Vitaly Silicky ranks among prominent Belarusian political analysts. In the past, he worked at the European Humanity University in Minsk (1999 – 2003), in the period 2005 – 2006 he participated in a training period at the Stanford University (USA). Nowadays, he’s the Director of Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, which integrates several independent analytical centres in the country. He publishes his articles and studies in domestic as well as foreign journals and anthologies.
Fundamental political as well as economic changes have been under way in all post-communist countries since the beginning of the 1990’s. It seems as if nothing changed in Belarus and regime’s position appears to be persistently stable. Why does President Aleksander Lukashenko hold onto the power such a long period?
It’s no surprise to anybody in Belarus. The cause is that Lukashenko eliminated all hotbeds of possible resistance, which could have weakened his authority, at the right time. The society understood signals sent by the power and started to accommodate themselves to existent conditions. There has been actually no political competition in Belarusian conditions for a long time.
Despite the fact that Lukashenko has been in power for fourteen years, his support seems to be relatively high. What’s the reason?
In the course of years, the dynamics of regime support went through a considerable development. Six, or rather, seven years ago, the support of the current president was low, afterwards a period of continual economic growth followed. Thus the support was increased. Researches conducted by independent sociologists confirm that the support of the regime has been sinking at present, anyway, general public can hardly learn about these researches. Therefore Belarusian society doesn’t know what’s going on in itself. Nevertheless, a decrease in support doesn’t endanger the power either because the people don’t simply believe that changes in Belarus are conceivable. On the contrary, they believe that if they start protesting too much, they will get into trouble.
Nonetheless, Belarus lies on the most important European routes. It isn’t a state which is able to exist in isolation from the long-term point of view. Why doesn’t this factor contribute positively to changes?
Belarus is perceived by Moscow to be the western bastion of Russia. Political repressions in the Soviet Union of the 1930’s may serve as an example. Approximately 20 per cent of the Russian intelligentsia, around 50 per cent of the Ukrainian one and as many as 80 per cent of the Belarusian one were exterminated in this period. That time Moscow knew well that it needed absolutely loyal regions on its western borders. That’s why geographic position isn’t always a factor of Belarus’ democratisation and liberalisation.
What kind of impulses could lead to the mobilisation of Belarusian society?
It’s difficult to speak of impulses, but there’s an extensive transformation of values going on in Belarusian society. Our research proves that a new system of requirements, addressed by the citizens to the state, has appeared. These requirements don’t pertain solely to material welfare but also to the respect for human dignity, human rights etc. Belarusian society has been transforming itself. In Belarus, there is an absence of ideology which legitimises or delegimitises authoritarian regimes and by means of which it would be possible to form a moral resistance to dictatorship. This task was fulfilled by national awareness in the context of Central and Eastern Europe. Therefore all democratic revolutions within the region were national revolutions at the same time. In view of historical facts, similar phenomenon is absent in Belarus. As for public moods and preferences, however, the Belarusians don’t actually differ very much from the citizens of other states with more advanced democracy. Nevertheless, the moral impulse, which motivates the citizens to democratic and civil activities as well as the resistance to dictatorship, is missing.
Is it possible to label the so-called state ideology constituted by President Lukashenko in 2003 as a kind of nationalism?
No. It’s a strategy for the neutralisation of nationalism as an alternative ideology. The objective is to replace nationalism by a kind of “ersatz-patriotism” which is supposed to establish itself in Belarusian society.
You have mentioned the transformation of values within the society. Anyway, the power, which is capable of presenting this change, i.e. the political opposition, has a gradually weaker position in political life. It’s a bit of paradox, isn’t it?
The regime simply has been privatising these values making thus the opposition useless in fact. In the past, it used to be simple. Lukashenko was a traitor who wanted to surrender Belarus to Russia and his opponents fought for independence. At present, this scheme doesn’t hold true since Lukashenko himself defends independence. Then what is the opposition supposed to speak of?
Do you think that Lukashenko really turned into an adherent of independence?
I don’t think so, however, public discourse has undergone a transformation.
Where is actually the difference between Lukashenko in 2008 and Lukashenko in 2001?
Belarusian society has changed. Lukashenko is pretty well aware that today, partially different policy, which would enable him to remain in power and maintain the support of the society, is needed. For example, the difference consists in the fact that certain humanisation of the state is under way. The state becomes more simple and understandable for citizens. There is a partial debureaucratisation going on. The Belarusian state responses very sensitively to any politicised protests which aren’t politicised and simultaneously organised by the opposition. It means that there’s a feedback mechanism between Lukashenko’s regime and the society.
Lukashenko has announced several economic reforms this year. Will they mean a shift in the existing policy of the Belarusian Government?
It’s not possible to speak of economic reforms but a process of adaptation to altered external conditions. For example, the system of egalitarianism as regards remuneration persists. Pressure to make changes pertains to branches where connected with a mass outflow of labour force, for instance, building industry. In Belarus, nobody has motivation to work at a construction site for three hundred dollars when in Russia people can get one and a half thousand dollars.
What is the relation of the Belarusians to their country’s independence like? Would you be ready to give it up, for example, in exchange for cheap gas and unite with Russia?
It’s essential that it is the elites and not citizens that deal with these questions. However, the elites aren’t prepared for something like that at present.
You’ve said that Belarusian elites orientate themselves towards the country’s independence. Then why does the contemporary regime suppress Belarusian culture including the Belarusian language?
For the regime, independence is crucial due to other reasons than for the nationalists. The regime is in need of independent power, not an independent national state. The idea of nation itself is at variance with current regime. The idea of nation is based on the self-organisation of citizens. The self-organisation of citizens represents a total disaster for Lukashenko. The idea of Belarusian nationalism is based on European values. These values delegitimise authoritarian power.
Can the existence of an independent state become the platform of consensus inside Belarusian society and the basis for the constitution of joint national interest?
This process has already been under way. Consensus on independence has already been reached, however, everyone understands it differently.
In Belarus, a new generation has already appeared which enters politics and takes up state functions. It’s a generation which doesn’t remember the Soviet era. Why does it remain loyal to the regime which is based on a flurry of post-Soviet nostalgia?
This generation doesn’t remember anything else but Lukasheno’s era. In its case the brainwash has been in reality much more efficient than in the case of the older generation. From this point of view Lukashenko’s regime can be regarded as successful. Possible shift in the older generation’s orientation poses far more serious threat to the regime than the arrival of the new generation. The older generation is more critical of the regime because it remembers promises which Lukashenko made in the period of power assumption.
Relatively numerous demonstrations were held in Minsk after the 2006 presidential elections. Have these events affected contemporary Belarusian politics?
Some memories of these events linger on, but the so-called Belarusian Majdan (according to Ukrainian Majdan nezaležnosti where the co-called Orange Revolution was held – authorial comment) hasn’t left any significant trace because most of its participants left the country for abroad.
There has been a shift in top power structures in Russia recently. New President Dmitry Medvedev is an adherent of market principles also in terms of relations with Belarus. May this have an influence also on the development of home affairs in Belarus?
Certainly! Putin proposed clumsily the Belarusians to unite with Russia. Medvedev belongs to another generation. He doesn’t speak any other language but the language of money. Anyway, Russia didn’t use to perceive Belarus as something which wasn’t Russia. In Russian eyes Belarus is still a part of Russia, its province, a protectorate which it is supposed to bear responsibility for. That’s why certain support of Lukashenko will be preserved also during Medvedev’s rule. Of course, there will be the reinforcement of market principles within mutual relations. Although the Belarusians still display deep affection for Russia, they supported Russian team at Euro 2008 football championship, when it comes to economic matters, they start to hate it.
What will be the impact of the explosion at a concert in Minsk during a national holiday on 3rd July, 2008, on Belarusian politics like?
The impacts will have first and foremost the form of repression reinforcement because the explosion referred to the helplessness of special services. They simply had to manifest the power, not only towards the opposition. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to speak of the impact on current power structures, however, an atmosphere of fear has been stirred up within the society. Repression intensification aimed against the opposition has been expected, but the power decided to intimidate everyone. KGB members have been penetrating the state apparatus while people from interior ministry and border troops have been defecting to KGB. Lukashenko has been intimidating the representatives of power structures as well.