Tuesday 21 December 2010

Belarus: Arm Yourselves

With one from Karl Naylor (my blogroll will be sorted out next month):

Simon Tisdall writes in The Guardian of the protests against Lukashenko following his election amidst claims of fraud that, "Alexander Lukashenko and his black-shirted riot police reverted to type at the weekend, cracking heads and arresting opponents while fabricating a landslide election victory. This violent regression victimised the people of Belarus."

It has only targeted those groups that have routinely sought to cause trouble in order to stimulate a disproportionate crackdown and thus prove that Lukashenko is unpopular and a "Stalinist" which he is not, even though his rule is authoritarian. Most Belarusians vote Lukashenko and distrust the oppositionists as they never spell out what their economic agenda actually is should Lukashenko be removed. The financial backing of the US and supposed "NGOs" hardly helps as all opposition per se can be smeared as "in the pay of the enemy".

As Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations has noted, Lukashenko depends on "a social contract with most ordinary Belarusians – relative prosperity in return for a relative lack of political freedom". His ability to maintain stability, order, and jobs (up to a point) was his main and possibly his only plus with voters. So when he fell out with his Russian patrons, Lukashenko sought new friends such as China, Venezuela – and the EU. If "the West" has been to blame, then it's been a result of promoting neoliberal shock therapy style "reforms" instead of working towards an agreement with Belarus that does not mean it has to follow nations such as Poland in being subjected to asset stripping, the rule of consultants and mass unemployment.

Michael Binyon, a former Moscow correspondent for The Times, has argued that Lukashenko still had support, despite the protests. "Among many ordinary people I wouldn't say there is widespread support [for the opposition], they're pretty resigned to seeing Lukashenko continue in office ... And he's not completely unpopular because Belarus has enjoyed a stable standard of living - it's not a high standard of living at all, but they've avoided some of the confrontations and disruptions that they've seen in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Pensioners for example still get a reasonable pension." Lukashenko has been able since he came to power in 1994 of drawing attention to the way Belarus has been protected from these negative consequences as well as the failures seldom ever mentioned in the mainstream media in Western nations with regards Poland and "katastrioka" in Russia.

What Lukashenko has realised is that China became the power to be reckoned with that it is because it rejected the Western model that Russia embraced after 1991 that was proposed as "the only option" by international financial institutions such as the IMF. Tisdall argues that Belarus is some sort of economic basket case and insinuates that Belarusians also partly have themselves to blame for voting incorrectly for Lukashenko without understanding the reasons why Lukashenko has been popular has lain in his curtailing of the the corruption and chaos of the 1990s.

Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, reassuringly described the post-election brutality as solely an internal matter. And Putin praised Lukashenko last week for taking "a clear course towards integration with Russia". Whether Russia will deliver is the next big question. Having played the two sides off against each other to personally beneficial effect, Lukashenko now faces a bigger worry: an external debt of 52% of GDP, a $7bn trade gap, an unmodernised, largely state-owned economy, and rising expectations among 9.5 million Belarusians who have swapped political liberty for jam tomorrow.

The contention that Belarusians have sacrificed freedom for the illusion of security could be made in many European nations and the USA. The cynical part of the fundamentalist market theology across the West has been to stimulate consent through consumer boom miracles and control a docile population. Yet the direct comparisons in economic terms have to be with the neighbouring Baltic Republics. As Michael Hudson and Jeffrey Sommers argued with regards the "Latvian Model" in The Guardian just today, Given a 25% fall in GDP during the crisis, such a growth rate would take a decade to just restore the size of Latvia's 2007 economy. Is this "dead cat" bounce sufficiently compelling for other EU states to follow it over the fiscal cliff?

The method by which the EU's creditor nations and banks would like to resolve this crisis is "internal devaluation": lower wages, public spending and living standards to make the debtors pay. This is the old IMF austerity doctrine that failed in the developing world. It looks like it is about to be reprised. The EU policy seems to be for wage earners and pension savers to bail out banks for their legacy of bad mortgages and other loans that cannot be paid – except by going into poverty. The fear of the practical impact of neoliberal policies clearly is not something that Euro-Atlanticists such as Tisdall want to put up for critical discussion. As to it being opposed to the Chinese model, there seems to be increasingly a greater convergence between authoritarianism and economic development.

And another:

Certain protests against Lukashenko are even more curious than those staged by the designer revolutionaries of Charter97. The Ukrainian group FEMEN get photogenic Ukrainian girls to pose naked as a protest against the role of women but also against "male power" of which Bat'ka is seen as but one example in neighbouring Belarus. Ukrainian girls from Femen movement held a rally "Kick Batska out!" at the walls of the Belarusian embassy in Kiev and made an appeal to Belarusians. "We want to support the brotherly people, exhausted by the totalitarian regime of Lukashenko ruling, on the eve of the presidential elections in Belarus. Hey, Belarusians, take your chance! Dethrone Lukashenko," Femen statement says.

"Privatization of power is a concept, unacceptable by modern standards. The cult of personality is a relic of the long-deceased Soviet Union, and it's a sacred duty of all Belarusians to stop it," the statement says in the Blog of Art Group. Who funds FEMEN ? Can "feminism" be promoted by posing scantily clad in Kiev by trading on the stereotypes of Ukrainian women as "for sale" to "sexpats"? Or could it be a cynical ruse to protest against such things in order to get noticed and advance careers ?

And another:

Last night in Minsk on 19 December 2010 there were riots caused by the usual groups who contest election results in Belarus after Lukashenko got over 80% of the vote. There are as yet only serious allegations of electoral fraud and the OSCE has had a history of partisan recognition of illegitimate elections (such as Saakashvili's in Georgia in 2003).

The Guardian reported:

"The result was announced hours after riot police dispersed thousands of demonstrators protesting against alleged voting fraud. The Belarus Central Election Commission said preliminary results showed Lukashenko had collected 79.67% of the vote in yesterday's election. The next-highest vote among the nine candidates was just 2.56%. The announcement followed a violent night in which police dispersed demonstrators who massed outside the main government office to denounce alleged vote-rigging. Protesters broke windows and smashed glass doors in the government building, which also houses the election commission, but were repelled by riot police waiting inside.

Hundreds more police and Interior Ministry troops then arrived in trucks, causing most of the demonstrators to flee. Some tried to hide in the courtyards of nearby apartment buildings, but many were bludgeoned by troops. Several of the candidates who ran against Lukashenko were arrested and the top opposition leader, Vladimir Neklyaev, was forcibly taken from the hospital where he was being treated after he and two other candidates were beaten during clashes with government forces. Neklyaev's aide said seven men in civilian clothing had wrapped him in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him outside. His location is currently unknown.

Russia and the EU are closely monitoring the election, having offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction. In recent years, Lukashenko has quarrelled intensively with the Kremlin, his main sponsor, as Russia raised prices for the below-market gas and oil on which the Belarus economy depends. His tone changed this month, however, after Russia agreed to drop tariffs for oil exported to Belarus – a concession worth an estimated $4bn (£2.5bn) a year.

Lukashenko has also been working to curry favour with the west, which has criticised his 16-year rule for human rights abuses and repressive politics. Last week, he called for improved ties with the US, which he had cast as an enemy in previous years. However, the violent dispersal of opposition protests makes a rapprochement with the west unlikely.

Whatever irregularities there are can be challenged but that there is a strategy by Western NGOs to replace Lukashenko with a pro-US and Atlanticist group of politicians paid for and answerable to foreign powers is hardly news. The fact is that Lukashenko does command the majority of votes in Belarus. Unfortunately in recent years the proliferation of instant global news has led to designer democracy groups funded by those like George Soros to get societies more open to money power and oligarchies that support Western geopolitical strategies rather than a truly accountable democracy. Andrej Dynko has written an article for The Guardian today that attempts objectivity under the headline Belarus election: The last dictator in Europe, an evident absurdity as dictatorship depends not upon "elections" but, at most, plebiscites in which there is only one candidate and not choosing the correct one is dangerous.

Unfortunately, Dynko's Nasha Niva is bankrolled by groups like the Prague Society for International Cooperation which in turn is sponsored by think tanks such as the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society which was fervent in its support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and for "Democratic Geopolitics". Gone are the days of "the dissident" and Charter97 promotes "openess" and "transparency" for Belarus but exempts itself from revealing who backs them, as well as censoring any critical comments that ask for information as to what economic plans they have for Belarus if Lukashenko goes. A full list of "Partners and Friends" includes the Prague Marriott Hotel and Radio Free Europe and is supported by Vaclav Havel who also acted as a "useful idiot" in supporting the Iraq oil grab, as did student protestors paid to hold up placards supporting the US invasion in Belarus.

Now Dynko has taken a new line by those trying to remove Lukashenko, as the former one that the leader was some "New Hitler" like Saddam Hussein has failed to work no less than the carefully staged and choreographed "Denim Revolution" of 2006, the best democracy money tried to buy back then. He writes, "...never have there been so many candidates. But the number of candidates is no guarantee of any substantial political change. The country itself has changed a lot in 15 years, despite the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko. Its economy has grown at twice the rate of neighbouring Ukraine's. This is a Chinese, or rather a Singaporean model – and Lukashenko is convinced it is the one best suited to the Belarusian mentality and geopolitical situation. Not everyone agrees with him, however. A parallel society has grown up: rock music, samizdat and discussion clubs are all flourishing. In order to catch this wave Lukashenko is ready to commandeer what used to be the opposition's seditious slogan, "For Freedom"."

Belarus has survived the period of neoliberal shock therapy that devastated and indented the Baltic Republics. That is no reason to downgrade the repression in Belarus but that if the only choice is between Lukashenko and neoliberal "reforms" then many Belarusians will continue to stay with Lukashenko. Freedom is freedom. Yet those seeing Charter97 as something more than a pastiche of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia (many of whose supporters did not want US style capitalism, though that's in the Orwellian memory hole now ) have failed to see why the opposition is not so popular as it could be. Lukashenko is following the Singaporean or Chinese model more as he is authoritarian and the attractions of the economic model to the west in Poland offered not much consolation to those who would be thrown on the scrapheap by asset stripping, the rule of consultants and the "Marriott men".

Charter97 claims it opposes "dictatorial privatisation" but it has not opposed its activists doing what so many in Poland did: using their connections in high society to act as consultants, sell off plant and destroy whole swathes of manufacturing to create a "correct" investment climate. Few in Poland realised in 1990 that by 2004 unemployment rates would still be so high nor how draconian the neoliberal Balcerowicz Plan was going to be. Balcerowicz knew that which is why he cynically called for "extraordinary politics" to ram through his reforms by exploiting the euphoria of liberation. In Belarus, Lukaskenko's rise to be "Bat'ka" depended after 1995 on his ability to crack down on the corruption and chaos witnessed under Yeltsin in Russia in the 1990s and the fear that US involvement in its economy would replicate that in Poland, a nation with a stronger economy and national identity.

Reform that would benefit Belarus and the rest of Europe can happen but only if "Democracy Promotion" is no longer tied cynically to privatising the economy into the hands of Western investors interested only in rapid rates of return and short term profits by looting a "liberated" economy. Even so, that democratic reform is necessary is obvious, despite all the propaganda about Lukashenko's "social market economy", combining economic advances with a Chinese style state in Eastern Europe is not a good thing nor is the harassment of journalists and threats to close down Nasha Niva.

The question has moved since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and the USSR in 1991 from freedom from one-party states to one of "freedom for what?" There is no reason why being sceptical of the aims and objectives of oppositionists in Belarus should mean necessary support for Lukashenko.

And one from Daniel Larison:

A month ago, Anne Applebaum urged a new round of NATO expansion, which I pointed out was a terrible idea. These were her closing words:

"We could continue that process [NATO expansion]. The stakes are lower – 2010 is not 1990, and the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined. Nevertheless, the very existence of a credible Western military alliance remains – yes, really – an encouragement to others on Europe’s borders. This is a uniquely propitious moment. Right now there is a pro-Western government in Moldova; Ukraine’s geopolitics are up in the air; elections are due to take place in Belarus in December [bold mine-DL]. We in the West might have gone sour on ourselves, but Europeans on our borders still find us magnetically attractive. But we will only remain so if we try."

This week in Belarus, we are seeing what the “uniquely propitious moment” means in practice. Following the rigged re-election of Belarus’ ruler, government forces violently attacked opposition rallies. Applebaum has returned with a new column to try to exploit the brutal crackdown in Minsk that took place yesterday. Having described the terrible violence meted out to opposition supporters, she writes:

"All in all, it was a stunning display of the regime’s weakness: Indeed, the violence that unfolded in the wake of Alexander Lukashenko’s fourth presidential election “victory” can only be explained as a sign of the Belarusan dictator’s failure. After the polls closed, Lukashenko claimed to have received nearly 80 percent of the vote. But politicians who are that popular have no need to beat, arrest and harass their opponents, send provocateurs into a crowd or shut down Web sites."

Certainly, in some grander moral scheme, Lukashenko is an abysmal failure. Like other dictators, he rules by force and repression, and he likely does not command anything like the broad support reflected in the official results. I would caution against assuming that Lukashenko is as unpopular as Applebaum claims, if for no other reason than that this is what virtually everyone kept saying about political upheaval in Iran last year to their chagrin. Nonetheless, it is a serious mistake to assume that the use of coercion by brutal authoritarian regimes is proof of exceptional weakness. Even if a majority loathes Lukashenko, which is easy to imagine, that doesn’t mean that there is any alternative that can replace him. This is the story in the post-Soviet world from Belarus to Uzbekistan: authoritarian presidents dominating weak or non-existent civil society. Compared to more legitimate, consensual forms of government, dictatorships are politically weak, as they cannot count on the ready deference and obedience that constitutional and elected governments enjoy, but in terms of political power inside their own countries these displays are anything but signs of weakness.

Lukashenko’s weakness isn’t what really interests Applebaum. She wants to take this opportunity to revisit the idea that we in the West have somehow failed Belarus and all of the states neighboring Russia, as if it were the responsibility of the U.S. or our European allies to save Belarus. Applebaum writes:

"This, then, is what the “decline of the West” looks like in the eastern half of Europe: The United States and Europe, out of money and out of ideas, scarcely fund the Belarusan opposition. Russia, flush with oil money once again, has agreed to back Lukashenko and fund his regime. Let’s hope it costs them a lot more than they expect."

If funding the Belarusian opposition is Applebaum’s example of an idea, I suppose “the West” must be out of ideas. It is hardly a “decline of the West” if the same authoritarian ruler presides in Minsk as he has for the last two decades. Neither is it “Eastern aggression,” as the title of her column so dramatically puts it. On the contrary, it is quite obviously the maintenance of the status quo. After the temporary rift between Lukashenko and Moscow for the last few years, Belarus is more or less back where it has been for most of the post-Cold War era. This is in many ways unfortunate for Belarus, and not particularly desirable for Belarus’ immediate neighbors, but perhaps one reason why Westerners are unwilling to devote more of their limited resources to Belarus is that they conclude that they have no vital interests in Belarus. This is the correct assessment.

What could be better evidence of a West bereft of ideas than the proposal to resume the eastward expansion of NATO? Despite the lack of suitable candidates among the remaining ex-Soviet republics, and despite the lack of any strategic rationale for continued expansion, Applebaum was urging on expansion just a month ago and named the basketcase of Europe as one of her principal candidates. Let me suggest that any strategy that involves significant funding of the political opposition of Belarus is not worth the time, money or effort that would be expended. We are finally enjoying a temporary pause in the unremitting provocations in post-Soviet space that defined U.S. policy there for most of the last twenty years. Instead of being caught in a downward spiral, U.S.-Russian relations are improving for a change. What could possibly be gained by going back down the road of provocation and confrontation that Applebaum recommends?

Who and what, exactly, are the Belarusian opposition? We know what they are against. But what, exactly, are they for? We have made the mistake of not asking that one on an awful lot of occasions, and are continuing to do so on several more.

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