Thursday, March 30, 2006
OSCE election observer visits Soviet theme park
Interesting and thoughtful stuff...
BELARUS - SOVIET THEME PARK
I observed the elections in Klimovicheskii - a rural rayon in Mogilev oblast on the border with Russia. In the center of the rayon town is a tsarist era church recently refurbished with funds from a local patron. But this patron is not the head of the local vodka factory or the director of one of the many large farms in the
area but someone with much more wealth and power in contemporary Belarus - a general in the "organs" (the KGB).
Belarus represents the best and the worst of the late Soviet era. Lukashenka has done virtually everything to bring back the feeling of the Soviet era except to revive the Party. The old Soviet era Belarus flag was brought back in 1995. Two years ago, the "department of information" in the rayon administration changed its name to the "department of ideology" (even though it is not at all clear what exactly that ideology is). In addition, Lukashenka has revived the numerous Soviet era transmission belt government directed "social organizations" - including a youth organization that is informally referred to as the "Lukomol" (Lukashenka + Komsomol), trade unions, veterans' organizations, and a union of women - that work to mobilize support for the regime. These groups were actively involved in "observing" the elections (by which I mean sitting in the back of the room looking bored and staring into space or harassing me while I tried to observe voting). One particular virulent woman from the "Union of Women" would not stop yelling at me when I asked how many people had voted so far at a particular station. "I am not allowed to ask that question!! You can't ask that question!"
Most importantly, the economy remains overwhelmingly state managed (80% is the most
commonly cited figure). In Klimovicheskii rayon, not even the cafes were private. The
head of the department of ideology noted though that there was one private enterprise that
produces railway ties. "But of course, we still make sure that they follow a production
plan," she told us, "It is key that they meet production targets and increase output each
Such government control is key to regime survival. Large sections of the population are on short term contracts that must be reviewed each year (although I was told that more
"reliable" people are given five year contracts in some enterprises). Almost everyone I talked to noted a general fear of getting fired should they demonstrate opposition to the regime. Almost all of the opposition people I spoke with are either officially unemployed or work for foreign companies or have small private trading enterprises. (When asked why no opposition was included in the election commissions, the head of
the CEC responded that they were all unemployed and therefore hardly able to take on such responsibility. But of course this is not accidental). To be an oppositionist in Belarus, you have to be willing to give up a great deal. As one activist in Mogilev noted, "Economics dictates politics."
At the same time, Belarus is - by post-Soviet standards - profoundly functional. The streets are clean. Salaries are mostly paid on time. Corruption seems to be relatively in check (again by post-Soviet standards) The buildings are painted and (mostly) heated. There are no people selling items on the street as in most other post-Soviet cities I have been to. Remarkably, the small stores near subway stations only sell what they say they sell. Whereas a "newsstand" in Ukraine or Russia includes everything from pirated CDs to toothpaste to condoms, a "newsstand" in Belarus only sells, well newspapers. It brought me right back to the USSR! Also, no one jaywalks (a problem for me a
But the most remarkable thing is that -even in the small rural villages where I spent most of my trip - the roads are in amazing shape. In Ukraine or Russia (not to mention Georgia or Azerbaijan) any visit to rural areas requires hours of careful driving over craters and rocks often referred to as "road." Here by contrast, almost all of the roads were flat and in remarkable shape.
Throughout my stay, Belarusian TV was constantly airing "documentaries" (such as "America without greasepaint") that reviewed everything bad that the US government has done since 1960 - all in a bewildering order - first bombing in Kosovo in
1999 and then beating up civil rights activists in Alabama in the 1960s and then bombing Cambodia in the 1970s and then invading Iraq in 2003 and then sponsoring the 1973 Chilean coup in 1973 - all in a half hour. Other shows focused on how bad life is in neighboring Poland - interviews with marginal Polish figures such as Tyminsky talking about poverty in poverty. (This stuff seems to have been effective. Several Belarusians
reiterated this material to me in polling stations)
The most striking feature of the election was the almost total absence of any election advertising anywhere. The opposition was not allowed to put ads on billboards or plaster leaflets. Nor were they allowed to print ads in papers or on TV or radio. The government only allowed limited production of leaflets paid for by the state. The only exposure given the opposition were two half hour (and censored) appearances on TV and the right to print the election program in the state papers (although the main opposition candidate Milinkevich was denied this limited right because it was claimed that he did not submit the program in time).
Particularly in Mogilev, there was an overwhelming atmosphere of fear. The heads of the
campaign in the oblast capital were arrested and the one campaign activist I found had stopped sleeping at home or going to the office for fear of arrest (before the election 10 of
Milinkevich's official representatives had been arrested throughout Belarus). The
opposition leaders had been charged with unsanctioned campaign demonstrations (which
according to one law require a permit 15 days in advance). Also, several activists were arrested for "swearing in public." They were held for 10-15 days and only released after the election. Another tactic of the government was to arrest people distributing leaflets (the ones printed officially by the government!!) and release them after 3 hours - making it extremely hard to campaign in any way. Traveling to numerous polling stations, I literally was unable to find a single representative of the opposition (How different from Ukraine!!).
In order to meet with an oppositionist in Klimovicheskii rayon, I was told to remove my
OSCE arm band and follow him deep into the woods to a small clearing (passing a building, he said "we can't talk here, there is a phone in that building. Someone might call the police.")
OPPOSITION PROTESTS - BORROWED TACTICS, PITIFUL RESULTS
On Monday and Tuesday, I attended to the protests that took place in the center of Minsk. In many ways, it felt extremely reminiscent of the orange revolution in Ukraine - a unified and entirely peaceful opposition, rock music, tents, happy youths waving opposition flags, and freezing cold weather (half of the square has been turned into an ice rink - which made attending the demonstration a tad treacherous). All of this made me incredibly nostalgic of the Ukrainian events. But of course, the crowds have been much, much smaller (5-6,000 at most when I was there Monday night). One problem is that the opposition relies on the non-Soviet Belarusian symbols and flags. These
things simply have no resonance for most of the population.