Struggling to keep the situation functional: Alexander Lukashenko
No oligarchs, no mafia, totalitarian state control without any party structure, economic growth without significant natural resources…
Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus since 1994, has some peculiar features in his leadership style among the plethora of authoritarian leaders that emerged after the demise of the Soviet Union. No wonder that he is the most long-standing one to date, even as a brazen dictatorship in the middle of Europe. I find the public image about him leaning too much on the simple idealistic impression that he must just be dysfunctional if he is a dictator, which makes fall under the radar important nuances about him that do not fit such expectations. This only perpetuates the reasons he is still in power.
So, what is going on there? How does he manage to sustain what is called the last true blue dictatorship in Europe?
The issue of such a simplistic ideal concept of democracy is also a significant reason in creating the environment for the appearance of such authoritarian leaders. There is this impression that democracy simply works if you allow it that I experienced myself as a common public feeling after Communism fell in Romania in 1989. And this tends to be sustained by the Western societies themselves where democracy really works. They tend to be under the impression that, if you copy the outward mechanisms of democracy, then it works, which is also reflected in the poor quality job they do when they seek to spread themselves such mechanisms. Not that they should not do that, but they should themselves be more aware of what these mechanisms entail.
In reality, the process that led to democracy in the West supposed also some opening of the mind about personal responsibilities and a sense of empowerment in navigating the unknown of real life beyond what an autocratic ruler can provide. Obviously, there is still lots of work to do around this in the existing functional democracies too, but the start of a paradigm shift is already there. There are some aspects that those people discovered and experienced practically when undergoing such mindset reorientation and confronting by themselves as trailblazers the unknown of personal political responsibilities. These aspects may fall under the radar and then it may grow the impression that the outward mechanisms of the new paradigm are enough.
On the other hand, simplistic perceptions and the lack of preparation for what a real life unfoldment of the democratic processes supposes created lots of suffering in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. The economy that was already too dysfunctional was in free fall, while the political stage was too much of a mixture of populism, demagoguery, theoretical reform programs without in-depth investigations and reminiscences of old ways.
The background was a previous long-term experience of a huge discrepancy between simple ideals and practical reality that accumulated under the Soviet style of Communism. In a sense, these people can be much more aware of the need for some connection between theory and real life, while they may not be entirely sure what to do with the Communist mindset of sliding in a theory that feels with such a great functionality in itself, as a world in itself, ready to be applied in real life. The gap created by this awareness can be too huge and blocking.
In the West, this went into the direction of exploring what is beyond the organization sustained by an autocratic ruler that is likely too self-serving and too theoretical. The Soviet style of Communism is a by-product of this opening of the mind, as a reactionary recovery of the idea of a leader who can provide a simple theoretical organization and lead the people beyond self-serving authoritarianism. This turns itself into authoritarianism, but it is not an old school type anymore since it has intrinsically the Western opening of the mind of exploring personal liberty. The practical experience of exploring personal liberty in this Soviet Communist context turns into honing skills to get around the existing theories that were depriving you of resources in the name of a failing ideal of a common good and seek practical ways to provide for yourself. However, such practices of getting around the ideal theories mean also that people still orientate with their minds around such ideals as their only plateau of stability in the mind. And this creates an inner tension between sweet ideals and the sordid reality that is determined by believing in such ideals.
The Western world too still largely orientates its mind around ideals as plateaus of stability in the mind. The democracy itself is largely portrayed in simple ideal terms, which tends to determine poor quality results when they seek to spread such ideology. Much of the practical experience is less conscious at this moment. Initially, they were not so aware of what a complexity they opened with the democratic quest and, the more they practice it, the more they discover new nuances that they need to give answers to. What is good compared to the Soviet Communism is that the ideals themselves are rather vague and open-ended, not so much as clear ideas about what to do in real life. Occasionally, they end up too in huge gaps between ideal and reality and, if the situation is saved somehow, is by getting back to explore the possibilities to navigate the unknown of real life beyond the concept of an ideal as a lazy psychological plateau. This can give some ideas to the post-Communist societies too, but again, not as copying the outward image, but as seeing personally what to do with the unknown of political responsibilities.
As for Belarus, the fall of Communism saw it initially on a path similar to many other former Soviet countries, with a political and economic disarray, with a head of state and a prime-minister quarreling among themselves . In this environment, a young Alexander Lukashenko jumped to the limelight with an anti-corruption campaign, with specific accusations against other politicians, many of them turning out to be false later on. Initially, he was not taken seriously, being seen as just an aspiring politician coming from the countryside, former small-time director of a state farm, with no connections, no powerful allies.
However, Lukashenko proved to be very charismatic and agile and won in 1994 the first presidential elections with a populist platform. He did not even bother to create a party around himself. Initially, he switched sides between the existing parties as it suited him best, and then he won the elections as an independent. He focused on a direct connection with the electorate, giving voice to their issues, grievances and insecurities, creating the image of an authentic one of them, who understands the problems, who is in tune with their wish for a functional society, who keeps alive the functionality they experienced in the times the Soviet economy did not get so bogged down and who supposedly presents a program to restore it.
Women voted for him considerably more than men, probably considering him as capable of saving the situation. Nowadays though, the staunch female electorate still on his side tends to be made of older women from the countryside. Later on, this issue even had a role in his clumsy approach to the repression around the 2020 elections, when he under estimated the triumvirate of female politicians, given his misogynistic mindset.
Those 1994 elections were to be the last free ones to date. Once in power, Lukashenko wasted no time to dismantle step by step the mechanisms of the incipient Belarusian democracy, turning everything into a powerless facade, with all the real power concentrated in his hands. Apparently, all went in a similar direction to other former Soviet states, but there soon appeared significant differences. Namely, the situation did not degenerate so much into a corrupt dysfunctional world for autocratic standards.
He is not the more typical kind of dictator, insecure and obsessed with validation and personality cult, which are largely absent under his regime. He likes to appear in public with young beautiful women and that’s about it in this regard. He takes care to suppress any incipient competing center of power, including by murder, but it tends to be about practical realistic calculations. He does not rely so much on repressive control specifically to give himself some blanket peace of mind. Instead, it is more about a social contract of maintaining an acceptable standard of living for the people while they accept his absolute authority. Unlike the other former Communist countries, he managed to restore and even improve a sense of normal life with simple straightforward morals as in the previous times when the Communist management did not end up yet in such a mess. In order to do this, he also restored the state-run economy capable of employing large masses of people.
By the time he took power, the Belarusian economy was in a downfall, with about half of the population unemployed. He stopped the reforms initiated up to 1994, he reopened the state-owned enterprises, he relied on breaking apart any developments of local managerial turfs and he did not permit any serious private oligarchic growth. Everybody outside his inner circle knows that they will be punished if they try to abuse their position. To make this work, besides the public examples of officials and employees who took a wrong direction, he appears to rely on a public feeling that there is a common ground and some benchmarks of a sense of functional morality in the society.
He does not seem to have much of that self-disdain the dictators tend to develop as a result of the fact that they know they are a fraud and they have to fake every second of their lives, which propagates in the society as a toxic moral morass. In such dictatorships, people feel too that all is fake and the attempts to keep the corruption down ring hollow. Additionally, such self-disdaining dictators tend to create a sense of common ground as a personality cult, which is too static and this also gets them stuck in a stale structure. They are too blocked mentally to think about the bigger picture and they have the tendency to just siphon off the existing economic structure. It is too obvious for everybody that there is no genuine central interest in the common good.
Lukashenko’s internal psychological balance appears to rely on a feeling that he is authentic when assuming organizational responsibilities, which is further reinforced in relation with people, who validate as genuine this feeling of authenticity and his struggle to keep the situation functional. And thus, for a long time and for a majority of the Belarusian population, there was a feeling of a socially responsible common ground, instead of the spread of a self-disdaining toxic morass.
The significant part that helps sustain this success is that he keeps it all in some proportions with the concept that he is a simple natural man, which is cultivated also in public with spontaneous reactions that feel genuine, so that people can connect with something that feels like a genuine common ground. He has a way of speaking that signals he pays attention and explores the fluid complexity of real life and he does not get stuck in theoretical structures, while he still keeps some sense of structure that feels relevant in relation to real life. This sense of structure in connection with the unpredictable fluidity of real life is what gives answers to lots of Belarusians traumatized by the loss of the Communist simple ideals and further messed up by the assumption of the democratic mechanisms as some simple ideals.
He also has a way to reprimand subordinates as public performances, in which the undercurrent intended perception is that he is much more in touch with real life as a result of this simple, unsophisticated approach. In reality, he may not really understand himself all the time the complexities of practical organizational issues at hand, but what is relieving for people is that he moves the situation beyond the post-Communist social mess caused by the discrepancies between the simple, unsophisticated idealism and real life. The undercurrents of his political success are an unsophisticated involvement in the fluidity of real life while keeping some sense of structure. Regarding this sense of structure, it is mostly inspired from the former Communist past, he is not innovative in this sense, only that he moves it beyond the former Communist idealistic theory.
It is also noteworthy his ‘bad cop good cop’ routine, in which he intervenes in the decisions of his own administration in order to find ways to make them more humane or less painful for the people, which also feels for the electorate that he is in touch with their real problems. All these aspects combined gave the vibe to lots of people that there is something genuine, that the leader sustains some underlying sense of order in the complexity of real life, which turns into a feeling that there is some sense of public common ground and morality in touch with real life that you can rely on.
This permitted some restoration of the simple sense of social morals from the Soviet times, even with some improvements, as it is something assuming the lessons learned from the past. Namely, it avoids any ideological illusions and trappings. His public performances are not like those of some Soviet officials from the past who were also cultivating a public image of being in touch with real life in a simple way, but who nevertheless ended up in a morass as a result of the unrealistic ideology. His cultivated sense of authenticity is more about facing directly the unknown of real life.
Creating a party around himself would be more like an unnecessary burden for him. It is like he is working with a blockchain level in human relations, in which a non-centralized information accumulated and refined along many generations about what feels authentic is distributed among every individual. Other strong men may engage too in such public performances of cutting to the chase, but the people feel how inauthentic it is when such performances rely on a centralized idealistic sense of order. That blockchain level of accumulated human experience that creates a sense of authenticity gives some idea about the limitations of such an idealistic sense of order, and thus this instead spreads in the society a toxic self-disdain similar to that of the leader, especially after the practical experience of what it means to apply the Soviet style of idealistic Communism in real life.
In practice, this moral common ground developed by Lukashenko can be too simplistic, with people who are not so guilty falling prey to its blind spots. But what is essential there and it is sensed by people as answering to their dilemmas around correlating ideal common grounds and real life is that it is open ended and realistic in relation to the fluidity of life while it also has some sense of relevant structure. It does not get stuck in some static rigid structure that suffocates everything. This increases considerably the functionality of the society, something similar to the open ended Western ideals, only that in this case it enables a better top down control of the situation, given that it does not turn so much into a toxic social morass and it keeps the corruption low. The only serious possibilities for corruption are at the top and they are exploited by Lukashenko and his inner circle, while keeping an eye on not draining too much of the vitality of the economy. And he manages to do this while keeping some sense of moral common ground for the rest of the society as there is a feeling that he is invested in managing it and he leads it into the fluid unknown of real life.
The result of Lukashenko’s leadership style is that the country has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, streets are safe and Minsk is one of the cleanest capitals in Europe. Life can be kind of dull and boring though, as a result of the fact that it is not a democracy. Plus that, if you end up in the blind spots of his simplistic way of being in touch with real life or you are stepping out of the permitted political lines, then you are going to suffer the consequences. Additionally, basic health care and education are free, the poverty levels are low and the country has one of the lowest wealth inequality rates. Lukashenko does not get lost in the trappings of developing a self-centred structure in the mind, as an ecosystem of meaning emanating from himself, while in practice you can see a sense of structure everywhere in Belarus, one that faces directly the unknown of real life.
Such results in Belarus are the opposite of what happened in Russia and Ukraine, where the majority of the population experienced much suffering in the 90s, where the feeling that you can rely on a social sense of morality collapsed, crime reached abysmal rates, organized crime and oligarchy flourished. Much of the time, Alexander Lukashenko was more popular in these countries than the local politicians themselves. Early on, he pushed towards more integration with Russia for practical reasons, but there were also speculations that he was hoping a possible reunification would open the way for him to become the president of the new country, considering also the context of the poor performance of the leadership of Boris Eltsyn in Russia.
Whatever hopes were there, they certainly dimmed after Putin consolidated his power and later on Lukashenko himself had to fend off Putin’s wish for unification. Now it was Putin after the presidential position of the projected unified state, which would have permitted resetting the number of his presidential mandates without needing to modify the Russian Constitution.
Who knows to what extent Lukashenko would have been able to repeat his Belarus formula or even find on the huge scale of Russia new unexpected angles to his work with a blockchain level in human relations, also in the context that the situation already degenerated badly there and powerful oligarchs were already entrenched. Putin does not have the absolute power Lukashenko enjoys on his turf, since he allied with some oligarchs in order to suppress the others.
The practical reasons for the close relation with Russia brings us around the question of how exactly did Lukashenko put a state-owned economy back on track when considering that in the previous Soviet times it was already increasingly dysfunctional. Well, in practice, the previous structural problems remained the same, but he managed to alleviate them for many years with support from other angles. One of them was his previously mentioned new sense of a fluid, flexible structure not tied to any ideology or party structure and also some sense of moral common ground that he managed to revive in the society.
Another important one is the direct and indirect subsidies from Russia. He constantly played a balance between Russia and the West, in order to make the Russian authorities keep subsidizing Belarus with cheap oil and gas and also cheap loans. The profits from these handouts were constantly pumped in other state-owned companies operating at a loss. Additionally, Belarus has favourable terms for export tariffs in Russia, which continues to be its main export market. In this process, it is amazing how little the Russian authorities got back, especially when in comparison to the relations between Russia and other former Soviet states. The oligarchs around Putin constantly put pressure on him to make Lukashenko yield major state-owned companies and infrastructure, but little could be obtained in the negotiations. And the little they got was siphoned off too much in Belarus and much of the profits stayed locally anyway. Additionally, an informal source of profit in this relation is smuggling across the Belarus — Russia border.
Another unconventional source of money to prop up the rest of the economy is selling weapons from the Soviet stocks to whatever pariah regime around the world needs them. Besides such streams of income, the state-owned economy was supported with financial engineering that in time turned into compounding issues of inflation and debt. Structurally, the way many of the state-owned companies are operated is unviable. There is no incentive for effort, improvement and innovation outside Lukashenko’s scolding of officials. The companies that do make profit have to give money to a National Development Fund, in order to subsidize the failing ones. Such policy discourages them from undertaking potentially promising activities.
The economy is not entirely state-owned as in the Soviet times, there is freedom for private initiative, but for most of the time the state sector was treated as a priority. There can be heavy regulations around the private sector and on the local level the authorities seek to supplement the local state resources with fines and pressures to contribute to social projects. This is allowed and encouraged by the upper ranks, but these lower ranks can’t do much beyond that for personal interest because they are tightly controlled by the central authorities and attempts of local corrupting collaboration between officials and private sector are not so viable. At a central national level it is about dealing directly with Lukashenko and his inner circle, and this can open ways for corrupting relations, but they must pay attention to not become too powerful. Lukashenko and his sons are the only ones with real power in Belarus. Anyone else, including those from the inner circle must pay attention to not become too powerful. This makes the situation better than the mafia-ridden oligarchic economies of Russia and Ukraine, since Belarus is more like Lukashenko’s personal domain and it does not suffer so much from the tragedy of the commons. But this is also the blockage that keeps the country away from a development like in the neighbouring democratic Poland and Baltic states.
There were periods of reformist initiatives when the spectre of the insolvency of the economy grew too much, but the authorities usually lost the enthusiasm when they got some Russian financial support. Initially, such problematic situations were many times caused by the decrease of the Russian support itself, as a result of not yielding to the Russian demands. But, after a while, the Russians were yielding themselves, all culminating with a visit of Lukashenko to Moscow, as a way to portray Putin as a great statesman, in what is called the “oil for kisses” scheme. The current Russian authorities use to behave like a dysfunctional abusive lover with their give and take in relations with those kept under their sphere of influence. Only that in this case they have to deal with someone who has some more structure around such issues and can turn much of their tactics against them. On the other hand, such constant financial support diminished the interest in doing something about the structural problems of the economy.
In 2007, in one of those reformist periods, they developed a separate tax and legal regime for the IT sector, by letting it operate under the principle of extraterritoriality, largely disconnected from the rest of the economy. These provisions were kept in place and they proved in time to be so conducive to the development of a vibrant IT sector. It does not contribute much directly to the central pillar of Lukashenko’s strategy of a social safety net, since for now it employs only about 1% of the workforce, but it is an important source of revenue and economic growth, with a share of about 10–20% of the exports. Some important names in the IT world are in fact from Belarus, like the game World of Tanks or the application Viber.
Another important aspect around this topic is that, unlike the reasons the IT sector in Russia became known for as a result of Putin’s encouragement for nefarious activities, the one in Belarus is mostly legal business abiding by the rules, well integrated in the Western economy. And the people who work in this field tend to have or develop a Western democratic mindset, rather interested in a governance with proper rule of law.
Overall, regarding this IT field, not even the nearby democratic countries were so flexible and refreshing in paying attention to keep up with the times, in order to facilitate such a success. The nearby Estonia is another kind of success in IT, namely in the direction to digitize as much as possible the functioning of the state administration.
Lukashenko can be agile and open-minded when he feels it necessary, since he does not rely so much on a static structure, but he does not apply this to further investigate around the overall landscape of economic and social development. That would mean going beyond his formula of being a simple man much more in touch with real life, which produces refreshing results only as a reaction to existing issues. And the overall result turns into this strange mixture of dusty state companies operating at a loss and cutting-edge IT innovation with amazing possibilities of growth and anything in between.
The accumulation of all those aspects described before made possible in the period 1996–2010 a sustained economic growth, even above the global average, while keeping the wealth inequality low. But the compounding accumulation of issues many of those aspects suppose meant that such a formula was increasingly unsustainable. The productivity and innovation gap between the state sector and its counterparts in the rest of the world was compounding, the loans and inflation were compounding too. The Russian budget was itself in an increasingly bad shape and less able to sustain the lifestyle of the Belarusian heart-breaker. People are changing too and the newer generations grow more in touch with the rest of the world through the Internet and social media, beyond the local controlled mass-media. The success of the IT sector in itself is an increasing problem for Lukashenko, as many from this area can be very vocal in demanding democracy and proper rule of law.
Further on, it depends what you are comparing this situation to. If compared to the nearby Poland and Baltic states, maybe initially Belarus had it better under Lukashenko for a while, but it could not last long. Nowadays, the situation is getting better every year in the nearby democratic states, while the economy of Belarus is struggling under the issues it accumulated. The discrepancy is increasingly obvious. Plus the increasing self-awareness of larger parts of the population that simply want democracy as a natural social environment. Compared to Russia and Ukraine, it continues to be better. Russia may have a higher median income per capita, but it also has a huge wealth inequality and you can see the difference at the border between countries. The Belarusian provincial municipalities tend to look better than the nearby Russian ones, it is not only about the readily noticeable difference of road quality when you cross the border.
This overall situation can give some idea about the increasing pressure on the streets around the recent round of frauds of the 2020 elections. The growth of the protests showed also the importance of a sense of a common moral ground developed by Lukashenko. The dissatisfaction was brought even more to the surface when the repression of the initial protesters was too harsh. The repression also brought much more to light a larger visibility of the electoral fraud, which was also undermining the simplistic sense of a moral common ground. But there remain some underlying issues that keep a large part of the population away from demanding changes.
This gets back to the basic issues that made Alexander Lukashenko so popular for such a long time. Namely that the opposition does not feel like offering solutions for a functional democracy in touch with real life. They evoke too much the spectre of the mess after the fall of the Soviet Union and of the suffering that entrenched itself in Russia and Ukraine. To put it in a few words, the development in the nearby Poland and Baltic states looks nice, but most of the population feel that they are in the same psychological league with Russia and Ukraine, with a keen awareness of a high gap between simple ideals and practical reality. If they let the democracy unfold, they feel it will be more likely to end up like in the latter case than in the former.
The opposition largely works on the same unchanged principles that it is enough to let the democratic mechanisms unfold and things will get on a better course. It is necessary to think about how to relate the mechanisms of democracy to real life, to investigate how the gist of these mechanisms works in real life and thus realize more in-depth angles of what this supposes. The first reaction in these East European countries was too much as a static relation between simplistic democratic ideals and an unavoidable real life, which was just turning into an increasing amount of lazy compromises around those static ideals that are supposed to work by themselves. Plus that important streaks in the current Belarusian opposition that are connected to wannabe oligarchs are about lazy, servient reliance on Russia, in the style of Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine.
In this sense, I want to point out what I notice as some good aspects among some other streaks in the current opposition. Sergei Tikhanovsky, the main opposition contender in the recent elections, likes to present himself as similar to the better known Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition figure, as an easier point of reference for the Western audience. They both give voice to the real situation through the Internet, but there are some structural differences. Navalny is mostly about unmasking the corruption of the Putin regime, this is his bread and butter. Tikhanovsky, on the other hand, rose to the public attention when interviewing common people and giving a voice to what is going on in real life, through YouTube videos. This was the kind of approach that felt much more realistic, bringing the fluidity of real life to the forefront, in connection to the democratic ideals, beyond an informal background status, and probably this has a role in a stronger mobilization of the population in Belarus than what Navalny was able to achieve in Russia.
The current Belarusian opposition itself does not pay much overt attention to the issue of how to connect the theoretic democratic mechanisms to the practice of real life, but inadvertently an approach like that of Sergei Tikhanovsky likely opened the gates of a more genuine popular participation. And my impression is that both Tikhanovsky and Navalny are not personally innovative in what they do, they just go along with what Lukashenko and Putin trailblazed. Lukashenko and Putin are the ones who managed to create in the past a new workable political structure of stability on the ruins of the crumbled Soviet world and the current democratic opposition just goes along with it while professing a simplistic assumption of democracy.
Tikhanovsky just goes along with the psychological structure of stability developed by Lukashenko in the Belarusian society, that of a common ground among people, of a genuine connection with a sense of authenticity that is distributed among people like in a blockchain database beyond any centralized concept of organization, which permitted for the social structure in Belarus to not degrade so much as in Russia and Ukraine. In what he is doing it feels like he just tapped into a gold mine of authenticity and he just rides on top of it without paying much attention to what it is that about. Officially, he just thinks that the application of democratic mechanisms will put the situation on a good path and that’s about it.
On the other hand, regarding Navalny’s worldview, Putin is not like Lukashenko, he is more of a typical autocrat trapped in his own structure of power, afraid of the complexity of real life beyond it while selling the people beautiful dreams of a stable normality around a strong leader, which turns him full of staleness and self-disdain because all his life is a theater of fakeness, trapped in being other people’s larger than life symbol. He may have had some inspiration from Lukashenko’s success, but Putin’s application revolves around the concept of an ideal hero that is supposedly in control of the unknown, not of someone who is in his element within the flow of the fluid unknown and who swims through it while providing a sense of structure, as in Lukashenko’s cultivated public image of a simple authentic man.
The overt spread in the society of this beautiful dream of stability around a strong man propagates also at its blockchain level of authenticity the undercurrent of Putin’s contemplation of the dreadful, paralyzing complexity of real life organization that grows as a counterpart of such a hollow image of a strong man. This may look like his weakness, but in a perverse way it is in fact strengthening his regime, because it paralyzes most of the other people too. People are taken out of their simple perception of the world to end up just facing frontally the undercurrent of Putin’s realization that he is a joke in relation to the organizational tasks he is supposed to solve as a strong man.
This creates fragile, insecure people who see their ecosystem of normality easily crumbling down when things get more complex in real life. Some of them stick to the official dream of a strong man as an island of stability amid all that revealed complexity. This is valid also for the people outside of Russia mesmerized by these dreams Putin sells. Others are open to admit that Putin is a joke, but it did not appear yet in the Russian society something to face that paralysis in dealing with the organizational complexity of real life. They just tend to revolve around Putin, to denounce him for what he really is, but are also afraid of relating to real life. If they just unmask Putin’s beautiful dreams and they don’t focus on anything else, it means that they just revolve around those dreams they unmask as their only plateau of stability in the mind. They don’t do much about that psychological paralysis spread by Putin and they just define themselves around him. They just cling to the sui generis sense of stability created by Putin in Russia without any other real life ideas.
Most of the population feels that such denouncers do not give answers to the basic question that appeared increasingly relevant after the fall of Communism: namely, how do you relate the democratic mechanisms with real life? It continues unabated the basic problem that such opposition politicians believe a simple application of the democratic mechanisms would set the situation on a good path. They feel out of touch with reality, and in fact many of Navalny’s supporters have a lot in common with Putin’s supporters, both with tendencies to turn into fragile and insecure people when in contact with real life. These opposition politicians live too with their minds within the specific sense of stability created by Putin.
This while the population tends to have some heightened perceptions at a decentralized blockchain level of authenticity around whether a politician can deliver or not, as a result of the long-term miserable experience with the Soviet style of Communism and with its discrepancy between magnificent ideals and a dystopian reality. Such commendable and valuable perceptions do not necessarily go in a virtuous direction, since that would need further cultivation and conscious attention to them, beyond the formal focus on the plateau of idealism. They may as well go in the direction of appreciating a dictator who really feels immersed psychologically in that decentralized level of authenticity, who really assumes it, appreciates it and who provides a sense of structure that feels relevant for that, as in Lukashenko’s case. Or a dictator who assumes that deeply realistic level of complex perceptions by projecting a supposed super-masculinity that feels let down and disappointed by all that revealed complexity and feels entitled to use it as a self-centred debauchery of manipulations, as in Putin’s case.
Putin’s approach is like that of the Soviet citizen who learned how to dribble through the idealistic Communist system and to seek his personal interest. His problem is that such smart ass satisfactions keep him too much of a prisoner of a ridiculously simple and narrow-minded idealism as his only plateau of stability in the mind. He does not really take the bull by the horns. Lukashenko is about getting back to the initial premises of that idealism, while assuming and integrating the realism and sense of authenticity of the blockchain level. He overhauls the sense of organization to some extent and the results of his leadership are on significantly better bases than what is going on in Russia.
In Putin’s case, it is too much of an empty self-confidence, self-promotion and manipulation without substance. It is not about appreciating that blockchain level of realism as a level of human authenticity, but about short-sighted manipulations while winking at the followers about how supposedly smartly Putin leads them for their personal interest. Those who enter in this Putinist worldview first slide into sensing that blockchain level as a place of limitless freedom of self-serving manipulations and then, after a while, as a messed-up complexity. Most of them double down when they end up like that. And those who seek to make a difference by unmasking all this Putinist pretence and its real misery need to pay attention to the extent they may end up too in Putin’s messed-up complexity and they may just revolve unconsciously around his projection of order as their only island of stability, while they supposedly combat him.
Lukashenko, on the other hand, is more about really assuming the complex realism that blockchain level is revealing, about being solidary with it and in his element there. And thus his self-confidence has more relevant bases. He really works with that level frontally and in bilateral negotiations Putin reveals himself as a messed-up “fake it till you make it” junkie. Only that Putin rules the mighty Russia, while Lukashenko the medium-sized Belarus. And personally I am not entirely sure whether Lukashenko could replicate his specific formula on the huge scale of Russia, while I realize some potential to deliver even more utterly unexpected angles to his formula if put in this situation.
As for the opposition in both Belarus and Russia, they need to face the fact that democracy does not just work as an ideal, and they need to see what to do with such a mindset enforced a lot by the previous Communist times, as well as with the heightened perceptions of a decentralized blockchain level of authenticity in human relations. Sometimes they may present better organizational angles, but these tend to be the easy pickings in contrast with what does not work in the current undemocratic administrations and thus they just lean on the overall structure of such administrations and the prospects to replace them are weakened. It is necessary to do this as a personal responsibility around the unknown of organization and administration.
If they seek to relate the democratic mechanisms to real life, it feels for them that it is getting too complicated, the simple ideal is damaged and they just need to make corrupting compromises (which they will end up making in practice as a result of this mindset). It is necessary to sense how to go beyond such a simple ideal and realize how these democratic mechanisms suppose some personal responsibilities and quest in facing the unknown of real life, which does not suppose abandoning the good ideals. In the West, this was forged through painful conflicts in which people grew some more awareness about their own responsibilities and empowerment. But they are not very conscious of this and they spread the concept of democracy in the world as just some outward idealistic mechanisms.
The opposition in Belarus and Russia also has to face the extent it largely goes along unconsciously with the trail blazed by Lukashenko, respectively Putin. They have to face the sui generis level of stability brought by these two dictators, each with its own specific flavour and the extent they just revolve around it without other valuable ideas. If they want to get out of that spell, they need to trailblaze a better path relevant for real life. It is important to point out what is wrong with the current regimes, but it is essential to focus on what does not work even without these dictators.
Obviously, this has to be perceived as serious and authentic at that blockchain level in human relations. One can start interviewing common people like Sergei Tikhanovsky, but it may not have any serious effect if it is felt done just for ticking a box, for cheap and easy political gain. And, also obviously, interviewing common people is not a solution in itself, the specific success with that angle was more like a signal about the need to work with the fluidity of real life. This is what is important.
Ukraine did not produce such a stabilizing dictator and it did not find out ways to sense the gist of the democratic mechanisms either. Notice how the current president Volodymyr Zelensky won the elections with his comedy TV series Servant of the People. This came after all kinds of messed-up experiences with democracy. The step-by-step unfoldment of the series was able to grow in the viewers’ minds some level of coherent connection between democratic mechanisms and real life, beyond simple ideals. Obviously, it was not really about real life, but a controlled fiction, kind of revolving too much around a providential leader, and it was more like a vaccine that does not inoculate you with the real viable virus. This made lots of people go beyond the mental blockage around how to relate such mechanisms to the fluid complexity of life.
But this is a kind of vaccine that needs to take some more steps in order to help you relate to the real virus. At this point, it largely depends on the turns taken by the internal reactions of the body, whether it just remains as a good feeling of an impression of figuring it out while still keeping it theoretical or it turns into some further opening of the mind about how to really relate to the fluidity of life. Much of the results may as well end up revolving around the same propensity for beautiful dreams about a functional life around an ideal leader that Putin manufactures too from some other angle in Russia. Only that, of course, this is a far cry from Putin’s ridiculous brand of that supposed super-masculinity, as this is on a way more constructive basis in the exploratory free democratic context. In this respect, Lukashenko may inadvertently give a head start with his ability to develop a sense of authentic common ground connected to real life that for the moment his opposition only exploits unconsciously, without further responsible work about what to do with it.
Who knows how the situation will evolve in time. Maybe the long-term dabble with democracy in Ukraine will pay off and some more in-depth work with its mechanisms will grow. But it may as well just keep continuing the same misery indefinitely, while some better leaders in Belarus or Russia may develop a healthier relation with the democratic mechanisms. For all such countries, it depends on whether and when it can grow some more relevant work with these mechanisms. This is what is important.
As for Lukashenko nowadays, the large scale of 2020 protests weakened his position, the underlying issues of the structural problems in the economy don’t go away either and this is exploited by Putin as an opportunity to finally gobble up Belarus in his mafia-ridden oligarchic empire. Lukashenko is doing his usual agile manoeuvring, but his position is more complicated than ever and it remains to be seen how things will evolve.
This is a post scriptum added by the end of April 2022, after creating and posting the YouTube video narrating this article. I wrote the article in the autumn of 2021, before the 2022 war, thus it has no references to this important event and I thought to add a few impressions.
For the moment, Lukashenko managed to resist Putin’s pressure to add the Belarusian troops to the Russian war effort. While in a meeting with Lukashenko, Putin was ordering staged provocations with Russian airplanes bombing Belarusian targets from Ukraine, so that it looks like Ukraine bombs Belarus and thus force his hand. Lukashenko downplayed that and also other pressures, he allows the Belarusian army corps to express desire to stay out of the war and he continues to walk a tightrope by going along with Putin while seeking to not get so involved.
In such situations he reveals himself as relying too much lazily on Putin, it is like he is uninterested in anything other than the long-term popular experience with Communism that created the post-Communist ethos of these two dictators who continue with its basic framework. At this point, he is mostly pleased to have Putin as a useful idiot that thinks about the bigger picture and gets dirty with all the consequences, while he is minding his own business in Belarus under Putin’s umbrella. It continues this wonderment in my mind about how would have Lukashenko reacted to the task of administering as a dictator the huge country of Russia and to all its consequential necessities to think about the bigger picture.
On the other hand, regarding Zelensky’s “vaccine” of experiencing the relation between democratic mechanisms and real life through a TV series, it looks like “the internal reactions of the body” in relation to the heavy pressure of this war went into the direction of an immersion in the blockchain level of authenticity in human relations, but from a democratic perspective. While Lukashenko was more popular than many politicians in the localized context of the former Soviet states, now Zelensky is more popular than many politicians across the Western countries with long-term established democracies.
All this long-term real life experience with the Soviet style of Communism and with all that idiotic idealism accentuated a psychological work with a blockchain level of authenticity in human relations and this can as well show even more in-depth ways to work with the democratic mechanisms, especially when put in dreadful circumstances.
Sources for the economy of Belarus under Lukashenko:
Why the Uprising in Belarus Failed
It's six months since the fraudulent election in Belarus sparked mass protests against Alexander Lukashenko's…
Chapter: State Capitalism in Belarus: Behind Economic Anemia
Open access peer-reviewed chapter DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.93606 From the Edited Volume Edited by Alexander Rozanov…
How Russian money keeps Belarus afloat | DW | 30.07.2021
Russia has supported its western neighbor Belarus for decades - long before the European Union and the United States…
The Political Economy of the Belarusian Crisis
Adam Przeworski famously wrote that "authoritarian equilibrium rests ... on lies, fear, or economic prosperity."…