Short and Long-Term Choices to Make to Win Power in Belarus:

Reminder for the Opposition and the Outside World

Jaroslav Romanchuk

A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XXXVI-- June 4, 2005

The authorities ran out of carrots and stick to sticks

Democratic forces in Belarus face quite a few major challenges. They must meet them if they want to make the Belarusian version of the “Orange revolution” happen in the country. After staging the referendum and the campaign for “Parliamentary elections” in October 2005 Belarusian authorities demonstrated their determination to increase pressure on the civil society and to intensify the persecution of political and civic leaders.

They use law as a carrot and a stick. “Carrots” land in pockets of bureaucrats, big state companies and monopolies, force structures, judges, members of election bodies, state media and local nomenclature. Sticks are for political parties, NGOs, independent media, human rights organizations, independent educational and research institutions. People who ensure stability of the regime are paid $400 – 700 a month and provided with various social benefits. This kind of treatment blocks their incentives to consider alternative modes of behavior, especially contacts with the opposition represented by any non-government institution (a political party, a think tank, an NGO or even an individual). Apart from that, local bodies of power working with their businesses distribute a big chunk of the general budget, defalcating state funds and reaping the monopoly rent.

Political parties are threatened to be closed down. Independent papers are discriminated against in access to information and economic conditions for doing business, to say nothing about censorship and self-censorship. Activists of political parties and NGOs, their relatives, and the people who took part in the election campaigns lose jobs. Independent educational institutions were liquidated. Sociological and opinion poll companies, think tanks, and scientific research centers cannot even hold a meeting or a seminar, as the authorities ban renting them a hall or facilities. Democratic opponents of the Belarusian regime do not have access to electronic media, whereas the authorities use theirs to slander the democratic forces alongside with the West, Ukraine, and Russia.

So this is the environment in which democratic forces of Belarus have to face the challenges of the upcoming presidential elections. Taking all these factors into account and devising the viable schemes to neutralize and counteract them are vital to succeed in the presidential elections. Standard projects and programs that are implemented by Western donors in transitional but relatively democratic countries can hardly be effective in Belarus. The regime here is much tighter than in Georgia, Ukraine, or even Yugoslavia. The government’s grip over the information environment is much tighter and its intelligence more sophisticated without any restrictions. The business environment is these countries is distinctly different from that in Belarus, and Belarusian civil society can hardly rely on internal support of local businesses, at least during the stage of campaigning before the presidential elections. Besides, the human factor is different in Belarus too. We do not have one unquestionable political leader yet.

Another challenge that Belarusian joint forces should face is a possibility of imprisonment of the leaders of political opposition (the single candidate) or other forms of personal persecution. In order to counteract that, confidential schemes should be worked out (back up plans) to confuse the regime and disorient it. In fact, there must be a special program of smoke screen activities to divert attention of the authorities from the real plan. Of course, this kind of activity requires trust among key political players and major donors.

Reminders for democratic forces

The unity of democratic forces is a must. This axiom has been widely known both in Belarus and abroad. However, it needs some explanation. First, it is necessary to make a thorough revision of assets and resources of all structures and organizations who claim to take a place in the joint democratic forces. On this stage, it is important to see full-fledged structures, their human, organizational, information, logistical resource and so-called empty shells on the other hand. “Empty shells” can be in the form of political parties, NGOs, media outlets, youth organizations, individuals who claim to have an “army of volunteers”, sacks of cash or support of either Putin himself or EU/State Department top figures. It is crucial for the final victory to separate one from the other and deal only with those who can deliver. Hence, it is vital to ensure unity of meaningful, resourceful and trustworthy organizations, structures and individuals as well as terminating support of “empty shells”. The authorities artificially support such “shell structures” and fuel disagreements by various subversive activities. This should also be taken into account.

This unity can be ensured only within the framework of the common strategy worked out by all interested parties. The strategy should define clearly the common goal and tasks for each block of organizations on each stage. It is a must to have division of labor, as it were, inside the joint democratic forces. Political parties are involved in one sort of activities (campaigning, holding meetings with voters etc.). Human rights organizations deal with protection of the persecuted and the oppressed. Think tanks and resource centers deliver deep, well-written analysis of the current government activities and make proposals for reforms (promotion materials for the single candidate and joint democratic forces). Organizations that deal with mobilization and street actions are responsible for all necessary logistical support of these actions.

There cannot be strict division lines among various democratic structures in Belarus. The division lines are between functions. A concrete person is responsible for delivering the result in each sphere (functional approach). Collective responsibility, which means lack of responsibility, for certain results to be delivered should be avoided. It means that political parties, youth organizations, resource centers, women’s organizations, trade unions, think tanks, and educational organizations closely cooperate with one another, sharing the best experiences, information, and human resources to perform various functions. Such an approach has never been applied before.

In order to make a joint program of activities (framework plan) a Special Intellectual Task Force (SITF) should be set up in the initial stage of the presidential campaign, which in fact is today. Ideally, it should consist of individuals who share the vision of the presidential campaign from now on to the day after the elections and for the post-election period. They should be trusted both by donors, teams of contenders for the status of the single candidate, and organizations that perform different functions within the campaign.

However, this does not mean that SITF should mess with concrete programs of organizations that are responsible for delivering concrete results in certain areas (for example, information programs, mobilization activities, educational and training events, etc.). At the same time, it does not mean that an organization can use the approved funds to operate beyond the scope of the strategy and its framework.

Reminders for donors

Unity of Western donors is a major factor in the unity of Belarusian democratic forces. Having independent financial resources from donors, which do not act within the approved strategy, enables certain Belarusian politicians and structures to hamper or even to damage the implementation of the Strategy and to win the presidential elections. This unity of donors is desirable but difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, it is important to coordinate activities of the most important structures.

Secondly, formal registration of structures in Belarus does not matter. Many NGOs were formally liquidated, but they continue to operate in the hostile legal and political environment. There are different ways to deal with difficulties of renting facilities, holding meetings and distributing information materials. Formal registration of any NGO program, including distribution of humanitarian aid, means going through a cumbersome procedure of registration at one of the departments of the presidential administration, paying 40% income tax on the funds transferred to the bank account of the organization in Belarus as grant money. Every event should be approved by the authorities. Transferring money to a physical entity in Belarus is also out of the question, as every transfer from abroad should be reported by the person to the tax inspection, and high taxes are to be paid. Of course, this information goes to the authorities. Therefore, it is a waste of resources and time to try to use the formal way to work in Belarus in terms of funds delivery for the approved programs. The way out (it has been practiced successfully for a long time) is to open bank accounts in neighboring EU countries (for a physical entity) and get funds there. Another way is to use embassies in Belarus to pass funds. These are two safest ways to deliver funds for the approved projects.

Finally, the rule that political parties are not supported by the West in transitional countries should be abandoned, as political parties are instrumental in performing very important functions within the presidential campaign. They act just as other structures of the joint democratic forces. In many cases, parties perform much better than NGOs that claim that they are non-partisan. In fact, this division in Belarus is quite artificial, as in many cases NGOs have clear party connections. Parties can hardly survive without support from NGO projects (information, training, mobilization, etc.). The tug of war that some NGOs use to block political parties' financing essentially means blocking the best way to deliver the results in certain areas. The creation and functioning of western-style political parties in Belarus is a way ahead.

Basic functions to perform within the strategy

We can divide the functions of the campaigns into the following groups:

1) activities of contenders for the single candidate status and then the single candidate supported by political parties (regional trips, meetings, information materials, participation in international events; physical protection of key political figures, holding national congresses and joint meetings of all participants of the presidential election process, etc.);

2) information support of the political campaign. It is delivered by newspapers, news agencies, radio, and TV. An important part of this function is to create the nation-wide information distribution network that can handle both newspapers and leaflets. Supporting one radio station project, one TV satellite (to be discussed), circulation of both registered newspapers and special issues of unregistered papers to be distributed in large quantities (up to 1 – 2 mln. copies); supporting development of one news agency and a few carefully selected web sites;

3) think tank activities to supply intellectual ammunition to politicians and media on topical economic, social, environmental, security, and other issues. It means
a) to deliver analysis of current social and economic policies of the government,
b) to monitor the authorities' activities to provide information about their failure to deliver what they promised;
c) to make programs of reforms for various audiences (experts, ordinary voters, etc.) of all major spheres;
d) to promote professionalism and the western peers’ acceptance of the programs of Belarusian reformers by arranging their visits to meet key western economists, financial experts, and investors (they may work as the shadow cabinet), or arranging their visits to Belarus to take part in conferences held by Belarusian think tanks;
e) holding weekend schools for teachers, social activists, and people who are involved in campaigning to educate them on various issues of reforms;
f) holding summer schools for post-graduate students and university teachers to support independent scientific research and to create attractive options for professional development of the best minds;
g) to publish booklets, books, and handout materials to describe various reforms and what benefits they will bring to ordinary people.

4) Human rights protection and support. Working with organizations to protect the people who are actively involved in various parts of the presidential campaign (legal, material, psychological and financial support, creation of regional network to help the oppressed, an office, information supply, communication assistance for regional political and civil society activities);

5) Educational services. Organizations (the university and the college) that deliver educational services for students, employ independent teachers, and create the basis for the formation of the future intellectual elite. Activities of EHU and the Belarusian lyceum should be supported in locations outside Belarus. It will send a very good message to the Belarusian people.

6) Mobilization. It should be done by the organizations that deal with holding street actions, the day after elections protests to defend the victory and to hold the Belarusian version of the Maidan. It requires day-to day operations of the mobilization headquarters that will work with databases of those who took part in the parliamentary elections (lists of supporters of democratic candidates), NGO structures, and independent trade unions. Everybody should know that their crucial and real contribution to the Belarusian Maidan is to show up at Oktyabrskaya Square in Minsk the day after presidential elections at 19.00.

7) Sociological support and polling. It means to work with opinion poll companies (polling, focus groups, recommendations on information materials etc.).

8) Observation of elections. It is a very important function that should be performed by those who really can deliver. Nation wide observation network under supervision of one center should be created. People should be trained and be prepared to hold active observation. They should also take part in the post-election events.

9) Humanitarian support including Chernobyl assistance, providing health services both in Belarus and abroad, helping the disabled people and pensioners, cooperation with charities, churches.

Post-election strategy

We cannot exclude the option that A. Lukashenko will stay in power after the presidential elections in 2006. The joint democratic forces should be prepared for this outcome too. First, the leader of the joint democratic forces should remain active and be recognized as a viable alternative to the incumbent president (unlike in 2001, which ended in resignation of the presidential contender and his political doom). Secondly, structures and organizations that ensure not just survival but development of political, intellectual, and cultural elite groups should be supported. Long-term projects to develop major think tanks, the university and the lyceum, should be considered. Another important element of the post-election strategy is to keep the nationwide network of human rights structures in order to help the presidential campaign activists to survive the post-election period. Fourthly, it is vital not to abandon the support of the most effective media outlets in order to inform the population of what happened during the elections and what they should do to fight the regime. Humanitarian projects are also most effective if they are long-term as it takes time to form reliable, respectable brands in this sector of activities.

Support of such long-term projects will also create a favorable environment that will accelerate the renewal of Belarusian political elite. New leaders will evolve, and ineffective structures will disappear. Belarusian democratic forces will be ready for a major shake-up in order to finally win the hearts and minds of the people. Then, getting power in the country will be just a technical issue.

Jaroslav Romanchuk is President of the Mises Center in Belarus, the leading Belarusian organization for the promotion of Objectivism, Austrian Economics, and the ideas of reason, individualism, and capitalism.  Mr. Romanchuk can be contacted at The website of the Mises Center can be found at

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