Monday, March 05, 2007

The "Belarus question"…

The following is a letter about the Belarusian opposition's meeting in Washington DC this last weekend. The meeting was held to discuss the future of the united opposition and was sponsored and held at the RFE/RL's studios. A full account of the session in Belarusian is available at (RFE has not yet translated anything into English). The commenter, who wishes to remain anonymous, has his own opinions as why the Belarusian opposition has been ineffective and offers his credentials as follows:

"Officially, my capacity is self-made lobbyist and advocate for Belarus and the "Belarus question" in DC. This I undertook under my own direction and efforts, and over the last few years have actually managed to scratch a place for myself in various events and meetings as a leading voice on Belarus in DC. I'm not paid to do it, and while this has allowed me to meet and speak with several opposition figures and work on some projects, I am by no means employed by them. I highly doubt that they would wish to employ me anyway, as for over a year (I'd say even up to six months before the elections in March) I have made myself somewhat unpopular with local NGOs and some Embassy staff of EU nations for advocating a purely people's movement for change in Belarus versus stating any faith in the opposition parties. My beliefs as such, I do more work with such Belarus groups as Third Way Belarus, that don't tend to associated with the political opposition in any real fashion, while still trying to develop an actual plan for democracy, etc, in Belarus."

Here is his letter about that meeting:

L-R: Sergei Matskevich, Anatoli Lebedzko, Vintzuk Viyachorka and Sergei Kalyakin
While I don't know what you may be expecting, the meeting was, simply put, the equilivant to a cross between a boxing match and a shit festival, pardon my language. Now, I have communicated with a few of these
individuals before, but on a singular basis, and not as the whole of the
group. I will be honest in stating that they are far better individually
than together, but together...

For one, they couldn't stop fighting or trying to one-up each other long enough to answer any serious questions, with Lebedko and Kalyakin taking every opportunity to bring the subject back around to Milinkevich's horrid "quest for unilateral power." Being more of a civil society development kind of person, I of course tried to bring their attention to that front and ask questions concerning NGOs, outreach in the regions, etc, and I couldn't get anywhere with them as far as any of that was

The majority of the time they were discussing their upcoming Congress, the one Milinkevich has refused to attend and that, in my personal opinion, is only being organized to remove him from his chairmanship.

As it was explained, 538 delegates will be allowed maximum to attend the Congress, but 78 of those already confirmed are only from Minsk, nowhere else--not exactly a good, fair representation if you ask me, and it is rather dissapointing to me coming from one whom has advocated that any real change will have to begin in the regions, where last I checked, the majority of the Belarusian people live, not just in Minsk, which is always over-represented. It was also stated that delegates are required
to have the "support" of 300 signatures each to be accepted, and yet they couldn't tell me how, specifically, they can confirm such signatures?

I know for one, that signature fraud is really an issue, not only for the government but for the opposition itself. Even signatures "collected" by Kalyakin himself were doubted as far as I know, by both government and opposition circles alike. I have always found it beyond belief that the ones whom shout the loudest for "fair elections" are no different from the government they are apparently trying to replace.

When I finally could move them back to the issue of civil society, the finally said, after some pressing, that they would "consider" including some civil society or NGO representatives to the Congress. Viachorka--whom I actually think was the only one with serious brains or balls at the meeting--actually spoke on strategy, and the need for the UDF (United Democratic Forces) to have some sort of charter to put legal basis to their actions and plans to actually follow to increase outreach to the regions on more than just verbal bullshit. Of course, however, no sooner did he say it, than did Lebedko interrupt to continue arguing over Milinkevich.

In fact, Lebedko stated in response to a question on Milinkevich's absence from the delegation, quote: "he [Milinkevich] is trying to establish a leadership not unlike Lukashenka's, in which all must be as foot-soldiers to his command." So, in essence, they were democratic people, and they did not force people to come, but they also didn't want someone non-democratic or whatever to come with them. Honestly, while I have come not to expect anything different from Lebedko, he still finds ways
to piss me off.

He also was giving contradictory responses to everything. Take, for example, his beloved "Congress" conversation: "...any interested citizen of the Republic of Belarus can attend the congress..." Later: "we have recieved over 700 applications to represent persons at the congress; we have accepted a good number of these so far, but taking into account that we should have 538 representatives of citizens there..." Later: "we
have thought that perhaps we should also include all delegates from past congresses..." And, of course, later: "only those who can present 300 signatures in support of their representation may be present at the congress..."

When I asked him what his thoughts were on if a civil society movement started gaining strength, without the parties, what their reaction would be or if they would move to try and include them during my after meeting he said "there is no such movement, and most likely would not be. If so, they would be with us at the Congress I think." Again, it is hard to see how "they" would be at a Congress in which civil society is not

I leaked these quotes I shared with you to some Belarusian friends of mine in NYC, where a very large Belarusian expat community is located. Radio Liberty did a call-in question program Friday while the delegation was here, in which people could call in and of course, ask questions. A few people in particular questioned Lebedko on some of the quotes I shared, and he didn't deny it, just tried to give the question to someone else, while they deflected the original intent of the question and
returned to anti-Milinkevich bantor.

Just look at their frunstrated faces, and with that, imagine their continued bickering amoungst themselves as they childed each other for allowing such quotes to exist in the first place.

So, this long sprawling message later, the "leaders" said nothing new, only faught, and danced around every question that they did not desire to answer with either anti-Milinkevich talk or by changing the subject. In a way, from what I saw, Milinkevich was right not to join them, if for no other reason than to save himself from personal attacks for an entire week without escape.

As for any further thoughts of mine, I will share just a few:

Few human institutions are indispensable, and fewer still deserve to be. Leaving aside institutions of enduring religious faiths, human institutions rarely last in historical terms, and few can claim indispensability for very long at all. But certain times do require certain institutions, including purely political ones, for certain specific purposes. Except to provide opposition to power, or to exercise power itself, there is neither constitutional nor historical necessity for a political party in Belarus at all, per se. By and large, political parties
represent interests--constituent interests, special interests, sometimes very
selfish interests.

To justify its existence beyond representation of interests, these opposition parties, perhaps all parties, must lay claim to popular loyalty and support by standing for and standing on principle. Standing on principle always requires conviction, and in difficult times and time of unpopularity it sometimes requires courage. A party without conviction and unwilling to demonstrate courage can make no claim on citizen commitment and loyalty and may have no real claim to exist at all.

To justify its existence on a plane above power and politics, a party must possess a soul. If it does not, it is no more than a transient vehicle for personal ambition and the service of special interests in the never-ending and ever-elusive search for power. A political party without a soul inspires no youth, dreams no dreams, lifts no heart, offers no hope, ignites no inspiration, challenges no imagination, provides no promise of a better future.

See, in Belarus, as everywhere, people are asking: What good is such a thing? Why support it? Why dedicate great portions of one's life to it? Why work for its candidates for office? Why give it money? Why bring others to its cause? Why place personal concerns aside in its mission? Why care at all?

Too often in the recent past, we have succumbed to the temptation of believing that more money, more slogans, more evasion of confrontation, more sophisticated media advisers, more access to television, more courtship of lobbyists and interest groups would satisfy the emptiness in our souls--that's how it is in Washington, and if the political opposition in Belarus was taking notes, they've done a superb job themselves.

However, such strategies were never to be. There is no political salvation down that path. All the money in the world, the cleverest media manipulators, the pollsters and focus-group experts cannot provide one thing: the soul of a party. A party, like an individual, must look within itself for its principles, for where it will draw its lines, for the boundaries of what it will and will not do.

There simply is no technical or financial fix for lack of purpose and direction. Without the compass of principle, the party and its candidates will be pulled in a thousand incompatible and largely irrelevant directions in search of acceptance. There is no political analyst or adviser in the world who can provide a candidate's or a party's principles.

There is no shortcut to conviction or to courage, and until the political opposition finds both, they will continue to fail, and they will not hold my support. If change is to come to Belarus, it will be some "third" movement, that arrises from well-meaning people in the country who do desire democratic changes in place of Lukashenka, but whom understand the key points of conviction and courage, and whom desire democracy, without loosing each other.

Anyway, I will leave you with that for now. All the best to you, your family, and to beloved Belarus. Stay strong, and best wishes.