Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 6

Social organizations provide the key to changing the “Belarusan Constant”

By Paulyuk Bykowski

The "Belarusan constant" could change if the "third sector" — various social and non-governmental organizations — deprives the state of its monopoly on social guarantees, the Belarusan democratic opposition works out a basic, integrated ideology, and the anti-dictatorial coalition acquires a leader.

Too much in Belarusan politics is predetermined by the population’s consciousness of its dependence on the state, and the leftist views of the electorate, 37 percent of which is made up of pensioners. But now that President Aleksandr Lukashenko has introduced his new constitution, and the political parties, both on the right and on the left, have nothing left to do, the potential preconditions have arisen for changing the "Belarusan constant."

The possible direct or indirect liquidation of legal opposition parties will necessarily lead to a strengthening of the already substantial "personification" of the president’s power. At the same time, the population’s real standard of living continues to get worse, and it is easy to imagine a day when the state is no longer able to bear the full burden of its social guarantees.

If this (suddenly?) happens, the burden of social guarantees will fall on the shoulders of civil society and inspire the formation of all sorts of charitable organizations. Formally, they already exist today, but they are not yet very active. The Chernobyl foundations, perhaps, may serve as an exception. But they are not yet working on a nationwide level, and the state does not conceal its intention to take them under its control.

But everything may look different tomorrow. The state may not be able to prevent a social explosion without their help. Moreover, the labor unions are becoming an impressive force, which the government will be forced to take into account.

If the regime finally succeeds in driving the opposition underground and artificially limits the activity of its citizens in the political sphere (and this tendency can be observed at the present moment in Belarus), the "soil" in which a multitude of "nonpolitical" social [obshchestvennye] organizations–all sorts of cultural, educational, historical and other organizations, formed on the basis of interests which died out after the liberalization of Soviet society in the early 90s–could flourish.

Many of these organizations, in any event, will be linked with the political opposition.

Today, it is hard for the government to hold a party responsible if one of its members holds an unsanctioned meeting in which the party does not officially participate. If a network of social organizations springs up tomorrow, these parties will not be guilty of "subversive" activity in the event that one of their members engages in such activity "at his own risk," using the organization’s facilities and transportation.

The state is also losing its levers of influence on the financing of political organizations, which makes local businessmen afraid to help them, and deprives their foreign colleagues of the right of doing so. Social organizations are under no such limitations and can even demand all sorts of privileges from the state, and frequently, money as well.

Even in the most unfavorable political climate, a decentralized network of social organizations can flourish and can serve as a wonderful supplement to the political opposition, although it cannot replace it entirely. Moreover, these structures, by their very existence, provide resistance to totalitarian tendencies, insofar as they make the population less dependent on the state.

Against this background, Aleksandr Lukashenko has thunderously rejected market reforms, which have been discredited by state propaganda and which were never really begun in earnest in Belarus. And, once again dividing society into unequal parts of "rich" and "poor," he has declared his support for — and at moments of crisis has conducted his own policies in the interests of — the ever-increasing numbers of "poor." Thus, the head of state has insured himself, for the near future, against possible social explosions. Taking into account the open subordination of all the other branches of government in Belarus to the executive branch, which has been strengthened by the new constitution, there is no chance of a swift and legal transformation of the regime.

Aleksandr Lukashenko has succeeded in liquidating all potential centers of opposition within the government, and has done so by the hands of the citizens themselves, who supported him in the November 1996 referendum. Of course, when this referendum was conducted, the democratic rules for conducting a plebiscite were not observed, the law setting up the referendum was violated, and its results were rigged, but that is no longer important today. After the November constitutional coup [konstitutsionii perevorot] in Belarus, an internal political situation was formed which indefinitely postpones the possibility of a quick change of the ruling regime, barring a serious intervention from outside.

In any case, the present pro-authoritarian regime, which is unable to manage the economy effectively and which relies on the charisma of one populist leader, is doomed. Belarusan realities are such that Aleksandr Lukashenko, who could not form "his own" party or public movement, enjoys only passive support from the silent majority of the population; the politically-active minority is, for the most part, in the opposition camp. And this minority, in a crisis situation, could not only create the appearance of being the majority; it could also win over a significant portion of the majority, or in any case, neutralize it.

In choosing an authoritarian style of rule, Aleksandr Lukashenko has predetermined his own political fall from the presidency. Sooner or later, there will be a change in regime, most likely by means of forced abdication — either by a "palace revolt" or in the form of "the revolutionary work of the masses." But, if everything seems clear with the first alternative, especially in view of Lukashenko’s increasingly obvious designs on the Russian throne, there can still only be a hazy conception of the second, insofar as at the present time, the president’s opponents are in no condition to solve either the problems of "political mobilization" or the "political demobilization" of the masses which will have to come afterwards.

The Belarusan opposition is more pluralist today than ever before. Its main centers are the Belarusan Popular Front "Andradzhenie" (Revival) [BNF], the United Citizens’ Party [OGP], the Belarusan Social-Democratic Party "Narodnaya Gromada" [BSDP], the Belarusan Party of Communists [PKB], the Agrarian Party [AP], and the Assembly of Deputies of the 13th Supreme Soviet, who do not recognize the results of last year’s November referendum on changing the constitution.

After the illegal dissolution of the 13th Supreme Soviet, this Assembly — including almost all of the members of the body’s presidium and its speaker, Semyon Sharetsky — became a symbol of the fight against legalizing presidential dictatorship. Theoretically, there is the possibility of forming around it a national-liberation, liberal, free-market, social-reformist, broad-based opposition to the present regime.

But the time for realizing such a possibility is running out. If outside forces cannot compel Aleksandr Lukashenko to enter into a dialogue with the opposition and to legitimize the results of the November referendum — with the participation of the Supreme Soviet — then the latter body will most likely become by the fall of 1997 a purely decorative body.

Virtually all of the representatives of the anti-presidential coalition today understand that fighting the ruling regime by parliamentary means will not work in the absence of democratic freedoms, but only the leaders of the BNF, and to a lesser extent, the Social-Democrats and Communists, who are also opposed to Lukashenko, have a realistic chance of persuading their followers to take to the streets. Naturally, only the opposition veterans are doing so now (the BNF first appeared in 1989, on the crest of the wave of perestroika).

The representatives of the opposition’s left wing (the present PKB, the AP, and the BSDP) grew out of the ruling Communist Party and feel very uncomfortable in their new role, but are rather homogeneous, and their social-populist slogans will be quite appealing in Belarus. The organizational disunity of the non-leftist opposition, on the other hand, is predetermined by their ideological heterogeneity, although these differences are, perhaps, known only to their most ideologized functionaries, who argue about things like the priority or parity of individual and national rights.

The failure of the nationalist revival led, in the first half of the 1990s, to the formation of two democratic currents, oriented towards opposite models of civil society. Moreover, the liberals from the OGP consider the national-patriotism of members of the BNF and a significant part of the BSDP to be somewhat decorative, as well as irrational and outside of economics. They also see these members as people who will always be in the opposition and who pose no threat of actually coming to power. From the BNF’s point of view, the OGP’s ideology is excessively devoted to classical liberal schemes that will scare off the Belarusan industrial lobby, which is protected from foreign competition today.

The negative image of its main leaders is a serious minus for the opposition. [Government] propaganda has formed an image of the BNF as a semi-fascist, radical nationalist, and anti-Russian organization. Moreover, the movement has spoken out in favor of unpopular slogans of, first, secession from the USSR, and then, defending the sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus, Belarusization, and cleaning up the state apparatus. Today, the BNF’s charismatic leader, Zyanon Paznyak, is outside of Belarus (he has been offered political asylum in the United States), which the presidential propaganda is gleefully exploiting in order to discredit the BNF.

The opposition has not, as yet, been able to put forward a new leader of national stature, able to stand up to Aleksandr Lukashenko. The OGP is recommending its member, Supreme Soviet vice-speaker Gennady Karpenko, for this position; the BNF, albeit with less enthusiasm — is behind writer Lyavon Borshchevsky or professor Yuri Khodyko; the other opposition leaders have not yet been determined. But if the confrontation between the regime and the opposition becomes radicalized, the leader will most likely come from the ranks of "new" politicians.

At present, however, forming a new integrating ideology, which could be based on one of the modifications of neo-nationalism, like the conception of statehood put forth by "Our Home is Belarus" and popular with both the BNF and the liberals: "sovereignty, restoration of legality and democracy, and economic reforms;" or "Belarus for the Citizens of Belarus," etc., is a more pressing problem than choosing a "Messiah." Such an ideology could attract leftists and even the Belarusan Communists, who, today, are beginning to renounce their former dogmas (the restoration of the USSR) and, under the slogan of the "fight for Soviet Power" are demanding the return of the institution of parliamentary democracy.

Translated by Mark Eckert