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.
The few Belarusians who had tried to create a national consciousness towards the end of the 19th century called their movement ‘west-Russism’, rather than ‘white Russism’. In the absence of any literature they had to rely on ethnography to distinguish themselves. Many Ukrainian nationalists at the time argued that there were separate Ukrainian and Russian folk cultures beneath an overarching all-Russian high culture. By contrast west-Russians saw little need for turning Belarusian dialect into a ‘language’. They believed that, as one scholar put it, Belarusians should use ‘one and the same Russian literary language as the Russians’.
After 1918 the region was split between Poland and Soviet Russia. The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic joined the USSR in 1922. It consisted of little more than a thin region around Minsk and was barely a hundred miles wide. A few years later, the Kremlin transferred Gomel, Mogilev and Vitebsk from Russian to Belarusian communist rule for what Wilson calls ‘instrumental reasons’. Stalin wanted to build Belarus up within the Soviet Union, partly to appeal to ethnic kin under Polish rule to the west and partly as a counterweight to Ukraine, whose leaders were seen as potentially anti-Russian.
During the Second World War, Belarus, where the majority of Russian Jews lived, was devastated by the Holocaust. Most died without ever being sent to camps: executed by single bullets or locked inside buildings in their shtetls and burned to death. Huge numbers of Slavs also suffered. Half the population died or fled, a worse toll than in any other European country. Some 209 of 270 towns and cities were more or less destroyed. Few Europeans are aware of this, just as few know that Belarus also saw one of the great military offensives of the war. Citing Mark Mazower, Wilson argues that the Soviet army’s Operation Bagration during the summer of 1944 was the most successful surprise attack in history. It did the German Army as much damage proportionally as the better-known battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. Compared to the roughly simultaneous D-Day offensive, Operation Bagration ‘engaged almost ten times the number of German divisions and destroyed three Wehrmacht armies … and dwarfed what was happening in Normandy’.
Rebuilding the territory was not easy. The western regions, which had been under Polish rule since the early 1920s, were taken over by Belarus. Minsk was reconstructed in the forbidding postwar Soviet style, row on row of brick-built flats along excessively wide and windswept roads which pedestrians cross at their peril. Only a few houses from the 18th century have been restored; the result is a pale imitation of Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town. But Belarus got more industrial investment than most Soviet republics thanks to its location on the USSR’s western frontier. It became a hub of the Comecon system linking the interdependent economies of the Warsaw Pact.
During Gorbachev’s perestroika, Belarus followed its Ukrainian and Baltic neighbours and developed a movement for local sovereignty, though it was smaller and more subject to repression. As the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent at the time, I was one of a handful of Western reporters who attended the founding congress of the Belarusian Popular Front in June 1989. The meeting had to be held in Lithuania because the authorities in Minsk would not allow a dissenting group to hire a public space. The Front’s membership was proportionately smaller than its Ukrainian counterpart, Rukh, or those of the Baltic republics. Rukh had strong contacts with the liberalising wing of the Ukrainian Communist Party apparatus, and the Baltic Popular Fronts absorbed massive defections of Communist Party liberals. The Belarusian opposition was narrower and less well connected, consisting mostly of Belarusian speakers when many members of the republic’s intelligentsia were Russian-speaking and even Russophile. In the March 1991 referendum on preserving the Soviet Union, 83 per cent of Belarusians voted in favour. Even after the August coup by hardliners in Moscow failed, strengthening centrifugal tendencies in other republics, the Belarus parliament remained cautious: it dropped the words ‘Soviet’ and ‘Socialist’ from the republic’s name but didn’t go so far as to declare independence.
The Ukrainian referendum on 1 December 1991, in which a large majority voted for independence, split the Belarusian elite and emboldened the pro-independence forces. Stanislav Shushkevich, the head of state, a soft-spoken academic scientist from the liberal wing of the Soviet nomenklatura, favoured independence, while Vyacheslav Kebich, the prime minister, opposed it. Without informing Gorbachev, Shushkevich invited Boris Yeltsin, then the Russian president, and Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian president, to a meeting at a dacha in the Belarusian forest on 7 December. There they declared an end to the USSR. With the main Slavic republics gone, Gorbachev had no choice but to resign. Six months earlier no one had foreseen the imperial implosion, and in the confusion a fierce struggle developed between Kebich and Shushkevich, which provided the crucial opening for Lukashenko, who was then the leader of the Communists for Democracy group. Wilson calls him a vaguely centrist gadfly, ‘hanging round with any party that would have him, as long as they would have him as leader’.
It was Lukashenko’s good fortune that Kebich turned to him to destroy Shushkevich, and appointed him head of a committee investigating government corruption, a job that allowed him to play Joe McCarthy. On one occasion he stood up in parliament waving a sheaf of papers and shouted: ‘I have the most terrible facts here and about many sitting in this hall.’ Although it turned out to be nothing more serious than a garage built at an official’s dacha at government expense, he managed to pick off Shushkevich’s supporters by a series of votes of censure, finally toppling Shushkevich himself.
With the republic’s constitution up for grabs, parliament voted to create a presidential system. In the ensuing election, Kebich underestimated Lukashenko, whose unimpressive background included time spent as manager of a collective pig farm, and expected to win. But Lukashenko was able to cast Kebich as a man of the old apparat. Liberals, who wanted someone to lead the attack on the old communists, backed Lukashenko. Those who were disgusted by nomenklatura corruption also liked him. At 39, he represented a new generation and won votes on that account too. His slogan was ‘neither with the left nor the right but with the people.’ The election was the only free and fair poll that Belarus has ever had. Lukashenko came top in the first round. In the run-off he took 80 per cent of the vote.
Some have described Lukashenko as an ‘accidental president’. But if he came to power in part through luck, he has stayed there thanks to fierce determination and a clever mix of policies. When he attacked the old Soviet conservatives, he had a popular appeal similar to Yeltsin’s. His folksy rhetoric was compared to that of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia’s clowning populist. But the closest resemblance only became apparent later: like Putin, Lukashenko projected himself as the bringer of order and stability after the turmoil of the first years of democracy. He mourned the collapse of the USSR and made regular gestures towards restoring union with Russia. He made sure that no oligarchs emerged to threaten him. Major enterprises were kept in state hands (not just to stop alternative power centres developing but also to prevent Russian billionaires buying them). Above all, he took no more chances with free elections. In November 1996 he engineered a referendum on a new super-presidential constitution which would weaken parliament, give the president the main role in selecting the Constitutional Court and allow him to appoint all Supreme Court and district judges. To ensure a yes vote, he copied the pattern of media control Yeltsin set in Russia’s election earlier that year.
I took a sabbatical from the Guardian to work for the EU-funded European Institute for the Media which was monitoring the run-up to the Belarusian referendum in 1996. Voters were asked to choose between Lukashenko’s new draft constitution and a less authoritarian version drawn up by parliament. The vote was a low-key affair, with few outward signs of political excitement; it was understood as a verdict on the president. The Popular Front, never a strong force, was in decline and although its fear that Lukashenko was becoming more authoritarian and thinking of merging the country with Russia was shared by many, its rallies mustered only a few hundred protesters. In the square outside parliament, a demonstrator’s sign read: ‘Lukafascism, a second Chernobyl for Belarus.’ (Because the winds were blowing north on the day of the explosion in 1986, southern Belarus suffered more casualties from cloud-borne radioactivity than Ukraine itself.) ‘It doesn’t matter who rules Russia – it’s always chaos,’ another banner read, quoting the 19th-century liberal Piotr Chadayev.
Coverage of the referendum was completely distorted. Analysis of all broadcasts on state radio and TV found that more than 90 per cent of the content supported Lukashenko’s draft constitution with not even one minute spent in support of the alternative. The country’s single independent radio station was closed down by the Ministry of Communications two months before the poll. No newspaper printed the text of the parliament’s draft constitution before voting started, and voters entered the polling booths with no clear idea what the options were. The only chance viewers had to hear any criticism of Lukashenko was by watching Russian TV. The Kremlin was going through one of its anti-Lukashenko phases and the two state-controlled Russian channels, which could be watched throughout Belarus, were as biased against his constitution as the Belarus stations were biased in its favour.
There has been no significant change in election practice since then. TV and radio coverage continues to be entirely one-sided. Opposition candidates and their supporters have been beaten and imprisoned. Does that mean that Lukashenko is unpopular? Many outside observers have assumed he must be. In the excitement of the ‘colour revolutions’, Western reporters rushed to Minsk for the 2006 presidential poll in the hope of another scalp. Excited by the politics, they forgot the economics.
For years Belarus’s economy had benefited from cheap oil and gas imports from Russia, which have subsidised local industry and earned the state billions from reselling Russian energy abroad. Lukashenko has used the cash to keep wages and pensions ticking steadily upwards. He has also refrained from privatisations, which elsewhere have led to unemployment and the creation of a new class of the super-rich. In 2005, a year before elections were due, the IMF conceded that Belarus had halved the number of people in poverty over the past seven years and avoided social tension by maintaining the fairest distribution of income of any country in the region. At the time I predicted Lukashenko would win the 2006 election thanks to this record: Wilson alludes to my forecast disparagingly, claiming that ‘on the left, the myth has grown up that Belarus is some kind of Cuba of the East,’ yet his book is full of details that show Lukashenko has kept living standards steady and incomes broadly fair.
Lukashenko’s people doctored the figures, claiming he won 83 per cent of the vote, but there is strong evidence that he won comfortably enough. IISEPS, the only independent Belarusian pollster – it is forced to keep its headquarters in Lithuania – gave Lukashenko 54.2 per cent against 15.8 per cent for his nearest rival, Alexander Milinkevich. Support for the opposition from Western governments and foreign media was a boon for Lukashenko, allowing him to claim US interference.
Brian Bennett confirms the point. He explains that in the run-up to the election he and other European ambassadors, sometimes joined by their US colleague, made no secret of their partisanship. They turned up at the conference of the Congress of Democratic Forces which picked the opposition candidate. A few days later they visited the offices of the only independent daily newspaper. They attended a Milinkevich rally in Minsk and were almost set on by security forces. After the vote they attended the opposition’s press conference. Although this was described as support for the democratic process, it could not but be seen as an attempt to undermine Lukashenko. When activists put up a tent city in Minsk’s central square in the hope of sparking an Orange-style revolution, the ambassadors drove up in convoy, with flags flying. Bennett admits it was ‘quite a provocative act, in retrospect’. The protests fizzled out, and by the 2010 election the West’s interest in Belarus had dwindled. The poll passed with minimal coverage, even though the harassment of opposition candidates before the vote and their imprisonment after it were more scandalous.
How long can Lukashenko stay in power? Bennett had several encounters with him and reports on his impressive energy and command of detail. Both he and Wilson believe there is no alternative in sight. Others look to Russia to engineer Lukashenko’s downfall. During the Yeltsin period he had ambitions of creating a Russo-Belarusian union, floating the notion that he could share the presidency with the Kremlin in rotation. With Putin’s rise his hopes of serious power-sharing with Moscow had to be abandoned, although Putin has changed tack again and now advocates a vaguely defined ‘Eurasian Union’ with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Moscow was delighted to see Lukashenko demolish Western hopes for change in 2006. But then it unexpectedly raised the price at which it sold gas to Belarus. To forestall the debts that would soon build up, Belarus had little option but to hand Russia’s state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, 50 per cent of the shares in Beltransgaz, which controlled the pipelines that run through the country, the crown jewels of Belarus’s rentier economy. But there is no reason to suppose Moscow would press Lukashenko to leave office before a credible alternative emerges.
Since Bennett and Wilson wrote their books, Lukashenko’s ratings have slipped significantly. The country has been badly hit by the global economic crisis. The currency lost two-thirds of its value last year and inflation has risen sharply. An IISEPS poll last September had 61 per cent of Belarusians saying Lukashenko was to blame. It found 53 per cent support for him in the December 2010 elections, but his rating last September was as low as 20 per cent.
Although popular dissatisfaction is growing, economic analysts in Minsk point out that, unlike the post-Soviet leaders of Russia and Ukraine, he ‘hasn’t let business capture the economy’. He keeps business leaders in a subordinate position and ‘sets a threshold for looting by the elite’, while also defending them against predatory Russian capitalism. They feel he is the only politician who can preserve the country’s stability and fear a war of all against all were he to be toppled or the emergence of a new leader who would be even harsher.
Nevertheless, repression has tightened. Internet cafés are required to scan visitors’ identity documents and give the state a report on the sites every user has accessed. Opposition politicians and activists are constantly harassed. Faced with declining living standards and a rise in repression, more and more young Belarusians take the time-honoured way out, and leave the country. Most go to Russia, where average salaries are higher than in Belarus. A few trickle to the West. According to IISEPS only 14 per cent are willing to take part in protests. As Oleg Manaev, the poll’s founder, told a London audience: ‘Belarusians are gloomy rather than angry so the situation continues to be more or less stable.’