Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 6

“Lukashism” has the potential to spread beyond Belarus

By Aleksandr Potupa

This article is a brief attempt to explain the situation in Belarus to readers who may be far from its borders. Most of the events observed today were predicted by the author with sickening accuracy at least 1-2 years before they came to pass. Perhaps the most important thing which must be realized now is that what is going on in Belarus is far from a local process. The relative ease with which an openly totalitarian regime could become established in a Central European country at the end of the 20th Century cannot but put one on guard, as must the consequences of its possible spread beyond the boundaries of long-suffering Belarus.

1. 1996: The November "Anti-constitutional Coup"

The measures taken from November 10-24, 1996, by the President of the Republic of Belarus, his administration, and the executive "vertical" [ed., the hierarchy of authority extending "vertically" from the president’s office down through regional executive bodies], cannot be considered a referendum from a legal point of view, if only for the simple reason that the legal order of publishing and distributing ballots was crudely violated. But there were other important and equally crude violations as well. To name just a few, on the ballots there was no clear formulation of the question on the constitutional changes. There was also an unacceptable lack of balance in the use of the Belarusan state-controlled mass media — which acted exclusively on behalf of the presidential version. The implementation of the results of the "referendum measures," moreover, was also absolutely illegitimate, especially the direct implementation of the so-called "1996 Constitution."

As a result, Belarus is in a situation of being forced to accept illegitimate institutions: the 1996 Constitution, the bicameral parliament, courts, the Council of Ministers, and the president himself, with his new powers, which he ascribed to himself. But forcibly changing all of the regime’s main elements by illegal means can be called nothing less than an "anticonstitutional coup."

2. An Unlimited "State of Emergency"

The main idea of the aforementioned "coup" lies, of course, not in the constitutional transformation to a new, and in a certain sense, better legal system, but in the final destruction of the political and legal space which — granted, in a very imperfect form — had been formed in Belarus by the middle of 1994. In the two years of his presidency, Lukashenko has undertaken many destructive attacks on the system connected with the 1994 Constitution. By such methods, Lukashenko was introducing a de facto state of emergency step by step, which was especially dangerous in that its anti-legal blows were gradually depriving of any meaning the legislative process, the role of the parliament, and the Constitutional Court. Most importantly, it was energetically pushing the executive branch of government outside the boundaries of the "field of law."

Lukashenko’s main task, therefore, which he accomplished behind the smoke screen of his "referendum measures," was to annihilate any independent governmental mechanisms which could control or check his power. This could also be characterized as establishing a dictatorship. Its documentary formulation in the form of the forcibly-implemented 1996 Constitution is, in essence, the establishment of a de jure "state of emergency," which allows the president to violate existing legislation in any sector, and to any extent, with his decrees, orders, directives, or even telegrams.

3. Dictatorship and "Totalitarization"

It must be stressed that Lukashenko took active steps to establish his dictatorship literally from the very start of his term (in the summer of 1994) in all three sectors of society simultaneously — the government, the economy, and the "third sector" — that of the non-governmental organizations or NGOs — which in the Republic of Belarus are more often called "social organizations" [obshchestvennye organizatsii].

The attack on the government sector began in the fall of 1994 with the breaking up of the system of local self-government and its replacement with a "local vertical" appointed directly by the president; the dictatorship was successfully established as the result of the "coup by referendum."

The attack on the economy began virtually at the same time, through the establishment of ministerial contracts with the leaders of state enterprises. It was virtually completed after the "coup" by taking the whole mass of registered owners of all forms of property under the "umbrella" of the presidential control bodies.

In order to do this, the president carried out measures in 1995-1996 which seemed completely crazy both from a legal and from an economic point of view. For example, closing down or changing the leadership of a private enterprise by presidential decree, preventing new registration of businesses for half a year, the re-registration and licensing of enterprises through the infamous presidential telegram of February 6, 1996, and finally, the total re-registration of enterprises in the last months of 1996. All this, of course, led to a drastic reduction in the private sector — no less than 70 percent of enterprises disappeared.

Clearly it is impossible under such circumstances to have any serious discussion of civilized mechanisms of attracting foreign and domestic investment. Over the time of Lukashenko’s rule the level of investment in Belarus has fallen almost 50 percent, which is the main tragedy of the domestic economy. In essence, there is no point in planning any market reforms at all. Ever since 1994, there has been a permanent anti-market revolution, and the totalitarian command-administrative economy really is being restored in the country.

Parallel with the establishment of dictatorship in the government and the economy, a rather intensive attack on the "third sector" is now underway. Along with the purely "social" (non-governmental) organizations engaging in no perceptible economic activity, the "third sector" also includes the media and analytical centers which work virtually on a non-profit basis. This sector, which includes the structures which form the country’s civil society, represented and still represents the greatest problem for the expansion of the dictatorial regime.

In essence, the real democratization of the country was begun in the first years of Belarus’s independence thanks to the development of these structures, which were protected to a certain degree by the government and which received some material and moral support from the business community. If these structures had continued to develop together with the power structures for just three to five more years while market reforms were carried out intensively, a "red-brown" Lukashenko-style backlash would have become virtually impossible.

Unlike the countries of Eastern Europe that did not become part of the USSR, or the Baltic states, in Belarus (as in Russia and Ukraine) the "anti-occupationist" motif was not prominent, and this significantly reduced the level of "economic victimization" which is so necessary in order to launch harsh market transformations. On the other hand, in Belarus (as in Russia and Ukraine) the "expropriationist syndrome" had stronger roots, for the intensive and prolonged struggle against private property was more obvious here. Over the course of many generations the state had demonstrated its ability to take any amount of property, health, and freedom away from a person without having to take into account any legal norms whatsoever. Failure to take these socio-psychological factors into account has had a negative effect, both on the pace of Belarusan economic reforms — by suppressing the process of reinvesting profits — and on the pace of the formation of civil society in Belarus.

The unstructured mass of Lukashenko’s electorate accepted, quietly and even with approval, the rapid formation of the presidential administration, together with its "vertical" in the style of the former Central Committee of the CPSU — in practice, a supra-governmental structure which claims to be the "leading and guiding" force of Belarusan society, directly responsible to no one and with real power over everyone and everything. Lukashenko’s electorate also approved of the "November coup," as a result of which, the president’s powers now exceed those of a Soviet potentate and an absolute monarch put together. Clearly such a leader cannot coexist with any form of opposition concentrated in the "third sector."

Back in the fall of 1994, Lukashenko began his operation against the "third sector" with an attempt to create a purely pro-presidential National Association of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs [NAPiP] as a counterweight to the Belarusan Union of Entrepreneurs and a number of other organizations which had come out against Lukashenko in the presidential elections. The NAPiP actually was registered about a year and a half later, and after that, the government began systematically to create other quasi-social pro-presidential organizations aimed at supplanting existing independent parties, public movements, and organizations

But even under these intimidating conditions, a large group of NGOs has managed to consolidate, holding a conference and an assembly to work out coordinated actions and organizing a permanent working group. Clearly, under conditions of growing repression from the regime, defending human rights and coordinating their efforts in this regard has moved into the forefront in the activity of all NGOs. The Coordination Agreement signed by the Belarusan PEN-Club, the Belarusan Helsinki Committee, and the Belarusan Euro-Atlantic Association, together with the creation of the Human Rights Convention, which was initially joined by 19 NGOs, have given a special impetus to this development.

The level of internal resistance to the final "dictatorization" of Belarusan society now really depends on the further development of this "third sector." The political parties and groups of deputies from the 13th Supreme Soviet, who have remained faithful to the 1994 Constitution, have been driven into this "third" sector. Of course, the group of Belarusan organizations resisting the dictatorship need multifaceted support from the world community. They play the role not simply of the half-defeated rear guard of Belarusan democracy, but are also, as it were, the advance guard of the Free World’s landing force in its attempt to resist the spread of the threat of "Lukashism" beyond Belarus.

4. Local and Global "Lukashism"

One may, of course, reduce the whole Lukashenko problem to the fact that the Belarusans have simply been terribly unlucky — the insufficient intensity of their economic reforms coupled with the weak development of the institutions of civil society made it possible to establish in Belarus a dictatorship of a strong personality with certain specific psychological characteristics.

It is true that Lukashenko has a maniacal thirst for power and that he may suffer from what psychiatrists call a "chronic complaining complex" [kverulyantsky sindrom]. People who suffer from this on an everyday level ruin the lives of family members, colleagues, local authorities and the editors of local newspapers, and when elevated to authority, produce "enemies of the people" and repressive dictatorship. This appears to be where Lukashenko’s world-famous statements in praise of Hitler and Stalin7s experience come from, together with his public equating of businessmen with "lice," his global plans to unite the Slavs, his wild outbursts against the mass media, his smearing his fellow presidential candidates, etc.

That is all true. But behind these subjective psychological (at times, simply psychiatric) characterizations a quite serious process can be seen. It is possibly the most dangerous attempt to restore — if not the former USSR — then at least its Belarusan-Russian part to a condition of being a "Red (or Red-Brown) Hole" in the world’s political and legal space.

In Belarus, this "laboratory experiment" has almost completely run its course — from returning to the symbols of Bolshevik rule to the establishment of a virtually unlimited totalitarian dictatorship. Direct movements of this type failed in the former USSR in August 1991, and in Russia in the fall of 1993. Russian opposition (and frequently, government) forces of the communist and Slavic-fundamentalist type placed their strategic hopes on the Belarusan "messiah" even during the presidential campaign, and did not miscalculate. Led by the "carrot under his nose" — the Kremlin throne — Lukashenko has really accomplished in Belarus what the Zhirinovskys and Zyuganovs, and even the Anpilovs and Barkashovs, only dream of doing. He has established a working dictatorship that can serve as a model to be exported to Russia. This is the why the Russian opposition is in a hurry. The level of economic difficulty and social tension in Russia is still very great. Now is the best time to transfer the "Lukashenko model" to Russia, and if the opposition waits too long, Russia’s success in overcoming these crises will bury forever all hopes for success.

Even today, the "Lukashenko model" — either with or without Lukashenko himself — poses a real threat of "reprogramming" a gigantic nuclear power. And without a harsh campaign on the part of the Euro-Atlantic world against Lukashenko’s dictatorship in Belarus — and against the approaching Belarusan-Russian union — this threat is likely only to increase. Boris Yeltsin must come to understand clearly that an attempt to enter into a union with Lukashenko — not with the Belarusan people, but with the Belarusan dictator — will leave him alone to face not only the "malcontent from Minsk," but also his own opposition and an empty treasury. Moreover, if the "Lukashenko model" is not liquidated within Belarus, and especially, if it spreads to Russia, it is capable of creating global tensions which will severely deform Europe and the evolution of the world in the first decade of the 21st century.

Translated by Mark Eckert