Friday, October 24, 2014

A Desperate Despot?

For the "last dictatorship in Europe" I was surprised that I could arrive in the heart of the country without having my passport checked. It's funny how that sobriquet, bequeathed during George W. Bush's presidency, has come to stick to any and every mention of Belarus and its leader Alexander Lukashenko (not that they get many mentions in the world's media). After spending just a few days in Minsk talking politics with almost everyone I met (locals are far more world-savvy and open with their views than one would imagine), I realised that it's an over-simplification that obscures looking at the country realistically (for an idea of the sort of journalistic hatchet-jobs out there you can read this recent article in GQ). Sure, there's no denying Lukashenko has a tight grip on power, political dissent is only permitted within narrow limits (as attested to by the number of people behind bars for their contrary political views), and there is more than a little corruption to be found; nevertheless these truths need to be tempered with others that don't sell as many newspapers.

"Just wait a sec, I haven't told you the punchline yet." Belarus's notorious president Lukashenko sporting his trademark moustache. [Source:]

At first glance the first thing that most visitors to Belarus notice is the cleanliness. This isn't just compared to Russia and other post-Communist countries, but even countries like the UK, USA and France. Sure, the same can be said of North Korea, where every citizen is responsible for cleaning a stretch of pavement, park, etc. But a second glance will show you that Belarusians are no cowed automatons, and life isn't grey and subservient to the state. In fact the quality of life seems reasonably high, people bustle to work, shops and restaurants are busy, and even villages in the countryside seem well taken care of.* This is not what I would expect reading the few articles you can find online about the country. So why is this?

Luckily, as I mentioned before, people in Belarus don't mind talking politics. Lukashenko came to power in 1994. The Soviet Union had already fallen apart and Russia and many other countries of the break-up were undergoing painful transitions to capitalism. These years were the ones of state theft on unprecedented levels, where the Russian oligarchs emerged following shady privatisations, where the Russian mafia developed into a vicious and powerful force. Following decades of relative stability the Yeltsin period was wrenching for the majority of people. Lukashenko appealed to peoples' nostalgia for the certainties of the past and kept many of the Soviet systems in place: state-run industry, a large police apparatus, free healthcare, no political plurality, etc. Most people work for state-owned companies and setting up a private business is a long, laborious process that requires connections and various backhanders, but on the other hand everyday corruption is minimal, unlike neighbouring Russia and Ukraine where it is endemic. One exception seems to be software outsourcing, which is currently booming in Belarus. Such a path kept the worst calamities of the transition from Communism at bay (mainly because the transition happened to a much smaller scale) whilst simultaneously stifling the best of liberalism.

In Belarus the Soviet period is regarded as being the halcyon days, and the socialist-realist iconography of those times is still ever-present.

Of course this equation has a missing parameter. The Soviet Union partly collapsed due to economics - the sums just didn't add up. And they don't in Belarus either ... unless you factor in cheap fuel. The entire edifice of Belarus's economic model is founded on super-cheap oil and gas from Russia to feed its factories, power plants, cars and import-export industry. Belarus imports way more oil than it can ever possibly use, refines it, and then sells it on at a tidy profit. Recently Belarus has also taken advantage of sanctions and the lack of borders with Russia, as Belarusian seafood, grapes and olives have become far more common on supermarket shelves in Moscow (a fact many people I met in Minsk liked to joke about). Russia, however, doesn't just give away natural resources out of the kindness of its heart - there are substantial strings attached. Belarus pays for its energy security by being a Russian proxy and supposedly independent supporter. Belarus has, in effect, very little political wiggle-room. If it were to become more pro-Western Moscow would turn off the taps and increase the price for gas, bringing the entire economy crashing to a halt. And the winters in Minsk are very cold. However flying too close to Putin also has its risks, as the world has seen recently with the situation in Ukraine. Sensing danger from increased Russification within his country Lukashenko gave his very first speech in Belarusian earlier this year (most people speak Russian as a first language, and prior to this year there was a concerted effort to promote Russian culture and language above Belarusian) and has even criticised Putin's stance on the situation. It's a fine line to tread, playing off the EU and Russia against each other to get as many concessions from each as possible.

And whilst political freedoms are severely curtailed, personal ones are not. Not only is travelling to Russia a dawdle, but even getting an annual Schengen visa isn't that tricky either. Consumer goods in Poland are significantly cheaper, a fact the Polish authorities have cottoned onto, and so many middle-class Belarusians apply for, and easily get, "shopping visas" that technically give them access to all 26 countries of the area. Internet access is also unrestricted and pretty ubiquitous.

Big shopping mall atrium in downtown Minsk. They had free wifi. I was happy.

So where does that leave us? I'm not sure. Many Belarusians dislike Lukashenko's boorish reign, and yet at the same time acknowledge that things could have slid to truly grim depths had he not been around. I suppose for me the most interesting aspect was to (re)discover how a complex situation is often simplified to absurdity. Luckily though, with the increased focus on the region, a more nuanced view of the country is beginning to filter out (here and here are a couple of examples). The paradigm I've grown up with connotes any system that isn't democratic as negative: autocracy, dictatorship, oligarchy, despotism, tyranny. Yet I could easily reel off a dozen examples where such governments could be seen to be doing more good than harm. And conversely democracy doesn't automatically make everything that is done in its name to smell of roses. It is worth noting that the terms tyrant and despot were first coined in ancient Greece, where they simply meant ruler, with no value judgement attached. Is Lukashenko a good or bad tyrant? we will need history and hindsight to be able to answer that question.

*In the UN's inequality-adjusted Human Development Index Belarus is just 7 places off the United States.

Of course he was promptly told that perhaps Russia may increase gas prices and he didn't say much after that.

1 comment:

Shammickite said...

Are you still travelling? Or have you changed to a more sedate lifestyle? I can't imagine that.
I think I connected on your blog a few years ago, then lost the connection.