20 Years of Lukashenka: The Perfect Dictatorship?
Hailed by Belarusian state TV for bringing independence and sovereignty to Belarus, media outside Belarus have offered somewhat different opinions of Lukashenka on his 20th anniversary as Belarus' leader. Here are three of the main narratives used on...
Hailed by Belarusian state TV for bringing independence and sovereignty to Belarus, media outside Belarus have offered somewhat different opinions of Lukashenka on his 20th anniversary as Belarus' leader. Here are three of the main narratives used on this occasion.
Narrative 1: Lukashenka Climbs the Greasy Pole
Conditions in which Lukashenka came to power. In Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a Polish daily, Michał Potocki argues that in a society still nostalgic for the USSR, Lukashenko’s chief opponents in 1994 – Zianon Pazniak (Belarusian Popular Front) and Stanislau Shuskevich, speaker of Parliament, stood little chance of winning.
He describes how Lukashenka came to build his political stature around the issue of corruption, and later how he essentially eliminated Shushkevich with a scandal concerning the embezzlement of eight kilogrammes of nails.
As his popularity grew, Lukashenka survived state TV attacks, an attempted assassination, and accusations of planting a bomb, and eventually went on to win the elections with 80% of votes.
Potocki notes that, once in power, Lukashenka swiftly dealt with the media, government, and courts, silencing the voices of other politicians in the game (many of whom were later ‘removed’ from the scene) who said that he would be a puppet leader.
Narrative 2: The Perfect Dictatorship?
The secret behind Lukashenka's longevity and what the future holds. In short, according to Deutsche Welle: his political dominance has emerged from populism, low demands of voters, financial support from Moscow, oppression of regime critics, a monopoly of the media and the abolition of self-administration – all of which have helped to create an atmosphere of fear.
It concludes that with the current Ukraine crisis, Lukashenka is himself afraid about what may happen but is also looking for ways to help consolidate his power. The article draws on interviews with Aleksandr Klaskouski (Belapan), Valery Karbalevich (Strategia), and Stanislau Shushkevich.
Meanwhile, Argemino Barro, writing for El Confidencial, wonders if Belarus can be called the “perfect dictatorship”, pointing to the low level of demonstrations and the relative economic stability. He contrasts the clean, Soviet-like appearance of modern-day Minsk with the opinions of experts such as Andrei Aliaksandrau and Yauheni Preiherman who reject the idea of the “perfect dictatorship” and explain Belarus’ dependence on Russia and the nature of the Vertical.
Finally, he reflects on why Lukashenka looks more relaxed with the West, concluding that it is due to what he describes as the theory of the “pendulum” in which Lukashenka simply oscillates between the EU and Russia to get as much as he can from both sides.
Anna Maria-Dyner, a political analyst, also highlights Lukashenka's apparent 'success' in creating a system that gives him the feeling of control, in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. Her main emphasis, though, is on the future. Events in Ukraine have proven to be a double-edged sword for Lukashenka – while his popularity received a much-needed boost, he also needs to demonstrate his loyalty to Russia.
Interestingly, Dyner questions if a 'Belarusianised' Belarus with European aspirations could be Lukashenka's only guarantee of independence, noting that a great deal of effort would be needed. In particular, this would require Belarus to create a new historical narrative which would reconcile Belarus' origins in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with the myths connected to the Great Patriotic War.
She ends by asking what Belarusian reforms might look like, and how a political system of a country in which all of the authorities are beholden to one person can change.
Narrative 3: Can the EU Do More?
20 years of dictatorship in Belarus: "Europe is to blame". A short piece by Polskie Radio chiefly focuses on an interview with Belarusian political analyst Pavel Usov. Usov describes Lukashenka's rule as a ‘classic regime’ that has destroyed any and all democratic institutions and opposition, but has kept people’s support by providing ‘food and stability’.
He criticises the EU for being uninterested in Belarus prior to 2004, when a swathe of countries from Central and Eastern Europe either joined or became closer with the EU. By then, in his opinion, Lukashenka had strengthened his position too much for the EU to be able to influence events.
Meanwhile, BBC Russia analyses EU-Belarus-Russia relations in greater depth. Observing that Belarus has found itself in the same boat as the EU in recent months (e.g. over Crimea), they ruminate on the cyclical nature of EU-Belarus relations and attitudes within Belarusian society, measured by the latest IISEPS public polls.
Towards the end, it notes that Brussels has started a 'technical dialogue' with Belarus on modernisation. By not including the opposition, Brussels hopes to convince Belarus of the need for modernisation and to prepare the groundwork needed for eventual democratic reforms.
It concludes by quoting Andrew Wilson (European Council on Foreign Relations), who says the time for radical changes in Brussels' policy towards Belarus has not come, and that there are many other countries in the European Partnership who have already made the “European choice”. They also draw on an interview with Maryna Rakhlei of the German Marshall Fund.
And Finally… Attempts to Quantify the 20 Year Reign
40 facts about Lukashenka’s presidency. BBC Russia attempts to quantify Lukashenka’s regime in terms of its impact: Lukashenka’s 10 best-known projects, 10 most famous hostages, 10 most popular statements, and 10 of Belarus’ biggest losses.
…while The Moscow Times and Radio Free Europe prefer to emphasise the more ridiculous, and absurd aspects: Homophobia, Vote Rigging and Posturing – 20 years of Lukashenko and Lukashenka Unplugged: Two Decades Of Memorable Quotes.
Alexandra Kirby, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office
Belarusians Pop Car Tires to Express Ukraine Sentiments
On 23 July, the main Belarusian portal TUT.by blew the Internet up with an article about Belarusians who were going around popping car tires with Russian number plates in Minsk.
The site's administration removed nearly two thousand comments for inciting ethnic hatred.
The attitude of some Belarusians towards Russia is getting more radical due to the conflict in Ukraine, and these tires appear to be just one example of their growing displeasure.
In a turn of events unheard of in Belarus previously, people are also target cars with Ukrainian symbols and historical Belarusian white-red-white flag symbols.
Radicalisation is not only a result of the Ukrainian conflict or boom of Russian organisations now active in Belarus, but also from the authoritarian political climate in the country.
The authorities have banned basically any political protests from taking place, so many feel they have no way to express their dissent other than by piercing the wheels of cars.
Fighting in The Streets
On 23 July, TUT.by tells published an article describing how at least three cars were in Minsk, all of which were carrying either Russian numbers or symbols.
The vandals have made use of different means of inflicting damage: popping tires or breaking out windows, scratching the side of the car or pouring buckets of mud on them.
Last year, the Belarusian media wrote about several cases where drivers of public buses hung Russian flags on the window and activists sought their withdrawal. On 30 October 2013, police even detained an activist in Minsk for a few hours as the driver accused him of debauchery.
Not only cars with Russian symbols become victims Read more
Later, however, the police released the activist, and Minsk's public transport service apologised "for the inconvenience" and the driver remove the flag.
However, not only cars with Russian symbols have become victims in the latest wave of hooliganism. Recently, a driver who had a Belarusian white-red-white and Ukrainian flag in their, said that someone since May 2014 has been puncturing his tires repeatedly in Minsk.
Until Lukashenka came to power the white-red-white flag served as the official symbol of Belarus. Now the Belarusian diaspora and nearly all opposition parties in Belarus consider it as the only true flag of Belarus.
Country of Intolerant People
Most of these events are, to a large extent, the result of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. While a few Belarusians are fighting on both sides in the Donbass, some continue to battle with one another Belarus, albeit typically in a much less violent form.
This ongoing, growing conflict helps to debunk one of the most popular myths about Belarusians – their tolerance.
Belarus occupies 92nd place in the Global Peace Index. This ranking makes use of three main criteria: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of its domestic or international conflicts, and the degree of a nation's militarisation. Belarus is better positioned than Russia (152nd place) and Ukraine (141st position), but worse than its EU neighbours Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Moreover, recent these offences have ties to another important myth – that of the Belarusian partisans. After the Second World War communists portrayed Belarus as a “guerrilla country”, one that knows how to fight under occupation.
These recent events suggest a growing trend of anti-Russia sentiments. A driver of one of the damaged cars quoted on TUT.by said that, "he had never seen people in Belarus have such a strong dislike for the Russians [before]".
The current radicalisation of Belarusian society has its roots in the absence of democratic institutions and open forums within the country. According to Freedom House's criteria, Belarus has the same freedom rating as China. Belarus needs public debates to help society let off some of its steam.
Pro-Russian organisations supply free Russian flags for distribution in Belarus Read more
However, the authoritarian regime provides few chances for genuine public discussions to take place, as Lukashenka likes to call virtually all pro-democracy organisations a "fifth column".
Therefore, many have only one way of expressing themselves – popping the tires of those who have different political views as expressed by the national insignia of this or that country.
Thus, while most Belarusians hold pro-Russian sentiments, some Belarusians have become sensitive to the Kremlin's barrage of anti-Ukrainian propaganda which has served as a catalyst to revitalise dormant pro-Russian organisations in Belarus.
As part of their work, pro-Russian organisations supply free Russian flags for distribution in Belarus at every turn possible. Although Russian organisations previously did not spread Russian national symbols in the past, in recent months the Belarusian media has reported on a serious spike in their distribution in at least five cities, including Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Although Belarusians call the police to try to get them to stop people from handing out Russian flags on the street, there is obviously not much that they can to do. On one such occasion, on 15 July, the police acted and detained people distributing Russian flags in Orsha, a town in east Belarus.
They turned out to be deaf people who were either selling or giving away the flags in exchange for a miniscule wage, as they have an extremely difficult time finding other jobs in Belarus.
Since distributing the symbols of another country remains legal according Belarusian law, the police were obliged to release them, since they had nothing to hold them on.
Belarusian Hooligans and Russian Organisations
Who is responsible for the damage done to the cars remains unknown. In the case of the cars with Russian symbols, suspicion may fall on football fans. Despite a spike in pro-Russian sentiments, Belarusian football fans have much better ties with their counterparts in Ukraine than in Russia.
This is why most football fans support Ukraine today. Their support has only grown in the months since protests broke out in Kyiv last winter. In one instance the police arrested several BATE fans for merely having taken a photo in solidarity with Maidan.
With regards to the cars vandalised that were carrying Ukrainian symbols, activists of pro-Russian organisations would appear to be the most logical and likely perpetrators.
Lately, organisations such as Rumol (Russian youth) have intensified their activities in Belarus through their usual events such as holding sports competitions or tourist rallies.
since late 1990s, Belarusians have been deprived of any real form of participation in the nation's political life Read more
Their last event took place in Minsk region on July 2014. The Belarusian authorities pay close attention to these associations, but do not interfere with their activities. Their hands-off approach is likely due to the fact that Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian federal government agency, is financing these organisations.
Still, it can be ruled out that ordinary Belarusians may also be responsible for these acts of vandalism. An increasingly propagandistic Russian television, which is very popular in Belarus, has created an atmosphere of hatred presenting Ukrainians as fascists or a people who support a junta.
At the same time, since late 1990s, Belarusians have been deprived of any real form of participation in the nation's political life.
As a result, some people may view vandalising someone else's property as an opportunity to express their stifled political views.
No matter who committed these offences, they show that the Russian war against Ukraine will shape not only high level politics in the region, but also affect the relationship between thugs, football fans, youth organisations and ordinary people.