Belarusian state apparatus – strong from the outside, hollow from the inside
On 10 September, Belarusian police detained Dzmitry Siomchanka, leader of the ‘presidential pool’ at the state TV Channel ONT, after he expressed his opposition to President Alexander Lukashenka’s policies.
The detention is the most recent illustration of how fragile the current Belarusian government has become after the recent protest wave, as even its leading propagandists are deserting it. Besides Siomchanka, at least four other leading anchors and commentators of state TV and radio have publicly expressed their disapproval of current government policy in recent weeks.
The state system built by Lukashenka appears strong, having survived so many years. However, today the state apparatus built in Belarus since 1994 has become hollow in many respects. By sending riot police into the streets against peaceful protesters since the 9 August presidential election, the current government is trying to make up for all the other resources that it lacks. Three absent components are especially conspicuous: the absence of ideas, of loyal mass organizations and of mass media.
The current government has no sophisticated ideology – no image of a brighter future, beyond the most basic promise of “at least a USD 500-salary-per-month for everyone.” Speaking at a press conference for Russian journalists in 2014, Lukashenka confided,
I have commissioned,and I tried myself to invent, a state ideology. But I cannot say that the results touched my soul, they did not… They tell me that our ideology is the deepest patriotism. OK, patriotism… but that is clear also without ideology. What we need is inflaming stuff, which would be accepted by the entire society and which all citizens would aspire to… neither I nor my assistants have invented such a thing. Although our officials in charge of ideology believe that we have a state ideology.
Many foreign observers note the presence of Soviet symbols in Belarus and therefore assume that Soviet ideology still plays a role in Belarus. However, these are red herrings rather than an expression of any ideological commitment. Lukashenka simply exploits some of the Belarusian population’s Soviet nostalgia. One can find no Marxism in the Belarusian regime, and there are plenty of developments which in fact allow us to paint the regime in any political colour.
For example, under Lukashenka hundreds of Soviet monuments have been silently demolished, and many scandalous cases have attracted attention. When this year a monument to Vasily Chapaev, a Soviet hero of the Civil War (1917-1923), was removed in Hrodna after a petition of local activists, this caused a negative reaction from Russia.
No mass media
But even if the current leadership had some innovative ideas, it fails to deliver these to the people. It sounds odd, but Lukashenka has no media at his disposal to do so. Today, one has difficulties finding state-owned print media even among dozens of glossy Belarusian and Russian newspapers and journals on display in the state-owned Belsayuzdruk kiosks. Hardly anybody reads these today, including the main print media outlet of the government—Belarus Segodnya. To conceal this nuisance, the newspaper even manipulated its circulation figures, by arbitrarily summing up the circulation of different issues. It claims its circulation to be 402,000. In fact, its maximal daily circulation is 215,000.
The situation with electronic media is no better. Belarusian blogger Vasil Herasimchyk from Hrodna writing in Gazeta Arche noted that it is the existing system of state media, above all state TV, which, by creating a censored picture of Belarus, has discredited the image of “Lukashenka the Father.”
Prominent opposition writer Viktar Martsinovich said in February 2020: “Actually, the state has only one real media now – the Telegram instant messaging channel Pul pervogo (the pool of the first), led by Lukashenka’s spokeswoman Natallia Eismant, with limited restrictions on content.
Yet before the August presidential election dynamics set in, Pul had just 10,000 subscribers—incomparable even with anonymous, and probably Russia-linked, channel Trykatazh which back then had 17,000 subscribers, to say nothing of the NEXTA channel, allegedly led by young Belarusian Sciapan Sviatlou, with 200,000 subscribers. After the election, NEXTA Live grew to more than 2m subscribers but Pul pervogo to just over 85,000.
Besides the inefficiency of state media outlets, their loyalty is also questionable. This much became clear after the August election when Lukashenka, following the resignations of prominent personnel at state-owned Belarusian TV, brought in Russian journalists to replace them.
A lack of an intellectual basis and means to communicate with people has made Lukashenka’s regime increasingly personality-based in the three decades of its existence. Since the early 2000s, the regime has given up attempts to establish any even relatively autonomous political organizations which could support the government.
Belaya Rus’, the movement of Lukashenka‘s supporters, is not allowed to register as a political party, only as a public association. According to official information, it has about 190,000 members. Yet it failed even to collect properly signatures for Lukashenka’s presidential candidacy this summer ahead of the August election.
Opposition journalists at TUT.by news website with amusement described the very rare places even in the capital Minsk where Belaya Rus and related pro-Lukashenka organizations collected signatures for him. In the city of Barysau, for example, with around 145,000 residents, there was only one, not widely known place, to collect these signatures – an office of Belaya Rus.
The youth organization supporting the president—Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM)— looks even more absurd. Two years ago, a video filmed by a pupil of a Minsk high school was leaked onto the internet, in which teachers insisted that adolescents join the BRSM because the school needed “better statistics.” The explanation offered by the teachers to the pupils illustrates how formal this organisation is:
You shall understand that all the fees were already paid for you a long time ago [by the teachers themselves]. You are already there [in the BRSM]! We simply need your photos [for the member cards]! We will photograph you, I’ll give you these membership cards and that’s it. You live on as you wish. If you don’t want the card, I can also keep it with me.
No wonder that prominent businessman Uladzimir Dzialiendzik this summer described both Belaya Rus and BRSM as “ass-licking” lackeys who failed to match the spirit of the times. He called for their dissolution. Dzialiendzik, who established the large Darida beverages company, has been closely working with Lukashenka’s government for many years and has served two terms in the parliament.
To sum up, the Belarusian regime has remained in place not because it is strong but because no convincing alternative has been offered to Belarusians. Hence, to bring about political changes in Belarus, it is useless to focus on increasing international pressure on Minsk (which Lukashenka will neutralize by making concessions to Putin and getting his support in exchange).
It is much more advisable to offer and publicize alternative visions of Belarus and mechanisms for change that can convince even public servants, including law enforcement, to join the opposition. Many of those working in the state apparatus are questioning the current policies.
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Catholic Church as next target for Belarus’ undermining of civic solidarity
On 31 August, Belarusian border security officers denied a Belarusian citizen, Archbishop Tadeush Kandrusievich, the head of the Catholic Church, return into the country.
Amid displays of solidarity among various civil society leaders in Belarus, the authorities continue to respond with increased pressure. Religious organisations have been no exception.
Over the last few weeks, Kandrusievich has critically spoken out against the brutal crackdown on peaceful protests. These sentiments have been echoed by other religious leaders in Belarus (such as Jewish, Christian Orthodox and Protestant leaders). The stance of Metropolitan Paval, head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, has even cost him his post.
With this crackdown on religious civil society leaders, the Belarusian authorities aim to break the chain of solidarity among Belarusians, diminishing their ability to mobilise.
Attack on Catholics unlikely to help Lukashenka
So far the Belarusian Catholic Church has reacted in a balanced yet consistent way regarding the developments in the country. On 15 August, its leader, Archbishop Tadeush Kandrusievich, appealed to the authorities to resolve the conflict peacefully, emphasising that “(…) people have the right to know the truth” (about the presidential election). He also criticised the state for using violence against protesters.
Yet, the Catholic Church has unintentionally become more seriously involved in the current political crisis following state forces’ intervention in the Red Church in Minsk. During the protest on 26 August, OMON riot police blocked the entrance to the church building for nearly 40 minutes, as some of the protesters and journalists were seeking shelter inside. Archbishop Kandrusievich, spoke from abroad about the incident, calling it “unacceptable and unlawful”.
On 31 August, in an extraordinary move Kandrusievich, a Belarusian citizen, was denied return to Belarus without explanation. The next day, when visiting Baranavichy, Lukashenka enigmatically accused Archbishop Kandrusievich of “engaging with politics” “suddenly going on a trip to Warsaw for consultation” and receiving “tasks” to do upon his return to Belarus, despite providing no proof to support this conspiracy theory.
The entry ban on Archbishop Kandrusievich has shocked the public in Belarus and many have expressed their outrage towards the state’s decision, with those of all religious affiliations showing their solidarity. The service which took place on 5 September in the Red Church brought together several thousand people.
In his inspiring sermon, Bishop Jury Kasabucki in strong words decried the “persecution of the Catholic Church in Belarus” (around 12% of Belarusians are Catholics, according to PEW Report 2017) and prayed for the victims of state violence. “Does opposition to torture equate to going into politics?”, he asked rhetorically.
Changes in the Orthodox Church
The case of Metropolitan Paval is similar – the authorities expect unconditional loyalty from both him as an individual and the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) as a whole, rather than the gestures of solidarity with the victims and critique of torture which the Church has demonstrated.
Nevertheless, initially, the BOC struggled to take a consistent position on the political crisis. Metropolitan Paval officially congratulated Aliaksandr Lukashenka on his re-election, yet a couple of days later he spoke in a different tone. He apologised for the “premature reaction”, which, “has caused outrage among many Orthodox believers” in the country.
On 12 August, during a meeting with journalists, Metropolitan Paval recognised that Belarusians “are entitled to have their issues but they should not be resolved by resistance”. Most likely, due to further pressure from Belarusian believers and in all probability also from the Orthodox clergy, the Church then spoke out more firmly. On 15 August, the synod of the BOC strongly condemned both the harsh reaction of state forces and some incidents of provocation on the part of protesters. Metropolitan Paval attended the hospital to visit the victims of the brutal crackdown.
Soon after this, he suddenly stepped down from his post (perhaps with encouragement) and the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (of which the BOC is a part) proceeded to elect his successor – for the first time, a Belarusian, the Bishop of Barisau, Vaniamin.
Despite being new to the role, the new Metropolitan has already passed comment on the developments in the country. On 26 August he appealed to Orthodox believers (some of whom work in the state apparatus system), emphasising the spiritual and moral nature of the conflict. “Changing minds, changing hearts from evil to good, from lies to truth, from division to unity […] — these are the changes that our society needs first”, he stated.
“Chain of repentance: from Kurapaty to Akreścina”
Many Protestant Christians have also joined the protests or supported them, and some have subsequently been detained and sentenced. On 14 August, Pentecostals and Charismatics officially appealed to the authorities to call a halt to the violence, release all detainees and begin a peaceful dialogue with the people.
Furthermore, members of a Minsk-based congregation have launched an initiative “From Kurapaty to Akreścina. Never again”, which brought thousands of people onto the street, forming a 15-km chain. Many participants of the event were holding copies of the Bible, crosses, and white-red-white flags in their hands.
Zmicier Dashkievich, an activist and Protestant, one of the initiators of the chain, has emphasised to Belarus Digest that the cause of the current crisis and peoples’ demands are of a mainly moral, not economic nature, unlike those of the 1990s. Belarusians believe their voices have been stolen and thus have demanded to know the truth. According to Dashkievich, churches, are the natural institutions to emerge to help resolve the political crisis with no bloodshed and bring spiritual renewal to Belarusian society.
Importantly, both “Kurapaty” and “Akreścina” have already emerged as symbols within the public space and discourse. The former is the site on the outskirts of Minsk which memorialises the most extreme atrocities of the Soviet regime towards Belarusians. Akreścina, on the other hand, is the Minsk-based detention centre, made infamous recently for keeping political prisoners (such as Paval Sieviaryniec from the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party) as well as protesters, often in intimidating conditions.
What can Churches do in the current crisis?
Through the crackdown on the Catholic leadership, the authorities have sent out a clear message to all their current and potential critics – whatever your public profile may be, there may be serious consequences for involvement (including the risk of losing your citizenship). Yet, the state aims for more as it hopes to break the chain of solidarity among Belarusians and civil society (including churches).
In fact, solidarity seems to be the most serious threat to the state apparatus. The authorities, therefore, are not underestimating the role religious organisations can play in society and are counteracting their effectiveness through preventive measures. However, this meddling within the Churches is unlikely to help stabilise the spirit of protest among Belarusians. On the contrary, many, regardless of their denominational affiliation, may find the incident concerning Archbishop Kandrusievich unacceptable and unlawful, which will inevitably trigger further acts and lead to a strengthening of solidarity within civil society.
It seems that these small acts of solidarity by the Churches (with protesters and each other) have seriously concerned the authorities, for whom the ideal would a divided civil society who mind their own business. This would prevent further solidarity, and, conversely, diminish the moral grounds for the protests. In fact, given the level of brutality of the state forces, any act of solidarity by the Churches with protesters (and with each other) will matter a lot, particularly in the coming days.
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