Heart of darkness
A ray of hope from Belarusian exiles
LIKE a stub of candle, even a small bit of history is a comfort when you are in a dark room. Belarus looks pretty gloomy under Alyaksandr Lukashenka. An earthy collective-farm manager, he won the last freely contested election in 1994 against a representative of the old Soviet nomenklatura.
Many people (including your columnist) thought that any change was bound to be for the better. It wasn’t. The new regime pioneered the kind of authoritarian rule, bombastic and occasionally murderous, that has now spread to Russia. In retrospect, 1990-94 looks like the heyday of Belarussian freedom.
With one exception. For a few months in 1918, Belarus enjoyed its first fragile taste of independence. As the Soviet regime consolidated its hold, the government fled, first to Lithuania, then to Prague.
The 90th anniversary of that first proclamation of statehood is on March 25th. It will be celebrated by both the opposition in Belarus and by the Belarusian National Rada (BNR), an émigré assembly and government-in-exile that has doggedly maintained a vestigial existence for the past nine decades. From the authorities’ point of view there is nothing to celebrate. Belarus was from the beginning a Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the great Soviet Union. Any suggestion to the contrary is bourgeois nationalist claptrap.
The idea of maintaining loyalty to a country that even nonagenarians would not remember might seem impossibly quixotic. But experience suggests that when governments-in-exile keep going, history rewards them.
The Polish government-in-exile, marooned in London after the war, was welcomed back to Poland when communism fell to present the newly elected Lech Walesa with the presidential insignia. The “People’s Poland” imposed at gunpoint by the Soviets was revealed for the sham it had always been. The exile government’s presidents—stalwart members of the suburban Polish émigré community in London—are now officially recognised as former heads of state.
East Timor’s government-in-exile returned home victorious when the Indonesian occupation ended. Exiled politicians and diplomats from the Baltic states came home happily too.
The danger is to wind up too soon. Ukraine’s émigré leaders declared victory rather promptly in 1991. The Belarusians, wisely in retrospect, decided to wait and see. The BNR now presents a poignant symbolic challenge to the regime at home, and is a focus of unity for the opposition.
Slowly, real-world politicians are beginning to take it more seriously. The BNR’s president, a personable Canadian artist named Ivonka Survilla, is in Strasbourg this week to be formally received at the European Parliament, along with a bevy of Belarusians from both the diaspora and the domestic opposition. The BNR, normally secretive for fear of endangering its members in the homeland, has issued a public statement urging the outside world not to forget the Belarusian cause, and to protect those inside the country who want to celebrate the anniversary.
Politics seems to be thawing a bit inside Belarus too. The regime has responded to feelers put out by European countries, including Poland, and has released almost all political prisoners. Only one remains: Alyaksandr Kazulin, an outspoken figure who seems to have attracted Mr Lukashenka’s personal ire. American sanctions on a big Belarusian company, Belneftekhim, seem to have bitten hard too. The tempestuous Mr Lukashenka abruptly expelled the American ambassador last week.
Mr Lukashenka has flirted with the West before and it would be too early to declare a change of heart. But whether because of the country’s economic plight (Russia is driving a much harder bargain on gas) or for some other reason, some rusty wheels are in motion. The BNR’s loyal supporters hope that theirs may turn too.