On Sunday the Belarusian Union of Left Parties was created. Its delegates came to the Ukrainian town Charnihau (Chernihiv) - the Belarusian authorities would never allow such a gathering. It is not the first time the Belarusian splintered left political scene tries to unite. Will it be a success?

The Union united three opposition parties – the Party of the Belarusian Social-Democratic Hramada, the Party of the Communists of Belarus and the Women’s Party “Nadzeja” (‘hope’). Aliaksandr Kazulin, a political prisoner and one of the Lukashenka’s rivals during the 2006-presidential election, has been elected its leader.

Can you win over the neo-soviet populist Lukashenka, waving a socialist flag? The answer is not as easy, as it seems. In order to find it, one should look deep into the past of our nation.

Escape from the empire – the social-democratic nature of the opposition

The 18th and the 19th century were the time, when the Belarusian people were subdued to the power of the Kremlin rulers. Gone were the centuries of the relative medieval democracy in the Great Duchy of Lithuania and in the Polish Kingdom. The two centuries of the authoritarian Russian rule brought repression and stifling of freedoms. After being in the middle of a big and powerful state, the Belarusian land turned into the western province of an empire.

Similar to many other peoples of the Russian empire, the Belarusians eventually came to an idea, that instead of being a part of tsarist Russia, it should make much more sense to organize their own life in their own national state. When I write “Belarusians” I mean Belarusian intellectuals in the first place. Thus, the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries gave a powerful start to the ideas, which are still topical for the Belarusian opposition today.

During the Tsar times the Belarusian opposition was social-democratic in its nature. It criticized the monarchy and raised its voice in support of the poor common Belarusian folk. If you read the issues of „Nasha Niva“ of that time, you will probably notice the social-democratic tone in the voice of its authors.

In 1918, with the creation of the Belarusian People’s Republic, these dreams seemed to have come true – Belarus became independent.

Living under the socialism

Still, the history took this chance away, and independent Belarus was swept away by the communist wave, which has covered it for more than 70 years.

The socialistic idea was abused by the soviets to such an extent, that it became a synonym to the brutal and inhuman regime, created in the Soviet Union. Practically all leading Belarusian intellectuals, including social democrats, have been physically eliminated. The very idea of Belarus being independent was turned criminal and then was simply erased out of people’s minds. The USSR would be forever – so it seemed.

The comeback of the opposition – as “nationalists”

In the mid-80’s the idea of Belarusian independence was revived. It all started as a protest of a group of civic activists against the oppression of the Belarusian culture by the Soviet regime, was powered by discovering the Stalin crimes, propelled by the government’s concealment of the Chernobyl catastrophe and ended with Belarus proclaiming its political independence in 1990 (this happened before (!), not after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991). This time, however, the opposition faced not the conservative monarchy, but the rotten soviet socialistic system. No wonder, the new opposition democrats turned to such liberal values as the free market economy and to such conservative or even rightist ideas as the revival of the Belarusian statehood and culture. If the old soviet elite threatened the people with the “nationalists” by drawing an equal sign between them and the fascists, then the opposition activists proudly called themselves nationalists, underlining their desire to work for the benefit of their newly independent country.

Lukashenka as “the only true socialist”

Aliaksandr Lukashenka came to the power as a populist, who promised to fight corruption, restore the Soviet Union and – most important – to make the common folk prosper. By promising the things, he could never possibly accomplish, Lukashenka nevertheless deceived the people and stole all the basis from the social democrats. As more or less honest people, they simply couldn’t promise so much - and lost their popularity.

During the whole 12-year rule of Lukashenka the opposition (at least the most active part of it, which actually managed to get people to the streets) tended to proclaim ideas, which seemed to be conservative rather than social-democratic. Lukashenka re-created a soviet centralized economy – the opposition demanded economic liberalization. Lukashenka seized powers – the opposition demanded the political decentralization and reinstalling the Western democracy of checks and balances. Lukashenka strived to unify Belarus with Russia – and the opposition fiercely protested, demanding not just the independence, but turning the Belarus’ face towards the West. That is why the conservative wing of the opposition was more or less solid – their supporters would never vote for Lukashenka. The left wing, however, was permanently splintered and virtually non-existent – their potential supporters were believed to be the Lukashenka’s electorate.

Belarus: brutal market economy under the socialist mask

What’s different now?

First, the Lukashenka-Yeltsin idea of unifying Russia and Belarus seem to have failed. What seemed to be imminent then is nearly impossible now – the momentum is lost.

Lukashenka hoped that the Union would allow him to play in the Russian political field – as a forward. This is something Putin wants the least. Instead, the present Kremlin master wants to re-create the Soviet empire under a liberal Russian mask. Or, if not the empire, then at least its sphere of influence.

All that means, that kicking around the “back to the USSR” ball does not have much sense anymore. Having lost on the Eastern front, the Lukashenka’s regime is desperately looking for the ways to prolong its existence. With Russia pressing on Belarus with gas and oil prices, the Belarusian regime gets more and more anti-Russian and nationalistic (in the political and economical, not the cultural way).

Second, the system of Lukashenka less and less reminds of the true socialism. Instead, some kind of brutal market system is being developed. It’s not just a centralized soviet economy. It’s more like a huge corporation, exploiting its minor workers – the Belarusian population. Just take a look at the new Belarusian contract system – most of the people working for the state-owned enterprises and organizations (the majority of the population) are employed on the basis of 1 or 2-year contracts. If you don’t behave yourself (take part in a strike, get involved into a political activity) or simply have to be fired to let someone else take your job – the contract is not prolonged. What is this, if not the ugliest side of a wild market? A country with the monthly loans under $300 and the Western European prices, Belarus does not even nearly remind of a socialistic paradise.

With Lukashenka turning more and more nationalistic and capitalistic, it will be more and more difficult for him to fool people into believing that they live in a fair society. This also mean a hard time for the liberal opposition – why would a factory worker want to live in a free market economy, when even a “socialist” economy is so unfair? And the conservatives would also have difficulties explaining why the national pride and culture is important, when a young family can not afford to rent a modest apartment.

This may be the time for the new social-democrats to speak up and show the unfairness of the regime. Will the Union of the Left Parties manage to do that? Will it strengthen the left wing of the united opposition or break it into two parts? Will it be an actual political force, or another pseudo-movement, “sucking” financial grants from the Western (or Eastern) donors? One thing is clear: the social-democratic movement is needed for the country, and there are better conditions for it to emerge now, than ever before during these 12 years.

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