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.
Monday, October 31, 2005
Belarusaitis used to be a rare affliction. One symptom is visiting
The disgraceful 'party line' on Eastern Europe
By Edward Lucas
Twice at parties in the last week I've found myself gasping for
breath. Each time I was chatting to pillars of the right-wing British
establishment, solid Cold Warriors with whom I used to agree about the
big questions of Europe's future - America in, Germans down, Russia
out - and so forth.
But Euroscepticism is corroding those comforting and commendable
certainties. One of my pals, a newspaper editor, interrupted me as I
praised the flat-taxes and other reforms sweeping across Europe from
the new member states. "Oh, I'm not interested in that now. I'm for a
pull-out." In vain I tried to explain that the Central Europeans and
Balts would regard his idea of a new EFTA - backed by NATO - as dotty
and unworkable. The constitution had failed, he insisted, so the EU
Two days later it was one of Britain's leading right-wing polemicists,
a man who as speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher honed some of the
choicest phrases of the Cold War. I was trying to interest him in the
problems of Europe's eastern fringes, so brilliantly outlined by my
predecessor, Robert Cottrell, in his recent survey in The Economist.
He wasn't interested. The EU would collapse, and Britain should pull
out as soon as possible. But what, I stuttered, would you do about
Moldova, or Belarus? "Those countries," he replied loftily, "will have
to look after themselves." I could hardly believe my ears. A man who,
only 20 years previously, had championed the captive nations' right to
be free of Soviet rule was now consigning the most vulnerable victims
of Communism to the scrap heap of history.
There is something very odd going on here. Britain and British ideas
of a wide, Atlanticist Europe have never been so popular in Eastern
Europe. Memories of betrayals, real or imagined, of Munich, of the
Warsaw Uprising, at Yalta, of the Cossacks, of Hungarians in 1956 and
Czechoslovaks in 1968, are fading into history. Instead, there is
enthusiastic support for British ideas about EU reform, for Tony
Blair's ideas about deregulation, dynamism, flexibility and so on.
Countries wanting to join the EU see the British presidency as their
By contrast, the Franco-German axis has never looked more out-of-date
and disreputable. In particular, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks have fallen
out of love with France in a way I would have regarded as wildly
unlikely when I covered Central Europe in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet the people who should be celebrating as the winds of history blow
their way have given up and are huddled below decks, sneering and
jeering, lost in their own world of defunct sentimental nationalism
and vainglorious wishful thinking.
Fuelled by champagne and indignation, I asked both people for an
alternative. If consolidating democracy and stability in the Western
Balkans matters, what possible alternative is there than the big
carrot of EU membership for countries that do the right things, on
institution-building, the rule of law, treatment of minorities,
crime-fighting, intelligence-sharing and so forth?
I would like to report that they came up with ingenious solutions that
would bring all the prosperity and other benefits of the EU without
any of the bureaucracy, waste, corruption, pomposity and jargon that
fuels Euroscepticism in Britain and elsewhere.
Not a bit of it. For the champions of the Cold War, Eastern Europe, it
seems, is once again a collection of faraway countries of whom we know
nothing. That was a callous and disgraceful phrase when used in 1938
by Neville Chamberlain of Czechoslovakia. And it is callous and
Saturday, October 01, 2005
Gulag gets short shrift from Putinland publishers
By Edward Lucas
Imagine a book, well written, accurate and moving, that gives the
first really thorough account of America's slave trade, told through
painstaking research in previously hidden archives.
A Pulitzer prize? Certainly. World-wide syndication? Certainly. Now
imagine that despite all that, no American publisher is willing to
Inconceivable? Not if the subject is the equally shameful one of the
Soviet Gulag and the publishers are not American, but Russian. My
friend Anne Applebaum's accuracy, stylish prose and original research
won her a Pulitzer Prize for her history of the camps. It has sold
hundreds of thousands of copies in 28 editions around the world -
except in Russia, where the book is taboo.
Yet there is huge interest in the former captive nations of Eastern
Europe, where the book-buying public tends not to go for translations
of foreign non-fiction (the elite read such books in English, the rest
lack the time, money or inclination to read them at all).
The hardback Gulag alone has sold a startling 70,000 copies in Poland.
Her agent, the worldly wise New York-based Georges Borchardt, says the
level of interest is "really quite amazing".
Yet the country which suffered most from communism, providing
countless millions of victims to the terror machine, has no
local-language version of the best-available account of what really
One reason for poor sales in Putinland might be fatigue. During the
glasnost era (and golly, we miss those days now) memoirs, histories
and other works about the crimes of Stalinism were everywhere. By the
1990s, Russians were bored by miserable accounts of their miserable
history. The new fashion in books was escapist detective fiction. Fair
enough: even in Germany, where VergangenheitsbewŠltigung (conquering
one's past) is a matter of solemn private and public conscience, I can
see people have a limited appetite for yet more books about the Nazis.
But does that explain why no Russian publisher wants to publish Gulag?
As a devout believer in free markets, I concede the possibility that
the book would sell so badly - worse, say, than an Icelandic cookbook
- that translating and publishing it would be irrational. But I think
it is more likely that the Russian publishers are practising
As Paul Baker and Susan Glasser point out in their excellent new book
Kremlin Rising, Russian history is now a matter of high politics,
where the Kremlin intervenes even against specific textbooks that they
think cast the Soviet Union in an excessively (read: any) unfavourable
Anne is trying to raise money to have it published by a brave
non-profit outfit, the Moscow School of Political Studies. But I have
another suggestion. Why not try selling the all-Russian rights to a
publisher in the Baltic states? At a minimum, it could sell among the
new generation of modern-minded Yevrorussky (European Russians) there
who find the cultural and political climate in the motherland
increasingly repellent. Second, it would at least be available to
readers in Russia proper (who mainly order books via the internet anyway).
The best thing would be if Kremlin then denounced the Baltic edition
as a "provocation", or tried to respond by sponsoring a sanitised
account that put the Gulag "in the right perspective". There are too
many lies already. But the more that official Russian history sidles
away from the democratic perspective and scholarly approach of the
Yeltsin years and back to the fawning, distorted junk of the past, the
easier it is to see Vladimir Putin and his "useful idiot" sycophants
in the West for what they really are.