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Friday, March 24, 2006

Belated Belarus: When Will Europe’s Last Dictatorship Graduate to Democracy?

Long live Lukashenka, Belarus’ president-elect, whose “re-election” for a third term highlights his dictatorial lifestyle. According to election authorities, Alyaksander Lukashenka championed a whopping 82 percent of the vote while opposition leaders Alyaksander Milinkevich never made it past single digits. These democratically maladaptive voting patterns characterize a dependent, closed-circuit culture unable to defuse the cause of its mental condition.

Never in their wildest dreams had Belarusians imagined that Lukashenka would be here for a haul that long. A collective farm manager, he had harvested the 1994 election amid an ideological famine caused by the socioeconomic turbulence of the early days of the post-Soviet era. Struggling to find the answers to a mounting avalanche of bread-and-butter problems, common folks raided their mental closets for mothballed Soviet mantras.

Lukashenka seemed to read their minds. But the Soviet mantras on his inventory never made him a masterful manager. Also known as “бацька” (bah-ts-kah), or father, he has spent all these years shaping his country’s future with an anachronistic mindset. His strategy: Keep Belarus in Russia’s orbit in exchange for discount energy supplies. Eventual reunification seems to be part of the deal, but this commitment has been punctuated with intense bureaucratic turf battles between Minsk and Moscow. Bottom line: A poor and paternalistic society, lost in space and time, shunned by the rest of the international community, much like a mental institution.

Cheap energy supplies from Russia — the lifeblood of the Lukashenka regime — have nourished the Belarusian welfare state. Its modest blessings account for the backbone of his grass-roots support. Traditionally, Lukashenka has drawn support from older, Sovietized Belarusians. These people have a chronic crush on the communist past, a past that covered their bare necessities and held the promise of a “bright future.”

On closer examination, Russia’s feeding tube has all the proportions of a geopolitical control chord. This symbiotic arrangement offers a perfect “gastrointestinal” scope into the innards of both countries’ politico-economic models. What makes Belarus different is its cloistered and cathetered quasi-communism, as opposed to Russia’s crony and commodity capitalism of 33 Forbes-rated billionaires. On all other counts, Belarus’ serves as a magnifying lens for everything that’s wrong with Russia. Identity crisis. Big Brother. Obsolete economy. Addiction to paternalism.

No wonder, younger Belarusians do not subscribe to Lukashenka’s business plan. They challenge their country’s father-knows-best culture. True, their Jeans Revolution has failed to ignite the jaded masses. In a country of almost zero interest group dynamics and a tightened KGB grip, the opposition fell badly short on financial, organizational, and media support. Many kids will end up in jail. But this is not the end. It’s just the beginning. When they go home, they should set their hearts and minds to winning the hearts and minds of others.

There’s no agent of change like youth. Enlightened youth activists should spread their vision of a free and modernized Belarus. Big Brother must go. The Belarus Brainpower brand should retire him. The generation gap should serve as a creative destruction tool with which to bridge the gap between the Belarus of yesterday and tomorrow.

They should embark on door-to-door Promethean politics, raising awareness, inspiring people to believe in themselves, and thus rekindling the fire in Belarus’ belly. To shake the tyranny off its back, Belarus must stop crawling and learn to walk. Isolating Belarus won’t melt the ice. Using a flexible combination of sticks and carrots, the West should engage the regime in ways that would let the warm breeze of freedom slip through the cracks.

It took four years for Ukraine to move from “Ukraine without Kuchma” sit-ins to the Orange Revolution. On the eve of the parliamentary election Ukraine has a choice, something Belarus hasn’t experienced for more than a decade. Going the distance from ugly duckling to swan — from dictatorship to democracy — will not be an easy journey. As Belarus moves along, Ukraine will have its own political storms to weather. And when it does, Ukraine should ruffle its feathers and act as a role model for Belarus.

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