Belarus has made international headlines in 2020 with the Belarusian presidential election and accusations that the election was rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, who has served as president of Belarus since 1994. Although this seemed like a U.S.-sponsored colour revolution to me (and I still think it is), I didn’t know enough about Belarus to have a strong opinion about the election. Thus, when this book arrived in the mail, I was very eager to read it.
Stewart Parker makes a very interesting and surprisingly compelling case that Belarus is politically, economically, and socially more aligned with Cuba and Venezuela than anywhere else. Under Lukashenko, Belarus has adopted, or more accurately maintained from the era of the USSR, a highly progressive and unusually anti-capitalist socio-economic system, not that dissimilar to Cuba and Venezuela. According to Parker, with some moderate adjustments, like allowing some capitalist production, Belarus has strongly continued the policies of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, considerably more so than any other former Soviet republic or Eastern Bloc state. The overwhelming majority of the country’s economy is state-owned and there is no “business” or “capitalist” class, all land is publicly owned and the majority of agriculture is still cooperative, education is free and compulsory up to and including university, unemployment is virtually nonexistent, there is no brain drain (Belarus maintains something similar to Cuba in that education is free on condition that you serve the country for a certain number of years) or mass migration, healthcare is universal, and equally generous pensions, funding for cultural activities and events, etc. The IMF and World Bank were kicked out of Belarus because Lukashenko refused to adopt the murderous austerity measures demanded by imperialism that had such disastrous consequences in other former Soviet republics. As Parker writes, there are very few rich Belarusians, and certainly no oligarchs such as emerged in Russia, but there are equally very few destitute and impoverished Belarusians.
Parker cites as an example of Belarusian social policy the dispute between the American fast-food giant McDonald’s and Belarus. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, as CNN even reported, sought to block McDonald’s expansion into the city due to “the state’s concerns about the nation’s health and the promotion of domestic food products.” Although only one example, and a small one at that, I think Minsk’s dispute with McDonald’s indicates that there is something to be said about the social and economic policy of Belarus, that it is not simply another bourgeois-capitalist state to emerge from the overthrow of the USSR.
According to Parker, Belarus’s socio-economic system is due to how deeply intertwined Belarusian history is with that of the former USSR. Under tsarism, Belarus was a non-entity, forming part of the Pale of Settlement, the territory where Jews were permitted to reside, and the Belarusian people were a persecuted minority like most minorities in the “prison house of nations”. Under the Soviet rule the Belarusian language was revived, Polish national-fascism was ended, Belarus formed a constituent Soviet Socialist Republic, illiteracy was eradicated, cooperative farms replaced rich landlords, and the impoverished territory was transformed into one of the most industrialized of all Soviet republics. This had a profound influence on the Belarusian people, who had never known statehood before, besides for a brief period in 1918 under German domination. When the Nazis invaded and occupied Belarus in 1941, more than 300,000 Belarusian partisans waged a relentless and brutal struggle against the Nazis and their Belarusian nationalist collaborators, killing more than 500,000 German soldiers, more than all German losses in the African and Italian fronts combined. Belarus suffered enormous causalities and destruction under Nazi occupation, but just like after the Russian Civil War, the Belarusian people with Soviet support once more rebuilt their republic, and Belarus again was one of the most successful Soviet republics.
The Belarusian people as a whole, Parker writes, are extremely proud of their Soviet heritage, and their experience fighting both the Nazis and their Belarusian nationalist-collaborators helped instill a far more internationalist ideology in Belarus not found in the Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, Russia, etc. Antisemitism, far-right nationalism, and neo-Nazism, all on the rise in the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Georgia, Russia, etc., are virtually unheard of in Belarus, where national and religious rights are enshrined in law. Indeed, Lukashenko himself has threatened to “tear the arms off any fascist I find,” and after an attack on a synagogue in Minsk in December 2000, Lukashenko declared “we won’t let anyone harm our Jews.”
Parker makes some interesting observations about the conduct of elections in Belarus.
Parker rightfully emphasizes the hypocrisy of the U.S. and other Western imperialist states in condemning Belarusian elections. The U.S. has cozied up to dictators around the world, such as in Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc. Moreover, the U.S. is hardly democratic itself, with a two-party system, extensive corruption and police brutality, and the fact that its own capital city has no democratic representation in the U.S. Congress or Senate.
Parker then examines ongoing U.S. interference in Belarusian elections. U.S. imperialism, like it has in almost every country in the world, has brazenly interfered in Belarusian elections, funding opposition candidates, newspapers, NGOs and political parties. The examples cited by Parker are almost comical at times. In 2001, when Belarusian police seized computers from an unregistered opposition newspaper, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher demanded the computers be returned to Washington, D.C.! Even more farcical is the late Senator John McCain’s efforts to link Belarus with the September 11th attacks! Speaking at a conference in Washington, D.C., McCain declared how “September 11th opened our eyes to the status of Belarus as a national security threat,” as if the Belarusians were somehow connected to the mostly Saudi hijackers!
That the U.S. openly interferes in Belarusian elections was admitted to by none other than Michael Kozak. Prior to being appointed as U.S. Ambassador to Belarus by President Clinton, Kozak was directly involved in supporting the Contras in Nicaragua and the U.S. invasion of Panama. In a letter to the London Times, Kozak wrote that U.S. “objective and to some degree methodology are the same” in Belarus as in Nicaragua some twenty years earlier! However, as Parker documents, U.S. interference in Belarusian elections often takes the form of supporting the losing candidate deliberately. This is because, as Western intelligence agencies admit, even if Lukashenko didn’t rig an election, he would still probably win, owing to how disorganized and reactionary the foreign-supported Belarusian opposition is and Lukashenko’s own popularity with the masses. Thus, U.S. and Western interference in Belarusian elections often consists of supporting a “unified opposition” candidate that they know will lose to prevent any kind of genuine run-off election and enable the U.S. and other Western imperialist states to condemn the election as fraudulent. As Parker writes, “if the Belarusians cannot be relied upon to vote ‘the right way’, then the West must make the whole process suspect in order to justify isolation and sanctions” (p. 114). Although even in this regard U.S. condemnation of Belarusian elections is outrageously hypocritical. As Parker writes, while refusing to monitor the Belarusian election in 2006 but nonetheless condemning it as fraudulent, the OSCE recognized without complaint “a 97% result for Saahkashvili in Georgia, 93% for Heydar Aliev in Azerbaijan and 89% for Kurmenbek Bakiev in Kyrgyzstan. The key differences between these leaders and Lukashenko is not human rights or democratic processes, but rather political orientation” and the interests of U.S. imperialism (p. 186).
One might quickly denounce Parker’s analysis as being too pro-Lukashenko. However, I recently read a DW article that basically confirms what Parker writes. In this article, Belarusian opposition activist Svetlana Alexievich says she “did not have faith in my people. It seemed to me that people would not take to the streets and that we would carry on living as before, as if time had stood still.” Later in the article Alexievich seems to decry how Belarusians aren’t as violent as Georgians!
This book was a real pager turner for me. Although it is horribly edited and consequently sometimes difficult to read, I like how Parker examines Belarus in a way very similar to Dan Kovalik’s analysis of Venezuela. Very good book.