Yes, I know, the title of this post sounds like it’s a review of one of those spy novels you see in airport newsstands that have something on the back cover like “Soon to be a major motion picture starring Matt Damon…” But this not what it is about. Instead it is about a formulaic way of thinking about Belarus and a whole host of other countries run by dictators that the American ruling class demonizes. In my view a whole section of the left that seems more interested in “anti-imperialism” than socialism tends to give the rulers of such countries more credit than they deserve. If you can’t tell the difference between an Ahmadinejad and a Fidel Castro, then what is the point in calling yourself a socialist?
I was prompted to write this after someone brought an article to my attention from Counterpunch (no surprise there) that elevates Belarus’s President Lukashenko to a status that he does not deserve. The article follows certain guidelines that are essential when you are trying to make the case for someone like him (or Qaddafi, et al).
Titled “Belarus Under Siege“, author Michèle Brand makes some excellent points about U.S. attempts to subvert the government:
In February of this year, citing the recent elections, the US State Department announced an increase of its “democracy assistance” to Belarusian civil society by 30% to $15 million for the year. In 2009, the National Endowment for Democracy gave $2.7 million to finance Belarusian “independent” media, civil society (promoting “democratic ideas and values… and a market economy”), NGOs and political groups. A Wikileaks cable (VILNIUS 000732, dated June 12, 2005) confirmed money smuggling into Belarus on the part of USAID contractors, though such proof is hardly necessary. Also in February, the EU, individual European countries, Canada and the US put together a “war chest” of 87 million euros aiming toward regime change in Belarus.
We need to oppose this kind of meddling in the affairs of a sovereign country. But in the sentences that complete this paragraph, Brand sets herself up as an apologist for authoritarian rule.
With so much money being offered to anyone who wants a job as an activist, it’s not hard to find takers. Youth who run into trouble are offered free education in the West. There is evidence that many of those who partook in the violent acts of the night of December 19th were paid for their participation, by either Western or Russian elements.
What evidence is she talking about? If a government is going to appear credible in such matters, there has to be proof that money exchanged hands. For example, when Cuba arrested a group of people for taking money and marching orders from an American diplomat stationed there, the court heard and saw incontrovertible evidence.
Furthermore, Cuba has laws against receiving funding from the USA or any other foreign country. Does Belarus have the same kind of laws? One wonders if this matters since the Belarus cops are free to arrest people on the flimsiest of grounds as Brand shamelessly admits:
According to Western media, the protests are being violently repressed and protesters arbitrarily arrested. According to Belarusian authorities, participants have been arrested because they were shouting profanities at police and pushing them.
It amazes me that radicals who write for Counterpunch can give any kind of credence to “Belarusian authorities” who grant themselves the right to throw people in jail because they are “shouting profanities” at police or pushing them. Apparently there are two standards, one for use in the U.S. or Britain where such police behavior would be considered a naked assault on free speech but permissible for Belarus or Syria or fill in the blanks.
This is the first element of the Belarus formula: give permission to a country that the imperialists hate or fear to jail dissidents even if they have not committed any crime.
The next important element of the Belarus formula is to draw class distinctions between the protesters and the “silent majority” that supports President Lukashenko. Brand’s presentation of these differences is drawn from the same palette of those who defended the crushing of the “Green Movement” in Iran:
What is clear in the videos is that the crowd [of demonstrators] is well-off… Clearly, the Belarusian working class has reasons not to support the current movements: they are generally satisfied with the policies of President Lukashenko. If the movements are limited to the Western-oriented elite, Western or Russian financed operatives, and youth wanting to have a street party, then they have no future, no matter how many millions the US and others throw at them.
Haven’t we heard all this before? The Chablis-drinking, cellphone-using yuppies from the north of Tehran on one hand and the modest, religiously observant, tea-drinking workers from the southern neighborhoods? In fact, the more I read this kind of “analysis”, the more I am reminded of Richard Nixon or Chicago’s Mayor Daley. This willingness to give a green light to cops to beat the crap out of demonstrators for cursing and the demagogy directed at “effete” middle class liberals who don’t go to church on Sunday (or a mosque on Friday) shows an amazing affinity between those who defend law and order in bourgeois society and those who rally around authoritarian states that happen to find themselves in Washington’s crosshairs. Now, everybody must oppose sanctions, NED subversion, military intervention and all the rest but socialists must understand that workers have different class interests from the Obamas and the Lukashenkos of the world. Socialism is all about working class power, not “condescending saviors” as The Internationale puts it.
For Brand, the hostility of the West has everything to do with the social gains made under a benignly paternalistic ruler. This is the third and final element of the formula. It boils down to a defense of dictatorship if and when its UN human development indicators pass muster. Of course, by this criterion, the Soviet bureaucracy deserved the undying support of leftists everywhere, even when it was throwing dissidents in prison for long stretches when not torturing or killing them .
The United States and other Western countries have been attacking the government of President Alexander Lukashenko ever since it refused to follow the path of the other ex-Soviet countries in the 1990s, which famously sold off the state-owned industries to oligarchs, destroyed the social protection system and allowed kleptocratic mafia capitalism to take over. Under Lukashenko, Belarus has developped [sic] gradually into a strong socially-oriented market economy with the highest growth rate in the CIS even during its current financial troubles (according to the CIS Interstate Statistical Committee, between January and April 2011 Belarusian industry grew 12.9% year-on-year), while still maintaining its free health care, job protection, social services, retirement programs, low unemployment, state-subsidized housing and utilities, and high level of education. This is one reason why the country is naturally in the line of fire of the West, whose bankrupt governments are now obsessively telling their citizens that “there is no alternative”: we must drastically decrease or kill pensions and other social programs, fire government employees, flexibilize the work force, privatize education, health care, infrastructure and everything possible, etc. etc. Located just next door to crisis-stricken Europe, Belarus is more than a thorn in its side; it is living proof that European and American neoliberal propaganda is only lies.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to track the ups and downs of the Belarus economy, the current economic crisis appears to be the result of Russian corporate malfeasance, as Brand readily admits:
For the West is not the only source of financing, nor of interventionist pressure. One of the most important ex-candidates was financed by the Russians. While Western pressure is a known quantity in Belarus, Russian attempts at destabilization are relatively new. Russian oligarchs have been ogling the profitable Belarusian state enterprises, and since the government has historically refused to sell them, the Russian kleptocracy has begun to try to topple Lukashenko. The Russian media have begun a concerted campaign against the Belarusian government, airing pro-opposition documentaries and indulging in smearing and misinformation. Russian operatives are now making inroads; on the Minsk-Moscow highway, my Belarusian friend pointed out the expensive Russian cars with tinted black windows heading into Minsk. Russian oil prices have risen sharply — 30% in January — and the price of natural gas imported from Russia has quadrupled in four years. Although the economy has diversified since independence, it is still reliant on importing energy and raw materials for its production. The hike in energy and commodity prices has had a harsh impact in Belarus, where the cost of energy now makes up 78 cents of every dollar of goods produced. High commodity prices explain the trade deficit despite strong industrial and export growth.
Stabbed in the back by the Russians, the Belarus government has turned to the West for assistance and all the negative consequences that go along with it. The IMF is demanding privatization and cutbacks in social services, as one might expect.
The hardships have led to mass protests that the government has repressed with little regard to the niceties of civil rights or due process. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that the same pattern taking place in Belarus has taken place already in Libya where IMF-type austerity has led to mass discontent and then a revolutionary movement.
Even under the best of circumstances, a small and economically vulnerable country like Belarus is at the mercy of economic forces it cannot control. When Russia was more favorably disposed to subsidizing the Belarus economy through a crude oil export tariff far below market value, Lukashenko could afford the generous welfare spending that Brand alluded to.
In order to withstand this kind of economic dislocation, governments must have the support of the people. Belarus is not the first country that has suffered from a Russian betrayal. Cuba went through a “special period” in the early 90s after a post-Communist regime decided to throw the socialist country to the mercy of world markets. Whatever future Belarus has as a sovereign nation that can withstand the hammer blows of the market system, the best way to navigate through treacherous waters is by giving the working class the democratic control over the social product. This means transforming the country along socialist lines and looking for allies internationally moving in the same direction. As quixotic as that might seem right now, there are no alternatives.