Belarus under Lukashenko

By Popov, Igor | Contemporary Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Belarus under Lukashenko


Popov, Igor, Contemporary Review


THE Republic of Belarus is a small country of just over ten million people at the crossroads between Russia and Europe that emerged on the rubbles of the collapsed Soviet Union. It is distinguished by the striking difference between the two stages in its post-Soviet history. Ten years ago, Belarus was regarded as one of the young Eastern European democracies and its relationship with the Western world seemed to have good prospects. Today Belarus, offensively named 'the last European outcast', is in political and economic isolation.

The present shameful reputation of Belarus owes much to its incumbent President, Alexander Lukashenko, whose frightening journalistic nickname -- 'Europe's last dictator' -- was frequently mentioned in the US and European press in the previous several months, until the horrible events in America last September dramatically changed the focus of international news.

There are two main questions concerning the situation in Belarus. How could it happen that this promising democracy underwent such radical negative transformation? And are the parallels between Belarus and the 'rogue states', some of which have launched jihad against the Western civilisation, justified? Trying to find the answers to these questions, we should pass in a brief review the developments that recently took place in Belarus and take an intent look at the character of its political leader.

In the personality of Alexander Lukashenko the vulgar straightforwardness of an out-of-the-way rural citizen is peculiarly combined with cynical pragmatism. But what can be called Lukashenko's psychological phenomenon is the fact that he by no means can be described merely as a simpleton not versed in politics or a cold political strategist. Having an unbridled temperament and prone to emotional comprehension of persons and events rather than their rational estimation, he has not only been manipulating society, feeding it with various political myths, but he increasingly seems to believe in the myths that he creates.

Yet I would like to underline that the political changes that happened in Belarus at the beginning of its independent development should not be explained solely by Lukashenko's personal ability to change the course of history but rather by the conformity between his image and rhetoric and the wishes that the Belarus populace had in the crucial early post-Soviet period.

In the early 1990s, after the failed hard-line Communist coup d'etat in Moscow and the consequent break-up of the USSR, there sharply arose the question about the development path that Belarus had to choose. Two dominant political groups in the country demonstrated different approaches to this problem.

The ruling elite, which comprised the former Soviet apparatchiks could be better characterised by the absence of any meaningful approach at all, as far as both political and economic reforms and the national idea were concerned. Their force of habit made them take most of the key decisions cautiously and always looking back to the Kremlin. In the economy of the resource-lacking Belarus, the Soviet-era government marked time instead of launching urgent market restructuring. And although private entrepreneurs started to make their first steps, the emergence of really 'big' business, which could be capable of influencing further economic and political processes, was curbed by the hesitant actions in the field of privatisation.

For their part, the Belarus nationalists, besides promulgating radical economic reforms, called for breaking off the political ties with Russia, which they portrayed as the heir of the hostile Soviet Empire. In the meantime, they concentrated their basic efforts at reconstructing the 'true Belorussian identity', vigorously reconsidering Belarus's history. Yet, lacking flexibility and inculcating upon the people many artificial cliches, the opposition forces did not manage to gain wide popularity and eventually withdrew into a kind of 'sectarian patriotism'. …

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