BELARUS: A post-Soviet 'Jurassic Park'?




MOSCOW — The September 11 terrorist acts in the US shifted all other news onto the back burner, including the results of the September 9 presidential election in Belarus. But for leftists in eastern Europe, what is happening in Belarus is a burning issue.

It is now seven years since Aleksandr Lukashenko came to power in the former Soviet republic of Byelorussia. He was carried to victory on a wave of disenchantment with liberal reforms, against a background of general disillusionment with independence. The majority of Belarussians speak Russian and are used to associating their history and culture with that of Russia.

On coming to power, Lukashenko put a stop to privatisation, promised to maintain the social welfare system that remained from Soviet times, proclaimed the goal of re-establishing the union with Russia in a new form, and sharply criticised the West and the International Monetary Fund. Health care and medicines remained free. This could not fail to arouse the sympathy of leftists. Picture

From the very beginning, however, Lukashenko did not base his rule on the mass movement, nor on workers' organisations, but on an apparatus of power that was loyal to him personally. His political regime became increasingly harsh. Parliament was dissolved, and the opposition press began to be persecuted.

Later, Lukashenko extended his powers through a referendum, the results of which were probably rigged. A number of the president's political opponents vanished without trace. The West in its turn spent millions of dollars financing the opposition.

While basing his power above all on rural residents, Lukashenko tried to increase the competitiveness of industry by holding down wages. The result was that by 2001, the average monthly wage in Belarus was worth just US$65. When social programs, housing subsidies and so on are taken into account, real living standards were of course substantially higher, but urban residents had virtually no spare cash.

This led to a growing conflict with the trade unions. Strikes were suppressed with an iron fist; the use of scabs and lockouts, and arrests of union activists, became commonplace. Meanwhile, the Belarussian economy came to be oriented heavily toward exports, and was integrated increasingly into the world market. The partners of Belarus were Russia, Ukraine and the countries of the Third World that had earlier traded with the Soviet Union.

At first sight, it might have appeared that Belarus was trying to preserve and develop the old ties of economic cooperation that had existed in the Soviet bloc. But in fact, all the countries to which Belarus was selling its products had already been integrated into the neo-liberal market model.

In reality, the Lukashenko regime did not restore the old cooperation, but made use of the old economic and technological ties in order to expand its markets.

'Economic miracle'

In Soviet times, Belarus had exported its products throughout the entire Soviet bloc. In that period, the result had been rising living standards. But Lukashenko's policies, oriented toward exporting at any price, rested on wage restraint, on the suppression of the labour movement, and ultimately, on the suppression of left political organisations.

It is not surprising that after the "exemplary" crushing by the Lukashenko regime of a strike on the Minsk metro, the trade unions came to figure among the regime's most aggressive opponents.

Lukashenko's propaganda speaks of a Belarussian economic miracle. The rates of growth of industrial production in fact reached 7-8% per year, as in China. A substantial share of production, however, was not sold but bartered. By the mid-1990s, Belarus was meeting 90% of its food needs.

Lukashenko's opponents, for their part, speak constantly of the poverty and lack of rights of Belarussians. Both in their way are correct. The economic miracles that are to be observed in statistical digests are as a rule based precisely on poverty and the lack of rights. Lukashenko's Belarus is trying to be a sort of Slavic Thailand or Malaysia. The consequences are much as might be expected: Belarus is not a tiger, merely a half-starved cat.

The dual nature of the Belarussian experience is reflected in the splitting of the Communist Party into pro-Lukashenko and anti-Lukashenko factions. The opposition to the regime has also had a dual character. On the one side are right-wing nationalists (from the Christian democrats of the Belarussian Popular Front to the neo-fascists of the Belarussian Party of Freedom), and on the other are left social democrats, the "Young Mass" (socialists), the Communist Party of Belarus and the anarchists. The left in Russia has also split into supporters and opponents of Lukashenko.

The Belarussian model encountered its first severe test in the autumn of 1998, when the crash of the Russian ruble hit the markets of the former Soviet Union. Russian products became cheaper, and those of Belarus less competitive. Belarussian enterprises then began experiencing an acute shortage of investment.

The elections of 2001 were a watershed. The Lukashenko regime needed to legitimise itself. At the same time, numerous promises were made to Russian corporations as the elections approached. These corporations, for their part, not only stopped fearing the "communist" Lukashenko, but on the contrary, invested considerable sums in his election campaign.

The opposition went into the elections with a single candidate, the leader of the official trade unions Vladimir Goncharik. The nominating of a common candidate in the first round was a curious move, since all the hopes of Lukashenko's opponents were on the second round.

Political absurdity

In fact, the united opposition was a political absurdity. People of directly counterposed views were gathered in the same camp, from the anti-Lukashenko faction of the Communists, the socialists and the anarchists, to the Belarussian Popular Front and the Belarussian Party of Freedom (the local analogue of the parties of Le Pen and Haider). The nationalism of the latter forces aroused fear and revulsion in supporters of the left.

The rightists in turn found little to attract them in the candidacy of trade union leader Goncharik, not to speak of the Communists. Workers recalled how Goncharik had betrayed the Minsk Metro strikers in 1995. Many people considered that the Belarussian Popular Front sabotaged Goncharik's campaign.

United solely by hatred of Lukashenko, the coalition could not work out a common program. Consequently, its election campaign slogans consisted of generalities, banalities, and meaningless verbiage.

The third candidate was Sergey Gaydukevich from the Liberal Democratic Party, the local variant of the party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Each day the official television proclaimed that the US embassy was behind the opposition. No-one in the opposition made particular efforts to deny this. US and western European money was providing a good living for several opposition organisations in Belarus. Most ironically of all, it was making them uninterested in waging a serious struggle for power. It was good being an oppositionist; you did not have to answer for anything, while you received grants, drew up your reports, and carried on with life.

To judge from everything, the US embassy had a good deal to do with the fact that the opposition nominated a single candidate. If this was the case, Lukashenko should not have been afraid of a US-organised conspiracy, but should have taken heart at American incompetence.

The election results were not hard to predict. According to the official figures Lukashenko received 78% of the votes, Goncharik 12%, and Gaydukevich 2%. The opposition maintains that Lukashenko in fact received 46%, Goncharik 43%, and Gaydukevich 7%.

Independent experts are sceptical of both sets of figures. According to these assessments Lukashenko won, but with a significantly smaller majority. The point is that "preliminary voting" took place over a period of several weeks, and its results were not monitored in any way.

According to various accounts, 14-17% voted "in advance". The independent experts, meanwhile, concluded that Lukashenko's tally had been boosted by about 15%; it is hard to believe that this was simply coincidence.

If these assessments are correct, the Lukashenko regime dealt itself a serious blow. With every chance of winning by honest means, the apparatus of the Belarussian president tried too hard, rigged the election results, and in the process rendered itself illegitimate.

Big changes ahead

In any case, big changes await Belarus in the aftermath of the elections. Foreign correspondents write that Belarus is a "Jurassic Park". This is wrong. The creatures in this reserve are evolving right before our eyes. Changes will come, but these will not be in response to an opposition victory. Not only has Moscow made a clear choice in favour of the existing president, but Western support for the opposition is weakening as well.

The leaders of non-government organisations accustomed to living on Western grants are complaining that the flow of money has started to dry up.

What is going on? Has the West grown convinced that the opposition is ineffective? Perhaps, but this cannot be the whole story. Far-reaching privatisation is beginning in Belarus. It should be pointed out that Lukasheno has provided almost no room for local Belarussian capital to develop. But this has by no means prevented the development of capitalism in Belarus. While there is no national bourgeoisie, its place is taken by a bloc consisting of the local bureaucracy and transnational corporations.

Over the last 10 years, Russia has established its own structures of transnational capital — Gazprom, Lukoil, Sibal, and so forth. Now that the ruble exchange rate has stabilised and the flow of petrodollars has strengthened the position of the oligarchs who had faced dire problems in the period of default, the Russian corporations in Moscow are ready to expand.

Belarus, where for 10 years Lukashenko has prudently refused to allow the oligarchs' Western competitors to operate, is becoming one of the zones for this expansion. Belarus, it turns out, is not a museum of the Soviet era, but a studiously preserved hunting reserve to which outsiders have not been admitted ahead of time.

Russian capital is actively moving in and taking over local industry. Most active of all are those oligarchs who are close to the present tenants of the Kremlin. This is why Lukoil organised a pre-election festival for Lukashenko in the very centre of Minsk. Sibal is preparing to purchase the Minsk Automobile Factory.

Nor is Western capital indifferent to what is happening in Belarus. During the election campaign Goncharik tried to prove to electors that only a change of regime would attract Western investment to Belarus. In fact, everything is precisely the opposite.

The dictatorial system in Belarus is unexpectedly being transformed from the republic's chief minus to a factor attractive to investors; there is order and stability, and there are no strikes. The low wages are an enticement to capital. The people are disciplined, educated, and cost even less than Russians.

The opposition explains to citizens that if it comes to power, the flow of Western investments will bring about an increase in wages. More than likely, the investments will indeed come, though not in response to an opposition victory, but under guarantees from Lukashenko that wages will remain at the previous level.

It could be said that Belarus under Lukashenko is following the same trajectory as other nomenklatura regimes. The degeneration of the ruling nomenklatura is quite natural. Opposition to Western transnational capital, if it is not based on a mass movement of workers and on left-wing ideology, will lead ultimately to one or another form of compact with capitalism. This will not always be on particularly advantageous terms.

The Belarussian regime, which has declared itself the defender of the "common people", is starting to implement neo-liberal reforms, taking cover at first behind the old social rhetoric.

Western capital is entering Belarus through Russia. The St Petersburg firm Baltika, for example, is buying a local brewery. The nationalists are in a panic — the Russians are coming! As a sign of protest they bought several crates of Baltika beer, and ceremoniously poured it on the ground. After this, naturally, sales of the "enemy" beer rose sharply.

Baltika is in fact controlled by a Swedish company. Something is happening that was expected neither by Russophobic westernisers, nor by Great Russian nationalists and Soviet patriots. The closer the relations between Belarus and Russia, the more bourgeois the elite becomes, and the stronger the positions of Western firms acting through their Moscow subsidiaries.

It goes without saying that once it has established itself in the Belarussian market, privatising and dividing up property, transnational and Russian capital will also try to install its own president.

More than likely it will do this smoothly, without the help of the opposition, but in the Moscow style, choosing a "liberal" successor to Lukashenko, a "reformer" from among the figures in the present regime.

Lukashenko, of course, has his own plans for the future, but it is not the case that everything depends on the will of a single individual. For the moment, the apparatus is loyal to "Papa" Lukashenko, and remains his principal base of support. From time to time "Papa" shuffles his officials, consigning erstwhile favourites to disgrace. If anyone has acquired particular weight in the government, that person is threatened at best with being appointed to a remote province.

Lukashenko understands perfectly that the real threat to his power comes not from the opposition, but from his own entourage. However, he cannot shuffle the entire apparatus. Lukoil, Sibal, Ikea and McDonalds are already here. Their political influence will increase. And one day, Lukashenko will find that there are no "eternal presidents".