Belaya Rus: Lukashenka’s “Ruling Party”?

Belaya Rus Convention. Photo: TUT.BY

Head of the Belarusian Central Electoral Commission Lydziia Yarmoshina on 20 April instructed activists of the Belaya Rus public association on the novelties of the upcoming parliamentary campaign.

When asked why she picked this particular organisation for a briefing, Yarmoshina recalled that most local officials are members of Belaya Rus, so it gathers the actual managers of the electoral process.

Indeed, Belaya Rus, established in 2007, now unites the majority of Belarusian officials, some famous sportsmen, artists and even the management of state companies and banks. Not being formally a party allows this organisation to act under the legal framework of civil society, while at the same time exploiting the full capacity of the state's administrative resources.

A future political transformation may imply different scenarios for Belaya Rus. It could either become a core element of a controlled power transition or sink into history after President Alexander Lukashenka leaves his post.

Why not make a formal ruling party?

Belaya Rus was established in late 2007 in preparation for the 2008 parliamentary elections. Officials throughout the country "suddenly" decided to unite local associations of Belaya Rus, subsequently transforming them into a nation-wide movement. Minister of education, Lukashenka’s university mate Alexander Radzkou, chaired the association. The absolute support of the president remains Belaya Rus’ sole ideological tenet.

The association currently has more than 160,000 members. This exceeds even the overall number of civil servants in the country. Top- and mid-level managers of state companies and banks were also asked to join.

At the time some said Lukashenka was creating a ruling party to safeguard the transition of power to his older son Viktar, or to another successor. The Belarusian ruler denied having any connection to the Belaya Rus' establishment.

Lukashenka opposes the idea of a ruling party primarily because the current personality-based system fully satisfies him

Since then, the leaders of Belaya Rus have regularly announced that they are ready to become a party. Lukashenka has neither firmly opposed the idea nor supported it. He has just made evasive comments like: “Well, if they are ready — let them be party, I am not against it. On the contrary, I will support it because they are patriots. But I wouldn't advise them to hurry”, as he said in 2012.

Lukashenka opposes the idea of a ruling party primarily because the current personality-based system fully satisfies him. Inserting a ruling party into an authoritarian regime (like in Russia or Kazakhstan) requires establishment of sparring-partner parties to make the system look competitive. Lukashenka is not a fan of such sophisticated political games.

He also exploits the image of the people’s president. Lukashenka strives to be the “political Robin Hood”, protecting the weakest from the occasional abuses of officials. Such a leader does not need intermediates between him and the people.

Finally, Lukashenka made his own political career by opposing the defectiveness of the Communist Party nomenclature during perestroika. When the economy stagnates, the ruling party and its bureaucracy canalises people’s anger onto itself. The seemingly unshakeable 20 million strong Communist Party crumbled like a house of cards then.

Useful tool for the elections

Formally, Belaya Rus is an NGO. Having most national and local officials as members, it possesses huge administrative resources and helps the government in its ideological activities. For instance, it can mobilise participants for rallies, cultural and sport events, state holidays or parades.

One of the most recent examples was the series of folk concerts titled To Love Belarus that took place in all regions of the country, co-organised by Belaya Rus and state TV. The concerts finished the day before the presidential election of 2015 and had an obvious pro-Lukashenka branding.

Obviously, an employee of a state-owned factory or a teacher can hardly refuse the “recommendation” from his or her boss to attend such an event.

Like the Federation of Labour-unions of Belarus (FPB), the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) and unions of women or veterans, Belaya Rus is a classic "government organised NGO" (GONGO). All of these mobilise people for state-organised events.

However, the major function of Belaya Rus is election campaigning. First of all, it can provide thousands of “volunteers” to collect signatures for Lukashenka or pro-governmental MP candidates. The usual tactic is to use administrative resources to collect ten to 15 times more signatures than the law requires. This is a way of showing how overwhelming public support remains.

Then, Belaya Rus, again as an NGO, is entitled to receive donations. Naturally, big state-owned companies cannot refuse to donate money to this association when they are “kindly asked” to. Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers criticised this practice in their 2015 elections report, claiming it to be an indirect way of financing Lukashenka's campaign from state funds.

Thirdly, Belarusian electoral law requires at least 30 per cent of precinct electoral commissions to represent NGOs or political parties. To avoid including opposition parties and activists through this quota, local authorities rely on pro-governmental parties and associations. Belaya Rus remains beyond any competition.

Can it become something bigger?

In the current political system, Belaya Rus fulfils its functions relatively well by just being a public association.

However, growing economic problems are likely to challenge the political construction of the regime. At the same time, Lukashenka is becoming older. In the mid-term perspective, Belarus is approaching some form of political transformation.

The role of Belaya Rus in any upcoming power transition to a large degree will depend on the pace and the economic context of this process.

If things get chaotic and Lukashenka is either overthrown by protests or betrayed by subordinates, Belaya Rus is unlikely to find any significant place in the next political configuration. When you have no ideology, besides supporting one leader, you often sink into history with him.

Exactly this happened to the Party of Regions in Ukraine after President Victor Yanukovich was overthrown in 2014 and to the Union of Citizens of Georgia after the forced resignation of President Eduard Shevarnadze in 2003.

However, if the transformation in Belarus goes more smoothly, Belaya Rus may have a place in it. For example, an ageing Lukashenka could use it to legitimise his successor within the state apparatus and in the eyes of people.

In any case, Belaya Rus seem to have more promising political perspectives in comparison to other GONGOs. Unlike BRSM or official trade-unions, this association has broader membership criteria, includes many high-ranking officials, exploits the full potential of state administrative resources and positions itself as a force with political objectives.

Artyom Shraibman is a political correspondent and editor working for a major Belarusian informational portal TUT.BY in Minsk.

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