Menace in Minsk
Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship
By Andrew Wilson (Yale University Press 304pp £20)
Until twenty years ago, Belarus was not a state but a backwater of other states: of medieval Kievan Russia, of early modern Litva (the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania), and then of Russia. Only when Stalin grabbed half of Poland and then needed a pretext for another seat at the United Nations did the ravaged city of Minsk become a capital city of a fictional republic. Stalin in the 1930s and the Nazis between 1942 and 1944, as Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands (2010) so graphically showed, turned Belarus into a living hell, but by purging it of Poles and Jews, as well as any independently minded citizens, they left in the ruins an ethnically homogeneous citizenry. When Boris Yeltsin engineered the abolition of the USSR and the deposition of Mikhail Gorbachev, Belarus, an accomplice in the plot like Ukraine, became a recognised state. It lacks, however, many of a state's attributes: it has no natural borders, such as mountains or rivers; and it differs from its neighbour Russia primarily in that it inhabits a different time zone - the 1970s. The Belarusian language, used by a small minority of the country's peasantry and intellectuals, is more a collection of dialects in which Russian is seamlessly transposed into Polish or Ukrainian, with only a boldly phonetic spelling system in common. In religion, too, the country moves (east to west) from Orthodoxy to Catholicism via the Uniate church.
It is understandable, therefore, that just half of Andrew Wilson's book deals with the first 1,000 years of Belarus, before it existed as a country, and that the second half deals with the last two decades or so in which a variety of experienced communist functionaries and highly educated intellectual nationalists have been outwitted, ousted and sometimes just murdered by a former pig farmer and border guard, Alexander Lukashenko. Wilson refrains from the temptation to treat him as a comic villain or village idiot. But Lukashenko does come across as an ignorant boor, outrageously ambitious - at one point he hoped to become co-leader of a united Belarus and Russia - and vindictively murderous whenever a political opponent or an employee gets out of hand. Lukashenko has been successful in managing not just his resentful populace - at least, its educated sector - but his irritable and powerful neighbour, Russia, and in extracting from the EU as much assistance as he does condemnation: clearly the pigs he studied before he became president were more Orwellian than Gloucester Old Spot.
As Europe's last remaining dictator, Lukashenko is finding life increasingly difficult. Belarus has been Russia's main conduit to the West, living on the proceeds of the oil and gas that passes through its pipelines, and on the fines that its notorious traffic police and customs officials extort from the lorries that ferry through Belarus the Dutch lettuces and the German motor spares on which Russia depends. But Putin is now building pipelines under the Baltic and the Black Seas that will deprive Belarus (and Ukraine) of revenues from transit fees and siphoned fuel. Even the lorry drivers prefer to take a longer route, free from uniformed highwaymen, driving from Germany to Russia via Scandinavia and the Baltic States. Belarusian factories still earn a living selling the massive Belarus tractor - as over-engineered and as unbreakable as the Moscow Metro - to the developing world, and the rural population, largely content with stability and endurable levels of poverty, makes minimal demands on its government. A complete opportunist, Lukashenko maintains unexpected friendships: he allows pro-Western Georgia visa-free access, so that Georgians can enter Russia via his back door, and cannily refuses Putin's request to recognise the 'independence' of Georgia's separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For different reasons, Lukashenko is a thorn in the flesh of both Russia and the European Union, but neither side would dream of plucking out this thorn as long as it hurts the other.
The strength of Wilson's book is his thorough understanding of the political alliances and betrayals and the economic quandaries that allowed an apparent maverick to defeat Belarusian nationalists and the communist old guard. As in Ukraine, the political kitchen was too hot for decent men to endure, and the thick-skinned louts in the wings proved surprisingly adept at manipulating the media. Lukashenko, even more than Putin, shamelessly controls the media and the electoral roll but, like Putin, could win any election straight out if he chose to. The nation distrusts rhetoric, cannot forget the hyperinflation that the first 'liberals' brought in the early 1990s and, like many in the former USSR, demands only that the political climate should be tomorrow what it is today. Moreover, unlike Russia, Belarus is not dominated by oligarchs and billionaires who infuriate ordinary citizens by flaunting their wealth and impunity; corruption is controlled by a pyramid structure. Belarusian traffic police, unlike Russian gaieshniki, give a receipt when they fleece the passing motorist.
Wilson concludes that Lukashenko cannot go on winning his perpetual game of poker: as his revenues from Russia's subsidies and transit fees shrink, his economy is threatened with collapse. I suspect, however, that Lukashenko, like any other poker player, will merely seek out partners in the West who are easier to bluff. Wilson ignores another factor, notable in the recent demonstrations in Moscow: a younger generation that demands more of life. Unlike North Korea, Belarus allows its youth mobile phones, a modicum of Internet access and travel, and even education abroad. There is a defiant underground culture in Minsk, such as satirical theatres that invite their audiences to last-moment venues by mobile phone. Time will take its toll of Lukashenko's cohort; their children are not like them. The beatings, torture, detentions and executions may go on for a decade, but Europe's last dictatorship cannot last much longer. Whether an independent Belarus will continue to serve its purpose as a buffer zone between Russian and the EU is another matter.
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Donald Rayfield has recently completed A History of Georgia for Reaktion Books.