Requiem for a Dialog or Unaccomplished Play for Mechanical Brussels

By Vitali Silitski

At the height of the bloodshed at the Independence Square I received a phone call. An acquaintance of mine working with European structures put it point-blank: who might be responsible for the onslaught on the Government Building? Judging by the tone of voice one might presume that the first idea was about provocation on the part of the opposition candidates aiming at disrupting the dialog between Lukashenka and the EU. I had to shout back that I am standing right there, on the Square and ready to vow that I heard the opposition leaders calling on the crowd to refrain from provocations and that the windows were definitely “glazed” by provokers.

The whole affair makes one draw historical analogies one of which, setting ablaze the Reichstag, was aired simultaneously and independently of each other by dozens of analysis and observers. Of course, there are numerous theories as to when and how emerged the scenario of the absolutely avoidable forceful dispersal of the manifestation with the ensuing total oppression of the civil society. It might be that similar plans are always drawn just in case. It is also possible that what had happened reflected struggle for power among those close to Lukashenka and symbolized victory of the power faction. One might argue as to whether everything was decided beforehand or on the spur of the moment on Dec. 19 (information that the West will not recognize the elections no matter what, skillful “burning of bridges” by way of assaulting Nyakliayeu, the size of the crowd on the streets turning off any further liberalization games). What matters is that the system could be provoked into forceful comeback in a snap – it was enough pushing pressure points of the system’s principal protagonist, awaken the fears preventing him from building rational plans and concepts. Close to Lukashenka “doves of peace” have to explain extensively why he needs bargaining with the West and mocking liberalization whereas the hawks need to scare him a little to convince that both bargaining and mocking liberalization are superfluous.

Extrapolating political analogies from beginning of the 20th century the Belarus-European dialog, in essence, was a non-aggression pact between the parties that sooner or later would be disrupted by a conflict. Participants and advocates of the process (your obedient author among them) emerged in the role of a collective Stalin letting the main blow slipping through or, at best, of Gapon the priest (similar accusations are abundant: many people came to the square lulled by the liberal atmosphere and by the fact that it was long since anyone beat people up on the streets). It is true, the December 19 events dispersed many illusions. But let us identify them. Same as those who failed when hoping for changes through entangling Lukashenka into European processes those initiating their election campaigns by visiting Kremlin cabinets and Russia’s secret service round tables failed as well. Neither Europeans, nor moskali helped (Alyaksandr Fiaduta in one of his latest posts expressed his fears of the perspective of recognizing the elections as fair by those “bitches” from the European Union. Elections were recognized, but by different “bitches”). Speaking of illusions that a few opposition’s acts of courage on the “night of miracles” (first night after elections when, until Dec. 19, nobody dared to beat up anyone) would be enough to topple the regime striking some important institution… I wonder whether KGB snowed people in custody into believing that secret services are about to abandon Lukashenka in favor of the protesting? And whether along with cold-blooded schemes of the structures of power the opposition was not misguided by its naïve belief into its own Padaliak-style theories that there actually were 60,000 people on the square and not 15-20,000 (out of which only 7-10,000 made it to the Government Building), that nomenclature is on the brink of the coup d’état and that militia really abandoned the city? This is speaking of Gapons.

But let us change the subject. The dialog supporters probably nourished no illusions as to Lukashenka’s regime transformation the same as irreconcilable opposition (Sannikau, Nyakliayeu, Statkevich) regarding Russia’s willingness to democratize Belarus (and let us remind the reader that the former and the latter were prompted by departure from the old opposition’ delusion that seems to be creeping back – that a total economic collapse is about to break out and it will put an end to Lukashenka). By the way the “entanglement” policy meant harping the same strings of conflict with Russia that the radical opposition planned to use. The task of depriving Lukashenka of the elegant victory was accomplished by opposition independently of whether all candidates aimed at that. However there is every evidence to believe that Lukashenka just tossed his elegant victory from his pocket – if the establishment had announced his victory by 72% and refrained from violence on the night of elections Europe might have not recognized the elections in full, but it would have continued the dialog. Of course it was possible that the authorities just attempted to maximize its capital – provoke violence on the part of the opposition and get Europe’s backing while putting the opponents in jail. And judging by that same telephone call above some of those in Brussels were ready for similar developments. Nevertheless through the reasons cited by many, the establishment opted for freeing itself from psychological fetters it got itself into in the course of relative liberalization. Violence on the Independence Square can only be fully comprehended provided the tormenting months of contemplating the obedient society getting out of control and a burning desire to take vengeance for that are considered. Many arrests and detentions could only be explained by this desire to avenge.

There was no illusion as to Lukashenka and his ability to change. In all my textbooks it said unequivocally: authoritarian regimes may not be transformed. Our participation in the dialog was not an attempt to deceive history or its laws. We realized well that borrowing some of the opposition’s slogans through tactical considerations (independence, steering towards Europe, economic liberalization) it will be impossible to discuss the most important aspect – democracy. And even the unprecedented liberalization of September – November, 2010 was suspicious like a lull at the border. I remember well the jokes among colleagues. Someone while mentioning lack of restrictions cited Mao: “Let a hundred flowers bloom”. “Yeah”, your obedient author said, “and then to cut them all with a lawn mower”. In general black humor was in abundance. “Why Lukashenka is tolerating the criticism?” “He fattens the calf”. Someone contemplated Chinese-style reforms… “Well, well… Then we have to wait for Tian-an-men.”

Core illusions pertained not to Lukashenka’s ability to reform, but to feasibility of protracting the liberal period in Belorussian political drama as long as possible. This pause was much required by all those looking for change in Belarus, even by those who had been oppressing the European “realpolitik” and stigmatized negotiators. It was not Lukashenka, but Belorusians themselves who needed to be drawn into Europe!!! All of us, independently of our affiliation with radical or moderate wing, we won when the atmosphere of fear diminished, when the territory of freedom slowly, but surely expanded, when there emerged new civil initiatives, when significant part of the state machinery’s mentality started to change, when society regained its interest in politics. It was worth our efforts though blamed by many of our colleagues for what looked like a cynical bargaining and unscrupulous, at first glance, compromises (though we always invited to a dialog on principles).

The course towards dialog was a square peg in a round hole of the “regime change” concept. We strived for a “mindset change” and the irony (tragedy) of what has happened consists exactly in that the above changes started. Let us recollect what happened in the country over the last three-four years. There emerged more or less legitimate space for civil initiatives unthinkable of back in 2003-2006. Public life slowly opens up. Intellectual life livened up. New cultural processes and platforms for dialog on the country’s future revealed themselves. Barriers between the power and the public started collapsing. A ban on dissidents on the arts stage was lifted. The mere necessity to imitate economic reforms transformed the state machinery qualitatively, changed attitudes of the some officials paving the way for a dialog and for reforms in perspective. Economic liberalization also proceeded to a certain degree and the dialog between the power and entrepreneurs was forming itself. We always underscored, wrote and insisted that all of these changes are halved, forced and reversible. There was no illusion; we just supported these changes whereas our more radical colleagues insisted that the changes only let off steam. In truth the steam was there, accumulating within the society that was getting rid of its fear. More precisely, the cost of demonstrating your disagreement with the status quo dropped substantially of a period of time. By the way, many noticed that on Dec. 19 the streets were filled not with inveterate opposition, not with NGO-based civil society, but with true and honest middle class that forms basis of any democracy. They were young enough people, but not adolescents. They were making decent living, not hog-tied by social contract. Obviously they had access to Internet and an opinion of their own that they were ready to allow themselves. The unprecedented post-Dec. 19 tide of solidarity was based mainly on politically unaffiliated people who nevertheless developed the civil culture that turns atomized society into a civil one.

With “liberal” athese individuals would quite make up a social contract group (you [Lukashenka] give us a chance to make money, travel, navigate the web and scold you in the kitchen, and we do not ask for trouble). With authoritarian Lukashenka at least some of those individuals became the actors of change. But such social transformations do not happen in veiled systems!

And here we encountered a realistic illusion we yielded in. A liberal pause in the Lukahsenka system was possible just because the system was sure it would not harm its bedrock and rather works for its strengthening than weakening. I.e. Lukashenka liberalization was only possible with tamed, no gut-and-fire civil society and puppet opposition (we believe, the very puppet behavior of the opposition at stage one of the election campaign eased the authorities reign, which it made so quickly and brutally short afterwards). Or the process of society’s getting rid of blinkers should have gone unnoticed and should not have frightened the authorities prematurely. But this became impossible. The authorities saw all, and understood all. And it takes that little to frighten the authorities compared with what it takes to overhaul it, given there is no need to frighten all the authorities chain, but rather one individual.

By December 2010 alternative political and civil society spread enough to show off as a real force, but it was not strong enough to show more than they were not a bunch of dissenters. And this is not even the case of a stronger opposition. The most unfortunate fact is that some people will be prosecuted for organizing mass disorders, while the question is—why could not they counter those perpetrators who actually staged disorder.

The critical mass of disagreement in society obviously went off and manifested on the streets and in this case a preemptive strike on the buds of thaw was inevitable, although we did want to avoid it.

Obviously, there was a different scenario on how to shrink liberalization, say, the way it was back in 2001—protracted but thorough ‘cleansing’ of all shoots, while Europe eyed this in silence as it was tied by terms and condition of dialogue.

December 19th was not imagined in any picture, even if violence on the election night (violence of that scale in general) never before took off in modern Belarus.

What happened (and is happening) does tar whatever dialogue between Belarus and the EU. First, it is difficult to imagine that those, in whose favor the idea of dialogue was initiated, and who were batoned and booted would not swear. Harm was done, and it was serious, so no wonder that the first ones to sic Lukashenka were those most lured and, so to speak, illusioned that Lukashenka might change. Second, actions backfired: the pendulum of repression is difficult to stop, even if there is a wish to (while there is no wish, actually), so sanctions against Belarus authorities are inevitable.

But will happen in a half year or a year? Will the EU find a recipe of sanctions and pressure to affect the Belarus authorities any? Is there that recipe altogether. If not in a half year we will hear some voices say the sanctions policy is ineffective. And we track back to a new dialogue. Thank God the agenda is ready—freedom to political detainees. Dialogue is a “default” policy, if you wish, when all other venues to somehow make change in Belarus have failed. And finally, a banal and never evaporating interest of many European countries to cooperate with Minsk.

Generally, we have this half year-one year pause in the dialogue we have to fill in and use it to the maximum, this momentum when Europeans feel somewhat guilty before Belarusian society and for being illusioned. What must be done first? Of course, to help the victims and repressed, their families, help carry out an independent investigation of what happened December 19, help the independent media and human rights orgs. Would be nice for the EU to not only punish vassals but also recognize Belarusians’ civil courage and European standard political conscience, say, in the form of free or light visas, expanded education programs for young Belarusians, expanded contacts and support to those social groups that made up the backbone to the 19 December civil action—students, young professionals, the middle class, in the form that would help develop the supporters of change into a critical mass.

In essence, transformation in Belarus is not pending on the form of affecting Lukashenka, but rather on the form of affecting Belarusian society. Thus, the “dialogue-sanctions” pendulum route might take some swings yet.