Washington, 26 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President
Alyaksandr Lukashenka's decision to hold and win a referendum
expanding his own powers over the objections of both his Parliament
and the international community, highlights three developments that
affect not only Belarus but other parts of the post-Soviet space as
First, ever more people in this region clearly believe that they
face a choice between freedom and order. And given the difficulties
of the transition from communism to democracy and free markets, ever
more are opting for those who promise order.
Second, driven by both their own problems and the sense that no one
east or west appears to them to be interested in coming to their aid,
these populations are increasingly responding to nationalist appeals.
And third, as the failure of Moscow's effort to mediate the
political crisis in Minsk demonstrates, the ability of outside powers
to do anything about these trends is extremely limited, and actions
intended to calm the situation may quickly backfire.
Each of these trends poses serious challenges both for the countries
immediately involved and for an international community that hopes to
promote democracy, free markets and stability.
The first trend -- the notion that people must choose between
freedom and order -- reflects the tendency of people in the region to
blame their current problems, including massive disorder, on
democracy itself rather than on the Soviet inheritance.
This attitude reflects the unrealistic expectations many people in
these countries had about the speed and ease of the transition.
It also reflects the tendency of many states to focus on economic
reform rather than on the strengthening of political institutions
necessary to channel the new economic forces.
As successor regimes, such as the one in Belarus, have shown
themselves incapable of providing either a better life quickly or
even maintaining minimal public order, political figures, like
Lukashenka, who advocate an authoritarian solution inevitably gain
The second trend -- the shift toward nationalism -- is an outgrowth
of the first. Few people in these countries want to restore all
aspects of the communist past. But many more would like the
stability and security that past seemed to provide even if at the
cost of some freedoms they now enjoy.
And their sense that no one, not the West and not Moscow, is really
interested in helping them, a sense that they must stand up for
themselves against the world, is also powering the nationalist
upsurge in Belarus.
On the one hand, such nationalist feelings may have the effect of
solidifying the independence of these countries: Belarusians and
even Lukashenka himself seem increasingly committed to their
maintaining or even expanding their independence, to the surprise of
many in both Moscow and the West.
It is almost certainly no accident that on the day after the
referendum, the Belarusian president announced that his country
wanted to join the European Union, a goal very much out of step with
his past statements about integration with Russia.
But on the other hand, such a nationalist upsurge may destabilize
the entire region. Regimes which use nationalism as their
legitimating principle are often oppressive at home and a threat to
their neighbors as well. Moreover, the rise of nationalism in one
country may help to generate a countervailing nationalism in another.
The third trend in this region highlighted by events in Minsk -- the
increasing inability of outside powers to affect things -- may
ultimately have the most serious consequences.
Not surprisingly, the West had virtually no influence on
developments in Belarus because few Western countries have focused on
that country or have significant assets on the ground.
But Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who tried last week
to broker a compromise in Minsk, unintentionally called attention to
the limits on Moscow's ability to intervene successfully, even when
it appears to have enormous leverage.
Not only did both the Belarusian Parliament and the Belarusian
president back away from the deal, but even more significant for the
future, some demonstrators in Minsk on Sunday carried signs reading
"Moscow, Hands Off" -- and this in a country many had expected to be
dominated if not reabsorbed by the Russian Federation.
Five years ago, the West had enormous influence in these countries
because of the expectations these states had about the future. Now
that influence has declined.
More recently, Moscow appeared able to get its way on many key
issues and even to portray itself to the West as a capable manager of
the entire region.
But the events in Minsk this weekend demonstrate that Belarus and
many of the other countries in this region are behaving increasingly
like countries willing to ignore outside powers when it suits them.
And that message from Minsk could turn out to be the most important