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Belarus: The Beginning of the End?

2 August 2020

“Stop calling me a mustachioed cockroach,” said Alexander Lukashenko. “I am still the president of this country.” But that doesn’t sound very presidential, does it?

Lukashenko has been the president of Belarus for the past 26 years, and Sergei Tikhanovsky, the video blogger who called him that, is now in one of Lukashenko’s jails. But Tikhanovsky’s wife Svetlana is running for president in her husband’s place in next Sunday’s election (9 August), and she may do well enough to force ‘Europe’s last dictator’ into a second-round run-off vote.

Tikhanovsky struck a popular note when he called Lukashenko a mustachioed cockroach: his mustache is definitely the ‘Eastern European dictator circa 1936’ model, and like cockroaches, you just can’t get rid of him. The YouTube star adopted a bedroom slipper as his symbol (because Belarusians squash cockroaches with their slippers, presumably), and started driving around Minsk with a giant slipper on the roof of his car.

A dubious online poll claimed that Lukashenko would only get 3% support for the forthcoming election (seeking a sixth term), and graffiti and T-shirts saying ‘3%’ started appearing around town. Tikhanovsky took hope, declared he was running for president, and was arrested two days later – but suddenly Lukashenko looked vulnerable, and other serious candidates started coming out of the woodwork.

Former banker Viktor Babariko declared he was in the running, and was promptly jailed on fraud charges. Former ambassador to the United States Valery Tsepkalo, founder of a high-tech business park, was denied registration as a candidate and sufficiently intimidated that he has taken refuge in Russia with his two children. But none of them has really dropped out.
Instead, three women have taken their places. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is now the opposition candidate for the presidency, with the public support of Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika and Babariko’s representative Maria Kolesnikova. And while Tikhanovskaya is unlikely to get over 50% of the votes on Sunday, Lukashenko may also fall short (there are also three minor candidates running).

Then it would get really interesting, since in the second round Tikhanovskaya would inherit most of the minor candidates’ votes. She might even win, because compared to the other ‘hard’ regimes of Europe, Lukashenko doesn’t have a lot to work with.

He can’t rely on the nationalism that keeps Viktor Orban in power in Hungary. Belarus was never independent before 1991, having spent two centuries in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and another two in the Russia and Soviet empires. Belarusians don’t even hate or fear their neighbours.

Neither can Lukashenko rely on the religious fervour that reliably delivers half the popular vote to the hard-line Catholic party in Poland and to the hard-line Islamic party in Turkey. Belarusians are not particularly fervent; indeed, over 40% of them say they have no religion at all.

He has few successes to offer on the economic front: Belarus has barely half the per capita GDP of Russia on its eastern border, only a third of that of Poland to the west. He dismissed the Covid-19 pandemic as “psychosis”, promoted drinking vodka as a cure – and Belarus now has twice as many cases as Poland, although its population is only one-quarter the size.

Dictatorships that try to operate behind a facade of ‘free’ elections have to maintain a certain level not only of fear but also of competence, and Lukashenko’s credibility is starting to crumble. An anti-regime rally in Minsk on 19 July attracted around 10,000 people. A rally in the same city on 30 July, only 11 days later, attracted 63,000.

So he really could lose in a run-off election, unless there is massive vote-rigging – but then it would probably also get really violent, because Lukashenko has no intention of retiring at the tender age of 65. If he goes down, he will go down fighting.

He’s already laying the groundwork for that kind of repression. Last week his secret police raided a health spa and arrested 33 Russian ‘mercenaries, allegedly members of the Wagner group, who he claimed were planning terrorist attacks to disrupt the elections. There are another 200 of them still loose in the country and intent on terrorism, he claimed.

It’s nonsense, of course: Vladimir Putin doesn’t want other post-Soviet dictatorships to be overthrown by popular votes. The Russian mercenaries were probably just in (deniable) transit to Libya, Syria or Sudan, where they have lots of work. Lukashenko is spinning the terrorism tale to justify a violent crackdown on the opposition if it looks like it’s going to win.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is not demanding to become president if she wins. She just wants the 700 opposition supporters and activists arrested since May (according to the Belarus human rights group Vyasna) to be released, and then a truly free election. It’s not too much to ask.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“He…all”)

A Warning from Poland

Few people outside of Poland care about the outcome of last Sunday’s presidential election there, but maybe they should. Andrzej Duda is practically a Polish clone of Donald Trump, who will also be seeking re-election less than four months from now – and Duda squeaked out a victory.

Duda only got 51.2% of the vote against 48.8% for his liberal opponent, but Trump doesn’t even need that many votes. The Poles vote for their president directly, but gerrymandered electoral districts and the ‘electoral college’ system in the United States let Trump won last time with only 46.1% of the popular vote. He could do it again.

It’s not a perfect comparison, of course. Duda is more intelligent than Trump, and the Covid-19 death toll is only 40 per million people in Poland, compared to 420 per million in the United States. Moreover the Law and Justice Party he is linked to is generally seen as competent and honest.

The history is different, too. Just as the United States was winning its independence from the British empire in the late 18th century, Poland was carved up by its neighbours and vanished from the map for more than a hundred years. Twenty years after it regained its independence in 1918 it was conquered by Hitler’s legions, and then it fell under Soviet Communist rule until 1989.

So what relevance could Polish politics have for the forthcoming election in the United States? Quite a lot, actually, starting with the very similar ways in which the two countries are polarised politically.

The Law and Justice Party (PiS), in power since 2015, draws its support from exactly the same social groups as Trump’s ‘base’: older, small-town or rural, lower-middle or working class, poorly educated, and significantly more male than female. Also more religious (which in Poland usually means a conservative brand of Catholicism) and much more nationalist.

Duda doesn’t use the slogan ‘Make Poland Great Again’, because it’s three centuries since Poland was a great power in Europe. He doesn’t share Trump’s deference to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, because Russia rivals Germany as the great historic enemy in Polish nationalist thought. But in terms of targeting minorities, the PiS and Duda actually outdo Trump.

The PiS makes a great song-and-dance about hordes of Muslim immigrants threatening Polish national identity (although no sane Muslim would ever choose to move to Poland). But the best targets in the culture wars are people who really live in the country, and since Poland doesn’t has no minorities of different colours, that mainly means gays and Jews.

Duda made homophobic rhetoric the centrepiece of his re-election campaign, promising to “defend children from LGBT ideology” and comparing the LGBT rights agenda to communism. He promised a new constitutional amendment to ban same-sex adoption, which he described as the “enslavement” of children.

Since the government has already turned the once impartial state-owned media into the PiS’s propaganda arm, it now concentrates its fire on the private media, much of it owned by US and German companies, which still try to offer independent analysis. Duda’s line was therefore to attack the evil foreign-owned media – and, of course, to suggest that they are really serving “Jewish interests”.

It’s not pretty, but Trump recognises a kindred spirit in Duda, whom he has met eleven times since 2017, including an invitation to the White House last month to give the Polish president a last-minute electoral boost. Duda attacks the media, his party is busily packing the judiciary with reliable conservative judges – and he won re-election. It’s enough to give The Donald hope.

But maybe not enough hope, because there is one big practical difference. However much Trump may claim to love the poor and “the poorly educated”, he hasn’t done much to help them, whereas the PiS puts its money where its mouth is.

Trump has signed a cheque for $1,200 for each American once during the pandemic, and wants to sign one more if Congress approves. The PiS gives every Pole $125 a month for each child every month, pandemic or not. It doesn’t make much difference to the average urban middle-class Polish family, but it has transformed the lives of millions of families who
live in the small towns and the countryside.

The PiS ‘base’ is also invested in the culture wars, but there’s little doubt that this subsidy, running around $3,000 a year for the average family, gave Duda a vital extra push in the election. If Trump promised a thinly disguised ‘basic income’ like that for the United States, he could probably win too.

He wouldn’t have any serious ideological objection to that, because he actually doesn’t have any coherent ideology. However, the Republican Party’s loyalty to its traditional conservative beliefs, though heavily eroded, is probably still strong enough to make that impossible.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“The history…1999”; and “Duda…Trump”)

Georgette Mosbacher’s History Lesson

The row started when Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was asked about the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 during his annual press conference on 19 December, and gave a deliberately evasive answer.

Or maybe it started in September, when the European Union’s parliament passed a resolution describing the Second World War as “an immediate result” of the Nazi-Soviet deal. That was done to placate the Polish government, which wants to remind everybody that both the Germans and the Russians invaded Poland in 1939.

However, that infuriated the Russians, whose 20th-century history holds little that they can be proud of apart from their victory over Nazi Germany in 1941-45, after Hitler broke the Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Yet here was the European Parliament effectively saying that it was their own stupid fault for making an alliance with Hitler.

Russian propaganda output since then has tried very hard to blur what actually happened in 1939 – and then last Monday Georgette Mosbacher, the US ambassador to Poland, entered the fray, sending out a tweet that said: “Dear President Putin, Hitler and Stalin colluded to start WWII.” Even the Poles haven’t been that crude: she might as well have poked Putin with a stick.

Georgette Mosbacher holds an undergraduate degree in education from Indiana University and had a distinguished career in the cosmetics industry, so she clearly knows what she’s talking about, but the United States does not really have much standing in this argument. It didn’t start fighting Hitler until more than two years later, after it was dragged into the war by the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour.

Anyway, she said it. Was she right? I used to be a professional historian until I discovered that journalists have more fun and make more money, so here’s my best estimate.

Nobody actually ‘wanted’ the Second World War: it was only twenty years since the First World War ended, and memories were too fresh. But Hitler wanted certain territories, he was willing to fight some small wars to get them, and he was a gambler, big on bluff. He probably did intend to attack the Soviet Union too, in the end – but only later.

Putin makes much of the British and French decision to give Germany the German-populated border regions of Czechoslovakia in the Munich agreement of 1938. This allegedly showed Stalin that they would only appease Hitler, not fight him. And that, says Putin, is why Stalin made a deal with Hitler.

This is nonsense: the dates don’t work. The Munich agreement was one last try by Britain and France to satisfy Hitler’s more-or-less reasonable demands by letting him have German-majority territories that had been given to other countries at the end of the First World War. But the British did not believe that Hitler was actually reasonable.

Britain, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, had actually started high-speed rearmament in early 1938: British weapons production doubled in 1938, and again in 1939.
And when Hitler started talking about seizing part of Poland in 1939, Britain and France both said specifically that they would go to war to stop him.

Stalin knew perfectly well that Britain and France were ready to fight Hitler in 1939: there were actually British and French diplomats in Moscow trying to negotiate an anti-Nazi alliance that August. He simply got a better offer from Hitler: Germany would invade Poland, but give Stalin the eastern half – and throw in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia for free.

So the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in Moscow on 23 August, 1939, and Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September.

Britain and France declared war on Germany, as they had promised, but they couldn’t save Poland. The Soviet Union invaded Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at once, but waited two weeks, until the Germans had destroyed the Polish army, before occupying its half of Poland. And all those territories remained part of the Soviet Union until it finally collapsed fifty years later, in 1989.

That’s what actually happened. Stalin was a complete idiot to trust Hitler, but went on supplying Germany with oil and various other scarce goods until the day before Germany invaded Russia in June 1941. It’s not a story that reflects well on Russia, so it’s no wonder that Putin keeps trying to change the narrative.

You can see why the Poles want to keep the story straight, too. But Putin is not Stalin, and Stalin was not planning to conquer the world, just trying to recover territories that Russia had lost at the end of the First World War. In fact, nobody was planning to ‘conquer the world’, or even to start a second world war. They just miscalculated, as usual.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Georgette…Harbour”)

Polish Lessons

There is a tension at the heart of populist political parties that may ultimately lead most of them to electoral defeat. They depend heavily on the votes of the old, the poor and the poorly educated – “I love the poorly educated,” as Donald Trump once put it – but they are also right-wing parties that do not like what they call ‘socialism’. (Other people call it the welfare state.)

So while they fight the ‘culture war’ against liberal values and bang the nationalist drum (which is popular with these key voting groups), they usually shun the kinds of government programmes that would actually raise the incomes of their key voters. It doesn’t sit well with the ideologies of the people who lead these parties, who are neither poor nor poorly educated.

A case in point is Britain’s governing Conservative Party, which has made the journey from traditional conservative values to rabid nationalism and populism over the past decade. But at the same time it has pursued ‘universal credit’, a punitive reform of the country’s generous welfare programmes that has left most of its working-class voters worse off, and forced some to turn to food banks.

The Conservatives have been getting away with it, in the short term, because Brexit is an all-consuming emotional issue in which the same old, poor and poorly educated part of the electorate mostly voted ‘Leave’ in blatant contradiction to their economic interests.

However, it does not make electoral sense in the long term. Populists always manufacture some sort of crisis for their supporters to focus on at election time, but few others will work as effectively as Brexit. Sooner or later their economic policies, which hurt the poor, will betray them. Unless they heed the Polish example.

In last Sunday’s Polish election, the populist Law and Justice Party won 43.6% of the vote (according to the exit polls) in an election that saw the biggest turn-out since the fall of Communism in 1989. That is a full 6% higher than the vote that first brought them to power in 2015, and will give them an absolute majority in the Sejm (the lower house of parliament).

The Law and Justice Party is not an attractive organisation. It cultivates the national taste for self-pity and martyrdom (the ‘Christ of the Nations’), and always finds some imaginary threat to ‘Polish values’ that only it can protect the nation from. In 2015 it was Muslim refugees (none of whom were actually heading for Poland); this time it was the alleged LGBT threat to Polish culture.

In power, it has curbed the freedom of the press, attacked the independence of the judiciary, and purged the civil service, replacing professionals with party loyalists. Several times it has been threatened with sanctions for its anti-democratic actions by the European Union, which has the duty of defending democracy among its member countries.

Law and Justice’s rhetoric is divisive and filled with hatred. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski explained that the government wanted to “cure our country of a few illnesses” including ““a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”

So far, so bad, but fairly typical of the new generation of populist parties in the West. What is very different, and gave Law and Justice its resounding victory in this election, is that it addressed not only its voters’ ideological concerns but also their economic needs.

Perhaps it’s because the Polish right, suppressed under Communist rule for more than four decades, never developed the kind of libertarian, Ayn Rand-worshipping ideology that infects much of the right in countries further west. Or maybe it’s because of Polish nationalism’s long alliance with the Catholic Church, which actually does respect and care for the poor.

At any rate, Law and Justice manages to be economically left-wing even though it is culturally right-wing. In power, it raised the minimum wage, promising to double it by 2023, and lowered the retirement age. It gave pensioners an annual cash bonus and boosted farming subsidies. (It won most of the rural vote.)

Above all, it brought in the 500 Plus programme, which gives parents 500 złotys ($130) a month for each child. It’s pro-family (which pleases the Church), it encourages big families (which pleases nationalists, given Poland’s declining birth-rate), and while it doesn’t make much difference to middle-class families, it transforms the life of a poor family with three children.

And all that money going into the hands of the citizens produced an economic growth rate last year of 5.4%, one of the highest in the European Union. No wonder Law and Justice increased its share of the national vote in this month’s election.

So if you are not fond of populism, pray that populists elsewhere do not discover Poland’s secret. They do need to be culturally conservative, because they are always blood-and-soil nationalists, but there’s no particular reason why they shouldn’t be economically liberal. If they want to last, that’s the way they have to go.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 14. (“A case…interests”; and “And all…election”)