What's real in Belarus: the faking of democracy or the hope of revolution?

By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 23/03/06):

'Nah, still don't give a toss ..." was the response of someone styled "thedacs" to my appeal for participants in the Guardian's new Comment is free blog to think about Belarus. But the flood of other responses - more than 70 as I write this - showed that a lot of people do care about what's happening in that frosty pressure point between Russia and the EU. And how they disagree; and how little anyone knows what to do about it.

Obviously we should start from the reality of what's happening on the ground in Belarus. The trouble is that what's happening on the ground in Belarus is a contest over the definition, even the very nature, of that reality. The spokespeople and media of each side claim a certain reality, and their purpose is to create it.

As the post-Sovietologist Andrew Wilson demonstrates in his excellent book Virtual Politics, the Belarus of President Alexander Lukashenko is one of a new type of post-Soviet regime that retains power by what Wilson calls "faking democracy". At least as important as the KGB (still so called in Belarus) and the other organs of state power that arrest, intimidate or otherwise get rid of opposition leaders are the so-called "political technologists", private Russosphere agencies with names such as Nikkolo-M (M for Machiavelli) and Image-Kontakt. They devise ruthless, machiavellian election strategies that make Alastair Campbell look like one of the more genteel members of the Mothers' Union. Then a group of election monitors from the former Soviet Union, headed by a former Russian interior minister, declares the resulting elections "free, open and transparent". Black is white; or rather, in the post-Soviet version, dark grey is light grey. Anything but orange.

On the other side, opposition leaders, helped by European and American advisers, work to create an inspiring narrative of a nation rising up to free itself from the dictatorial yoke. In the internet age, you can follow this narrative on websites such as that of the Charter 97 group, founded in conscious tribute to the Czechoslovak Charter 77 movement. On www.charter97.org you have, minute by minute, a story of "dozens of thousands" of demonstrators defying snow, ice and the police on the Sunday night of a fraudulent election. A "10,000-strong column" has become "40,000" (an estimate far larger than that given by any foreign journalist) by 4.05 on Monday morning. "Today we are born in a different country - a more courageous and free country," declares the lead post later that morning, calling for people to reassemble in October Square. "Call your relatives, friends, colleagues, come with your families. We are the majority, and we shall win!"

But they are not the majority. Most independent observers agreed that these elections were very far from free and fair, and that President Lukashenko is unlikely in reality to have got his claimed 82.6% of the vote on a 92.6% turnout. Yet most also believe that the elusive, contested reality of votes actually cast for him was probably well above 50%. And that's not just the snap impression of visiting journalists. The Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexeyevich, for example, who calls Lukashenko a dictator whose time has passed, also observes: "A large percentage of people in this society agree with what is taking place in the country. It means they can earn a living somewhere, there is some quota for them in institutions of higher learning, there is still some education and healthcare free of charge." And an economy apparently flourishing on cheap imported Russian energy.

That said, we cannot know what the majority would have been had opposition leaders had equal access to relatively independent mass media, which they did not. So instead they are trying to create a new kind of "people power" majority with bodies on the streets, in the spirit of the 19th-century American president Andrew Jackson: "One man with courage makes a majority." And it takes courage to keep turning out on the streets of Minsk.

As I write this, it looks as if they are not succeeding, unlike their Ukrainian, Georgian and Serbian predecessors. The number of demonstrators seems to have diminished day by day, not grown, Ukrainian orange-style. A couple of hundred protesters are reportedly camping out in October Square, despite police harassment, and the opposition has called for another mass rally next Sunday, but the story in the international media is already "the revolution that wasn't". Perhaps it will still happen. Perhaps Lukashenko is crowing too soon that Belarus has resisted "the virus of colour revolution". But his statement, too, is about creating reality.

By this stage, some readers who know my earlier work may suspect that I've been infected with a nasty bout of post-modern relativism. Not at all. And there is no moral equivalence between Lukashenko and his opponents. But I insist that precisely those of us who care most about the European spread of freedom must be most careful not to confuse our wishes with reality. When, for example, the website of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (www.rferl.org) reports the Belarus story under a continuing headline "Overcoming Fear" I must point out that a question mark is missing. We must, above all, insist that, even in such a contest of virtual or potential realities, there's still an underlying bedrock of facts, however difficult to find; and we must stick to those facts. There are so many, and only so many, people locked up. There are so many, and only so many, bodies on the streets.

That's our first duty: to tell it as it is. Then there's interpretation. Three major lines of conflict meet in the Belarussian fulcrum. There's the line between democracy and dictatorship, which post-Soviet political technologists such as Nikkolo-M have made it their business to obscure; the clash of the advancing liberal empires of the west - the EU and American-led Nato - with the retreating empire of Russia; and the ongoing argument about the virtues of more free-market or "neoliberal" as against more statist, planned economies. These, for reasons of space, I'll return to another time. For beyond the facts, and the interpretation, there's always comrade Lenin's question: what is to be done?

Here, without for a moment confusing wishes with reality, I have an answer. There are many reasons for the different paths followed by Belarus's western and eastern neighbours since the end of the cold war - the Polish way and the Russian way - but one of the most fundamental is this: that the Poles wanted to join the EU and the EU made it clear the Poles could join if they met certain standards of democracy, the rule of law, market economy and so forth. Now it's the Poles - and Slovaks, Czechs, Lithuanians and other recently self-liberated Europeans - who, as new members of the EU, are saying we must do more to sustain the cause of freedom in places such as Belarus. Besides direct support for independent media, civil society and the democratic opposition, and pressuring the country's leaders, the most important thing we can do is to offer that long-term European perspective.

They are right. This is the corner of Belarus's reality we can directly and legitimately change. So if you do give a toss about Belarus, and you are a citizen of the EU, go blog your government till it hurts. And that includes you, "thedacs".