The history, present, and future of Belarus was discussed by Count Aleksander Pruszyński on Wednesday, 10 October, as part of the Kościuszko Chair's ongoing series of lectures on the Intermarium region.
The Central and Eastern European post-Soviet successor state has had the dubious distinction of being known as the "last dictatorship" on the continent. Belarus has been run by its Soviet-nostalgic autocrat, ex-KGB officer Aleksandr Lukashenka, since the election of 1994. Count Pruszyński himself participated in that presidential contest as an independent, Christian Democratic candidate.
The scion of the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Pruszyński was born near Grodno in the interwar Polish Second Republic. Following the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, his "little fatherland" was incorporated into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and his family's property was confiscated by the Bolshevik conquerors. After spending most of his life in the Polish People's Republic and the West, Pruszyński decided to return to his native White Ruthenia and become involved in its politics following the implosion of the Soviet Empire.
In 1994, the Count put forth his candidacy for the presidency of newly-independent Belarus. As an "outsider," he used his own modest means to fund the campaign and crisscrossed the country in a bus (marshrutka) along with ordinary Belarusians. Thus, Pruszyński managed to gain some popular support, although the political establishment in post-communist Minsk eventually eliminated his candidacy. Even so, neither the setback, nor Lukashenka's victory, managed to deter the Count from continuing to participate in Belarusian politics.
The lecturer shared his observations about the most Sovietized and unreconstructed of the former Bolshevik Empire's European republics. Belarus has not only retained the KGB - without even bothering to change the name - but also collective farms and a largely centrally-planned economy from the ancient régime. Originally, Pruszyński stated, Lukashenka hoped to assume the presidency of a neo-Soviet entity in the form of a union between Belarus and Russia. He was eventually upstaged by the rise of Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The Homo-Sovieticus-in-Chief's hatred of private enterprise, said the Count, has translated into an inefficient, impoverished, and bureaucratized statist economy. To remedy this, the regime in Minsk has cheerfully accepted investment from Communist China, which eyes Belarus as a springboard toward further economic expansion into the European market. Further, Moscow has long assisted Minsk through sales of Russian natural gas at preferentially low prices, albeit this has rendered Belarus overwhelmingly dependant on Russian energy resources. Lukashenka's heavy-handed and oppressive rule has also alienated the democracies, thereby ensuring that the regime's circle of friends is limited to countries like Russia, China, and Venezuela.
In spite of Belarus's close ties with Russia, the Count argues that a merger with the eastern "Big Brother" would not be a popular option. Even Lukashenka would most likely prefer the president of Belarus rather than Moscow's provincial governor. Even so, Putin wishes to reintegrate the former Soviet Empire, but feels compelled to support the satrap in Minsk for the simple reason that a more palatable contender has failed to emerge.
Similarly, the dictator also benefits from the fact that he is seen as a "familiar devil" by the Belarusian people. Even if the regime's claims to overwhelming popular support may be taken with a grain of salt, Pruszyński also observed that many Belarusians are uneasy about the consequences of its fall. Meanwhile, the opposition has been unable to capitalize on unpopular moves by the government.
To avoid the fate of a failed state, the Count continued, Belarus must depart from its current neo-Stalinist course. He elaborated that Minsk should strive to cultivate good relations not only with Russia, but with other neighbors as well, including Poland. The unfortunate frictions between Warsaw and Minsk are caused not only by the fact that Poland is a democracy and Belarus a dictatorship, but also by the fact that the Lukashenkistas discriminate against the Polish minority. Some of the blame for this mistreatment can also be laid at the door of Warsaw, often indifferent toward the fate of the Polish minority in post-Soviet states.
In spite of its many problems, Count Pruszyński concluded, Belarus may have a bright future, particularly as a major commercial transit hub. To become a success story, Minsk will have to embrace both economic and political freedom while curing itself of the pathologies of post-Sovietism.
- Paweł Styrna
Note: Transaction Publishers will publish Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's latest monograph, entitled Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas, at the end of October.