Belarus: towards a new dictatorship?


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Alexander Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus — a republic of 10 million people on Russia's western border — by a big majority last July. He ran as an independent waging a classic "anti-politician" campaign.

While his program included borrowings from the left — including calls for halting privatisation, recentralising the economy and reversing price increases — there seemed little cause to expect Lukashenko to challenge the power of Belarus' newly rich elite.

And indeed, nothing has come of Lukashenko's leftist phrasemongering. Market mechanisms are being introduced and privatisation is being continued, if more slowly than in Russia. Meanwhile, as in other ex-Soviet republics on track to capitalism, the economy has continued to decline. Gross domestic product last year fell by 21%, while recent inflation rates have been around 12% per month.

Lukashenko has followed the example of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, seeking to offset his loss of control over economic matters by increasing his control over political life.

The latest step in this march toward presidential dictatorship occurred on May 14, when Lukashenko won overwhelming endorsement from the population for a set of referendum proposals. The referendum accompanied, and in many ways overshadowed, the country's first parliamentary elections since independence in 1991.

Parliament weakened

Of the referendum questions, the first three were either harmless or made good sense — and were known beforehand to be broadly popular. Voters were asked to endorse increased economic integration with Russia; to approve changes to the state flag and coat of arms; and to make Russian an official state language alongside the little-used Belarussian.

The fourth question, however, reflected Lukashenko's continuing effort to dominate and if possible force the dissolution of the parliament — a campaign reminiscent of that waged by Yeltsin in Russia during 1993. Voters were asked whether they favoured granting Lukashenko the power to dissolve the parliament if it committed "systematic and gross violations" of the constitution.

In approving the referendum, the parliament had stipulated that this fourth question would not be binding. But as the Moscow daily Izvestiya observed tactfully, Lukashenko is "known for his wilful attitude" on constitutional matters.

All four questions were passed with votes of about 80%. The position of the parliament has been weakened substantially as a result.

In some ways, the drift toward authoritarianism in Belarus might appear puzzling. Formerly among the most developed and prosperous republics of the Soviet Union, Belarus might have seemed one of the regions of the ex-USSR best able to guarantee civil rights and create democratic institutions of rule. This prosperity, however, meant that the nomenklatura elite came under little pressure during the perestroika years, surviving into the post-Soviet era relatively united and with its nerve intact.

Nomenklatura capitalism

Understanding that attempts to preserve the Soviet-style "command economy" would prove futile, and yearning for private property, most members of the nomenklatura have been willing converts to capitalism. But observing the fiasco created by forced-draft privatisation in Russia, they have preferred to move cautiously in dividing up state assets.

There are few immediate incentives for enterprise directors to demand that the shift to unalloyed capitalist forms be speeded up. Central economic regulation has largely been abandoned, leaving enterprise managements essentially free to trade — and to pocket the proceeds — as they wish. Meanwhile, the fact that most enterprises remain state-owned means that losses are covered and credits guaranteed.

This "nomenklatura capitalism" is staggeringly wasteful. Its inherent absurdities, together with the breaking of economic links with other former Soviet republics and the need to pay greatly increased prices for Russian oil and gas, have put an end to Belarussian prosperity. The price has been paid by the mass of the population, whose average wages are now worth about US$60 a month.

Though not formerly a member of the nomenklatura elite, Lukashenko has adapted readily to its perspectives, and his actions — as distinct from his populist utterances — have been consistent with its needs. After being stalled for months, privatisation was restarted recently with a goal of selling off 500 state enterprises, about 4.4% of the total, during 1995.

The key needs of the nomenklatura capitalists include protection from the scrutiny of a free press and from the actions of democratically elected organs of government. Lukashenko has served the elite in these areas as well.

Press muzzled

In mid-March he dismissed the editor of the parliament's newspaper Narodnaya Gazeta, after the paper had published a letter criticising government policies. During the early months of this year, the state publishing house censored news articles on a corruption probe. Instead of the articles, newspapers carried white spaces.

In a speech in late March, Lukashenko threatened to shut down newspapers guilty of the slightest "inaccuracy" in their reporting. Moscow News observed on May 19, "Today Belarussian newspapers contain no political news, opinions or viewpoints".

Opponents of the government still have a degree of freedom to demonstrate and picket, and Lukashenko was reportedly enraged in January when at least 20,000 trade unionists rallied in the capital, Minsk, to demand pay rises. But such actions take place in an information vacuum.

Belarus' parliament, the Supreme Soviet, now plays a key role as one of the few remaining forums for criticism of the regime. Like Yeltsin in Russia, Lukashenko has sought to intimidate the parliamentarians, to the point of using armed force against them.

During April, several dozen deputies protesting against Lukashenko's referendum plans staged a hunger strike inside the parliament building. Before dawn on April 12, as many as 100 armed troops burst in and evicted the hunger strikers, beating many of them with truncheons. In statements during this period, the president urged the parliament to dissolve itself, hinting that he might force the issue if necessary.

The government's conduct of the May 14 elections was evidently designed to make shutting down the Supreme Soviet unnecessary, through preventing a new parliament from being elected. The sum spent on organising the polls was the equivalent of only 6 US cents per voter. Candidates were limited to spending no more than the equivalent of US$60 on their campaigns.

Although Belarus already had a valid electoral law, Lukashenko early in April issued a fresh decree on the elections; under this, candidates were banned from accepting funding from businesses and even from political parties. Aspiring parliamentarians were also barred from campaigning on national television and radio; instead, they were restricted to local media outlets, under strict conditions.

Understandably, few electors had much idea of the candidates' programs, or even knew their names. Voting on May 14 before the cameras of television journalists, Lukashenko demonstratively spoiled his ballot as an expression of contempt for the parliament.

Surprisingly, perhaps, participation in the elections was a relatively high 65%. But candidates were elected in the first round in only about 20 of the 260 single-member districts; in 25 districts, the result was invalidated due to a voter turnout of fewer than 50%. A second round of voting will be held on May 28, and unless valid results are recorded in two-thirds of the districts — something which is far from guaranteed — a new Supreme Soviet will not convene. Further elections will then occur only in the autumn.

The political party system is only weakly developed, and most of the candidates who will contest the second round appear to be independents backed by local apparatus interests. Nevertheless, the election results so far show trends which the government will find disturbing. The Party of Communists, running in a bloc with the peasant-based Agrarian Party, polled strongly; members of this alliance made up the largest single group among the first-round victors.

Clashes likely

Having felt the lash of Lukashenko's anti-democratic policies even before election day, the new parliamentarians — assuming they are able to meet — are likely to be sharply hostile to the government. Major clashes between the executive and legislature appear certain, and the Supreme Soviet building in Minsk may well experience further visits from squads of masked men in camouflage uniforms.

The slide into presidential dictatorship cannot be prevented through the cure-all generally urged by Western commentators — that is, crash privatisation as part of monetarist "shock therapy". By further impoverishing the population, this course would greatly increase social tensions; the compulsion would then become irresistible for the nomenklatura to try to protect itself through harsh repression.

The only democratic solution to Belarus' problems lies along a quite different track. Control over state-owned enterprises by nomenklatura capitalists must be replaced by workers' control, combined with democratic state planning as an aspect of a mixed economy in which collective interests are dominant.

This poses an enormous challenge to the left and workers' movement. Nevertheless, Belarus is a highly industrialised country, where the bulk of workers are employed in large enterprises with developed trade union organisations. Such a work force has a clear potential for acting in unison to decide its own fate.