Party building: the process is more dead than alive 

Party building: the process is more dead than alive

The constitutional reform which the Belarusian authorities are trying to sell as a way out of the crisis is still extremely controversial. A draft plan was announced at the end of August at a special OSCE meeting in Vienna. Then it was promised that “the process will take place in the format of a national dialogue, the political system will be liberalized, and some of the president’s powers will be transferred to parliament. The role of parties will increase, and amendments will be made to electoral legislation.”

We already see how the national dialogue is going. Yuri Voskresensky was appointed as negotiator and the process is being covered by state media. Representatives of opposition parties are invited to participate, but so far it looks like a conversation with oneself. The last roundtable of democratic forces was attended by representatives of the same roundtable as well as the pro-government political scientist Pyotr Petrovsky.

A similar situation happened with the “strengthening of the role of parties.” Two months have passed since the announcement and there are still no new parties. Several projects were announced and disappeared just as quickly. It should be noted that most of them were pro-Russian.

Reforms on paper

In the acute phase of the crisis, when it was unclear how long the Lukashenko regime would hold out, several false starts took place at once. The appearance of new parties was announced when it was not yet clear whether the solution to the crisis would drag on or the situation would be resolved quickly. Against such a background, there was no need for the authorities to play at liberalization, and any processes that even remotely resembled independent ones have collapsed.

On August 17, Oleg Gaidukevich, who was already heading the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus, announced the creation of the National Patriotic Movement. Based on his statements, the movement presumed a broader association, open to everyone, including “deputies of all levels and officials.” The politician called for a dialogue with the authorities, political reforms, amending the Constitution with the strengthening of the role of parliament and the Council of Ministers, and for the transition to elections on a proportional-majority system. At the same time, Belarus was to remain in the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

But the embellished statement turned out to be hot air. Just a week later, Gaidukevich appeared on state television with the same program, but did not mention his new movement.

It should be noted that Gaidukevich has just about the only functioning pro-government political party in Belarus, the LDP. It has representation throughout the country, regularly accepts new members, and is self-financing, as there are many businessmen among party members. The foreign policy orientation is strictly pro-Russian, and the party has close contacts both in Moscow and with Kremlin satellites in the West. We have already written in greater detail about the links between the LDP and ultra-right European parties.

Such a quick rejection of his own offer can be explained by a directive from above. This has already happened with Gaidukevich’s nomination as a candidate in the presidential elections. The campaign began loudly with the candidate confident in his abilities. He had a working team to collect signatures, for which money had already been allocated. But moving at full speed he was pulled out of the race, and Gaidukevich was forced to make excuses, demonstrating that it was his personal decision.

The initiatives proposed by the protest movement were cleared out even faster. This is exactly what happened with the party “Vmeste” (“Together”), the creation of which was announced on August 31 by representative of the Babariko headquarters Maria Kolesnikova. On September 7, the security forces already detained Kolesnikova along with other associates and tried to expel her from the country.

Opposition party member and ex-parliamentarian Anna Kanopatskaya’s National Democratic Party found itself in a similar state. The creation of the party was announced twice – in July, in a statement made on the eve of the elections, and in early September. As in other cases, the matter did not go further than a statement. It is worth noting that the registration documents were secretly submitted by Kanopatskaya back in the spring, and even in those relatively peaceful times she received a refusal. Now that the situation is electrified, the creation of a fictitious opposition party is even less likely.

The Union did not take off

The story with the “Soyuz” party turned out to be interesting with an announcement on state television and close attention paid by the independent press. The organizing committee of the party was founded based on a civil initiative of the same name, created with the participation of Russian and Belarusian politicians who advocate deep integration of Belarus and Russia. It includes leaders of the movement of Russian compatriots and representatives of pro-Russian organizations.

Chairman of the organizing committee Sergei Lushch can be called one of the most notable figures of Russian influence in Belarus. He is known for his neo-Nazi past. Specifically, he was a member of the neo-pagan sect Skhoron yezh Sloven (Preservation of all Slavs), and was known for organizing a network of propaganda sites that mimic regional ones.

Importantly, from the very beginning the party positioned itself as pro-Russian and oppositional. Stanislav Byshok, head of the Russian public organization CIS-EMO and associate of Lushch, hoped to attract a large audience through the party:

“If you are for an alliance with Russia, this does not mean that you are for Lukashenko, and vice versa. And in this sense, it seems to me that it is essential for the “Soyuz” party to attract to its side a rather large niche of the citizens of Belarus who, on the one hand, believe that Russia is a friend and that Belarus is culturally close to Russia and, on the other hand, are critical of the current government.”

The party was created using a pro-Russian infrastructure that existed earlier. The only available number for the organizing committee was registered to the Center for Modern Social Technologies, an organization that was registered in 2016 by Sergey Lushch. As its leader, he hosted events on integration. The last of these was the conference “Points of Growth: Historical Policy, Value and Worldview Foundations of Eurasian Integration,” which was financed by the Russian Presidential Grants Fund in October of this year.

But, judging by social media, funding for the party’s promotion has dried up. On the Vkontakte “Union” page, the most recent posts gain little more than a hundred views, while at first advertisements were purchased for promotion (up to 500 views). The most important political social network right now, Telegram, also had a party channel. But on December 7, all posts were removed and the channel was deleted. At that time, there were only a little over 200 subscribers.

OMON Motherland

Another project of a clearly pro-Russian orientation is the organizing committee of the “Rodina” party. At the same time, the party has a pronounced conservative ideology, a classic mix of a religious worldview, traditionalism, and conspiracy theories. Here is an excerpt from its manifesto:

“We see three Pillars as the foundation of and support for our activities:

  • Family: Revival of the institution of the family as a source of spirituality and morality of future generations and its inviolability and security.
  • Land: The security and independence of our land, which we call sovereignty and independence, can only be provided to us through an alliance with our fraternal peoples. In order to be masters of one’s own land, one must achieve sovereignty in all areas of the work of society, including in legislation, the information field, education, in the legal field, and in foreign and domestic policy.
  • Historical truth: Preventing the destruction of the true culture and basic values ​​through which our people are formed. Putting a stop to the defamation and distortion of history is an essential element of ensuring the security of both our land and our family.”

The head of the organizing committee Pyotr Shapko is also a very controversial figure. He is an Orthodox conservative, Cossack, and leader of the military-patriotic club “Cossachiy Spas” (Cossack Saved), whose activists also joined the emerging movement. He was mentioned in the iSANS report “Forcing Integration.”

To understand his views, it is enough to watch this short video.

As you can see, Shapko used to support Lukashenko and called him “a brilliant leader.” Now he somewhat sharply criticizes Lukashenko for his usurpation of power and calls him the main cause of the protests:

“Lukashenko has consciously taken on the role of a person in charge of everything. He has not shared his power with virtually anyone. Accordingly, he cannot in principle now throw the blame on someone else’s shoulders. And as far as I understand he doesn’t do this. Probably because he realizes that this is impossible within the political system he created. From this point of view, the blame (for the events taking place) lies with him.”

“Motherland” activists also share odious views of leadership, participate in car rallies for the current government, visit security officials who disperse peaceful rallies, and burn protest symbols.

Information support for Shapko is provided by the Russian National Liberation Movement (NLM). Its leader, the notorious Russian MP Yevgeny Fedorov, even interviewed Shapko. Also, videos about “Motherland” are regularly published by the media resource Belrusinfo, which is associated with the NLM.

On November 26, documents were submitted for registration of a public association.

It is unlikely that it will be registered. Recently, the Ministry of Justice refused to register the association “United Fatherland,” which international expert Dmitry Belyakov was trying to create. He was known as one of the leaders of the Sonar-2050 integration project, and at the beginning of the elections he launched his Infospetsnaz initiative and held the first rallies in support of Lukashenko. But the authorities did not value his merits.

Something similar could happen with Shapko’s “Motherland.” Loyalty to the authorities, ideological closeness, and connections among security forces personnel are not a pass to the official Belarusian political world. But even if they are denied, this small but ideological group could become a recognizable phenomenon and a bogey to a wide audience.

Other projects

In addition to the above, there are several more political projects of varying degrees of readiness. Among them, it is worth noting the “Popular Accord Movement,” created by former minor government official and activist Alexander Skurchaev. He deals professionally with cryptocurrencies and was a member of the initiative groups of two opposition candidates at the same time – Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko.

Skurchaev has not yet even clearly formulated the ideology of his movement, but back in September at a meeting of the “Kind Russian People” club (a club of pro-imperial nationalists) he announced preparations for the creation of a party. He also made his debut in the press on the Eurasia.Daily portal with criticism of both the authorities and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. As a plan for overcoming the crisis, it offers its own roadmap which assumes guarantees of immunity to the president, the release of political prisoners, and early presidential elections. Currently, he is establishing contacts with representatives of existing political movements.

In October, the authorities shook the dust off their old idea of ​​creating a party based on the public association “Belaya Rus.” The fact that “Belaya Rus” could become a party has been talked about since its founding in 2007. This idea was returned to in 2008 and 2011, and the same rumors circulated after the 2015 elections. But Alexander Lukashenko himself has always opposed this idea.

“It is actually the most powerful organization. In fact, tomorrow there may be a party. Frankly speaking, I am holding them back right now, saying do not rush into this,” he said in his message to parliament and the people in 2018.

And now, amid the crisis, strongmen are trying to implement what has not been possible for 10 years. As the chairman of “Belaya Rus” Gennady Davydko stated, the working name is already ready – the party of national unity “Belaya Rus.” Ideologically, a mix is proposed: “a center-right party with a good left youth wing.” It is difficult to say what will turn out in practice but given the difficult political situation and Lukashenko’s long-standing reluctance to create a party of power, the project may be curtailed at any time.

In addition, the Center for Social Conservative Policy is paying special attention to the subject of Belarus. This is a discussion club under auspices of the ‘United Russia’ party, which is playing the role of an analytical and ideological center. Over the past two months, events on the topic of the Belarusian crisis and integration have become more frequent. Topics discussed include “the economic model of Belarus and the value systems of Belarusian society,” “participation of business in the social and political life of the state,” and “how to reconcile national and integration interests.”

So far, all this is happening in the form of a Russian-Belarusian expert platform with the active participation of business representatives from Belarus. But according to information available, a political business party may be created from participants.

Another project is the ‘Yedinstvo’ (‘Unity’) party. The party has not yet been publicly announced. Sources report a possible affiliation with former government officials.

The party does not have a clear ideology and the program has not yet been approved. Judging by the draft published on the ‘Yedinstvo’ website, the program is also based on business development and protection of Belarusian national interests. Neutrality is assumed in foreign policy. The party is chaired by entrepreneur Vyacheslav Shakh, one of the founders of the Superpack Company, a packaging producer.

All these projects are united by the fact that in under current conditions they can be political organizations only formally. Lukashenko has repeatedly ‘knocked down’ the creation of a political party based on ‘Belaya Rus,’ simply out of fear that a new, alternative center of power will appear.

Most likely, the current government will take a different path. On December 8, Alexander Lukashenko proposed to make the All-Belarusian Assembly a constitutional body. Instead then of developed parliamentarism, it has been proposed to create an analogue of the Congress of the CPSU, where all power will belong to the chairman of the presidium. Some of the executive functions will move to a lower level, while the legislative will remain controlled. At least this is how the situation looks from the introductory notes voiced by Lukashenko. And the question remains whether the regime’s eastern partners will agree to such ‘liberalization’ or if will they demand real political reform.

Expert commentary

Alexander Morozov, political scientist, Charles University, Prague:

Although Lukashenko stated publicly that political reform presupposes active participation of parties, attempts to register them have been met with opposition. The state apparatus is clearly following an order to play for time. Lukashenko wants to first hold an All-Belarusian Assembly, which, according to his plan, will be a demonstration of ‘popular’ support.

Elections on party lists are an insoluble problem for Lukashenko. First, mobilization around any anti-Lukashenko party will immediately take place. The situation of the presidential elections will repeat itself. Secondly, Lukashenko will have to let a pro-Russian party onto the stage. He will not be able to control it and it will receive its orders from Moscow. He understands this and constantly puts pressure on pro-Russian organizations.

Lukashenko is in a situation where any elections are a new stage of the political crisis. Majoritarian elections, but even more so mixed, with the participation of new parties.

A pro-government, ‘centrist’ party that supports Lukashenko will fail spectacularly in any upcoming elections. His administration officials responsible for political reform are well aware of this. Lukashenko has no move in this game. He is just playing for time.
In my opinion, he will not be able to present to Belarusian society either a new pro-government party, a convincing draft of a new Constitution or amendments to the old one. For the plan for overcoming the political crisis to work, Lukashenko must first transfer powers to the prime minister. Then he will have a chance to carry out all this party-political reform and even remain on the political stage himself.”

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