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Struggle over Identity

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Nelly Bekus

Part III. Belarusian Post-Communism

Chapter 8. The Election of the First Belarusian President as a Mirror of Belarusian Preferences

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  • 1 Some examples of such publications: Rainer Lindner, “The Lukashenka Phenomenon,” in Independent Be (...)
  • 2 “The precipice” was intended to mean the state of economy and society after the collapse of the US (...)
  • 3 V. M. Shlyndikov, ed., Sbornik alternativnykh program razvitia Belarusi (Minsk, 2001), http://www. (...)
  • 4 A. Lyakhovich, “Obzor proektov i idei reformirovania politicheskoi sistemy Belarusi” in Belarus’, (...)
  • 5 Lyakhovich, “Obzor proektov i idei,” 14.
  • 6 New Democracy Barometer 1991–2000, numbers based on Christian W. Haerpher, “Electoral Politics Com (...)

1Quite a number of authors wrote about the sudden popularity of the new Belarusian president and his appearance on the political scene. In addition to several works devoted to A. G. Lukashenka,1 practically every text analyzing Belarus contains a special chapter describing the phenomenon of a political outsider’s victory and the ensuing transformation of his government into an authoritarian regime. Some authors believe that Lukashenka put forward such a paradigm of power that answered the expectations of the Belarusian majority. It was expressed either in the rational conformity with the proposed scenario of the state existence, or in the acceptance— not always conscious—of the models of interrelationships between individuals and the power that are determined by definite archetypes of social behavior. During the campaign, the candidate for presidency outlined the claims that eloquently depicted the perspective of the state development in case he was elected. In the abstracts to his platform “To lead the people off the precipice,”2 he designated a project of “the author’s government”— a prototype of the future Belarusian authoritarianism, stressing the necessity of “the direct management of state enterprises, appointment of their managers.”3 It hyperbolized the sense of uncertainty in the future that had appeared in Belarusian society at the start of the economic decline caused by a sudden break of the established economic relations after the disintegration of the USSR. Lukashenka promised to return fixed prices and to regulate the work of industries that were standing idle. The platform spoke of the popular nature of the president’s policy who had to act in accordance with the will of the masses. Such formulations, as Belarusian political scientist Lyakhovich puts it, “served to authorize the head of the state’s actions without taking into account legal or institutional restrictions.”4 Lyakhovich believes that in this project of strengthening the state, there was a foundation ensuing deformations in the system of separation of powers in the country. “Concentration of property and levers of influence in the real sector of economy in the state’s hands has turned into the pivotal mechanism of intensification of the role of the head of the executive power—President.”5 Lukashenka’s promises for a strong leader was popular in Belarus in the early 1990s—the time of social and economic disorder. In 1992 the number of those who sought a strong leader reached 76 percent, it fell to 57 percent in 1994.6

  • 7 National representative survey conducted by Novak in April 2000 and by Russian Research in January (...)
  • 8 Kathleen J. Michalisko, “Belarus: Retreat to Authoritarianism,” in Democratic Changes and Authorit (...)

2An important factor that gave rise to the sudden popularity of Lukashenka was his anti-corruption raid at the beginning of 1994. Opinion polls showed that in people’s mind bureaucracy and corruption were the worst traits of the communist rule in Belarus.7 Lukashenka modeled his political image on the crest of this wave of discontent, thus emphasizing his uninvolvement in the communist establishment, his “closeness to the people.” As K. Michalisko writes, “Lukashenka’s talent for striking all the right populist chords and drawing attention to himself became evident when he turned his position as state corruption ‘watchdog’ against the Kebich government […] and announced his entry into the race with a spectacular televised denunciation of corruption at the highest levels of defense, foreign affairs and other ministers, citing specific names.”8 Remarkably corruption charges against the country’s high officials did not lead to any real investigation. The image of Lukashenka-anticorruptionist was entirely a phantom of the media, a product of “the new time” born by the symbiosis of glasnost (Lukashenka’s reading his anticorruption report in the parliament was televised nationwide) and the period of political mobilization and awakened interest toward political development in the era of radical changes in society. In due time corruption faded into the background in the political make-up of the president, however, it played a significant part in the building of the would-be president’s image on the political scene of Belarus.

  • 9 Rainer Lindner, “The Lukashenka Phenomenon,” in Independent Belarus: Domestic Determinations, Regi (...)
  • 10 Ryszard Radzik, “Belarus’ i Siarednie-Uskhodniaia Europa,” in Byts’ (albo nia byts’) Siarednieeura (...)

3Numerous authors explain Lukashenka’s popularity by his belonging to a special class of leaders, the type that by means of rhetoric, manners, and behavior, appeal to the modes of behavior typical for the peasant ethos. Rainer Lindner writes: “When he designates himself as ‘father’ (batska) […] we note the presence of the family unit of the Russian village […] He, a president of Belarus, does not beg for money in the West, but, instead, takes care of the matter at hand.”9 For Lindner the Belarusian style of life is in principle no different from the Russian one. For the Polish sociologist Ryszard Radzik the status of the Belarusian president is predetermined by a paternalistic idea of the state: “Belarusians treat their economy as a collective father, an institution that does not deserve the citizens’ support whenever it does not fulfill its parental duties. The president-leader personifies such a state, he will only deserve public acknowledgement if he behaves as a leader, and not as a common person who occupies a high office.”10

  • 11 David R. Marples, Belarus. A Denationalized Nation (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1999), 86.
  • 12 Viktor Chernov, “Avtoritarnyi rezhim w Belarusi: Kharakter, zapas prochnosti, varianty tranformats (...)

4The fact that in his early career the Belarusian president was a manager of a farm just emphasizes his manner of managing the country. David Marples noticed that “Lukashenka ran the country like his former state farm, cajoling and persuading the peasantry to adopt his policies, alternately issuing threats and expressions of frustration at those who stood in his path.”11 Viktor Chernov, a Belarusian political scientist, describes the “basis” of the Belarusian regime in similar terms: “The social roots of Lukashenka’s regime go back to the stratum of the kolkhoz-sovkhoz-like peasantry, to the masses of new town dwellers (in fact of peasant origin, too, they inherited numerous features of the patriarchal and traditionalist consciousness). This archaic conservatism and mythologism of mentality, a low level of material needs, envy for other people’s prosperity, fear of freedom and competition, the psychology of a ‘besieged castle,’ devotion to paternalistic values, striving for one-man management, misunderstanding the role of representative institutions, disposition to lean on an authoritative charismatic ruler, loyalty to any centre of real power.”12

  • 13 Grigory Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: Economy and Political Landscape,” Europe-Asia Studies 56 no (...)
  • 14 Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: Economy and Political Landscape,” 107.

5The leitmotif of the social behavior based on the archetypes of the rural style of life is disguised in Belarus by the number of the rural versus urban population percentage ratio. According to the statistics, 65 percent of the Belarusian population reside in towns. However, as a result of the large-scale speedy relocation of the rural population into towns within the Soviet urbanization project, it was not the rural population who had copied the urban style of thinking and behavior as it had occurred during the centuries’ long process of urbanization in Western Europe. In the postwar Belarus, on the contrary, “the archaic rural culture came to dominate the entire urban milieu.”13 At the same time, such Soviet elements of the urban surroundings as “lack of a recognized housing market, a rampant standardization of residential blocks, a restrictive policy of urban residence permit [the socalled propiska] and a lack of self-governance”14 resulted in the mechanism of total socio-cultural control embedded in the life of Belarusian town dwellers. The idea of such control is not just accountability of all spheres of life to authorities, it also implies delegating the responsibility for the solution of arising social problems, leading to the need for a strong leader.

  • 15 Vital Silitski, “Explaining Post-communist Authoritarianism in Belarus,” in Contemporary Belarus. (...)
  • 16 Silitski, “Explaining Post-communist Authoritarianism in Belarus,” 40.
  • 17 Silitski, “Explaining Post-communist Authoritarianism in Belarus,” 42, 43.

6There are other points of view concerning the phenomenon of Lukashenka’s coming to power. Thus Silitski believes that Lukashenka was brought to power not so much by a real support of the people, but by the general layout of political forces in the country. On the eve of the presidential election “a growing confrontation between an increasingly hard-line government and a radical opposition took place in an increasingly apathetic society.”15 It is exactly this political position of the future president— lack of radical reformist intentions and keeping away from the hardliners of the ruling nomenclature— that enabled him to fill the vacuum. The errors of the ruling nomenclature and political miscalculations of the opposition “prepared the ground for the advancement of a populist outsider, a role played by Lukashenka.”16 That is why, the traditional interpretation of the phenomenon of Lukashenka’s victory due to pro-communist and anti-reformist state of opinion among the Belarusian majority, in Silitski’s view, is not quite correct. “The key to winning the presidential election was to capture the average voter, not mobilized by existing political forces […] Lukashenka managed to present himself as an alternative to the government and the opposition, thus absorbing the support of un committed voters.”17

  • 18 Andrei Lyakhovich, “Uviadzennie pasady prezydenta Belarusi: peradumovy i nastupstvy,” in Belaruska (...)
  • 19 Lyakhovich, “Uviadzennie pasady prezydenta Belarusi: peradumovy i nastupstvy,” http://kamunikat.or (...)

7The Belarusian political scientist Lyakhovich is even more determined in his approach to Lukashenka’s phenomenon. He considers “the project of President Lukashenka” to be developed in certain spheres of Belarusian politics, which represent the interests of the so-called economic establishment. “The Belarusian economic elite needed ‘a strong person’ able to establish order even if it meant going back to former methods of governing the economy, to whom directors of state-run enterprises might be accountable.”18 As to the reasons why Kebich did not suit this political interest group, Lyakhovich mentions the enhancement of the independent working movement, the growing popularity of the democratic counterelite which was perceived by the nomenklature as a threat, and the desire to exert state control over the market. Lyakhovich goes on to say, “They needed not the first person among the equal, like V. Kebich, but someone who could be an authoritative leader for them, a charismatic politician whose popularity in society could be their guarantee of stability. They wanted stability in order to use the advantages of their status obtained in the process of re-distribution of the state property.”19 Representatives of this interest group were dispersed among the bodies of central power, among directors of major enterprises, and had support of the KGB leadership. They were also among Kebich’s proxies, which considerably weakened his campaign.

  • 20 Karen Dawisha, “Democratization and Political Participation: Research Concepts and Methodologies,” (...)

8It is essential that during that entire election campaign the candidates for presidency had comparable opportunities for electioneering, equal access to mass media while the so-called “administrative resource” was never used. This term was later applied to describe the overt pressure on the voter in order to obtain the desired result during the voting procedure. In the 1994 election, the voters’ choice was not doubted. If we use Dawisha’s reasoning that “democratization is said to begin when the first set of free and fair elections for national level office take place,”20 then the first presidential election in Belarus irrespective of the fact that it resulted in authoritarian regime, signified an introduction of democratization in the new history of Belarus.

  • 21 Dawisha, “Democratization and Political Participation,” 42.
  • 22 E. Wnuk-Lipiński, Świat Międzyepoki (Cracow: Znak, 2004), 132.
  • 23 Michalisko, “Belarus: Retreat to Authoritarianism,” 223–24.
  • 24 Marples, Belarus. A Denationalized Nation, 86.

9However, the continuation of the “democratization according to the rules” in Belarus was not to be seen. The first election “must be accompanied in short terms by the granting of civil liberties and political rights and the establishment of both state institutions that operate according to the rule of law and intermediate organizations that mediate between the citizen and the state.”21 In addition to such institutional conditions required for the democratic development, there is a need for “social capital” as a condition for the successful transfer of the Western liberal democratic experience to the “eastern” ground. As the Polish political scientist E. Wnuk-Lipiński writes, “Liberal democracy does not come down only to procedures of electing political authorities, but it also means a certain complex of values, which embrace the status of an individual and a group, the accepted rule of the game and a legitimate set of goals that can be pursued by different individuals in public life.”22 Lack of this social capital was soon manifested in Belarus, when the formal signs of democratization acquired a “special” configuration. In Kathleen Michalisko’s words, with “catastrophic irony Belarus’s initial opening to Western reforms has been canceled indefinitely by its first democratically elected president in history.”23 The development of the democratization of the country was stopped, the reform discontinued. The new power paradoxically displayed itself as “revolutionary government seeking retrogressive solutions to Belarusian problems.”24

  • 25 Stephen White and Jan McAllister, “Patterns of Political Culture,” 26. Authors refer to the result (...)
  • 26 White and McAllister, “Patterns of Political Culture,” 26.
  • 27 White and McAllister, “Patterns of Political Culture,” 26.
  • 28 Elena A. Korosteleva, Colin W. Lawson, and Rosalind J. Marsh, “Introduction. Paradoxes of Democrat (...)
  • 29 R. Lindner, “The Lukashenka Phenomenon,” 78.

10The first presidential election had a considerable impact on Belarusians’ consciousness and their idea of how democratic mechanism works in their country. Moreover, it made them confident that they can change the situation in the country by means of voting and elections. As the comparative research of Stephen White and Jan McAllister showed, “Belarusians were more convinced of the effectiveness of the electoral mechanism than either their Ukrainian or Russian counterparts […] The majority of Belarusian respondents thought elections gave them some influence over government but only a minority did so in Russia and Ukraine.”25 When asked, “Do you think taking part in national elections gives people like you an opportunity to influence the government of the country or not?” 51 percent of Belarusians gave a positive answer, while in Ukraine 40 percent gave a similar answer, and only 29 percent in Russia.26 Similarly, a majority of Belarusian respondents thought elections could change their country’s future direction, Ukrainians and Russians were much more doubtful: 64 percent of Belarusians thought elections gave them some influence over their government, while in Ukraine and Russian the corresponding numbers were 53 percent and 42 percent.27 Indeed, Belarus is one of the few post-Soviet countries that had changed its leadership and the strategy of political development through the voting. This fact also offers some basis for the official discourse to actively use the disguise of democracy in the current political system: it has presumably appeared as a result of people’s will. This, together with the formal conservation of certain aspects of a democratic system, makes it possible to characterize the Belarusian regime as “elected dictatorship.”28 Each post-Soviet republic “has brought forth leaders (mostly presidents) with regionally determined patterns of political behavior: the Russian head of state has taken up the heritage of imperial claims with the war in Chechnya, leaders of the traditional societies in Uz bekistan, Azer baijan, and Kazakhstan have remained autocratic clan politicians, and the Baltic states have continued to rely on links to Western Europe. Lukashenka, in turn, attained a type of power that embodies the essence of the Belarusian state—a power based on a subjugated elite but that nevertheless results in minimal state sovereignty.”29

Notes

1 Some examples of such publications: Rainer Lindner, “The Lukashenka Phenomenon,” in Independent Belarus: Domestic Determinations, Regional Dynamics, and Implications for the West, ed. Margarita M. Balmaceda, James I. Clem, and Lisbeth L. Tarlow (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 77–108; Stephen White and Elena Korosteleva, “Lu ka shenko and the Postcommunist Presidency,” in Postcommunist Belarus, ed. S. White, E. Korosteleva, and J. Löwenhardt (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 17–34; Margery MacMahon, “Alexander Lukashenko, President, Republic of Belarus,” Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 13, no. 4 (December 1997).

2 “The precipice” was intended to mean the state of economy and society after the collapse of the USSR.

3 V. M. Shlyndikov, ed., Sbornik alternativnykh program razvitia Belarusi (Minsk, 2001), http://www.ucpb.org/index.php?page=lib&open=122.

4 A. Lyakhovich, “Obzor proektov i idei reformirovania politicheskoi sistemy Belarusi” in Belarus’, Scenarii reform, ed. R. Vaienia, E. Kruglikova, J. Plaskonka, and U. Ramanau (Warsaw: Bathory Foundation 2003), 14.

5 Lyakhovich, “Obzor proektov i idei,” 14.

6 New Democracy Barometer 1991–2000, numbers based on Christian W. Haerpher, “Electoral Politics Compared,” in Contemporary Belarus. Between Democracy and Dictatorship, ed. E. A. Korosteleva, C. W. Lawson, and R. J. Marsh (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 90–91.

7 National representative survey conducted by Novak in April 2000 and by Russian Research in January 2004, cited in White and McAllister, “Patterns of Political Culture,” 19.

8 Kathleen J. Michalisko, “Belarus: Retreat to Authoritarianism,” in Democratic Changes and Authoritarian Reactions in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, ed. K. Dawisha and B. Parrott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 253.

9 Rainer Lindner, “The Lukashenka Phenomenon,” in Independent Belarus: Domestic Determinations, Regional Dynamics, and Implications for the West, ed. Margarita M. Balmaceda, James I. Clem, and Lisbeth L. Tarlow (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 98.

10 Ryszard Radzik, “Belarus’ i Siarednie-Uskhodniaia Europa,” in Byts’ (albo nia byts’) Siarednieeurapeicam, Suchasnaie polskaie mys’lennie, translated by V. Bulgakau, 2007, Belarusian Internet Library Kamunikat, http://kamunikat.org/k_pieraklady.html?pub_start=90&pubid=2352.

11 David R. Marples, Belarus. A Denationalized Nation (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1999), 86.

12 Viktor Chernov, “Avtoritarnyi rezhim w Belarusi: Kharakter, zapas prochnosti, varianty tranformatsii,” Adkrytae gramadstva 4 (1998), http://data.minsk.by/opensociety/106/2.html.

13 Grigory Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: Economy and Political Landscape,” Europe-Asia Studies 56 no. 1 (January 2004): 107.

14 Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: Economy and Political Landscape,” 107.

15 Vital Silitski, “Explaining Post-communist Authoritarianism in Belarus,” in Contemporary Belarus. Between Democracy and Dictatorship, ed. Elena A. Korosteleva, Colin W. Lawson and Rosalind J. Marsh (London and New York: RoutledgeGurzon, 2003), 40.

16 Silitski, “Explaining Post-communist Authoritarianism in Belarus,” 40.

17 Silitski, “Explaining Post-communist Authoritarianism in Belarus,” 42, 43.

18 Andrei Lyakhovich, “Uviadzennie pasady prezydenta Belarusi: peradumovy i nastupstvy,” in Belaruskaia palitychnaia systema i prezydentskia vybary 2001, ed. V. Bulgakau (Minsk–Warsaw: Anaytical Group, IDEE, 2001), Belarusian Internet Library Kamunikat, http://kamunikat.org/knihi.html?pubid=1811.

19 Lyakhovich, “Uviadzennie pasady prezydenta Belarusi: peradumovy i nastupstvy,” http://kamunikat.org/knihi.html?pubid=1811.

20 Karen Dawisha, “Democratization and Political Participation: Research Concepts and Methodologies,” in Democratic Changes and Authoritarian Reactions in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, ed. K. Dawisha and B. Parrot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 42.

21 Dawisha, “Democratization and Political Participation,” 42.

22 E. Wnuk-Lipiński, Świat Międzyepoki (Cracow: Znak, 2004), 132.

23 Michalisko, “Belarus: Retreat to Authoritarianism,” 223–24.

24 Marples, Belarus. A Denationalized Nation, 86.

25 Stephen White and Jan McAllister, “Patterns of Political Culture,” 26. Authors refer to the results of the national representative survey conducted for the authors and associates by Novak in April 2000 and by Russian research in January 2004.

26 White and McAllister, “Patterns of Political Culture,” 26.

27 White and McAllister, “Patterns of Political Culture,” 26.

28 Elena A. Korosteleva, Colin W. Lawson, and Rosalind J. Marsh, “Introduction. Paradoxes of Democratisation,” 15.

29 R. Lindner, “The Lukashenka Phenomenon,” 78.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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