If George Orwell wanted to experience the Ministry of Truth from his work Nineteen Eighty-Four, he could find it in modern Belarus. Everyone knows the elections in Belarus were not real, but for some reason, many still discuss the numbers of this charade. International media debate the “enduring success” of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, arguing about the “failure of the opposition” and massively reproduce the magic spell of the regimes “peace, independence and stability.”
By Vytis Jurkonis
Lukashenka is currently speculating about peace at the expense of war in neighbouring Ukraine, authorities argue about the level of freedom in one of the most oppressive countries in Europe, meanwhile some naïve Europeans hail the strength of Lukashenka in a country, where passivity and ignorance prevail. All of this is reminiscent of the “three slogans of the party” outlined in the Orwellian classic.
War is Peace
Western partners are so desperate to see Belarusian leadership at least as a neutral player, that they would blindly follow the empty rhetoric of Lukashenka, rather than analyse the grim military reality.
There are at least two strategic Russian military installations on Belarusian soil: the radar station at Baranovichi (for the early warning of ballistic missiles which covers Europe and the regions of the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea), and the submarine control centre near Vileyka (for the retransmission of signals to Russian military ships and submarines located in the Central and North Atlantic).
Baranovichi Air Force base hosts Russian jets and some other places are being discussed like Bobruisk and Lida, meanwhile joint Belarusian–Russian military trainings at the Polish and Lithuanian border is a common occurrence. Moreover, there are certain companies like opto-electronic company Peleng, a factory for tanks in Borisov and Beltechexport that provide important elements for the Russian military, while the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant is producing mobile transporter launchers for Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Belarus is a military ally and junior partner of the Kremlin and Lukashenka’s role as the coffee servant during the Minsk negotiations should not mislead the West.
Freedom is Slavery
The release of political prisoners created an illusion of some progress, but the intimidation, mechanisms of control and fear have not gone anywhere. The state of Belarus runs at least 70 per cent of its economy, therefore any dissent is challenged at an early stage by the simple possibility of job loss.
The regime used to be more violent before – cases of disappearing opponents of Lukashenka have not been investigated properly, though 16 years have already passed.
Throughout the years the regime has developed a system where an election is a parody, independent media is almost eliminated, and civil society is pushed underground. Orwell would not be surprised to hear that the main opposition candidate during the presidential election in 2015 was not planning to win. The early voting marked Lukashenka at 36 per cent, meanwhile he “received” over 83 per cent, with the overall turnout higher than 85 per cent. Might look odd, but this is in fact common for Belarus. In a country, where journalists are arrested for the photo of a teddy-bear or a one-armed man is on trial for clapping at silent protests, the abnormal becomes the norm.
The space for freedom in Belarus is shrinking dramatically – the Belarusian people used to come out to the squares and streets to defend their vote and to challenge the regime. The tent city in October square in the freezing March of 2006 lasted for almost a week, tens of thousands rallied in the streets in December 2010, the economic downturn provoked the silent protests in the summer of 2011 – all of which was crushed by massive repressions. Many people are afraid, disappointed, angry, depressed – some of them left the country, some preferred self-censorship, but a minority though continue their struggle being regularly detained, beaten or harassed in other forms.
Surely, slavery is not only a physical term, but also a state of mind. The Belarusian authorities are rightly accused of severely restricting freedom, but the opposition are not contributing much to freedom either by demonising each other, labelling some as traitors and KGB agents, while others are glorified as heroes. In a country for either heroes or collaborators, there is simply no place for an ordinary citizen. You have to choose a side and neither of them should be questioned. In a country like Belarus you just need to obey no matter what. These are the rules of the game, otherwise you might become an outcast in your own country.
Ignorance is Strength
Atomisation of Belarusian society started long before Lukashenka came to power, but he continued the Soviet project. Encourage obedience, punish the initiative, divide and rule, eradicate critical thinking and seed mistrust. The Belarusian regime became so skilled that some of the methods became the role model for other regime countries.
It would be unjust to say the regime was never challenged – the above mentioned protests are examples of resilience. However, ignorance is shrinking the small islands of freedom fighters within the society. Critical voices adapt, the best activists become conformists and former idealists transform into pragmatists – standing on the barricades had not been easy and became unbearable for some when even former companions called it pointless.
The ostrich effect of living in self-denial, choosing your comfort zone becomes mainstream. Being critical, having doubts and concerns, questioning the rules are considered not only stupid but almost radical. The matrix of ignorance becomes so powerful and inclusive that even international players seem to believe there is no other alternative.
The international community has not always been particularly helpful either. Scholarships for studying abroad motivated young people to leave, many of them have never returned. You can see them travelling from Vilnius to Dubai, from Berlin to New York, and they do very little if anything at all for Belarus. They promise to come back when the situation changes, but this hardly can be called an investment into the future of Belarus.
The authorities in Belarus have followed the popular statement that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, and learned that the main source of strength and power is ignorance. While some activists choose to emigrate, others prefer self-censorship, and the majority is tied to the social contract – apathy dominates. And regimes flourish in a passive environment without any dissent. Of the Orwellian calendar, the year is 1984 in Belarus today.
Vytis Jurkonis is a project director at Freedom House and leads its Vilnius office.
«New Eastern Europe» (http://neweasterneurope.eu/articles-and-commentary/1773-orwell-s-belarus)