In 1991, at a hunting lodge in the Belarusian forest the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus effectively dissolved the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) with the stroke of a pen.
For the first time in modern history, Belarus was a fully independent state. The challenge now was to build a country – a “new” national identity for an ancient land – completely from scratch.
Enter Aliaksandr Lukashenka, the mercurial president of Belarus since 1994. This former deputy chairman of a collective farm was elected with the sword of anti-corruption in one hand and the shield of nostalgia for the old USSR in the other. He was then, like now, a populist who “tells it like it is” and revels in confrontation. He was elected in the second round of voting, with 80% of the vote.
Opposition groups have struggled to be heard, or even recognized, ever since.
“There is a genuine fear of losing one’s job or getting kicked out of school,” says Aliaksandra, one of the younger members of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (BSDP).
Involvement in any party branded ‘oppositional’ is a risk only a few dare take.
Aliaksandra remembers being at a protest when she “became aware of the type of country” she was living in and that things weren’t right. “I remember my university’s administrator was very strict and tried to find out who was attending opposition meetings,” she recalls. “He would pass along names to the police.”
She joined the BSDP to emphasize women’s role in opposing Lukashenka and has been a youth leader in the party’s women’s movement ever since. “As social democrats, we try not to assign values and specific ideologies,” she said. “Rather, we emphasize the need to participate and get engaged in politics to affect change.”
Encouraging political participation is easier said than done however. Roadblocks to a dialogue between the voters of Belarus and political organizations in opposition to Lukashenka are common place.
Marie, a former member of an opposition group describes the unenviable situation in which opposition groups find themselves. “Opposition have no access to mainstream TV, radio or newspapers,” she says. “They do have a presence on the internet, but the people who vote, mainly older and rural Belarusians, are only watching and reading the state-run press.”
While awareness and visibility are crucial to winning the votes of Belarusians, there may be a more subtle and underlying issue – a national indifference to politics. In a country where voting is irrelevant and the idea of civic duty a foreign concept, advancing political engagement can be a Herculean task.
“Belarusians are extremely apathetic and indifferent toward their politics,” Aliaksandra argues. “It seems like no one believes a fair election is possible.”
She recalls not receiving a notice informing her of the location of her polling station at all in the last parliamentary election. That contest saw all 110 seats in the National Assembly go to Lukashenka loyalists.
“There’s an overwhelming feeling of ‘we’re not going to win anyway, so let’s boycott the entire process,’” says Marie.
She recalls the state-run television announcements, which she equates to propaganda.
“In the run up to elections, pensioners and state employees experience a boost in their salaries and opposition groups, if mentioned at all, are demonized.”
Some, however, feel opposition groups fail to convey a positive message along with plans for the future of Belarus. While anti-Lukashenka rhetoric may go far in some circles, it may sway voters looking for serious change.
Dr. Grigory Ioffe, an academic who has focused on Belarus, noted some of the most telling critiques towards the opposition came from within.
The Bielaruskaja dzielavaja hazieta (BDG), an independent newspaper in Minsk printed a laundry list of reasons the opposition have failed at the ballot box. They included the opposition’s failure to, “come up with an attractive and positive programme of its own even though they had years, not months, at their disposal,” that “boycott and blanket rejection were its major tools,” that “instead of acting on behalf of the electoral majority, the opposition created the impression that it acted on behalf of a special caste of the initiated and was in no way connected with the majority of the people, on the grounds that this majority was composed of the ‘nationally indifferent’”.
The newspaper also noted that most voters are “intensely irritated” when the opposition promises the return of “Belarusian national symbols” such as the Pahonia crest and white-red-white flag “‘inherited’ from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.”
Marie had a similar experience before she stopped working with the opposition.
“Many of the opposition parties and groups are unorganized,” she says. In the last parliamentary election in September 2012, their leaders encouraged Belarusians to cook soup or go fishing. “Some are well funded by the West, but it is wasted due to poor management. I left the opposition disappointed and disenchanted.”
In looking to the scheduled presidential elections in 2014, it doesn’t appear that a new strategy has yet emerged.
“I’m not sure what our election plan will be,” Aliaksandra concedes. “We’ll be talking with opposition groups in Moscow who are in a similar situation, but that’s all at this point.”
While the political situation in Belarus is increasingly complicated, Lukashenka’s hold on nearly every aspect of society, whether legitimate or not.