Belarus struggles to defend workers’ interests

Europe’s ‘last dictator’ faces vilification for the ‘crime’ of holding out against imperialist greed.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Alexander Lukashenko was elected President of the Republic of Belarus in 1994. He won a landslide victory as an independent candidate with neither the backing of any major political party or of (more importantly) any businesses, or foreign governments. His victory was indeed stunning: 80.1 percent of the people supported Lukashenko, with a 70 percent voter turnout in an election he was in no position to fix.

What drove the people of Belarus to give such overwhelming support to Lukashenko? Quite simply, he refuted the supposed advantages of market reforms, he advocated closer ties with Russia instead of the West, and he also refused to belittle the achievements of the Soviet Union.

In the three years between the end of the Soviet Union and the first Belarusian presidential elections some $15bn-worth of currency ‘left the country’. Another example of this national looting was the MAZ truck factory in Minsk, where another $1.5bn dollars’ worth of state funds somehow managed to end up in private hands.

The result, predictably, was chaos and misery for the Belarusian working people. Hyperinflation saw prices rise by over 400 percent, whilst wages, if paid at all, remained the same. This time of corruption and ‘reform’ was overseen by a government composed of revisionists and nationalists, whose aims did not coincide with those of the people they had been elected to represent.

The majority of real development for Belarus came during its time as a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, while the nationalists have developed from opportunistic anti-communists. The nationalists’ wartime leader, Radaslau Astrouski, escaped retribution for collaborating with the Nazis when the Germans evacuated him to France in the face of the oncoming Red Army in 1944. The nationalist collaborators were few, however, and, for the Germans, Belarus was far more characterised by its partisan movement. Indeed, Belarus became known as the ‘partisan republic’, with some 300,000 guerrilla fighters.

The war was an acutely catastrophic event for Belarus owing to three factors: the length of the occupation, the large Belarusian jewish population, and the scale of partisan operations. The result of these circumstances was that one in every three citizens of the republic died during the war, and it wasn’t until 1975 that the population regained its pre-war level.

The people of Belarus had come through one of the worst occupations in history, and had seen the results of aggressive nationalism. Astrouski was captured by US forces in France, but instead of being returned to the Soviet Union to stand trial for his role in atrocities, he was granted asylum in the USA, where he was allowed to establish a ‘Belarusian government in exile’!

It was just such nationalist governments in exile that returned home to attempt to dictate policy following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Belarus, however, they were unsuccessful, owing in part to the very real successes and prestige of the Soviet system in Belarus, as well as to the living memory of the Great Patriotic War.

Belarus had prospered culturally and economically as a Soviet Republic, having previously been one of the most illiterate areas in Europe; the huge investment in terms of educational establishments and libraries was a notable success.

So, too, was the huge investment in terms of industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture. Belarus, in fact, collectivised at a phenomenal pace. By February 1930 some 86 percent of peasant households were collectivised at a time when the all-Union average was 57 percent. The advantages of the collective were grasped by the Belarusian people, and still are, with President Lukashenko commenting in 2004 that collective farms “must be preserved as they are the units which will always protect people, and help them”.

The desire to protect the agrarian sector in Belarus against the machinations of the ‘free’ market is what led President Lukashenko into his first confrontation with the West. When the IMF demanded an end to subsidies for farmers, Lukashenko expelled their commission calling them “swindlers”. The result of Polish acquiescence to the IMF has been seen to be hugely negative, with the collapse of the rural economy as primarily German produce, which is subsidised, has undercut Polish prices (all in the name of ‘free trade’).

Lukashenko’s election promise to stop privatisation, his image as a man of the people (a former soldier and collective farm manager), and his anti-corruption activities meant that he has enjoyed widespread popular support and was able to win a huge landslide in the first ever Belarusian presidential election. The level of support has been demonstrated many times via the direct referenda that have been held on various issues of national significance.

For example, after one referendum, Belarusian independence day was changed from the date of the fall of the Soviet Union to the date Minsk was liberated from fascist occupation. After another, the white-red-white flag of the nationalists and Nazi collaborators was replaced by the Soviet-era one (although minus the hammer and sickle).

The man labelled ‘Europe’s last dictator’ by the US government was simply following the wishes of the people who had voted for him. The real concern of US imperialism has been its lack of success in manoeuvring someone more sympathetic to their aims into office.

Alarm bells must have been ringing in Washington when Lukashenko declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union “will undoubtedly occupy one of the leading places on the list of geopolitical catastrophes”. Furthermore, when the parliament of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic voted on the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, only one deputy voted against it, and that one was Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko and the Belarusian people have been able to preserve some elements of the Soviet system, and they have a justifiable pride in their history. The Komsomol has been revived as the Belarusian Republican Youth Movement, giving young people focus, drive and opportunities, whilst avoiding what Lukashenko has called “consumerist values” that have no place in Belarus. Lukashenko also operates what he terms a ‘socially-orientated market economy’. Belarus has few natural resources and thus needs to trade with the world, but the proceeds of an economy that is still around 80 percent state owned results in a huge dividend in terms of social spending. Belarus not only has higher GDP spending on education than its neighbours, but also a higher spend than the USA or Britain.

The country also maintains a comprehensive public healthcare system despite the significant impact of the Chernobyl disaster of 1989. In fact, Belarus has more doctors per person than do the USA or Britain. The economic and social situation in Belarus has resulted in positive migration into the country.

This, of course, does not tally with the mass media and Western governments’ version of events. The myths of ‘human rights abuses’ and a ‘crumbling dictatorship’ help to justify the massive amount of aid being given to the Belarusian ‘democratic opposition’.

The US alone has allocated $20m for the fiscal years 2007 and 2008 to ‘establish democracy’ in Belarus, with a further $7m per year for anti-Lukashenko media. The US ambassador to Belarus in 2001 declared Belarus to be “worse than Cuba”, and admitted that Washington’s plan for Belarus was in “objective and to some degree methodology” the same as in Nicaragua 20 years previously. The Sandinista/Contra war claimed some 30,000 lives.

The opposition in Belarus has, by means of this aid, been transformed from a loose collection of nationalists and opportunists into an industry all of its own. Youth groups competing for funds fight each other to prove who is the most anti-Lukashenko. This fealty to their sponsors has seen activists from the ‘Charter97’ group actually parade with signs in English reading ‘America we are with you’ and ‘Liberation of Iraq’.

US interference also takes place on the international stage, with country-specific resolutions being raised at the UN against Belarus (a familiar tactic used against Cuba and others). The Belarusians actually responded in kind in 2004 and 2006 with the draft resolution on the ‘Situation of Democracy and Human Rights in the United States of America’.

The USA has also exerted its influence over the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). One of the principal activities of this notoriously pro-imperialist organisation is the monitoring of elections. Its assessment of how ‘free and fair’ they are is primarily based on the political direction of the winning candidates. For example, the pro-western Georgian President Saakashvili received an OSCE-approved 97 percent of the votes in 2004. Lukashenko’s fiercely independent line has meant that, even when the OSCE’s own observers report no problems, the final OSCE report declared the election to have been ‘neither free nor fair’. A further indication of the ‘objectivity’ and ‘independence’ of the OSCE is that its chief in Belarus, Hans Georg Wieck, worked with US Ambassador Kozak in selecting a ‘unified candidate’ to represent the opposition in Belarusian elections in 2001.

This meddling was backed up by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when, in January 2005, she declared Belarus (along with Cuba, the DPRK, Zimbabwe, Iran and Burma) to be an ‘outpost of tyranny’. When President Bush promised to bring ‘freedom’ to every nation, Lukashenko responded that some “did not need their freedom, drenched in blood and smelling of oil”.

The western-backed opposition movement in Belarus has proved itself to be weak and divided, and unable to convince ordinary Belarusian people to abandon progress and a socialist-leaning model of development in favour of the chaos and corruption that the unbridled free market brought them between 1991 and 1994.

President Lukashenko has maintained close links with Russia rather than attempt to enter the EU, and has also established very close ties with Cuba and Venezuela.

Of Cuba, Lukashenko said “the former Soviet Republics did not have the moral right to abandon Cuba” and that they “should now correct that mistake”. In 2000, Lukashenko was awarded the Cuban Order of Jose Martí by Fidel Castro, whom Lukashenko called “a legendary leader whose thoughts and convictions are valid not only for Cuba but for all of humanity”. Belarus is now playing a significant role in the modernisation of Cuban industry and infrastructure, with particular cooperation in the fields of health and science.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has twice visited Belarus, and is full of praise for its achievements. In July 2006, Chávez said: “Belarus has transformed into reality Vladimir Lenin’s slogan that we must end man’s exploitation of man. We see a model of social development here that we have only begun to establish at home. We must defend the interests of man and not the domestic interests of capitalists, wherever they may be, in North America or Europe.”

Recognition of the positive achievements of the USSR can be seen across Belarus. The statues of Lenin remain in place, war memorials are well cared for and respected. In Minsk, a new statue was erected of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin’s ‘Knight of the Revolution’, a new memorial complex has been built on the ‘Stalin Line’, and Stalin’s name has been restored to some public buildings. In the town of Svislach, on the Polish border, a new bust of Stalin was unveiled in 2006.

As Lukashenko summarised in 2005 (to the UN in New York) “The Soviet Union, despite all mistakes and blunders of its leaders, was the source of hope and support for many states and peoples.”

Belarus falls into the sights of imperialism for two reasons: first, because Belarus has a vast unplundered economy, including a highly-educated and skilled workforce, and second, because it offers a successful and independent model of development, which the US fears may serve as an inspiration to its neighbours.