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West Takes Aim at Belarus’ Pro-Social Policies

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Belarus is one of the few remaining genuine alternatives to the neo-liberal economic order. A US nurtured and bankrolled fifth column is working with Washington to topple it from within.

By Stephen Gowans

The US government has nurtured a fifth column in Belarus to help overthrow the Lukashenko government to replace its socialist-oriented policies with a made-in-the-USA neo-liberal regime that favours US investors and corporations.

The US State Department last year provided funding to five opposition parties and 566 opposition activists, and support and training to over 70 civil society organizations, 71 antigovernment journalists and 21 opposition media outlets in Belarus. On top of that, 900 Belarusian youth were enrolled tuition-free at US government-expense at the European Humanities University. The university is an alternative to Belarusian state schools which the US government condemns for failing to “support the country’s transformation to a free-market democracy.” [1]

The US government has been nurturing Belarus’s anti-Lukashenko coalition since President George W. Bush signed the Belarus Democracy Act in October 2004. The act authorizes the US government to spend millions of dollars to create antigovernment media in Belarus, train election monitors to discredit Belarus’s elections, and back civil society organizations opposed to the Lukashenko government. [2] Washington pledged nearly $12 million to Belarusian antigovernment forces to fight the March 2006 presidential election. [3] The opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, lost badly, an outcome Washington attributed to vote fraud. But even Western newspapers and polls paid for by the Republican Party’s international arm, the IRI, acknowledged that Lukashenko would win the vote handily and that the opposition’s support was in the single digits. Having failed to meet its regime change objective in 2006, Washington authorized further spending of $27 million in each of 2007 and 2008 to support opponents of the Lukashenko government. [4]

The mantra from Washington, echoed by dodgy leftists close to the US ruling class, is that Belarus is governed by an authoritarian president who abuses power to win elections. As we’ll see, this is an invention used to justify US meddling in Belarus’ internal politics. What authoritarian measures the Lukashenko government have taken have been defensive reactions to blatant Western attempts to engineer a free-market coup d’etat.

Contrary to the charge that he is Europe’s last dictator, Lukashenko is an elected president whose electoral victories have been based on wide popular support, earned by promoting the interests of the vast majority of Belarus’ citizens. Washington’s real grievance with the Belarusian government is that its policies are at odds with the interests of US investors and corporations.

Here’s what’s wrong with Belarus, according to the CIA:

• Not enough structural reform.
• Market socialism.
• Private companies have been re-nationalized.
• A wide range of income redistributive policies has produced levels of income equality almost unmatched in the world, but these policies have made Belarus unattractive as a destination for US investment. [5]

Here’s the view of the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal:

• Foreign banks are virtually shut out of the country.
• US investors are barred from buying land.
• Basic goods and services are subsidized by the state.
• Retail prices are regulated.
• The government continues to rely on state-owned enterprises.
• Tariff barriers and subsidies make it difficult for US companies to compete in Belarus. [6]

The Economist’s Intelligence Unit complains that:

• Belarus follows active policies of import suppression and export promotion.
• Lukashenko “pursues a policy of pervasive state involvement in the economy.”
• The government denies ownership rights to the commons, keeping natural resources, waters, forests and land under public control. [7]

The Washington Post says “The economy of Belarus is still state-controlled (and) the nation’s food is grown on collective farms.” [8] And The New York Times points out that “Mr. Lukashenko…has steadily turned Belarus into a miniature version of the Soviet Union itself, with a state-run economy.” [9]

Is Belarus under Lukashenko really as socialist-oriented as US establishment sources say?

Tatyana Golubeva, general secretary of the Communist Party of Belarus, part of a governing coalition with Lukashenko, says “Belarus is still on the socialist path of development. We are one of the few that never gave up.”

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez praises Belarus “as a model of a social state,” likening it to the society Chavez’s Bolivarian revolutionaries are building in South America. [10] Chavez, who calls Lukashenko “a brother in arms” [11] awarded the Belarusian leader Venezuela’s highest award for foreigners, the Order of the Liberator. Lukashenko has also been awarded the highest honor Cuba bestows on foreigners, the Order of Jose Marti.

Belarus retains the symbols and social supports of its Soviet past. An imposing monument to Lenin still guards the approaches to the government headquarters. Education through university is still free, and university students continue to enjoy living stipends as they did in Soviet days. [12] Much of the economy remains under public control.

Clearly, Belarus isn’t the kind of place the CEO’s, corporate board members and investment bankers who dominate decision-making in Washington can warm up to. Sure, Minsk’s policies are good for ordinary Belarusians. Basic goods and services are kept affordable, the public controls the commanding heights of the economy, and income equality is virtually unmatched in the world. But what about the interests of American investors and exporters? Where are the profitable investment opportunities? Where are the lucrative export markets?

Building an opposition

To oust Lukashenko and his socialist-leaning policies, the US government set out to mold a disparate group of opposition parties and activists into a single, coherent unit, guided by a single executive with authority to enforce common goals and strategy. The international arm of the Republican Party, the IRI, has assumed a leadership role in focusing “primarily on the process of consolidating and unifying all of the pro-democratic elements in the country into a single coalition.” [13]

True to the game plan the US government has followed in engineering soft coups in other countries, the opposition has been given a name that underscores its professed struggle for democracy against an alleged dictatorship. While the West created the Democratic Opposition of Serbia to oppose what it called the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic, and the Movement for Democratic Change to oppose the misnamed dictatorship of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, in Belarus the US-backed and funded opposition goes by the name of the United Democratic Forces (UDF). Its goal is to oppose and topple the alleged dictatorship, and socialist-oriented policies, of Alexander Lukashenko.

The US government uses the word “dictatorship” in a unique way. Belarus is decried by Washington as a dictatorship even though the country’s political system is a multi-party democracy with universal adult suffrage. [14] Dictatorship is to be understood in the world of Washington’s regime changers, not as rule by an individual or committee, where suffrage is absent, but as rule by elected officials the US government opposes because their policies are either immediately or indirectly at odds with the interests of US capital. Branding a socialist or nationalist leader as a dictator provides the US government with a pretext to sanitize its interference in the internal politics of foreign countries by misrepresenting its meddling as democracy-promotion.

The US government has likewise tried to discredit the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, referring to Chavez as a would-be autocrat, to justify nurturing and bankrolling the “democratic” opposition. Chavez, Milosevic, Mugabe and Lukashenko have all pursued policies that have rejected, in various degrees, the free-market, free-enterprise, free-trade orthodoxy Washington insists all countries (but itself) adopt.

The UDF comprises 10 opposition parties and more than 200 NGOs. In 2005, the coalition selected Alexander Milinkevich as its candidate for president. Terry Nelson, national political director of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, practically ran Milinkevich’s 2006 campaign, according to The New York Times. [15] But help from the Republicans was not enough to overcome Milinkevich’s failure to resonate with the public. The UDF’s own polling, paid for by the IRI, “showed the ratings of Milinkevich and other opposition leaders in the single digits.” [16] Lukashenko won the election handily with 83 percent of the vote, a lopsided victory the US government immediately attributed to vote rigging, on grounds that no one could be that popular.

But there are plenty of elections elsewhere won by higher margins which the US government has endorsed as fair reflections of the democratic will. The US-educated and fiercely pro-US ruling class Mikhail Saakashvili polled 97 percent in Georgia’s 2004 presidential elections, without Washington batting an eye. Kurmanbek Bakiyev won 89 percent of the vote in Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, without incurring Washington’s disapproval. And Eduard Shevardnadze, when he was still Washington’s man in Georgia, polled 92 percent of the vote in Georgia’s 1992 election, without repercussions.

Laying aside US government double standards, there are a number of reasons to believe the 2006 presidential vote in Belarus was free and fair. All the polls, including the opposition’s IRI-paid poll, anticipated a Lukashenko victory as a virtual certainty. This reflected Lukashenko’s enormous popularity, something even members of the opposition acknowledge. [17] “Even his fiercest opponents don’t question the accuracy of independent polls that rate him the most popular politician in the country.” [18]

Lukashenko’s popularity derives from policies which favour the working class over Western investors. He has,

“presided over a continual increase in real wages for several years…He has also cut (the value added tax), brought down inflation, halved the number of people in poverty” and created “the fairest distribution of incomes of any country in the region.” [19]

Belarus’ egalitarianism has been a particular irritant to the US government. While the Lukashenko government’s income-redistribution policies have maintained a narrow gap between the rich and poor, they have also reduced the attractiveness of Belarus to the US corporate rich as a venue for profitable investment. With a choice of serving ordinary Belarusians or catering to corporate America, Lukashenko chose the former and incurred the wrath of the latter.

Beginning in April 2007, the IRI, along with the Democratic Party’s international arm, the NDI, and the Council of Europe, hosted a series of meetings with UDF members, culminating in a national congress attended by 693 delegates. The purpose of the meetings was to formulate coalition strategy and to draft a transitional constitution to be rolled out if and when the UDF topples the government and seizes the reins of power [20] (at which point it will sell off public enterprises, end subsidies for basic goods and services, and reverse Lukashenko’s income redistribution policies.)

Uncle Sam’s NGOs

The US government also provides “extensive support, grant making, leadership and capacity building to over 60 indigenous NGOS.” The US State Department, PACT and the NDI have assisted 60 NGOs in various ways, purchasing goods and services for the organizations, setting up cross-border exchanges with other NGOs, offering advice on strategic planning, and doling out over 40 grants. To strengthen connections among NGOs, the sponsors established a Leadership Fellows Program, to build leadership skills among members of the anti-Lukashenko opposition. [21]

The NDI, “held a youth conference in February 2007 to assist youth groups in their efforts to mobilize, build organizational capacity, (and) improve cooperation.” Not to be outdone, the IRI hosted 10 sessions for more than 300 Belarusian youths, to train “the next generation of political leaders.” These sessions were led by “trainers from across democratic Europe,” [22] non-violent pro-democracy activists trained to foment uprisings in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Every few months, disciples of Gene Sharp, the US-based guru of non-violent regime change, are “deployed abroad to teach democracy activists how to agitate for change…going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.” The Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, bankrolled in part by the IRI and the CIA-interlocked-Freedom House, plays a leadership role in these training sessions. [23]

Along with Renaissance, Pontis, and the Eurasia Foundations, the US State Department helped found the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank of pro-US ideologues prepared to disgorge policy advice congenial to the US government’s free-market, free-enterprise, free-trade ideology. [24] When the media need quotes from “experts,” they turn to BISS.

As part of efforts to shape public opinion, the US State department funds European Radio for Belarus, an anti-Lukashenko radio station, joining Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, US-government-sponsored propaganda radio stations, in preaching the anti-Lukashenko, anti-socialist, pro-neo-liberal gospel. On top of ERB, Western regime changers doled out $24 million to Media Consulta, a German-led consortium to broadcast anti-government news into Belarus. Individual European countries have also kicked in. [25]

The fifth column goes to Washington

The Republican Party has been heavily involved in nurturing Belarus’s opposition, meeting frequently with its key activists. In April 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held meetings in Lithuania with members of the opposition, discussing the use of “mass pressure for change,” [26] and pledging $5 million in backing, to be provided through the IRI. [27] It is typical of color revolutions, including the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the ouster of Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia, for the US-sponsored opposition to accuse the government of electoral fraud. This provides an occasion to mobilize opposition supporters to take to the streets to force the government to step down. At her meetings in Lithuania, Rice told opposition representatives that the impending presidential election would be an “excellent opportunity” to challenge the government. [28] The opposition followed Rice’s strategy to a tee, not as much “running an election campaign as…trying to organize an uprising.” [29] The New York Times commented that Milinkevich was “campaigning not for the presidency but for an uprising.” [30] For the opposition, an uprising was the only realistic path to power. Polls paid for by the IRI “showed the ratings of Milinkevich and other opposition leaders in the single digits.” [31]

Opposition activists have unique access to high US State officials through the IRI, and have been provided a platform from which to deliver persuasive communications to a wide audience – a platform they would not have without US government influence.

The IRI hosted a delegation of opposition activists over eight days in December, 2007. The delegation had private meetings with Rice and a nearly one-hour meeting with US President Bush, after which each delegate had his photograph taken with the president. The IRI also arranged for the delegation to meet with the Washington Post editorial board, to answer questions on a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty call-in show beamed into Belarus, and set up radio and television interviews with the official US overseas propaganda service, Voice of America. [32]

This came on the heels on another UDF visit to Washington hosted by the IRI from February 26 to March 2. On this trip, delegates met with State Department, White House, and Congressional officials, and shared their points of view with the media, including The Washington Post, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In its meetings with US officials, the delegation expressed its gratitude “for the support of the US government.” [33]

Supporting a working class-friendly alternative

There are a few reasons to oppose US interference in Belarus’ democracy.

Belarus is one of the few remaining places on earth in which the commanding heights of the economy are publicly owned, where robust income redistribution narrows the gap between rich and poor, where essential goods and services are subsidized so they remain affordable to all, and where education is free and university students receive a living stipend.

US government interference in Belarus is not aimed at promoting democracy. Belarus already has a democracy, both in the narrow, technical, sense of offering universal adult suffrage and regular elections featuring a multiplicity of parties, and in the broader, more meaningful, sense of being a place in which the interests of the bulk of people predominate.

US government interference in Belarus is aimed at the very opposite of democracy: promoting the interests of a super-privileged minority comprising US and Western investment bankers, CEOs, corporate board members, and hereditary capitalist families, who seek unfettered access to Belarus’ resources, markets, labor and public assets. Corporate America wants to own Belarus’ banks, waters, forests and other natural resources; to buy Belarus’ state-owned enterprises; to sell goods and services unimpeded by tariff barriers and unhindered by subsidies to domestic firms. It wants a low-tax environment, no restrictions on expatriation of profits, and a low-wage and biddable workforce held in check by a reserve army of the unemployed. From the point of view of the US ruling class, Belarus should be investor-friendly, not working class-friendly.

US citizens and citizens of other Western countries that contribute to nurturing Belarus’ fifth column should oppose the use of their tax dollars to bring down one of the few remaining challenges to the neo-liberal economic order. Taxpayer dollars should be used to help fund public health care, provide free education, and subsidize basic goods and services at home, not to undermine working class gains abroad.

1. United States Department of State, “Belarus 2007 Performance Report,” November 16, 2007. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACL044.pdf
2. The Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2005; “Belarus Democracy Act Will Help Cause of Freedom, Bush Says,” October 21, 2004. http://www.america.gov/st/washfile-english/2004/October/20041022100536btrueveceR0.8822595.html
3. The New York Times, December 17, 2005.
4. Russian Information Agency Novosti, July 13, 2007.
5. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Belarus. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bo.html
6. The Heritage Foundation, 2008 Index of Economic Freedom. http://www.heritage.org/research/features/index/country.cfm?ID=Belarus
7. Cited in The Heritage Foundation, 2007 Index of Economic Freedom.
8. The Washington Post, September 23, 2005.
9. The New York Times, January 1, 2006.
10. The New York Times, July 24, 2006.
11. The Financial Times (London), August 2, 2007.
12. The Morning Star (UK), January 7, 2008.
13. Remarks by Stephen B. Nix, Director of Eurasia Program, International Republican Institute, Conference on European Union and Democracy Assistance, Center for European Studies, the University of Florida, March 30, 2007, http://www.iri.org/eurasia/belarus/2007-03-30-Belarus.asp
14. The IRI’s Belarus page describes Belarus’ type of government as a dictatorship. On the same page, under the rubric “suffrage” is written: universal, age 18. http://www.iri.org/eurasia/belarus.asp The CIA’s World Factbook lists 19 political parties in Belarus.
15. “Bringing Down Europe’s Last Ex-Soviet Dictator,” New York Times, February 26, 2006.
16. Ibid.
17. The Washington Post, March 21, 2006.
18. The Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2005.
19. Times Online, March 10, 2006.
20. United States Department of State, “Belarus 2007 Performance Report,” November 16, 2007. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACL044.pdf
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid.
23. “A Georgian soldier of the Velvet Revolution,” The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
24. United States Department of State, “Belarus 2007 Performance Report,” November 16, 2007. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACL044.pdf
25. The New York Times, February 26, 2006.
26. The New York Times, April 22, 2005.
27. Xinhua News Agency, May 13, 2005.
28. The New York Times, April 22, 2005.
29. The New York Times, January 1, 2006.
30. The New York Times, February 26, 2006.
31. Ibid.
32. “IRI Host Belarusian Democratic Leaders,” IRI News Release, December 12, 2007. http://www.iri.org/eurasia/belarus/2007-12-12-Belarus.asp
33. “IRI Host Belarusian Democratic Leaders,” IRI News Release, March 9, 2007. http://www.iri.org/eurasia/belarus/2007-03-09-Belarus.asp

The U.S. Department joins the CIA, the Heritage Foundation, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist in complaining about Belarus’s refusal to establish conditions congenial to foreign investment:

“After an initial outburst of capitalist reform from 1991-94, including privatization of state enterprises, creation of institutions of private property, and development of entrepreneurship, Belarus under Lukashenko has greatly slowed, and in many cases reversed, its pace of privatization and other market reforms, emphasizing the need for a ‘socially oriented market economy.’ About 80% of all industry remains in state hands, and foreign investment has been hindered by a climate hostile to business. The banks, which had been privatized after independence, were renationalized under Lukashenko. The government has also renationalized companies using the ‘Golden Share’ mechanism–which allows government control in all companies with foreign investment–and through other administrative means.

“The U.S. Government continues to support the development of the private sector in Belarus and its transition to a free market economy. With the advent of the Lukashenko regime, Belarusian authorities have pursued a generally hostile policy toward the private sector and have refused to initiate the basic economic reforms necessary to create a market-based economy. Most of the Belarusian economy remains in government hands. The government, in particular the presidential administration, exercises control over most enterprises in all sectors of the economy. In addition to driving away many major foreign investors–largely through establishment of a ‘Golden Share’ requirement, which allows government control in all companies with foreign investment–Belarus’ centralization and command approach to the economy has left only a trickle of U.S. Government and international assistance programs in this field.

“The United States has encouraged Belarus to conclude and adhere to agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on macroeconomic stabilization and related reform measures, as well as to undertake increased privatization and to create a favorable climate for business and investment.

“Because of the unpredictable and at times hostile environment for investors, the U.S. Government currently does not encourage U.S. companies to invest in Belarus. Belarus’ continuing problems with an opaque, arbitrary legal system, a confiscatory tax regime, cumbersome licensing system, price controls, and lack of an independent judiciary create a business environment not conducive to prosperous, profitable investment. In fact, several U.S. investors in Belarus have left, including the Ford Motor Company.” (My emphasis.) US Department of State, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5371.htm .

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Written by what's left

October 13, 2008 at 10:03 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Sterling work as ever, Stephen.

    Workers in North America need education, healthcare, housing. Not meddling in the affairs of other countries.

    The people-oriented policies of the Belarussian government are an inspiration to workers in the region, many of whom are forced to leave home to find decent jobs – many find themselves ruthlessly exploited.

    We know how geniune the opposition is in Belarus – they fly the flag of the EU. From France to the Netherlands to Ireland a majority of working people reject the project for the capitalist integration of Europe.

    charliemarks

    October 13, 2008 at 10:32 pm

  2. What strikes me is how America and the West can continue to brazenly promote the lie that their Capitalist “way of life” is something that other nations should emulate.

    All the while, the entire Western financial system from London to New York is imploding in spectacular fashion.

    AK

    October 14, 2008 at 8:38 am

  3. Good work again, Stephen. I should be getting “The Last Soviet Republic: Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus” by Stewart Parker in the mail soon. I hear it is very good.

    Intelli

    October 18, 2008 at 6:45 pm

  4. A great read. There really is not enough info about Belarus, except for the occasional slanders in the press whenever they hold an election. This is a cause that people on the progressive left should know something about.

    N.A. Altieri

    October 21, 2008 at 9:42 pm

  5. Why is everything Gowans’ writes so good? I can’t seem to find fault with anything. Damn you, Gowans!

    Intelli

    October 24, 2008 at 12:21 am

  6. President Lukashenko is a hero and one of the most courageous figures of our times. He cast the only vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the BSSR in 1991. With the people’s mandate as the FIRST elected president of Belarus he drove out the Western controlled puppet government that ran the country from 1992-1994. He has battled long and hard since his first election to create a “state for the people” and to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of that state.

    Without Alexander Lukashenko the Byelorussian people would have long ago become the lackies and shoe shine boys of rich American corporations that would have quickly taken over and enslved the country.

    LONG LIVE LUKASHENKO! LONG LIVE FREE BELARUS!

    Mikhail

    Mikhail

    November 3, 2008 at 9:27 pm

  7. Can President Lukashenko help Zimbabwe with seeds and machineary and farm technology?Zimbabwe really needs help from a friendly country.[PS]Peter Symon,the general secratary of the Communist Party of Australia passed away on the 18th of december.He was a true comrade and internationist and one of this countries few Marxists.He will be missed by all that knew him.

    mark h

    December 21, 2008 at 1:08 pm


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