desire to change the situation.”
Analysts say that what keeps the centrally planned economy from collapsing is the permitted coexistence of a symbiotic, shadow economy. Big business rarely declares more than 30 percent of income, but in return it subsidizes the dying collective farm industry. Foreign companies can invest in Belarus, but they must donate money to a “voluntary” civic projects fund, which finances hundreds of construction ventures. “Lukashenko uses corruption as another measure for exerting power on the people,” says the senior European diplomat.
What will bring change to Belarus is evolution of civil society and grass-roots democracy, say western diplomats. While Washington uses highly charged language to describe the current political scene–words like tyranny, dictatorship, and outrage–the amount of overt U.S. government spending for democracy-building projects in Belarus is relatively modest, roughly $7 million a year. This money goes to groups like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which have been banned from Belarus by Lukashenko and so conduct operations from neighboring countries. Rather than give money directly to the opposition, which has been accused of squandering U.S. aid, these groups use the funding for a range of activities from teaching aspiring politicians how to run effective campaigns to paying for their gas when they drive out to the villages to spread their message.
For Belarus’s western neighbors, the change can’t come fast enough. The Baltic nations–Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which joined the European Union last May–boast some of the fastest-growing economies in the world and need Belarus for both its disposable income and its cheap labor force. “It is in our national interest to have a neighbor which is democratic,” says the Lithuanian ambassador to Washington, Vygaudas Usackas. “It is an immediate market of 10 million consumers.”
To the east of Belarus lies Russia, where President Vladimir Putin viewed the democratic uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine as Kremlin foreign-policy failures. So far, he has stood by Lukashenko–with Belarus providing a buffer between Russia and the NATO alliance.
Belarus lacks the geopolitical weight to stand on its own and will have to latch on to the West or to the East. A recent poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, a group that runs its western-funded operation from a private apartment, found that more people wanted to integrate into Russia than the European Union, but almost a quarter of those polled said they would like to go for both.
In one direction, there is the glittery promise of Europe; in the other, there are the bonds of culture and history–and the tug of economic dependence on Russia as a supplier of cheap gas and a major export market for Belarussian goods. Revolution isn’t in the wind, but the “last dictator in Europe” must wonder if his days are numbered.Top