I have been reading with much interest Grigory Ioffe’s Understanding Belarus and How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Clumsy title, I know, but intriguing book. He deals with post-1991 Belarus, on language, independence, identity, economy and politics. Most intriguing is the treatment of the economy. If we are to believe the corporate media, if not economic ‘experts’, Belarus’s economy should have collapsed ages ago. Yet, throughout the 2000s the Belarusian economy actually grew, achieving 9.9 percent growth in 2006. How is this possible, especially in light of sanctions against Belarus? The country refused to undergo the ‘shock therapy’ imposed (and enthusiastically embraced by those who stood to gain) in neighbouring Russia, Ukraine and other parts of the former Eastern Bloc. The initial move to privatisation was blocked, with the aim of developing a ‘socially oriented market economy’. Thus, all of the main enterprises remain in state control, with only a quarter of the economy in private hands. Most Belarusians simply saw no sense in squandering the significant industrial base that had been built up during the USSR, as they also saw no sense in destroying universal health care, education and so on. Life had been steadily improving for decades, so why change it now? But did they really rely on Russian subsidies? Ioffe points out that Belarus has one of the most open trade policies, especially for its industrial products.
What about Alexander Lukashenka, who was first elected as president in 1994? The demonizations are myriad: ‘authoritarian cesspool’, ‘outpost of tyranny’, ‘bastard of Europe’ and the usual ‘last dictator or Europe’. Yet, Ioffe convincingly shows that Lukashenka consistently has widespread popular support. He admits that a few extra votes may have appeared from somewhere, but even without them, observers admit that he would have won the presidential elections anyway. So what is his secret? He is of humble rustic origins, speaking in the way of normal people (before he became president, he was the director of a collective farm). He has also presided over steady economic growth that is agreed to be socially equitable, which even more remarkable given international efforts to ruin the economy. And he stands up for Belarus when needed (for instance, during the Russia-Belarus trade war of 2006-7). The intelligentsia hates him, mocking his mode of speech and his policies, but above all for depriving them of the power they feel is their birthright. By contrast, Lukashenka has an uncanny ability to sense what common people are feeling. As one of them put it, he is ‘our Sashka [an affectionate diminutive]; people have a gut feeling that he is their man’.