Belarus - holding out against another colour revolution
by A MacIntosh
On August 9th Belarus held a presidential election according to its constitution and as supervised by the independent Central Election Commission. The USA and the EU condemned the outcome as they have done every time in the last 25 years that Belarus voters have freely chosen to re-elect the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko with large majorities. Immediately western media reports predictably followed their governments in denouncing the results as fraudulent and rigged by “the last dictator in Europe”, while holding up liberal opponents as freedom loving democrats brutally oppressed by “an authoritarian regime”. Equally predicably there followed an upsurge of street protest in the capital Minsk by ad hoc groups of western enamoured liberals and hard right nationalist opponents of the government and its Soviet inspired policies.
Each weekend there followed large demonstrations primarily in Minsk attracting young liberals and nationalists alike and calling for “the regime” to be overthrown, for intervention from abroad, and that the election be declared null and void. The government has pushed back, mobilising security forces against any risk of a western backed colour (read counter) revolution as proved so disastrous in Ukraine in 2014, where fascist elements and oligarch-backed economic liberals subsequently came to power. The opposition set up a coordinating committee, including leading cultural figures aiming to negotiate a transfer of power. The government and the constitutional court responded quickly, declaring the committee unconstitutional and arrests swiftly followed.
How do Lukashenko, Belarus elected representatives and supporters in Russia view these disturbing events?
“They [the west] do not need Belarus. Belarus is a springboard, as usual, to Russia…They need to remove this government and install another one which will appeal to a foreign state to send in troops and provide support. They need a market here to sell their products.” President Lukashenko 28/8/20
“Belarusians see the situation clearly, and they tried to intimidate them, to silence them…But we are developing a certain immunity…Let’s imagine these people came to power. God forbid. They will use exactly he same methods: intimidation and humiliation of dissenting voices. This is the flip side of democracy, liberalism, freedom of speech that they supposedly promote.” Sergie Klishevich, representative in the Belarus National Assembly 26/8/20
“The cynical assault against Belarus was planned a long time ago. Today it is connected to the presidential election held on 9 August. Its strategic goal is to destroy the Belarusian statehood and our union, thus weakening the CiS states and their integration ties.” Gennady Zyuganov Chair of the Russian Federation Communist Party 28/8/20
In short they are clear sighted and will resist all attempts to bring Belarus into the orbit of the EU and NATO thereby posing a further security challenge to Russia right on her border.
BELARUS - SHORT HISTORY
Belarus is a landlocked country the size of England and Scotland combined, lying between Poland and Russia with the Baltic states to the north and Ukraine to the south. It has been fought over for centuries. A sovereign state only since 1991, between 1921 and 1991 Belarus was a Soviet republic and part of the USSR.
Occupied by the Germans during World War 1 it was split in half between Poland and Soviet Russia in 1921 by the Treaty of Riga. From 1921 to 1939 the Belarus Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) created modern state institutions. Feudal lands were appropriated, farming collectivised, and industrial development given priority. Education for all and an enlightened socialist culture was the order of the day. This was in contrast to Polish ruled western Belarus where indigenous society and culture were remorselessly attacked with the imposition of a reactionary national Catholicism which, for example, denied the right to own land to Belarusians who would not convert.
In September 1939 the Red Army reoccupied western Belarus and the Polish landlords were quickly displaced with over 3,000 farms handed over to the peasants. Belarus was devastated by the fascist invasion of the USSR, between 1941 and 1945 losing 2.5 million citizens, a third of the population, including the destruction of the large Jewish population. The Great Patriotic War remains a formative experience in Belarus. By 1944 there were 300,000 partisans fighting the retreating Germans who left behind them: 600 villages burned to the ground of which 200 or so simply ceased to exist. In return, the partisans were credited with killing or wounding half a million German soldiers. The population did not return to pre-war levels for 30 years. Belarusian collaborators retreated with their fascist masters and many were resettled elsewhere in Europe and in America by western powers to provide a cohort of nationalist and anti-communist agitation throughout the Cold War and up to the collapse of the USSR. Back in Belarus, in contrast, the partisan leaders were recognised as Soviet heroes and went on to provide the leadership of the BSSR up to 1980s.
Between 1945 to 1991 Belarus enjoyed a golden age: a time of rising productivity, full employment, free education and health care for all. Further, Belarusians benefited from the enormous opportunities offered throughout the USSR and shared in its international prestige.
Belarus avoided much of the social malaise and economic crisis suffered elsewhere in the USSR in the years leading up to 1989, and indeed was well governed and readily able to see off an incipient nationalist movement at the time led by a small group of intellectuals. What Belarus was unable to avoid however was the catastrophic fallout from the disintegration of the USSR due to the counter-revolutionary actions of the Gorbachev leadership which let anti-communism and sectarian nationalism run riot across eastern Europe. When Russia declared itself independent from the USSR, Belarus followed suit and declared independence on 27 July 1990, followed a year later by a suspension of the Communist Party of Belarus. In September 1991 the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, apart from one vote, voted unanimously to declare the end of the Soviet Union. That one vote against was cast by Alexander Lukashenko.
WHO IS LUKASHENKO?
Born in 1954 to a peasant family, Alexander Lukashenko graduated in 1975 with a teaching qualification in history after which he spent two years in the frontier troops as a political instructor. He worked in various roles in the Communist Party up to 1980 before re-joining the army for a further two years upon which he retrained in agricultural college, eventually being appointed director of a collective farm. In 1990 he was elected as deputy to the Belarusian Supreme Soviet. One of his first political actions was to create a group in parliament called “Communists for Democracy” which wanted to keep the Soviet Union but ensure it was governed with greater democratic accountability. His initiative came too late to have any influence as the USSR fell apart in 1990-91. As gangster-like privatisation and graft swept over the old USSR, Lukashenko was elected chairman in 1993 of a parliamentary commission to investigate corruption in state institutions. It was his performance in this public role that established him in the minds of many Belarusians as a man of principle rooted in Soviet values, and led to his election as President in 1994.
Stewart Parker, remarking on his character in 2008 stated: “Lukashenko’s outspoken opinions and criticisms came from an ideological base. He could not tolerate corruption or hypocrisy. His political education has been the classic texts of Marxism, extolling egalitarianism and the principles of a nation [serving] the best interests of its working people.”
Lukashenko’s heroes were the war partisans who led the country during his formative years of the 1970s and 80s.
HOW HAS LUKASHENKO STAYED IN POWER?
The west from early on in his rule found fault and tarnished Belarus as a hangover Soviet dictatorship. Belarus refused to follow the playbook set by the Washington consensus that demanded wholesale dismantling of state participation in the economy and state funded social security. As a result Belarus has long been marked down for regime change and replacement by an EU/NATO compliant bourgeois democracy with the virulent anti-communism that pervades the Baltic states and Poland.
On each occasion since 1994 that Lukashenko has won a new mandate in regular elections, the western “international community” has alleged fraud and vote rigging. Such allegations are made evidence free and it is simply enough in the west to dismiss a vote for Lukashenko of 70-80% as inconceivable and to ignore that each election has been certified as free and fair by Belarus’s independent Election Commission. Such western criticism has an ulterior motive and aims to overturn the Belarusian constitution and political order.
In Belarus the state asserts its sovereignty and competence over society and the economy and has limited the scope for private property and finance capitalist control. There is no oligarchic class of businessmen dominating society as in Ukraine, which can provide a focus for a reactionary opposition. Quite the contrary, it is the state which applies Soviet socialist principles to restrict the risk of asset stripping of state-owned property and land.
Lukashenko is a believer in the power of the state accountable to its citizens, to provide employment and social services for all. On that score Belarus has been successful. Its population of 9.5 million has remained stable since 1991 unlike the depopulation of the Baltic states which send their young people west to find precarious work in the EU. The value of state pensions has been maintained. There is full employment. The economy retains a large and diversified industrial sector. Development is evenly spread with graduates, for example, sent to less-developed regions as specialists. The World Bank has acknowledged that health provision is progressive in that poorer households “benefit relatively more than the better off”. The number of doctors per head of population is higher than in most of western Europe and the USA and Belarus has one of the most comprehensive child immunisation programmes in the world. Under 5 mortality rates fell between 1991 and 2018 from 15.2 to 3.4 per thousand live births. Currently the equivalent figure in the UK is 4.3 and the USA 6.5. It is no coincidence that Belarus has one of the best GINI coefficient scores for equality of income in the world. In other words, there is no rent seeking oligarchic elite dominating society.
ANOTHER COLOUR REVOLUTION?
It makes little difference what Lukashenko might do to satisfy demands for reform from within and without since only total capitulation and defeat will do as far as the imperialists are concerned. The USA expects a similar result to Ukraine in 2014 when that country was split in two with the larger part handed over to the most corrupt elements of the business class, while the Donbass sought alignment with and support from Russia.
Since 1991, by preventing an oligarchic class emerging in Belarus, the government has prevented the nationalist and liberal oppositions achieving anything like close to a political tipping point, despite the vocal support they have from abroad. Those that have sought to challenge Lukashenko have been drawn from state bodies and have not had independent financial means and media to project themselves to voters. The most recent example is Victor Babariko, a former banker who was debarred in August 2020 by the Electoral Commission because his campaign was backed by foreign entities. He has subsequently faced allegations of money laundering. The opposition found a substitute in Svetlana Tikanovskaya, a 37 year old teacher who had no previous political experience and attracted 10.1% of the popular vote. Tikanovskaya nevertheless was provided with a huge western media platform and subsequently relocated to Lithuania. She is held up as a human rights icon of resistance to Lukashenko. In Lithuania she met US Under Secretary of State Stephen Biegun to discuss “strengthening democracy and human rights in the country”.
Human rights violations alleged in western corporate media provide the licence necessary for western governments to intervene in a multiplicity of different ways in the internal affairs of Belarus. The west has backed street demonstrations that have continued to occur from week to week since August. The Belarus police and security services have responded robustly but mindful of any opportunity the opposition and its western backers will take to denounce examples of brutality and unlawful detention. The protesters forefront powerful images of young people dressed in white holding up flowers to riot police, and invite western journalists to write about the evils of Lukashenko and his security apparatus.
To date, Lukashenko has the measure of his opponents and has the backing of Russia and China. Lukashenko is experienced, competent and committed to preserving Soviet principles of statecraft which have served the majority of working people in Belarus well. There is reason to be optimistic that Belarus will reject the imposition of bourgeois, nationalist democracy that would quickly lead to the enrichment of a few at the expense of the majority of working people and their families.