How democracy could become a threat
This piece originally appeared in issue 3-4 of New Eastern Europe . Subscribe now.
Why support Belarusian civil society? In 22 years of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s reign, I have heard different answers to that question in Poland: “because it is the right thing to do”, “it is necessary to stop the rebirth of the Soviet Union”, “by doing so, the ‘Solidarity’ movement repays its debt for the support it received from the West in the 1980s”, “security reasons”, etc. There is a strong belief that this investment would quickly pay off. The pro-European, democratic and independence-oriented opposition would be able to tear down the post-communist and pro-Russian regime introduced by the Belarusian president, a collective farmer with a strange haircut and a Soviet mentality, who seemed to be an easy target. His future collapse was perceived to be a consequence of a natural set of events. So, why not help Belarus and foster this process?
Years have passed and Lukashenka remains in power. His political opponents are marginalised, plunged into quarrels and alienated in the Belarusian political reality. A grey-haired, pudgy Lukashenka continuously repeats rhetoric from a previous epoch, all the while gripping Belarus in both hands. Lukashenka’s power seems to be stable and is not threatened by anything. The opposition has transformed from the West’s pupil into a whipping boy. It cannot even meet the expectations of its supporters, despite its best efforts, and it is blamed for all their defeats.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it is increasingly being said that there is no point to focus on Belarusian civil society and that instead, it would be better to normalise relations with Lukashenka. Those who promote such rapprochement believe that working with the Belarusian president would be an opportunity to tempt him with western support and that by cultural osmosis, some western ideas will disseminate in his milieu. This is meant to be a “new” approach to Belarus. The democratic activists and oppressed independent media and NGOs become irrelevant in such circumstances. They can easily be pushed into the background in the name of political realism and good relations with an omnipotent Lukashenka.
The current mood seems to be in favour of establishing official contacts with Minsk. This is likely related to Russia’s aggressive policy in Ukraine and a never-ending anti-western campaign echoed not just in Russia but throughout the whole post-Soviet area, including Belarus. The Lukashenka regime, trying to stay moderate, got stuck between an aggressive Russia and the West, which has been trying to calm it down. Within the last several months, the Belarusian regime has made certain friendly overtures towards the West. It released political prisoners in August last year. The presidential election campaign, even though it was not particularly different from preceding ones in terms of a lack of democratic standards, did not result in mass repressions against the regime’s opponents.
Among Belarusian political analysts and those who are professionally involved in Belarusian affairs it is frequently claimed that it was the annexation of Crimea that scared Lukashenka and forced him, in a way, to turn towards the West in order to balance against Russian interests. In this narrative, Lukashenka presents himself as a statesman who has been carefully leading his nation, balancing between the West and Russia. In the eyes of the West, he must be a very similar figure to Viktor Yanukoych, the former president of Ukraine, who in 2012-2013 was tempted by an EU Association Agreement and fruitful co-operation with the West. The West easily fell victim to Yanukovych’s signals, believing that he was acting independently from Russia and that he had a pro-European position. We know today that this was not the case.
On the winning side
It is very unlikely that Lukashenka’s ultimate choice would be different, not necessarily because of any political and economic links between Belarus and Russia, but because of Lukashenka’s way of thinking. His reality sees Belarusians and Russians as one nation. He sometimes calls Belarusians “higher quality Russians” and openly declares Moscow to be “his capital”. In this situation, the part of the Belarusian opposition that does not share Lukashenka’s pro-Russian views, along with NGOs and independent media, remain the only elements of Belarusian society which are consistently pro-European. At the same time, the intensification of contacts between Belarus and the West has significantly reduced the scale of anti-western propaganda in the Belarusian state-owned media. Lukashenka himself tries to avoid such narratives. A politician who not so long ago called on Russia to join a mutual crusade against the morally bankrupted West has now become a dove and an apostle of peace.
“We have borders with the West and we do not want any conflict, neither political nor diplomatic. The West makes up half of our balance of trade. If it turns to us and wants to co-operate, we should agree. We will try to normalise our relations with the West,” said Lukashenka in December 2014.
To many, it seemed to be pretty clear that Belarusian society would blindly follow its leader. Yet that is not the case. Contrary to the signals sent by Lukashenka, societal trends are heading in a different direction. According to the independent research centre NISEPI, which conducts public opinion surveys in Belarus, pro-European attitudes are very low. In March 2011, 48.6 per cent of Belarusians declared support for European integration. In December 2015, this number had dropped to a mere 19.8 per cent, while 53.5 per cent of respondents declared a willingness to strengthen ties with Russia.
This is undoubtedly a reaction to the Kremlin’s aggressive policy in Ukraine and a result of Russian propaganda, which affects Belarusians somewhat accidentally, as the regime accepts Russian media dominance in the country. The average Belarusian, although perhaps less so than the average Russian, has a positive view of Putin’s actions. Belarusians miss the Soviet times and many, including the youngest generation that does not even remember the Soviet Union, feel the need to be part of a great empire. In their eyes, the West is weak and dumb. Russia is strong and decisive. They prefer to be on the winning side.
Lukashenka, for whom anti-western and anti-liberal slogans of the “Russian world” are held dear, does not see why he should oppose these trends. If you were to compare Lukashenka’s slogans from his presidential campaign in 1994 with the message spread by Russian propaganda today, you would see a lot of similarities. By fighting against the “Russian world”, Lukashenka would in fact be fighting with himself and by doing so, would have to acknowledge the validity of his opponents’ arguments from the 1990s.
The conflict between Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin, which has appeared over the last few years, has no ideological foundation. It is a conflict between two leaders who have a similar ideology, views and little respect for western values such as tolerance or minority rights. They have more in common than one may think. An authoritarian post-Soviet counter-revolution, which Lukashenka was the first to lead, appeared to be very attractive to Putin. The long-lasting ideological battle with western liberalism and democracy binds Minsk and Moscow together closely. This has all led to the impression that Lukashenka, as happened with Yanukovych, will have no doubt as to whom he can count on in moments of peril.
Towards the Russian world
Tolerance for Russian propaganda in Belarus and the sympathy towards Russia expressed by Belarusian officials (a quick look at their children’s social media profiles is a good illustration of this) make it extremely difficult to combat. The fight against Russian propaganda is on an extremely low level in Belarus and is carried out mostly by pro-western opposition and some independent media outlets. The fight is unequal and Russia is winning. This comes as no surprise given that the only alternative to Russian television is broadcast by satellite, such as BelsatTV, Radio Racja and Radio Svoboda. There are also a few online Belarusian portals fighting for survival. Unfortunately, they all have very limited access to their audience.
The media that is most dominant in Belarus is Russian television, followed by Russian radio stations and online troll factories which target Belarusian readers on the internet. Those who sacrifice their allies in the name of good relations with Lukashenka and who believe in his ability to convince the Belarusian public to be more pro-western are severely mistaken. Firstly, he does not have the ability to convince Belarusians to adopt a more open and welcoming attitude towards the West. Secondly, he will not even try to do so. Lukashenka’s Belarus, dominated by Russian language and culture, proves that the country is in fact deeply rooted in the “Russian world”.
Belarusian public opinion should not be neglected. Today, it is not a political subject. It is incapacitated. Lukashenka’s regime regularly falsifies elections, forces people to get used to repressions and convinces them of his strength. He strikes a balance between Russia and the West, exploiting both to his own advantage and provides no alternative to his rule.
Sooner or later, there will be change in Belarus. It does not matter what causes it: a “Belarusian Maidan”, a severe economic crisis, a coup d’état, the death Lukashenka, etc. Under new circumstances, the social mood will regain influence over the situation in the country. However, if public opinion has not changed by then, Belarus could easily repeat, in a fully democratic and transparent way, the Crimean scenario, without any “little green men” on the ground.
If the West wants to avoid this scenario, it should consider a long-term programme of support for the Belarusian civil society. This should not be just about supporting alternative, independent media and NGOs, but also about boosting Belarusian national identity, which is an assurance that an independent Belarus will prevail in the coming decades and not melt into the ocean of the “Russian world”. There is a need to support the process of building a pro-European and pro-democratic lobby which would be able to effectively influence Belarusian society.
Clearly, it is no easy task to work with civil society under conditions of mistrust and repression. What is more, such an investment would not bring about immediate effects. However, it is the only way to transform Belarus and enable this country to find a suitable path for change. This should be in the interest of the entire European Union.
Translated by Bartosz Marcinkowski
Andrzej Poczobut is a Belarusian and Polish journalist, as well as a member of the Polish minority in Belarus. He is a foreign correspondent for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.