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8 Jan

Michał Potocki (Poland)
Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, 4.7.2014

Saszka dorwał się do mikrofonu/Sashka grabbed a microphone

There is an idea that in 1994, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, then almost a forty-year-old deputy who won the hearts of the Belarusians as a knight errant fighting true and false corruption, was the hero of the first color revolution in what was the USSR back then. The former director of the sovkhoz Garadzets was the first one in his region to win the election beating Moscow and the governing nomenclature. The events associated with the victory in that election constitute one of the most interesting stories in the history of Belarusian politics.

 

Two times Gierek                                                                

Twenty years ago, the world was excited over the World Cup as well. The role of the dark horse during the FIFA World Cup in the USA was played by Bulgaria and Romania, rather than Columbia and Costa Rica. In Brussels, a decision was made to make a certain Luxembourger the President of the European Commission – at that time, they meant Jacques Santer, not Jean-Claude Juncker. In Belarus, the newly created post of the president was probably to be taken by Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich. He was a pro-Russian, similarly to Lukashenka, and promised in his campaign that he would kneel before Moscow when asking to accept his country as part of the Russian Federation.

 

Kebich had everything at his disposal, including the media. Television was playing a key role in shaping public opinion at that time. For this reason, all the battles in all of the post-Soviet wars in the 90s were about taking control over the TV headquarters. A day before the second runoff, the predictable Kebich sent an army to the television headquarters in order to defend his victory, if necessary. The television only praised him. “Television is a public institution after all,” explained Aliaksandr Abramovich with disarming honesty.

 

Vyacheslau Kebich had administrative resources enabling him to have the desired results during the election at his disposal and additionally, he was supported by the Kremlin, so when lost the first runoff with 17:45 votes, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was sent to his rescue. Moreover, the heads of governments signed a protocol concerning the implementation of a formerly agreed currency union. It didn’t matter that the union violated the constitution, according to which Belarus was to have monopoly when it came to shaping financial politics. It was important that it was in concert with the social expectations about the coming back of the good old times of the USSR.

The myth of little stabilization from times of Piotr Masherau, the head of the Belarusian SSR between 1965, who had been expected to become the deputy of Leonid Brezhnev, but then died in a mysterious car accident, was still believed in. In times of Masherau, a Belarusian would move from the countryside to a city, buy the first washing machine and television set and even see the sea during his/her holidays to Crimea. Air transport was flourishing even between smaller towns. It was subsidized by the budget to such an extent that sometimes workers flew to a neighboring district during their lunch break to have a beer. Masherau was like two times Gierek.

In the meantime, the fall of the USSR didn’t bring anything good to the richest in Soviet Belarus. At least, there was a popular opinion as it was the fall of the USSR that caused the bankruptcy of the country, not the other way round. Nevertheless, in 1992-1994, Belarusian GDP dropped by 20 percent and the living standard halved. Inflation was unstoppable and in 1993, it reached 1,997 percent. If not for personal land plots, in which every person, from a worker to a professor, was growing their own cabbage or potatoes, many Belarusians would not have been able to provide for their families.

He was frequently right

And in this situation, Lukashenka emerged. At first, he was blindfold when it comes to politics. In 1990, when he was appointed member of parliament, he was not concerned with the communist establishment. He was successful not due to his intelligence or the knowledge of how to gain power, but due to his perfect sense of politics and ability to decipher the mood of the crowd. Aliaksandr Rygoravich always knew in which direction the wind blew. As head of the state-owned farm (sovkhoz) Garadzets, he appeared to be the biggest proponent of changes in the market, a pioneer of the sovkhoz perestroika. Also, politically— after obtaining mandate, he created a faction supporting Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms — Communists for Democracy.

When in 1991 the independence euphoria spread over Belarus, he was trying to get closer to nationalists from the Belarusian Popular Party (BNF). But when moods changed, he claimed that he was the only member of the parliament who voted against the dissolution of the USRR (in fact, the only opponent of Belarusian agreements was Valery Tsykhinya). This untrue version can still be found in many publications. The nostalgia for the communism and hate of democrats who were blamed for the economic crisis, resulted in a situation where neither the first leader of the independent Belarus, nor the leader of the BNF, Zianon Pazniak, were able to win.

Being pro-Russian was probably the only Kebich’s trait that was blamed for the economic crash when he was prime minister. Lukashenka knew that his rival shouldn’t be attacked for his foreign policy. Instead, he said that he would place monument to Kebich in the center of Minsk for his accomplishments when it came to the integration with Russia — the same Kebich whom he also called a corrupted mafioso and whom he threatened with imprisonment.

“His speeches in the parliament were spiced with populist elements but they frequently made sense. He was speaking about the necessity to create the independent press and court. But with time, he started making enormous promises and he didn’t even considered if they could be kept. We had an ironic attitude towards him. Oh, yes, Sashka grabbed a microphone. Now he is going to be talking and there’s no stopping him,” a quote from Anatol Lyabedzka, one of the current leaders of the opposition who was a member of Lukashenka’s staff back then, can be found in the recently published book “Lukashenka. Niedoszły car Rosji” (“Lukashenka. The would-be tsar”) by Małgorzata Nocuń and Andrzej Brzeziecki.

It was the banner of the fight against corruption that helped Lukashenka to strengthen his position. In 1993, the parliament made him head of the commission for detection of power abuse. He was nominated by a member of parliament, Lyabedzka. It was supported by the head of the parliament, Shushkevich, who soon lost his post because of this. The former wanted to improve his own position, using the fact that the popularity of Lukashenka was growing. The latter wanted to use the energy of overly talkative deputy from the district of Mogilev. They both made a terrible mistake.

 

8 kilos of nails and a vibrator

In the context of the ongoing degradation of economy and pauperization of society, nothing influenced people more than news about corrupt politicians. But it never came to millions of dollars or embezzlements from the budget like in the times of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. The problem was caused by some trifles. To give an example … when the commission started working, Lukashenka accused Shushkevich of embezzling … 8 kilograms of nails. The issue was caused by the fact that when a garage was being constructed beside Shushkevich’s dacha, he hired a man who was working in the ministry as a jack of all trades.

 

“In Shushkevich’s order, eight kilograms of nails were mentioned, although in the sovkhoz governed by Lukashenka, less than five kilograms would be enough. This is an example of terrible corruption!” Shushkevich writes in his recently published memoir “Majo życcio, krach i uwaskroszannie SSSR” (My life, crash and resurrection of the USSR). Lukashenka described everything in his report concerning the work of the commission and his speech at the parliament’s forum in December 1993 that was broadcast by television. The politician became a real star. The scandal concerning one pack of nails had an impact on Shushkevich’s image and when in January the authorities gave away two communists responsible for clashes in Vilnius in 1991, the deputies used both pretexts to relieve Shushkevich of his function. After a couple of months, he polled only 10 percent of votes during the election.

But he almost had a chance to get more of them. The drafters of the constitution had wanted to include a rule that the president would have to be at least 40 years old when elected. Lukashenka was short by a couple of weeks. But he managed to change this rule by saying: “Are you afraid of Lukashenka?” In his electoral campaign, he continued talking about corruption. He claimed that after the election, he would imprison 70 important civil servants and that others would be sent to the Himalayas in a plane. Kebich was alarmed. He had to counterattack. He started it in the style of a half authoritarian country with the strong public media. Television was broadcasting damaging information, or kompromat, as methods for black PR are called in the East, about Lukashenka every day.

The strangest evidence was provided by a certain stewardess, who claimed that her possessions, including her hair dryer, vibrator and a pack of sweets, disappeared when she was coming back with a parliamentary delegation from Beijing. Lukashenka’s luggage was searched by respective services and — fancy that! — the lost items were found. The nation didn’t react in the way the authorities had expected. For them, Lukashenka, the defender of people, was being destroyed by corrupt politicians.

The president-to-be used this atmosphere. “I don’t need a hair dryer, because I’m bald!” the authors of “Słuczajnego priezidienta” (Accidental president), Pavel Sheremet and Svyatlana Kalinkina, quoted Lukashenka as saying. With humor, he was also able to comment on Kebich’s boast that the government was able to have cheap Russian gas for Belarus — “One should organize elections in winter so as not to frighten people with cold in summer” — he commented.

Nocuń and Brzeziecki quote the memoirs of Aliaksandr Fiaduta, one of Lukashenka’s staff members: “He was standing in the center of the scene, talking about his favorite ”epic“ -- how he was fighting with any-headed corruption. It lasted for about two hours and he was answering questions for another two hours… Then he took off his jacket and the shirt was completely wet on his back… He sat down. His pale and fatigued face was blank… And people started running from the stands. It seemed that they were not living their seats, but running ahead, through chairs, they started running towards the scene in a compact mass. They confidently came closer to their hero. They reached with their hands towards the speaker. People were looking for some pieces of paper, notes, books — anything that Lukashenka could sign. They crowded in front of him not as if he were an idol, if not a saint”.

Lukashenka’s age was also in his favor. He was 39 years old and he called Kiebicz to surrender his seat to younger people and to stop getting in their way. The new generation of Belarusian politics that was, of course, led by him, followed by a group of his peers, was referred to as “young wolves.” They were ambitious, cynic people who though that after Lukashenka’s victory, they would be able to subordinate him and divide the power. The group comprised: 30-year-old Fiaduta, 33-year-old Anatol Lyabedzka, 34-year-old Dzmitry Bulakhau, 35-year-old Viktar Ganchar, 36-year-old Viktar Sheyman, 39-year-old Leanid Sinitsyn and 44-year-old Gennadz Karpenka. After the success, they will all be eliminated, except for Sheyman, or will resign on their own, disgusted by the breach of democratic rules. Ganchar went missing, probably murdered by a death squad, and Karpenka had a stroke in mysterious circumstances.

But at the moment, the electoral campaign was still on. Its biggest sensation was the alleged assassination attempt on Lukashenka. This sensation increased his popularity. The future head of the country was going in his office Mercedes from one meeting to another. Near the village of Lyozna in Vitsebsk district, the car was allegedly shot at by a machine gun. One of the bullets went a couple centimeters away from Lukashenka’s head, while Sheyman covered his boss with his own body. This is the current and official version. KGB claimed at that time that the assassination was faked and the bullet was shot in the direction of the car from a couple of centimeters after the car had stopped. This version is supported by the current opposition. It is claimed that it was all Sheyman’s idea.

What is the truth? The security police was controlled by Kebich’s government at that time, so officers had to blackout the alleged assassination on his rival. What is more, the career of Sheyman, the only person who has lasted in the closest circle of the president for twenty years, suggests that the president owes a debt of gratitude to him. On the other hand, the assassination attempt between the first and the second runoff was a dreamed refuge from presidency for him. That is also why a couple of days after the first runoff, he allowed the police to hurt him when he was trying to enter his former office in the government headquarters. Officers didn’t want to let him in, because the corruption commission did not exist anymore, so Lukashenka was not allowed to enter the building.

“The “assassination” and “assault” on Lukashenka by the police in Lyozna and in front of the government headquarters explicitly prove that the representatives of KGB, the Ministry of the Interior and the general prosecutor’s office were taking part in the project “President Lukashenka”, “ wrote Andrey Lakhovich. And he refers to facts — the attack in front of the government headquarters was not led by a regular police officer, but by Cheslau Tsaluk, an officer with the rank of colonel and the decisive order was given by the head of the Ministry of the Interior, general Uladzimir Danko. After the elections, Lukashenka didn’t destroy their careers. Currently, Tsaluk is responsible for the defense of VIP buildings and Danko is a retired president of the Academy of the Interior. If they had ordered to hurt Lukashenka without his consent, they would not have been so fortunate.

On the one hand, the authorities challenged the authenticity of those accusations and on the other… they organized their own assassination attempts. The media claimed that a grenade had exploded in the house of Kebich’s close co-worker, Gennadz Danilau. The alleged assassins also threatened to plant a bomb in the television headquarters. But people didn’t believe those stories. Only the assassination attempt on Robin Hood could be true, because it was perfect for the genre. And no one wanted to hunt for the Sheriff of Nottingham – let’s use the same allegory – and even if that was possible – not many would feel sorry for him.

The style of both campaigns complemented the process. Lukashenka’s campaign was conducted the American way, to the extent that was possible in Belarus in 1994. In his memoirs entitled “Iskuszenije włastju” (“Temptation of Power”), Kebich blamed his circle for his fail and he was quite right. “My pre-election staff, instead of acting, only simulated work, sitting in their offices. At the beginning of each staff meeting, they were expressing their confidence that the election would definitely be a success. Mikhail Miasnikovich (the head of Kebich’s Staff, now the prime minister of Belarus – ed.) claimed that he controlled the executive power, which will be more successful in talking citizens into voting for me than any propagandist (…). I didn’t suspect then that they were having separate talks with Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s staff…,” he writes.

 

Marionette at large

The bottom line? On 10 July, 80 percent of Belarusians voted for Lukashenka. Kebich lost 175,000votes compared with the first phase of the election. The master of demagogy, who claimed Felix Dzerzhinsky and Franklin Roosevelt to be his favorite politicians, triumphed and he became the second youngest president in the history of post-war Europe. Only the Yugoslav president Zoran Lilić (in power between 1993 and 1997) was less than one month younger. After his fail, Kebich, despite the president elect’s protests, resigned from his post. Contrary to his concerns, he was not imprisoned and deputy prime ministers Miasnikovich and Siargey Lin, apparently due to the negotiations described by Kebich, retained their posts. Kebich himself received deputy’s mandate two years later.

It soon turned out that contrary to the hopes of the young wolves, Lukashenka didn’t want to be a marionette. One by one, he subordinated the media, government, courts and in 1996, after a dubious referendum, he changed the parliament into an institution consisting of his supporters. Since 1994, he has conducted three referendums, he has organized presidential elections three times and parliamentary elections have been held five times. He has been changing his economic politics, his attitude towards reforms, relationships with Russia and the West, the substance of the national ideology and the level of repression. The young wolves from his circle were at first replaced with representatives of security agencies that were eventually driven out of their offices by the people loyal to the eldest son of the president, Viktar. One thing hasn’t changed: Belarus still doesn’t know any other president except for this well-built man with a combover.

 

 

Originally published: http://edgp.gazetaprawna.pl/index.php?act=mprasa&sub=article&id=486379