The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Europe’s last dictatorship keeps surprising everyone

A woman pushed to the ground by Belarus police tries to defend herself as the police detain an activist during an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, on Saturday. A cordon of club-wielding police blocked the demonstrators’ movement along Minsk’s main avenue near the Academy of Science. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

Peter Pomerantsev is the author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Surreal Heart of the New Russia” and senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.

Belarus is nicknamed the “Last Dictatorship in Europe,” and it’s often described as a vestige of the Soviet Union, a sort of museum piece. But a visit to the country quickly reveals a highly modern authoritarian system, which uses nostalgia in very contemporary ways to exert a form of supple control. This control, however, is currently being tested by a new wave of protests against unpopular taxation, which, despite only numbering in the low thousands, have caught the regime by surprise in their persistence and regional spread. On Saturday, 700 people showed up in the middle of the city of Minsk to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government, defying a heavy police presence.

It’s easy to see why first-time visitors might succumb to the stereotypical image of Belarus as a Soviet time capsule. The central avenues of Minsk, the capital, are a showcase of elephantine Stalinist architecture, including avenues designed for tank parades, grand arches for fitting giant statues and so many ornate columns they feel like marble prison bars. It’s majestic in a suffocating sort of way. “The Heroism of the People is Immortal” glows in huge, red neon lettering on top of the buildings. Yet this is just one of the many celebrations of sacrifice in World War II during which, one is reminded repeatedly, a quarter of Belarussians died.

There are other Soviet elements, too. The cult of the Soviet secret police remains strong (and yes, it’s still called the “KGB”). Political repressions remain a part of daily life. When tens of thousands protested rigged elections in 2006 and 2010, hundreds went to jail and many more of the pro-democracy and liberal opposition were pushed into exile. President Alexander Lukashenko has been in charge since 1994 and won the 2015 presidential election with 83.5 percent of the vote: his highest rating ever. The more worried local officials are of his potential wrath, the more they overcompensate by pumping up the numbers.

In school, teachers impose respect for Lukashenko’s policies and make life difficult for anyone who asks too many questions. Army service is compulsory. Every July 3 there are goose-stepping army parades straight out of the Cold War, the same day as the “liberation” of Belarus by the Red Army from Nazi occupation in 1944.

But for all these echoes of the past Belarus is also very much a part of a globalized 21st century: open to both the West and East.

Belarus state TV might be full of stiff, Soviet-style presenters conducting soft interviews with officials, but most people watch the reality shows and sitcoms on Russian channels that are re-broadcast with Belarusian news spliced in over the Kremlin’s. It’s unclear whether people trust the Russian or local channels more. While Lukashenko remained studiously neutral when Moscow annexed the Crimea in 2014, polls showed that most Belarussians supported the Kremlin. This has made Lukashenko anxious. Belarus is already dependent on Russian energy. Russia is also the main customer for the machinery churned out by Belarus’s state-owned factories. Russia, meanwhile, imports sanctioned European food products by relabeling them as Belarussian: Moscow is full of “Belarus Mozarella” and “Belarus Parma Ham.”

And yet Belarus also has the world’s highest percentage of European Union Schengen visa holders: Some one-fifth of the population visit “the West” regularly. Lukashenko’s cronies sell arms to the rest of the world (the nostalgic army parades are also a very modern sales pitch). The information-technology sector grew 20 percent last year even as overall gross domestic product declined 3 percent. Facebook’s face-swapping app MSQRD and the messaging app Viber were developed in Belarus, as was the popular military strategy game “World of Tanks.” When I saw “Tankoburgers” for sale in the local Burger King, I first thought they were celebrating World War II — only to find it was a marketing gimmick for “World of Tanks.”

The insiders who make money from all these businesses keep their lavish, very un-Soviet lifestyles hidden behind high walls. You can sometimes glimpse the other Belarus in restaurants with names such as “Bistro de Luxe,” where the girls form curtains of peroxide blonde hair across the windows and the very walls appear to ask you how much you’re worth. Casinos are booming, too: Since gambling was banned in Russia in 2009, the scene has partly moved to Minsk.

Lukashenko himself is more a modern media-populist than a Communist functionary. He speaks in a folksy mix of Russian and Belarus like a bumpkin in an anecdote. His macho posturing (porn-star mustache, hunting and hockey playing), not to mention his gun-carrying 10-year-old son, are simultaneously comedic and menacing. His ideology is liquid: He can play the Belarussian patriot when he needs to stand up to Russia and the Russian loyalist when he needs to push away Western influence. Similarly, the propaganda narrative that holds Belarus together does not rely on bromides about Soviet progress. Instead, it focuses on the idea that things will get worse if Lukashenko leaves. According to this vision, Europe historically brings bad things like World War II; Ukraine is at war now; Russia is filthy and corrupt.

The idea that the world is full of danger falls on fertile ground here. Belarus had a horrific 20th century. No one knows exactly how many were killed during Communist purges as the KGB files have never been opened, but it’s estimated 1.4 million (out of 10 million at the start of the war) were repressed in executions, famines and deportations. Far from being the straightforward “Nazis Versus Communists” affair presented by the state, World War II saw Belarussians trapped in conflicting loyalties and violence. In the formerly Polish parts of Belarus the Soviets were seen as another imperialism after the Germans.

The most important event in the late Soviet era was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster: 70 percent of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus. The government is still in denial about the true impact on children’s health. (Researchers are arrested and exiled.)

Given this history, Belarussian “nostalgia” is not so much about loving the past as much as being petrified by it: When all changes lead to disaster, you stop wanting to move in any direction. “Nostalgia” here is used to manipulate the pain, rather than the pleasure, of the past.

On one hand, the regime taps into historical trauma as it is the path into people’s inner lives. On the other, it has to control the emotions so they do not lead to a challenge the regime’s authority: Exploring the legacy of Chernobyl, for example, would mean questioning central control. So the regime has to channel all the horror into one collective, controlled story about the World War II. With a century’s worth of pain pushed into a narrowed narrative, the regime sets itself up as the only medium through which to experience relief and uplift with its celebrations of “the immortal sacrifice of the people.”

Lukashenko’s mix of keeping the country economically partly open to the world while simultaneously keeping his country in a psychological vice beholden to the past has worked well to shut down the ideologically driven liberal opposition. If they represent change, then why should people embrace it when change brings catastrophe?

What is striking about the current wave of protests is they have caught both the democratic opposition and Lukashenko by surprise. They were provoked into action by a desperate law to raise money for the government, which fined people for being unemployed, and are driven by complaints regarding a recent decline in living standards. The protesters appear less interested in abstract change than Lukashenko fulfilling his promise to maintain the economic status quo. He will have to think of new ways to deliver that. For the moment, though, he is resorting to more Soviet, “nostalgic” methods: On Saturday, his forces arrested and beat 400 of the 700 hundred protesters.