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Commentary: Is The Belarusian Opposition Losing The Battle For Young Minds?

By RFE/RL analyst Jan Maksymiuk --> Youth Front activists leave a Minsk court (file photo) ( Looking at the current Belarusian opposition, it is difficult to find a leading figure who did not possess notable political, social, or cultural standing in Belarus prior to July 1994, when President Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power.

* Stanislau Shushkevich, whose signature adorns the dissolution act of the Soviet Union, was the chairman of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet in which Lukashenka started his political career.

* Lyavon Barshcheuski, from the Belarusian Popular Front, was a people's deputy in 1991-95, along with his then-comrades-in-arms Zyanon Paznyak and Yuras Belenki.

* Anatol Lyabedzka, from the United Civic Party, was a people's deputy in the same legislature.

* Social democrat Alyaksandr Kazulin was a deputy education minister in Prime Minister Vyachaslau Kebich's cabinet.

* Social democrat Mikola Statkevich was the founder of the Belarusian Association of Servicemen.

* Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who served as a provincial university professor and deputy head of the city administration in Hrodna, is perhaps the only leading oppositionist who kept a low profile in the pre-Lukashenka era.

Fourteen years later, after a series of disappointing political failures, virtually the same people can be found in the top ranks of the Belarusian opposition. But while these politicians could once mobilize 50,000 people in Minsk for a street protest against the ruling regime, today 2,000 people at an opposition rally is deemed a huge success.

Without a doubt, an objective generation gap between the veteran leaders of the opposition and younger Belarusians is responsible to a significant degree for the dramatically weakened public appeal of opposition parties in Belarus. But it can also be argued that the lack of an adequate political strategy on the part of the opposition and the regime's ability to respond to some essential needs and expectations of the younger generation are no less important in marginalizing the opposition movement or even reducing it to a replica of the Soviet-era dissent.

Belief In Showdown

During a recent online news conference with RFE/RL, Mikola Statkevich spoke for many Belarusian opposition leaders when he asserted that change in today's Belarus is possible only through a political showdown during presidential elections.

"Decisive action by some 1,500 demonstrators under circumstances in which the authorities keep everything under tight control is impossible," Statkevich said. "But there is one night in five years when the authorities' control, so to say, wavers. This is the night of political miracles. This is the night of presidential elections."

Past tactical moves of the Belarusian opposition -- as well as those of its Western sponsors -- followed this strategic guideline. Targeted financial, organizational, and propaganda resources were spent by the Belarusian opposition on three major campaigns of the Lukashenka-era: the presidential ballots in 2001 and 2006 and the constitutional referendum in 2004, when Lukashenka lifted the two-term limit on the presidency. The parliamentary-election campaigns in Belarus in 2000 and 2004 were of significantly less importance to the opposition and its sponsors. Indeed, nobody seems even to remember that Belarus also held local elections in 1999, 2003, and 2007.

It is unsurprising that during the above-mentioned presidential campaigns the role of younger opposition activists was confined to collecting signatures, distributing campaign materials, and, primarily, participating in street protests. Their older colleagues made decisions about the allocation of campaign resources and represented the Belarusian opposition abroad. There was hardly any space for young oppositionists to develop or test their own political ambitions.

Parliamentary and local elections presented much better opportunities for young activists, who could run for seats as people's deputies and local councilors, to demonstrate their political initiative and gain political experience.

Meanwhile their older colleagues, believing that participation in parliamentary elections -- let alone local ones -- was a waste of time and energy, busied themselves with symbolic electoral activities in major cities.

Combined with a questionable political strategy that favored political change from the top over a grassroots approach, the generational gap within the Belarusian opposition grew wider and wider.

Carrots And Sticks

When speaking about the repressive nature of Lukashenka's regime, one must understand that its control apparatus is aimed almost exclusively at containing potentially effective antigovernment activities during major political campaigns, as well as at those citizens who try to infect the wider social strata with the "opposition virus." Otherwise, Belarus is relatively free with respect to cultural and intellectual life. Or more accurately, state control over "apolitical" cultural and intellectual activities in the nonstate sector is lax. In other words, life in today's Belarus is a far cry from the stale and depressing atmosphere of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union.

Previously banned Belarusian rockers are being offered clemency in exchange for a refusal to perform at opposition events (RFE/RL)

There is a curious analogy that can be drawn between the political climate of today's Belarus and that of Poland in the early 1980s, after the introduction of martial law and the ban on Solidarity. The Polish communist authorities significantly relaxed cultural and social policies in the country while they kept a watchful eye on Solidarity members and followers. The main objective of that two-pronged policy was presumably to prevent Polish youths from engaging in politics and to protect them from the influence of the political opposition. Suddenly, native rock music and drug experimentation flourished in Poland; and in the 1980s it became much easier to get a foreign-travel passport and to travel abroad. Common wisdom maintained at that time that the Polish communists deliberately steered young people to indulge in vodka, sex, drugs and rock music -- or to emigrate -- instead of participating in politics or public life.

The current Belarusian regime appears to be replicating this approach. Young Belarusians seeking to organize an election-monitoring network are tried under articles of the Criminal Code relating to terrorism, while those joining the state-sponsored Belarusian National Youth Union are promoted during their university studies and in their post-university careers. And major Belarusian rock musicians, who were previously banned from appearing on radio and television, are unexpectedly invited to the presidential offices and offered clemency in exchange for their refusal to perform at opposition events.

How successful is this selective carrot-and-stick policy? Some sociological data indirectly suggests that it may have been quite successful. According to a survey conducted by the Vilnius-registered Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) in March, 64 percent of Belarusians believe that improving the economic situation of their country is more important than keeping the country independent, while 24 percent think otherwise. Among those aged 18-29, the ratio of respondents opting for a better economic situation rather than the country's independence is 71 percent to 22 percent. NISEPI, which holds comprehensive surveys of public opinion in Belarus twice each year, concludes that the data attest to a growing "mercantilism" and "pragmatism" of Belarusian society at the expense of "patriotism."

The Belarusian opposition continually asserts that Lukashenka's policies will lead to the economic -- and, consequently, political -- annexation of Belarus by Russia, but the NISEPI results suggest that the overwhelming majority of Belarusians are not worried about this possibility. What is more, the youngest generations -- more socially mobile and better educated than the others -- seem to be even less concerned about the country's independence than their older compatriots. Why?

An immediate answer is that Lukashenka has actually succeeded in bringing up young pragmatists who care more about their stomachs than national pride. On second thought, one is also prompted to suppose that the younger generations of Belarusians may not believe, as the opposition asserts, that the loss of independence under Lukashenka is a real threat to their country or to them personally. They are primarily worried about an economic downturn, which is a common concern today in many societies, democratic and autocratic alike. In either case, the NISEPI results are bad news for the opposition and its prospects of mobilizing support among young people.

New Language Needed

Why might Lukashenka be perceived among young Belarusians as a benefactor rather than a tormentor?

First and foremost, because he has something essential and desirable to offer to the younger generations in exchange for the measure of political conformism he expects from them. The regime's major "gifts" to youths are free education, freedom of movement (including foreign travel), and increasingly attractive prospects for pursuing professional careers within the country, in an economy that slowly but inevitably is undergoing "authoritarian" modernization.

When two-thirds of Belarusians believe the current political situation is safe and stable, the Belarusian opposition needs to reappraise its political objectives -- or at least its language -- if it wants to survive as a significant political group, let alone attain some leverage within the power system.

The main prerequisite for such a reappraisal should be the opposition's acknowledgment that Lukashenka, despite his erratic and uncivilized political behavior and language, may also be building something significant that will outlast his political rule. In fact, this significant something may be the foundation for the political and economic institutions of an independent nation -- one that no longer needs to be reassured that today's Republic of Belarus is at least as good as yesterday's Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.

If such a reappraisal takes place, it will be easier for opposition parties in Belarus to reconcile with the fact that winning seats on local councils and the national legislature is no less important that campaigning for the presidency. The Belarusian opposition may eventually shed its political frustration and make use of the talents and energy of the increasingly pragmatic younger generations, who want a better life for themselves now, rather than for their children and grandchildren in a hazy future.

The views presented in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL