When Western observers look at events in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other non-Western societies, more often than not they emphasize the actions of the politicians shaping those societies, not the societies generating a demand for a particular type of politician. Is Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s longevity at the helm of power in Belarus a function of fear and repressions or is there more to it? Is the Belarusian president a “man in demand?” Such questions arise in conjunction with his upcoming 20th anniversary as president.
Because of this anniversary, various media outlets are discussing the hallmarks of his political career. Thus, an unscientific survey of passersby in Minsk revealed that the most significant achievements of Mr. Lukashenka are order and calm and a union with Russia. Order and calm were mentioned most frequently, apparently under the influence of the events in next-door Ukraine (Tut.by, June 30).
Participants in a Radio Liberty’s talk show “Prague Accent” agreed that back in 1994, a pent-up demand for a strongman that would end the disorder following the breakup of the Soviet Union was palpable in Belarus. In other post-Soviet countries, those who came to power usually represented the old nomenklatura. But in Belarus, the electorate voted for a kind of Robin Hood, who promised to punish the bureaucrats who lined their pockets, safeguard social equity and restore ties with Russia. Lukashenka was the only presidential hopeful, whom people routinely called by first name and even using the diminutive Sashka. No signs of similar endearment of the electorate to Zianon Pazniak and Stanislav Shushkevich, Lukashenka’s rivals, ever showed up (Radio Liberty, June 23).
In turn, a team of Tut.by, Belarus’s most frequently visited private Internet news portal, singled out twenty curious facts from Lukashenka’s biography. For example, as an adolescent, Lukashenka mastered milking cows to help his mother, a dairymaid at a collective farm; he finished a musical school as an accordion player. In 1989, Lukashenka was invited to a brainstorming meeting in Moscow on new management of agriculture, and at that meeting he got involved in a debate with Mikhail Gorbachev, a fact that boosted Lukashenka ‘s popularity. As a presidential hopeful who had already won the support of 45 percent of the electorate in the first round of the 1994 elections, Lukashenka was at one point prevented from entering a government compound and was beaten by the police. An article from June 29, 1994 in the major daily Sovietskaya Belorussiya elaborated on that scandalous episode. The fact that Lukashenka has not divorced his estranged wife Galina but fathered a child from another woman is also mentioned in the Tut.by site’s report (Tut.by, June 24).
None of the aforementioned publications in the opposition-minded media avers that Lukashenka has overstayed his welcome as president. So is he still a “man in demand?” If this is the case, it is a product of a profoundly non-Western culture. The touchstone of one’s potential to form a certain opinion about the influence of grassroots culture on the type of political leadership is arguably one’s attitude toward Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis. Incidentally, in the Eastern Slavic world, the degree of acceptance of this “Western” thesis by mainstream intellectuals is incomparably higher than among their brethren in the West itself.
Belarusian commentator Valer Karbalevich, who in 2010 published perhaps the most disparaging biography of Lukashenka, is definitely “mainstream” in this regard. Minsk-based but working for Radio Liberty, he bemoans the fact that Belarus has “lost its historical chance to integrate into Europe.” This, according to Karbalevich, is because most attempts to implant Western style democracy outside of the West have backfired. Thus, in the Arab world, Islamists are seizing power. In the former Soviet Union, only the Baltic States, located on the western side of the major cultural divide in Europe, found themselves integrated into Western structures. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, notes Karbalevich, and the Ukrainian crisis, once again, has the trappings of a “classic conflict of civilizations”—the Russian civilization (or the “Russian world”) at loggerheads with the Euro-Atlantic one. Emotionally, most Belarusians have found themselves on the Russian side, and that is at a time when Russia is more ready than ever to preclude the potential detachment of Belarus from Moscow (Radio Liberty, June 27).
While Lukashenka is never mentioned in Karbalevich’s article, his deterministic verdict about the civilizational niche of Belarus has everything to do with Lukashenka’s longevity as Belarus’s leader. Indeed, in his 2010 book about Lukashenka, Karbalevich admits that “Lukashenka accurately reflects the dominant attitudes of the masses;” that “with his whole appearance, culture, language, and speech, the president turned out to be the closest and most understandable to the people” and even that “his rejection of democratic reforms was conditioned by the attitudes of the majority of the electorate.”
Yet, the “clash of civilizations” is still underway within Belarus itself, which is a “cleft” country, according to Huntington. On the one hand, Russia has just issued a $2 billion loan that would help Belarus to repay its earlier debts (Belorusy i Rynok, June 30). On the other hand, on June 27, a monument to Olgierd, monarch of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania—a Western-style polity, of which Belarus was part—was unveiled in Vitebsk. In the 14th century Olgierd made forays into Moscow. Uladzimer Arlou, a Belarusian author and a devout Westernizer, understandably cannot hide his joy. After all, Moscow’s famous Poklonnaya Gora (Bowing Hill) commemorates Russian nobilities bowing to Olgierd who, as Arlou notes, represented “our country” (Salidarnasts, June 27).
A monument may be a nuisance compared to a $2 billion loan. The money, however, will be spent while the sculpture will survive. It will perpetuate a “piece” of historical memory that may well find application in the future. Cultural borders are not immutable, after all—and neither is the demand for particular leaders.