The Long Path to a Civil Society – The Example of Russia
Twenty years of transformation have brought neither democracy nor a vital civil society to Russia.
"When people ask me why we are still active in Belarus, I tell them: because we are heroes." Nikolai Khalezin is the dramatic adviser in a Byelorussian theatre. It is March 2010. "It sounds like a joke", he adds laughing, "but it's true."
Byelorussia. Someone like Khalezin would never say "Byelorussia", which means "White Russia" and smacks of colonialism. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, his country has officially been called "Republic of Belarus". In 1991, the only vote cast against independence was by the Vice President of the Parliament: Alexander Lukashenko. Three years later, he would become the first head of the new state, and promise to fight corruption and safeguard the social advantages of communism.
Byelorussia was one of the Soviet republics with a high living standard – the "Germany of the USSR". Its inhabitants were therefore afraid of the many abrupt changes that would follow independence. But ultimately they paid a high price to maintain stability.
Between 1991 and 1994, and prior to Lukashenko's inauguration, liberties increased somewhat in Belarus: political parties emerged, associations were founded, and even the Byelorussian language experienced a slight upswing. Lukashenko put an end to all this. Today, the president controls the machinery of power and reigns on his own, without a political party, relying solely on the secret service which is still called the KGB – the Committee for State Security, which was also the name of the Soviet Union's former secret service.
Election after election he has managed to stay in power using manipulation whenever circumstances required it, and repression whenever it became necessary. In almost two decades he has established a system that is aesthetically post communist but politically adapted to the new age.
The country's Soviet aesthetics mask the fact that Lukashenko is also very skilled at moving in the modern world and understands the weaknesses of Western democracies. "Just so there is no misunderstanding," warns one White Russian activist, "this isn't the last dictatorship in Europe; it is the first one of the 21st century."
On the outskirts of Minsk, in a room a little over 30 square metres that includes a stage with no podium, a grandstand with wooden benches and some cushions for sitting on the floor, Nikolai Khalezin, his wife Natalia Kaliada and the other members of the Belarus Free Theater stage their performances. "We speak of the things no one ever talks about, we allude to this country's every taboo: the ethnic and sexual minorities, social problems and, of course, politics", explains Kaliada.
There is no general prohibition of critical activities in Belarus. The regime is much more subtle. Since every organisation has to be registered, an easy and common method for rendering the inconvenient illegal is to refuse their registration for any arbitrary bureaucratic reason. This way it's easier to proceed against them. If bureaucratic delays aren't sufficient, the government uses dissuasion.
"Initially we acted in bars", recalls Kaliada. "We organised imaginary birthday or Christmas parties to stage our plays. But the people who helped us began receiving threats from the KGB. One day they closed one of our friend's bar – and we understood that we couldn't go on putting others in danger." Now they rent this tiny room in Minsk. "This house is too small, but it's owned by someone who has nothing left to lose."
The average person, though, still does have a great deal left to lose: a job, a present and a future. In Belarus, the government can force your employer to fire you. It can deny you admission to university or refuse to grant a travel permit for foreign lands, basically imprisoning you in the country with no prospects.
"My daughter graduated in law," reports human rights lawyer Harry Pahaniaila. "She did well and had good marks – but when she looked for a job, she couldn't find anything. She looked and looked and finally found a temporary post which she didn't like much. One day her boss noticed that she was sad. He approached her and said 'it's because of your father'." There are much more effective and diplomatically less damaging ways to silence the opposition than manifest brutality, which the regime only applies selectively.
"Sometimes, when youngsters show too much interest in politics, they kidnap them for a few hours, beat them or just take them and leave them in a forest outside Minsk", says Pahaniaila. The message is: If we want to, we can do anything to you.
"The last time people disappeared for political reasons in Belarus was between 1999 and 2000", Pahaniaila continues. In court he represents the families of victims: Yuri Zakharenko, the former Minister of the Interior, Victor Gonchar, a member of Parliament – two men who were capable of eclipsing Lukashenko –, along with a Russian television cameraman and a businessman. "All the evidence indicates that they were killed and that civil servants and people in high political office were involved," the lawyer emphasises. "In fact we even know who did it."
In 1996, two years after the first election, Lukashenko organised a referendum to expand the limits of his power, a move Zakharenko and Gonchar publicly criticised. Their disappearances cast a pall of fear over presidential elections in 2001, and Lukashenko was re-elected. In 2004, the president kicked off another referendum, this time to modify the constitution to allow him to run for office a third time.
In 2006, he was forced to face something new: a strong adversary. The fragmented Belarusian opposition had regrouped around conservative Alexander Milinkevich, who, thanks to an efficient campaign, was transformed from an unknown citizen into the "candidate of all the discontented".
Milinkevich was far from victorious. "As Stalin said, it doesn't matter who votes, but who counts the votes", the former candidate joked. OECD election observers detected serious irregularities in the Belarusian elections of 2006. Following the election, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the malfeasance, and the regime responded with violence. The resulting atmosphere of terror stifled any attempt at rebellion. Once any and all protest attempts that might pose a danger to the establishment had been eliminated, state-controlled calm returned bit by bit.
In March 2010, there was relative drop in tension. The last political prisoners had been released two years before as a gesture of good will towards the West, who reacted by relaxing sanctions. In 2009, Javier Solana, the so called "foreign minister" of the European Union, visited Minsk. "It has always worked the same way", explains lawyer Pahaniaila. "The government arrests a few people, puts them in prison and then releases them – and is rewarded by the US and Europe. Once it has released a few, it imprisons the next few, and the negotiations recommence."
The number of political prisoners is never excessive. The threat of imprisonment remains as a warning to those who feel tempted to move beyond the limits set by the government, but the general population doesn't consider it a threat that could affect just anyone. It is a method that Lukashenko can come back to and release prisoners when foreign powers demand reform. "Regrettably, in our country political prisoners are an exchange currency", says Pahaniaila's colleague, the Director of the NGO Belarusian Helsinki Committee.
Throughout his presidencies, Lukashenko has manoeuvred along the small pathway between the West and the East. In recent years in particular, International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans have been crucial for the Belarusian economy. The country's actual economic situation is unknown, but it's presumed to be precarious. While the IMF can't make political decisions, human rights violations in Belarus certainly put pressure on its members.
The Belarusian president is well aware of this fact as he attempts to carefully dole out his use of force. He moves away from the West when he needs to demonstrate strength on a national level, then makes concessions when he thinks he can loosen his grip a bit. This tactic frequently disarms both Europeans and the US, who typically return to pragmatism once their initial sense of indignation has passed. To their minds, dialogue is better than nothing. Appropriately the t-shirt Natalia Kaliada of the Belarus Free Theater presented to Hilary Clinton in 2009 read: "Fuck Realpolitik".
But Lukashenko cannot do without Russia either. Moscow sells energy products to Minsk at special rates, and these are fundamental to the Belarusian economy and its dictator. "There was a time when citizens supported Lukashenko," says Andrei Sannikov, who ran for president in the following elections in 2010, after Milinkevich had announced his withdrawal. The ballot was scheduled for December 19, and the opposition was again divided. Nonetheless Sannikov retained hope: not for a win – he stated that he "completely ruled out the idea that the elections could be fair" – but for change. "On this occasion, anything could happen", he states. "People were tired of Lukashenko. But Lukashenko promised stability, decent salaries and decent pensions and above all, he promised good relations with Russia."
Nevertheless, Lukashenko has carried out his "war on gas" with Russia – kind of a smaller version of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict since 2007. According to the agreements, Belarus should have started incrementally paying energy tariffs equal to actual market value. Lukashenko could not afford to do so though and so – in order to pressure the Kremlin – he pretended to be looking for new partners in other parts of the world, like Venezuela, for instance.
But nobody, and least of all himself, could be unaware of the fact that no country could hope to fool their Big Brother in the North in this area. Lukashenko keenly felt the slap in the face when, as elections approached, Moscow reacted by not expressing support for his campaign. A few months before the election, the Russian television channel NTV showed a documentary describing Lukashenko as corrupt and a criminal, which would have been unthinkable in the past.
The election proceeded just as expected: with the opposition hamstrung and complaints from international observers. Again, the OECD registered voter fraud and contested the results that awarded 72% of the votes to Lukashenko. Sannikov achieved just over 6%. And again, thousands of people came out onto Minsk's large avenues to protest the fraudulent election. The protests' final tally: 600 convicted of disorderly conduct, seven of the nine oppositional candidates disappeared into KGB prisons – subject to torture and degrading treatment, only arbitrarily allowed to contact their lawyers and with no contact to their families at all – journalists, activists and people from the cultural sector detained, raids on the offices of political parties, of independent media, university professors and oppositional organisations. "They've freed me", wrote Natalia Kaliada after having spent a few nights in prison. The secret service was still searching for her husband, Nikolai Khalezin. She then lamented: "The KGB has taken all our friends."
"This is a veritable witch hunt", reported Jörg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund from the Belarusian capital after the election in 2010. "The regime systematically takes action against any person or organisation capable of standing up to it. They are attempting to completely wipe out the opposition.
"Today, two years later, "almost all social networks in Belarus have been destroyed", tells Forbrig. "It is even forbidden to work in completely inoffensive cultural associations. Rock concerts by famous Belarusian bands, which were never a problem before, are now also forbidden. Any gathering of people is seen as a potential threat." The will to fight has almost been broken. "The atmosphere is very cold," he continues. "People are frustrated and disappointed. They have given up, since it seems impossible to change the situation. They prefer to focus on private matters."
While this may hold true for the majority, it does not apply to everyone. A curious sort of protest was initiated via social networks this past summer. It was successful because it caught the secret service, used only to protests on the streets of Minsk, by surprise. The action planned: to have a few people in many different places go out into the streets and applaud.
Already back then in 2010, Nikolai Khalezin explained: "In a dictatorship, any topic can become a political issue. One of our first plays was about a lesbian girl experiencing an existential crisis. The authorities forbid us to perform it, because, according to them, there were neither lesbians nor people suffering from psychosis in Belarus and the text was therefore not realistic. Furthermore, they considered the frightened lesbian girl to be political issue." So is applause.
Lukashenko mobilised the military to fight these ironic ovations, and they were silenced temporarily. The "war on gas" was also concluded in November 2011. Belarus will continue to receive Russian energy at a lower cost. In return, Gazprom now owns 100% of Beltrangaz, the Belarusian gas transport company, and so now dominates the entire supply infrastructure of a foreign country for the first time. Of the 2010 presidential candidates detained, Andrei Sannikov and Nikolai Statkevich still remain in prison. But Lukashenko needs money from the IMF and parliamentary elections are scheduled for this year. Forbrig therefore estimates that they will be released in the next few months. Lukashenko has already announced his willingness to enact reforms.
The diplomatic dithering of the West has started up again. But today, the heroes of the Belarus Free Theater, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin don't perform in Belarus anymore. They live in exile from where they shout: "Free Belarus Now!"
Parts of this text were taken from the Spanish series "From Byelorussia to Republic of Belarus" ("De Bielorrusia a República de Belarús") published in Periodismo Humano between 2010 and 2011.
De Bielorrusia a República de Belarús