From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Mon Dec 18 07:17:25 2000
Date: Sun, 17 Dec 2000 15:13:44 -0500
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Charles Brown <CharlesB@CNCL.CI.DETROIT.MI.US>
Subject: Back in the U.S.S.R.
Outside the Theater of Musical Comedy in the Belarussian capital of Minsk, not too far from the old Valadarka K.G.B. prison, a well-dressed crowd waits in the rain for the theater to open. Tonight's gala performance is the hottest ticket in town, and judging by the fracas at the door, zealous government organizers have invited more people than the auditorium can handle.
Inside the theater there is a crush of dripping umbrellas as latecomers jostle for a place to stand in the aisles. When the curtain finally rises, the spotlight falls on a row of military men and gray-suited functionaries seated shoulder to shoulder at a long table. A large marble bust of Lenin occupies center stage.
“Today, on the 83rd anniversary of the Great October Revolution,” the master of ceremonies begins, “Belarus is once again formulating its national policies on the humane precepts of Communism.”
Applause explodes from the packed gallery. The orator, a bespectacled member of Parliament by the name of Vladimir Popov, pauses while the clapping subsides. “It is with the support of the people,” he continues, “that we are returning to the ideals of Communism, ideals based on social justice and equality.” The audience—pensioners with spit-shined war medals, factory bosses in shabby suits, stout middle-aged women and teenage girls in spiky knee-high boots—sits rapt as the rhetoric heats up. Popov denounces private property, the “immoral materialism and banditry” of the free market and the misery that has befallen the Slavic people since the “shameful” dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Dark murmurs of assent rise from the crowd.
When the name of Belarus's all-powerful president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, is invoked, the mood lifts palpably. Ex-K.G.B. border guard, cucumber farmer and open admirer of Hitler and Stalin, Lukashenko is hailed for restoring order and dignity to this nation of 10 million on Russia's westernmost frontier. “The president is guiding our generation toward a bright future,” pronounces the pimply chairman of the Patriotic Union of Youth. “He is the leader for these difficult times.”
The final speaker, Boris Khristofovich, a government sociologist, brings up Belarussians' favorite bugaboo—the United States. Washington's complaints about rough treatment of Belarussian dissidents has enraged the hard-line regime here and led to a rash of mysterious burglaries of American diplomats' homes and cars.
“The protests by the American Congress are simply propaganda, agitation to block our union treaty with Russia,” Khristofovich thunders. “But America cannot stop reunification of the Slavic nations.” His final words are delivered amid tremendous applause, while a military band strikes up the old Soviet national anthem. The crowd stands reverently, many with hands on hearts and a few with tears in their eyes.
As stagehands cart away Lenin's head to clear the boards for Act II of tonight's festivities—a variety show featuring the state Folk Dance Ensemble—it is hard to imagine that this is the year 2000 and that the cold war has been over for nearly a decade.
Yet this obscure nation was not always stuck in a time warp. It was here, after all, that the U.S.S.R. was consigned to history, when Boris Yeltsin and the presidents of the Ukrainian and Belarussian republics met in 1991 and pronounced the Soviet Union dead. Belarus was among the first new countries in the region to hold democratic elections, and its citizens were among the most enthusiastic capitalist converts, flocking by the millions to neighboring Poland to buy and trade goods.
How this tiny state went from budding democracy to authoritarianism so quickly—and willingly—has received little notice in the West. The Kremlin, however, has obviously paid close attention. Never mind that Belarus is a highly convenient client state for Moscow, acting as both obliging proxy for arms sales to rogue nations and loyal buffer against NATO's expanding front line. More important, there are intriguing parallels between many of the strategies and tactics employed by the Belarussian strongman—from intimidating media magnates, to attacking oligarchs, to restoring traditional Communist symbols like the Soviet-era anthem—and those adopted by Vladimir Putin as the Russian president struggles to establish control over his own chaotic country.
None of this should suggest that Putin is quietly planning to renationalize Russia's banks and major industries or to arbitrarily extend his term in office, as Lukashenko has done. But it does say something about the policy options available to the Russian leader as he tries to rein in cowboy capitalism and restore some sort of civic order.
Dr. Lev Demenuk was not always a Communist. He never believed the old propaganda about the evils of capitalism. Not until he experienced it for himself.
“I cheered when Yeltsin stood on that tank and the Soviet Union fell apart,” the tall, bearded physician tells me while we wait for a bus after the gala. “And I certainly didn't think I'd ever be celebrating Revolution Day again.”
The rain has stopped, and the streets are slick and empty. Minsk is very dark at night, with only the occasional streetlight or splash of neon to pierce the gloom. But the city feels perfectly safe—one advantage of life in a police state.
“We also used to have Chechen gangsters, and shootouts and robberies—all the things they have in Russia,” recalls Demenuk. “It was terrible. People were frightened to leave their homes.”
The bus arrives. It is crammed and steamy and, by the look of it, has been in service since the days of Brezhnev. Fortunately, Demenuk's building is only a few stops away. He lives in a Stalinist high-rise, virtually indistinguishable from the thousands of drafty, precast concrete structures Soviet architects slapped together after the Nazis razed Minsk to the ground.
We continue our conversation in Demenuk's tidy fifth-floor apartment, over Armenian cognac and sliced pears. “We had every kind of shortage. There were work stoppages and equipment failures. Our wages were wiped out by hyperinflation. You couldn't even buy a roast with your monthly pay.”
Demenuk talks about the polyclinic at the Minsk Automobile Factory, where he works as one of 60 doctors and dentists caring for its 29,000 employees. “The plant was on the verge of closing. Production had dropped tenfold. At the clinic, we were reusing hypodermic needles. We had no medications for the workers. It was like the war.”
Things got so bad that Demenuk thought about returning to Russia, where he was born and reared before attending medical school in Minsk. But Russia was in even worse shape. He even considered emigrating. “My sister had moved to Boston. I went to the States, too—worked under the table doing manual labor in Detroit for a while,” he says.
Demenuk liked America, even with the language barrier. But in the United States, he couldn't practice medicine. “I didn't want to end up as a taxi driver with a medical degree.”
There was some encouraging news from home, however. In the summer of 1994, a political unknown stormed onto the scene in Minsk. Aleksandr Lukashenko was charismatic and rugged, an avid athlete with a manly mustache and broad shoulders. At 39, Lukashenko was the same age as Demenuk, and many of the things he said struck a chord with Belarussians who longed for a strong leader, someone who would restore some sense and pride to their existence. He pledged to chase away the bandits and corrupt officials who were ruining the country, which in Soviet times had enjoyed one of the highest standards of living of all the republics.
Lukashenko swept into office as a savior. “He was our de Gaulle,” Demenuk says dreamily.
Lukashenko quickly set about bridling the free press; its pesky criticism, he said, impeded his ability to make needed changes quickly. Next he turned his attention to the country's shadowy league of big bankers, the “parasites” who had looted the country through dubious privatization schemes.
In renationalizing Belarus's banking sector, Lukashenko claimed he was simply returning stolen state property to the people. And the people cheered. Ivan Osintvev, for instance, a pensioner, had little sympathy for BMW-driving bankers. “I had my life savings in a bank that was privatized,” recalls the decorated World War II veteran, who as a young Soviet soldier was shot in the leg just outside Cracow when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. “The new owners closed the bank and ran off with my money,” about $2,000, he says. “The capitalists stole all my money. The president simply gave it back to me.”
I tell Demenuk Osintsev's story, and he nods; it's a tale he has heard many times before. “You can't have capitalism without rule of law,” he says. “And this is where Russia made a mistake. That is why our president must use a strong hand to maintain stability.”
Pouring another round of cognac, the doctor brushes aside charges that Belarussians who disagree too loudly with Lukashenko tend to disappear. “The president is a man of scale. The opposition is weak and insignificant. Why should he want to kill them? Besides,” he adds, “these are isolated cases. It's hardly the Stalinist purges.”
The Minsk automobile factory is buzzing with anticipation when I drop in on Demenuk the next day. President Lukashenko has brought back good tidings for the plant from his trip to Libya, just completed. The meeting with Lt. Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi went very well, apparently—even better than the visit to Fidel Castro the month before. “With respect to many key problems of international life and the world system,” reported Lukashenko on state radio, “we adhere to the same principles and positions.”
The cordial relations won Lukashenko one of Libya's highest honors, the Order of the Great September 1st Revolution, and military orders from the Libyan Army for the Minsk Automobile Factory. More promising still, the president secured a pledge from Qaddafi's Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company to help modernize the plant's crumbling assembly lines.
All this makes the factory's thousands of employees very grateful. “The president's personal support is the only reason MAZ has survived,” says Demenuk, using the Russian acronym for the plant. “Without him, I don't know what would become of this place.”
MAZ makes trucks, buses and the mobile Scud missile launchers used by Saddam Hussein during the gulf war. (Iraq is another satisfied MAZ customer.) Like the other industrial giants here—the Minsk Tractor Factory, the ladies' undergarment mill and the infamous Gorizont Television Plant, legendary producer of exploding TV sets and workplace of Lee Harvey Oswald during the early 1960's—it is state-owned.
During the Soviet era, MAZ churned out 45,000 heavy trucks and troop transports a year. But by the summer of 1994, when Lukashenko was elected, production had dropped off to just over 4,000 units yearly. The plant couldn't afford to buy component parts from Russia and was idle for months on end. No one was being paid. “The president came to see us in 1995,” recalls Vasiliy Luzanov, a patient of Demenuk's who assembles dump-truck cabins. “He promised that things would improve. But he said he needed greater powers to make that happen.”
At the time, Lukashenko was struggling with the country's Parliament, which showed little enthusiasm for many of his initiatives—chief among which was a reunification treaty with Russia that the president said was necessary to put the economy back on its feet. Twenty-five uncooperative deputies were beaten and dragged from the Parliament building by the president's bodyguards, and still the measure wouldn't pass.
In 1996, matters came to a head. Lukashenko called out the militia and parked armored personnel carriers outside the House of Representatives. While terrified deputies blockaded themselves in the building, Lukashenko held a sham referendum replacing them with handpicked supporters, extending his term in office and amending the Constitution to include five-year prison sentences to anyone caught publicly insulting him. (Moscow and Lukashenko finally agreed to the reunification in May 1997. )
Business soon started picking up for MAZ. Government subsidies began anew, and the plant's cash-flow problems were solved with billions of freshly printed rubles. So many new rubles, in fact, were coming off the printing presses that the central bank chairman, Tamara Vinnikova, cried foul. She was promptly arrested and spent the next 10 months in an isolation cell at Valadarka. Workers throughout the country, however, were ecstatic. By 1998 unemployment had dropped to a Communist-level 2 percent; price controls were slapped on everything from haircuts to eggs; and G.D.P., after years of harrowing contractions, soared 9 percent, according to government statistics.
“We're up to 15,000 trucks a year,” beams Luzanov. “The president promised, and he delivered.”
Not everyone at MAZ is happy about the state of affairs in Belarus. Demenuk's boss, for one, says he thinks what's happening in the country is “a damned tragedy.” A surgeon, Dr. Eduard Surinov runs the MAZ polyclinic. “If history has taught us anything,” he shakes his head, “it's that we have learned nothing. The government here is trying to reinvent the wheel. Communism didn't work the first time, so what makes anyone think there will be any big improvement the second time around?”
Surinov faults Lukashenko for bringing back a particularly destructive aspect of Soviet life: cheap vodka. “Last year when the price of vodka increased, the president went on television and raised everyone's salary,” he says. “In the 32 years I've worked at MAZ, I've never seen such rampant alcoholism. Every day I get at least 50 patients being carried in off the assembly lines, so drunk they need medical assistance.
“I'll tell you one thing,” he adds, laughing. “I wouldn't want to be driving one of our trucks.”
It takes two days, but the Foreign Ministry finally approves a formal tour of the factory. Our escort is from the plant's First Department, a euphemism for the K.G.B., which in Belarus has retained its old name and reputation for clumsy brutality. MAZ's resident K.G.B. officer is a short, sour-faced man by the name of Viktor Abramovich, who has watched over MAZ for the past 35 years and is visibly irritated that Westerners are carrying papers granting them complete freedom to photograph the plant. “No more than two pictures,” he decides arbitrarily, scribbling down the photographer's passport number in a dogeared notebook.
Inside the gates, the air is gritty and acidic. A gray mist obscures visibility, and the walkways are black and slippery with oil. Smoke pours out of blast furnaces, and dirty forklifts dart in and out of warehouses, beeping like bats in the night.
Abramovich sullenly leads us to the final assembly point, which is surprisingly clean and bright. “Two pictures,” he repeats as we make our way to the first station, where each engine is lowered by crane onto the black-painted chassis of an eight-ton truck. The engines are from Russia, another of Lukashenko's trade coups. They are supplied courtesy of a barter agreement he signed with the Yaroslav Engine Plant near Moscow, in which MAZ sends Yaroslav two completed trucks for every seven engines it receives.
As we continue on to the wheel-assembly station, Abramovich begins to grow flustered. “Enough! You're taking pictures of the entire assembly process,” he grunts, as if any trade secrets could be gleaned from the antiquated technology at MAZ, which was equipped in 1945 as a tank-repair facility using presses and lathes seized from the retreating Wehrmacht. The K.G.B. man grabs the photographer by the arm. “You take one more picture,” he snarls, “and you'll never leave this place.”
An hour later, having escaped the clutches of the K.G.B., we head out into the countryside to meet Surinov's in-laws, dyed-in-the-wool Lukashenko supporters. The village of Valevachi is about an hour's drive south of the capital in the heart of collective-farm country. Belarus, like Russia, has not dismantled its huge and hugely inefficient Soviet-era farms, and “Lukastalgia” runs at a feverish pitch in these parts. “The peasants call Lukashenko Little Father,” Surinov says, “just what the serfs used to call the czar.”
It's a little after 11 a.m. when we pass Valevachi's lone school and cemetery. “My in-laws' family used to own all this land,” Surinov says. “They were successful farmers before collectivization. Now they're completely helpless.”
We pull past cowsheds and crumbling granaries and turn into a muddy lane, where Surinov's 70-year-old father-in-law, Ivan Dimitrovich, is sitting on his stoop sharing a bottle of home brew with a neighbor. “Edik!” cries Ivan, using the diminutive for Eduard. “Why didn't you tell us you were coming? We're not dressed for visitors.”
“I know, I know,” Surinov shoots back good-naturedly. “Your tuxedo is at the cleaners.”
The neighbor, who is wearing a pea jacket and galoshes that reach past his knees, scurries away shyly as Ivan beckons us inside. The two-room clapboard house has low, crooked ceilings, rough-hewn floors and a few beds arranged around the wood-burning stove.
“Tell them how many TV sets you have,” Surinov gently baits his father-in-law.
“Three,” says Ivan, his weathered face breaking into a toothless smile.
“Tell them how many work.”
“None,” confesses Ivan sadly.
The old man is not missing much. Belarussian peasants have access to only one state channel, which is all Lukashenko, all the time, with the exception of reruns of “All My Children,” which liven up the evenings here.
Ivan keeps a small picture of Lukashenko tucked into the old black-and-white family portraits hanging from the wall. “There is no one like him,” he says, suggesting we crack open another bottle and toast to his health. It's a little early in the day for grain alcohol, but when I decline, my host pouts visibly and retreats to the shed to chop wood.
Ivan's sisters, Olga and Yekaterina, live in separate huts down the lane, and they also display Lukashenko's portrait on their walls. “The president raised our pensions and made sure we got them on time,” Olga says. “And he makes sure the collective farm has enough money for sowing and harvesting.” That's because Lukashenko has forced the country's renationalized commercial banks to extend interest-free loans to the farming sector.
“If the collective farm failed, you wouldn't have anywhere to steal from,” Surinov interjects. Olga smiles sheepishly. Her new fence is from boards pilfered from their collective.
Backward as it seems, Belarus is not the Soviet Union. The floodgates that were opened in 1991 have not been completely resealed, and pockets of Western influence remain. Minsk, for instance, has a biker bar. (It's called Johnny B. Good, and the leather-jacketed gentlemen who patronize it look distinctly unsavory.) There are six McDonald's outlets, including one right outside Dr. Demenuk's apartment. You can bowl in Minsk for $30 a game at the phosphorescent lanes of the Madison Disco. There's even a Rotary Club, where prizes at the annual dinner include plaques “For Flawless Behavior During Trying Circumstances.”
Carl Dagenhart won this year's Rotary award “For Supporting Belarussian Entrepreneurs During Hard Times.” As the resident representative of the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, Dagenhart has spent the past five years here watching the private sector shrink in half and Lukashenko roll back the political clock. “Unfortunately,” says Dagenhart, “demand for affordable vodka is greater than demand for a civil society.”
Belarus's unique history, explains Dagenhart, has made it particularly susceptible to authoritarian rule. “This place was never a country, just a crossroads for invading armies,” he says. Unlike the Baltics to the north, Poland to the west or to a lesser degree Ukraine, Belarus never developed a distinct culture or national identity, and its finest hour came when it served as the industrial hub of the Soviet Empire.
“Questions of democracy and freedom are secondary issues for the majority of the electorate in Belarus,” agrees a former Constitutional Court Justice, Valerity Fadeev, who resigned from the bench in protest after Lukashenko held the 1996 referendum to expand his presidential powers. “What people want here above all is order.”
The population's priorities are frustrating for the country's beleaguered pro-democracy groups. Vintsuk Viachorka heads one of the largest, the Belarussian Popular Front, or B.N.F., as it is known in Russian. He inherited the organization after his predecessor escaped arrest and took political asylum in the United States in 1996. Viachorka himself has been jailed twice, and is awaiting trial when I visit him at B.N.F.'s cramped headquarters in central Minsk. Outside its entrance, dozens of university students wait to pick up opposition leaflets, milling around underneath Belarus's banned national flag, a red-and-white banner that Lukashenko jettisoned for the old Soviet standard.
“We have in Belarus the prevalence of Homo Sovieticus, which Lukashenko has shrewdly exploited,” says Viachorka. “But we also have a whole new generation of students who were too young to have been indoctrinated, and they are this country's hope.”
I met several dozen student protesters during a Revolution Day parade and spoke to one of them as his fellow demonstrators tried to hide their faces from the K.G.B. cameramen who monitor every street rally here. “We don't want to live in the new U.S.S.R.,” Pavel Kosmach, a history major with wispy blond hair, told me. “We want to live in a normal country. Unfortunately, there's no forum for opposition outside of Minsk.”
Viachorka and other pro-democracy advocates agree that so far opposition to Lukashenko is clustered around the capital. But discontent is growing, they say; one opposition estimate puts 30 percent of the population in the anti-Lukashenko camp. “The smarter people are starting to realize that there is no future in going back to the past,” explains Viachorka. “You can't have a North Korea in the center of Europe.”
For now, past is still present in Belarus. Several times during our conversation, Viachorka puts his finger to his lips and gestures toward the light fixture to show that his office is bugged. We end up talking on the noisy street.
“Everything will depend on Russia,” he says. “Moscow has been heavily subsidizing Lukashenko's Stalinist experiment. Belarus is in many ways a laboratory for the Russians.”
According to American officials, Russia spends anywhere from $500 million to $2 billion a year keeping Belarus's wobbly economy afloat, mostly in the form of free energy supplies. In return, Minsk does Moscow's dirty work, selling weapons to embargoed nations like Iraq and Libya. With its harsh treatment of dissidents, Belarus also deflects criticism from human rights groups that might otherwise be leveled at Moscow. “Russian diplomats can sincerely point to Lukashenko,” says a State Department official, “and say at least we're not as bad as the Belarussians.”
“Clearly, Lukashenko could not have gotten where he is without the Kremlin's backing,” says Jaroslav Romanchuk, the editor of an independent weekly in Minsk. “He harbored very serious ambitions of becoming the leader of a reunited Belarus and Russia, and it was a shock for him when Yeltsin named Putin as his successor.”
Apparently there is no room for two Slavic strongmen in the post-Soviet bloc, for relations between Lukashenko and Putin have been frosty. “Putin's platform of strong leadership and order is similar to Lukashenko's,” says Romanchuk. “He doesn't want competition.”
There are some similarities between the two leaders. While Putin likes to don judo attire and pin opponents on television, Lukashenko enjoys skating vigorously for the cameras with the
Belarussian national hockey team. Both men show little affection for independent journalists, and neither has shied away from using force in the name of order. Lukashenko routinely unleashes his riot squads in Minsk, while Putin applies his heavy artillery to breakaway Chechnya.
So far, there is little evidence that Russia's leader is following the Belarussian example to its logical extreme. In Moscow, in fact, most people look at Belarus and say it can't happen here. “Russia is a very big country, with many more players with money and power,” argues Alexei Kaurov, who along with his wife, Svetlana, exemplifies a new breed of Muscovite more familiar with capital markets than with “Das Kapital.” “Too many people would have too much to lose in Moscow for Russia to go back,” Kaurov says.
But the picture is somewhat bleaker, he says, outside the Russian capital and St. Petersburg. In the collective farms, one-company towns, far-flung mining settlements and whistle-stops along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the benefits of a decade of capitalism have been far less obvious and are more likely to be associated with power outages and wage delays. “Most Russians will tell you freedom is chaos,” Kaurov concedes.