Belarus: More Soviet than the Russians

In Kiev, there was a lot of money … there were a lot of business people in Ukraine who were dissatisfied with the state of government there, and invested a lot of money into changing the situation … whereas the opposition here have got a little sound system, which isn’t very loud, a few flags, and about a dozen or so pretty rickety tents. … Revolutions cost money.

Andrew Miller on Open Source

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

(I only learnt yesterday that it was “the jeans revolution”.)

(and very few of us have jeans)

Unidentified Belarusian, in an IM conversation with The Filter

Minsk is not Kiev. Ukraine arrived at its orange revolution with a multiparty parliament, an independent news channel, a bloc of non-state business owners, civic groups to create tent cities and local chapters of international organizations. Belarus has none of these.

What it does have is a culture and state apparatus that’s more Soviet than Russia. It kept its KGB and didn’t bother to change the name. President Alexander Lukashenko wears a Politburo-style mustache and combover; he has his own TV show for a half-hour every night, speaking in front of pictures of a blue tractor and a Russian Orthodox icon. Politically, Belarus is, more than anything, his. Party affiliation is unimportant — there is only Lukashenko — and no one in the country knows the name of the prime minister, who doesn’t matter.

Lukashenko runs a command economy without an ism; the ism is him. He introduced a reform that puts every citizen up for contract review every year, giving notice, essentially, that employment is conditional on good behavior. Belarus boasts a higher GDP per capita than the Ukraine, but a climate so hostile to independent business that Professor Ron Holt, in Belarus for a year on a Fulbright, told us this afternoon that people have left the cities to farm a subsistence from their own small plots of land.

So perhaps the US blogger Robert Mayer was a little too hasty when he wrote yesterday — under a picture of an apple-cheeked brunette waving a flag in the snow — Protest Babe Alert: The government is doomed.

So what is actually happening in Minsk? And where is Russia in all of this? Putin has played an antagonistic role with Ukraine in the last year, sending signals by cutting off the supply of natural gas, but his relationship — and Russia’s — with Belarus is more complicated. Lukashenko positions himself as an anti-nationalist keeping peace with his neighbors. Russia still can’t get used to its post-imperial future, and has made clear that the line it drew around the former Soviet Union is for NATO and the European Union inviolable. And among the crowd in Minsk, of course, are not only the banned red-and-white of Belarus, but the twelve stars on a blue field of the European Union.

What now?

David Marples

Professor of History, University of Alberta

Author, Belarus: From Soviet Rule to Nuclear Catastrophe and The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991

Vlad

Blogger, Br23, a Prague-based blog about Belarus

Pavol Demes

Director, Bratislava office of the German Marshall Fund

Andrew Miller

Writer, The Economist

Covering the protests in Minsk

Extra Credit Reading

Neeka’s Backlog Frequently updated, a nerve center of live-blogged accounts from Minsk

Belarus Elections 2006

Belarus Conversations, The Filter, collection of IM conversations with protesters in Minsk

ORANGE REVOLUTION

Tobias Ljuvngvall on Belarus

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