Corrected – Do you want change? Beware inertia
(This story has been corrected to make clear, in the fourth paragraph, that it was Shushkevich who fell victim to an anti-corruption drive, and not Lukashenko, who was a former state farm boss.)
By Elaine Monaghan
Twenty-one years ago, I learned the true meaning of the oft-quoted line from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The revelation took place not in Mississippi, where Faulkner’s work was set in the 1930s, but in the Minsk flat of the man who led Belarus out of the Soviet Union.
Stanislav Shushkevich, a physics professor and social democrat, had just been arrested, Soviet-style, at the start of a protest against the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
I wanted to hear about how Shuskevich fell victim to an anti-corruption drive that Lukashenko, a former state farm boss, had used to propel himself, in 1994, to the country’s first elected presidency. Shushekvich survived a little over three years as the country’s first head of state.
In his book-lined home office, a month after he had been arrested at the start of an opposition protest, I asked Shushkevich if he would run again in the next presidential election, pushed back two years in a referendum Lukashenko used to restart the clock on his first five-year term. “I couldn’t do a worse job than Lukashenko,” he shrugged.
Now nearing 86, Shushkevich has long made a living — Lukashenko froze his pension at a pittance in 1996 — by lecturing at universities overseas. He leads Hramada, a center-left, social democratic political party known for short by the Belarusian word for assembly.
A lesson to anyone interested in political and social change
Known as Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko, 64, is on his fifth term as president of a country of under 10 million that lies between Poland to the west and Russia to the east.
Lukashenko’s longevity is a lesson to anyone interested in political and social change. That includes the young of Generations Y and Z, who are getting a lot of attention for their efforts to overhaul U.S. gun laws and, in the recent past, to drive my homeland of Scotland into independence.
Back in the 1990s, the euphoric aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union sometimes eclipsed the harsh realities of elites holding on to power and vested interests standing firm against democratic reform.
They certainly blinded me, at least partly, to the long-lasting impact of communist rule and made it hard to picture Lukashenko still being president now — with another election that he might win in 2020, having shored up his power in a series of methodical moves assisted by Russia.
Lukashenko has won elections and plebiscites by huge margins that were questioned and criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization that works for human rights, press freedom, fair elections and arms control. He has granted himself dictatorship powers, shut down the parliament and removed term limits.
In 1999 and 2000, two opposition leaders, a journalist and a businessman disappeared.
The protests did not work.
While political tensions have eased in recent years and the economy has stabilized, U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House categorizes Belarus as a consolidated authoritarian regime and ranks it, alongside Russia, among the most undemocratic in the former Soviet Union.
Back in 1997, thousands of young Belarusians, determined to push their country into closer ties with Europe and away from Soviet-style repressions and union with Russia, marched under the banner of “Down with Lukashenko,” risking arrest or worse.
Even after his arrest, Shushkevich attended a protest that marked the 11th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which sent radioactive clouds north from Ukraine in April 1986.
“Will we win?” an 18-year old protester with a red-and-white nationalist band tied around his head asked him shyly.
“Of course,” Shushkevich replied, patting him on the back and adding in an aside: “The young ones are in the mood to win.”
They are not so young now, and the protests did not work.
The stubborn status quo in Minsk — which, as a Belarusian friend once aptly told me, would last “as long as there’s heat and water” — reminds me of a conversation with Robert Eksuzyan, a wise translator at Reuters’ office in Moscow, where I had my first foreign posting in 1994.
“Inertia!” was his one-word explanation for whatever had me scratching my head. He blurted it out with his customary, passionate logic, spreading his arms out for emphasis and looking at me indignantly — with some justification — as if I was daft.
We were probably discussing the lack of an outcry against President Boris Yeltsin’s bloody invasion of Chechnya, although there were plenty other things I might have asked him about. They included how Yeltsin clung to power despite public displays of drunk incoherence, how Russians could go without salaries for months or why Scottish people kept supporting their national football team.
I think if Robert were alive, his answer on American guns, Lukashenko’s longevity and now Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ever-extending presidency would be the same: “Inertia!”
I have the greatest of respect for theorists who have devoted lengthy tomes to examining the question of social and political inertia and how to overcome it.
But I have even more respect for the one-word wisdom of Robert Eksuzyan.
Elaine Monaghan has worked for two decades in international journalism. For Reuters, she was a correspondent in Russia; chief correspondent in Ukraine and Belarus, and in Ireland and Northern Ireland; and U.S. State Department correspondent in Washington. She joined The Times in 2002 as Washington correspondent before moving to the Congressional Quarterly. Currently she is professor of practice at Indiana University.