Belarus: Are neoliberalism and nationalism the only options?

Sadly, it looks like it. These are the only ideas to which power flows these days.

It’s been going down in Belarus — with protests against a rigged presidential election triggering a bloody and over-zealous siloviki crackdown and, now, leading to a much wider political movement and a major weakening of Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s longterm sovok cosplaying leader.

I haven’t written anything about the conflict because it’s been so rapidly changing and so hard to actually get decent information out of there.

Obviously, America and the EU have been trying to meddle and to train and prop up the opposition in Belarus for years now — as part of our empire’s longterm strategy to peel away former Soviet Republics away from Russia, a strategy that has seen a series of the now-infamous “color revolutions.” This is just a given. And Lukashenko has used this fact to extract concessions and subsidies from Russia and Vladimir Vladimirovich. 

So when you see American or European commentators and pols offer their support for the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people, it’s important to remember that our imperial bureaucrats don’t really care about Belarusians — just like they don’t care about Ukrainians, the Georgians, or Armenians. They just want to destabilize Russia in whatever way they can. And if this destabilization collapses the economy, unleashes a wave of desperate and exploitable migrant workers on the EU, and privatizes the country’s industrial and agricultural wealth — well, that’s like throwing a bonus prize into the mix. Just look at what America’s meddling helped do to the people of Ukraine.

And as one of America’s top Court Russian commentators helpfully points out: It’s all about Putin and Russia. Thanks, Julia!

Now that we have the foreign aspect out of the way, it’s important to understand that this isn’t simply some kind of purely manufactured conflict.

It’s pretty obvious that disaffection and loathing for Lukashenko and his siloviki state-manager clique is real and has been growing. That, combined with the violent suppression of protesters, his “we’re tougher than lockdowns” response to COVID, and the deteriorating economic situation in the country, has led to a weakening of support among a larger part of the population — that’s true even among industrial and factory workers, a set that should normally be at least grudgingly or passively supportive of Lukashenko.

Lukashenko’s grip on power rested on his ability to maintain a weird sort of centralized, throwback Soviet-lite state with big nationalized industrial and agricultural concerns. It depended on giving people stability and economic security. But apparently that has been slipping for years, and so has his base.

Just today Lukashenko was booed off the stage when he tried to speak in front of workers at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant, which produces buses, heavy civilian trucks and machinery, as as well as components for military use. Meduza interviewed people from the factory and they claim that the majority of the workers there want Lukashenko to go and to hold new and fair elections. And that’s a big deal.

Gonna try to write more about this later. But for now, I want to call attention to an interview published by Jacobin that addresses a largely overlooked aspect of this protest surge: ideology. What do people believe in? What are the ideas circulating in this movement?

In the interview, Ksenia Kunitskaya, a member of leftwing Belarusian media outlet Poligraf, talks about something important, and very depressing: the baseline liberal and nationalist ideas that are currently dominating the movement — even among the working class.

Here are some of the best bits:

KK: The first reason is the fatigue that has long built up among much of the population on account of Lukashenko’s quarter-century rule. His approach is apparent in his abrupt style of communication with both opponents and his own subordinates, often resembling casual rudeness. This is aggravated by the indifference shown by local officials, following not the mood of the people but the mood of the leader. These qualities clearly manifested themselves during the government mishandling of the COVID-19 epidemic, which massively irritated the population.

Additionally, the government has been consistently dismantling the welfare state model and its social obligations to its citizens…

KK: Besides, the authorities paid little attention to their positive image in the eyes of the population. Our state propaganda is very weak and often looks ridiculous: “We have never lived as well as we do now,” they claim. Their opponents, however, have created an effective system of professional, modern, electronic media. Through this, they highlight the state’s shortcomings and conduct propaganda in favor of neoliberal reforms and a nationalist memory politics. This allowed the liberal-nationalist opposition to mobilize supporters before the elections, to catch the authorities on numerous cases of vote rigging, and to bring people to the streets.

Additionally, the harsh police actions — the use of stun grenades, water cannons and tear gas, tortures of the detainees — aroused indignation not only among opposition supporters but also shocked those who were not previously interested in politics.

KK: Workers’ collectives from the large factories threatened strike action, and this, at least at the time of writing, forced the authorities to rein in police violence.
But so far, workers have put forward only general democratic demands, in line with a broad liberal protest. The protests clearly marked a new trend: traditional political parties, whether left or right, played practically no role in them. The ideological and practical inspiration rather came from the media in a broad sense, including social media. Who has a strong media owns the mind. But now a strong media is in the hands of those who promote the liberal and nationalist agenda. And if the workers are indoctrinated in this, then where would a class-conscious labor movement come from?

As Ksenia points out (and what other interviews with Belarusian workers confirm), a big reason for the movement’s broad support is due to the fact that issues like class and politics and power have largely been kept out of discussions and demands. Instead, focus has been kept on things that everyone can agree on: releasing people from jail, holding free and fair elections.

And that’s great. But the real question is: Whose ideas and whose interests will dominate if these free elections go ahead? Who has the organization and the power to push their agenda and their people through?

If we look at the history of post-Soviet states in Belarus’ very tough neighborhood, it’s hard to imagine anything but one outcome: neoliberalism, privatization, and domination by various business and oligarchic interests. That’s the thing about the post-Soviet world — and, indeed, much of the world today: Neoliberalism and nationalism are usually the only answer. Those are the only ideas to which power flows.

It saddens me to say this, but Belarusians are gonna find out pretty soon what a neoliberal “revolution” leads to — and it’s gonna be a brutal lesson to learn. As bad as it is for them now, I’m afraid it will almost certainly get worse. In short: they’re fucked if they do, and fucked if they don’t.

A couple of other notes:

Belarus is not Ukraine. It doesn’t have a system of competing decentralized oligarchic clans that weaponize foreign power support for their domestic power grabs. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have interests pushing for various neoliberal reforms or working with foreign powers to achieve those goals. A big player in all this is Belarus’ high-tech sector — a sector that is highly integrated with western corporate and financial structures. And as far as I can tell, it has been playing a big role in these protests.

One good thing is that Belarus — unlike Ukraine or its other neighbors like Poland or Lithuania or Latvia — does not seem to have an easily weaponized history of nationalism or very strong domestic fascist movements. In fact, Belarus might be the least nationalist country in Europe. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about that, I recommend listening to Sean Guillory’s interview with Per Rudling on his book about the (very short) history of Belarusian nationalism. The interview starts about thirty minutes in:

That’s it for now.

—Yasha Levine

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