Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 14

A Belarusan scholar argues that only the country’s fledgling democratic movement can save Belarus from dictatorship

By Alyaksandr Potupa

The intensive development of Belarus’ dictatorial regime raises the question of whether internal resistance will be able to check the trend toward dictatorship. The "dictatorization" of the state, brought about as a result of last November’s constitutional referendum, has opened the way to the "totalitarization" of the economy. Pressure is building on Belarus’ non-governmental organizations (NGOs, or "third sector") by the undermining of the activity of the strongest independent social structures and the creation of totalitarian "pyramids," at the base of which lie thinly-veiled official organizations under the direct control of the president’s entourage. The aim of this "civil blitzkrieg" is to atomize the opposition, so that the dissident individuals and small dissident groups that remain will no longer be able to exert any influence over society.

The amorphous mass of the electorate — the "common people" who consistently voted for Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 1994 presidential election and in the last two referendums — has been joined by a regimented segment of the electorate which is consciously pro-Lukashenka. There is also the loyal (or at any rate obedient) presidential chain of command. Established by Lukashenka. the "presidential vertical" penetrates all aspects of public life and sidelines the other branches of power, subordinating all institutions to the leader personally. Add to these the monstrously inflated police apparatus and the mass media, both of which are under Lukashenka’s complete control, and it looks very likely that the regime will remain in place for a long time, regardless of the economic, social, and foreign policy costs that the Belarusan people will have to pay.

Belarus’ descent into dictatorship may perhaps be explained by the delay in replacing the elites during the transition from the period of "perestroika" (the late 1980s) to that of "reform" (1992-94). Eager to legitimate their material gains through a privileged network of commercial institutions protected from above and guaranteed all sorts of privileges, the more or less pragmatic nomenklatura of the "reform" period consolidated all the charms that the levers of state power (only weakly controlled by the law and the development of legal thought) could provide.

Of course, this gave dangerous influence to the new democratic elites, who were able to see, and formulate aloud, the difference between this kind of quasi-market and a real market based on legal guarantees for all property owners, not just a narrow circle of "royal merchants." Belarus’ move to a quasi-market slowed, in turn, the development of real democracy and the establishment of checks and balances between the three sectors of society, and weakened key links between economic actors and the "third sector."

Since Belarus’ 1994 presidential election, the country has been subjected to a "laboratory experiment" in the restoration of totalitarian dictatorship. This is the stuff of which Russia’s opposition can only dream and has, incidentally, received substantial support from it. The illusions of Lukashenka’s liberal supporters (including a large group of so-called "young wolves," who were quickly cast aside) that the president’s harsh course would be only temporary and that they would be able to take everything they could away from the old nomenklatura and redistribute it among their own "starving people," were dispelled in the first years of Lukashenka’s presidency. The logic of acquiring absolute personal power clearly includes having virtually unlimited control over all of the country’s resources and excludes the necessity of sharing these resources with any specific group. On the contrary: strengthening any group in this manner, even if it is close to you (especially if it is close to you!) runs the risk of allowing that group to develop into an opposition. This logic gives rise to a chain reaction which eradicates all forms of independence from the state and eliminates civil society.

Of course, in the progression toward dictatorship and totalitarization, all the weak spots of Belarus’ "third sector" have been revealed. These include the lack of communication between NGOs, the failure of business and commerce to give NGOs any support, and the NGOs’ own vulnerable position under the law. It is, nonetheless, the "third sector" that represents the last line of defense which the dictatorial regime will have to overcome before it can secure total control of society. And it is important to note that, in spite of obvious external difficulties and internal contradictions, several rather successful attempts have been made to consolidate this movement on as broad a basis as possible.

A coalition of opposition Supreme Soviet deputies and political parties has been strengthened by the addition of a number of NGOs. December 1996 saw the first conference of democratically-oriented NGOs, while February 1997 witnessed an assembly of the leaders of the country’s NGOs which was able to establish a permanent working group. In March 1997, leading NGOs signed the Human Rights Convention. A month later, a wide range of NGOs held the organizational meeting of the Belarusan Human Rights Convention (BPK). At that meeting, a permanent executive committee and a monitoring committee were elected. The BPK issued two major policy statements (one on the union of Belarus and Russia and another on the situation of NGOs in the Republic of Belarus), and took part in a number of international meetings. The BPK functions as an umbrella organization for NGOs, new political movements, emerging interest groups and political parties.

Such rapid growth is explained by the fact that, in the present situation, human rights issues are the focus of attention both of individual organizations and of society as a whole. At a time like the present, public opinion must find the clearest possible expression (especially since declarations in the name of "democratic forces" or "the people" are not well received by politicians, especially in the West). An organization like the BPK could become a serious mechanism to thwart dictatorship, transform the country in a progressive way, and form the nucleus of a democratic elite capable of implementing real, systemic reforms.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Dr. Alyaksandr Potupa is affiliated with the Center for the Study of the Future in Minsk.