The picture that the Western media has drawn of Belarus in recent months has nothing to do with reality. There are also hardly any journalists who have ever visited the country and have an objective idea about it.
The model of the social people’s state
In reality, Belarus is a socially oriented, independent and sovereign nation-state with free healthcare and education, stable jobs and affordable housing. The country is a „citadel of traditional culture“, as one official slogan reads: culture is characterised by classical literature and art, traditional aesthetics, realistic style in literature and the priority of the family. There is a renaissance of Christianity of both Orthodox and Catholic denominations.
Belarusians come from the Rus, the East Slavic people, which more than 1,000 years ago consisted of three principalities: Kiev, Polotsk and Novgorod, and was Christianized in 988. Later it was largely ruled by Poland and Lithuania, and when only one area in the northeast remained, it was called “Belaya Rus”, meaning the pure Rus, not subject to “Latinism”.
The Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), founded in 1920, suffered under Stalin’s repressions, but the fact remains that without the BSSR there would be no present-day Republic of Belarus. In the end, it was the most developed Soviet republic with the highest standards in industry and education.
On 24 August 1991, the BSSR declared its independence and pursued a pro-Western course until 1994, which, similar to Russia and Ukraine, led to the path of neoliberalism. However, in 1994 Alexander Lukashenko won the presidential election with 81 % of the vote – Lukashenko, who did not come from the nomenklatura and did not represent their interests. He retained the state industry and many social institutions of the Soviet system, but disempowered the nascent new oligarchy.
Since then Belarus has been a presidential republic in which the president appoints the government and determines the basic lines of domestic and foreign policy. The president is elected every five years and the National Assembly every four years according to a majority vote. The Soviet system was developed politically, economically and culturally. Since then, Belarus can point to growth, stability and social security. In 2005 it was the first ex-Soviet republic to regain the gross domestic product of the era before the collapse of the Soviet Union: 120 % of the level of 1990, compared with 85 % in Russia and 60 % in Ukraine.
President Lukashenko chose this path to avoid the extremes of shock therapy and colonisation by Western capital. He managed to avoid economic disaster, corruption, massive capital exports and the ruin of the country. Due to this course, Belarus has become the most successful of the former Soviet republics. Real GDP doubled between 1990 and 2014 (Russia’s real GDP grew by 15 % and Ukraine’s by 30%, according to the World Bank).
The widely held view that the Belarusian economy is a relic of Soviet socialism does not correspond to reality. Here are market mechanisms at work, which create quite a fierce competition due to the openness of the Belarusian economy even for state-owned enterprises, which are oriented towards the export of high-tech products.
The high technology park in Minsk, founded in 2005, the Belarusian “Silicon Valley”, is a growth industry that currently consists of about 400 IT companies (one third are foreign companies) with more than 30,000 employees.
A milestone in the cooperation between Belarus and China is the development of the industrial park Weliki Kamen (Big Stone). The park covers 92 square kilometres and has a special legal status that is conducive to business activity, with great incentives for foreign investors. The park is located 25 km from Minsk and in the immediate vicinity of the international airport, railway lines and the Berlin-Moscow motorway. According to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, there are 63 companies in the park whose investments exceeds one billion US dollars.
National culture is seen as the “cornerstone of independence”. Education is given high priority by the government, which, compared to other CIS countries, is reflected in the above-average share of the state budget (about 7 %). The objectives of the education reform adopted in 1998 put the “restoration of the national and cultural foundations of education” in first place. The subject “state ideology”, a kind of civic education taught in the upper classes, serves the purpose of education for love of the homeland, the state and the family. The change in values that accompanied the disintegration of the Soviet Union and was associated with increased Western influence is being fought by the government.
Patriotic education is also the task of the Belarusian Republican Union of Youth (BRSM), which has carried out a number of actions in this direction in recent years, such as “We Serve Belarus” to connect youth with the army, the “Remembrance” action to commemorate the defence of the homeland in the years of the Second World War, and finally the “Christmas Tree” action, which is held annually at the Orthodox Christmas celebration in early January with the participation of the Orthodox clergy. The annual Cyril and Methodius Lectures at the Minsk State University and the holiday of Slavic literature on 24 May serve the rebirth of Christian values in Belarusian society.
The Prize “For Spiritual Rebirth”, founded by a presidential decree, is awarded annually on 7 January, the day of Christ’s birth according to the Orthodox calendar, to creative artists, writers, teachers and clergy for outstanding achievements in the field of literature and art, in the humanitarian field and for the consolidation of spiritual values.
Corona crisis: no panic in Belarus
In March 2020, the corona epidemic also reached Belarus, but there was a comprehensive plan to combat the epidemic. There were still hospitals for infectious diseases from the Soviet era, preventive measures for an epidemic with medical equipment, institutes for virology and epidemiology and trained personnel.
According to the UN, Belarus was well prepared for the crisis, with 41 doctors, 114 nurses and 110 hospital beds per 10,000 inhabitants. In contrast, the average for advanced European countries is 30 doctors, 81 nurses and 55 hospital beds.
However, Lukashenko emphasised Belarus’ independent path by refusing to impose a quarantine on the whole country. Belarus is a country that has not had a lockdown. The factories and shops, the inns, schools, universities, and churches were not closed, but remained open and continued to operate.
In June 2020, the IMF offered Belarus a loan of $ 940 million, but the head of state described the additional, non-financial conditions as unacceptable. “Belarus was supposed do what Italy has done in the fight against the corona virus. The IMF continued to call for quarantine, isolation, and a curfew. What is this nonsense? We are not jumping on anyone’s command”, said Lukashenko.1
The mistakes of the authorities
It is obvious that the potential for street protest has been accumulating for several years. This accumulation has been facilitated by the mistakes made by the authorities in the socio-economic field: the ill-conceived decree on parasitism of 2017 (concerning some 500,000 people not in work), failures in the introduction of a new method of calculating salaries, the calculation of seniority, an increase in social differentiation, failures in youth policy and the lack of a clear, comprehensible explanation for the chosen position of the state during the pandemic.2
There were also misjudgements in the ideological field. The consolidation of society, understood as the need for reconciliation with those who hold pro-Western and nationalist views (about 15 to 20 % of the population), has not worked. During the riots, symbols and slogans dominated the streets.
There were obvious mistakes in the field of information. In the beginning, the radical opposition agenda almost completely dominated the new media (YouTube, Messenger, social networks). There was not enough time for the use of government-related new media; it was necessary to highlight this area as a field of work separate from the traditional media and to provide normal resources for it. There was no sharp reaction to the activities of the Polish-sponsored provocative Telegram channels and the call for violence through diplomatic and other channels.
The mistakes in education were the adoption of elements of the Western education system, such as the Bologna system and public schools, which were a result of the EU’s Eastern Partnership.
Influence of new media
The European Commission is supporting radio and TV programmes of the BBC and Deutsche Welle which broadcast news and rock music five days a week specifically for Belarus. It is also supporting the “Belarusian Humanities University”, founded by the Soros Foundation “Open Society”, which had to move from Minsk to Vilnius (Lithuania) in 2006.
In the early stages of the election campaign, it was obvious that the opposition had developed a multi-level professional political technology project, in which new media played a decisive role.
In the first months of 2020, the number of opposition media activists increased dramatically, mainly due to the increase in Telegram accounts. The number of subscribers to the five largest opposition Telegram accounts alone rose from 317,000 on 1 January to 672,000 subscribers on 20 June 2020.
The channel nexta (Belarusian nechta, Russian nekton for “someone”), founded two years ago in Warsaw by Stepan Putilo and Roman Protasewitsch, who also works for Radio Free Europe and the BBC, already has two million subscribers, according to its own statement. The channel is mainly providing demonstrators in Minsk with the necessary information about meeting points, dates, banners, and political slogans.
The opposition’s protest rallies led to a division of society with aggressions previously unknown. The state power always propagated the unity of the people in an ethnic and religious sense based on the Belarusian national culture. The protest movement used the symbolism of the White Ruthenian People’s Republic proclaimed in March 1918 under German protectorate with the white-red-white flag, which was also used in the years 1991-1995, and the raised fist as a symbol of insurrection, which was also used in various uprisings of the last decades – in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Egypt.3
The driving force behind the Belarusian protests was a new middle class – young IT experts and cultural workers, largely a result of the state’s efforts in recent years. There are already more than 100,000 of them, earning well in Western companies, but without any political awareness.
Attempt for a colour revolution
For the presidential elections on 9 August 2020, 141 election observers from CIS countries and other independent observers from Western countries were accredited to the Central Election Commission. As in previous elections, the OSCE was also invited, but declined to participate, citing the corona measures.
After the presidential election, developments followed the classic pattern of a colour revolution. When the Central Election Commission announced on 9 August that Alexander Lukashenko had won about 80 % and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya about 10 % of the votes, tens of thousands of demonstrators in Minsk on 9 and 10 August declared Tikhanovskaya the “real election winner”.
Two prominent candidates were unable to run for election. Valeri Zepkalo, a former Belarusian ambassador to the USA, had built the country’s first high-tech park, but had fallen out with the president. He left the country after the election commission rejected his candidacy because he was unable to collect the required number of signatures.
Viktor Babariko, who for 20 years ran one of the country’s largest banks, Belgazprombank, and a cultural club for young people, was arrested on 11 June on charges of tax evasion and money laundering on a grand scale. Babariko claims that this was politically motivated. However, he sent his campaign manager to lead Tikhanovskaya’s campaign.
On 9 August, after the polling stations closed, people took to the streets. Of course, as in all previous elections, unrest was expected, but its scale exceeded the wildest expectations. As it later turned out, organised groups of provocateurs were active in the crowd and clashed with the police. “Molotov cocktails” and cobblestones flew at the police officers. On the second night the demonstrators started to build barricades, blocking the roads and throwing “Molotov cocktails” and stones again. A real urban guerrilla unfolded in the streets, and everything was coordinated from the same Nechta channel in real time from Poland.
The protests did not have a clear objective, the people were not even promised anything, as for example on the Kiev Maidan 2013–2014 the accession to the EU, here everything was only aimed at a change of government.
The aim of the protests
According to Belta from 19 August 2020, the “Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power” called in its programme for the introduction of border and custom control with Russia, the approval of television broadcasts from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, the withdrawal from the defence alliance of the ex-Soviet countries OWKS. Furthermore, it called for a gradual ban of the Russian language until 2030, the introduction of the Belarusian language in the army, the establishment of the Belarusian autocephalous Orthodox Church, and finally for the accession to the European Union and NATO (the programme has since been removed from the Coordination Council’s website).4
However, the documents of the Coordination Council do not mention the points also announced on state television. A member of the Coordination Council, lawyer Mr Maxim Znak, stated at a press conference that the Council has no political programme. Also at the demonstrations, apart from symbols, there are only the demands “Get off!”, “New elections!” and “Changes!”
The traces of the protests lead to Washington. For years, the US state foundation National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has been supporting the Belarusian opposition and “civil society”. For 2019, the NED lists 34 projects in Belarus on its website that have received financial support. The main aim is to strengthen the anti-Lukashenko opposition and relevant NGOs. For example, the NED says “Strengthening NGOs: Increasing local and regional civil engagement”.
Another goal of the Western sponsors of the opposition movement is likely to be the interruption of the New Silk Road, which runs from China through Belarus to the EU countries. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo was on tour in several Central European countries between 11 and 15 August 2020 with the open goal of convincing them to abandon cooperation with China and Russia.
As early as 2018, the Social Engineering Agency (SEA) determined a high probability for Belarus that a classic colour revolution – according to the methodology of the theorist of “non-violent protests” Gene Sharp – could take place in the next two years. The appropriate instruments were already in place – a dense network of several dozen NGOs, think tanks, media and hundreds of bloggers and opinion leaders, financed by companies in Poland and Lithuania with a million-dollar budget.
In his speech on 16 August 2020 on Independence Square, President Lukashenko explained the protests:
“You have come here to defend your country, your independence, your families, your wives, sisters and children! We have built this beautiful country with you under all difficulties! Whom do you want to hand it over to?
On the Western borders of our country, a military power is being established. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and unfortunately our beloved Ukraine, their leaders, want to command us to hold new elections. If we give in to them, we will hit buffers and will perish as a state, as a people and as a nation.
They will kill the President and you will be on your knees. Remember, I have never betrayed you, never! I will never betray you!”5
The signing of an agreement on enhanced defence cooperation between the US and Poland on 15 August has made Poland a “crucial point of regional security” (as the US State Department describes it).
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolay Azarov (2010–2014) said in a speech in Minsk: “As I watch what is happening now, I would like to say that it is very reminiscent of the preparation of the first Maidan, which began in our country in 2003–2004. Western special services started long ago with the preparations for the Belarusian elections.
They failed to destroy the Soviet legacy in Belarus. On the contrary, industry has been modernised and competitive companies such as MAZ, BELAZ, Gomselmash have been founded… I do not even mention that Belarus has managed to create a high-tech estate bringing together almost a thousand IT production companies – products for two billion US dollars.
It was said on the podium at the time: ‘Tomorrow we will sign a treaty with the EU – and we will have European salaries and pensions’. Where are they now? Real wages and pensions have fallen by half in US dollars and prices have risen incredibly. Ukraine started to import agricultural products.
In Ukraine, we now have the highest mortality rate in Europe. Every year, simply because of physical decline, our population is decreasing by 300,000 people. About ten million people went abroad because companies were closed and there was no work anymore. The medical system is completely destroyed. Covid-19 has shown it. With my speech, I would like to warn you seriously: Do not believe in this European ‘carrot’! Do not believe it!”
The meeting of the Presidents of Belarus and Russia in Sochi
On 14 September 2020 in Sochi, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin discussed the state and prospects for the development of bilateral cooperation in various areas, international problems and the situation in the region, as well as issues of joint response to future challenges. Alexander Lukashenko remarked:
“These events have shown that we need to stay closer to our older brother and work together on all issues, including business”. The President of Belarus also noted that the parties had taken a systematic and gradual approach in the creation and drafting of the Treaty on the Union State. “Our states and our peoples will always be on cordial terms.”
Vladimir Putin stated at the beginning that Russia considers Belarus as its closest ally and will fulfil all its obligations under the treaties and agreements. “Russia remains committed to all our agreements, including those arising from the Treaty on the Union State (CSTO)”. In addition, the Russian President announced that Russia would grant the Belarusian state a loan of 1.5 billion US dollar.6
In his speech at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly on 18 September 2020, Foreign Minister of Belarus, Vladimir Makei, explained: “Today’s actions by the EU countries undermine the sovereignty and independence of Belarus, despite the declarations of their support.” He also commented towards journalists on the adoption of the resolution “Situation of human rights in Belarus” by the UN Human Rights Council: “This can clearly be interpreted as interference in the internal affairs of our state.”7
The Foreign Minister continued: “The West side is now closed to us. So we need to maximise cooperation with Russia. This vector, to which we have always been attracted, needs to be developed to the maximum. Hereby, cooperation in the military and information sectors will also be intensified.”8
The results of these events will be as follows. Integration into the Russian Federation will be revived and Belarus will generally orientate itself Eastwards. Cooperation with the People’s Republic of China will increase. Relations with the EU will deteriorate significantly, particularly with Poland and Lithuania. A constitutional reform will be implemented to strengthen the parliament and the role of the parties in political life. •
1 Röper, Thomas. Anti-Spiegel of 17 August 2020
2 Dzermant, Aleksey. “Die Fehler der Behörden” (The mistakes of the authorities) (russ.) of 13 August 2020, https//t.me/dzermant
3 Sankin, Wladimir. “Regimewechsel in Belarus, Social Engineering Agency (SEA)” (Regime change in Belarus, Social Engineering Agency (SEA), in: rt deutsch of 13 August 2020. The founder of the SEA, Anton Davidchenko, is a former participant of the Odessa uprising in May 2014 against the new Kiev government, who has left for Russia and is studying the strategy of “social engineering”.
4 Belta from 19 August 2020
5 Speech of President Alexander Lukashenko on Independence Square in Minsk on 16 August 2020, belta.ru of 16 August 2020
6 Belarus segodnja of 14 September 2020
7 Belta of 18 September 2020
8 Belta of 17 September 2020
(Translation Current Concerns)
* Prof. Dr. Peter Bachmaier, Eastern European historian and political scientist, board member of the Austrian Institute for Eastern and South Eastern Europe in Vienna (1972-2005), lecturer at the University of Vienna (1993-2007), President of the Austrian-Belarusian Society (since 2006).
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