Belarusian Opposition: From Politics to Advocacy
In the coming days Taciana Karatkevich, a political activist who was little-known until recently, is likely to officially become the main opposition coalition’s candidate in the 2015 presidential election.
Her nomination coincided with the departure of Uladzimir Niakliajeu, one of the most popular pro-democracy politicians and a former presidential candidate from the ranks of the opposition. Niakliajeu explained his decision to leave as a result of the opposition's inability to decide on a single candidate.
Niakliajeu’s departure alongside Karatkevich’s lack of political skills and ambitions reflect the transformation of the opposition in Belarus into little more than an advocacy group. Karatkevich’s nomination sends a signal to Lukashenka’s regime and Belarusian society that the opposition has rejected a revolutionary path forward.
The Most Popular Pro-democratic Politician Leaves the Opposition
On 7 April, the Tell the Truth campaign, by most estimates the main oppositional structure in Belarus, voted for Taciana Karatkevich’s nomination and on 8 April its leader Uladzimir Niakliajeu left the organisation and all the opposition altogether. He explained his departure as being a result of the opposition's inability to agree on holding the Congress of Democratic Forces to choose a single candidate to run.
Usually, no one would notice the withdrawal of an opposition politician, but Niakliajeu is another story. He has the highest supporting rating among all opposition politicians (7.6%), according to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies. Thanks to his poetry, he has gained recognition even among Lukashenka’s supporters, if only for his literary talents.
Niakliajeu announced his disappointment with the opposition, which was in talks for over two years in an effort to choose single candidate.That Niakliajeu lost control over his own Tell the Truth campaign is also telling. Anatol Liabedzka, Chairman of the United Civic Party, stated that during a meeting of opposition leaders on 7 April, Niakliajeu’s proposal to hold the Congress of Democratic Forces failed — after Niakliajeu’s own organisation blocked it.
Taciana Karatkevich: the New Face of the Opposition
Taciana Karatkevich, age 37, rises as a new star of the Belarusian opposition. Her nomination as the candidate from the “People’s Referendum”, a mainstream opposition coalition that brings together the Tell the Truth campaign, the Movement for Freedom, the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front and several smaller organisations, will be made in the near future. Many in the opposition believe that their candidate's gender will persuade the Belarusian authorities to perceive her as a lesser threat from opposition.
Like other ex-Soviet republics, Belarus is a rather sexist country, and Lukashenka will have serious problems trying to repress Karatkevich. Should he beat a woman, he himself would be deprived of his masculinity, or so the thinking goes. Moreover, femininity is accorded a different role in society and is less associated with bloody revolutions like Maidan.
In any event, Karatkevich is the first woman candidate in the history of Belarus to ballot for presidential office, not despite her gender, but because of it. Karatkevich has some other advantages as well. She has worked as a psychologist and lecturer at the state institutions for eleven years. She is perceived as a team player.
However, Karatkevich’s candidacy also has some marked weaknesses. First, she seems to lacks any real leadership experience. Karatkevich is viewed by some as overly dependent on Andrei Dzmitryjeu, the new leader of the Tell the Truth campaign, as she had previously worked under him. Dzmitryjeu pushed hard for her nomination, as many have said in private, precisely because of this relationship.
Secondly, she lacks charisma and has not demonstrated any real presence in front of crowds or cameras. When Belarusian journalist Sviatlana Kalinkina asked Karatkevich a year ago what she would do if she was offered to become the opposition's main presidential candidate, she said that she hoped not to receive such an offer.
Third, the percieved Karatkevich’s dependence on Dzmitryjeu is unlikely to create the necessary grounds for the opposition to unify around her candidacy. Even the Movement for Freedom, a member of the People's Referendum coalition, announced on 2 April that it would not get involved in the election campaign this year, and would instead focus on election observations and civic activities.
From Opposition to Advocacy Group
Changes in the opposition reflect a paradigm shift. If in the past the opposition fought and struggled for power, and despite the fact that some felt it was an act, now Belarus's pro-democratic forces have been transformed into an advocacy group. This can be a reason (or a consequence) of the fact that Belarusians currently have no appetite for revolution. The opposition simply wants to promote its interests and articulate its agenda, without provoking political repression from the authorities.
In this context, charismatic, ambitious and, in many ways, unpredictable leaders like Niakliajeu will more likely hurt the opposition rather than help. Or at least this is what some in the opposition think.
opposition activists see themselves as being closer to civil society than to opposition politics Read more
But there are some who do not share this vision. The former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkevich, who remains in jail since the last presidential election, is trying to start his presidential campaign directly from his cell (although it is clear that the authorities will not allow him to register.) In fact, Statkevich is about to have another trial in the near future. By all appearances, it looks as if the authorities are trying to force him to ask Lukashenka for a pardon.
The majority of opposition activists who are currently in exile view the upcoming election with contempt and call for a boycott. Their calls, however, do not affect the political dynamic in Belarus. More and more opposition activists see themselves as being closer to civil society than to opposition politics. The Movement for Freedom, which was Milinkevich’s political project, has failed to participate in any presidential campaign, but remains very active in the public domain.
Opposition groups have few people who are willing or able to campaign and fear that the remaining pro-democratic forces would not survive a repeat of the 2010 post-election crackdown. One opposition leader told Belarus Digest that the opposition's offices have never been as empty as they are now. People are simply not joining the opposition anymore.
The same individual said that "the purpose of this presidential campaign is just not to go to prison, to keep the teams together and develop our political skills." It is for this reason that the opposition is hedging its bets on a technical candidate, not an ambitious one who would make a ruckus.
Why Belarusians Avoid Conscription
On 5 March a soldier from a border unit near the city of Hrodna committed suicide while on duty. Although over the past couple of years the authorities have taken serious measures to reduce the number of deaths and amount of abuse in the army, such incidents continue to occur.
The Army has lost much of the social prestige and role it played in Belarus. Young people see it as an institution that hampers their personal development. Dodging the draft is common, despite criminal penalties for violators.
Since the late 2000s the Belarusian authorities have changed conscription rules in order to isolate political activists, who are occasionally illegally forced to serve. At present, the Ministry of Defence offers no real incentives to get people to join the armed forces and continues to resist serious reforms.
Following the Ukraine crisis, Lithuania re-introduced universal conscription and it is gaining more importance in the region. The Belarusian authorities need to reboot the armed forces to bring them in line with modern standards.
Army No Longer Popular
Belarus, like many other former Soviet countries, has retained universal military conscription. All males between eighteen and twenty seven years old have to serve between one to one and a half years in the army, provided that they have no valid reason for not serving.
During the Soviet era, military service was seen as a matter of honour for young men. The pervasive Soviet ideology encouraged defending the country, and many used the army as a means by which to improve their social standing and overall welfare. Popular culture regarded men who escaped conscription as being fundamentally deficient, and few attempted to evade the draft as a result.
However, in modern Belarus most young men view military service with apprehension. The military lost its ideological attractiveness and social elevator function, and has transformed into an institution which restricts personal freedom and opportunities for self-development.
Siarhei, 23, told Belarus Digest that he will do anything to avoid military service. "It is a waste of time, one doesn't learning anything there, and most of the time soldiers do nothing but clean toilets and count the days until they are discharged. You will not become a fighter there". Siarhej's opinion is typical of most young Belarusians. Many of their peers who return from the army call it a "waste of time", as military training is often replaced by meaningless routines and working on repairs. The government fails to offer conscripts incentives for service, although it tries to entice them to serve through promos like the one below.
It is hardly any wonder why many people try to avoid serving at nearly any cost. Becoming a student remains the most popular means of avoiding conscription, and many a “professional student” has been made in an effort to age out. Fathering a child is another option, though less popular due to the additional burden.
Trickery is often employed as well, such as feigning health problems, or simply not taking a medical examination. Usually, the military offices report that dodgers make only up only a small percent of eligible men. In 2013 Minister of Defence Jury Žadobin, however, complained to the Belarusian parliament that he cannot conscript enough healthy men.
Many people also go to Russia to make money and visit only between conscription cycles, which take place twice a year. For instance, in the Klimavičy district on the Russian border around 30% of eligible men remained in Russia during a 2013 conscription round according to the local authorities.
However, evading conscription can be a costly proposition in Belarus as an offender can be charged with a fine of up to $12,000 or up to two years in prison. While few actually end up in prison, there are occasional public cases that serve as a reminder of what could happen.
Hazing in the Armed Forces
The term ‘dedovshchina’ from the Russian word 'grandfathering', an analogue of hazing in English, is a system of informal hierarchies and practises common in the Soviet and post-Soviet armies that involves physical abuse and humiliation of junior conscripts by their senior counterparts.
Military officials claim that dedovshchina in the Belarusian army has been virtually eliminated. Indeed, compared to 1990s, when there were nearly 100 deaths annually, the situation is considerably better, though they certainly have not disappeared altogether.
The government has tried to minimise dedovshchina in recent years by taking a number of measures: psychological health exams before and during service, video surveillance, daily injury exams and improved officer oversight.
The numbers speak for themselves: the level of criminal acts in the army decreased from 11 per 1,000 people in 1994 to 1.7 per 1,000 in 2014. Hazing now takes on new forms with soldiers finding new means of abusing one another that are more difficult to detect, including psychological pressure and bullying. In just the last month two suicides took place – one in the Barysaŭ district and one in Hrodna.
Activist Intimidation and Politicised Conscription
At the end of 2000s Belarusian opposition activists were subject to a new type of state pressure. The authorities forcibly delivered them to have medical exams and quickly transferred them to the army, regardless of what previous medical exams may have shown.
If needed, they were kicked out of universities, thus eliminating any excuse for not serving. Some went to the army right after spending a few days in jail for their political activism.
Franak Viačorka, a political and civil activist has become perhaps one of the most famous political conscript. His fight against forced conscription and subsequent conflicts in the army on the ground of his political views and his usage of the Belarusian language received vast media coverage in 2009. After repeated attempts to prove his health problems, the medical commission recognised him as unfit he was released 15-month service.
In 2011 Franak Viačorka wrote a script for a feature film “Long Live Belarus!” based on his experiences, a film that showed the gloomy reality of the Belarusian army and forced conscription.
Minsk has yet to show it has any intention of transforming into a professional volunteer army so far, a position it is unlikely to retreat from following the Ukraine crisis. Still, every year the Ministry of Defence experiences more and more problems in gathering up the necessary number of conscripts. A more compact and professional army trained in special operations and modern technology would be a welcome change to the drilling mills.