Wikileaks once again has provided the proof positive to unlock a mystery. It’s not the stuff of attention-grabbing headlines and retweets, but it does illustrate how the US State Department can orchestrate riots in a quiet Eastern European country. As an international observer of the December 2010 elections in Belarus, I was witness to both the orderly vote and the shocking riot. This is the story of Belarus and how dollars were used to subvert and embarrass this peaceful constitutional republic.
Belarus in December is the ultimate winter land; a fair Nordic forest nymph dressed in a thick, luxurious lilywhite cloak – for it is much too cold to go naked. Outside the city, an endless white expanse meets the eye, broken only by a few sturdy houses and a church. The lonely roads are enlivened by white hares that leap from icy roadsides and flocks of wild geese that transverse the cloudy welkin. All is white in this country, as if in order to justify its name, for Belarus means the White Rus. The Rus were the Viking states established in the Slav hinterland a millennium ago, and so Belarus is forever connected to the Great Rus of Russia.
The people of Belarus are not very different from their Russian neighbors but they do have their own character, just as the Northerners of Yorkshire differ from the Southerners of Somerset. They are fair and calm, peaceful and orderly, obedient and enduring. The sparsely populated Belarusian borderland was a battleground between East and West for centuries; the last war cost them one third of their population, the highest loss suffered by any country in WWII. The capital of Minsk was completely destroyed, Fallujah-style, by the Luftwaffe. Once upon a time, its forests and marshes trapped crack divisions of the German SS; now they sit again in peace, healed by many snowfalls.
After all this incessant white wilderness, Minsk is surprisingly civilised and human-sized; it was rebuilt in the comfortable 1950’s and refurbished fairly recently. The streets are neat and fit for pedestrians, small caf?s are made cosy with glowing fireplaces, and there are English newspapers on every table. A large and festive Christmas tree marks the main square, which has been turned into an ice rink for the holidays, and pretty young girls in white skirts and red scarves skate the day through with smartly dressed boys. The rink is open and free for all, just as in Scandinavia. Indeed, Belarus is the East European counterpart of the Scandinavian socialist states of yesteryear; but while the Swedes and the Danes are busy dismantling their social systems, Belarus has so far resisted the drive toward privatization.
It will take you a long time before you spot your first policeman, usually a simple traffic cop. There is no sign of a police state here: no mysterious black cars, no furtive stillness, no Soviet-style drabness, no post-Soviet garishness. The youngsters are stylish, friendly and open. The streets are crowded, paved and clean. The President of Belarus, the man the US State Department calls the last dictator of Europe, walks freely among his people.
But what is a dictator these days? The epithets aimed at world leaders are surprisingly consistent, but the words themselves have been redefined. To earn the title of ‘dictator’, it seems that a leader need only spurn the advice of the IMF. If a leader chooses not play along with NATO, he may well qualify for the title of ‘bloody dictator’. We have been told that Castro is a ‘dictator’. We have been told that Chavez is a ‘dictator’. We are now being told that Ahmadinejad is a ‘bloody dictator’. Long-time thorns in the flanks of US imperial might are eventually upgraded to ‘monster’ status, as were Stalin and Mao. Belarus itself has one of these State Department titles: it is to be called a ‘rebel state’. When the USSR was broken down into digestible chunks, it was tiny Belarus that chose to keep the Soviet flag, the Soviet arms, and the socialist ethos. Belarus was not as quick as other countries to cast off what was stable and good within the Soviet system. While other countries suffered under IMF-imposed privatization, Belarus took the slow and steady path to intelligently upgrade and restore their industries and cities. End result: Belarus is as up-to-date as any country in the East.
December 19, 2010
I was in Belarus to observe the Presidential election, and to tell the truth I was expecting some sort of staged little event to mar the day. The outcome of the election was in little doubt. The people were happy, fully employed, and satisfied with their government. They were well aware of what had happened when neighboring countries had embraced the IMF, and they felt no ideological need to tread that same dark road. Some people, however, are more motivated by dollars than patriotism, and these are the people I was expecting. The pro-Western ‘Gucci’ crowd can always be counted on to protest the choices of the majority. They actually overturned the vote in nearby Ukraine in 2005, and the orange gangs succeeded in stealing the presidency for five long years. If they cannot convince the people with Western dollars, then they simply riot and try to take it by force.
All day long I watched the people of Belarus queuing at their election booths. I spoke to many of them. Their President Lukashenko is an East European Chavez, who stubbornly sticks to the socialist way. A friend of Hugo Chavez and the Castro regime, he gets his oil in Venezuela and Russia, does business with the Chinese, and tries to maintain good relations with his neighbours. The people know him, and know what to expect from him. Hardly anybody knew the opposition candidates by name. There were official election posters hanging in every election centre, and these posters carried the name and photo of each candidate, but these strangers and their feel-good slogans could not touch the national spirit.
The voting was as clean as any other European election, and was attended by hundreds of international observers; no one noticed any irregularities. Each person’s vote was secret, and they cast their ballots without fear. Even most pro-Western analysts, like Alexander Rahr of Germany, concurred: Lukashenko carried the elections with an astounding 80 per cent of the popular vote. Exit polls showed similar results. Like it or not: he won.
It was only after the news began to report the exit poll results that the opposition forces in Minsk ? perhaps some five thousand strong – began to march from the main square towards the government offices. They walked peaceably, and so did not attract much police presence. There were certainly much fewer police on hand than what a similar march would draw in London or Moscow. The government expected a rally at the square. They did not expect these well-dressed people to begin storming the building where the votes were counted! This mob of educated and well to do urbanites smashed the windows and broke the doors in an effort to break into the building. It was clear to all bystanders that this riot was anything but spontaneous and that this was a determined attempt to destroy the ballots and invalidate the election.
The live broadcast of rioters forcing their way into the building shocked the republic. The people of Belarus expect and demand an orderly, law-abiding society. This is always the moment of truth for authority: challenges from outside the law must be met with immediate and lawful force. The police waded into the violence and detained the rioters. But Belarus is not China, and this was not Tiananmen Square. It was not even Seattle or Gothenburg. There were no casualties; the whole event was comparable to the kind of riot raised by Manchester United, or say Luton fans after their defeat by York. Certainly the thing was disgraceful; yet suddenly, as if on cue, my colleagues, my fellow journalists in the press centre, began to send hysterical cables extolling the dreadful bloodshed caused by the last dictator’s secret police. Thank God, the Belarusians are too orderly for such excesses. Even the opposition Communist party approved of sending in the riot police. A threat to an orderly election is a threat to everyone; it is a threat to the basis of any democracy.
My cynical friend, the professor of local university and no sympathiser of Lukashenko (the President is a boorish moron in his eyes) said this to me: the opposition had to make a good show to justify all the grants and subsidies. The dollars pour in from the State Department, the NED, from Soros and the CIA in an effort to undermine the last socialist regime in Europe. All this money keeps the opposition leaders in the style they are accustomed to, but once in a while they are expected to show their mettle.
Wikileaks has now revealed how this undeclared cash flows from US coffers to the Belarus “opposition”. In the confidential cable VILNIUS 000732, dated June 12, 2005, an American diplomat informs the State Department that Lithuanian customs detained a Belarusian employee of a USAID contractor on charges of money smuggling. The courier was arrested as she attempted to leave Lithuania for Belarus with US$25,000. In addition, she admitted that had moved a total of US$50,000 out of Lithuania on two prior trips.
In case it’s not obvious by now, these dollars are just the tip of the iceberg of cash that flows from US taxpayers to fund the Belarus opposition. A Lithuanian official boasted that the Government of Lithuania “uses a variety of individuals and routes to send money to groups in Belarus, including its diplomats”. Lukashenko has always maintained that the US has spent millions of dollars to dismantle the government of tiny Belarus. Western officials automatically denied it. The Western press ridiculed it: BLOODY DICTATOR BLAMES OPPOSITION ON YANKEE MEDDLING. The proof is written in a confidential cable from a US Embassy to the US State Department. It is undeniable.
The Allure of Lukashenko
Why does the US need to pay people to oppose Lukashenko? What is the secret behind Lukashenko’s charm? He was democratically elected in 1994 just as the USSR was disintegrating. In a way, he was able to transform a chaotic collapse into a graceful denouement. He stopped privatization, he ensured full employment for everybody, he fought and defeated organized crime; in short, he preserved order and maintained the existing social network intact. For a visiting Westerner, Belarus is a rather neat and well-functioning minor East European state, not very different from its Baltic neighbors. But for an arrival from Russia or Ukraine, their immediate neighbors, it is the Shangri-la of the post-Soviet development they could have had. They, like Belarus, could have had clean streets, full employment, shops selling local products, police that do not extort bribes, pensions for old people, and economic equality.
Lukashenko stopped the kind of IMF privatization schemes that had ruined Belarus’ neighbors. In Russia, a few cronies of then-President Yeltsin (like the now-imprisoned billionaire Khodorkovsky) walked away with whole industries, iron mines and oil basins. Much of it they sold to the Western companies who raided the East in a rapacity unprecedented since Cortez’ visit to America. While ordinary Russians lost their jobs, their homes, and their social services, the super-rich oligarchs began shopping for real estate in Belgravia and the Cote d’Azur, for big yachts and football teams. It was President Putin who put a stop to this IMF-organized fire sale of assets and saved Russia, but no one will ever forget the nightmare of the “awful Nineties”.
Organized crime is a big problem in the post-Soviet space. Just last month Russian citizens read about a gang that had forced its rule upon the prosperous Kuban district of Russia, raping and murdering at will for years, the gangsters and the cops sharing alike in the crimes and the spoils. But in Belarus, there is no organized crime, no Mafia-like secret structures. “The gangsters ran away in the Nineties,” I was told by the natives. Policemen take no bribes in Belarus, a feat still beyond the reach of any other ex-Soviet state. Lukashenko achieved this police compliance by granting retired policemen decent pensions, well above average, and by mercilessly ridding the service of corrupt cops.
In Belarus, there are no oligarchs. Socialism is limited to major employers; private property and private businesses are absolutely respected. The local businessmen told me that there is little corruption, and much less than in neighboring countries. There are plenty of prosperous people but no super-rich; there are many nice cars on the streets of Minsk, but much fewer and much fancier are the cars in Moscow, where it might be said you are in a Bentley or on foot. The vast majority of cars in Minsk are modern European and Japanese economy vehicles. The old Soviet cars are practically gone.
Belarus has no national, ethnic or religious strife. Catholic and Orthodox churches share the same square; the many mosques and synagogues were built centuries before multiculturalism appeared. The East was always multicultural: Orthodox peasants, Catholic nobility, Jewish traders and Tatar horsemen lived together in Belarus long before the 15th century when this land was a part of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, then the greatest state of Europe. The old Belarusian language was the language of the Duchy, and Belarusian warriors ? together with Polish and Russian soldiers ? defeated the crusaders on the fields of Grunwald 500 years ago.
The opponents of Lukashenko tried to play the ethnic card that was so efficient in Ukraine and Lithuania at alienating traditional allies. They promoted Belarus nationalism and the old Belarus language, but both turned out to be non-starters. The opposition’s beatific vision of a Belarusian ethnic revival is very poetic, like the revival of Welsh, but this practical people is not willing to fight over it.
Lukashenko’s Soviet-style economy preserved the sources of local production, and alongside the ubiquitous imports you will find that the core staples are provided locally. Belarusian cheese, milk, bread and vegetables are all organic and Russian visitors always buy and carry home as much as they can carry of the delicious, healthy and inexpensive stuff. Their industry also remained intact, even as the IMF shepherded their neighbors into third world status with a speedy process of de-industrialization. Belarus still produces everything from TV sets to tractors, from giant lorries to Ives Saint Lauren-designed fashions.
Belarus has no political parties. This is not a case of one big political party like in Russia, nor is it the good-guy/bad-guy dual party system as in the US. No political parties at all. The parties are not forbidden, but they just have not developed. This was one of the great ideas of Simone Weil, the profoundly radical French philosopher, though she would have them banned altogether.
Belarus represents an interestingly successful model of economic development. It has reminded the world that a wise ruler can save a country. This lesson is an especially timely one since the IMF has littered the globe with bankrupt and insolvent countries. The world is now looking at the IMF and other international investors with caution. Monetarism is bankrupt. Military aggression, on which Bush relied, has failed. We live in the post-crisis era. A search for other ways of development is now underway. Now people are starting to think: isn’t there a better way? Belarus may lead the way.
One of Belarus’ major achievements is that it was able to fend off the large international companies. During the 20 years of western raids around the world, tiny Belarus was able to preserve its assets. This is a very important lesson for many countries. Belarus may not have produced a single Abramovitch, but the country is home to millions of rather content ordinary citizens.
The vast majority of the Belarusian people are content with their lives. Their salaries are modest, on a par with neighboring Russia, but they have no unemployment and they do not worry that their place of work will get shut down. Their cities are clean, their food is inexpensive, the heating and rent are heavily subsidized, and transport is well organized. They are not subservient to the Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, the Pentagon, nor to the Masters of Discourse. They are the cause of soul-searching for their neighbors, a living proof that the Soviet Union did not have to be destroyed, that socialism can work, and that it often works better than financial capitalism.
It is exactly for this reason that the bad guys wish to destroy Belarus.
The country is isolated from the West: it is very difficult for a Belarusian to go and visit his cousin in neighboring Poland or Lithuania because the EC will not give them visas. Poland is especially hostile: previously colonial masters of Belarus, the Poles view themselves as enforcers of the West’s will in the East. The visas are extremely expensive by local standards. The only international airport is practically empty; there are very few flights in or out.
Relations with Russia are far from perfect. The Russian oligarchs have struggled to squeeze loose Belarusian assets, industries and pipelines. Lukashenko resisted the raiders from New York and Berlin and has no intention of giving up the national jewels to raiders from Moscow. The result is tension. While there is much to be said for a close alliance to Russia, Belarus is well aware that the oligarchs lie somewhere behind the Russian smile. The more Russia can muzzle the voracity of the oligarchs, the less suspicion there will be to poison their natural affinities and mutual support.
For now, Lukashenko prefers to play a complicated game with the EC, even discussing the possible entry of Belarus to the united Europe. It is not impossible: economically Belarus is in much better shape than the majority of East European states who are EC members.
Belarus has friendly relations with Venezuela and Cuba, with China and Vietnam. It is a socialist country, but the socialism is soft, with plenty of room for private enterprise and personal freedoms. Belarus has found new life in preserving and developing the elements of socialism which in the early 1990s were most discredited. In the wake of IMF despair, socialism suddenly pops back up with a confident gait, in new clothes and carrying with it a new hope. It is wonderful that Belarus has managed walk this tightrope between freedom and responsibility in the midst of a disintegrating union and foreign interference. The Russian political analyst Sergey Kara Murza has said that the Belarusian system could serve as the pattern for the resurrection of the socialist state. The lesson for neighboring Russians is especially valid, and even poignant.
Edited by Paul Bennett
ISRAEL SHAMIR can be reached at email@example.com