Staunton, July 15 – Many in the post-Soviet states and the West have been operating under the assumption that time is on their side and that with the passing of the older generation which grew up in Soviet times and absorbed Soviet values the share of the population that will want democracy and free markets will inevitably increase and ultimately win out.
But the relationship between the replacement of what one might call the “Soviet” cohorts by younger “post-Soviet” ones and support for democracy and free markets is more complicated than that, something that is suggested by a new Belarusian article entitled “Why Hasn’t the Lukashenka Electorate Died Out” (zautra.by/art.php?sn_nid=21908).
Anastasiya Belenkaya says that “it would seem tht time should have essentially ‘thinned’ the ranks of the supporters of the president given that the majority of them are pensioners and elderly people. However, over the course of 20 years, [his] ratings have not been subject to significant changes.”
That raises the question, she continues, as to “where are the ranks of his supporters coming from?” Clearly, “time is not working for the opposition” as it expected. So, “why is this happening and who is guilty?” To answer that question, she spoke with two leading social scientists who specialize on Belarusian affairs.
Sergey Nikolyuk, an expert at the Vilnius Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research, says that the basic “split” in Belarusian society is the same now as it was 20 years ago, between a younger and more educated urban minority and a larger and older rural population. The two are always on opposite sides of the barricades as it were.
Aleksandr Klaskovski, a Belarusian political scientist agrees. He points out that “Lukashenka’s opponents had the theory that is electoral base would significantly decrease by natural means over time. However, this hasn’t happened. And the main reason is to be found in the model of the state” which Lukashenka has created.
“As a talented populist, Klaskovski continues, “Lukashenka felt that he had to maintain a pro-Soviet system,” one that can be best described as “a remake of the Soviet model” in all spheres of life: a planned economy, “elections without choice,” “tsar-like powers for the president,” and “paternalism in the social sphere.”
Because he has done so, most Belarusians feel themselves to be wards of the state and assume that all good things emanate from the state rather than arise from their own actions, Klaskovski says. “And the state is Lukashenka in the first instance, a myth the president does everything he can to promote.”
Of course, Nikolyuk adds, many who voted for Lukashenka in 1994 have died, but at the same time, those “who 20 years ago were at the peak of their possibilities are getting older and are losing these chances.” And consequently, given the paternalism of Belarus, they are now acting much as their elders did two decades ago.
They may be more dissatisfied with this or that state policy than their elders were, but as they have aged, they too have “begun to place their hopes in the state because they do not know any other model.” They ever more clearly understand that Lukashenka isn’t basing himself on the people but on a harsh power vertical.
“But,” Klaskovski says, “that does not mean that people are soon going to begin voting for the opposition or go into the streets.”
Nikolyuk echoes that idea: “People can be disappointed specifically in Lukashenka but they cannot be disappointed in paternalism because this is the means of their survival.” Their elders didn’t need freedom in 1994; and they don’t know. Hence, they will at least for some time continue to support the state model Lukashenka has imposed.
“However,” Belenkaya suggests, this does not mean that everything is as it was. Indeed, the Lukashenka regime now faces serious challenges because Moscow has cut back subsidies and the economy is in recession with few prospects for serious growth in the future. As a result, the regime is rapidly getting to the point where it can’t pay for the system it has created.
According to Nikolyuk, that means that “a moment of truth is approaching when the government which has fulfilled the function which was laid upon it in 1994 loses the ability to do so” and for objective reasons rather than because of any decision from on high. People are becoming disappointed in the state precisely because it can no longer meet its promises.
In part, this is a worldwide phenomenon, he says; but in part, it is a uniquely Belarusian one. As of now, Lukashenka’s regime can no longer make use of its former populism because it has to take “unpopular decisions” ever more often. Lukashenko knows this, but he doesn’t know what to do in response.