Sovereign Lukashenko

MOSCOW. (Vadim Dubnov, independent commentator, for RIA Novosti)

While Alexander Lukashenko was rending the air with his loud interviews to Reuters and other media, and the revolutionary change in attitude reached its peak, a group of independent Belarusian sociologists published the results of a regular survey. The late January poll was timed to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Soviet Union's disintegration. The emotions stirred up by Lukashenko's comments made its results even more striking.

What do people in Belarus think about the president's achievements? Only 20.7% of respondents, or the smallest group, are ready to thank him for consolidating the union state. Some 61.3% are grateful to Lukashenko for building an independent state, and this response is only slightly lagging behind the winning answer - 64% have thanked him for "establishing order in the country," about which we have heard a lot.

Clearly, several stormy weeks at the turn of the new year played a role - for the first time more respondents were ready to vote against unification with Russia - 39.3% versus 35.1%. But even before, the majority of no-holds-barred integration supporters was as stable as it was unconvincing - from 43% to 46% throughout 2006, that is, without the obvious bet on 50%. Difference in responses to the theoretical choice between integration with Russia, the European Union (EU), or non-alignment is statistically negligible with Russia's minor lead over independence. The Belarusians are 100% confident that life at home is much better than in Russia. But if in 2004 Belarus's lead was minimal - 34% versus 30%, in June 2006 the gap almost quadrupled. The recent poll produced a new record - 51% versus 11.8%. It would be hard to attribute it to the government's propaganda alone.

To sum up, in the last few years, Belarus has been building an independent state to the accompaniment of the lofty integration rhetoric. This is why the oil-and-gas squabble did not come as a shock or bitter disappointment to the Belarusians. Nobody had expected anything special from Russia for a long time. It transpired that Lukashenko's compatriots perceive his passion for sovereignty as an indisputable merit. Despite all skepticism about the EU, the idea of joining it has scored 50% more points than the proposal "to unite with Russia for the resolution of all energy problems."

Now that the tradition to celebrate annual anniversaries of our integration every April will quietly die out, we can cast a sober look at how a regular, undemocratic state is emerging on the ruins of our integration utopia. Lukashenko's anti-Russian escapades are very impressive, but there is no evidence at all that Belarus is on the threshold of global strategic change, not to mention a revolution in the president's mentality. No matter what Lukashenko might tell the media, he does not feel the slightest need for cardinal changes. Independence is developing by itself, and a clever ruler should aim to adapt himself to it, rather than direct this process. This is what Lukashenko has done - put independence at his service to the surprise of many. Under the regime's pressure, the people of Belarus have learnt to ignore their president's whims a long time ago. And it is this mastered skill rather than an inborn love of totalitarianism that makes him indispensable.

It transpires that Lukashenko's 12.5 year-long rule has not crippled public mentality. It is rather the other way round. Say, on the eve of his presidency in 1993, the respondents gave typically post-Soviet answers to the question "How to make a fortune?" - 72.4% mentioned personal contacts and 56.3% lack of honesty. In 2007, these figures dropped to 43% and 15% respectively, while hard work received 68%, reflecting advanced liberal self-reliance. The hopes which the populace link with their president continue revolving around 48%. However, foreign investment supporters have moved from 25% at the start of Lukashenko's era to 40% today.

There are no big changes in the attitude to the market economy. It was supported by almost two thirds of the population already in 1997. Judging by all, the change has affected the understanding of the market - 10 years ago one third favored planned economy, whereas now they amount to a mere 13%. Fewer people believe that the state should regulate prices - 19% as compared with half of this figure 10 years ago.

In a nutshell, this is a fundamental difference between a true dictatorship and a fake one, which reeks of farce. Lukashenko will himself decide how long he wants to rule. A modern tyrant can maintain political stability without forcing the nation to whisper. In Belarus, the tyrant has concluded a surprising tacit contract with his elites - he gives them former nomenklatura blessings and does not to pay too much attention to what they say about him behind closed doors, while they continue to loyally strengthen the tyrannical spirit and to wait with the same patience. As a result, instead of a real dictatorship with its death camps, this farce is cultivating not so much "the grapes of wrath," as a normal environment with relatively civilized rules of the game.

This model allows Lukashenko to continue harassing the opposition, bargain with Moscow over the price of the ABM or land under the pipe, and even to promise some exotic benefits to the West with undue repentance. But in reality, Lukashenko is most likely to rule in the tried-and-tested style of sovereign tyranny as long as he wants, and without any sharp turns, or accomplishments announced to Reuters. Paradoxically, but contrary to his own self, he will devote every day of his presidency to preparing Belarus for the long-awaited moment of his departure in such a way that when it comes, Orange neighbors will feel envious.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.