Not quite democracy, not quite dictatorship. Not quite Russian, not quite European. As elections approach, it’s time for a closer look at Europe’s only vaguely understood neighbor.
by Jeremy Druker
For much of the world, Belarus remains an enigma, beset by contradictions.
U.S. officials have repeatedly referred to the country as the “last dictatorship in Europe”; the president rules uncontested with a rubber-stamp parliament; government critics have mysteriously disappeared; the independent press, with few exceptions, is banned from official distribution; and a small group of activists faces persecution and harassment from the country’s security service (still called the KGB).
At the same time, this isn’t Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Members of the opposition, independent journalists, and other so-called enemies of the state freely travel abroad. The independent media are virtually unfettered on the Internet, and websites, even those of opposition politicians, are rarely blocked. Belarus-targeted radio and television stations that broadcast from abroad – with a mission of providing alternative information – are freely accessible, and a strong journalists organization and some nongovernmental organizations operate within the country.
And, despite that dictatorship label, the presidential election that will take place 19 December will offer a full field of candidates, including staunch critics of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. While the vast administrative resources in the hands of the president and the dominance of state-controlled media steeply tilt the playing field, this election will likely be freer than in many other post-Soviet states and one that Lukashenka would likely win by a landslide no matter what. One of the main reasons is that the simplistic Belarusian economic model, a relic of the Soviet past, somehow continues to deliver – salaries are paid, and the country’s slide during the economic crisis has not been as precipitous as elsewhere.
If that wasn’t confusing enough for outside observers, Lukashenka, the longtime pariah of the West, recently recast relations with the European Union and has often flip-flopped on closer integration with Russia. Belarus is now part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership yet still cozies up to international outcasts like Iran and Venezuela.
Part of the reason that Belarus remains such a mystery is the simple fact that few Westerners actually cross its borders. The country is not a popular tourist destination, and high visa costs have also helped to keep the numbers low. As a result, few people see beyond the superficial assessment of Belarus as a place that failed to notice the end of the Soviet Union.
We are launching this special TOL website in an attempt to counter that general ignorance of Belarus. With the upcoming presidential election as a backdrop, we will explore life under Lukashenka’s reign, featuring essays and analysis from some of Belarus’ most perceptive analysts.
But that’s hardly all. In order to present our readers with an eye into how Belarusians really live, we are presenting an extensive array of multimedia material shot in the country, including video interviews with ordinary citizens and audio slideshows. Two blogs (one a photoblog) will keep you up-to-date with developments on the ground as Election Day approaches and will offer word-on-the-street observations that you won’t find in typical news articles. We are also running profiles of all the candidates and an interactive timeline of Lukashenka’s long reign.
We hope that the combined result is a more well-rounded picture of a country on Europe’s borderlands that few experience firsthand but could end up playing a key role in East-West relations in the 21st century.
Jeremy Druker is TOL’s executive director and editor in chief.