Belarus holds its presidential elections on December 19. Natalia Leshchenko of the Institute for State Ideologies, London, spoke at the Carnegie Moscow Center about the Belarusian people’s concept of an ideal president and the extent to which the various candidates fit this image. The event was chaired by Carnegie’s Sam Greene.
- Current leadership: Belarus is a small post-Soviet country that, for the past sixteen years, has been under the rule of one man—Alexander Lukashenko. For many years Belarus has lived off subsidized energy from Russia, and Lukashenko’s government did not try to raise its people’s living standards. Leshchenko said that international politicians and experts are “tired of Belarus,” where nothing changes and which resembles a “tractor stuck in impassable mud.”
- Source of stability: Despite Lukashenko’s steadily falling popularity ratings and widespread expectations of an imminent regime change and economic collapse, the Belarusian regime has actually consolidated its power and state system over the last decade. Belarusian opposition figures and experts attribute this to the general mentality of the Belarusian people influenced by a prevalent state-controlled ideology.
The National Archetype
Leshchenko suggested that identifying the constituent parts of the Belarusian national character—and thus developing a picture of who would be an ideal president in the eyes of the Belarusian people—is possible by looking at the country’s national archetypes. She defined a national archetype as the set of social, historical, and cultural conditioned reflexes that function in a particular territory.
- The Belarusian identity: Matriarchy is a deeply rooted part of the Belarusian national identity. It expresses the archetype of the “good housewife”—someone who is wise, practical, thrifty, effective, and successfully avoids conflicts. This is the most important archetype for the Belarusian people. The idea of the “good housewife” is adapted to fit different circumstances; so, for example, this same archetype translates into the idea of a balanced and gentle boss.
- The ideal president: To win over the Belarusian people and become a popular national leader, a politician should appear to have the characteristics of this national archetype. But rather than appealing to these deep-seated archetypical elements, the current election campaign strategies in Belarus are based primarily on a rational approach of identifying problems and proposing solutions.
How the Main Presidential Candidates Measure Up
- Ales Michalevic: According to Leshchenko, Michalevic uses all possible public speaking and PR campaign techniques without much success. In the speaker’s view, Michalevic is more of a manager than a leader. His public image is based on dry rationality and does not fit with the Belarusian national archetype.
- Yaroslav Romanchuk: Leshchenko described Romanchuk as a devoted liberal, who talks a lot about the urgent need for a free market, privatization, and foreign investment in Belarus. Romanchuk calls on Belarusians to make a great socio-economic leap forward, but Leshchenko suggested that the people are probably looking for calmer, slower-paced, and step-by-step national development. Romanchuk’s image is not that of a balanced and gentle boss but rather an energetic reformer, which is not likely to be very effective at winning over the Belarusian voters.
- Andrey Sannikov: At first glance, this candidate looks like the ideal Belarusian president according to the national archetype concept: calm, family-oriented, and sincere. But his election campaign emphasizes his “Europeanness,” so that he comes across as different from his straightforward peers. This emphasis, combined with an impression of seriousness and austerity, run counter to his nature. His campaign platform centers on the idea that Belarus must either join Europe now or lose its chance for good, but ultimatum-style tactics tend not to go down well with Belarusian voters, Leshchenko said, and run counter to positive national archetypes.
- Vladimir Nekliaev: Leshchenko described Nekliaev as the most organized candidate, who is effectively using the best campaigning traditions and tactics. But his appeals to the common Belarusians and attempts to bring out the best in them clash with the image of the precise and collected European that he projects. The result, as Leshchenko sees it, is an impression of insincerity and dishonesty, which mean that Nekliaev’s appeals do not reach Belarusians’ hearts.
- Alexander Lukashenko: As the incumbent president, Lukashenko has deliberately distanced himself from the election campaign, although 60-70 percent of the advertising space in Belarus’s capital of Minsk is covered with posters for Lukashenko’s campaign. His campaign slogan, “Together we are Belarus,” combined with images showing ordinary men and women against a backdrop of wheat fields and a blue sky are an attempt to appeal to the country’s national roots, Leshchenko said. She added that the incumbent president had been forced to change his tactics because the “besieged fortress” rhetoric that he had previously used has been growing less and less effective.
Leshchenko concluded that the main factor separating a political leader from a real national leader is not the ability to project the right image, but instead the “ability to eloquently and well articulate” key elements of Belarusian national identity. Lukashenko was a successful president when his main task was to consolidate the country’s statehood, but Belarus now needs a national leader able to shape and strengthen the Belarusian national identity and ensure Belarusians’ future development as a nation. The legitimacy of whoever becomes the next president will depend primarily on his ability to fulfill this task, Leshchenko concluded.