Police officers call demonstrators to go away as women protest against police violence during recent rallies against Alexander Lukashenko Photo by Sergei GAPON / AFP via Getty)
Artillery Row

Lukashenko clings on

Belarusian protestors are a more potent weapon against Lukashenko than Brussels ever has been

The streets of Minsk are again full of battered protestors. The air in Brest is poisoned with tear gas. Gatherings are being broken with water cannons, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. In Belarus, campaigning and casting of ballots are the prelude: the main event of the presidential election is the drawing of blood that follows the “counting” of the votes. Of course, President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has ruled the landlocked republic for the past quarter century, prefers elections to be civil and ceremonial affairs. Every five years, he is disappointed to discover anew that his people have not grasped that polls are not held in Belarus to pick a winner: they are staged to ratify a preordained result.

Sunday’s presidential election, as far as Lukashenko was concerned, was meant to be purely perfunctory. Everything was in order: credible opponents were blacklisted, detained, or chased out of the country; the state media theatrically decried the president’s critics; and the election commission of Belarus danced to orders from a veteran politician with an impeccable reputation for rigging the vote for Lukashenko. And yet the opposition succeeded in overcoming impossible hurdles to mobilise spectacular demonstrations for a fair vote. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an English tutor who entered the race as a last-gasp challenger after her husband was hauled away to prison for deciding to run against the batka of the Belarusian people, drew enormous crowds to her rallies. Lukashenko, momentarily rattled, stuck to his method. He pronounced himself the winner with 80 per cent of the vote and dispatched the state militia to stamp on the electorate. Tikhanovskaya was detained this week, forced to read a statement endorsing the official result for the cameras, and escorted out of the country on Tuesday. Those who have followed the fate of Lukashenko’s previous challengers cannot fault Tikhanovskaya’s choice. 

Lukashenko devastated the lives of the credible candidates who had participated in the presidential election of a decade ago. Of the nine who stood against him in 2010, seven saw the inside of a prison. A year later, I saw the mother of Andrei Sannikov, Lukashenko’s nearest rival, in a church in Minsk. She was praying for her disappeared son. One of the brightest young members of Lukashenko’s first cabinet, Sannikov quit the government in 1996 in disgust and floated Charter 97—a pro-democracy movement modelled on Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77. Three months before the vote, Sannikov was warned in the Soviet way—his press secretary turned up dead outside Minsk—but refused to drop out. After the polls closed on the evening of 19 December, Lukashenko’s security forces came for Sannikov. They stopped his speech to a large gathering in Independence Square, pushed him to the ground, and struck him repeatedly on the head. Sannikov’s wife, Iryna, put him in the back of her car and raced in the direction of a hospital. The police detained them en route. No medical treatment was given. In the weeks following their arrest, Belarus’s secret police—which still goes by the Soviet name of KGB—sought to seize their son, who was then three. Because the boy’s parents were going to be incarcerated for years, Lukashenko reasoned, it was in his interest to be raised in an orphanage. In the ensuing global outcry, Iryna was released, placed under house arrest, and granted custody of her son. Her husband, however, was sentenced to a five-year term. Isolated, tortured, starved, and very nearly murdered inside his cell, Sannikov was freed after a year. For much of that time, his mother did not know where he was being kept.

Lukashenko was the original post-Cold War strongman—a man who prefigured Putin by half a decade. One of the more insightful portrait of his reign is supplied by Britain Bennet, Britain’s envoy to Minsk from 2003-2007, in his book The Last Dictatorship of Europe (2012). Twenty-six years ago, Belarus was full of optimism and anxiety. Forested and landlocked by Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, it had never really known national sovereignty. When the USSR—which demarcated the territory of modern Belarus—perished, what seemed like the end of history to spectators in the West was experienced by Belarusians as the beginning of a hazardous future. Lukashenko, appointed in 1993 to the chair of a committee to expose corruption, seized the opening. He delivered electrifying speeches replete with promises to recreate the stability of the old Soviet Union. He was energetic and youthful, not yet 40, and the babushkas who saw him on television were moved to tears. His report into graft made no startling revelations. Yet senior political figures, fearful that he possessed damaging information about them, cleared the way for him. Dictatorship, however, seemed a distant prospect because the speaker of the interim parliament had already rejected the presidential system in order to avert the rise of an authoritarian. Then, Bill Clinton visited Belarus—and, seduced by the sight of the charismatic foreign leader, members of the Supreme Soviet sidelined the speaker and opted for a powerful presidency.

Lukashenko won in a run-off election in 1994. One of his first acts in office was to order the execution of two Americans who had accidentally strayed into Belarusian territory. He then proceeded to issue 350 executive decrees in just over a year of assuming office. By 1996, he had consigned the constitution to the bin, introduced capital punishment, thrown his rivals in jail, and consolidated his control over the media. Parliamentarians who refused to rubber-stamp his laws were not paid salaries, and dissenting lawyers were disbarred and forced to re-qualify. A former speaker of parliament who put himself through the trouble of taking the exams again was told that he could not be granted a new licence because he had violated the law by stepping off a pavement during a demonstration. By 1999, several prominent figures in the Belarusian opposition had disappeared. Lukashenko retained the accoutrements of a democracy—elections, debates, courts—but the presidential ukase became the highest law of the land. As one exhausted Belarusian legislator phrased it: “Why are we sitting here? Why are we passing laws?”

The principal paradox of Belarus under Lukashenko is the extraordinary lengths to which the first truly independent Belarusian state in history has gone to frustrate the crystallisation of a Belarusian identity. The Belarusian language, denied patronage today, originated in the 13th century. The Tatars rendered it in Arabic. And three centuries later, a pioneering publisher from Polotsk set it to print in Cyrillic. In the Polish-Lithunian Commonwealth, a Calvinist from Vitebsk called Saloman Rysinski became the first person to identify himself as “Belarusian” in an application to the University of Altdorf in 1586. It was a description intended to distinguish Rysinski from the Poles and the Lithuanians to whom the Belarusians were tuteishiya, locals, a people without a genealogy. The Belarusian identity was still vague when Catherine the Great began annexing gargantuan chunks of the Commonwealth. The eastern half was subsumed in 1772; the central portion was taken in 1793; and, by 1795, all of Belarus was incorporated into the Russian Empire. 

Belarusians were so thoroughly assimilated by the USSR that when they got Belarus, they were no longer certain what it meant to be Belarusian

After almost a century of subjection, the stimulus for the revival of the Belarusian identity was provided by literature. The effect of Pan Tadeusz (1834) by Adam Mitskevitch, the great exponent of Polish national freedom, was so profound that Vincent Dunin-Martinkevich, one of the founders of modern Belarusian literature, invited arrest to translate the epic poem into Belarusian. Before the close of the century, Gomon, a periodical co-founded by a Jewish Belaursian in St Petersburg, was urging autonomy for Belarus within Russia. The arrival of licensed newspapers in 1906 spurred a stream of nationalist poetry, drama, and criticism by some of the most revered Belarusian writers: Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas, Maxim Bogdanovich. Belarusian nationalism, acquiring its most definite cast in the literary ferment of this period, culminated in the establishment of the Belarusian People’s Republic in March 1918. Its white-red-white national emblem, the Pahonia—drawn from the coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania—was selected self-consciously to endow the Belarusian nation with a lineage that predated the Russian Empire. The ill-fated republic was absorbed into Bolshevik Russia in less than 10 months of its creation. What followed was calamitous. The democratic government of the BPR was dismantled and exiled. In accordance with the Soviet ideology of progress, Belarusian identity was effectively frozen. The intellectuals who might have fed its growth were liquidated in Stalin’s Great Purge. Hundreds of thousands of bodies were heaped into mass graves in the Kuropaty woods outside Minsk. 

Belarusians were so thoroughly assimilated by the USSR that, when they got Belarus, they were no longer certain what it meant to be Belarusian. “A person who does not understand who he is,” the political scientist Ales Ancipienka once wrote, “is actually a Belarusian.” Historically and geopolitically conscious Belarusians understood that in order to retain their independence they had to exhume and fortify the Belarusian identity. Lukashenko choked their endeavour in infancy. The Pahonia was banned. The use of Belarusian, spoken by about 37 percent of the population, was discouraged (Russian was privileged). Official historiography placed the origins of Belarus in Soviet ideology. Lukashenko even moved the country’s Independence Day from the anniversary of Belarus’s declaration of sovereignty—27 July, which repudiates the Soviet connection—to the anniversary of Minsk’s liberation by the Red Army on 3 July, a date that glorifies the Soviet past. In the years before Putin stormed onto the scene, Lukashenko obsessively nursed the ambition of reuniting Belarus with Russia in the hope of ruling the union for life. A formidable Belarusian identity would have been inimical to that enterprise.

Lukashenko has relied on Russia to keep the debt-financed economy of Belarus afloat. Yet for all its apparent influence, the Kremlin has struggled to persuade him to merge Belarus with Russia despite interminable negotiations—or even to convince Minsk to confer recognition on the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2004, Lukashenko’s attempt to exploit his country’s position as the transit point for Russia’s gas exports prompted Moscow to seek alternative supply routes. In the run up to last week’s election, Lukashenko tried to reinvent himself as the protector of “sovereign and independent Belarus” against Russian imperialism. In reality, of course, Lukashenko is interested primarily in perpetuating himself in power. He will unblinkingly put Belarus on the block in return for Putin’s support to shore up his position should he find himself in peril, especially as the economy deteriorates. Nor will he hesitate to sell the country to the Chinese. In 2011, when Washington imposed sanctions in retaliation for his violent suppression of the mass uprising against his rule, Lukashenko was unfazed: within weeks, Beijing had filled the gap, advancing not just a preferential loan of a billion dollars but also an assurance of “full backing” for Lukashenko’s “stance on domestic and international questions”. Lukashenko, for his part, promised Xi Jinping a “stronghold in Europe”. Four years later, China rewarded Belarus with agreements worth 15 billion dollars. The EU was a spectator to all of this.

For too long Belarusians were so riven that they could not agree on the correct language or history of their nation. The fallout from Sunday’s vote suggests that Lukashenko’s old moves may no longer be effective in stopping the citizenly rage that has piled up over decades from erupting. But those prophesying the imminent demise of the only dispensation Belarus has known for almost all of its post-Soviet existence vastly underestimate the extent of the control wielded by the president. The state is not fit to be repurposed. It has to be deconstructed and rebuilt. The institutions exist not to check the president but to serve and enforce his despotism. From the judiciary to the KGB, the governmental apparatus of Belarus is customised to function as an extension of the presidency. And almost every sphere of life—economic, political, private—is ordered by the conceit and caprices of a personality shaped on a Soviet hog farm.

Every evening, in the courtyard of Minsk’s Red Church, families draped in white-red-white scarves join hands around the imposing sculpture of Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Belarus, and sing a hymn. At the end of it, they speak the names of the people—a friend, a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a husband, a wife—who have been taken from them by their government. This service of remembrance is performed at great personal risk: the KGB is always there, logging the speeches and movements of the congregants, poised to pluck them and cart them off to prison. The world’s interest in Belarus will soon fizzle out. But ordinary Belarusians will gather every day to pray at the feet of St Michael. Their resolve is a more potent weapon against the dictatorship of Lukashenko than all the demarches that have ever emanated from Brussels.

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