But this article is no op-ed – rather it is a personal confession.
To defeat 3% looser Lukashenko, Belarusians not only have to defend their votes in the squares of Belarus. They also have to challenge pro-regime narratives that proliferate in anglophone foreign policy communities and academia. These narratives obstruct effective sanctions against the 3% dictator and his merry troupe of criminal election falsifiers.
The present-day Western world is riven by deep-reaching identity crises, culture wars and partisan chasms. In such a time, few people in the West still believe that values of freedom, democracy and dignity can prevail over dictatorship in what seem to be far-flung lands; After all, even at home, these values seem to many, on all sides of the political spectrum, to be threatened as never before. Amidst this chaos, some even quietly yearn for the enforced civic silence created by simplistic authoritarianism abroad: They see it as a respite from the loud, multi-layered and often painful cultural strife at home. And so, there is no shortage of policy-makers, intellectuals and even ordinary people who are intellectually seduced by the propaganda delusion dictator Lukashenko must be propped up so he can ‘safeguard’ Belarusian sovereignty from ever-expanding Russia. Real facts – such as the undeniable truth that Lugashenko created the very same, unconstitutional Union State treason treaty that opened the door to Russian expansionism in the first place - don’t matter. Many people in the West will never hear about it. After all, this is the made-for-Western-TV Lugashenko show, complete with top-grade showmanship like the mercenaries-in-a-sanatorium hat trick.
But this article is no op-ed – rather it is a personal confession. Because the author of this article, as a naive and dumb 17-year old, blinded by relativist western academic theories and personal prejudices, went to Minsk in search of the purported Lukashenko paradise. This is my true story of shame.
I grew up in the UK, but have a German family background. Much of my teenage years in England had been consumed with anxiety over my social place as an immigrant, and fascination with radical ideologies. At a certain point I embarked on my own personal search for a political model that would offer both pragmatism as while still somehow standing against the hegemonic trends of the ‘modern world’ which I had come to loathe in my teenage radicalism. Through reading smoothly-written, sympathetic academic studies and online disinformation, I thought I’d found my man in Alexander Lukashenko: A leader who had, so I had read, managed to uniquely insulate his country from the worst effects of the neo-liberal, post-Soviet economic crash, maintaining social protection systems. A leader who had undertaken to create a defiantly sovereign modern nation-state with a pragmatic set of identities and national symbols that avoided political polarisation, both of the pro-Western and pro-Russian sort. Being the curious teenager I was, I naturally wanted to see this Hakuna Matata of politics in real life. And so I found an (entirely apolitical) summer volunteer camp program that gave me a chance to go to Minsk.
I’ve always retained the application letter I wrote back then, when I asked for a chance to go and volunteer in Belarus. Among other things, I wrote there that one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Belarus because I wished to see the real country, beyond “dehumanising” Western media coverage. Coverage, that, so 17 year old me opined, over-emphatised the “supposedly repressive” aspects of Lukashenko’s rule at the expensive of his “immense, legitimate achievements” in the field of living standards and nation-building. As could be expected, my little letter also contained some snipingly negative comments about Charter 97. When I travelled to Minsk, a copy of Grigory Ioffe’s Understanding Belarus And How Western Foreign Policy Misses The Mark, took pride of place in my hand-luggage.
Fate did grant me my wish to see the real Belarus, but I was in for more than I had bargained for. The volunteering project in which I partook involved assisting with cleaning and renovating the apartments of socially vulnerable older people. Far away from the hallowed halls of Western academia, it was in a dinghy apartment building in Minsk that I saw the reality of Lukashenko’s regime. An older lady lived here, a wonderful babushka. But her ground-floor apartment smelt like a sewer, there were holes in the wooden floor, and those parts of the flooring were still intact were covered with a centimetres-thick layer of grease and dirt. I learned that social workers brought this woman enough food to subsist on. But evidently, no one had bothered to help her spend her hard-earned pension years living in basic dignity. I remember trying to scrub some of the dirt off the wooden planks with a hard sponge, but failing. For every speck of encrusted dirt that could be scrubbed off, there was another even more revolting, crusty layer underneath. It was there that I saw that the Lukashenko paradise is in reality no different from Platonov’s foundation pit, a graveyard of dreams, hopes and values. A place where people are surveiled by security agents in dark suits, and forced to pass through metal detectors when they want to gather in public. A place where there are people in the countryside who have no indoor bathroom, no hot water for a shower – and where the government does absolutely nothing to change that abysmal situation. No fine words, even if they are published in a world-leading scientific journal with quadruple-blind peer-review than take away the memories of the Belarus that I saw with my own eyes. The images of a beautiful country, with a millenia-long history, and a vibrant culture that has been abased, devoured from the inside by a corrupt, brutal and decrepit political leadership. The leadership of dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko seems to think of Belarusians as potatoes on a collective farm. Give them some water, and fertiliser/plant food, keep them neatly in the ground until you dig them up exactly when you need them to meet the Gosplan quota, get reelected. There is something a neo-Soviet materialist, a KGB-backed manchild like Lukashenko 3% will never understand. A basic fact of human life. Food and water alone are not enough, humans are not just a line item, another harvested potato for the 5-year plan statistics. People need freedom and dignity, the right to dream of a better tomorrow. And Lugashenka, the thief of freedom and crusher of dreams, stole these basic rights from them. A change of power is about real people, and protecting their inalienable, basic rights.
Many academics and policy advisers in the West, high on the sophistry of their own words, will never understand that. It has nothing to do with geopolitics and their fancy theories of international relations or the abstractions of human geography. Maybe they should go scrub some floors in the apartments of socially deprived people in Minsk instead of hanging around at fancy Starbucks cafes near their home universities. Then they will understand.
Colin Cortbus, British-German freelance journalist, Charter97.org