Belarus president follows in Yeltsin's footsteps

October 23, 1996

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — For months, political crisis has gripped Belarus, the former Soviet republic of 10 million people on Russia's western border. President Alyaksandr Lukashenko, like Russia's Boris Yeltsin in the early autumn of 1993, is nearing the crucial stage of a drawn-out power struggle with his country's Supreme Soviet. If Lukashenko has his way, the monarchic presidency will soon be a fact in Belarus as it is in Russia.

So far Lukashenko, unlike Yeltsin, has not mounted a coup against the constitution, suspended the Constitutional Court or sent in army tanks to blast away the defiant legislature. But no-one is betting that he will not try these moves. Addressing a stormy sitting of the parliament on October 11, Lukashenko told deputies he had withdrawn proposals aimed at expediting a compromise. He reaffirmed his determination to hold a plebiscite on November 7 to win approval for his draft constitution. With that, he walked out.

The Supreme Soviet then voted 88-84 in favour of holding its own constitutional referendum on November 24. If approved, the legislature's changes will abolish the office of president and create a parliamentary republic.

Lukashenko has no guarantee that he can win a referendum honestly. For that matter, he cannot legally set the date for a referendum at all; that right belongs to the Supreme Soviet. The temptation is obviously very strong for him to follow Yeltsin's example from 1993, stepping outside legality in order to solve his constitutional problems by force.

Western leaders have clearly not given Lukashenko the tacit go-ahead they extended to Yeltsin. Nor have foreign media reports vilified the Belarussian Supreme Soviet, even though in its social and political make-up this body provides a close match for its pre-October 1993 Russian counterpart. Instead, there has been a consensus in western media commentaries that if the Belarussian parliament ceases to be able to resist Lukashenko, a massive blow will have been struck against democracy.

The strikingly different reaction in the two cases is much better explained as a response to economic policies than as the result of agonising over how best to foster a "culture of democracy". Yeltsin went into his confrontation with the Russian Supreme Soviet after promising, and to a certain degree implementing, one of history's more far-reaching essays in monetarist "shock therapy". Lukashenko abandoned half-hearted efforts at neo-liberal "reform" in the autumn of 1995, halting privatisation and reimposing a range of central economic controls.

The local nomenklatura in Belarus survived the break-up of the Soviet Union with its unity and nerve relatively intact, and with "conservatives" retaining much stronger positions within its ranks.

The results now include what is arguably the most remarkable flowering of "state capitalist" economic forms ever witnessed during peacetime in any country. Belarussian society today is remote from socialism; for one thing, centralised economic planning broke down before independence and has never been restored. Nevertheless, as many as 90% of enterprises remain owned by the state and are shielded by it against market pressures and the threat of bankruptcy.

The state firms are run, however, not by the state but by their managers, whose freedom of operation and scope for self-enrichment have expanded enormously now that meaningful central planning is no more. In practical terms, Belarussian factory directors operate as capitalists, while being spared many of the responsibilities and dangers that capitalists normally face.

This economic model can be seen as viable only in the relatively short term. The crash of the Belarussian economy has been somewhat less dire than the collapse brought about in Russia by the neo-liberal nostrums employed there; official statistics put the drop in industrial output in Belarus between 1990 and 1995 at 39%, compared with a Russian figure of about 50%. The fall in capital investment has also been less drastic.

But production in Belarus remains largely unrelated to demand. In the first months of 1996, about 30% of the manufactured goods produced in the country reportedly went unsold. Well over a third of factories are loss-making, kept operating by state bail-outs. Inflation in the first seven months of 1996 was held to about 20%, partly by using the country's hard currency reserves to defend the Belarussian rouble. But by August, these reserves were reported to be close to exhaustion.

While the managerial elite salts away its fortunes in foreign banks, the price of bureaucratic enrichment is being paid by the mass of the population. Average wages stand at the equivalent of about US$150 a month, and the incidence of wage non-payment, though not at the plague levels seen in Russia, is substantial.

Politically, this situation provides a virtual guarantee that the elite will seek to use authoritarian methods in order to secure its doomed bureaucratic paradise for as long as possible. Themselves mostly without conspicuous charm, the members of the nomenklatura-directorial stratum need an imposing politician to head their authoritarian project and whip the masses into tolerating it. Lukashenko has now moved into this role.

A rural-based populist, Lukashenko was a shock winner in the June 1994 presidential elections, which he contested as a tough-talking campaigner against corruption.

Lacking a developed program or an organised political following, he soon accepted the support and embraced the thinking of the factory and farm directors. As these layers lost faith in their ability to survive and prosper within a free-market capitalist project, Lukashenko increased the spread of state economic regulation.

With living standards continuing to plunge, and the elite sensing its small numbers and vulnerability before mass discontent, Lukashenko cracked down on democratic rights. The attack on the parliament is the latest move in a campaign that has also suspended trade unions, frozen the bank accounts of leading independent newspapers, placed extended bans on public gatherings and sentenced hundreds of anti-government demonstrators to jail.

To make certain that no hostile legislation makes its way through the parliament, Lukashenko plans to create a new upper house to which he will personally appoint many of the members. Under his proposed new constitution, the president will have the right to dissolve the parliament if it twice fails to approve the president's nominee for prime minister.

The parliament will no longer have the right to veto senior government appointments, including those of deputy premiers and defence, interior and security ministers. The president will have the right to set election dates; to call parliamentary sessions; to appoint judges, Central Election Commission officials and most Constitutional Court members; and to annul decisions by all local authorities. The term of election for presidents will be lengthened from five to seven years; Lukashenko's first term will begin from the date when the new constitution enters into force, even though he was elected more than two years ago.

Many of these innovations are modelled on similar provisions of Yeltsin's constitution. There were few criticisms of Yeltsin's draft in the world media at that time. Yeltsin was a democrat, and what could be better for democracy than to give a democrat unconstrained power?

Lukashenko, the world media have been moved to point out, is not a democrat. But among his best weapons as he tightens the screws on Belarussian society is the fact that many of the mechanisms he aims to use were blessed by world opinion-setters in 1993. If Lukashenko imitates Yeltsin once again, and blows away his country's parliament, the supple-spined accommodations of western politicians and media chiefs will presumably haunt them as they try to explain why what was good in Russia is bad in Belarus. But that will be small comfort for the population, heading into months or years of arbitrary rule.

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