Belarusian elections – time for changes… but what kind of changes?

Last month’s elections reconfirmed Lukashenko as the president of Belarus. The Western media and governments have protested about the “lack of democracy”. In reality what is taking place is a conflict of interests over who should control the Belarusian economy.

On March 19 presidential elections were held in Belarus. The official results gave 83 per cent to the incumbent president Aleksandr Lukashenko, and the opposition candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich received a mere 6.1 per cent of the votes. In the atmosphere created by the Western media in the weeks preceding the elections it was unanimously declared that the elections had been rigged and that the “democratic opposition” had been harassed. The sacrosanct “objective” Western papers raised a hue and cry about the “lack of democracy” in Belarus. And if we were to make a statistical analysis, Polish papers would surely be those in which the word “democracy” appeared more than anywhere else.

The fact that these very same media, that are now raising such a fuss about Belarus, are also engaged in supporting reactionary regimes around the world and campaigning against the progressive and democratically elected Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, must surely lead us to have at least some doubts about their analysis. So what is the real nature of the present controversy over Belarus? Is it really, as the media would want us to believe, about a post-communist country where people are forced to eat grass while they long for EU and US-backed “democracy” and “freedom”?

Hypocrisy of imperialism

Western governments have no right whatsoever to protest against any electoral abuses in Belarus, as they do not have a clean record themselves. Let us not forget how president G. W. Bush was elected in 2000 and let us also recall that these Western “democracies” have no problems in supporting dictatorships such as Egypt or Pakistan. On the other side we have Russia, which also displays a high level of hypocrisy when it defines the Belarusian process as “democratic”   which is certainly not true.

For all these people, the real issue is centred on their material interests in Belarus. For the Western capitalists the problem they have with Belarus is not that there is no free speech or democracy but rather that Lukashenko has been consciously limiting their investments and influence in Belarus. And apparently there is nothing that they can do about this!

Russia also cares little about democracy. It is merely grateful to Lukashenko for preserving Belarus as a Russian sphere of influence, which also supplies Russia with cheap commodities in exchange for cheap gas. Putin’s continuing support for Lukashenko has nothing to do with whether he is a democrat or not. It has much more to do with the fact that Putin is afraid of what could emerge from any regime change in Belarus. As The Economist has rightly pointed out, quoting a Belarusian oppositionist, “Putin doesn't like Lukashenko, but he likes revolutions even less.” (16/03/2006)

What is driving the Western capitalists is their quest for the future profits they could make out of the Belarusian people. If this were not the case, why would they bother investing millions of dollars in the Belarusian opposition? It certainly wasn’t because of its love for democracy and freedom of speech that the US Congress passed the “Belarusian Democracy Act of 2004” that generously gives millions of dollars a year to the so-called “democratic” opposition in this country. This campaign has recently been stepped up with Condoleeza Rice officially condemning Belarus as an “outpost of tyranny”. Let us also recall that the Belarusian opposition receives subsidies from the infamous National Endowment Foundation.

The EU does not have a better record. They regularly invite all the figures of the “opposition” to the European Parliament and its leader, Milinkevic, probably spends more time in Poland then in Belarus. Recently, Poland launched a 24/7 radio station in Belarusian, subsidised by the EU. Immediately after the elections the assembly of the rectors of Polish universities passed a resolution that allows Belarusian students expelled from their universities to come to Poland and study for free. And all this in a situation where free education is a myth for Polish youth!

What is Belarus?

So, what is the real picture of the situation in Belarus? The author of these lines had the opportunity of visiting Belarus last year. When one crosses the border from Poland into Belarus, the picture changes. The prevailing misery and hopelessness, which surround you in Poland, disappear. The streets in Minsk, unlike those in Warsaw, are clean and there are no homeless people begging. This is not because Lukashenko has sent them to the concentration camps, as some crazy Polish media would like us to believe. It is because the Belarusian state still has a degree of public spending which offers to its people a little more then what we see in other Eastern European countries.

The roads are much better than those in Poland and can only be compared with German highways. Medicines stand at affordable prices, shops are well stocked with goods that a Belarusian pensioner, worker or student can afford. Housing costs are minimal. One US dollar equals 2,200 Belarusian roubles. The monthly standing charge for a telephone line costs… 1,700 roubles, local calls included! The average wage stands at around 300,000 Belarusian roubles. So much for the myth, cultivated by the media, of Belarusians who are supposedly hungry and poor!

Reliable statistics show that GDP has been growing for several years at the rate of 9 to 11 per cent per annum. The unemployment rate is 1.6 per cent. This is a scenario that is very far removed from such “civilised” and “democratic” countries like Britain, France or Germany. It is the most prosperous economy among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Whereas Belarusian GDP is at least 115 per cent of what it was in 1990, Russian and Ukrainian GDP stand at 85 and 60 per cent respectively. How have such relatively high results been possible?

The collapse of the USSR unleashed a real hell for the Belarusian people. Prices went up, pensions were not paid on time, living standards collapsed… Amidst all this were the bourgeois politicians who were busy filling their pockets with state money. This provoked fury amongst the people, just like in the rest of the region.

However, whereas in Poland and other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, a more “moderate”, pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy took hold of the economy, in Belarus the opposite was the case. Disgusted with the scandals and swindling of the new era, a part of the bureaucracy decided to slow down the process of capitalist restoration, to return to “the good-old Stalinist times” and proceed more cautiously.

In 1994 Lukashenko stood on an anti-corruption ticket and won a landslide victory. However, what has to be understood is that this was not because of any special abilities that he might have possessed, nor because he had a truly socialist programme, but because of the deep-seated opposition to the pro-capitalist reforms amongst the Belarusian people. This mood had existed throughout the whole region but it was only in Belarus, due to its special geopolitical position and economic conditions of a highly industrialised country, that it finally was able to materialise.

Lukashenko then went on to restrict any further privatisations. According to the same article in The Economist, around 80 per cent of the economy is still state-owned. There are even certain elements of the old plan. Belarus has preserved five-year plans and the control over the prices of the basic commodities. There were also some steps taken to re-unite Belarus and Russia but this has failed because of the contradictions between the economies and regimes in these two countries. Certainly, the Belarusian people are now in a much better position than their Russians counterparts.

and where is it going?

However, the fundamental question is how can the social gains be preserved? The “Belarusian economic miracle” of course constitutes a better promise for the future than the Russian economic collapse. But, as socialists, we understand that unless the situation is resolved with real socialist measures, there is no guarantee that these conquests will remain intact. In fact, no matter how many elections he rigs, Lukashenko will be forced to choose which side he stands on: either with big business or with the working people.

Considering his past record, there can be no doubt that he will continue to support the move towards capitalism. In fact his adventure right from the start was carried out not because he is a socialist and wants a genuine democratic planning to be introduced, but only because he realised that in countries such as Poland the share of the cake given to the bureaucracy, and especially to the rich peasants, was not as big as he would have liked. Lukashenko is definitely not a socialist but rather a former bureaucrat who wants to become a capitalist, and who does whatever he can to make sure that he remains in control and holds on to a position from where he can continue to appropriate the wealth produced by the Belarusian workers and peasants. He can only be compared to Slobodan Milosevic, who he always supported. This is also true of his nationalism and his attacks on the minorities. At one point he was even quoted as praising Hitler for achieving growth in Germany after the slump of 1930s!

The opposition is also unable to offer any solution to the present situation. The only thing they are proposing is to enter the EU and introduce a flat tax. They also suffer from splits and divisions. In fact, there were three opposition candidates in the recent elections. Milinkevic, praised by the Western media and governments as the candidate of the unified opposition, was elected with only a small margin of a few votes to the national congress of oppositionists back in October 2005. And, except for some layers of youth, there is nobody to support them. The Economist stresses that: “In Belarus, there are no oligarchs to bankroll the opposition; Mr Milinkevic's headquarters are in a shabby apartment block.”

However, what is really striking is that the Belarusian people are fully conscious of the fact that the coming to the power of the opposition would not bring them any benefits. As The Economist rightly pointed out, “Yet if the counting, at least, were honest, he [Lukashenko] would still almost certainly win. A recent poll suggested 55% of voters back him”. This is because Lukashenko does symbolise a degree of stability for the Belarusian people. But this is not the end of the story. What is even more striking is that when asked, “who would you vote for? Opposition or Lukashenko?” around 20-25 per cent answered “none of them”. (See http://elections.belapan.com/president2006/eng/article.php?show=1486&rubrica=81)

This clearly shows that there is potential for the building of a genuine left alternative. In the article entitled “Another Aleksandr, Another Belarus”, Oleg Manayev explains: “the Belarusians are opposed to the idea of a ‘colored revolution’ and drastic changes, many want changes for the better. Forty-three percent of the interviewed believe now that it is more important to change the current situation in the country than to preserve it. Thirty-eight percent believe that it is time to give a chance to someone else to perform the functions of a president, and almost 55 percent are ready to vote for an advocate of democracy, not a hard liner.”

What these passages show is that the Belarusians have drawn lessons from the so-called “orange revolution” in the Ukraine and want changes for better, not for worse. They know that Western-sponsored pawns such as Milinkevic and Kozulin will bring nothing more than misery. This they know from visiting Russia and the Ukraine, with which they are closely bound.

In fact, this was also evident during the demonstrations that followed the elections. One of the Polish journalists reporting on the elections was compelled to admit that already at that point there were serious differences between particular groups of demonstrators. Whereas the leadership talked about “democracy” and “freedom”, many people chanted slogans in favour of democracy and preserving social welfare. Here we see the first symptoms of the developing crisis in Belarusian society and how it will affect different classes.

The role of the Left

There are two Communist Parties in Belarus. One stands on the side of the opposition and the other on the side of Lukashenko. The leadership of both of them is unable to distance itself from both camps and preserve an independent class position. But this is precisely what the Belarusian people need now. They need an independent party representing the working class, peasantry and youth that will explain to the people that changes indeed are necessary, but that those changes should come from below, from the trade unions and other organisations that genuinely represent the interests of the working people, and express the will of the Belarusian people. They will have to learn through the experiences of others.

The example of the transition to capitalism in Eastern Europe is not an inviting one. There is, however, another way forward. In order to guarantee the conquests of the past what is necessary is to put the means of production under workers’ control and management. A new, democratic plan has to be drawn up, under which a really solid basis for economic growth will be laid.

However, what also needs to be stressed is that a country of ten million inhabitants cannot achieve socialism on its own. If Russia, with one-sixth of the world population, could not do this, how could Belarus achieve it? It is necessary to appeal to the workers and youth in Eastern Europe for assistance and help. There are a lot of people who are opposed to the present status quo in Poland and other East European countries. But since they do not have any alternative, they remain in the same old swamp. Belarus could offer this alternative. With the developing revolutionary mood around affecting Europe, a real reawakening of the Eastern European working class is possible. On this basis we could build together a Socialist Federation of Eastern Europe linked to the Socialist Federation of the whole of Europe in which there would be no place for human beings exploiting other human beings. This is a cause worth fighting for!

April 16, 2006