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Luka the Magician

October 31, 2011 - Andrew Wilson - Bez kategorii

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This week’s blog is a blatant plug for my new book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship, just published by Yale University Press. My apologies.

The book is in two parts. The second half attempts to explain why Lukashenka was not, in the words of one Russian study, an “accidental president”. One reason why he has survived so long is that he represents the median Belarusian voter better than the Popular Front ever did in the early 1990s – though he is also a serial election cheat. First of all, this means a foreign policy closer to Russia, but not being reabsorbed by the Russian state – Lukashenka was never the pro-Russian simpleton he was originally pictured as. In fact, if Lukashenka is not prepared to contemplate reunion with Russia, then no feasible Belarusian leader ever will. “Batka”, moreover, now has a “batkivshchina” (ojczyzna ) – he is also the father of a new nation, and since roughly 2001 has developed an eclectic cover story to justify his hold on power, and a nation-building project based on the Russian language plus “trasianka” (a mixture of Belarusian dialect with Russian), and an eclectic mix of mainly Soviet Belarusian myths and symbols rather than the linguistic and historiographical purity preferred by the nationalist opposition.

Above all, however, his power rests on a Putinist social contract, offering more order and welfare in exchange for less freedom – but paid for with Russian money. Lukashenka’s primary skill is his foreign policy balancing act. Elsewhere I have called this the “Tito Option”, but Tito’s strategic “non-alignment” was actually fairly one-dimensional. With Cold War Yugoslavia balanced between two camps, he sold marginal advantage to either side. Lukashenka has had to be much more creative in inventing a variety of roles, and has done so with some skill. First he sold the myth that he was a Russophile to create the “Union State” with Yeltsin in the 1990s. Then he sold the myth that he was an ardent Russian nationalist to Yeltsin’s opponents. Putin’s arrival meant that someone else would play the role of Russia’s saviour; but from 2003, with global energy prices soaring, Lukashenka played his best ever role, and certainly his most lucrative, by turning Belarus into an “offshore oil state” for Russian oligarchs. And when Putin realised he couldn’t stand the upstart muzhik, Lukashenka reinvented himself just in time as a bulwark against the “coloured revolutions” spreading from Georgia and Ukraine after 2003-04. After the 2006 election was safely out of the way, Russia began to recalibrate its support, but Lukashenka sold the myth that his “efficient bureaucracy” could lead “authoritarian modernisation” to Western investors and the IMF. Since 2007 Belarus has had a “many-winged” foreign policy, but only as a cover story for scouring the world for rents.  Lukashenka has even traded on his role as “the last dictator in Europe,” exploiting the West’s concern for human rights by constantly restocking his jails with political prisoners and then trading their release.

So many roles. Lukashenka’s dictatorship is unusual therefore for not resting on local resources or local nationalism, but on rent provided by others. According to one study, rents have provided 25% to 40% of Belarusian GDP and paid for his “social contract”. We, on the other hand, have been suckered for too long. But so have the Russians, which is why they are now demanding a much higher price for keeping him afloat – the privatisation into Russian hands of almost every major asset. Lukashenka’s latest “elegant” election victory left the country bankrupt, but he is desperate to keep at least some pillars of his system intact. However, he is also likely to find that the likes of China, Venezuela and Iran prove more mercantilist than he expects, and have no incentive to give him a blank cheque.

Part One of the book looks at the historical background. I don’t interpret a thousand years of history solely in terms of a prelude to the Lukashenka presidency, but I do try to explain why the dual weakness of both the Popular Front and the Kebich nomenklatura eased Lukashenka’s path to power in 1994. I also tried to explain why Belarus’s famously weak national identity has given Lukashenka carte blanche to play so many roles.

Engels’ famous jibe about “non-historical peoples” never made sense. All nations have a history: but Belarusian history has been a series of false starts, with what are now Belarusian territories playing a role in many long forgotten identities and projects. So I avoided mentioning “Belarus” until chapter five (Belarus Begins). Chapter one is called Polatsk, after the local city-state. Chapter two is Litva – the medieval name for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in which the ancestors of today’s Belarusians played a key part. The Slavic “Litvins”, however, also developed a common identity with the ancestors of today’s Ukrainians as Ruthenians (chapter three); before religious splits created separate communities of local Orthodox and “Uniate” Catholics (chapter four). Belarusian nationalist historians rightly bemoan the abolition of that Church on Belarusian territory in 1839 as a factor retarding national development, but they are over-optimistic about national revival before 1914. In 1914 “Belarus” was still divided between a Roman Catholic minority who largely still thought of themselves as the last Litvins, and still supported the “krai” idea of a multi-ethnic locality, and the Orthodox majority who thought of themselves as “west-Russians”. Belarusian peasants often voted for opportunist Russian nationalist tub-thumpers in the early Duma elections. Sound familiar?

Soviet Belarus was also a fast-changing project before 1941. The boundaries of the republic changed more radically than any other. Then the project began again almost ex nihilo after the trauma of the war, with at least 2.2 million deaths and the myth of the partisan struggle, with a peak of 370,000 fighters controlling 60% of Belarusian territory in 1944. The “partisan” Communists walked tall after the war, and their leverage of investment and resources meant many Belarusians looked favourably on the Soviet experience. Lukashenka therefore didn’t come out of nowhere – and he has been fortunate in free-riding on a capital stock that was largely built up after 1960.

Lucky Luka. But his luck may finally be running out. In which case we should let him fall and not fall for whatever role he tries to sell us next.

Andrew Wilson is a Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). His latest book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship is available now.

This Week in the East is a weekly commentary by Andrew Wilson for New Eastern Europe.

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