By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — If a presidential election were held in Russia in the near future, the winner would very likely be a populist candidate pledging strong action against corruption and crime; opposing privatisation and promising a planned economy; and undertaking to work toward the restoration of the Soviet Union. This is the unnerving message received by Russia's rulers from the election on June 23 in neighbouring Belarus, on Russia's western border.
The first-round elections for the newly created post of president were won by Aleksandr Lukashenko, who rose to prominence as head of a parliamentary commission on corruption. Making skilled use of television appearances, the former state farm director gained 45% of the votes to overwhelm Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, who came in second with 17%. Lukashenko is heavily favoured to win the run-off election this month.
With his extravagant promises — he pledged to jail his election rivals on corruption charges, and then to give every Belarus citizen a home and job — Lukashenko has been described as "the Belarus Zhirinovsky". Like the Russian nationalist, Lukashenko owes much of his success to popular bitterness at collapsing living standards, and to near-universal disgust with the country's ruling elites.
Beyond this, the comparison with Zhirinovsky ceases to be revealing. Lukashenko is anything but a nationalist; much of his following has stemmed from his promise to achieve a rapid and extensive reintegration into the economic structures of Russia.
More fundamentally, Lukashenko's populism has a radical left-wing cast quite distinct from that of Zhirinovsky. Lukashenko has tapped the anger at growing social injustice and inequality. The enthusiastic response to these aspects of his rhetoric should be causing alarm to political leaders in Russia.
For opportunist politicians, Belarus nationalism is not a promising vehicle. The country's national movement has never been strongly developed. Especially in urban areas, the first language of huge numbers of citizens has long been Russian. Discontent with Soviet rule was limited by the fact that this was one of the most developed and prosperous areas of the USSR.
Independence came as a largely undesired spin-off of the dissolution of the USSR. The country was left with an economy tightly integrated into that of other states of the former Soviet Union. Today, Russia takes 70% of Belarus exports, and supplies 90% of the country's energy.
Although the party-state apparatus in Soviet Belarus was recognised as corrupt, it was not widely regarded as incompetent. The apparatus never came under the same pressure from militant workers and anticommunist layers of the intelligentsia as in Russia and Ukraine. The local nomenklatura entered the era of independence with its nerve and bureaucratic ethos largely intact.
Privatisation was embraced half-heartedly; little more than 10% of state-owned enterprises have been sold off. But although little changed in the way the economy was administered, the economic collapse in Russia and Ukraine dragged production down in Belarus as well.
Unlike in Russia, workers in Belarus continued receiving their pay in full and on time, as the government granted credits to loss-making industries. But enormous state deficits fuelled inflation, which this year has run as high as 50% a month. Despite controls on the prices of food staples, real living standards plunged.
Understandably, many citizens look back to the Soviet period as a golden age brought to an end by inexplicable acts of treachery. In one recent opinion survey, almost half of respondents considered that socialism represented the most suitable system for their country, while fewer than 10% opted for capitalism. Around two-thirds of Belarus citizens reportedly view the restoration of close links with Russia as the key to stabilising the economy and rebuilding prosperity.
The main points of Lukashenko's program thus fall into place. The prospective president calls for the reunification of Belarus with Russia and Ukraine; in the immediate future he intends to press ahead vigorously with plans, already in place under Kebich, to restore the Russian rouble as the Belarus currency.
Under Lukashenko, key elements of a planned economy would be reinstituted. Broad use would be made of price controls, with public organisations having the right to set the prices of consumer goods and services. Privatisation would be curtailed, and the operations of commercial banks heavily restricted.
To a striking degree, Lukashenko's program resembles that of Kebich, also an astute judge of popular sentiment. Kebich, however, has been hampered by his identification with the ruling apparatus, whose privileges are fiercely resented by ordinary citizens.
In rejecting Kebich, Belarus voters were unmoved by the alternative offered by free-market liberals. Such candidates fared disastrously, together attracting only 23% of the votes. Russian leaders must be painfully conscious that the egalitarian and anti-capitalist moods that emerged with such force in Belarus on June 23 are by no means confined to the Belarus side of the border.
However, the voters who supported Lukashenko are in for a disappointment. Reintegration with the Russian economy is essential for production in Belarus even to survive, let alone flourish. But every step toward this reintegration implies a big increase in leverage on Belarus by neo-liberal Russian economic strategists.
As Lukashenko is confronted with these pressures, his followers will discover that his left-wing populism is populism nonetheless: it functions by manipulating its social base, instead of seeking to aid the independent organisation of the masses and the popular conquest of power. Without a broad party ready to call him to account, and without a program for developing genuine popular control over collectively owned enterprises, Lukashenko can be expected to vacillate between the demands of the Russian government, the Belarus state apparatus and the International Monetary Fund.
Socialism cannot be rebuilt in Belarus alone, even if Lukashenko were seriously inclined to rebuild it. Real advances will require a movement in which Belarus workers unite with those of Russia and Ukraine, at least, in the fight to restore the key gains of the past.