Opposition supporters rally to protest against disputed presidential elections results in Minsk on August 23, 2020. (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Report from Belarus

There is no one left to fight for Europe’s last dictator and his Soviet utopia

“Where were you grandpa,” I dearly hope that my historically minded descendants will inquire of me one day, “when that maddened Belarusian president flew over the crowd of protestors in that helicopter with a machine gun in hand?” Last Sunday in Minsk was indeed a bizarre day. As the protestors of this most velvet of revolutions approached the presidential palace, Lukashenko panicked and ordered his personal military helicopter to fly over the crowd.

We are now into the third week of the political crisis that has wracked Belarus in the wake of the discredited presidential election of 9 August. Following the outcome of the fabricated election, Lukashenko has forfeited all political legitimacy after ruling the country as his own personal kingdom for the past 26 years. Yet, as the daily demonstrations taking place across every town and region demonstrate, Belarus is no longer governable under the old political agreement.

The entire capital of Minsk appears to be in revolt, if only passively. When I discreetly asked the cleaning lady at my hotel where I can go to make a call without being noticed, she replied with a knowing smile: “You can’t, they listen to everything.” The repressive apparatus on which Lukashenko has relied for decades clearly no longer functions. The protests are organised by encrypted telegram channels – many based in Poland and Lithuania – which the government is powerless to stop. NEXTA Live (the main telegram channel of the opposition, managed by an exiled 22-year-old Belarusian activist) has reported an extraordinary one billion views of its posts for the first three weeks of August.

Protesters gathering in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Photo credit: Vladislav Davidzon

So, it is understandable that the opposition demand that Lukashenko retire. He is 65 years old and will be celebrating his next birthday this coming Sunday (the day that protestors stage their weekly marches, routinely bringing 200,000 people into the streets of the capital). Those who run the opposition telegram channels have taken to referring to him as “a certain pensioner in Minsk”. Thus, “a certain pensioner in Minsk is meeting with the KGB and interior ministry generals today”. A “certain pensioner in Minsk is shaking his fist and threatening NATO”, and a “certain pensioner in Minsk has ordered a flight of Belarusian Mi-24 ‘Hind’ helicopters to intercept a formation of enemy flags bearing balloons on the Lithuanian border”.

The balloons that were launched from the Lithuanian side of the border were quickly intercepted and destroyed. Indeed, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence issued a farcical statement thanking the Mi-24 crews for their valour and bravery in the battle against this hostile incursion. However, the Lithuanian Government was incensed and accused the Mi-24 of violating its airspace, then summoned the Belarusian ambassador to issue a démarche.

Outside the Moldovan separatist statelet of Transnistria, one will not find a more lovingly embalmed replica to the everyday aesthetics of Soviet life. This is in fact what “the last dictator in Europe” is fighting to preserve. The protests are an expression of a long repressed national ambition; they make a point of expressing neither friendship nor enmity for the likes of Brussels, Moscow or Washington D.C.

There is no way to preserve a system which does not have a coherent social, ideological or economic apparatus to underpin it

Three decades after the Baltic states, the Czechs and the Slovaks obtained political sovereignty and the capacity to develop their own national identities, the Belarusians now want to develop their own autonomy. Among the constituent peoples of the former USSR, the Belarusians are the ones whose national character most closely resembles that of the British. They are punctual, cheerful, measured, courteous, organised, and faultlessly polite. They are independent and have taken mostly mature decisions at every point of these protests. This most velvet of all possible revolutions is, in fact, utterly remarkable for being almost entirely bereft of leadership on the ground. The self-organised demonstrations and spontaneous marches, the meet ups to clean up after protests, would be impossible to arrange as organically if Belarusians lacked these character traits.

I attend the smaller demonstrations that take place every evening in Independence Square to listen to the young activists discuss their grievances and dreams. The demonstrations continue every night in the face of escalating threats from the government (yesterday’s innovation was the warning to schoolteachers that they will be sacked if they do not comply with the “national ideology”).

The protestors have wide support across Belarusian society, but the activist core are the children of Belarus’ middle class, which exists more comfortably than its Ukrainian neighbour. These people work in export companies or in the flourishing IT sector. They dress tastefully and take several trips a year to Prague, London or Amsterdam. These are modern people who are deeply mortified by Lukashenko’s ’80s-style porn-star moustache and atavistic authoritarian style.

Lukashenko’s perorations are typically delivered in his fascinating linguistic admixture of Soviet Bureaucratese, tough guy slang, and the idiomatic jargon of the Kolhoz farmer. The great Soviet literary scholar and semiotician Yuri Lotman would have had a ball critiquing it and likely could have written an entire book on Lukashenko’s oratory style.

The social contract that Lukashenko strives to defend no longer exists

Yet, however strong Lukashenko may be, it remains a fact that his semiotic field and chosen aesthetic is a relic of the late-Soviet era. It cannot be carried along into the future indefinitely by the will of any single individual. There is no way to preserve a system of values and symbols which does not have a coherent social, ideological or economic apparatus to underpin it. Outside of his muted support with rural voters, and the fact that the factory workers in state-controlled companies have yet to openly turn against him, Lukashenko no longer seems able to control a particular regional powerbase or political party. Only the security services seem willing to fight for him.

It has been thirty years since the Soviet Union dissolved, and the social contract that Lukashenko strives to defend no longer exists. The young people who attend rallies hoisting the red and white national flag (the flag of the country between 1991-1995, thereafter Lukashenko brought back the green and red flag of the Belarus Soviet Republic) have no interest in the semiotics of late Soviet times. Not even ironically. Last week in Independence Square I observed the authorities play Soviet classics to drown out the sound of the Belarusian folk tunes as the youth tried to get a folk dance started. They march with clever protest signs and many of them also carry the pennant of St. George of the Lithuanian commonwealth. The last dictator of Europe is very much an antiquated dragon sitting pointlessly atop a tractor as he fights against the figure of St. George.

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