The subtitle to one of Andrew Wilson’s earlier books would have been ideal for his latest. For the Belarusians, even more than their Ukrainian neighbors, seem to be an “unexpected nation.” Since “A Nation Even More Unexpected Than Ukraine” is pretty awkward, Wilson, formerly at London’s SSEES East European institute and now of the European Council on Foreign Relations, recycles the tag about Belarus being the “last European dictatorship.” This term is used far too often, but for Wilson it’s not just a catchphrase. He spends much of the book explaining how Alyaksandr Lukashenka employed guile, trickery, and probably murder to seize control of the country and establish himself for a solid block of Belarusians as the only leader they could imagine.
The first, historical, part of the book is not easy going. I thought I had a halfway decent grasp of the medieval and early-modern history of the general Belarusian area, but I found myself floundering as I tried to get a handle on the Belarusians’ part in the ebb and flow of events and personalities with Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Cossack, Tatar, Lithuanian, etc. names. Ignoring the effects of age on my brain, some of this sense of disorientation is only to be expected. Because one of Wilson’s big themes is the contingent nature of Belarusian national (and perhaps even personal) identity, compared to, say, the neighboring Poles, Lithuanians, or even the Ukrainians. More so than most European nations, Belarus might have developed quite differently from the way it has – and as a corollary, its most recent identity-building project might not have been captured by a master manipulator like Lukashenka – if things had gone slightly differently at any of several tipping points in its history.
What if, for instance, most Belarusians had remained in the Uniate church rather than being forcibly converted to Orthodoxy? Within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the Uniate (now called Greek Catholic) church made great headway, and by the late 18th century some 70 or 75 percent of the population of the future Belarus were Uniates compared to only about 6 percent Orthodox. Then when Russia, Prussia, and Austria demolished the Commonwealth, erasing Poland from the map, the new Russian masters of the Belarusian chunk of it forced millions change their religion, and finally suppressed the Uniate confession in 1839. Admittedly, well before then the Uniate church had in some respects become a second-class faith, as the elite tended to hitch their wagons to Polish-accented culture mediated through Roman Catholicism. But still, the alternate-world question – what if most Belarusians under Russian rule had remained adherents of a Western-oriented religion? – sticks in the mind. Large parts of what is now Belarus might have become a sort of Russian Galicia: a node of difference, and of receptivity to ideas flowing from Western capitals.
One problem with this thought experiment is that at that point in history there never had been a polity called “Belarus” or controlled by “Belarusians,” and even the word “Belarusian” as an marker of personal identity only dated back to the 16th century. A political entity called Belarus first emerged in the chaotic period marking the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Russia and then underwent numerous changes of border until the Belarusian Soviet Republic took on its final form in World War II. Not often remembered is that almost half of modern Belarusian territory lay outside the USSR until the war, in Poland, and thus the oldest generations there still remember that earlier experiment with non-dictatorial rule.
“The key issue in regard to understanding Belarus is the lack of a single and cohesive Belarusian identity,” in the words of Grigory Ioffe, a scholar who argues that for all his heavy-handed ways, Lukashenka should be credited for bringing economic and political stability too. Ioffe was writing of today’s Belarus (as of 2008, before the regime’s blatantly illegal blows against the opposition following the 2010 elections), yet I suspect he would accept a lot of Wilson’s historical analysis.
The second and main part of Wilson’s book deals with independent Belarus and Lukashenka’s consolidation of power, which amount to much the same thing once the young corruption fighter (!) became president in 1994, in a legitimate and reasonably competitive election. Before long Lukashenka had engineered what, in Wilson’s view, was a multi-stage constitutional coup: first going to the people in 1995 for support on four referendum questions (large majorities supported him on making Russian a state language, economic integration with Russia, creating new state symbols, and giving the president greater power to dissolve parliament), then trying to scupper the parliamentary election of 1995 and setting up lapdog parties when that failed, then shutting down half the country’s NGOs, then transferring much power from the legislature to the presidency through constitutional changes approved in a second referendum in 1996.
At this point I’m going to let the pot keep boiling until my next post, when I’ll be asking Andrew Wilson to reveal the secrets of Lukashenka’s success.
Photo: Russian troops advance on German positions during “Operation Bagration” in 1944. One of the crucial land battles of World War II, the massive operation took place on Belarusian territory. By some estimates, at least one in four people living in Belarus in 1939 died during the war.
Source: World War II History Image Gallery