Lukashenko’s Way

Jonathan Steele

  • BuyBelarus: The Last European Dictatorship by Andrew Wilson
    Yale, 304 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 300 13435 3
  • The Last Dictatorship in Europe: Belarus under Lukashenko by Brian Bennett
    Hurst, 358 pp, £30.00, January 2012, ISBN 978 1 84904 167 6

The one thing most Europeans know about Belarus is that it has the most repressive political system and the most authoritarian ruler in Europe. The country’s parliamentary elections on 23 September, which most opposition parties are boycotting, will confirm that fact. It is also the only European country which still administers the death penalty. (If you widen the field to include the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, there are six other dictatorships: Azerbaijan and the five ‘stan’ states of Central Asia – all, like Belarus, former Soviet republics.) The ‘last dictatorship’ tag comes from Condoleezza Rice, who proclaimed it from the safety of nearby Lithuania in April 2005, and went on to recommend casting off ‘the yoke of tyranny’. In Ukraine the so-called Orange Revolution had recently sparked massive protests over election fraud that resulted in a second poll and regime change. Similar upheavals toppled leaders in Serbia in 2000 and Georgia in 2003. The hope was that Belarus might soon follow.

It hasn’t happened, largely thanks to the ruthless but politically skilful leadership of Alexander Lukashenko, who made it clear that there would be ‘no coloured revolutions’ in his country: ‘All these coloured revolutions are pure and simple banditry.’ How has Lukashenko managed to remain in power? Belarus’s two giant neighbours, Russia and the European Union, have both had a difficult relationship with him. The Kremlin has switched between wooing and subsidising him and denouncing and putting an economic squeeze on him. The EU tried diplomatic isolation and travel sanctions, then moved to cautious engagement: neither strategy made an impact.

Andrew Wilson is more dispassionate than Brian Bennett, who was the UK ambassador in Minsk between 2003 and 2007 and remains angry at what he saw. Wilson devotes the first half of his book to an analysis of Belarusian history since the Middle Ages, charting its course along the winding road to nationhood, taking in a series of false starts in the hinterland between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Poland and tsarist Russia. When nationalism arose elsewhere in the region in the 19th century, Belarus was untouched. Seventy years of Communist rule produced a Soviet consciousness – any nationalist tendencies were suppressed. Only with independence in 1991 did things change, and Wilson argues plausibly that Lukashenko, though the ‘last dictator’, is Belarus’s first successful nation-builder.

He starts with what he calls ‘a history of crossroads’. The region was fought over for centuries by Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and Germans – its thick forests and southern marshes blocked the Tatars from moving in after they ransacked Kiev in 1241. In fact the various waves of conquerors – Lithuanians and Poles in the Middle Ages, and Russians after 1795 – never considered Belarus a serious entity: it was part of the Kievan Rus, the Slav polity that spread across Eastern Europe between the ninth and 13th centuries. Wilson explores the competing political and religious identities within the part of the Kievan Rus that later became known as Western Rus or Ruthenia. Tensions there between Roman Catholics and Uniates led to a gradual differentiation between ‘White Russia’ (Belarus) and ‘Little Russia’ (Ukraine), mostly based on religious practice and attitudes to the Russian monarchy. In the 16th century, the northern area of Western Rus was pro-Catholic and anti-Russian while the southern area – what is now Ukraine – was pro-Russian and anti-Catholic, the exact opposite of the situation today. The Russian Orthodox were always a tiny minority, though in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, allegedly an enlightened ruler, one of the largest forcible conversions in European history took place, obliging Uniates to adopt Orthodoxy.

When national movements arose elsewhere in Europe, Belarus was dormant, thanks to low levels of literacy, a largely rural population and the small size of its potentially nation-forming elite. There were hardly any middle-class Belarusians and no ‘free peasants’ as in the Baltics or the southern parts of Ukraine. The area was a landlocked backwater and 60 per cent of the people in the provinces of Mogilev and Minsk were serfs when emancipation came in the 1860s. Most towns were either Jewish or Polish. ‘Belarusian identity didn’t exist in the middle of the 19th century,’ according to a contemporary Belarusian historian. It had to be imagined as a region first. ‘The German districts, especially the Balts, had welcomed our troops. The Letts [Latvians] were opportunists. The Lithuanians believed the hour of deliverance was at hand … The White Ruthenians [Belarusians] were of no account, as the Poles had robbed them of their nationality and given them nothing in return,’ a German historian noted after the kaiser’s army took the area from Russian control and occupied it in 1915.

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