Running on Soviet time

Belarus, on NATO's western fringe, looks east

by Richard Humphries

In December 1991, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders met at a hunting lodge in western Belarus. There they signed the Belavezha Agreement, which had no small historical significance. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was being consigned to the dustbin of history — the same contemptuous outcome it had predicted for its enemies.

Legislative bodies in those successor states subsequently ratified the agreement. Reports in Belarus noted that there was not much ado; its Supreme Soviet was overwhelmingly in favor, given the circumstances. In fact, local legend has it there was just one delegate who voiced open dissent and voted accordingly. Lest anyone think Florida is the only place where the importance of a single vote can be shown, Belarus offers a more sobering example.

Alexander Lukashenko was that delegate, and today he rules Belarus with an iron hand. Born on Aug. 30, 1954, he spent five years in the Soviet Army, but he pursued his early career in the agriculture sector, as a collective-farm official. He did not join the Communist Party. Using his rural connections, Lukashenko was elected to the Belarusian Supreme Soviet in 1990. Once in, he criticized most of the country’s then leadership, probably correctly, for corruption and venality.

Since coming to power in 1994 — in an election regarded internationally as free and fair — he has remolded the state to his liking. And that liking has been more for the certainties of the Soviet past than for the uncertainties of any democratic future. In April 1995, force was used to coerce the country’s Supreme Soviet into agreeing to the president’s proposal for a national referendum on language, state symbols and presidential prerogatives.

The referendum passed a month later and moves toward a true sense of national identity were halted in their tracks. The Russian language would once again have equal status with Belarusian. The new state’s red-white-red flag, also used during a brief period of independence in 1918, was banned, and the Soviet-era red-green one, minus the hammer and sickle, was restored. Another symbol, the “Pahonia,” which depicts a mounted knight with raised sword, was also out of favor. It annoyed the president and, what’s more, was also used in Lithuania, once overlords of the Belarusians.

More important, the referendum gave the president some of the authority he evidently felt was needed to deal with opposition by the legislature and to move toward a union, or rather reunion, with Russia. Nonetheless, he wanted more.

Belarus’ 1994 constitution was replaced in a 1996 referendum by one the president liked better. It effectively extended his term of office. By then the Supreme Soviet had been replaced with a more subservient dual-house legislature, and in fact the upper chamber consisted largely of presidential nominees. On Dec. 7, 1996, a series of Lukashenko decrees ensured that the highest judicial authority, the Constitutional Court, would favor presidential initiatives.

Lukashenko has pursued closer Russian ties with all the fervor of a determined suitor chasing a pleased but somewhat wary belle. In May 1995, he signed a customs union with then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and, in December of that year, 18 agreements on joint military cooperation. This was followed in May 1997 by the Treaty on the Union of Belarus and Russia.

This document calls for the eventual creation of a “union state,” with a joint defense and common currency, but nevertheless separate memberships in the United Nations (and other organizations to be decided on an ad hoc basis). Provision is allowed for other states to join the union should all sides agree. This clearly harks back to the framework of the defunct Soviet Union.

Some critics allege that Lukashenko is simply seeking a wider arena for his ambitions, and even influential Russians worry about assuming responsibility for the woeful Belarusian economy. A greater worry is that with Poland now in NATO, and Belarus looking east, the border between the two could become a dangerous flash point. For example, Lukashenko has made no secret of his anger at NATO’s eastward expansion. However, to date the Union of Belarus and Russia exists largely on paper.

Nevertheless, an element of sincerity certainly exists. May 7, the anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from Nazi rule by Soviet forces, is the national holiday, and only in Belarus is Nov. 7 still officially celebrated as (old calendar) “October Revolution Anniversary.” Russians observe the day also, but under Yeltsin it was renamed the “Day of Accord and Reconciliation.”

Dissent is given short shrift in Belarus. Opposition figures have been arrested and harassed. The disappearance of prominent figures is not unknown. Belarus is the one Soviet successor state that maintains the old name, KGB, for its secret police service. Lukashenko has countered accusations of KGB involvement in those disappearances by sarcastically insinuating that his opponents were involved with criminals. “When one borrows money from the Mafia, one must pay it back. Otherwise, I am afraid, the worst possible thing might happen to those in default,” he said.

The road to Minsk, capital of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, is via Karl Marx Street, figuratively as well as literally.

According to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights monitoring group, “a harsh police regime has essentially been installed in Belarus, where human rights lose their meaning, retreating in the face of the force of the punitive agencies.” Police, using rubber truncheons, tear gas and physical force have often dispersed street demonstrations, notably in the capital city of Minsk. A presidential decree (No. 5: “On Meetings, Rallies, Street Processions, Demonstrations and Pickets in the Republic of Belarus”) is used as the basis for making arrests and levying fines.

Press freedom is virtually nonexistent. National broadcast media are state organs. Only 30 of the estimated 1,000 or so total publications in Belarus can be considered independent and these often exercise self-censorship to avoid arrest or closure. Journalists, opposition members, in fact all citizens, have to be wary of stringent defamation laws with regard to Lukashenko. Conviction can result in either four years imprisonment or two years at a labor camp.

Foreign media also face difficulties. Two well-known Russian journalists, from the Russian ORT television station, were arrested in 1997; it took intervention by the Kremlin to secure their release.

The economy is at best moribund, despite government assertions of significant growth. It is essentially a Soviet economy, with the state heavily involved in industry and agriculture. Inflation is running at a rate of roughly 150 percent and the Belarusian ruble has been depreciating in turn. The president is described as more interested in maintaining a semblance of full employment than in encouraging economic reform through large-scale privatization. Where there has been growth, this has been due to similar but less expensive Belarusian products finding favor in Russia.

Yet despite the unremittingly harsh political atmosphere and economic stagnation, the regime is not in serious trouble. If a really free and fair election were to be held now, there is no assurance that Lukashenko’s opponents would even do very well, let alone win. In some rural districts, the president is considered quite the hero. The answers for this seeming contradiction lie, as contradictions usually do, in history.

Belarusians as a whole have a sense of ethnic identity but not a deep, lasting sense of nationality. Lying toward the westernmost edge of the great Eurasian plains, the region has been crisscrossed and ruled by a variety of outsiders. For centuries the ruler was Lithuania, at one time Europe’s largest country — though a somewhat anomalous one, as the majority of its people were not Lithuanian at all but Belarusian. Eventually Poland came to dominate Lithuania, and therefore Belarus.

By the 16th century, the language had been codified. In the few cities, a variety of artistic styles came and went. Throughout the area, competing religions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy and the somewhat syncretistic Uniate Church) jostled for space with an elaborate folk culture. In fact, the name Belarusian, or White Russian, is possibly derived from the distinctive use of white in folk attire.

Poland’s demise brought the whole region under Russian control by 1800 and a policy of Russification was employed. Before 1918, there was resistance, but this was limited because of the largely rural population. The few big cities, such as Minsk and Mogilev, where any emerging national consciousness might receive an intellectual underpinning, had majority Jewish populations until these were destroyed in World War II.

Nonetheless, the disruptions of World War I and the collapse of Imperial Russia did offer a brief window for those with nationalist aspirations. When that window closed, Belarus became a Soviet republic within the USSR.

The first years of Soviet rule were, to the extent possible, relatively benevolent. Under Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Plan, growth was modest but well-received, and expressions of Belarusian culture were encouraged. Then Stalinist measures of forced collectivization and purges marked an abrupt change, the implications of which are still being felt today.

Still, evident dissatisfaction was for a time subsumed by the even worse policies of Nazi Germany, which invaded in 1941 and effectively controlled the region for three years. The Jewish population was largely annihilated. Moreover, Soviet Belarus suffered possibly the largest population loss of any region in the war. Of its major population centers, 209 of 270 were ruined. Returning Soviet forces were welcomed as liberators.

The postwar era was initially beneficial to the republic. The territory was augmented by the acquisition of previously Polish-controlled lands. Central planning accorded a strong role to Belarusian agriculture and a pronounced industrial policy, particularly in the defense sector, allowed for rapid growth and urbanization in 1960s and 1970s. Living standards rose. As this was all geared toward the needs of Russia and the other Soviet republics, Belarus had very much to lose in the event of any breakup.

Two events in the 1980s forced a re-examination, in some quarters, of state identity and caused an opposition to come into being. The first was the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986. Though it occurred in Ukraine, and the bulk of relief aid went to that republic, most of the long-term damage occurred in Belarus, due to its proximity to Chernobyl and the role of winds in directing the spread of radioactive isotopes.

The second event was the 1988 discovery of mass graves in Kurapaty Forest near Minsk. Here, at least 30,000 people, and probably many more, were “liquidated” and buried in the late 1930s by the Stalinist NKVD secret service. Zyanon Paznyak, the archaeologist responsible for the discovery, went on to form the opposition Belarusian Popular Front and called for “restoring the national heritage” of Belarus.

Nonetheless, when the Soviet Union broke apart, the republic’s leadership grasped independence not so much to promote a new identity as to maintain their power. Despite attempts by opposition figures and by one government leader to promote a sense of nationhood, political squabbling and profound economic deterioration negated those efforts.

Economic linkage with Russia and the concentration on defense industries spelled disaster for any attempt to compete successfully in world markets. At the same time, there was real nostalgia for the Soviet era and for strong rulers, despite Chernobyl and Kurapaty. This was and is particularly true in the countryside, where huge numbers of pensioners live. That is why, despite continued local opposition by a vocal minority and strong Western disapproval of Lukashenko, Belarus is likely to continue seeing its future in its past.