Thursday 30 July 2020

The last cult of personality in Europe

Few people in Scotland probably know very much about Belarus, a small landlocked country of 9 million to the east of Poland. But then again, few people in Belarus know much more about Scotland than that men wear skirts, play bagpipes and imitate Scrooge McDuck. People in Belarus are frequently blissfully unaware of the parts of the United Kingdom. They describe the whole thing as Англія [Angliia, i.e. England]. But then we were frequently unaware before the breakup of the Soviet Union that it had parts, which like Belarus became newly independent nation states in 1991. We called the whole thing Russia.

Independence hasn’t been able to kill all known germs in Belarus. While it is ruled from Minsk rather than Moscow, it has also had the same leader in Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. Belarus is often described as the last Soviet style dictatorship in Europe. It is the only place in Europe with the death penalty. You get a pistol shot to the back of your head.

Belarus is not especially prosperous even compared to its neighbours. It has neither democracy, nor free markets, nor the rule of law. Independence from the Soviet Union has made it neither better nor worse. People who think that independence automatically improves the lives of people living in a certain territory have clearly neither studied history nor geography.

But there is one thing that Belarus has that Scotland lacks. It has an opposition.

There have from time to time been demonstrations against Lukashenko for many years. But the people demonstrating have been risking at best a bash on the head from the local police and at worst a stay at Mr Lukashenko’s pleasure in one of Belarus’s rather scary prisons.

Most people have been content enough to get on with their lives in the typically stoical way that people have had to adopt in Eastern Europe. They might grumble but they rarely do more, not least because political change appears to be impossible.

But this time things may have changed. Lukashenko was one of those world leaders who treated Covid as being not much worse than flu. The main treatment he suggested was vodka and a visit to a banya [sauna]. While we in Britain went into lockdown, life carried on pretty much as usual in Belarus. Football matches continued to be played, people went to work and socialised normally.

But vodka turned out to be an inadequate form of medicine for treating the worst pandemic in a century and steam did little to cure it.

Suddenly ordinary people in Belarus realised that having a former collective farm director as a president and being unable to get rid of him ever, might be bad for their health. It is this that has brought them onto the streets in Belarus in 2020. It also means that this time just might be different.

There is a presidential election on August 9th. Lukashenko main electoral tactic is to arrest opposition candidates or so intimidate them that they flee abroad. But Belarussians suffered more than anyone else in World War Two, fighting a desperate partisan battle behind the lines, losing a quarter of their population. So, they have experience in fighting against tyranny and the bravery necessary to do so effectively.

The wife of one of the candidates put in prison Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has taken over his candidacy and is putting up a fight. It is too early to say whether there is a chance that Lukashenko might be overthrown, but this is the way such revolutions begin.

What would happen if Lukashenko were to cease to rule Belarus? His replacement might be just another clone, but if Belarus genuinely attempted to embrace democracy there could be difficulties ahead not merely for Belarus, but also for its neighbours.

Vladimir Putin views Belarus like Ukraine as within his sphere of influence. Any attempt to take Belarus down the democracy/EU/NATO/ membership route would see Putin exerting influence if not force.

The population of Belarus is less divided than Ukraine. Everyone in Belarus speaks Russian many exclusively so, but this also gives Putin his claim. Belarus is not merely linked to Russia historically, in most respects it is indistinguishable.

Belarus would clearly be more prosperous if it became a free market democracy like Poland and the Baltic states, but Belarus is strategically vital for Russia.

The Suwalki gap separating the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad with Belarus is sixty miles. By closing this gap Russian tanks could in a couple of hours cut off Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from the rest of the Europe.

It is for this reason that events in Minsk are of importance even if you would struggle to find it on a map.

Belarus also reminds people particularly in Scotland that opposition is crucial in a democracy and that if we go down the uncritical route too far, we may end up with something unpleasantly tyrannical to go along with independence.

Sturgeon has not suggested that whisky is a cure for Covid and has certainly performed better than Lukashenko, but she being a human being has made mistakes as have all politicians in Britain. It is crucial that we maintain a free press that is willing to criticise the SNP and its leader. We need opposition politicians to scrutinise her record and to hold her to account for those devolved policies like health and education that are her responsibility.

Above all we need the Scottish public to realise that if you are too devoted to your leader and if you view everything through the lens of nationalism you won’t necessarily end up with a free and prosperous democracy when you get your cherished independence. It might be democracy in name only with only one leader capable of winning until she dies. If you think that couldn’t possibly happen here in Scotland, then you are suffering from the same sort of complacency that viewed vodka and saunas as a treatment for Covid.