The World Affairs Journal has published a nicely written article by James Kirchick, called ‘The Land of No Applause’. It’s a sprawling account of modern Belarus and well worth reading.
The author quotes some startling statistics which suggest that popular disillusion with President Lukashenko is spreading and they lead him to the obvious question – why hasn’t a credible opposition emerged in Belarus?
It’s a little disappointing, but at this point Kirchick opts for a traditional answer. He argues that a viable challenge to the President has not developed because Lukashenko has so effectively suppressed Belarusian national identity. While that is a tidy enough explanation, I suspect it reflects only one aspect of a more complex situation.
The President took power in 1994, at a time when the politics of nationality were to the fore in Eastern Europe. He judged that there was no similar appetite for a nationalist rewrite of identity in Belarus and, it must be said, he appears to have judged correctly.
Conversely the most prominent forms of Belarusian opposition were often linked to hostility toward the Russian language, an equivocal attitude toward Soviet achievements in World War 2 and efforts to cut all links with Moscow.
To western eyes Lukashenko has constructed a rather strange hybrid. Belarus is an independent state which is also an inseparable part of a larger cultural space shared with Russia. To Belarusian eyes, though, it’s rather neatly reflects the country’s post-Soviet identity.
Of course that isn’t to excuse the basket-case economy, the suppression of pluralism or the eccentric demagoguery. But it does partly explain why opposition movements haven’t become credible and it suggests that nationalist fantasies are helping to keep Lukashenko in power.
The article mentions a number of enemies of the President’s regime who are almost as scathing about the so-called opposition. That tells a tale and it would have been an interesting angle to investigate further.