Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 168

Belarus offers a case study–with parts of Ukraine and Moldova providing additional examples–of a former imperial periphery in which Soviet political socialization succeeded only too well. Ten years after the end of Soviet rule in Belarus, the effects of that socialization work in Russia’s favor, ensured the reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on September 9, and proved yet again an insuperable obstacle to the Belarusan national-democratic forces. Those political forces and their natural allies in the West have yet to find their way out of that dilemma.

The coalition that tried to unseat Lukashenka in this campaign differed significantly from its earlier incarnations, and was a far cry indeed from the national-democratic movement of the early 1990s. This time around, the Popular Front played a minor role, as the opposition found its center of gravity in nomenklatura groups that had turned against Lukashenka from within the system, and were purged by him in recent years.

The opposition’s presidential candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk, is the long-serving chairman of the Soviet-era Trade Union Federation. His competitors for the joint candidate’s post were former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, former Defense Minister Pavel Kazlouski, former Hrodna Region Governor Syamyon Domash, and the Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin. Once Hancharyk won that competition, the five agreed to form a joint presidential council in the event that Hancharyk won the election. In the final stage of the campaign, “the Five” were joined by former Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Marynich, who resigned his latest post as doubly accredited ambassador to Latvia and Lithuania.

The campaign manager for the opposition, Vasyl Lyavonau, is a former agriculture minister imprisoned by Lukashenka on trumped-up corruption charges. Former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Andrei Sannikou–leader of the Belarusan Charter 99 group, modeled on the Czech Charter 77–and former Deputy Prime Minister Leanid Sinitsyn also joined the opposition’s campaign. The former chairmen of parliament Stanislau Shushkevich, Mechislau Hryb and Syamyon Sharetski–the last from exile in Lithuania–strongly supported the opposition, Hryb as head of the observers tasked with a parallel vote count. Former Central Bank president Stanislau Bahdankevich is the top economic specialist in opposition ranks.

The opposition figures who “disappeared” and are feared killed include Yury Zakharenka, a major general and former internal affairs minister, and Viktar Hanchar, formerly a deputy prime minister, Central Electoral Commission chief and CIS Court chairman.

All these former officials had a taste of national independence in 1991-95, as well as exposure to the West while in office and especially thereafter. They are determined to avoid satellization by Russia and the utter impoverishment of the country through Lukashenka’s socialist economics. Yet the presidential election showed that this “revolt of the ex-nomenklatura” was no match for the combined resources of Lukashenka and Moscow.

This campaign witnessed the third major attempt by the opposition, in the space of ten years, to devise a successful organizational and programmatic formula. In the process, the opposition gradually changed its complexion, the net effect being a steady shift from the right to the center and left-of-center. In 1991-94, the opposition was synonymous with the Popular Front (PF), which fought against the then-dominant parliament. Under its firebrand leader Zyanon Paznyak, the PF failed to differentiate between pro-independence, pro-reform groups in that parliament and the pro-Moscow Reds in that body. The PF attacked both, but it only damaged the moderates, and split the ranks of those intent on freeing Belarus from the Soviet past. In society at large, the PF lost many more supporters than it could ever gain through nationalist rhetoric in a country with a weak sense of national identity. It therefore did not gain a single seat in the last free parliamentary elections, before Lukashenka came to power. That ended the national-democratic opposition’s first attempt at existing and functioning.

Following Lukashenka’s election in 1995, the parliamentary leaders–mostly the same ones the PF had targeted–not only moved into open opposition to the authorities, but as well formed the opposition’s focus. They fought tooth and nail against Lukashenka’s 1996 “constitutional coup,” rejected the results of the presidentially staged referendum and refused to recognize the new constitution which gave Lukashenka absolute powers. In 1996, as in 2001, it was Moscow’s intercession that tipped the balance in Belarus in favor of Lukashenka.

The dissolved parliament’s leaders–Shushkevich, Hryb, Syamyon Sharetski and the late Henadz Karpenka among them–formed a forty-five-strong rump parliament, which enjoyed uninterrupted recognition by the Western democracies and the new democracies in Central and Baltic Europe. Incumbent Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir and a few other senior officials of the executive branch broke with Lukashenka in protest and joined the parliamentary opposition. Meanwhile, the extraparliamentary Popular Front underwent a split and a partial clarification process. Paznyak’s group quit and moved to a radical-rightist fringe, while the main PF sought a rapprochement with the leaders of the dissolved–though legitimate–parliament and with government officials who turned against Lukashenka.

The programmatic ground for such a rapprochement proved elusive, however. Although numerically small, the opposition groups were then–and are still–divided over the scope and pace of desirable economic reforms, language and national questions, attitudes toward Russia and inevitable personality issues. Yet all these groups managed to form a coalition in 1999 to contest the presidential election due that year. When Lukashenka, acting unlawfully, extended his term of office by two years, the opposition nevertheless held its own presidential balloting, fielding Chyhir as its joint candidate. It claimed that many voters took part and that Chyhir won that symbolic balloting. That ended the opposition’s second attempt at devising a viable formula for itself and for contesting elections under adverse circumstances, unparalleled in post-communist Europe.

Apart from the programmatic differences, the division of labor among opposition groups also proved contentious. The well-organized PF was–and still is–in a position to supply thousands of dedicated activists in any election, but its leaders lack experience in government or modern economic and technical training, and are still misperceived as dangerous “nationalists” by many ordinary voters. The former officials, on the other hand, have both experience and a measure of public credibility, but they lack effective political organization and depend on the PF for grassroots work in any election.

This year’s presidential election witnessed the opposition’s third metamorphosis. The coalition this time firmly put its nomenklatura foot forward. Yet this group itself had ascended a learning curve since the preceding elections. Had they won this time, there can be little doubt that they would have pursued a balanced course between Russia and the West–including neighboring Poland and the Baltic states–and that they would have initiated market reforms, as well as giving the Belarusan language and national identity a new lease on life. Now, the opposition itself needs a new lease on life and a new formula in the interval until the next elections.