In Other Words

Belarus Plays Catch-Up

Nasha Niva (Our Field), September 10, 2001, Minsk In the early 1990s, a resurgence of nationalism in the various Soviet republics helped tear the Soviet Union apart. But one former republic, Belarus, experienced no such upsurge. As the intelligentsia across the region — notably in the Baltic republics — used nationalism to fuel democratization, a ...

Nasha Niva (Our Field), September 10, 2001, Minsk

In the early 1990s, a resurgence of nationalism in the various Soviet republics helped tear the Soviet Union apart. But one former republic, Belarus, experienced no such upsurge. As the intelligentsia across the region — notably in the Baltic republics — used nationalism to fuel democratization, a majority of the ruling elite in Belarus remained hostile to independence and still hankered after the glory days of the Soviet empire.

A prodigy of the ruling elite, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko — in power since 1994 — stifled nationalism, repressed democracy, and pushed for economic and political union with Russia in his first term. Lukashenko will be around for another five years after his victory in the September 2001 presidential elections.

Despite the opposition’s dismal defeat, the elections may stimulate democratization and the development of nationalism in Belarus, argues Valerka Bulhakau, editor in chief of the Belarussian monthly magazine Arche. Writing in the independent cultural-political weekly Nasha Niva, Bulhakau contends that, after the election, "people [will] begin not only to live, but to think in terms of an independent state."

Before the 1990s, nationalism in Belarus was already weaker than elsewhere in the region. A larger proportion of the Belarussian intelligentsia was destroyed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s compared with other Soviet republics. Belarussians, mainly rural dwellers until the 1950s, embraced the Russian language and culture as a means for upward social mobility.

As a result, Belarus today has a very large and fairly homogenous population that speaks Russian, regards itself as Russian, and maintains a Soviet-era social and economic outlook. Lukashenko has been a dab hand at manipulating these people — who Bulhakau terms "creoles" because they speak pidgin Russian and still view Belarus as part of the Russian empire — and has capitalized on popular nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The predominance of this mentality, nationalists say, has slowed down the growth of an effective opposition movement.

Under Lukashenko, Belarus has remained a harsh, authoritarian state. Media are kept on a short leash, and democracy protests have been brutally quashed. In the recent elections, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted serious elections violations, including ballot-box stuffing. More chilling, in July 2001, the U.S. State Department heard evidence about the existence of regime-run death squads allegedly responsible for the disappearances of over 30 people.

But Bulhakau believes the elections could mark the beginning of the end of such gloom. "[T]he election campaign will leave a good mark on the collective memory of the Belarussians," he writes. "It attracted the attention of all social layers… Presidential elections teach people to be citizens of their country and therefore shape pro-independence moods in the masses."

On a political level, at least, it looks like Belarus may indeed be edging away from Russia. In 1996, Lukashenko and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a union treaty that called for a common defense policy and customs union between Belarus and Russia. Yeltsin and Lukashenko signed yet another treaty in 1999, one that envisioned an economic and political merger by 2005. No stranger to delusions of grandeur, Lukashenko has always eyed the top job: president of a union state. But with Vladimir Putin (who reportedly dislikes his counterpart in Belarus) in power, Lukashenko’s dreams are now remote. Recently, Lukashenko has been moderate in his integration speeches and has mentioned Belarussian sovereignty more often. Lukashenko — who normally delivers speeches in Russian — spoke in Belarussian for two thirds of his inaugural address and even said he was ready to train and hold exercises with NATO troops.

For Belarus, and Belarussians, the political move away from Russia will be easier than the mental leap. In the minds of nationalists, however, the latter is crucial because they believe democratization flows from nationalism. There are signs of Belarus opening up. Bulhakau points out that the election revealed a budding civil society in Belarus. The 75.2 percent turnout was a record high, far exceeding the necessary rate for a valid vote.

The reshaping of the political landscape after the elections, Bulhakau argues, is a big step for Belarus — one that might get it up to speed with other former Soviet republics. "[T]he historical situation and the geopolitical correlation of forces give a chance to make the third presidential elections in Belarus [in 2006] the elections of the first president of Belarussians, not Creoles." Better late than never.

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