In Other Words

Color Blind in Belarus

Lukashenko: Politicheskaya Biografiya (Lukashenko: A Political Biography) By Alexander Feduta 704 pages, Moscow: Referendum, 2005 (in Russian) Belarus, a long-forgotten former Soviet country and the most repressive regime in Europe, is a place where time seems to have stood still. The red flag that proudly waves over public buildings bears an eerie resemblance to that ...

Lukashenko: Politicheskaya Biografiya
(Lukashenko: A Political Biography)

By Alexander Feduta
704 pages, Moscow:
Referendum, 2005 (in Russian)

Belarus, a long-forgotten former Soviet country and the most repressive regime in Europe, is a place where time seems to have stood still. The red flag that proudly waves over public buildings bears an eerie resemblance to that of the communist era. The omnipresence of police on the streets appalls visitors. State tv continuously broadcasts feel-good reports of economic successes and heart-rending images of external and internal enemies. And ordinary people shiver when they hear someone discussing politics in public. Whereas other postcommunist Central and Eastern European countries have recently broken off the shackles of authoritarianism, Belarus remains an outpost of tyranny. Other members of the former Soviet club — Georgia, Ukraine, and Kirgizstan — have each recently experienced democratic revolutions, which raised hopes for the entire region’s eventual emancipation from authoritarian rule. Belarus was supposed to be the setting for the next "color" revolution. Why, then, do the country’s prospects for democracy remain so bleak?

Alexander Feduta, a journalist and onetime press secretary for President Aleksandr Lukashenko, has set out to offer an explanation. In his new, comprehensive biography of the president, Lukashenko: Politicheskaya Biografiya (Lukashenko: A Political Biography), Feduta offers insight into the logic of Lukashenko’s rise to power and the mechanisms through which this power is preserved and strengthened. Feduta presents his former boss not only as a power-hungry dictator who is capable of going to any lengths to protect his authority but also as a superbly talented politician with unique abilities to read the public mood and outplay, outwit, and ultimately destroy political challenges to his authority. He discovers a "sad monumentality" to Lukashenko’s figure. In diagnosing Belarus’s ills, Feduta concludes that the dictator is the "heavy disease of the nation."

From an early age, Lukashenko craved success and power to escape his fatherless childhood and penniless youth (for example, when entering the teacher’s college, he became a Komsomol activist simply to get a raise in his monthly stipend). Work with that communist youth group and then the party propaganda department gave him early experience in public speaking. Moreover, growing up among the poor masses, Lukashenko instinctively understood how to manipulate public opinion, says Feduta. His meteoric rise from the head of a collective farm in the small provincial town of Shklov to an all-powerful autocrat is a testament to his ability to read the times. At the height of perestroika, he was a great fan of reforms. When elected to the republican parliament in 1990, he made a name for himself bashing corrupt and irresponsible party elites. Yet, once public enthusiasm for reforms ceded to disillusionment and anger, he became a staunch conservative.

Feduta paints an extensive description, full of colorful anecdotes, of Lukashenko’s superb political skills and talent for winning over a crowd. When speaking in public, Lukashenko would issue a statement and then keep silent for a moment, checking the reaction of the audience. And when it was positive, he developed his argument. Then, once the audience was under his control, his powerful voice simply silenced objections. He offered no great ideas but appealed to earthly desires and aspirations, never afraid to manipulate the meanest instincts and most obscure prejudices of his potential voters. In 1993, he was appointed head of the parliamentary committee to investigate financial violations by government officials, but Lukashenko simply used his new post as a launching pad for his presidential campaign by accusing every potential rival of corruption. And when the people wanted an explanation for the hardships of postcommunist life, he told them the story they wanted to hear: that the country’s elite had robbed the people and destroyed the Soviet Union so that the robbery could occur.

The list of people who ran afoul of Lukashenko’s unbridled quest for power is long. During his rise, he shattered the entire ruling class, swept away the former communists that ruled Belarus after the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991, and crushed the nationalist opposition that aspired to follow in the footsteps of successful popular movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The decimation of the opposition protected Lukashenko from the kind of color revolutions now taking place in the former Soviet Union. His team was drawn from the generation of mavericks who, like himself, entered the political scene in the early 1990s. Most of his initial supporters were young, ambitious, and reckless politicians (including Feduta) who strove to replace the old guard but could not do it alone. Many of them truly hoped to transform Belarus into a modern, democratic state with a market economy. They bet on Lukashenko to break the wall, in hopes that this supposed simpleton would pave the way for them to govern behind the scenes. Lukashenko carefully nurtured this illusion right until he was elected president.

Feduta describes the painful destinies of this duped and lost generation. He resigned as presidential press secretary five months after Lukashenko ordered him to administer the repressions against independent media that were introduced on presidential orders. Feduta subsequently publicly repented for assisting Lukashenko’s rise to power — the only former associate to do so. Some of them quietly retreated from politics; others joined the opposition in an attempt to correct the mistake, only to witness what Lukashenko would do to those he believed were guilty of betrayal. On this score, Feduta singles out Viktar Hanchar, Lukashenko’s former ally who grew into the most promising opposition leader. Hanchar mysteriously disappeared, presumably abducted and killed, in September 1999, after making several attempts to oust Lukashenko. The tragic end of a young, idealistic, and somewhat adventurous opposition leader set a forceful example of the lengths to which the president would go to protect his power.

There comes a point when a dictator’s abuses become too much, when it becomes impossible for a tyrant to make a gracious exit. For Lukashenko, that moment was the disappearance of top opposition leaders in 1999. It was organized so poorly that evidence of authorities’ involvement emerged almost immediately. Since then, his despotism has risen to new levels of cruelty and absurdity. The abuses are now well documented: The destruction of representative institutions and rewriting of the constitution to give full formal power to the president. The "privatization" of the state by diverting proceeds from the most profitable businesses into secret presidential funds. The unceremonious dumping, ruining, or imprisonment of every person he suspects of one day becoming a rival.

After years of waging a hopeless fight, too many lives among the opposition have been destroyed and hopes are now too shattered to keep the spirit of resistance alive. Almost the entire generation of activists who flocked to the massive anti-Lukashenko rallies and fought with riot police on the streets in the mid-1990s eventually retreated from politics. Perhaps Feduta’s Lukashenko will inspire a new generation of dissidents. Although it is much easier to buy the book in Russia or the United States than in Belarus, clandestine copies are being shipped inside the country and distributed, primarily among the opposition activists, free of charge. As they grow up, young Belarusians will read the book to counter the official propaganda and mythology, just as the Soviet-era underground samizdat publishing system helped shatter the perestroika generation’s illusions about communism.

It is Feduta’s delivery of a simple formula for Lukashenko’s political survival that resonates with readers. The Belarusian leader, he insists, managed to slow down the current of time, if not stop it altogether. In spite of all the trappings of his current office, Lukashenko remains the master of a collective farm who employs the most primitive methods of clinging to power. Today, the only thing monumental in Belarus is its dictator, who has grown so large from years of feasting on the fortunes of the people who make up his beleaguered country.

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