Lukashenko: The Antithesis of Freedom

G. Stolyarov II
 
Issue XXV - August 23, 2004
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Imagine a country within the Western world, in which elections are rigged like in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, private enterprises are expropriated as a matter of routine, land is farmed collectively, like in the days of medieval serfdom, and every workplace has been recently mandated to hold government-approved "ideological seminars." Sounds like Orwellian fiction? Not quite. Or an all-dominating Stalinist behemoth? Closer, but still seventy years away. This country exists today, adjacent to the prosperous liberalizing lands of New Europe. It is Belarus, and it is governed by Europe’s last despot, Alexander Lukashenko.

Following its separation from the Soviet Union in 1991, the political state of Belarus was altered only nominally; while “reforms” and “democracy” were proclaimed, the majority of government posts remained occupied either by ex-Communists or lingering sympathizers of Marxism. According to Jaroslav Romanchuk, an Objectivist thinker and free-market economist in Belarus, “Belarussian ex-communists were frightened and had to pretend that they were in favor of reforms. Opposition does not appear overnight. That is why all major positions in state bodies were still occupied by hard and soft liners. They did not call themselves communists, but in fact they were.“  Within three years, despite the best attempts of Premier Stanislav Shushkevich to liberalize the economy and institute privatization, no formidable ideological opposition to collapsed Communist lore was established. In 1994, the Communists reemerged onto the scene, establishing, via a massive electoral campaign, the ascent of their intellectual heir, the former chairman of a collective farm, to the newly-created post of the presidency. Ever since, under the iron grip of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has entered a period of economic backwardness and political authoritarianism. Within the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Founding Fathers had crafted a list of grievances against the British crown. A similar succession of charges can be brought against Lukashenko: 
  
> He has dissolved a legally elected parliament in 1996 by means of holding a referendum to “modify” the Belarussian constitution. At the same time, he “renewed” his term and thus extended it an additional two years beyond the two-term, eight-year limit permitted him by the Constitution. He has since remained in power for nine years, and promises to run again (despite the apparent illegality of this) “if the people deem me fit to govern them.” Moreover, he has on every occasion rigged presidential elections in his favor, every time seeming to gain approximately 80% of the vote, while independent poll analyses demonstrate him to, in fact, be grossly unpopular. According to a March-April 2003 poll by the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies, of the 1500 Belarussians interviewed, “23.2 percent said Lukashenko rules the country well enough to be re-elected, while 64.1 percent said his post should be taken over by ‘someone else’ and 12.7 percent were undecided. Only 17.1 percent of respondents declared that they would approve constitutional changes that could allow Lukashenko to run for another term, whereas 47 percent said they would vote against such changes, and 27.5 percent were undecided.” 
  
> He has systematically framed members of the political opposition and imprisoned them on invented charges of corruption. One such victim of this process is Vladimir Koudinov, a member of the parliament disbanded in 1996, who was subsequently deprived of freedom for four years. "I was sentenced to seven years of prison on completely fabricated accusations. I spent four years in prison, and I was liberated only as the result of very intensive pressure from European countries, from the United States and from international public opinion," Koudinov recounted. According to Washington File European Correspondent Wendy Lubetkin, “Koudinov's fellow parliamentarian, businessman Andrei Klimov, arrested in 1998 on similar charges, remains in prison despite protests from the international community. Amnesty International declared last year that it considered both Koudinov and Klimov to be ‘prisoners of conscience.’” 
  
> He has remained passive to the suspicious disappearances of key opposition members, including the former minister of the interior. Koudinov argues that the government has not undertaken any attempt to investigate the criminal acts, while Belarussian prisons remain crowded with political “criminals.” "Today Belarus is at the very top of the list of countries in the world in terms of the number of people sentenced per 1000 population,” he said. He cites among this number 500 demonstrators who have been detained for the mere act of peacefully celebrating Belarussian Freedom Day on March 25, 2002. Whereas the government seeks to subdue its critics by force, it is absolutely irresponsive to actual, physical violations of its citizens’ rights. As a matter of fact, it is without doubt an agent in said infringements, and its apathy toward the fates of the missing persons is unwarranted by the capacity of its extensive police apparatus. The only logical scenario that would account for this is the Lukashenko administration’s participation in or at least sympathy with the abductions.  
  
> He has personally committed gross infringements on freedoms of speech and of the press in Belarus. Lukashenko maintains a “black list” of all persons and organizations whom he deems a danger to the ideological monopoly of his regime. When Mr. Jaroslav Romanchuk created and aired eight television programs on the value of the free market and its application to particular economic issues and policies, the president personally curtailed all of his access to television. Following the dissolution of the 1996 parliament, a large portion of its expelled members formed a “Shadow Cabinet of Ministers,” an independent organization devoted to the critical analysis of Lukashenko’s rule. Every member has since been personally blacklisted, and prohibited from employment in any firm, public or private. Says Romanchuk, “Every company that dares give them a job is immediately audited and closed on any pretext.” In a more recent assault on liberty, the Belarussian Ministry of Information suspended all activities of an opposition paper, the Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (Belarussian Business Newspaper) on May 28, 2003. Its offense? According to the Ministry, “the periodicals broke the law by defaming President [Lukashenko] and publishing materials about criminal investigations without official permission,” reports the Belarussian Review. Not merely is freedom of speech non-existent de facto, but it is being brazenly brandished as an excuse to liquidate dissenters de jure. 
  
> He has reintroduced Soviet-style state-run ideological indoctrination into the workplace. On June 2, 2003, writes the Belarussian Review, “Alexander [Lukashenko] ordered all of country's enterprises, both state and private, to introduce the post of Deputy Director for Ideology.” During a March 27 address foreshadowing his intentions, Lukashenko declared, "Ideology for a state is what the immune system is for a living organism. If the immune system grows weaker, any infection, even the slightest one, turns deadly." What “infection” is Mr. Lukashenko referring to? The ideology of classical liberalism, which he dubs to be "prevalent and exceptionally aggressive" in the modern world. "Unfortunately, its scale is so large that it is time to talk about '[classical] liberal terror,' since nations that reject or doubt this path are immediately blacklisted as 'foes' with all the ensuing consequences." This places Lukashenko in league with the Bin Ladens and Arafats of the world, who prate about “American terror” or “Israeli terror,” by inverting the proper names of movements and dubbing their opponents using the names that they themselves deserve. Lukashenko does not conceal his advocacy for terrorist regimes. He flaunts it. This is his ideal: "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." To the American left, who deems Communism and fundamentalist Islamofascism incompatible, Lukashenko is a living refutation: “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,” he pronounced. In reference to the socialist “ideals” of the Soviet Union, he offered a tribute: "They will live on as long as life endures, because at their core, there is the pursuit of equality and social justice." 
  
> He has undertaken to cleanse the universities of any elements of even the slightest dissent. According to the Belarussian Review, “[Lukashenko] 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,’ Lukashenko said explicitly.” In the meantime, Lukashenko wages a campaign against private universities in Belarus. "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,” he declared overtly. This implies that private universities shall exist only in name, while in reality being only tentacles of the monolithic Lukashenkan government octopus, whose halls the Thought Police shall scour as stringently as those of the institutions already within the octopus’s belly. 
  
> He has subverted the principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. On October 31, 2002, Lukashenko signed what the U.S. State Department’s Washington File terms “a grossly repressive religious law.” Bible studies are verboten, even in private homes, and all religious practices are severely curtailed, with the exception of the Russian Orthodox Church, which enjoys partnership status with the regime, as an icon of Lukashenko’s ideology of Slavic Chauvinism. A much-publicized agreement between the government and the church was signed on June 12, 2003, which led the Patriarch Filaret to praise the October law suppressing the liberties of his competitors. And the American religious right thought that Communism and Theocracy were incompatible… 

> He has violated the private ventures and property rights of Russian oil entrepreneurs functioning on legal contracts in Belarus. Russian oil flows to the West via a pipeline in Belarussian territory, which Lukashenko pretentiously and fallaciously views as belonging to his regime, not to the businessmen and investors who had purchased and developed it. According to the Warsaw Voice, Lukashenko has already placed severe limitations on the activities of foreign firms, and threatens to nationalize the pipeline, in the disgusting manner of dictators like Vincente Cardenas and Salvador Allende. His economic parasitism extends to domestic businesses as well. According to Valentinas Mite of FreeSerbia.net, “He also threatened that all companies that do not pay their taxes in an orderly fashion or who hire fired state officials will be nationalized.” The promised response to non-fulfillment of such vague, minute, and unjust criteria leads only to assume that they are pretexts for the subjugation of ever larger numbers of businesses under Lukashenko’s despotism. 
  
> He has functioned as an active state sponsor of terror. This fact had been known even prior to the Iraq War. In a speech to an American Enterprise Institute conference on Belarus in Washington, D.C., U.S. Senator John McCain stated that, “Press reports indicate that Belarus has supplied Baghdad with SA-3 antiaircraft missile components as well as technicians. According to the State Department, a group of Iraqi officers traveled to Belarus last year for training in the use of S-300 anti-aircraft systems. For the first time in its modern history as a sovereign state, the actions of the rogue government of Belarus threaten the national security of the United States. This is not another regime that oppresses its people but contains its vitriol within the boundaries of its own borders. The government of Alexander Lukashenko has provided a nation with which the United States will most likely go to war with sophisticated air defense weaponry that can and will likely be used by Iraqi forces to target American pilots. American and allied lives may be lost as a result of the policies of a rogue regime in the middle of Europe. In this case, the friend of our enemy is our enemy.“ Can the deaths of more than 150 coalition soldiers in the Second Gulf War be attributed in part to the assistance lent Saddam’s regime by Alexander Lukashenko? Mark Lenzi, a Fulbright scholar residing in Lithuania and closely monitoring the situation in Belarus, is quoted in the Washington Post as stating that “the country in Europe that deserves the most attention for its support of terrorist groups and rogue states continues to receive the least. That is the lawless and undemocratic country of Belarus, under the rule of Alexander Lukashenko." Mr. Lenzi posits that the September 11, 2001 assault on innocent and defenseless American businessmen in the World Trade Center served as a perfect ploy to divert the world’s attention away from Lukashenko’s illegal seizure of power in a falsified election just two days earlier. Moreover, the Washington Post notes Belarussian arms shipments to terrorist groups in the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East, which are delivered via midway “diversions” from their official destinations to outlaw organizations or nations under arms embargo. 
  
> He has retained a barbaric system of conscription that enslaves the best and most productive segments of the population. Despite the lack of any armed threat to Belarus, the Lukashenko regime continues to maintain a gargantuan military, forcing every boy, upon reaching the age of sixteen, to register with the draft office. Afterward, unless he is enrolled in a (state-controlled) educational facility, he is eligible for being hurled into active duty at any time. Of course, the exemption for students is merely an elaborate guise: after graduation from a high school or university, the students must still encounter the chronic fear of becoming cannon fodder until the age of 43 (the earliest time that full exemptions from military service are given). Let them become fully hypnotized puppets of the regime via state-sponsored education, Lukashenko figures, and then their ability to perform rote, selfless, mindless tasks of conscript-army discipline will only surge. 
  
> He has suffocated the agricultural sector of the economy by perpetuating the dilapidated Soviet system of collective farming. During my periodic visits to Belarus (the land of my birth), I journey through the rural regions to find in them the same isolation from civilized circumstances that has pervaded them during my childhood. Private farms and agricultural concerns are strictly prohibited, in favor of mandatory collectivization of all farm land and labor, a relic from the years of Stalin. Individual initiative and innovation are verboten, as Lukashenko has his own name for all entrepreneurs: “thieving oligarchs.” The only new houses built in the villages are cottages for the collective farm bureaucracy, while the state-monopolized roads are riddled with potholes and almost impassable for ordinary vehicles, water utilities and sewer systems are non-existent, and wooden outhouses are the only semblance of sanitation. (All the meantime, government funds are lavishly spent on the ornate décor, multicolored lighting, and impeccable repainting of the facades of Scorina Avenue, the main street of Minsk; such are the consequences of the maintenance of an entire country being entrusted in the State. But even in Minsk, hot water is often deactivated by state-run utility companies during the late spring and early summer.) 
  
> He was waged, using the resources of the state, a propaganda war of slander and indoctrination against the West. The Belarussian government-owned television channel covers any chance mishap in American affairs with glee. During the recent New York blackout, announcers prated for hours concerning the “inefficiency of private utilities” and suggested that it was private enterprise (as opposed to technical failure or the regional utility monopolies present even in the United States) that was responsible for the power outage, while lauding state ownership of utilities and exemplifying the wreckage of a system that had existed in the Soviet Union. Another news report gave the spotlight to a Russian “philosopher,” who proclaimed that “globalization is beneficial for the technologically advanced countries of the West, but is disastrous for the remainder of the world, as it deprives it of jobs and working conditions.” Would Karl Marx have said anything different? This new brand of indoctrination is not of the old Soviet slogan-hollering sort, but, as Stanislav Shushkevich correctly notes, is of a subtler sort. In his book on the Neocommunist ideology of Lukashenko, Shushkevich writes that “‘the realization of the communist postulates’ by the regime is taking place not in a totalitarian but an authoritarian political system which does not seriously restrict its potential capabilities but nevertheless gives it recourse to ‘greater populism and a more refined system of state propaganda.’” With Communism dead by all standards, the only means to revive it is to dramatically repackage its appearance and presentation, while attaching some other despotic values along the way, such as sympathy for Islamofascism, domestic orthodox theocracy, and an “organic” view of the population with socialist lore as its “immune system.” However devious his means toward the resurrection of Communism may seem, Lukashenko has no qualms about revealing his ends. “Our domestic television product should be of prime quality. It is not just competition, not just rivalry. It is a struggle of ideologies," Lukashenko declared during the March 27 address. 
  
          Lukashenko’s campaign against individualism, capitalism, and intellectual freedom spreads far beyond the eleven grievances mentioned herein. According to Shushkevich, “Belarus has become a police state in which ‘elections have become a farce, and a change of power could be effected only by a 'coup at the top' or a 'social explosion,' though… the latter is ‘improbable.’” Indeed, his dictatorship’s disastrous mismanagement of the economy has led to yearly “negative growth” of 17%, while the majority of the population remains isolated from computers, not even to mention the Internet. In the meantime, the campaign against printed private media has accelerated, while television is a virtual state monopoly. 
  
          The only conceivable source of political reform can spread into the country from without, from the free world, where censorship is non-existent, and where thinkers possess access to versatile media that can zoom past the octopus’s tentacles and through its eyes into its brain. The Internet is a much-underestimated tool in effecting ideological change; it is theoretically unlimited in circulation capacity, and can oft slip by government monitors with far greater ease and maneuverability than an easily intercepted paper or pamphlet. Moreover, when wielded wisely, it can assure a most unexpected advantage: secrecy of communication. 
  
          The formidable budgets and elaborate presentations of Western media outlets are only profitable and successful in a free society, where the bureaucrat’s gun cannot demolish them at first whim. For proliferating information into and within Belarus, another strategy is required, which I shall henceforth dub “Portals of Reason.” Every Portal of Reason shall be initially posted on an obscure site and publicized therefrom via other on-line forums. There shall be no links between various Portals of Reason as well as between them and the individuals/organizations within Belarus who contribute information to them. Instead, relevant persons shall establish e-mail networks to notify each other of the emergence of new portals, and to reproduce copies of the materials therein for covert distribution among associates known to be unwilling to report such activities to the regime. Within the United States and other Western lands, the Portals of Reason need not be kept secret, but in Belarus, their objective is to spread dissenting views, tactics, and coordination without ever notifying the regime until the opposition grows sufficiently formidable that even the state media octopus shall be incapacitated. Authors living within Belarus are welcome to contribute to the portals, but pseudonyms are strongly advised, so that their livelihoods are not ruined by Lukashenko’s blacklisting. 
  
          Mere opposition, however, is insufficient; the concerned dissenters of Belarus must guide the country toward embracing principles of the free market, representative government, individualistic reason, professional military, open borders, and separation of church and state. Keep a lookout for (and create!) future Portals of Reason, as more elaborate discussions of these are to come. In the meantime, give the link to this article to everyone whom you know… and can trust not to inform Lukashenko. 

* Mr. Stolyarov had written this article on September 1, 2003, under the pseudonym "Victor Svobodin," in order to escape retribution by Lukashenko's regime against family members that remained in Belarus. The article was published on Portal of Reason S1, a Website hitherto deliberately concealed from public access. Presently, these family members have safely emigrated, and Mr. Stolyarov is free to publicly decry the reign of this dictator with impunity.
 
Sources:
 
Lubetkin, Wendy. "Personal Accounts of Rights Abuses in Belarus, Cuba, Sudan (Activists Hold Panel at Commission on Human Rights)." April 6, 2001.
Minto, Karen. "Interview with Jaroslav Romanchuk." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
A U.N. Report. November 8, 2002.
Mite, Valentinas. "As International Criticism of Lukashenko Mounts, Public Approval Plummets." FreeSerbia.net. May 9th, 2002.
Renik, Krzysztof. "Putin Put His Foot Down." The Warsaw Voice. September 1, 2002.
–. "Another Belarusian NGO Threatened with Liquidation." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
–. "Europe's Armory for Terrorism." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
–. "Belarusian Government Signs Accord with Orthodox Church." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
Jan Maksymiuk. "Returning to Good Old Ideology." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
–. "Belarusian President's Rating Hits Record Low." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
–. "Belarusian Authorities Suspend Major Independent Newspaper." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
–. "Lukashenko Introduces Ideology Officers in All Companies." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
Rich, Vera. "Shushkevich on Neocommunism in Belarus." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.
–. "Axis of Evil- Belarus: The Missing Link." The Rational Argumentator, Issue XXVIII. December 15, 2004.

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