NGO Leader Shares Thoughts on the Future of Belarus
Alexander Lukashenka’s regime in Belarus has often been called by international media “the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe”. Gennady Grushevoy, the 1999 Rafto Prize laureate, shares his thoughts on the current political situation in Belarus.
Monday, 05 March 2012, by HRH Bergen, based on Rafto Foundation infromation
The following article is based on the interview the Rafto Foundation did with Gennady Grushevoy in January 2012. Grushevoy, who chairs the Belarussian organisation "For the Children of Chernobyl", shared his thoughts on the current political situation in Belarus - how it has been possible for Lukashenka’s regime to hold onto power for such a long time and rule the country the way he does it.
Lukashenka’s rise to power
Gennady Grushevoy described circumstances under which Lukashenka established his powerbase as a direct consequence of the collapse of the USSR. Following dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus, like other former Soviet republics, faced the same problems of political instability, massive unemployment and social discontent. During his presidential campaign, Lukashenka promised what people wanted - closer union with Russia and social security guaranteed by the state. Instead of focusing on the future – moving towards democratisation, developing a market economy and respecting human rights – Lukashenka’s message was more clear and simple: it offered the familiar and understandable solution to the problems faced by Belarus, and therefore was perceived by constituents as a good and viable alternative to the uncertainty at the time. This allowed Lukashenka to win the first presidential election in 1994. Widespread disillusionment with the lack of immediate benefits after Belarus had become independent produced a wave of nostalgia for the relative stability of the Soviet Union and Lukashenka was quick to exploit it. As early as May 1995, Lukashenka organised a referendum in favour of reinstating the flag and coat of arms of Soviet Belarus as national symbols. In 1996, by a second referendum, he changed the constitution and disbanded the legitimately elected Parliament, replacing it with a group of handpicked loyalists. In so doing, Lukashenka eradicated the separation of powers which formed the basis of democratic governance, and began to build the totalitarian system that exists today.
Consequently Lukashenka managed to obtain significant concessions from Russia, such as power supplies, imports and exports and commodity markets, which brought billions of USD into the state budget. This income was then further used to build an extensive social welfare programme for citizens of Belarus and allowed the country to stand out from its neighbours with relatively high pensions, and an extremely low level of unemployment. This led to a certain social contract between the president and his constituents – the nation supports Lukashenka while receiving social benefits in return. What citizens of Belarus did not realize was that this system was artificial and sustained exclusively by Russian subsidies. The opposition forces trying to expose the unpleasant truth were subject to an “informational blockade”, since virtually all the media in Belarus work for the president.
During this seemingly affluent period for the Belarusian economy, Lukashenka managed to build a large oppressive apparatus consisting of dozens of secret service institutions, executing complete control over society and eliminating any signs of political plurality. Lukashenka’s regime has proven to be skilful at both strengthening state institutions and using the country’s powerful state-security services—there are no fewer than eight of them—for coercive purposes. Belarus has also one of the highest ratios of police officers to residents in Europe, and ranks third in the number of prisoners per one thousand people.
Relations with Russia deteriorated after 2005, subsidies diminished, and the social benefits had to be cut. People started questioning the regime they had relied upon. The impact was felt immediately in Belarus. The price hikes boosted inflation, foreign indebtedness, and the trade deficit. There was a small run on the banks as people lost confidence in the Belarusian ruble and tried to buy more stable foreign currency. In a 2007 interview with Reuters, Lukashenka himself admitted that Belarus’s losses from the “energy wars” amounted to $5 billion, or 10 % of GDP. In many ways, the uneasiness of late 2006 and early 2007 was a precursor of the spring 2011 events. In response to protests by the opposition, hundreds of people were imprisoned by the Belarusian authorities. Intimidation, firing and beating of opposition activists became the usual practice on the grounds that they either were enemies of the state or infiltrated by Western secret services. It all echoed very closely Stalin’s repressions in 1937. Fear for themselves, their family, children, job and health simply stopped people from expressing their views openly.
The role of NGOs in Belarus
Belarus does not have a developed civil society, although there were first minor signs of self-government and organisation (Chernobyl movement, youth and legal activity) before Lukashenka came to power. Today relatively small numbers and fragmentation of civil society elements do not equate to any serious influence on government or mass actions. The organisation For the Children of Chernobyl is one of the few established and developed before the regime came into power (20 years ago), and according to Mr. Grushevoy it has several advantages compared to other NGOs in the country.
First of all, the organisation successfully combines civil activity, practical issues and political demands, and moreover, a strong social inclination allows it to operate even under constant scrutiny and oppression, as the system does not dare to attack openly an organisation helping children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Over the years, For Children of Chernobyl has established cooperation with countless NGOs all over the world, as well as involved many citizens of Belarus in its activities. Together, more than half a million children and young people in Belarus have had a chance to be in touch with their counterparts abroad, get acquainted with their lifestyle and values, and develop a positive attitude towards democratic trends, which hopefully will provide a solid basis for change towards democratisation and westernisation of Belarus in the future.
Rafto Foundation asked Gennady Grushevoy what his vision for Belarus for year 2020 was. “There are two possible scenarios, an optimistic one and a pessimistic one,” said Grushevoy. The optimistic scenario predicts a constitutional crisis around 2015-2016 caused by different conflicts within the country, in its relationship with Russia, among ruling clans, etc. This would create the necessary conditions to start demolition of Lukashenka’s personal power and the established regime, resulting in Lukashenka’s removal from politics and creation of an interim government which would introduce the legal framework for a democratic system, for example the separation of powers, a legal system and freedom of information.
The second scenario is also connected with the same constitutional crisis, but instead of democratisation it would lead to a Putin-Lukashenka pact, a closer union with Russia, eliminating any attributes of sovereignty and turning Belarus into Russia’s dominion at best. The role of NGOs, and particularly For Children of Chernobyl, is to educate and prepare society for this potential crisis – to be ready to exert strong influence, even political pressure on the government of Belarus, Russia and international society, in order to avoid the worst scenario. This is the most important investment in the future of Belarus.
HRH Bergen, based on Rafto Foundation infromation