Europe's last autocracy
CBC News Online | March 20, 2006
In some respects, Belarus occupies a key position in eastern Europe. Even though it is landlocked by five countries, this land of 10 million occupies a unique geopolitical spot. It is Russia's only formal ally separating it from the NATO countries further west.
For seven decades, Belarus was known as Byelorussia – a member in good standing of the U.S.S.R. In that time, its people had to endure the purges of Josef Stalin in the 1930s and the Nazi occupation of the early 1940s. Each tyranny led to the execution of hundreds of thousands of people.
There were other smaller, but still dramatic crises to come. In 1986, a fifth of its agricultural land was contaminated and left unworkable by fallout from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in neighbouring Ukraine. Many people received high doses of radiation.
In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union began to break up. Along with it, the Russian part of the Byelorussia name was buried too. Belarus achieved full independence in 1991. Its capital, Minsk, also became the
administrative capital for the Commonwealth of Independent States, the body that succeeded the Soviet Union.
But independence in Belarus took a different path from many of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus managed to avoid the turmoil and instability that enveloped some other Soviet-era satellites, in part because of the man at the top – Alexander Lukashenko. Since 1994, he has been the only president Belarus has ever had.
Alexander Lukashenko casts his ballot, March 19, 2006.(AP Photo/Belarusian Telagraph Agency)
When U.S. President George W. Bush famously called Belarus "Europe's last dictatorship" in 2005, it was Lukashenko and his style of leadership he was referring to. While Belarus is hardly the only former Soviet satellite to require quotation marks around its "democracy," Lukashenko has taken on many of the familiar characteristics of the typical autocrat and thrown in a heaping dose of anti-western rhetoric for good measure.
Since gaining power, President Lukashenko has strengthened his hold by clamping down on various human rights and freedoms. Protesters, religious minorities, opposition supporters, and unfriendly reporters have all felt the heavy hand of suppression.
Mass arrests, beatings, and petty harassments are a fact of Belarusian life for
those who fail to embrace the Lukashenko way. Persistent voting irregularities got Belarus suspended from the Council of Europe in 1997. Four of Lukashenko's high-profile opponents have since disappeared.
Lukashenko, for one, acknowledges his iron hand, but makes no apologies. "An authoritarian ruling style is typical of me," he told Byelorusian radio in 2003. "You need to control the country," he said. "And the main thing is not to ruin people's lives." But a dictator? Lukashenko pleads not guilty.
With Lukashenko overwhelmingly re-elected to a third term in 2006, accusations of voting irregularities surfaced anew. European election monitors called the vote "severely flawed" and it appears the EU may try to impose sanctions.
Economic ties to Russia
Lukashenko appears not to care. Perhaps that's because his particular brand of market socialism requires him to look east – to Russia. More than just allies, Russia and Belarus have signalled that they want to fuse their economies together. A 1999 treaty calls for the eventual creation of a two-state union. The Russian ruble will eventually be the single currency for both countries.
In the meantime, the centrally-directed economy of Belarus remains tied to Russia in other ways. For example, Russia continues to be the biggest buyer (by far) of Belarusian goods. Belarus also benefits from cheap energy piped in from Russia. The severe economic downturn that accompanied the first years of its post-Soviet life seems to be over. The GDP of Belarus is now growing by almost 8 per cent a year and its poorest citizens have seen their lot steadily improve.
Critics say these economic successes won't last because they depend on inefficient state intervention. What's more, the gains count on maintaining close ties to a country that has an abundance of its own problems. Lukashenko's opponents say life could be much better by allowing the human rights and free markets that western countries take for granted.
But for all that is wrong with Lukashenko and Belarus, the populace also knows that life in a post-Soviet world can be worse.
That goes a long way to explain why many Belarusians – especially the rural ones – have let an autocratic Lukashenko have his way. Agricultural market reforms in other former Soviet countries ruined the local farmers. After looking across the border, some Belarusians have decided the status quo is fine with them.