2000s for Democracy in Belarus: a Decade of Disappointment
An article by one of this website’s authors for the on-line magazine Novaja Europa:
January 1, 2010 will not be just the beginning of a new year but the beginning of a new calendar decade. It is a formal and conventional event, but that’s the way our perception is constructed – it is easier for us to view history in decades. Swinging Sixties, Greedy Eighties, Noxious Nineties. The 2000s (or “noughties”) will be a separate segment in systematized history of mankind.
For Belarus, it was a decade of dictatorship. The first full calendar decade under the unlimited authoritarian power of Aliaksandr Lukašenka.
We have entered 2000 under the red-green flag of the Lukašenka regime and leave 2009 with it still over our heads. In the 1990s the key year for Belarus was 1996, when, after the infamous referendum, Belarus turned into a country where the whole power is concentrated in the hands of one man. 2006, with its tragic and disgraceful defeat of the opposition at the presidential elections, has become a landmark year in the 2000s. The lesson we should learn from these years is that 2016 is either unlikely to become the year of Belarus’ liberation from dictatorship.
In 2000, that seems so recent, one might have thought that Lukašenka is there for not a long time. A year, or two, or three, and Belarus will at last be free. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 has spread much hope that was not destined to turn into reality. The noughties have been a decade of disappointment for Belarus, a decade which has completely turned Belarus into a very special country on the European continent.
Thirteen years have passed since the coup d’état of 1996. During this time a whole new generation of Belarusians has grown up – another generation of people with Soviet mentality, even though it’s been almost twenty years since the Soviet Union itself doesn’t exist any more. We may remind ourselves of 1957, thirteen years after the Nazi occupation of Belarus has been replaced back by Soviet occupation. By that time the anti-Soviet partisan movement in Belarus and neighbouring Soviet republics has almost completely vanished. Perhaps, this was not least because the society had realized that the Soviets came to stay. The same can be said about today’s Belarus, with its tired, demoralized and split opposition; with the fact that Belarusians have mainly concentrated on consumption and primitive physical survival so that even the economic crisis does not initiate political protest.
In 1999 there could still be doubts, but the noughties have proven one thing to us. Belarus might have gained juridical independence simply following the trend set by Baltic countries and Ukraine, who had really struggled for it. However, we couldn’t have got democracy the same way. A whole range of specifically Belarusian problems came into play: weak national self-identification of the people, lack of political culture and absence of national elite, the unfinished process of formation of the Belarusian nation as such. All the dark legacy of the Soviet age, which might not be so noticeable to an outside observer, has realized its potential in the 1990s and became institutionalized in the 2000s.
Belarus enters 2010 as a very specific European country. A political system that rather resembles the relationship of a feudal and his serfs. An archaic economy, where the government has woken up with reforms twenty years after liberation of the socialist camp and where it is not clear, if there is still something to be reformed. A nation that missed the train of 20th century’s romantic nationalisms and represents a mechanistic community of pragmatic and indifferent people without native language and historical memory.
Any difference is a potential advantage. Belarus may be able to transform its difference into an advantage, to realize its potential as a land untouched by investors in the middle of Europe or as a cradle for a post-nationalistic pluralistic traditionalism. Otherwise this potential will be spent in vain with sad consequences for the country. There is no third option, and there’s not much time left till we find out the answer. It is, of course, necessary to hope for the better, but it may be far more useful to be prepared for the worst.