Alexei Bayer: Landscape after Lukashenko
A chorus of Russian politicians, propagandists, and ordinary concerned citizens on social media howl about the possibility of “another Maidan” in Minsk — i.e., a repeat of the Ukrainian EuroMaidan Revolution in Belarus. Despicable Margarita Simonyan, the head of Putin’s Russia Today propaganda outlet, even went as far as to demand that Russia send troops to the neighboring state to restore order— and to prevent a Belarus Maidan.
There is any number of problems with this idea, not the least of which is the fact that a Maidan in Belarus is already a fait accompli. A Maidan as a spontaneous popular protest against a “president for life” has already happened. Citizens of Belarus have declared unanimously that they are tired of living in a Soviet-era Disney theme park, and of being ruled by an evil buffoon, his family and lackeys even as their ex-communist neighbors enjoy democracy and growing prosperity, that they’re tired of oppression, corruption and lies.
As in Ukraine in 2013-14, when Ukrainians deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, the people of Belarus have become fearless. They are standing up to Alexander Lukashenko’s Totons Macoutes who are shooting at them, gassing them, beating them up, and dragging them off in prison. The people of Belarus are united, as men and women, workers and writers, the young and the old, the urban and the rural have joined forces to get rid of their mustachioed caudillo whom they now call Cockroach.
Moreover, a Maidan is happening in the Russian Far East, too, where the citizens of Khabarovsk have come down in the streets against Putin’s repressive kleptocracy.
Whether or not Lukashenko is chased out imminently, or Putin’s regime falls in the near future, these two Maidans are not only rocking their chairs but have started the countdown to their inevitable demise.
Even though Job One — getting rid of those two — has not been finished, it is time to ask where Belarus is going from here.
The people of Belarus are certainly united — but they are united against Lukashenka. What they are for is when problems will inevitably start.
In Ukraine, the ideals of the revolution now seem more a dream than reality. Of course, there is the Russian meddling, the annexation of Crimea and the war on the East. There is corruption — although it is by no means as terrible as some people claim — and the political influence of thuggish oligarchs.
But these problems are all set against the fundamental issue of political divisions and the absence of purpose. President Petro Poroshenko, who for all his faults shepherded the nation through a very difficult period, was swept out of office by another popular uprising, that one happening at the ballot box. The current Ukrainian leader, a comedian with no political experience, was elected by an astounding margin. He seems to be fairly rudderless and may be swept out of power in a similar fashion by a fickle electorate.
The problem for Belarus and Ukraine — and for post-Putin Russia as well — is that Western liberal democracy is itself in crisis and can hardly provide an example to emulate or a true helping hand. The United States, which was the champion of democracy in Europe throughout the postwar period, has become “the sick man of Planet Earth.”
Of course, America’s transformation has not been sudden — more like slow-moving cancer than galloping consumption. But with Washington now decidedly out of the game, it exposed a fundamental weakness within the EU. The purpose of United Europe has always been to bring peace to the world’s most belligerent continent. After centuries of bloodshed, EU founders decided that peace abroad starts with peace at home, achieved by representative government and social democracy.
Having emerged from the era of class warfare from the left and of blood-and-soil irrationality of the right, the EU relies on the rational decision of its members. It is geared toward conflict resolution, not confrontation or coercion. Faced with the resurgence of rightwing nationalistic irrationality within its own ranks, it simply isn’t set up to deal with it.
It is a nasty paradox — as well as a cautionary tale — that Hungary and Poland, the two nations that staged a popular rebellion against Soviet domination, have taken the sharpest turn away from liberalism and the rule of law. Brussels is not able to lean on its members in any meaningful way since the purpose of the European Union is to make love, not war. Washington, of course, has both the leverage and the ability to influence its allies, but it has shown less and less interest in promoting democracy around the world — or, for that matter, in safeguarding it at home.
Over the past four decades, American political discourse has shifted well to the right. The right-wing of the Republican Party has moved far into the irrational, toward marginal and fully demented conspiracy theories such as QAnon. But the left, too, has now become what ca. 1980 would have been regarded as mainstream conservatism. While the media insists that America is polarized between extremes of right and left, the reality is that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would have been denounced by today’s GOP as “the radical Left” of the Democratic Party.
Today Washington is normalizing nationalism and historical grievances everywhere and is leading an assault on liberal democracy. Stalin and Hitler hated liberalism more than they did each other’s ideology because its rationality interfered with their ideological fantasies. The new crop of illiberal rulers hate liberalism because in an open society they won’t be able to enrich themselves with impunity or hang on to power forever.
Otto von Bismarck (no liberal himself, but certainly not a kleptocrat of the current variety) defined politics as “the art of the possible.”. Democratic politics are certainly that — “the attainable, the art of the next best.” It is a constant compromise.
After seven decades we have grown too bored with the rational compromise and are increasingly opting for the irrational, which is where nationalist grievances squarely belong. Learning that such pipe dreams lead to poverty, suffering and death is a painful process. The lure of the irrational will not be dimmed until our societies suffer a massive shock.
In the meantime, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others who courageously overthrow their corrupt dictators may be doomed to be marooned in a kind of limbo, unable to fulfill the dream of living in a free and prosperous country. This is not a reason to put up with buffoonish tyrants, but it makes the countries’ path much more difficult than what Hungary and Poland faced in their time of transition, even as they are now so determined to squander their advantages.