ACTON, MA -- Last month important elections took place in two former Soviet states -- a presidential poll in Belarus and, a week later, parliamentary elections in Ukraine. The contrast between them could not be greater. You've seen it all on major TV news channels. In Ukraine -- a noisy, lively campaign, with a dozen of competing parties, a sea of colorful banners and billboards, a Babel tower of speeches and political programs. In Belarus -- a dour campaign by an authoritarian regime, with Soviet-style TV, and a suppressed opposition.
And now consider a different view. In Ukraine the presidential party was handed a huge, resounding defeat -- the result of the widespread disgust with corruption, incompetence, government infighting and failing economy. In contrast, the Belorussian strongman Lukashenko is genuinely popular. Even if elections were totally free of manipulations, and the opposition was given all the air time that it wanted, Lukashenko would have gotten an overwhelming majority -- most likely above 70% (in the official vote he received 83% of the total). These are the realities (and paradoxes) of the post-Soviet world. It's never a black-and-white picture, nor a very pretty one.
Belarus's elections came first, on March 19th. Lukashenko obviously freaked out thinking that the young opposition activists supported by the West would try to arrange another "color revolution" similar to Georgia's in 2003 and Ukraine's in 2004. He imposed heavy-handed controls over the borders, the media and the key opposition figures. Yet his position was incomparably more secure. First, even with his plebeian manners and frequent slips of the tongue, he is a more charismatic figure than those ousted by the above-mentioned colored revolutions. Second, the opposition completely lacked effective and popular leaders. Third, aside from the vague notion of "democracy," Belarus is economically better off than Ukraine, not to mention the post-Soviet pauper Georgia. The economy is stable and growing. The state bureaucracy is meddling but relatively competent; streets are clean and well-paved; roads are better than in nearby Russian regions; and the state health care system is functioning well.
Belorussians are tough, hardworking people thriving on a relatively small piece land, full of deep forests and swamps, without access to a sea or mineral wealth. Belarus got most of its radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear powerplant explosion (which technically happened in Ukraine), but unlike Ukraine it didn't whine and beg for aid at the EU doors. During WWII Belarus lost some 25% of the population. It was the scene of some of the war's very toughest resistance. In many other regions in Eastern Europe -- the Baltic countries, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, western Ukraine -- Hitler's armies obtained plenty of recruits and supplies that added strength to the Nazi war machine. In Serbia and Belarus, on the other hand, dozens of German divisions were tied up by courageous and tenacious guerillas, suffering terrible losses. After the war, Belarus became the industrial and agricultural powerhouse of the Soviet Union. Its living standards were among the highest in the former USSR, about 20-30% higher than in Russia and slightly better than in Ukraine.
The opposition was preparing for the protests long before the election, regardless of the results. In the style of the previous "color revolutions" they trained youth activists, brought in tents, generators and heaters. Immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results -- just 6% for the most radical opposition figure, Milinkevich, a physics professor, and even less for the assorted collection of other candidates -- the opposition began to organize a protest in one of Minsk's main squares. The first night about 10,000 people participated -- a tiny fraction of the "Maidan" gathering in Kiev in December 2004, but nevertheless pretty large by Minsk standards. The government surrounded the area with police, but let the gathering continue. Over the following three days the demonstration fizzled down to a few hundred people. It continued to dwindle, but Lukashenko apparently lost his cool and on the fourth night ordered police to arrest the remaining demonstrators. The sweep went very smoothly. The next day another opposition candidate, Kozulin (triggering a bitter split with Milinkevich) organized a procession march towards the prison gates, where the arrested demonstrators were being held. This time things ended up rougher -- the OMON police blocked the way and in the scuffle several demonstrators were seriously hurt.
The Western and the Russian liberal media floated plenty of sob stories about the "brutal suppression" of the demonstration by the "tyrannical ruler." Yet from the TV and numerous internet reports, the crackdown was actually milder than, for example, in the case of the current youth demonstrations in France. About the same time seven people were killed in "democratic" Georgia, where police broke a riot by prisoners protesting horrible treatment and medieval conditions. It was barely mentioned in the Western media.
In Ukraine things were very different. The election campaign had the feel of some wild village festivities from a 19-th century Gogol story. Ukrainian politics is an unbelievable circus. Suffice to say that there is not one but three tiny "Socialist" parties (not to mention a Communist one), ranging from spineless political whores of the party of Alexander Moroz, to a fiery pro-Russian leftist Natalia Vitrenko (which has got some 2.95% of the vote -- suspiciously just a few hundredths short of the 3% entry barrier). Victor Yanukovich, the opponent of the current president Victor Yushchenko, was supported in 2004 by Putin's government and regarded in the West as a Kremlin puppet who was consigned to the dust bin of history after his loss to the "genuine democrats" of the "orange" camp. This analysis proved completely wrong. A few months after coming to power, the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko government started to unravel. Yanukovich, on the other hand, consolidated his block into a solid party, the "Regions of Ukraine," in the south-eastern industrial heartland, away from Kiev.
Russia was frequently blamed for meddling in Ukraine's affairs before the 2004 elections -- by giving last-minute preferences to the incumbent candidate Yanukovich (some sweet trade deals, easing immigration restrictions, etc). This year, the US did exactly the same for the Yushchenko's government. A week before the elections it rescinded the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Ukraine (the amendment is related to Soviet-era emigration restrictions; it hasn't made any sense for 18 years now, but is still applied to Russia). About the same time the US announced it was giving the green light to Ukraine in its talks to join the WTO, which had been stalled for many years. All this is 100% hypocrisy -- but so is much of American politics anyway.
The elections delivered a crushing blow to President Yushchenko's party. It came in third, after Yanukovich and Tymoshenko. The elections also revealed a country sharply divided into geographical regions -- not just East and West, but into three parts. Yushchenko's support is concentrated in the extreme west, the area which was a part of the Hapsburg Empire. Never before in recent history had Ukraine's leadership represented such a small part of the country. Yanukovich's power base is predictably in the regions where nearly 100% speaks Russian as a first language. The central part of Ukraine voted for the wild and wily time bomb known as Yulia Tymoshenko.
It is likely that both the Ukrainian and Belarusian regimes are unsustainable in the long term. In the case of Belarus, vaunted stability can last only for so long. Eventually people grow tired of it -- of seeing the same Soviet-era collective farm director every day in the evening news. But change is also problematic. Nationalistic opposition is so marginal, it has very little chance. Yet Lukashenko isn't putting forward any names which could succeed him. At least Russia's Yeltsin in the late 90's had repeatedly thrown new figures on the center-stage to see what would stick. Eventually he chose the previously unknown Putin, but not before trying many others. Lukashenko seems to be all alone so far.
In the case of Ukraine, consider this: a weakling president, with his head in the clouds and his powers curtailed even more by the last year's political reform; the Rada (the parliament) with no stable majority -- a swamp of corruption and special interests; an impotent, and frequently changing government. Sharply higher prices for Russian gas cripple inefficient industry. EU membership is a pipe dream, because of growing centrifugal tendencies in Europe itself. The Yushchenko government's drive to join NATO is rejected by some 80% of the population. Ukraine can't decidedly turn either East or West, and as a result alienates both sides with its unpredictability and reversals. In the end, probably some other middling but at least politically competent figure will arise, able to forge a weak compromise and balance of powers. A regime similar to that of President Kuchma of 1995-2004 again? Just a year ago this seemed impossible -- a scenario decidedly left behind in the past. Today it is much more likely to happen again. The more things change, the more they stay the same.