(written by Artom and Marta - Belarus Project)
After the fall of the Soviet Union, populism emerged in the Belarusian political context as an effective instrument to come to power and to retain it. A democratically elected president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been governing since 1994; his unique leadership style continuously attracts the attention of the international community, not least because of its populist character.
Russians like repeating “A spoon is good for lunch”, meaning everything is to be used in its own time and in the right context; so it is with populism. The social, political and economic environment in Belarus in the early nineties presented a very receptive ground for populist influences. The fall of the Soviet Union brought an objective need for change in leadership; but commonly inherited political “ignorance” from the recent Soviet past, combined with the impact of external conditions, almost pre-determined the outcome.
The fall of the Soviet Union, firstly, opened the door for a change in leadership. Belarus, dominated by the Russian Empire since 1795 and under the Soviet Union since 1922, found itself suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, in front of an open future. Although this situation was viewed and presented as a great chance by Western observers, Belarusian citizens were overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling of uncertainty. Residents of the former BSSR, who had spent decades living in a rigid but stable political system with very limited personal freedoms, were now for the first time asked to select their new leader.
The civil society was not ready to meet this challenge. Non-governmental institutions were underdeveloped and a bunch of existing political parties were still too weak. Furthermore, there was barely any political agenda that could unite the fragmented Belarusian society. In the Baltic countries and some other republics of former Soviet states, the appeal to national identity and unity, skilfully used by national elites, was able to bring the societies together. However, it could not work in Belarus, which was by far the most russified of USSR states and historically had to put itself up with a low sense of national identity. Last but not least, this change took place at a time when the political conscience of the civil society was still in its cradle, having had no chance of being nurtured during Belarusian communistic and subdued past.
The combination of worries for political instability and immature political conscience was worsened by the influence of other “environmental” conditions. Since 1988 population had lived in an economic situation that worsened every year. The product deficit of the 1980s turned into full-scale economic collapse starting from 1992, with rising unemployment and high inflation rates, bringing impoverishment and desperation. The fear was strengthened by the example of transition to democracy in neighbouring countries. Russia’s brand new “wild capitalism” and privatisation, which was aptly dubbed “prikhvatisation” (a Russian colloquial word meaning “stealing”) became a nightmare for many Belarusians, who were afraid of the same happening to them.
The fear of the post-communist injustice and poverty was thoroughly used by populist movements. In his early speeches Lukashenko often emphasized the necessity for change to a democratic and fair society. He promised a smooth transition to a market economy and intended to deal harshly with all types of corruption and “prikhvatisers”. The latter title was the legal ground to dismiss other candidates in his first race for presidency. Thanks to the favourable conditions described above, populism helped him to successfully secure the highest position in the young republic.
The vicious circle of populist influence
The populist appeal of Lukashenko may arguably be considered one of the main building blocks for his prolonged stay in power in Belarus. The successful formula for his appeal seems to have three ingredients. Firstly, Lukashenko effectively creates a feeling of proximity between the leader and the people through his charismatic and unsophisticated leadership style. Secondly, he understands the mood of the masses and accordingly shapes his communication, highlighting the successes and deemphasizing the failures. Thirdly, he has successfully adopted an image of defender of the common people, which he continues to nurture and make use of. Thanks to these populist techniques, Lukashenko has managed to avoid mass discontent and to stay in power.
Lukashenko’s populism can be traced in the charismatic and simple character of his leadership. As stressed out by Matsuzato Kimitaka, the stability of Lukashenko’s power confirms the originality of a monopolistic populist regime based on the model of “the leader and the people”, without any intra-elite competitions, as observed instead in Ukraine and Kazakhstan and other post-soviet countries.
Here Lukashenko’s image of being one of the common people is particularly useful. Official media portray him as a pragmatic, work-loving man, by showing him in the field during agricultural campaigns, at production plants or in villages. The hero-like masculinity of his presence in the media was particularly evident after the bomb explosions in 2005 and 2010. In both cases he was shown being in charge of rescue operations within minutes after the tragedies happened.
All his public speeches with no exception are rich of colloquial rhetoric, which is being mocked by the opposition, but nonetheless strikes accords with the masses. His discourse often enhances “the uniqueness, unity and sovereignty” of Belarus, revealing his organic view of the political community. There is a recurrent marginalisation of the members of the opposition, presented as traitors and strongly tracked. Lukashenko is depicted as a messianic leader striving for social harmonization, which justifies the concentration of economic resources in his hands. These resources can subsequently be distributed in order both to demonstrate the power of the president and to obtain support from those who benefit from them.
The link between the president and his people is furthermore stressed by the direct election of the president and the regular utilisation of referendums. In particular, these instruments were used as the basis for populist legitimation, which is the central point of a system in which democratic institutions cannot act effectively, political parties are discredited as “divisions in society” and almost not represented anymore in the institutions of the state.
Populism works because it appeals to masses: Lukashenko has shown an ability to understand the “mood” of his people and to respond to it. He offers statements to the major events that stir public interest, though aptly playing down their impact if he considers them undesirable. During the silent protests last summer, when hundreds of people were sentenced just for their presence at the places of the protests, he dismissed them in his speeches as a bunch of teenagers playing with social media. The mere fact of his response emphasized the importance of the event for the public. However, it was used not to adjust the governmental policy, but to justify the intensification of measures to control civil society in Belarus.
Another vivid example of Lukashenko toying with the mood of masses is the media coverage created around his capacity to pardon the two young people quickly sentenced to death for the bomb attack in Minsk’s underground last year. Whatever his decision will be, it will reflect the will of the majority of the Belarusian population, without really considering criteria of real justice.
Not least, the populist attitude of Lukashenko’s regime can be demonstrated by its declared “mission” of protecting common people. This logic consists of two steps: in the first place, scapegoats and public enemies are being created; in the second, Lukashenko uses his “extraordinary powers” to re-establish justice by destroying these characters he created himself. All kinds of these mystical creatures were created in Belarus, starting from bureaucrats and corrupt officials to big greedy oligarchs. They are all used as reasons to justify the strength of the presidency, as it is argued that only a strong state can control the economy, only a strong military can guarantee stability. The opaque mechanism of justice is brought in motion by an anonymous contact of citizens to the so-called “commission of the president”, which usually initiates the investigation and can end up with public denouncing or sentencing of certain officials (commonly on corruption charges) by the president.
Although we have described populism in Belarus as a reality, this does not mean that it has no limits. On the contrary: the current severe economic situation of the country seriously threatens the stability of Lukashenko’s regime. Populism works in Belarus because it manages to make people think that the political elite is doing the best for them. But with the recent economic conditions, people are growing sceptical of it; this scepticism can cause substantial damage to the political sand castle built by Lukashenko.
Lukashenko managed to use conditions favourable for populism to come to power in the early 1990s and continuously established a direct link to the Belarusian population. This resulted in, on the one hand, the discredit of the party system, and, on the other hand, the underdevelopment of the opposition and civil society. In a certain sense, the Soviet Union and the current presidential state represent a continuum, which stifles the development of political conscience in the civil society – a fundamental ingredient of a genuine change. The danger of populism lies in its self-reinforcing power: as people do not learn to use democratic institutions for defending their rights, and they become “addicted” to the populist leader; in the illusion of his power’s effectiveness and of its advantage for them, they are less capable of creating a democratic society. These two perspectives suggest that Belarus might need to wait several generations to see a real democratic change happening.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe website
- January 2012 dossier : Radiographie des populismes en Europe
On the internet
- Eke, S.M. and Kuzio, T., Sultanism in Eastern Europe : The Socio-Political Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Belarus, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 52, No. 3, 2000, pp. 523-547
- Kimitaka, M., A populist island in an ocean of clan politics: the Lukashenka regime as an exception among CIS countries?, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 56, No. 2, 2004, pp. 225-261
- Leshchenko, N., The National Ideology and the Basis of the Lukashenka Regime in Belarus, Europe- Asia Studies, Vol. 60, No. 8, 2008, pp. 1419-1433