July 10 marked fifteen years since Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s victory in the second round of the 1994 presidential election in Belarus. Though he has retained power partly by undemocratic means, repressing opponents and monopolizing the media, his success is nonetheless remarkable and worthy of analysis.
In the spring of 1994, the Belarusian parliament voted to approve a constitution for independent Belarus, and approximately two-thirds of its deputies supported the notion of a new executive presidency. In the same poll, a narrow majority rejected the idea that there would also be a vice-president, a position that might have had a modifying impact on the authority of the new leader (Belorusy i Rynok, No. 15, July 1993). In 1994, the figure of Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich dominated both the assembly and politics generally. An opinion poll conducted in February indicated that Kebich led all potential candidates for the presidency (Interfax, February 16, 1994). After a bitter campaign, however, Alyaksandr Lukashenka won an overwhelming victory in the second round over Kebich in the only truly democratic election in the short history of independent Belarus.
Analysts continue to debate the reasons behind Lukashenka’s victory (www.naviny.by, July 10), with some attributing it to his role as head of a parliamentary commission on corruption. Prior to and during the 1994 campaign, Lukashenka accused leading politicians (including Kebich and the former parliamentary chairman Stanislau Shushkevich) of corrupt practices.
In addition, however, he campaigned on a platform very similar to that of Kebich, emphasizing state control over the economy, the need to maintain close ties with Russia, and regretting the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was the combination of pro-Soviet rhetoric and the difficult economic circumstances during the early post-Soviet years that brought the former state farm chairman and KGB border guard to power.
Even in 1994, Lukashenka exhibited an ability to identify with voters, particularly those from rural regions. He spoke plain Russian, often associating the Belarusian language with the "disloyal" opposition. In the following years he implemented various measures to maintain himself in office, particularly the use of referendums on such issues as the state flag and official symbols, the promotion of Russian to the status of a state language alongside Belarusian, the enhancement of presidential authority vis-à-vis the parliament and the constitutional court, and ultimately in 2004 expanding the mandate of the president beyond two terms.
The president used the KGB and Special Forces (OMON) to undermine his enemies, particularly those who were former "friends" in high positions. The opposition, evicted from the assembly after it was reduced in size from 260 to 110 seats in late 1996, and largely deprived of a media voice, resorted to public protests and street demonstrations. Lukashenka ordered their dispersal with a relish for violence.
Yet his popularity is not contrived. It is based fundamentally on informal rhetoric, control of the media, and the economic and political stability of the country. His speeches express the sentiment that Belarus is under threat by hostile forces and that chaos would ensue if the president stepped down or were removed from office. Belarusian analyst Uladzimir Padhol published a collection of quotations from Lukashenka from 1991 to the present (Narodnyi Televizor, 2008). They are funny, outrageous, simple, insulting, and sometimes reveal a deeply alienated personality. They lack any consistent train of thought or clear vision for the future. Yet Belarus has made a significant transition from a quasi-Soviet state to one that values and protects fiercely its independence.
The rhetoric is deployed to berate "inept" cabinet members and to underscore the "treacherous" role of the opposition. It emphasizes a pact or agreement with "the people," thus rendering any criticism of his actions as ipso facto anti-state, much as Stalin manipulated Lenin’s teachings to create a dogma. The difference is that no one really knows what Lukashenka stands for.
Lukashenka’s public image is one of machismo. The burly president is a hockey player, cyclist, and free skater, or he is depicted in military uniform addressing the troops. His private life until recently was practically a state secret. His wife has never lived in Minsk, and five years ago he fathered an illegitimate child, Nikolay (his third son), who is now frequently seen with Lukashenka on public occasions and reportedly his potential successor (Pravda, October 23, 2008).
Finally, he has managed thus far to manipulate both Russian and E.U. leaders, convincing the latter at one point that he is a potential partner and wishing to distance himself to Russia; while assuring the Russians that although they have differences, they are essentially part of the same family.
Public propaganda today focuses on the experiences of the suffering and bravery of Belarusians during the German-Soviet war. The state sponsors a Union of Patriotic Youth that identifies with wartime veterans and harasses young people who refuse to adhere to the ideals of the president. Since the demise of the union state a few years ago, the president has promoted the cause of Belarus, the state that defied the Nazis, and is today a viable part of Europe -but on its own terms. It is defined more by what it is not than what it stands for, with President Lukashenka as the only constant fixture.