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.
Internet Censorship in the Authoritarian Belarus
To be precise, the Belarusian officials have not yet approved the introduction of additional measures to regulate Internet in Belarus. However, Belarusian independent media have published a realistic draft of the document and the document has been discussed by the government.
Introduction of this new regulation would give the regime in Minsk additional instruments to regulate the last area of free speech in the country, which the Internet indeed is. The number of internet users in Belarus is relatively high (the official number is over three millions). In fact, an average Belarusian internet user is generally not too interested in politics and opposition websites, but nevertheless the potential auditorium for on-line oppositional media is quite significant.
Another question is whether the officials would actually use the instruments for real repressions, which may seem less likely considering the closer ties with EU. Still, self-censorship has become a common practice in the Belarusian information sphere. Knowing that one is being identified and traced by officials, both readers and writers will be much more cautious and less willing to risk being sanctioned for viewing websites criticizing the regime. This is the sad reality of a European country, just 2 hours flight away from Berlin, in the early 21st century.
The authoritarian Belarus is introducing censorship on the Internet in the coming days, about a year before the presidential election. In the future, websites and Internet users would be strictly controlled by the government and a special unit of the Presidential Administration.
The Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported it on Monday. Labeled by human rights activists as Europe’s last dictator, President Aliaksandr Lukašenka has previously been criticizing “anarchy on the Internet”. In early 2011 presidential elections are scheduled to take place in the former Soviet republic, where Lukašenka wants to win again.
The Internet has so far been the last place to express independent opinion in Belarus. The opposition is afraid to stay without media access during the upcoming elections. The government in Minsk’s had further tightened the already strict media laws this year. In Belarus, Lukašenka’s chief ideologist Aleh Praliaskoŭski has recently been appointed as media minister.