On the brink

26 Aug 2020

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Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

FIFTY shades of grey: that just about sums up my abiding impression of Minsk. But that’s based on a wintry sojourn more than 40 years ago, amid leaden skies and relentless flurries of snow. The capital of Belarus has been a great deal more colourful this summer, with enough feet pounding the streets to suggest a significant change may be in the offing.

An entire generation of Belarusians has come of age without knowing any leader other than Alexander Lukashenko. The favoured Western image of him as ‘the last European dictator’ may be something of an exaggeration, given the multiple dictatorial tendencies in Eastern Europe, but it’s fairly obvious that all too many of his compatriots are keen on his departure from the helm.

Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus in 1994, less than three years after his predecessor, Stanislav Shushkevich, conspired with Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin to dissolve the Soviet Union.

His popular 1994 platform was not only anti-corruption but also opposed the neoliberal ‘shock therapy’ that had wreaked havoc in Russia. Much of the production base remains under state control. Another Soviet legacy is ‘raspredelenie’ (distribution), where­­by the majority of graduates are offered jobs usually corresponding to their area of specialisation. The perception of work as a civic duty was also preserved, including the concept of ‘subbotniki’ (voluntary labour on Saturdays).

Thousands have been marching in Minsk.

Other aspects of Lukashenko’s rule were far less welcome, including a Soviet-style intolerance for dissent and brutal penalties for disobedience. He has also wavered through much of his 26 years in power between courting Russia and flirting with the West. In the Yeltsin years, he was keen on what would effectively have been a Soviet reunion, apparently under the impression that he might emerge as a leader of the whole, given Yeltsin’s weakness (not least for vodka).

That illusion received a reality check with the ascendance of Vladimir Putin, who has no objection to a union as long as it’s clear who is in charge. Lukashenko has been miffed at not receiving due deference from his Russian counterpart. Earlier this year, he complained about Russian interference in Belarusian politics and defiantly hosted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In the past couple of weeks, though, he has been communicating frequently with Putin, soliciting his assistance while warning that the rebellious spirit of Belarus could seep into Russia. Moscow has been hedging its bets, but there has been a shift in recent days towards support for Lukashenko. And one can only wonder whether the apparent poisoning of Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny was a part of the reaction to events in Belarus.

The Putin regime has for the past six weeks faced growing protests in the city of Khabarovsk, following the arrest of Sergei Furkal, a popular governor. They hardly pose a serious threat to the Kremlin hierarchy, thousands of kilometres away, but their persistence is a novelty — and Navalny was interested.

There have been no signs, though, of the rebellion spreading to the rest of Russia, and Putin is likely to have scoffed at the beleaguered Lukashenko’s warning. Besides, Belarus is not Ukraine.

The protesters’ concerns have neither been anti-Russian nor pro-Western. The change they seek is domestic. Economic indicators dipped southwards after the Russians earlier scaled back fuel subsidies that have propped up the Belarusian economy. Then Lukashenko dismissed Covid-19 as a farce. Football matches continued to take place despite a hiatus elsewhere. The Victory Day parade in May went ahead in Minsk, after Moscow had decided to postpone its own display.

These propitious circumstances enabled Svetlana Tikhano­vs­kaya to rise to the occasion. The 37-year-old is not a political veteran. She entered the fray only after her husband Sergei, whose YouTube campaigns had been receiving sufficient at­­tention to perturb the authorities, was arrested in May. Lukashenko dismissed her as “a stupid little girl”, and went on to claim his usual 80 per cent majority in the Aug 9 poll.

When Tikhanovskaya tried to officially protest the ridiculous result, she was evidently taken into custody and compelled to record a hostage video asking her supporters to accept the official result. Subsequently, she was allowed to go into exile in neighbouring Lithuania, where she said she had been driven out by threats to her children.

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have meanwhile been marching in Minsk and other cities and towns. Lukashenko was taken aback last week when workers at a factory greeted him with “Ukhodi!” — get out, leave, go. Last Sunday, amid more protests, the president flew over the crowds in a helicopter and was shown emerging from it in camouflage garb, clutching a Kalashnikov — suggesting he has no intention of heeding that advice.

His days are probably numbered. But who can say what the nation’s post-Lukashenko future holds.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2020