Accessibility links

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: December 9, 2003

9 December 2003, Volume 5, Number 46
SOVIET NATIONALISM AS LUKASHENKA'S STRATEGY OF SURVIVAL. The following is an interview with Andrey Dynko, 29, editor in chief of the Minsk-based Belarusian-language weekly "Nasha Niva," and chairman of Belarus's P.E.N. Center (a member organization of the International P.E.N. association of writers). Dynko is a leading figure among those Belarusian intellectuals who oppose the Russification and re-Sovietization policies pursued by the regime of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and stand for the development of Belarus's indigenous culture and language. In October, former Czech President Vaclav Havel granted the cash portion of the Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award he received this year to Andrey Dynko. The Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award is given each year to an individual who has dedicated his or her life to public service with the stipulation that the financial portion of the award be passed to a gifted young person. "I pass this award to Mr. Dynko because we, who have benefited so much from international solidarity, must show solidarity ourselves," Havel said at the award ceremony in Prague. "'Nasha Niva' in Belarus is a symbol of independence on the one hand and an island of freedom on the other."

RFE/RL: How would you explain to Western readers of "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" an apparently paradoxical phenomenon taking place in Belarus -- the government of an independent country holds in contempt or even destroys such attributes of the national identity of Belarusians as their language, culture, and historical traditions? Is the Belarusian government not digging a grave for itself by trying to make a mini-Russia out of Belarus?

Andrey Dynko: It is a simplified view to assert that the Belarusian government tries to liquidate itself. In my opinion, Belarus is witnessing a search for such a variant of national identity that could unify the variegated Belarusian society. One should take into account that the Belarusian population, even if it looks homogeneous to a foreigner, is in fact very heterogeneous as regards its linguistic and religious characteristics as well as civilizational choices. Lukashenka was aware that a model of national identity based on "classic European nationalism" would be rejected by a considerable segment of the population. Therefore, he has put his stake on Soviet Belarusian nationalism. And he has scored some successes thanks to this strategy.

First, we can see a very rapid process of Belarusization of the political elite that supports Lukashenka. This may be said even about those representatives of the political elite that resettled in Belarus 10-15 years ago. Now they have become loyal officials and citizens of independent Belarus.

Second, let us look at results of the last national census in Belarus [in 1999]. The census showed that Lukashenka's Belarus has been very successful in integrating ethnic minorities. Perhaps the word "successful" is not quite apt here, because the process is more an assimilation than an integration, and it is detrimental to the cultural variety of Belarusian society. The fact remains, however, that the number of Russians in Belarus shrank by more than one-fourth in the decade between the last two censuses. This assimilation is advancing even at a quicker pace than that in Ukraine. While in Ukraine it provokes various protests of the Russian minority, in Belarus it is proceeding unnoticeably and everybody seems to take it for granted.

Third, despite Lukashenka's policies or thanks to them, the percentage of children instructed in Belarusian at school now is larger that that at the end of the Soviet Belarus. What is more, the 1999 census showed that the Belarusian language remains a great value for Belarusians, both as a native language and as a language used by them in everyday life. [A 1999 census found that 75 percent of Belarus's 10 million people deem Belarusian their mother tongue, and 37 percent of the population speaks Belarusian at home.]

On the other hand, it's obviously true that the process of acquiring national identity by Belarusians is not proceeding with a similar intensity as those in the former Soviet Baltic republics or Ukraine.

RFE/RL: So why did Lukashenka make a strong point of fighting "Belarusian nationalism" during his first and second presidential terms if, as you imply, his goal is to build a Belarusian national identity as different from the Russian one?

Dynko: Why was Lukashenka afraid of "Belarusian nationalism" as opposed to his "Soviet nationalism"? Because Belarusian nationalism is a kind of political nationalism that creates civic society in Belarus, that molds people into citizens. When people become citizens, they will hardly tolerate his authoritarian ways. On the other hand, the Soviet Belarusian nationalism produces a mass person, an obedient person that guarantees the stability of an autocratic regime. Thus, Lukashenka's skepticism about the Belarusian language and the indigenous Belarusian cultural tradition seems to be a rational, well-considered choice oriented toward fortifying his political regime. During a recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenka himself admitted that stopping integration with Russia would spell political death to him.

RFE/RL: OK, this is true, but don't you think that in the long run Lukashenka's Soviet nationalism is doomed? People who remember and cherish the Soviet era die everyday, so the social basis of his support must be continuously shrinking. He can't stick to appealing to the Soviet values and traditions for long, can he?

Dynko: Lukashenka's political behavior demonstrates that there may be different political strategies of survival in post-Soviet situations, and that he may use such strategies for quite a long time. Please note that Lukashenka's political strategy, as well as his ideology, is changing. It is adjusted every year. Incidentally, in 2004 the volume of Belarusian exports to EU countries is expected to exceed Belarusian exports to Russia for the first time in modern history. It coincides with 10 countries of Central Europe joining the European Union. There is certainly clear symbolism in this fact.

The primary task of Lukashenka's ideologists now is to maintain support for the regime of the pro-Russian segment of Belarusian society. Belarus is increasingly emancipating to become economically less dependent on Russia. Lukashenka has put a brake on any attempts to deepen economic integration with Russia and is gradually limiting the influence of Russian media in Belarus. The Sovietized, pro-Russian segment of Belarusian society feels itself very uncomfortable with this. On the subliminal level, these people see Belarusian nationalism as the gravest threat to them. They consider the Belarusian language and Belarusian culture as threats to their usual way of life and thinking. Thus, it is primarily these people's fears that are targeted by the regime when it makes all those mean, shameful moves, as, for example, the recent closure of the National Humanities Lyceum in Minsk, which offered instruction in Belarusian.

To understand Lukashenka's deeds, one has to understand the state of mind of many Belarusians and their social consciousness. What we may see as inadmissible and immoral, for Lukashenka's people is quite acceptable as political methods and techniques to manipulate public opinion. Political strategies that are used, for example, by [former head of the right-wing Freedom Party in Austria Joerg] Haider in Austria or [French right-wing politician Jean-Marie] Le Pen in France are generally seen as immoral in Europe and, in addition, they are inefficient in mustering significant public support. Lukashenka uses similar populist strategies, and they turn out to be efficient in Belarus. And for Lukashenka and his aides, efficient means moral.

RFE/RL: Why is Belarusian nationalism -- building a Belarusian nation based primarily on its indigenous linguistic and cultural heritage -- perceived as something unavoidably anti-Russian? Arguably, the most important thing for the Kremlin in Belarus is to assure unwavering support of the ruling regime to Russia's strategic interests, in particular, to maintain an operational, unproblematic transport corridor through Belarus for Russia oil, gas, and cargo. What language of instruction is used in Belarusian schools or what culture is prevalent in Minsk appears to be a matter of secondary importance for Moscow. In short, are the Russians really interested in Russifying Belarus? Is it not Lukashenka's own initiative?

Dynko: Maybe you are right. Yet language and culture is still an important issue for the pro-Russian part of Belarusian society. It is an issue of civilizational comfort for them. To overcome such attitudes, a very long, painstaking effort is needed in order to launch a national dialogue between this pro-Russian segment of Belarusian society and those Belarusians who see Belarus as a democratic country integrated with Europe. What we see today in Belarus is not so much a political divide as one involving cultural and civilizational preferences.

RFE/RL: Shortly after the start of his presidential career, in 1995, Lukashenka organized a referendum that gave Russian official status along with Belarusian and buried the hope that the Belarusian language might take an important place in the educational system and play an important role in public life in independent Belarus. Lukashenka has never concealed his contempt for the Belarusian language and for those who seemed to be its most steadfast supporters -- Belarusian writers. Why has he not tried to make peace with the Union of Belarusian Writers? Why has he not given them money for publishing books in Belarusian in exchange for their intellectual support of his policies, just as the Soviet-era regime did with Belarusian writers in its time?

Dynko: Do not overestimate the political and intellectual potential of our writers. Why should he do it if it would not give him any electoral gains? Unfortunately, the writers' milieu in Belarus is Sovietized to the same, if not larger, extent as the remaining part of our society. That's one thing.

Second, the regime needs internal enemies. Catholics, Protestants, Western spies -- these are traditional candidates for internal enemies in Belarus. And the intelligentsia, writers. Hatred toward educated people and anti-Semitism were successfully utilized already by the Soviet rulers. Thus, Lukashenka has not invented a bicycle anew -- he has just taken advantage of the tested methods of social control and manipulation.

On the other hand, some writers did finally find a comfortable compromise with the government. Lukashenka is seen by many as part and parcel of the Belarusian Soviet cultural discourse. This is a man educated on ideals and values of Belarusian Soviet literature, which he seems to pursue in his present post. Therefore, it is no wonder that some Belarusian writers see in him a people's hero. Why they failed to make a mutually favorable deal with him at the start of his presidential career can be explained by the fact that nobody believed in the mid-1990s that Lukashenka would be able to stay in power for such a long time. Now, however, some writers, who earlier were publicly proud of their democratic views, have already adapted themselves to this situation and inconspicuously accepted posts in newspapers and magazines controlled by the Lukashenka regime.

WHY IS THE OPPOSITION WEAK IN UKRAINE? The "velvet revolution" last month in Georgia that led to the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze should make us contemplate why similar developments did not take place in Ukraine in 2000-2002. The severity of the Kuchmagate crisis, after all, led to opposition demonstrations as large as those in Georgia (20,000-50,000 people). Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was on the defensive from November 2000, when the Kuchmagate crisis began, to March 2001, when he regained the initiative after violence erupted at a mass opposition demonstration in Kyiv.

Although the authorities did poorly in the proportional half of the March 2002 parliamentary elections, they made up for this when most deputies elected in one-seat constituencies joined pro-presidential factions. Since the elections, the authorities have consolidated their power by taking control of all key institutions.

Ukrainians are disillusioned with politics as a whole, and not just with the authorities. All institutions -- presidential and parliamentary -- obtain low levels of public trust. A June poll by the Democratic Initiatives polling center found that a striking 48.8 percent of respondents did not trust NGOs and political parties; 57.5 percent said, in the main, they did not trust those groups.

A November Democratic Initiatives poll found that only five parties could make it through the 4 percent threshold of parliamentary representation, of which two were pro-presidential: Ukraine's Regions and the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o). None of the parties that belong to Our Ukraine would individually make it (unlike the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and Yuliya Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party).

Most Ukrainians believe change is required but do not believe that they have the power to push these changes through. A poll cited by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 11 March found that only 7 percent believed few changes were necessary in Ukraine. Meanwhile, 45 percent, 38 percent, and 11 percent believed that "radical," "evolutionary," and "revolutionary" changes, respectively, were needed in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, this does not translate into support for opposition activities. A Razumkov Center poll cited in "Zerkalo nedeli" on 27 September found that half of Ukraine's population did not back the opposition protests. A poll cited by Interfax on 25 April found even higher negative views of demonstrations, with 69.2 percent of respondents unwilling to take part in them.

Do the public desire to learn the views of the opposition (something which is difficult because they have limited access to television)? When asked if they knew the views of the opposition, 64 percent said "no," according to a 28 May combined poll by four leading sociological organizations on the "Ukrayinska pravda" website. When asked if they wished to learn more, only 46 percent said "yes" completely or partially whereas even more -- 54 percent -- said "no" completely or were primarily disinterested.

How is this explained? A Center for Sociological and Political Research poll reported by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 25 April found that although 33.2 percent supported the opposition and only 15.9 percent the authorities, again a striking 31.4 percent supported neither side.

This reflects a high degree of atomization of the population. An August Razumkov Center poll found that 90 percent and 92 percent of Ukrainians believe they have no influence over local and central authorities, respectively, while 91 percent also believe that human rights are regularly infringed.

During the 2002 election campaign then head of the presidential administration, Volodymyr Lytvyn, who is currently parliamentary speaker, said that the "opposition does not enjoy the support of the population," according to UNIAN on 23 February 2002. Although the four opposition parties and blocs (Our Ukraine, Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party) obtained nearly two-thirds of the votes in the proportional half of elections, Lytvyn's comment is partially true.

This, of course, does not mean the authorities are popular either. A November poll by Democratic Initiatives found that if elections were held at that time, 1.5 percent would vote for Kuchma, 1.3 percent for Lytvyn, and 3 percent for current head of the presidential administration, Viktor Medvedchuk, whose SDPU-o party is one of Ukraine's largest by members.

The problem for the opposition is that large negative votes are to be found both for the authorities and for them. In a May Democratic Circle poll, Tymoshenko and Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko obtained two of the highest negative ratings -- 29 percent and 26.9 percent, respectively. Both leaders suffer from different problems -- Tymoshenko is a "dissident oligarch" and Symonenko is a Communist hard-liner. The November Democratic Initiatives poll gave both Kuchma and Medvedchuk negative ratings of 50 percent. That was not good news for the opposition as Tymoshenko and Symonenko followed closely with negative ratings of 44 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

Even Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, who is always the most popular candidate in polls, does not escape some negative ratings. Yushchenko is the only opposition leader who obtains higher positive than negative ratings and the lowest negative ratings. At the same time, 32 percent of Ukrainians would never vote for Yushchenko, according to a poll cited by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 18 August.

In December 2002 Democratic Initiatives and September Democratic Circle polls, Yushchenko's negative ratings were between 14.4 percent-17 percent. Yushchenko reached the peak of his popularity in April 2002 just after the elections with 29.3 percent, which declined to between 18-21 percent in September of the following year.

Questions of "trust" are also a factor in public attitudes to the opposition. The December 2002 Democratic Initiatives poll gave low levels of "trust" and high levels of "distrust" to Symonenko (14.8 percent versus 46.6 percent), Tymoshenko (12.5 percent versus 53.8 percent), and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz (12.2 percent versus 42.6 percent). The September Democratic Circle poll found that Yushchenko was trusted fully or mainly by 48 percent of Ukrainians, although 37 percent still distrusted him completely or partially. Higher levels of distrust than trust were found for all other leading Ukrainian officials and opposition leaders.

Large numbers of Ukrainians will never vote for the majority of leading politicians. According to the September Democratic Circle poll, this ranges from 34 percent-36 percent for Medvedchuk, Tymoshenko, and Symonenko and 20 percent-25 percent for Lytvyn, Prime Minister and Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych, and National Bank Chairman and Labor Ukraine leader Serhiy Tyhypko. Yushchenko and Moroz are the most popular: 19 percent and 22 percent, respectively, would never consider voting for them.

This report was written by Dr. Taras Kuzio, a resident fellow at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.

"We do not close any newspaper unless it wants such closure itself. But it's better for a newspaper to be closed down by authorities than to become ruined on its own." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in an interview with "Der Spiegel" on 8 December.

"The issue [of relocating some U.S. military bases from Western Europe to Poland] has its advantages and disadvantages; the advantage is certainly that the country is under a special protective umbrella of NATO and America, there is more money for modernization, and there are new jobs. As far as disadvantages are concerned, a country which has bases on its territory is always more likely to be under threat of terrorist attacks or something similar to this. We must consider the issue carefully, and work on this has already started in Poland. If I were to express an opinion on this...I would agree with an opinion that it's worth making such a decision, and if I were to take part in this decision, then, of course, I would say 'yes.'" -- Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller on 8 December; quoted by Polish Radio.

"My position regarding Ukraine is simple -- we need to reunite. We are a divided nation." -- Sergei Glazev, a leader of Russia's Motherland National-Patriotic Union election bloc, quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 8 December.

"The position regarding your country [Ukraine] should be the same as I have regarding my wife, who is from Ukraine. There should be a natural reunion of two sisters -- each of them should try winning the place of the first beauty but avoid getting incomprehensible lovers." -- Dmitrii Rogozin, a leader of Russia's Motherland National-Patriotic Union election bloc, quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 8 December.

"We are not only neighbors -- we are a single nation. There have never been any borders between us. We are a single civilization. The world has not begun to speak Ukrainian, but it has already started to speak Russian." -- Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii, quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 8 December.