Stephen Shenfield: In the 1990s I made visits to five of the new post-Soviet republics – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan. I got the impression that the situation for working people in Belarus was relatively tolerable. Only in Belarus did I find no evidence of people engaged in a desperate struggle to survive. The regime was authoritarian but enjoyed wide support. There were no serious ethnic conflicts.
How accurate was my impression? And how has the situation changed since then?
Dmitry Kosmachev: You are quite right. Even today things are better here in Belarus than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. In Belarus, unlike Russia and other republics, large-scale privatization of factories, land, and farms has not taken place. Soviet-era industry has not been dismantled and is still competitive. Our trucks, tractors, and buses are bought not only by post-Soviet states but also by some Third World countries. We import our dairy products from other former Soviet republics, not from the EU. We even continue to export clothes and shoes to other former Soviet republics, despite the ubiquity of cheap Chinese imports.
This situation is reflected in our social structure. For one thing, we have preserved a large industrial working class. And with industry remaining in the hands of the state Belarus, unlike Russia and Ukraine, has no ‘oligarchs’ – extremely rich capitalists who influence politics and create their own parties. The levels of crime and corruption are relatively low here, thanks in part to tough measures. The death penalty still exists in Belarus.
SS: Would you say then that Belarus has a more just society than Russia and Ukraine?
DK: No, the preponderance of state capitalism in Belarus does not make it a welfare state. For example, Russia has more progressive labour legislation than we do. In Russia there are several alternative trade union federations, while Belarus has only one trade union independent of the state. It was created and registered under Lukashenko’s predecessors. In Belarus it is almost impossible to conduct a strike in compliance with the formal requirements of labour law. Russian law requires an employer who wants to dismiss a worker to provide two weeks’ warning and three months’ severance pay, while most Belarusian workers are employed on the basis of short-term – usually annual — labour contracts, so that at the end of the year they can be fired without benefits, simply by not renewing their contract.
There has been partial privatization in Belarus. Fully state-owned enterprises have been transformed into joint-stock companies in which the majority of shares are held by the state and a minority by the director. This gives the director a financial interest in the performance of the enterprise, but he remains dependent on the state and can always be dismissed if deemed disloyal.
SS: How has the political situation changed since the 1990s?
DK: Lukashenko did have wide support in the 1990s. He did not need to cheat in order to win elections. People were afraid of what was happening in Russia and Ukraine – the destruction of the Soviet-era economy, the instability, the rising crime, the corruption. In Belarus industrial enterprises continued to operate. Crime was low, as I said.
At that time the opposition did not have wide support. They were nationalist intellectuals with an orientation toward Poland. Nor were they very honest. In fall 2001 the following joke made the rounds:
Who launched the attack on the World Trade Center? The Belarusian opposition, so as not to have to account for grants received from the US government.
In the presidential election of September 2001 Lukashenko inflicted a crushing defeat on the opposition candidate.
But as they say, ‘dripping water wears away the stone.’ There grew up a new generation of young people. They often travelled to Poland and Lithuania – countries that have close historical connections with Belarus – and there they saw a completely different level of freedom. Meanwhile Lukashenko was coming to resemble a Latin American dictator. He started to take his youngest son Nikolai with him everywhere he went. The boy is now 17 years old. This, clearly, is our Kim Jong Un.
The protests that followed Lukashenko’s victory in the presidential election of 2006, influenced by similar protests in Ukraine, showed that by then the opposition had acquired a broader base. Many previously ‘non-political’ students took part. They set up a tent camp on Kalinovsky Square, one of the central squares of Minsk. It stood there two weeks before being brutally broken up by special police.
SS: What led up to the current protests?
The presidential election of 2020 was carefully prepared. Would-be candidates whom Lukashenko considered serious rivals were barred from standing. Thus he did not allow the registration of Viktor Babariko, former chairman of the board of Belgazprombank (Belarus Gas Industry Bank), which has links to the huge Russian gas company Gazprom. The famous blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who also intended to stand, was arrested on farfetched charges.
All the same, Lukashenko needed a sparring partner, a rival whom he would easily defeat. He thought that a woman would be a weak candidate – men would never vote for her – so he allowed the registration of Sergei Tikhanovsky’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. But it turned out that voters were fed up with Lukashenko and most were willing to vote for a woman. The president and his team falsified the results. According to the official figures, Lukashenko won with 80% of the vote. But most people were more inclined to believe Tikhanovskaya’s claim that she had won at least 60%. She has now been allowed to go abroad.
Falsification of the election results triggered an unprecedented outburst of public indignation.
SS: How do the current protests compare with protests in the past?
DK: First, they are much more massive. The demonstration in Minsk on October 25 was 100,000 strong, which is quite impressive for a city of two million. There have been separate marches of students and women.
Second, these protests have occurred throughout the country, even in the smallest towns. Past protests were confined to the capital.
Naturally, such large and nationwide protests have a broader social composition than earlier protests, the participants in which were mostly students, people in the arts, small businesspeople, and workers in the Information Technology sector.
SS: Have the protests been accompanied by strikes?
DK: In August the opposition managed to organize a quite powerful nationwide strike movement. They tried again at the end of October, after Tikhanovskaya called for a general strike, but this time they failed.
SS: When you mention ‘the opposition’ I suppose you are referring primarily to the Belarusian Popular Front?
DK: No, no, you remember the Belarusian Popular Front from the 1990s, but today this organization is virtually non-existent. The opposition is now represented by other structures. Since the 90s it has become somewhat less nationalist and more pro-Western and liberal. One of the main points in the economic program of the opposition’s presidential candidate was privatization.
SS: Is there a significant section of the population that actively supports the regime?
DK: Lukashenko has many supporters, but their support is passive in nature. When he needs people to attend a rally, he summons school teachers, workers for public utilities, and others who depend on the state for their livelihood.
SS: Should libertarian socialists support the protest movement? What is your opinion?
DK: My opinion is that they should not. Definitely not! Libertarian anti-authoritarian socialists should support neither the dictator nor the liberals.
Unfortunately, however, there are several other groups of self-styled ‘anti-authoritarian socialists’ who are taking an active part in these protests. This is true of anarchists, the Green Party, and the Belarusian Left Party ‘Just World’ – former ‘communists’ who oppose Lukashenko and adhere to the platform of the Party of the European Left [a coalition of ‘communists’ and ‘social democrats’ in EU countries–SS].
A band of four anarchists even tried to start a guerrilla war. They crossed the border from Ukraine illegally with weapons, committed several acts of sabotage, and were arrested while trying to return to Ukraine.
SS: The political situation in Belarus is developing against the background of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Is there any connection between them? How is the pandemic affecting Belarus?
DK: The number of people diagnosed with Covid-19 in Belarus is 106,000, of whom 91,000 have recovered. About 1,000 have died. For a country with a population of 9.5 million this is not catastrophic.
Lukashenko has responded to the threat of Covid-19 with much less drastic measures than those adopted in Russia and Ukraine. Throughout the spring and summer no restrictions were imposed on economic activity. On May 9 the authorities even held a national football competition and a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Planes from abroad were allowed to land at the airport, though passengers were required to self-isolate for two weeks, as were people who had been in contact with Covid-19 patients inside the country.
The relatively weak official response to the pandemic may have contributed to the protests in a small way. Many people have voluntarily limited their contacts and worn masks and gloves as a sort of challenge to the authorities.
SS: Is Russia in any way involved in the situation in Belarus?
DK: Lukashenko has usually tried to maintain his independence by balancing between Russia and the EU. There is tension in his relationship with Putin. On the eve of the presidential election there was even a scandal with the arrest of Russian mercenaries who — claimed the Belarusian authorities – had come to Minsk to stage an armed coup against Lukashenko. In fact, they were just waiting for a plane to Turkey to fly from there to Africa. At Russian airports almost all foreign flights have been cancelled on account of the pandemic, whereas Belarus remains open for flights.
But when Lukashenko faced mass protests he abandoned anti-Russian rhetoric and ran to Putin for help. And Putin agreed to help. Not, however, by sending troops or special police to suppress protests, but by sending political experts – so-called ‘political technologists’ — to raise the abysmal quality of the regime’s propaganda and improve Lukashenko’s terrible domestic and international image. It is these experts who are to be congratulated for the fact that the propaganda programs of state television channels have become more professional. The hope must be that Lukashenko can learn from the more flexible political system of Putin’s Russia, which provides scope for dissent ‘within the system’ and is more selective in applying repression.
SS: Are there any countries apart from Russia with which the Belarusian regime has good relations?
DK: Lukashenko considers the Maduro regime in Venezuela an ideological ally. A monument has been erected in Minsk to Simon Bolivar [the anti-colonial leader who is the inspiration for Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’–SS] and one of the city squares has been renamed in his honour. State-owned Belarusian construction companies have built several blocks of apartments in Caracas.
SS: Please tell us about the Minsk Socialist Circle.
DK: The Minsk Socialist Circle is a group of 30—40 lecturers and students in the humanities at universities in Minsk. It arose out of an optional course of lectures on the history of socialist thought given at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Belarusian State University in 2017 to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Those of us who started the circle shared a felt need to find a new model of society to restart the socialist project that had been discredited by the Bolsheviks. We hold seminars, public meetings, and discussions with representatives of other left-wing organizations.
SS: So the idea is to make people more aware of non-Bolshevik currents in the history of socialist thought, so that they will distinguish between Bolshevism and socialism as such – and not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
DK: As Belarus was part of the Russian empire and before that of Poland, its territory was the scene of the activities of many Russian, Polish, and Jewish socialist parties.
SS: Right. My grandmother, who was from Smorgon in the north-western corner of Belarus, was in the Jewish Socialist Bund. But what about Belarusian socialists?
DK: There were Belarusian socialists as well, but fewer of them. And it was also in Belarus that there arose the first anarchist organizations in the Russian Empire. So our country has a rich tradition of socialist thought – a tradition that was never completely eradicated either through the long years of the Soviet Union or under the Lukashenko dictatorship.
SS: Are you especially inspired by any particular non-Bolshevik tradition?
DK: Yes, we feel a special affinity with those non-Marxist socialists in the tsarist empire who were known in Russian as narodniki. There is no satisfactory equivalent of this term in English. It comes from the word narod, meaning ‘the people,’ because the narodniki believed in ‘going to the people.’ In the 19th century thousands of educated young people went to the villages to preach the ideals of socialism. Hoping to gain the trust of uneducated peasants, they dressed in simple clothes and arranged to work as rural artisans, doctors, and teachers. It was the narodniki who formed the People’s Will Party and later the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries.
By the way, Sergei Stepnyak, at whose London funeral William Morris made one of his last speeches, was a narodnik.
SS: They also committed acts of terror, didn’t they?
DK: Some did. It was the People’s Will Party that planned and carried out the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. You see, the first attempts to ‘go to the people’ failed. The peasants distrusted the strangers from the cities and turned them in to the police. That led some narodniki in Russia to resort to terrorism. But the narodniki in Belarus never did so. There was a separate Belarusian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, led by a woman teacher – Poluta Bodunova, who died in the Stalinist GULAG.
In any case, there is no longer such a wide gap between conscious socialists and working people. The tradition of ‘going to the people’ can still serve us as an ethical guide.
SS: How many people do you reach?
DK: Attendance at our meetings has risen to about a hundred people. And lectures on Marxism or on the history of the socialist movement can attract hundreds of interested young students. True, that is not much by comparison with the crowds of tens or even hundreds of thousands at mass meetings of the liberal opposition. But just a couple of years ago a mere handful of people came to our meetings.
Now is a good time for socialist propaganda. More and more people are getting disillusioned with the liberal opposition. At the same time, they realize that the Lukashenko regime embodies all the worst features of bureaucratic society in the Soviet era. We do not want to lead people into a new version of the same sort of impasse. That is the focus of heated debates between us and the traditional left parties and groups, who unambiguously associate themselves with the tradition of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union. I hope that the ideas of anti-authoritarian socialism will again take root in our country.
SS: Are the members of your circle affected by the current repressions?
DK: Yes. Lukashenko is demanding that students who have taken part in the protests be expelled from institutions of higher education. Although we have not taken part in the protests, we too are threatened with expulsion. We may also be deprived of access to the premises where we hold our meetings.
SS: What prospects do you see for Belarus?
DK: In our opinion, the protests are unlikely to improve the situation in the country. If Lukashenko succeeds in suppressing them, there will be less freedom and more repression. If the liberal opposition manages to overthrow the Lukashenko regime, there will be more political freedom. However, a liberal government will probably pursue a policy of privatization. Europe is still the liberals’ ideal. They do not want to know that capitalism is in a deep systemic crisis and they do not want to learn from what privatization has brought about in Russia and Ukraine.
Privatization will create a new class of powerful and wealthy oligarchs and a new split in society. Industry will be dismantled and asset-stripped. Workers will find themselves out on the street with no chance of employment in accordance with their skills, while productive enterprises are turned into warehouses and shopping malls. Agriculture will also be destroyed.
We may then see unfold in Belarus a tragedy similar to what has occurred in Ukraine. The destabilization of society may lead to confrontation between eastern regions connected with Russia and western regions drawn toward the European Union.
SS: But surely Belarus does not have the sharp cultural and ethnic division between eastern and western regions that characterizes Ukraine?
DK: Belarus has a similar division, even though it is not as sharp. In Grodno, in the west of the country, most people speak Belarusian, while in the east – in Gomel and Vitebsk – as well as in Minsk the main language spoken is Russian. Ukraine represents a worst-case scenario for Belarus. There are grounds to hope that it will be avoided. Unlike the protests against Yanukovych in Ukraine, which were almost all in the western and central parts of the country, the protests here in Belarus are nationwide. There is no counter-movement for Lukashenko or for joining Russia.
SS: What is the message of the Minsk Socialist Circle to the citizens of Belarus?
DK: In this situation, we can only appeal to people’s reason, remind them of the socialist traditions of our country, and emphasize the need for a system based on social justice, coordination of the interests of all population groups, genuine popular control over public property, and the widest self-government. Our slogan today is: Neither dictatorship nor privatization, but people’s self-government and workers’ self-management!