Is Communism Still Alive in Belarus?

photo: Andrei Liankievich

At first glance, Belarus may appear to be a Communist state thanks to its overt fondness of the Soviet Union and its soviet-red tinged state flag. In practise, however, the country has little to do with the far-left ideology.

On 7 November, Belarus celebrated Revolution Day - one of only two countries in the world still officially celebrating the 1917 Russian October Revolution. A week prior, Minsk hosted the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Congress, which gathered nearly every communist of the former USSR in one place. then there is the fact that two Communist parties operate in Belarus.

But the ideas of the October Revolution have long lost support among the people and even the Belarusian elite. Even Lukashenka ‘recommends to avoid politicising the holiday’. The Opposition-leaning Belarusian communist party has changed its name to put off a more European facade. The pro-Lukashenka party has representatives in the parliament and regularly votes in favour of the abolition of social benefits for pensioners and students as a show of loyalty to Lukashenka.

Communism is Still Here

House in Minsk where the 1st Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was held in 1898On 31 October - 2 November Minsk held the 35th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Representatives from every communist party in the former Soviet Union, including the parties from the breakaway regions Transdniestria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia gathered in Minsk.

The organisers chose Minsk for the anniversary of the Congress because the first congress of the founders of the Bolshevik Party took place in Minsk back in 1898.

The Congress looked like a gathering of the elderly bespeckled with Soviet symbols, that many Internet users joked that ‘zombies organised a convention in Minsk on Halloween’. The participants sang the national anthem of the USSR and, for good measure, made ​​statements about American imperialism. They also handed out recognition awards to their more distinguished members. Even the cloakroom attendants of the Congress were wearing red jackets with a hammer and sickle.

The communist festivities continued on 7 November, when local officials and communists laid flowers at soviet monuments all over Belarus. Monuments to Lenin are the typical aim of the crowds' affections, which when counted alongside the small busts in the courtyards, number around 500 across Belarus. Only two countries in the world, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, still officially commemorate Revolution Day.

This year the authorities continued the practise of coercing people to attend the festivities. Some Minsk students, for instance, shared with popular daily Nasha Niva reporters, that they came ‘as they were requested to’. After the event had come to a close, students went over to their teachers and signed off on their participation.

A Country of One and Half Communist Parties

What is interesting is that not everyone who laid flowers at the foot of the Lenin monuments throughout the country support the government. In Belarus there are two Communist Parties: The Communist Party of Belarus, which supports Lukashenka and the Belarusian left-wing party ‘A Just World’, which opposes him. The latter changed its name from the Party of Belarusian Communists back in 2009.

The Communist Party of Belarus has seven deputies in the current convocation of the parliament, but it remains dependent on the authorities. For instance, in 2007 the Communists voted for the abolition of most social welfare benefits for the citizenry, including the 50% discount that pensioners or students enjoyed for public transportation. This party is working closely with other conservative communists from the former Soviet Union and organised the latest Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union​ in Minsk. Its leader cannot, however, participate in the presidential elections as he was not born in Belarus.

The Belarusian party ‘A Just World’ differs from its pro-Lukashenka communist namesake comrades. It cooperates with European leftists, and one of its leaders called the latest Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Minsk ‘an attempt to look back to the day before yesterday’.

Siarhei Kaliakin, chairman of the party, remains an influential politician in the opposition, but cannot hope for much more until his party loses its communist luster. This is one reason why ‘A Just World’ changed its name from the Party of Belarusian Communists. Moreover, according to insiders that spoke with Belarus Digest, they also did it to suit to Western donors. In this way, the party is moving away from its communist roots and is becoming a normal, European-style left-wing party.

On the eve of Revolution Day, the Belarusian online portal TUT.by arranged a debate between representatives of the Communist Party of Belarus and ‘A Just World’. Both sides spoke about Marxism, but with different conclusions. In the case of the representative of the Communist Party of Belarus​, Lukashenka and his rule fit within the framework of Marxist theory, while the representative from ‘A Just World’ held a rather different opinion of Lukashenka. In the end the participants agreed that their ‘parties exist in parallel worlds’.

Waiting For the Natural Death of Communism

Whether it be the October revolution celebrations, the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the large number of monuments to Lenin, or the existence of communist parties, Belarus may very well appear to be a kind of sanctuary for the deceased USSR.

Appearances, as they say, are deceiving. The large turn out for celebrations of this kind are often the result of coercion by superiors or a student's university instructors. The Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the communist parties in general attract mainly older people and their number is decreasing annually.

Lenin monuments continue to stand more on the principle of inertia as does the commemoration of 7 November as well. On 5 November, Aliaksandr Lukashenka stated that this holiday has no political meaning to him: ‘People used to celebrate it, so why should we get rid of it?’

Even the major anti-communist force of Belarus - Young Front - want nothing to do with the 7 November holiday. Previously the organisation's members threw eggs at Lenin monuments, laid wreaths of barbed wire before the statues of Lenin or even set a toilet in front of them. Now, they simply ignore it.

The very idea of the October Revolution is not popular with the majority of Belarusians. Research conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies​ shows that the main thing that determines Belarusians' attitudes is their age, not their purported geopolitical orientation or trust in Lukashenka. The idea of communism lives on in Belarus, as it were, thanks to the older generations. As a generational shift continues to unfold, communism will continue to slowly disappear.

Lukashenka himself has long since abandoned Communist ideas. Belarus has the least employee-friendly employment system in Europe and trade unions are completely dependent on the regime. Currently government is liberalising the healthcare, education and welfare systems not in accordance with the leftist ideas. Were he with us today, Lenin would likely be rather disappointed with his Belarusian successors.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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