Cancelled transition - The dilemma of civil society in Belarus

Scientific Essay, 2008

22 Pages




Civil Society: Requirement for Transition

Civil Society in Eastern Europe

Civil Society in Belarus

Civil Society and Identity in Belarus

Some Political and Economic Aspects of Civil Society in Belarus




The fact that demonstrations and street rallies in Belarus are only modestly attended witness that the extent of European and American criticism seems to be more virulent than the domestic resistance against the state authorities. As a matter of fact, in the 14th year of Lukashenko’s presidency we have to ask ourselves why the level of civil disobedience still remains very low. One assessment in this regard is beyond question: The argument of the “people’s fear of the authorities” doesn’t serve any longer as the sole means of explanation. The reasons for the longevity of this authoritarian regime in the heart of Europe are cross-linked: On the one hand, the historical weakness and the reluctance of the domestic political elite to accept independence in 1991 are very often brought into the discussion. Apart from this, also Russian economic support made it possible for Belarus to navigate itself into a deadlock in its relations with the EU. There may be other reasons which can explain the contemporary situation of a political cul-de-sac. However, the EU decision makers would be well advised to deal with two subjects: First of all, they should seriously consider how much influence they really have over this awkward country and secondly, they should – based on the first consideration – come to reasonable decisions. The imposition of visa bans altogether with the conditional approach of EU rapprochement will not enhance the chances of democratization for Belarus. This “strategy” will have the opposite of the intended effect and provides the authorities with new tools to accuse the opposition of anti-Belarusian behavior.

The civil society, which was the big hope in the early literature on the political transition of Eastern Europe, is nowadays the problem child of democratization in Belarus. The particular difficulty in the process of post-Soviet system change is mirrored in one term which political scientists describe as the “dilemma of simultaneousness”: The new republics on the map of Europe have not only had to cope with the transition from autocracy to democracy, also the state-directed economy had to be brought into a market-oriented framework.[1] But moreover, a consolidated democracy needs a minimum of civic self-awareness in order to survive. All of these processes happen at the same time, so it goes without saying that many East European states were simply overburdened with the task of transition shortly after the “twilight of Communism”: On the one hand, western and American expectations – influenced by the far-fetched theories of Francis Fukuyama - were too high,[2] on the other hand this dilemma is marked by an additional brisance, that there are no comparable examples in history for this process. Neither was a “benevolent occupying power”[3] deployed in the former Soviet Union, nor were “institutional experiences” existent.

Before we focus on the Belarusian specifics in this regard, we will have to clarify the term “civil society” in the post-Soviet context.

Civil Society: Requirement for Transition

The term of civil society appears very often in mass-pleasing promises and statements by both politicians and scholars. The next passages are dedicated to a further discussion of this term from the point of view of transition sciences.

The civil society carries a crucial character in the process of the consolidation of democracy. It is certain that a democratic system, in spite of a constitution with checks and balances, cannot exist without certain values such as tolerance, freedom, respect and political culture.[4] The goal of transition – democratization – must be, ironically, backed by the people. So the path of transition can only be regarded as successful when the people engage in affirmative cooperation with the new state.[5] Some scholars like Ernest Gellner perceive the creation of a civil society as the real goal of transition, because this social structure, which is marked by the free will of its participants, signalizes the desired final state of transition. The civil society is diametrically opposed to the system of ideocracy, because the non-state actors should reflect social and political pluralism.[6] The existence of a civil society is indispensable for the process of democratization: From this social platform “immunizing signals” should go out to informal political actors such as the military and stakeholders.[7] For this reason the lack of civil society in illiberal democracies is all the more disappointing, because this situation doesn’t mean stagnation, but rather further consolidation of the “defect democracy”. The essentials of social control over the state, because of which the civil society is important, are totally absent in this case.

But the dilemma of designing the civil society is based on the accomplishment of a “high wire act”: The great willingness for political participation, which is per se desirable, can have a counterproductive effect, especially when it comes to painful economic reforms. These reforms, which represent a main issue of transition, can be blocked with the tool of civil society and can as a consequence delay the necessary democratization for years.[8] So according to Wolfgang Merkel, the real value of “civic culture” requires that the civil society acts in full loyalty to the state – regardless of short- or medium-term economic crises.[9] So it goes without saying that the civil society is marked by high expectations and big hopes. But these expectations seem to be somewhat illusory, because it is the cultural environment which is forming our identity and whether democracy is part of our human nature is highly questionable.[10] But this model also meets criticism from another side: It demands ethically correct acts from its citizens, which in the style of Aristotle realizes the ideal of service to the political community.[11]

But due to the fact that the change of the political system represents a difficult undertaking, it is legitimate to display increased expectations. Only the civil society is capable of creating a mentality which helps civilize conflicts.[12] It has a lot to command it, that institutional self-restriction is accompanied by the self-restriction of the civil society.[13]

As far as Belarus is concerned, both requirements must be seriously doubted in the early 1990s. Moreover, the democratic election of Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1994 underlined that Belarus was not capable of creating an “economy of patience”[14]: His landslide victory was connected to the catastrophic economic situation in the country. So the destruction of the Belarusian democracy began with democratic elections. For this reason an isolated and minimalist view of democracy, in which the role of the citizen ends at his/her participation in periodical elections, does not suffice.[15] The contemporary deadlock in Belarus must be perceived from different angles: The marginalization of the legislature, the lack of self-restriction of state authorities, the erosion of the division of powers and the lack of a functioning civil society.

Civil Society in Eastern Europe

Historically the term of civil society represents the social defense against the absolutist claims to power of the Communist party in Eastern Europe.[16] And even today, the evaluation of civil society in Eastern Europe must not be seen as being isolated from the former Communist system, in which the state, the Communist party and the state-directed economy were part of a monolithic block and all decisions were marked by the character of monopolization.

So the comparison of “official political society” on the one hand and “islands of civil society”[17] on the other hand can explain the phenomenon of civil society in the collapsing Communism of the 1980s. Apart from this, the nature of this concept was the intention of transforming the Soviet individual into a “component of a social subunit”[18] in opposition to the delusional collectivization of the Communist system. This concept was not in accordance with the Marxist state theory because it vociferously advocated the mutual independence of politics and economy,[19] in a purely Marxist view however, this model represented nothing more than a “façade of an arcane and evil power”[20]. For this reason it was the main goal of civil society movements to liberate the people from authoritarianism and from the totalitarian claim to power of the Communist party.

But also the economic dimension of the civil society must be taken into consideration. The independence of the social space came along with the claim to private property.[21] So very soon an ambivalent relation between the civil society and the economy came into being: Whereas in the beginning the focus was put on civil freedoms, over the years socio-economic ideas have prevailed. So the criticism which the concept of civil society had to face with was that its active participants acted in a self-interested manner without any view to the overall interest of society. This of course opened the floor to those who perceived the civil society as a “real utopia”[22]. Ideas like these even culminated in the first half of the 1990s due to the impoverishment and economic desperation of large parts of post-Soviet societies. The desire for the iron fist of the state was the first missile which severely wounded this promised concept. Also the presidential election of 1994 in Belarus can serve as an appropriate example in this regard: Not even the big media support in the election campaign for Kebich could prevent the landslide victory of Lukashenko. While Kebich as well as Shushkevich were regarded as the clear favorites, Lukashenko, who campaigned as an independent on the populist platform “defeating the mafia”, won the second round with unbelievable 80% of the votes.


[1] Merkel, 1999, p. 377

[2] see Francis Fukuyama: “The end of history and the last man”, 1992

[3] Merkel, 1999, p. 378 (for instance: Germany after World War II)

[4] Eicher/Beichelt in Merkel/Puhle/Croissant/Thiery, 2006, p. 356

[5] Merkel, 1999, p. 169

[6] Mackov, 2004, p. 39

[7] Merkel, 1999, p. 146

[8] Merkel, 1999, p. 166

[9] Merkel, 1999, p. 165

[10] Gellner, 1995, p. 196

[11] Mackov, 2004, p. 37

[12] Thaa, 2004, p. 213

[13] Merkel, 1999, p. 168

[14] Merkel, 1999, p. 531

[15] Mangott, 2002, p. 24

[16] Thaa, 2004, p. 198

[17] Mackow, 2004, p. 24

[18] Gellner, 1995, p. 17

[19] Mackow, 2004, p. 25

[20] Gellner, 1995, p. 10

[21] Mackow, 2004, p. 40

[22] Mackow, 2004, p. 25

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Cancelled transition - The dilemma of civil society in Belarus
Conference "Belarus in Europe: Economic Cooperation and Political Dialogue"
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Cancelled, Belarus, Conference, Belarus, Europe, Economic, Cooperation, Political, Dialogue
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Mag. Benedikt Harzl (Author), 2008, Cancelled transition - The dilemma of civil society in Belarus, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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