24th September 2020
After President Lukashenko's official inauguration, which was not broadcast on TV, and the protests at the enterprises practically stopped due to threats of dismissal and fines, it seems especially important that we interviewed the Minsk left-wing NGO Poligraf two weeks ago.
The interview is accompanied by the works of Marina Naprushkina, a Belarusian artist living in Berlin, who is currently part of the exhibition "No Time for Art" at Galerie Wedding. In her works, she deals with the theme of exploitation in the art world and beyond, which suddenly turns out to be particularly relevant in the Belarusian context.
What are the main problems - political and economic - underpinning the political structure of Belarus?
Series of the economic crises and gradual withdrawal from the "social state" model. Harsh monetary policies of the last five years have contributed to the stagnation of wages; meanwhile, prices have been continuously growing.
Nevertheless, the government refuses to accept the social responsibilities before its citizens: reduction of the range of welfare costs (termination of the range of benefits in 2007), implementation of individual agreements that serve the interests of the employer instead of indefinite employment contracts, enforcement of "unemployment tax," increase of the retirement age, etc.
Authoritarianism, the system's closed nature, suppression of any political activity, absence of unions protecting the rights of workers (the official trade union FBP (the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus) is in itself just part of the state's bureaucratic apparatus, independent unions practically forced out of the industries and have more resemblance with NGOs)
Lastly, exhaustion from seeing the same longtime leader and his particular way of leadership, including - his way of interacting with subordinates, his opponents, and the electorate, which is reminiscent of the simple impertinence. Especially, these leadership traits have manifested clearly during the current COVID19 pandemic that led to a mass exasperation among the public.
Do you think that there is a strong left opposition? Do you support it? And do you think Belarus needs it?
Lukashenko came to power by playing a left-populist, and among other things, trifling with the Soviet symbols. Therefore, traditionally Belarus' opposition was on the right flank.
Among the registered structures, the successors of the Communist Party of Belarus, on the one hand, we have a fully pro-government "manual" CPB (the Communist Party of Belarus) that always votes in support of any anti-socialist authority measures. On the other, the party "A Just Party," which would normally cooperate with the national-liberal opposition when it came to the questions of regime change; however, it would not act as an independent entity (to a large extent due to the lack of financial and human resources)
The peculiarity of the current political situation in Belarus is that the conventional political parties and organizations have not been playing any significant roles in the political processes for the past couple of years. It can be observed even by looking at the compound of the brightest candidates in the campaign: the blogger (his wife, S. Tikhanovskaya, eventually became a candidate instead), the former official, and the banker. The central subject of the events of these past few years can be rightly called the electronic mass media, including social media. They have been setting the tone, agenda, and "illuminating" certain players. Therefore, there is no coincidence that in the conditions of authoritarian regime, solely liberal and nationalistic media have been survived for they receive financial support on behalf of western foundations that involved in "promoting democracy."
Besides, the problem in the insignificant numbers of the non-systemic Belarusian left lies in the fact that certain "fashion on Marxism" arrived in Belarus not so long ago. Just about five years ago, one could count local Marxists on the fingers of one hand. So it is evident that at this point, we lack our own powerful info resources.
Among the "left start-ups" in the media field, we can name our Poligraf.RED and recently developed КрасноBY that are also engaged with the production of YouTube videos, and apart from that, organize Marxist circles. Shortly after the election, ЗабастовкаBY has emerged as an initiative from the Belarusian left that seeks to assist workers across Belarusian industries with self-organization.
Undeniably, Belarus is need of the powerful left opposition; otherwise, we will end up stuck in-between the alternatives: authoritarianism + slow descent into neoliberalism versus some sort of democratization (perhaps, but not necessarily true!) and + drastic market reforms in line with the spirit of the 90s that would lead to unemployment, population exodus and other "delights" of economic deregulation.
What are the most likely scenarios in regards to future developments at this point?
For now, it seems as if the opposition has engaged all the available reserves. However, the strike actions in factories did not evolve into real walkouts, and the student protests, including high-schoolers, on September 1-2 did not become massive enough. The strikes of impressive scale against which the authorities are afraid to openly use the force (arrests and repressions carry the sporadic nature) continue, though these strikes can't make Lukashenko leave.
Nonetheless, it does not mean that all is over.
Now more than ever, the external political factors are becoming crucial. Lukashenko is at odds with the West, particularly with the "nearest West" (he is banned from entering the Baltic states, and factually the Belarusian transit access to the Baltic ports is restricted); he finds himself in critical dependency on Russia, which is wary of the multi-vectorial Belarusian leader who at the same time does not allow for the emergence of any political force, more pro-Russian than himself.
And since Lukashenko has already announced the constitutional reform that will increase the power of parliament and alleviate the presidential influence, there is a probability that same Russia (perhaps together with the West), what is called will "grab by the tongue" and at least will attempt to push the implementation of this reform. Which, by the way, in some way would satisfy the West as well, and some members of the internal opposition.
The major question is whether Lukashenko needs this himself since his populist politician's attainments are a bit rusty. His apparatus, as evidence indicates, is poorly adapted to carrying out electoral campaigns. There is a chance that particularly the coercion of the Belarusian leader to reform using economic levers of pressure and occasional igniting of smouldering fire of the internal discontent will be the core content for the nearest political year. And since he is the kind of extremely hard-headed guy - it won't be boring.
POLIGRAF RED is a media group of Marxist persuasion based in Minsk, Belarus, existing under the current name since spring of 2019 in requests for education and analysis of the situation in the country. Videos, texts about the situation in Belarus, history and Marxist theory can be found on the following channels:
YouTube channel: https: //www.youtube.com/c/POLIGRAFRED
Marina Naprushkina (*1981 Minsk, Belarus) works mostly outside institutional spaces, in collaboration with people, communities and activist organizations. She focuses on the creation of new formats and structures, based on self-organisation, and bring theory and practice together. Naprushkina’s artistic practice includes video, performance, drawings, installation and writing. In her work, she deals with current political and social issues.
In 2007 she founded the "Office for Antipropaganda" a platform for artistic and activist work, dealing with the topic of political propaganda. In 2013 she initiated the Neue Nachbarschaft/Moabit in Berlin. She participated in numerous exhibitions and biennials. Since 2016 Naprushkina is a lecturer of the *foundationClass at the Weissensee School of Art.