Saturday, November 12, 2005


Belarusaitis used to be a rare affliction. One symptom is visiting
Minsk frequently, a clean and spacious city, but not distinguished by
its aesthetic attraction, to put it mildly. Another is a love of
inflicting obscure details of Belarussian history on unsuspecting
people. "Did you know that there used to be two rival Belarussian
governments-in-exile? One dates from 1918 and the other—which has now
folded—from 1944". As my eyes light up and start swivelling, my
interlocutors look increasingly puzzled and start edging away.

That's just embarrassing. But a more dangerous symptom is wishful
thinking about the chances for political change. I know: I was so fed
up with the bureaucratic, corrupt regime of Vyacheslav Kebich that I
longed for Alexander Lukashenka to win the presidential elections in
1994. To my lasting embarrassment, I even wrote favourably about him
in The Economist. A populist with a strong anti-corruption message,
who genuinely engaged with people when he campaigned, seemed a welcome
breath of fresh air.

It soon became clear that things were going wrong. A couple of years
later I interviewed the president, when Ford opened a car plant
outside Minsk (they soon had to close it). His answers were so erratic
and off-the-point that it was hard to fit them into the article. Even
the bits I could use didn't make it into print: the Economist crunched
them into the anonymous "Some top Belarussians think this [the plant]
is the start of something big". His press people, who had been
expecting a cover-story, have never allowed me near him since.

Now I worry that other people have Belarusaitis worse than me. A
country that used to be a black hole is now attracting a lot of
western interest. This chiefly manifests itself in a rich programme of
seminars and handouts for Belarussian opposition organisations. The
aim is to present a real challenge to the Lukashenka regime in the
elections next year.

It's easy to see why excitement is growing. The opposition has agreed
on a single candidate, the multilingual physicist Alexander
Milinkevic. When I met him a few years ago I found him not just clever
and honest, but sane and sensible—which is more than can be said for
many of the chancers, scroungers, losers and nutters who have made up
much of the Belarussian opposition in the past.

He faces formidable obstacles—and not just that the election campaign
and count will be rigged against him. Another is the Belarusaitis of
his own foreign supporters. What many westerners fail to realise is
that support for Mr Lukashenka and a close alliance with Russia, plus
suspicion towards Poland, the West, and the opposition are not just
the product of the regime's propaganda, but also the sincere feelings
of a large chunk of the population. There is evidence to show that
these feelings are eroding (for which three cheers) but they are still

The Belarusaitis-driven enthusiasm of Mr Milinkevic's western
supporters threatens his appeal to potential voters at home. The
regime is longing to present him as the representative of a Polish
fifth-column that wants to bring Belarus under the cultural, political
and economic domination of the west: ie joining not just the EU but
Nato, fighting in Iraq, sponsoring Chechen terrorism and being an
Al-Qaida target (no it isn't logical, but that's never bothered them).
Plus he supposedly wants to sell the country to foreign speculators.
Which (caricatures aside) is pretty much what Belarus needs. But
saying it loudly won't help the good guys win.

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