24th Mar 2019


Lukashenka must embrace political opponents

That Alexander Lukashenka has done himself a major disservice and effectively given up on a real chance to put relations with Europe on a new footing hardly needs pointing out.

After the brutal and excessive attack by police on peaceful demonstrators on Sunday night, no European government has the grounds, let alone the will, to boost relations with Belarus and its frontman, even though just such a boost seemed realistic and feasible only less than a week ago.

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The president has traded a foreign policy loss for a perceived domestic gain. After all, the protesters have been dissipated, and the electoral coup nipped in the bud. Minsk is quiet, discussion of the election is, apparently, over.

But the handling of the protest march is a long-term loss for Mr Lukashenka in domestic terms, too.

The official line is to marginalise the protesters as a bunch of despicable bandits and hooligans attempting to disrupt the otherwise peaceful life of the Belarusian people. The vilification of the president's opponents and their exclusion from the political discourse undermines his main political project - the creation of a new Belarusian national identity.

Alexander Lukashenka has stayed in power against all economic and foreign policy odds because he gave unto the Belarusians a functioning sovereign state, something they have never had in modern history. State sovereignty is a magic wand for the hardy president, allowing him to dismiss both foreign and domestic pressure as a threat to the treasured and hard-fought-for Belarusian statehood.

But the wand's power is on the wane as state sovereignty evolves from a policy goal into an attained status quo, and a new task looms.

Having delivered Belarusians a state, Mr Lukashenka now has to deliver them a nation if he is to stay at the helm. With sovereignty having been secured both on the international stage and in people's personal perceptions (over 80 percent of Belarusians consistently consider themselves to be citizens of Belarus and support state independence), Belarusians now need a shared sense of purpose and direction.

This, in turn, is derived from a sense of belonging to one nation and from the understanding of its particular identity. Belarusians have two sources of national identity: a medieval one and a Soviet one, but neither, even the Soviet one that Mr Lukashenka initially exploited, can live up to today's realities. Signs of national soul-searching are emerging in all walks of life in today's Belarus, including the state-sponsored debate about improving the country's image abroad.

A crucial pre-condition for a creating genuine sense of civic national identity is that it must appeal to everyone and to cut across political, economic, social and ethnic disions. Unlike with politics where different 'truths' are possible, no one group can or should lay claim to representing the nation in opposition to others in the same country. Such exclusions are destructive to the state. The universal nature of the appeal is in this way lost, politics becomes groundless.

Alexander Lukashenka has an amazing political survival instinct which has led him through some very intricate predicaments. It must now show him how to reach out and co-opt his dissenters in a way that is meaningful to them, instead of marginalising them as in the current, simplistic, strategy.

Crushed dissent is still dissent, and independent polls suggest that 'dissidents' make up some 25 percent of Belarusian society. A person in power who ignores and oppresses a quarter of the population is anything but a national leader.

By crushing the opposition, President Lukashenka put years of diplomatic efforts on the European front into the rubbish bin. To avoid another failure, he needs to find the will and the way to embrace his opponents. This is a hard thing to accept and to do, but surely this is the very thing Mr Lukashenka's own instincts are telling him just now.

Dr Natalia Leshchenko is an analyst at the London-based Institute for State Ideologies

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