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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Peter Hitchens on Belarus

By contrast with every other ex-Communist capital, Minsk has not in general surrendered to the cult of Western brands. There are only two branches of McDonald’s. There are no billboards for Western cosmetics or clothes, no Starbucks. The gangsterism and boomtown raffishness of Russia are also absent.

In the ornate restaurant of the Hotel Minsk, stately, unruffled staff ponderously serve ice cream and coffee, sometimes long after customers have forgotten what they ordered. In this refreshing shelter from speed and urgency, a trio of musicians plays popular classical works in a continuing effort to raise the cultural standards of the masses. Workers in the banks will helpfully tell you (as they did in Soviet times) to go elsewhere to get a better exchange rate. Work is constantly ceasing for statutory breaks or audits (as it did in Soviet times). The terrifying gales of market capitalism have yet to come roaring down these placid streets. In the central bookshop, regiments of staff, whose equivalents would be unemployed in the West, stand about waiting for custom.

.......there is no personality cult, rather an air of distance and mystery. There are no biographies of Lukashenko to be found anywhere, not even sycophantic ones, and he has yet to pen any grandiose theoretical volume.

In the picturesque countryside, where storks still nest in chimneys, there are neatly modernized small towns—–the fruits of a serious effort to keep people on the land.

The strongest impression here is of having slightly sidestepped normal time.

Belarus, thanks to the constitutional accident that granted it independence, managed to avoid the dreadful mafia years of Boris Yeltsin. By re-selling cheap gas and oil from Russia at a generous profit—an arrangement that will soon end—it has paid for an old-fashioned subsidized economy and offers a sort of refuge from the frantic globalism that has swallowed everywhere else from the Atlantic to the Urals.

You can read the whole of Peter Hitchens' American Conservative essay on Belarus here. As you will see Peter has some critical words to say about Belarus too, but it's still one of the most nuanced pieces I have read in the western media about the European country that the neocons most love to hate.

And on the subject of the Eastern European country that didn't follow the IMF/World Bank/NATO neoliberal path, I can heartily recommend Stewart Parker's excellent book on Belarus, published last autumn.


Anonymous said...

Lukashenko "an inexcusable and increasingly unbalanced tyrant"?

Makes me wonder if this guy really saw anything at all or just made it all up beforehand. That would fit more to Bush or former NATO kriegsfuhrer Javier Solana f.ex than this relativelly calm president.

The Belarussian president is democratically elected
and dispite several attempts by US "regime-changers" with colour coded "revolutions" to overtrow him, there is nothing that seems to change this mans popularity.

People do have jobs and the absence of McDonalds & Co and mind-raping commercialism everywere is refreshing. I love that country but yes it is time-less, refreshingly so...

Anonymous said...

The final two passages, quoted for completeness:
"Normal people, living real lives, can support or tolerate extremely nasty regimes.

Do not sneer too much at those who do this. Not everyone can be protected by oceans and friendly neighbors from the ancient, abiding horrors of human strife. Those who are not so safe are keener on security than on liberty. Nor can we in the free world, who have lazily and thoughtlessly been cajoled into giving away so much of our own liberty since Sept. 11, 2001, look down on others who never had much liberty to give—especially in light of the near-suicidal bravery of those who dare to oppose Alexander Lukashenko."

I would add that you in the "free world" have begun to "support or tolerate extremely nasty regimes" at home, as opposed to just having favorite pet dictators abroad. And it's getting worse by the day.

Anonymous said...

Neo-liberal capitalism's creative destruction is indiscriminate. It destroys the past and its reproductive mechanisms so completely that barely a trace is left, and the young have no memory of anything with which they can make comparisons. The spirit of the past dies, and only grainy photographs, scratched recordings and written descriptions remain. Whilst one is pleased to see the back of the bad, the good is also destroyed. Both are replaced by cultural forms and practices that are not heroically 'beyond good and evil, but dismally 'beneath good and evil'; too impotent to be either, and bland, soulless and uninspiring enough to engender the disinterest and passive nihilism that are the roots of decadence.

Who or what will inspire the radical subjectivity of the young and a new 'truth-project? That is the question Badiou and Zizek ask, and it's one that must be answered.

- questionnaire

olching said...

Very thoughtful post, questionnaire. Not only do only grainy photographs et al remain, but they are gutted and superficially recycled for something new.

Neil Clark said...

I'd like to second that, olching- a great post from questionnaire.

KNaylor said...

Peter Hitchens clearly has ambivalent feelings about Belarus. On the one hand he likes the fact it provides a 'reguge' from 'frantic globalism' but sees it as a kind of time capsule propped up artificially.

One of the problems with Belarus, as Stewart Parker suggests in his book ( I'm currently reading it )is precisely the lack of information on this land that time forgot as well as the rest of the world's media.

At least until election time when there is the usual ballyhoo about election rigging and the intimidation of opponents. Having read Parker's work, I think he is a bit soft on Lukashenko. But Parker's work is all there really is at present.

Lukashenko is a populist autocrat and not a dictator or tyrant. Hitchens got that wrong. Lukashenko would still win even without the intimidation of the opposition which because of their links to Soros and US funded NGOs makes it all the easier for Luka to portray them as external enemies who will destroy their living standards.

If all 'the West has to offer is radical free markets, mindless consumerism and an abolition of the past ( the Denim Revolution...Come off it ),then it is not surprising Belarusians, to the surprise of fastrack democracy 'promotors' reject it.

After all, they have seem what will happen if 'market reform' in the US manner arrives. Mass unemployment, a loss of sovereignty and identity, and what Roger Scruton calls 'the culture of repudiation' where the past is derided and rejected because it seems no longer to have any 'relevance'.

( I 've met so many young Poles, especially women, pretending they are not Polish or condemning their country in toto that it is depressing. But many are suffering from this kind of neurosis in an anomic world of meaningless consumerism and globalism. Few people really feel at home in their unconscious. Hence the need for ever more frantic consumer divertions to fill the void ).

As for Belarus, it would be nice to think it might evolve as a unique sovereign state with a measure of social security for its people whilst it political system becomes less repressive.

However, the constant meddling makes that less likely. In other words, this is what Soros and Co want and why People Power as a kind of dsigner revolutionary brand is so important. It means the whole system is destroyed and can be remodelled to order and according to the express wishes of the global investment community.

The loss of power and control people will feel will simply be replaced with the aspiration towards consuming goods and spectacles.

The irony of that is this is precisely what the Soviet Communists dreamed of in 'engineering souls', creating a society based wholly on materialism and with a vanguard elite making the decisions and directing 'the people' towards an ever better and brighter future.

This is why Mark Almond calls Soros gunded designer revolutions a form of 'Market Leninism'.

At the moment, I'm too busy to look at all this in the detail I want to. But the existence of Belarus really throws up some interesting philosophical questions with regards the nature of freedom, what it is meant for and the nature of mass manipulation.

Freedom from what in one thing but freedom for what. There is something degrading about the idea that the fight for liberty was just the liberty to binge burgers