Authoritarian Laboratory - the Case of Belarus

Article by Stephan Malerius to the obit of Vitali Silitski

Vitali Silitski was both a cool-headed thinker and analyst, and a very emotional and committed supporter of democracy. He was, intellectually and morally, one of the most sensitive people I knew. When we briefly met at the October Square on 19 December 2010, Vitali was obviously infected by the political momentum and the slim hope that things might change for the better in his country. Yet, his desperation was so much deeper the following day, after a horrible night of witch hunting and the total destruction of everything Vitali was hoping and working for.

Democratic, independent and European – this was Vitali’s vision for Belarus, the country he loved. It was a positive obsession that made him tireless in writing his analyses and texts on busses, overnight trains and at airports while traveling from conferences to seminars, from workshops to briefings in the region and the whole world. Vitali was committed and devoted and at the same time precise and deliberate. He passed away when the country needed him most. Today, one year after his death, it is obvious that the hole he left in Belarus and in Europe is still painfully gaping. It is up to all of us to fill this void, to a small extent, by honoring Vitali’s heritage and carrying on his mission and his ideas.

When referring to Belarus as the last dictatorship in Europe, Western journalists and politicians have in mind the fact that unlike many other authoritarian leaders in the post-communist world Lukashenka managed to survive not only the political turmoil of the 2003 – 2005 years with all its colored revolutions but also the local and global financial crises that followed. As for Lukashenka being the longest ruling president in the post-soviet space in Europe, there have only been rare attempts to explain this phenomenon that go beyond the dictatorship-label. Within his text “Preempting democracy: The case of Belarus”[1] Vitali Silitski presented one of the most intelligent analyses of the Lukashenka-system. The idea of preemption seems to come extremely close to the logic upon which this enigmatic regime secures its position. At the same time the text shows Silitski’s deep understanding of authoritarian regimes in general and his incredible comprehension of the Lukashenka-system in particular. Although based on the analysis of Lukashenka’s first decade, Silitski’s idea of the preempting democracy model is still valid in 2012. I suppose, Silitski himself was extremely unhappy when he concluded that preemption could be seen as the mechanism that is ensuring Lukashenka’s continued rule:

“Preemption serves as an instrument of maintaining both the stability of authoritarian rule and Lukashenka’s image as a popularly elected leader. At the time of the 1996 referendum, when unchecked presidential rule was formalized, Lukashenka was highly popular, and he was doubtless capable of defeating the opposition in a fair confrontation. Lukashenka’s policy of preemption changed the rules and laid the groundwork for infinite rule long before the autocrat became unpopular.”

The added value of his approach lies in the fact that Silitski composes preemption not as an abstract theory but derives it from a very precise and comprehensive description of where the method was applied in social reality: Starting from elucidating the function of the constitutional referendums in 1995 and 1996 that led to the complete institutionalization of personalistic authoritarian rule in Belarus, “eliminated all meaningful political competition and evicted opposition from the decision-making process”[2] to a very condensed depiction of how Lukashenka took control over the social pluralism that still existed until 2002/2003; the closing or forced self-liquidation of NGOs, the muzzling of independent press, the complete indoctrination of the education system, the punishing of free and independent artistic expression and the introduction of the mandatory one-year contract system for state employees. When typifying the way the Lukashenka-system functions it becomes clear that preemption in Silitski’s understanding is much less a mechanic instrument of guarding personal power or securing authoritarian ruling but a permanent and quite sophisticated analysis of complex social, internal political and international developments conducted by the regime and followed-up by an elaboration of measures that would anticipate and mitigate the potential negative influences of these developments for the ruling elite:

“Preemption targets political parties and players that are still weak. It removes from the political arena even those opposition leaders who are unlikely to pose a serious challenge in the next election. It attacks the independent press even if it reaches only small segments of the population. It destroys civil society organizations even when these are concentrated in a relatively circumscribed urban subculture.”

It is remarkable that the mechanism that Silitski describes depends not on a certain period of Lukashenka’s rule and is not tied to the installation, consolidation or the safeguarding of his authoritarian regime. Most of the preemptive measures were also effectively used by Lukashenka after 19 December 2010. The closing down of NGOs in 2003/2004 for example is echoed in the detention of Ales Bialiatsky and the attempt to liquidate the human rights organizations that most effectively supported the most suppressed during the aftermaths of the 2010 events. The suppression of the independent press in the mid 2000s finds its equivalent in the closing down of “Avtoradio” in January 2011. In spring 2011 the authorities reverted to the blacklist of artists banned from performing or being played on the radio, which already existed until 2008.

Preempting democracy means, according to Silitski, not only controlling and organizing the internal life of the country[3] but also reacting to developments outside. It is noteworthy how precisely Silitski shows the fine tuning of measures of the Lukashenka-regime that take into account external developments and their potential impact on the situation in Belarus. From the Serbian revolution Lukashenka learned that he would have to be highly suspicious of his own inner circle and punish any (potential) opposition inside the regime.  This is an almost classic case of preemption and – if we think of the countless cases of temporary companions that were installed and removed from their position, starting from Navumau to Kuliashou – one of the core features Lukashenka has been applying until today.

The second lesson that Lukashenka learned from Milosevic’s downfall touches on the question of election observation. Silitski describes the whole arsenal of manipulative mechanisms that would serve to exclude any competitiveness in his 2001 presidential election: “The authorities … banned exit polls … the early voting mechanism … was used again ... the election commissions included no members of the opposition … vote counters would be seated with their backs turned to the observers … the election law contained no adequate provisions for fair balloting.” In addition in March 2006 activists of Partnerstva who wanted to organize an independent election observation network for the presidential election were arrested, imprisoned, and brought to trial. Again, Lukashenka’s preemption method worked. Since the liquidation of Partnerstva, nobody inside or outside the country has managed to build up an effective campaign of independent election observations.

In a similar fashion to Serbia in 2001, Silitski also interprets the Ukrainian elections in 2004 from the perspective of Lukashenka’s preemption-strategy: Under the subheading “Countering the Orange Revolution” Silitski describes how the events in Ukraine encouraged Lukashenka to extend and adopt his decade-long policy of preemption. One particular aspect that Silitski focused on, and that was probably developed following the events in neighboring Ukraine, was of utmost importance in December 2010 and the months of repressions that followed:

“In the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, and in preparation for the July 2006 presidential elections, Lukashenka has taken new preemptive measures … the use of new police tactics to disperse a few small demonstrations in early 2005 made it clear that the country’s security forces have been specially trained to stop street protests at their very start.”

Namely the reinforcement of security agencies (including the special role that Sheiman played when appointed head of the presidential administration in 2004 “to ensure that nothing similar to the Orange Revolution occurs in Belarus”).

One of the most intriguing parts in this extremely compact text is Silitski’s brief look to Russia where he discerns “a similar pattern of preemption” as he had described for Belarus. Although the examples that he quotes  – Putin’s handling of independent media, the re-structuring of the upper house of the Russian parliament and new electoral rules discriminating independent parties in Russia – are closer to hints than a solid comparison, although the very idea is very smart. Despite Silitski’s prediction that Putin might intend “to follow Lukashenka’s path and continue his tenure beyond the expiration of his second term in 2008” proving to be untrue, the idea of Belarus serving as a kind of laboratory for other authoritarian states, in particular Russia, deserves a thorough analysis.

Though describing the development in Belarus from the moment Lukashenka came to power in 1994 until 2005 the preemption-model that Silitski proposes in his text, is probably the defining principle of how the Lukashenka-system was and still is functioning.

Another added value: Silitski is not speculating about the intentions of Lukashenka to become and stay president but is examining the methods employed in order to maintain the presidency for two decades.

“Preemption has an enormous psychological impact on both the political and social opposition; such systematized repression instills in them a sense of hopelessness and imposes the perception that political change is far beyond reach.”

All these facts were no surprise as they were – to one extent or the other – even expected. Silitski explains why they happened and defines the “regime-logic” behind it.

Silitski was an analyst, an academic, and although he was always willing to consult and advise he was not a “polit-technologist”. This was and still is one of the tragedies for Belarus: That there was nobody around who was able to transfer Vitali’s brilliant analysis into a concrete strategy that would have seriously challenged Lukashenka. It shows the uniqueness of Silitski but at the same time reveals why – together with Lukashenka’s preemptive measures – there was no chance for the rise of a credible and visible democratic alternative in Belarus.

Published in Belarus Headlines, Vol. IX, July 2012

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[1] Vitali Silitski, Preempting Democracy: The Case of Belarus, in: Journal of Democracy, 16 (2005) 4, S. 83-97.

[2] All quotations refer to the text indicated in footnote 1.

[3] In 2008/2009 Silitski was leading a project in which social contracts between the Lukashenka-regime and different layers of the Belarusian society are analyzed.