The aim: democracy in Belarus

Mikalai Statkevich, Chair of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, sets out the strategy for bringing good government to his country

Issue 4, Volume 49, 2000

Presidential elections took place in the Republic of Belarus on 9 September 2001. It is impossible to call these elections either fair or democratic. Indeed it is difficult to call them elections at all.

I think that the main reason for election falsification and the seizure of power by Alexander Lukashenko was the present situation of society and its elite. Society was not able to resist. There is less than ten years of experience of democracy in this country. There is no understanding of common democratic values - as is the case in the majority of former Soviet republics. People just do not understand what democracy and democratic freedoms are. They still do not realise the negative consequences of their mistaken choice.

For more than ten years at the end of the twentieth century, Belarus was in a state of euphoria. It had one of the highest living standards in the USSR with a strong industry and well-developed agriculture. But all this relative prosperity was built on a distorted pricing system for energy resources, metals and cereals. The Belarus economy collapsed when the pricing became real.

Only now has Belarus society started to realise the necessity for economic and political reforms. We do not, however, have established norms and traditions of acceptable political behaviour. The elite does not resist the activities of supreme power. We have no strong social groups interested in political and economic freedom. The authorities headed by Lukashenko did everything possible to prevent the advent of such groups. The ruling regime does its utmost to slow the development of social awareness.

The situation in the social field is aggravated by the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Nearly a quarter of Belarus territory is contaminated by nuclear radiation. About 2 million people live in the contaminated areas, almost 500,000 of them young people and children. Russia and Ukraine have resettled their people from the territories with radiation between 15 and 40 curie per square kilometre but in Belarus about 140,000 people live in such conditions. The number of genetic faults in new-born babies in the Gomel area increased eight times compared to 1986. More than 40 per cent of children born on contaminated territories have development difficulties. Per capita consumption of meat dropped from 75 kilos in 1990 to 62 kilos in 2000, dairy produce from 425 to 334 kilos, fish from 19.4 to 5.3 kilos and sugar from 48.7 to 34.7 kilos. Meanwhile consumption of alcohol increased from 5.7 litres per capita in 1990 to 9.7 litres in 2000.

Nevertheless social democracy has deep roots in our country. In 2003 it will celebrate its 100th anniversary. The first social-democratic party — the Belarus Revolutionary Hramada (Society) — was organised in 1903 by a group of Belarus intellectuals and was later named Belarusian Socialist Hramada (BSG). Its social-democratic programme was adopted in 1906. The BSG played a decisive role in proclaiming the independence of the Belarus People’s Republic on 25 March 1918. The Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (BSDP) was founded in spring 1918 on the basis of the BSG. It was one of the leading political parties of Belarus up to the Bolshevik occupation in 1920. Anton Lutzkevich, the party leader between 1918 and 1920, headed the coalition socialist government of the BPR and was a minister of foreign relations. The historic role of the first Belarus social democrats was establishing the organisation of the Belarus state and it defended the right of Belarus people to self-determination. Even the Bolsheviks who occupied Belarus did not dare annex Belarus to Russia. They just agreed to establish on its territory a quasi-state, the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic which was in fact the acknowledgement of the existence of an independent Belarusian nation. Russian chauvinists were distinctly against such a decision.

After the Bolsheviks occupied the territory the activity of the BSDP was banned and the bulk of its leaders perished in Stalin’s camps. In Western Belarus, which according to Riga Peace Agreement became part of Poland, the BSDP continued to play an active political role and was even represented in the Polish Parliament. During the period of perestroika the process of a revival of Belarusian social democracy restarted. The constituent Congress of BSDG took place on 2 March 1991. It had 15 members in the Supreme Soviet or parliament.

In the 1995-1996 session of the Parliament social democrats numbered 18 members. On 29 June 1996, the BSDG united with the Party of People’s Unity. The united party was named the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Hramada).

After Lukashenko’s coup d’état of 1996 the social democrats were deprived of the possibility of carrying on their parliamentary activity and headed the street protest movement. As leader of the Party, I and many other members felt the weight of Lukashenko’s repression.

In spite of anti-democratic laws and the pressure of the authorities, who tried to prevent the natural development of political parties in Belarus at the beginning of 2002, the BSDP’s membership was about 4,000. From mid-2000 the strength of the party almost doubled. It has a well-developed party structure. The regional branches of the party were founded not only in cities and towns, but also in the majority of rural areas. During 11 years of its existence the party has formed its active core. It has a high intellectual potential. About 40 per cent of its members are young people not older than 30, one third are women. Today BSDP is one of the most influential and structured opposition parties of Belarus.

The Belarus opposition as a whole however found itself outside of the power system. Five years ago after a rigged referendum on the constitution we were thrown out of the political system. So our candidate was opposed not just by Lukashenko as a candidate but by the whole state machinery. An obedient parliament voted for the election laws, which were framed in favour of the government and gave no chance to the opposition candidate. Electoral commissions, manned by supporters of the regime, opposed independent observation. Police arrested propagandists and seized printed materials. The opposition tactics were not adequate to combat such a situation.

Nevertheless the BSDP took an active part in last year’s presidential elections. More than 4,500 activists of the party participated in a campaign which resulted in collection of 220,000 signatures in support of democratic candidates for the presidency. This figure is 50 per cent times bigger than the results of the efforts of all other opposition parties together, and twice as big as the result of any other political party in this country.

Nowadays Belarus democracy is trying to decide what to do. We can still be in firm opposition to power, refuse all the contacts with it and call for international isolation. If we do so nothing will change in our country. Unlike Yugoslav democrats we are tied in our actions having such a big country as Russia as a neighbour. The bulk of Russians are still nostalgic about the times when their territory was bigger and Belarus was part of it. If we demand the isolation of Belarus from Europe, we will find ourselves one day in the Russian Federation.

We must therefore work with society and convince it of the need to realise democratic and economic freedoms. We must create a need for democracy among the ruling elite and society as a whole and thereby Europeanise Belarus. We have the great advantage of being a country in the heart of Europe. It is impossible to isolate such a country from international society. We should use this factor and, with the help of our European neighbours, change attitudes in our society so as to create a movement for democracy.

In this context the most important factors are international economic relations, which will demand the economic freedoms, develop them and push the economic elite towards democracy.

Transformation of society should be prepared from inside, showing the authorities examples of other, better ways of organising life. We think, that after all the falsifications which took place during presidential elections, the official contacts of European politicians with Belarus highest officials need to be drastically improved. Effective steps towards the democratisation of the country — such as delegation of real power to the Parliament, access for the opposition to mass media, a halt to repression, the lifting of the ban on international contacts of Belarus civil society — may come about with better contacts.

The European Union can help the development of civil society in Belarus not only by humanitarian projects but also by projects directed to democratisation of the country. For its part the opposition should infiltrate the power, participate in all types of elections, even openly unfair ones.

Convincing and well organised electoral teams can change trends in society radically. Last year when the right-wing parties boycotted the elections the Belarusian Social Democratic Party took part in them. We did not win these elections but the struggle made us stronger and more popular. That is why during presidential elections we showed ourselves as the most effective political party.

Since our allies on the right adjusted their strategy we hope that in the elections the whole opposition will take an active part. After the presidential elections everybody understood that the real strength of Belarus opposition is concentrated to the left of centre. We founded the Confederation for Social Change which united the BSDP, the Belarus Labour Party, and the Belarus Communist Party, and also trade unions, women’s, youth, ecological and social organisations. The goal of strengthening international contacts was agreed by all the participants.

Together with the right-wing parties we are coordinating our actions within the Consultative Council of Democratic Parties. We are ready for any struggle. One day we will be strong enough to break through the calumny and falsification of the failing regime and be able to show our people an alternative to the poverty in which they live.