Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000
B E L A R U S:
"The Black Hole" of Europe
In Belarus, freedom of speech and assembly have taken on "bourgeois" properties
In discussions surrounding Central and Eastern Europe, we have grown used to thinking of Belarus as a virtual "black hole" on the continent. Indeed, if we look at Western mass media and the mainstream press, Belarus is simply absent. In a country so hermetically sealed, the minute amount of information we do get to hear about the country is mostly negative, but sadly true.
Belarusians are struggling to simultaneously rebuild their post-Soviet economy, define their national identity and develop an understanding of their country’s place in Europe. Although Belarus has attained the most vital prerequisites necessary to form a nation state, its near decade of "sovereign" existence has revealed that it remains difficult for Belarusians to prove that they are able to develop independently from Russia. For the most part, Belarus remains compromised in its efforts.
Coupled with the Belarusian leadership’s weak European orientation, its equally strong attraction to Russia, and unpreparedness for independence from the Soviet Union, Belarusian decision-makers initiated an integration policy with neighbouring Russia – despite the consequences. The Belarusian leadership is proposing to become part of a de facto Eurasian community, rather than develop as a distinct and independent European nation.
As neighbouring states unanimously moved towards political "democratisation" and economic "shock therapy" at various paces, it seemed inevitable that Belarus would follow suit. Instead, the Belarusian president launched his country on a path of "market socialism" – a contradictory, if not schizophrenic policy which sent Belarus on a crash course to the radiant past. Behind the semantic gymnastics of "market socialism" lie the realities which are not so one-dimensional.
Fiscal hardship, combined with a state monopoly on information lends ample credibility to President Alexander Lukashenko and his integratory aims. Certainly, those who want to believe the official diktat have much more assistance in the formation of their supportive rationale. Replete with factual revisionism and coupled with daily doses of omissions, the Belarusian political agenda revolves around entrenching power rather than placing constraints upon it.
The Springerisation of Belarusian political discourse – from rabid opposition to NATO expansion, to searches for "internal State enemies" are dominated more by reactionary bravado than by rational thought. The old idiom of the ancien régime "if not with us, then against us" is as alive today as it was during the glory days the Brezhnev era – safeguards ensuring that an obedient and compliant Homo soveticus does not become an extinct species.
Belarus is a prime example of excessive unilateral economic dependency undermining the basis of statehood. Nevertheless, much of that influence is associated with the objective of attaining economic stability and enhanced living standards, rather than subverting Belarusian autonomy to Moscow. Belarus finds itself in a Europe that is growing more cohesive, while domestically it remains indecisive and defensive.
In a country geared toward basic survival rather than prosperity, bravado and state subsidised coercion may be the last commodities not in short supply.
Orphaned by the collapse of the USSR, the Belarusian leadership’s approach to statehood is largely derived from a lack of feasible options for long-term, self-sustained sovereignty and economic well being – tantamount to what the opposition has proclaimed as Belarus’s "capitulation." Minsk’s integration policy with Moscow has quintessentially become a substitute for Western-style reform and a prime example of Saisonstaaten – a term Prussian historians used to describe states they believed were not likely to endure, and are unlikely to survive without deep integration (1)– in this case, with Russia.
Re-casting the mould
More than any other former Soviet republic, Belarus has lobbied hardest for re-integration with Russia in one form or another. It stands to reason that the Kremlin is not above censure when assessing the Belarusian status quo. Moscow’s silent consent of authoritarianism has kept the Kremlin-compliant Lukashenko regime afloat – without deep economic and political support, the Belarusian nomenklatura would have collapsed long ago.
Nevertheless, the motives and goals of the newly founded "union" are simply unclear. In fact, they are ignored by the architects of the new "project of the century" who prefer to settle for vague declarations about creating something like the European Union.
Likewise, the desire on behalf of the Lukashenko administration to establish a so-called "Slavic Euro" based on the shaky Russian rouble have more pragmatic Kremlin elites thinking twice about embarking upon financial adventurism for younger brother’s sake.
The reluctance of the Lukashenko regime to effectively engage the opposition in a constructive dialogue, as well as normalise its relations with the West, has earned Belarus the dubious title of "pariah state." With impending protests set by the opposition in the months ahead, police batons are set to swing again; will the world be watching? Will the world care? In the meantime, Belarus continues to suffer from deepening political, economic, and constitutional crises, as well as debilitating international self-isolationism. Without apparent alternatives, unification with Russia is perceived as the best – and perhaps only - solution. The door to Europe is within Belarus’s grasp, for the time being, however; it remains locked from the inside.
Peter Szyszlo, 31 March 2000
Photo from the Charter 97 Website.
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