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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 1, 2003

1 April 2003, Volume 5, Number 12
A BOTTOMLESS WINDBAG? One of the most curious traits of public life in Belarus is the fact that the country's authoritarian system of power is fully reflected in the public political discourse. One has an irresistible impression that there is only one politician who speaks in Belarus, just as there is only one politician who rules and commands. This man is, of course, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who in the past eight years of his presidency has demonstrated a boundless verbal ingenuity in his addresses, speeches, lectures, interviews, and other public oratories. As testified by many independent sources, Lukashenka has an almost hypnotizing grip on his audiences. In an account that is both apocryphal and typical, a village babushka watching Lukashenka's address on television was asked what the president was talking about. "I don't know, but I would listen to him without end," she promptly replied.

Belarusian political observers unanimously agree that Lukashenka knows the mind of a (post-)Soviet man perfectly well and tells people exactly what they want to hear and in the idiom they consider to be their own. Lukashenka's command of the Russian language is far from being perfect, his phrases -- when he does not read from a prepared statement -- are usually very convoluted and grammatically defective, but he uses the words and verbal imagery that people have been used to hearing for years. And his verbal appeal is usually very emotional and linguistically lively, as well as littered with colloquialisms that favorably distinguish his speeches against the general background of uninspired speech making by other government officials (most of them are intellectual nonentities) or by well-educated but colorless opposition activists.

Lukashenka developed his taste for making speeches in the Supreme Soviet of the Belarusian SSR, to which he was elected in 1990 and where he reportedly fervently discussed all possible topics, including insemination of cows, exploration of space, national defense, and the spiritual revival of the nation. At that time, he was only a collective-farm manager but already had a great deal of experience in various low-key posts, including as an instructor in the Communist Youth League at a school, a political-propaganda officer in the Border Troops, and party secretary at a collective farm. It should be noted that Lukashenka graduated from the Pedagogical Institute in Mahileu (where he specialized in history) in 1975 and the Belarusian Agricultural Academy in 1985, after taking a three-year extramural course. His university education, however, does not show too much in his public speeches. Lukashenka gives the impression of being a poorly educated plebeian; his real strength seems to lie in his deep knowledge of the psychology of common people -- collective-farm and industrial-plant workers -- who form the backbone of his supporters in Belarus.

Lukashenka doubtless belongs to the most frequently quoted politicians in the media in the post-Soviet area. It is primarily because of his extravagant way of expressing himself, not because of the importance of what he says. His expressions are memorable owing almost exclusively to their funny and even bizarre character, not because of their intellectual quality. "I will not lead my nation after the civilized world," Lukashenka declared in one of his endless oratories. This phrase will hardly be included in the treasury of human wisdom, but it has already became a part of political folklore in the post-Soviet area. Some of Lukashenka's spontaneous verbal spurts are really hilarious: "In my childhood, I grew up among animals and plants," he confessed in one interview. Or take this: "I was born in this land, and I will die here, no matter how much this will cost me."

One of his descriptions of Belarus's democracy seems to be almost unrivalled: "We do not need democracy with hullabaloo. We do need the type of democracy where people get paid, even if not much but enough to buy bread, milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, and sometimes meat in order to feed their children. Well, as regards meat, let's not eat too much meat in summer." And Lukashenka's pledge to end the nation's economic hardships also seems to be quite precious: "The Belarusians will live poorly, but not for long."

Very often, when Lukashenka refers to the opposition, he likes to insert a word or two in Belarusian into his Russian flow. In this way, the Belarusian president points to the fact that the opposition is pointlessly pushing for a greater role for the Belarusian language in public life (which he and a large chunk of his Sovietized and Russianized electorate dislike so much). However, Lukashenka's Belarusian linguistic heritage and Belarusian accent often betray him and sometimes lead to nasty surprises.

One of Lukashenka's most famous quips -- a must-have in every compilation of Lukashenka's sayings on the Internet -- is connected with his inability (shared by most Belarusians) to pronounce the palatalized "r," which is pretty common in Russian but does not appear in the Belarusian phonetic system. "I regularly shake up all my staff and know exactly who tells lies and who doesn't!" Lukashenka said during one of his public appearances. The problem was, however, that he pronounced the word "peretRYAkhivat" (shake up) in the Belarusian way as "peretRAkhivat" (which in Russian slang means "to have sex"). What is more, he pronounced the word "vrYOt" ("he or she is lying" or "tells lies") as "vROt" (which means "into the mouth" in Russian). Thus, the seemingly innocent, even if emotional, phrase turned into a glaringly obscene one: "I screw all my staff regularly and know exactly who [takes] it in the mouth and who doesn't!"

On another occasion, his fondness for colloquialism resulted into a similarly censurable statement. Lukashenka was explaining how he dealt with the shortage of basic foods in Belarus. "As soon as I came to grips with eggs, butter disappeared," he confessed. But since he utilized the heavily colloquial word "yaitsa" (used primarily for denoting testicles in informal speech), many understood his phrase as: "As soon as I grabbed myself by the balls, butter disappeared."

Lukashenka seems to be almost inexhaustible in concocting funny and bizarre expressions and verbalizing unexpected ideas. ("Why are you kneeling before those crooks from the IMF?" he said in the Russian State Duma in 1999. "Why have you kneeled before them? Today, they got their hooks into you for $600 million. But one S-300 antiaircraft system costs $550 million. Sell two of them! Sell two of them, and you will resolve those problems!") The Belarusian president is a treasure trove for "Quotes of the Week" in "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report." Today, there is no "Quotes of the Week" section in our report, but it is only because a fresh and hefty batch of Lukashenka quotes was moved to the item below. Enjoy! (Jan Maksymiuk)

RETURNING TO GOOD OLD IDEOLOGY. President Lukashenka chaired a seminar on ideological work in Minsk on 27 March and told central and local executive officials in attendance that the state needs to be placed on a solid ideological foundation, Belarusian Television and Belapan reported. "Ideology for a state is what the immune system is for a living organism," the Belarusian leader explained, adding that, "If the immune system grows weaker, any infection, even the slightest one, turns deadly."

In order to prevent the state from contracting such immune-system deficiencies, Lukashenka said, Belarus needs to reestablish the "ideological vertical" at all levels of government. "An especially thorough approach should be taken toward the formation of an ideological nucleus in workers' collectives," he advised. He suggested that positions of deputy directors for ideological work should be introduced at all industrial enterprises with 300 or more workers and at all agricultural enterprises with 150 or more workers. He did not forget about smaller companies, postulating that ideological work there should be tackled by deputy directors for social and personnel matters. "We are not going to introduce a new institution of political commissars and political instructors, although it needs doing. I tell you straight, it needs doing," the Belarusian president confessed, referring to a practice characteristic of the Soviet-era socioeconomic life.

Lukashenka said the Academy of Management operating under the presidential administration will start training ideological workers this upcoming academic year. "Everything should be adjusted and [should] function like a clock. It is not necessary to write a report; I will judge how work is progressing from the situation in our information space," he added. Lukashenka said he has already made the necessary appointments to put the entire ideological machinery into operation. Aleh Pralyaskouski, the newly appointed deputy chief of the presidential administration, is to oversee the inculcation of state ideology into citizens' minds, while the newly appointed rector of the Academy of Management, Stanislau Knyazeu, will be responsible for training top ideological instructors.

Lukashenka disagreed with the opinion that ideology was an invention of the Soviet-era Communist Party. "In Western states, the very system of ideological work is concealed from the general public's eye," he stated. "However, it is as comprehensive and aggressive in Western states as Soviet standards, or even more so." At the same time, the Belarusian leader expressed nostalgia for what he called "the well-adjusted system of ideological work" in the Soviet Union. "It was a fairly good system in the Soviet era. We should not have abandoned it," he stressed.

According to Lukashenka, the fact that the "socialist experiment" has failed does not imply that communist ideals are gone. "They will live on as long as life endures, because at their core, there is the pursuit of equality and social justice," he asserted. The Belarusian president believes that many elements of communist ideology should be readopted to suit the purposes of present-day Belarus. "Great victories were won with this ideology over poverty, illiteracy, and Nazism," Lukashenka said. "Using it, we were the first to open the road into space. Do principles such as collective spirit, patriotism, and social justice not suit an independent Belarus? The high status of education, voluntary labor with no expectations of financial gain, nonmaterial forms of incentive, and many other things have become part of our life, haven't they? I believe they have. All this should be incorporated into the ideological basis of contemporary Belarusian society."

Lukashenka singled out the ideology of liberalism as "prevalent and exceptionally aggressive" in the modern world. "Unfortunately, it's scale is so large that it is time to talk about 'liberal terror,' since nations that reject or doubt this path are immediately blacklisted as 'foes' with all the ensuing consequences," he said. In this context, the Belarusian leader mentioned the U.S. military action against Iraq. According to Lukashenka, the Iraqis' staunch resistance to the coalition troops is primarily motivated by ideology. "Just look what one or two tenets of [Iraq's] state ideology have brought about: We [the Iraqis] are defending our land; we will not surrender to the invaders; we will protect our Saddam. That's it."

According to the Belarusian leader, Belarus has now remained the only post-Soviet country that "is openly advocating the loyalty to our traditional civilizational values." And Lukashenka made an even more all-embracing conclusion: "All this allows us to say that owing to the times, destiny, and situation, Belarus has most likely assumed the great role of spiritual leader of Eastern European civilization." In this context, Lukashenka emphasized that Belarus should attract and consolidate all "patriotic forces" from the post-Soviet territory. "[Belarus] should be the place where people are given a speaking platform, free from neoliberal terror and persecution," he added.

As is his tradition, Lukashenka spoke for several hours and articulated an extensive list of guidelines and precepts, both theoretical and practical, with regard to what should be done in Belarus in order to pave the way for implementing his vision of state ideology. On the practical side, Lukashenka advised rectors of both state-run and private universities to get rid of professors and lecturers who oppose government policies or are "wavering" in their opinions regarding the government's course. "If you do not accept the ideas declared by the government and the president, do not apply to a state university for a job," Lukashenka said explicitly. He pledged to "drastically" modify "ideological work" at educational institutions in Belarus this year. "Before the end of the year, the state of ideological work in colleges, both state and private, should be changed drastically, or else we are going to lose our youth. I could say the same about vocational schools and general-education schools, especially those in Minsk."

Turning to the state-run media, Lukashenka emphasized the significant role of radio and television and the need to use them efficiently. According to him, there is too much blue in the background of television newscasts' studios -- he suggested that they be painted in the colors of the national flag (red and green, with a touch of white). "Our domestic television product should be of prime quality. It is not just competition, not just rivalry. It is a struggle of ideologies," Lukashenka said.

The Belarusian president also foresaw a role for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). He said their primary concern should be promoting a healthy lifestyle. "I want to invite NGOs, irrespective of their statutory goals, to engage in performing one common task [that is] extremely important to the state and the people: to contribute on a daily basis to strengthening the health of every person, from seniors to babies," he proposed. Lukashenka, who is a dedicated athlete, pledged to teach the nation by his personal example. He also encouraged government officials to show that they have no bad habits and to give people a lead in keeping fit by jogging, skiing, skating, etc. (Jan Maksymiuk)

VAGARIES IN THE VERKHOVNA RADA. UNIAN reported that a group of opposition lawmakers on 6 March registered in the Verkhovna Rada a draft law titled "On Sending Ukraine's Peacekeeping Battalion to the Region of Military Operations in Iraq Under the Command of the Supreme Commander, Captain in the Reserves Leonid Kuchma." This legislative initiative apparently was in response to the then-discussed offer by President Leonid Kuchma to send a Ukrainian anti-nuclear, -bacteriological, and -chemical protection battalion to the Persian Gulf region (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 26 March 2003).

The bill provides for sending a Ukrainian battalion under the command of Kuchma to Iraq "to decontaminate the areas hit during military operations." It proposes to make Deputy Prime Minister for the humanities Dmytro Tabachnyk the battalion's deputy commander for political issues (commissar) and appoint presidential administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, Interior Minister Yuriy Smyrnov, and Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun as commanders of the battalion's companies. The bill ascribes the roles of the battalion's standard-bearer to National Security and Defense Council Secretary Yevhen Marchuk, supply officer to Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko, and intelligence officer to lawmaker Leonid Derkach (former head of Ukraine's Security Service). Lawmaker Oleksandr Volkov is to become responsible for providing the battalion with "dried fruit."

The opposition proposes to man the unit with the entire staff of the Council of National Security and Defense, the Defense Ministry leadership, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the presidential administration.

The document also envisions tasks for other people from the presidential entourage: Serhiy Vasilyev, head of the Information Policy Department in the presidential administration, is to become "the head of a group of drummers and torchbearers"; Ivan Chyzh, head of the State Committee for Broadcasting, is to report on "the heroic exploits" of the unit; lawmaker Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's former president, is to "revive" the Blasko flotilla (Ukraine's bankrupt shipping company) to cover the battalion in the Persian Gulf; lawmaker Oleksandr Kuzmuk is to provide air defense for the battalion; and former Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko is to ensure "international publicity" for the mission of the battalion in Iraq.

The draft legislation was reportedly cosponsored by lawmakers Mykhaylo Kosiv, Mykola Tomenko, Vasyl Chervoniy, and Volodymyr Yavorivskyy from Our Ukraine; Ivan Bokyy and Yuriy Lutsenko from the Socialist Party; Viktor Teren and Stepan Khmara from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc; and some others. Ukrainian media have so far not reported on whether the draft bill was submitted to any legislative debate. (Jan Maksymiuk)