Pazniak: Most likely to succeed
"The important thing when thinking about Belarus is to retain your sense of humor," John Stern, head of George Soros' Belarus office, advised me last week in Warsaw. Of course, it'd be hard not to have a sense of humor -- after all, Belarus is pretty much a joke in and of itself. Of all the post-Soviet Republics, with the possible exception of Turkmenistan, Belarus is the most ridiculous. It has managed to distinguish itself among all others -- the last Dictatorship in Europe, the only country not to rename the KGB after the Soviet collapse, the easiest place to become a billionaire (it only takes $75,000). But as easy as it is to mock, most people tend to lose sight of one thing: it could be much worse. It could be Ukraine.
As backwards as Belarus is, it deserves a little credit for not being nearly as screwed as its neighbor to the south. After the collapse of the USSR, the smart money would have bet on Ukraine, with its fertile soil, pipelines, ports, a large Diaspora, the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal, and developed heavy industry, including refineries, steel mills and defense plants. It could've become a force to be reckoned with, the bridge between East and West. What did Belarus have? A bunch of landlocked and irradiated peasants, lots of five-legged beavers and a tractor factory. But now even Belarussian opposition figures admit that at least Lukashenko has kept corruption to a minimum by FSU standards and that your average Belarusian lives better than the average Ukrainian. So what exactly is the opposition in opposition to?
Part of it is how you frame the question. They say that they're against isolation and Belarus being an international pariah, for Freedom of Press, Belarussian sovereignty, Human Rights, foreign investment. But, when I met with various members of the opposition in Warsaw, it seemed to me that their positions could be summed up as basically this: they're just against each other. Taking a page from Lenin's time exiled in Zurich, when he seemed more concerned with launching invectives against the likes of Kautsky and Parvus than waging international revolution, the Belarussian opposition is, for the moment, more preoccupied with cutting each other down than taking out Lukashenko. There is one difference, though, between them and the Bolsheviks in eXile: Lenin was correct in thinking that the tsarist collapse was inevitable, whereas Lukashenko doesn't look to be going anywhere anytime soon, leaving the exiled opposition to squabble among themselves.
The most prominent member of Warsaw's Belarusian community is Zenon Pazniak, an exiled opposition pol who'd have a good shot at replacing Lukashenko if free and fair elections were held. Public opinion is pretty tough to gauge in Belarus, but he's got name recognition and the moral authority that Westerners like to attribute to Solzhenitsyn. He's also arguably the most isolated member of the Warsaw clan, and has lost any grip he might have once had on reality.
Pazniak, who looks exactly the way you'd expect a senior member of the intelligensia to look, initially gained prominence when he published his findings about a Stalin-era mass grave during perestroika. Several years earlier, when surveying an area for medieval ruins, he stumbled across the evidence of a massacre. He still talks up the effect of his revelations on Belarusian society, telling me, "When discussion about the genocide began, it was like an atomic bomb." Sort of a tasteless analogy, considering all the fallout from Chernobyl around the same time, but whatever. It's true that his role in the investigation launched him into public prominence in the last years of the USSR.
With all the favorable exposure, he started Belarus' first nationalist party, the Belarussian Popular Front. Even with Soviet campaign restrictions, his party managed to get eight percent of the seats in the Republic's first elected Soviet. They were a driving force for secession after the '91 coup, and seemed to have a good chance at taking power. However, while popular among the intelligensia, the party never really had mass appeal. It seems nationalism still hadn't had a chance to germinate in the minds of Belarus' educated classes, let alone gain any mass appeal.