Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 10

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

[Necromancy, (Greek, from nekros, a dead body, and manteia, divination), the art of divining the future by conjuring up the spirits of the dead and questioning them.]

The only press Belarus gets is negative press. With the help of both Western and Russian journalists, Belarusan president Alyaksandr Lukashenka has acquired a reputation as an impulsive and crude politician. The lack of attention accorded Belarus makes it harder to understand the phenomenon of “political necromancy”–approaching the future by questioning the spirits of the past. These include, for example, “the history of the great land of the Soviets,” “our” Soviet experience, and, finally, inflating the old Soviet idea of the “friendship of the peoples” to overcome present hardships. The device of “questioning the spirits of the past” has been perfected by Lukashenka in his experiment on his own people. An elucidation of his methodology will greatly help us to imagine one possible prototype for development in Russia and Ukraine.


Belarus has been neglected by political analysis, which has been replaced by journalistic denunciation of the actions of its colorful and willful president Alyaksandr Lukashenka. After Lukashenka came to power in 1994–by perfectly legal means in an election which was recognized as democratic–he dissolved parliament, which he justly perceived as a threat to his power and ambitious political plans, and appointed a legislature made up of his own supporters. In 1996 he amended the constitution and held a referendum on extending his powers until 2001–an idea which Lukashenka borrowed from his Central Asian colleagues Nursultan Nazarbaev (Kazakhstan), Imomali Rakhmonov (Uzbekistan) and Saparmurat Niazov (Turkmenistan). The results of the referendum in Belarus were not accepted as legitimate by the Belarusan opposition–which has focused on “alternative” elections held on May 16 1999–or by specialists from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Prior to this, the OSCE had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the parliament appointed by Lukashenka.

Since then, Belarus has almost been forgotten; the country and its prominent leader have become targets for journalistic wit, which was provided with a wealth of material during the so-called “sewer” crisis of 1998, when Lukashenka ordered that the water supply to Western diplomatic missions in the Drazdy area of Minsk be cut off. Lukashenka wanted to drive the diplomats out to the suburbs, further away from his enormous luxury presidential palace. Prior to this, in the spring of 1996, Belarus was briefly in the news when the foundation documents for the Russia-Belarus Union were signed. The prevailing opinion in both the Western and Russian press was one of doubt that there could be any practical potential in this new “real” union, which was created as a counterweight to the virtually paralyzed CIS. Commentators were almost unanimous in their view that an economically weak Russia would not be able to fuel the collapsing Belarusan economy, and so the union would serve a purely political propaganda purpose. The only issue was that of whose politics and whose propaganda the Russia-Belarus Union represented.


This emphasis on the ethnic element of Russian foreign policy with regard to its closest neighbors radically altered the whole concept of Russia’s foreign policy since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze, who was appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 to proclaim the emphasis on “common human values” in Soviet foreign policy as the essence of the concept of “new thinking.” Common human values were at the core of the pro-Western, liberal policy of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who was replaced by Yevgeny Primakov in 1995. The move away from universalism towards the “ethnization” of foreign policy, which took shape after Boris Yeltsin’s forced dissolution of the Russian parliament in October 1993, meant that Belarus would have a special role in the future geopolitical organization–for at the time Ukraine had absolutely no intention of joining a “Slavic nucleus.” To reduce the possibility of being accused of pan-Slavism by Central Asian states, Primakov and Yeltsin planned to include Kazakhstan in this future “Slavic nucleus.” However, Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbaev then forgot about the idea as he got carried away by plans to secure Western credits for developing the Tengiz oil fields.

The conflict in Yugoslavia gave a new boost to the future “ethnization” of Russia’s and Belarus’ foreign policy. The contours of “Slavic” integration took on a decidedly anti-NATO and anti-Western form, particularly after the Yugoslav parliament voted in April 1999 to join the Russia-Belarus Union. The strategic aim of the organization was also clearly defined–to compensate for NATO’s expansion eastwards, with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joining the alliance. Belarus was to be the outpost of the “Slavic” response to the challenge of the Protestant and Catholic West.

Lukashenka was full of the importance of his historical mission–to defend Eastern Christianity against the aggression of Western religions and Western civilization. His rhetoric even assumed overtones of Messianism and megalomania. The essence of this rhetoric can be reduced to the words: “The Epoch and I” (Vremya television program, May 7, 1999). According to Lukashenka, he knows best how to resolve the Yugoslav conflict–by giving direct military assistance to Belgrade. He was sharply critical of the peacekeeping mission (by which he meant the activities of President Yeltsin’s special Balkans envoy, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin), advocating offering “real” aid to Belgrade rather than “advice.”


Elucidating the world view and basic values of any political leader (particularly such an authoritarian one as Lukashenka) helps to form an understanding of their motives and actions. What is Lukashenka’s world like? What are his basic paradigms?

One can state immediately that it is a distinctive world of postcommunist autarchy and retrostrategy, where, though there is no official dominant communist ideology as there was in the Soviet Union, communist practices in politics, economics and management have nevertheless been preserved and modified in their entirety.

The basic feature of Lukashenkism as a sociopolitical phenomenon is a symbiosis of communism, chauvinism and populism, in the Latin American style. The emergence of Lukashenkism cannot be considered coincidental. Its appearance was predetermined by the virtual denationalization of the Belarusan political elite, the annihilation of its more active members during the second world war and Stalin’s purges. In Belarus, just as in the Central Asian republics in Soviet times, there were no dissidents and no samizdat. This is where Belarus differs fundamentally from Russia and Ukraine, not to mention its neighbors in the Baltics. The phenomenon of Lukashenkism could have a different name, a different area of localization, even different protagonists. But it is not a historical coincidence which can only be applied to Belarus. The social basis for Lukashenkism exists in almost every country of the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltics.

Lukashenka’s world view can be described as “retro-utopian.” Retro-utopia is nothing new in the history of human culture. For example, the myth of a “Golden Age” was characteristic of social thinkers of 17th and 18th century Europe. The essence of the retro-utopian view of the world is an acceptance that the best era in the life of humankind is in the past; history then spoiled mankind and we have to look for ways of improving human nature. The communism of Karl Marx sought recipes for salvation in a utopian image of the future, where human relations would not be “blurred” by capitalist property and money, but would be transparent. The main tools for building communism were terror and repression, linked to the seizure and socialization of property. For communism, the past was a symbol of the backwardness and social savagery of mankind.

Conversely, retro-utopia focuses attention on the purity and greatness of the past. In the retro-utopian world view, the past possesses an indisputable moral authority which cannot be questioned. “Our history is nothing to be ashamed of,” says Lukashenka. We should be ashamed of the present, with its corruption, poverty, and venal politicians. There was none of this in the past, Lukashenka stresses, ducking criticism for the appalling state of the economy and the miserable life of his people. Lukashenka’s idol is the former first secretary of the Communist Party of Belarus, Petr Masherov, who was extremely popular with the people and who was killed in a car crash probably set up by the KGB in 1980. Lukashenka offers a simple recipe for “saving” society–a return to the era of “Masherov’s” economic prosperity and “honest” leaders: We should reclaim the “best from our history.” Lukashenka has revived the old symbols–the flag and hymn of Soviet Belarus–and made Russian an official language. Questioning the past (necromancy) for existence in the present–because the future for Lukashenka is an open question–is becoming the central feature of his policy and practice.

This is the main difference between Lukashenkism as a political ideology and the social techniques adopted by the transition societies and transition policy in Russia and Ukraine. For all their differences, the theories of “transition” from socialism to capitalism in Russia and Ukraine have (at least so far) one common feature–denunciation of the past as a totalitarian, administrative socialism to which there can be no return. For now, the better state of affairs is associated with the market economy and the “reforms.” As regards methodology, the utopian communism of Karl Marx has given way to a no less utopian post-Soviet “capitalist” model, but one which is being “built” according to the approved formulas of Soviet practice. By stressing the moral greatness of the past and the possibility of finding prescriptions for salvation there, Lukashenka is challenging this methodology. He is showing that the possibilities of the Soviet economic system have not been completely exhausted–it’s just that a timely shift to a “firm hand” policy was needed after the chaos of Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Unlike the Russian or Ukrainian attempts at democratization, measured liberalism and economic reform, Lukashenka’s “Belarusan model” is based on a fundamental rejection of political and economic pluralism and a return to socialist values. The word “reform” does not even exist in Lukashenka’s vocabulary. It is replaced by the phrase “the revival and improvement of everything good about the Soviet Union.” Lukashenka’s world is a laboratory for testing ways of restoring the Soviet system or creating a similar system, and for testing its ability to function under the new conditions. It is a “forgotten world” in the full sense of the word, which has lost the attention of the West and its closest neighbors. Against this background of external isolationism and indifference, it was only a matter of time before the authoritarian retro-autarchic regime of Lukashenka (or another dictator of a similar ilk) emerged.

THE REASONS FOR LUKASHENKA’S POPULARITY The people of Belarus were pretty indifferent to politics. They were equally supportive of Gorbachev’s referendum on preserving a “renewed USSR” in March 1991 and of the break-up of the Soviet Union which happened on December 8, 1991 in Belovezh. To the average Belarusan, Lukashenka’s political image is an attractive one. He has not been tarnished by corruption. The problems of the redistribution of property affecting both Russia and Ukraine simply do not exist for him. The Belarusan president is the sole administrator of all state property, which has been termed “people’s state property.” The administrative system set up by Lukashenka–which is almost Stalinist–has the support of the state bureaucracy and industrial leaders: There is no alternative of private ownership, and obeying orders for a reasonable price saves taking responsibility for poor management. There is no point in the population protesting either, because were they to, they might lose their jobs and thus their means of support.

The image of “father of the nation” (Belarusans call Lukashenka “batska” or father) makes a huge impression Lukashenka’s rural electorate, who form the basis of his popularity and of his certainty that whatever he does to the people they will always support him under any circumstances. Belarus is a predominantly agrarian industrial country, where even the scientific and humanitarian intelligentsia have their roots in the countryside. Minsk has a different feel from the urbanism of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kyiv, not to mention Prague and Budapest. For the rural community there is no better image for a leader than that of a strong Old Testament patriarch who is tough but fair. He accepts responsibility for all his subjects, who are stuck in the Old Testament and have not made any move towards the New Testament. This is the nature of Belarusan Orthodoxy. Of peasant origin himself, Lukashenka, who worked all his life as a collective farm director, knows exactly what most of his people need. And 26 percent of the population of Belarus is made up of pensioners, who account for 40 percent of the electorate. At the last elections, people under 30 hardly took part at all (Aleksandr Potekhin. Belarusan modification of social and political development, Political Thought, No. 3-4, 1998, pp. 88). For most people of declining years, living in the country, the image of a “clean” and “strong” leader/father who will take care of them in their old age is highly attractive.

What of the opposition? The leaders of the opposition National Front have been practically wiped out by Lukashenka. The chairman of the National Front Zenon Paznyak has received political asylum in the United States; all other potential rivals have been arrested.

Lukashenka has successfully neutralized the opposition press. According to the Belarusan journalists Iosif Seredich, publisher of “Narodnaya volya,” and Pavlo Zhuk, publisher of “Naviny” (News) and “Nasha niva,” Lukashenka has introduced up to ten exchange rates between the dollar and the national currency, which differ significantly, and applies different rates for state and opposition publications. The latter are obliged to sell hard currency to the state (a condition of receiving aid from abroad) at very low rates and to buy paper and equipment at high rates. Apart from this, Lukashenka has banned the printing of opposition publications in state printing houses (there are no private ones), and ordered the state distribution system to limit the number of opposition newspapers to one thousand copies. Meanwhile, pro-president publications receive state subsidies and are cheaper than opposition ones (Interview with Iosif Seredich and Pavlo Zhuk, Washington DC, January 28, 1999).

The virtual elimination of the opposition and its press has led to the dumbing-down or “zombization” (Iosif Seredich’s expression) of the people of Belarus, and to hostility among the population towards the very idea of opposition and liberal market reforms. Realistically speaking, Lukashenka’s regime has great opportunities to maintain the status quo. It therefore seems appropriate to discuss the likelihood that Lukashenka’s retro-utopian model of authoritarianism will be developed further.

LUKASHENKA AND HIS SLAVIC NEIGHBORS One phenomenon of modern Belarus is the form of the reaction to the collapse of the ideological, social and political basis of the communist regime. A marginal political regime has been established in the country. It cannot be automatically labeled as center-right, center-left or fascist–it is a kind of patriarchal-populist dictatorship. From a philosophical point of view, this is one of the realities of the modern world. From the moral and human rights point of view, Lukashenka’s regime is totally incompatible with the norms of democracy and freedom, a legal state and human rights.

Lukashenkism is one of the possible models of development for all transition countries with an unstable political democracy, strong patriarchal traditions, a large number of pensioners and a retro-ideology. This type of political regime may emerge not just in Belarus, but also in any country in the post-Soviet space or in the Balkans. Lukashenka’s ideological brothers are Slobodan Milosevic and, in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein.

Could such a regime appear in Russia? Supporting Lukashenkism as a political phenomenon, economically Russia is unable to do what Lukashenka wants in his pursuit of his “integrationist” dreams–to ensure a level of wealth comparable to Russia’s. Different sectors of Russia’s political elite view Lukashenka differently. Supporters of the “ethnization” of domestic and foreign policy, such as Gennady Zyuganov, Aleksandr Lebed and Yuri Luzhkov, enthusiastically support Lukashenka as an ally in their attempts to conquer the Kremlin. Lukashenka has created the myth of a unique “Belarusan” path which Russia can follow.

For Russia’s liberal politicians, who are in the minority, Lukashenka is an odious politician who cannot be taken seriously. Here, the liberals risk repeating the mistake of the Western democracies which did not realize until too late the danger of the emergence of Germany’s fascist retro-regime with its ideas of the “Third Reich.”

Yuri Luzhkov, a potential president of Russia, is ideologically closest to Lukashenka. He advocates the dominance of state bureaucracy. If Luzhkov wins the election, one may anticipate, firstly, a swift rapprochement between Russia and Belarus, and secondly the adoption in Russia of the Belarusan model of power, adjusted to take into account Russia’s financial and raw material potential. However, there is officially still a year to go before the presidential elections in Russia.

At present, Ukraine has come closest to adopting a populist-authoritarian, irresponsible regime. Lukashenka did not engineer a coup, and did not shoot at parliament. But he did hold a referendum and, taking full advantage of the marginalized and destructured nature of society, he changed the constitutional structure. From the domestic legal angle, Lukashenka did everything he could to formally preserve the legitimacy of his regime.

The power struggle in Ukraine ahead of the presidential elections has thrown up almost blatant attempts to go down the same road. Leonid Kuchma has almost managed to neutralize the noncommunist opposition and close down the television programs and newspapers which pose the greatest threat to his regime. During his last visit to Washington for the NATO summit, Kuchma warned the members of the alliance about the real threat of a “communist revenge” and the possibility of a rerun in Ukraine of the Russian elections of 1996, when the patriarchal capitalism of the post-Soviet nomenklatura, symbolized by Yeltsin, faced the retro-utopia of the communists led by Zyuganov (Zerkalo nedeli [Mirror of the Week], May 8, 1999).

If this scenario is repeated in Ukraine, all the prerequisites for the extension and modification of the Belarusan model will be in place, at least in the practice of the political elite. If Kuchma wins, the “patriarchal” element of Lukashenkism will suit him best. The role of the “father of the nation,” who crushes his enemies and who alone knows the formula for salvation, will be the most appropriate one.

If the communists win in Ukraine, they will arm themselves with Lukashenka’s retro-utopian model.

Retro-ideologies–as examples of Islamic fundamentalism show–and the Slavic authoritarianism of Lukashenka and Milosevic represent the most dangerous model of development for society at the end of the 20th century.

The Belarusan regime is stuck at the half-fascist/half-communist stage: It has exhausted its inner resources. But it may be preserved by expanding into new territories. The forthcoming elections in Ukraine will play an important role in Lukashenka’s political fate.

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University and a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.