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Against a red heraldic field, a knight in silver armor cap-à-pie sits astride his rearing argent horse, the sword in his right hand brandished aloft, the shield strapped to his left shoulder emblazoned with a patriarchal cross as yellow as a quince. Such was the coat of arms of the medieval Grand Duchy of Litva, Rus, and Samogitia, subsequently bequeathed to its modern-day successor states, the republics of Lithuania and Belarus. Known as the Vytis in Lithuanian and the Pahonia in Belarusian, both of which translate as the pursuer, this ancient symbol was readily readopted in 1991 by those two nations newly liberated from Soviet domination. For the fiercely nationalistic Lithuanians, the Vytis, the victorious knight ejecting invaders from his demesne, was an ideal device in the aftermath of the Singing Revolution. Yet for the Belarusians, those denizens of an infamously denationalized nation  , nothing, not even a coat of arms, could ever be so straightforward a matter. In the aftermath of the December 19, 2010 Belarusian presidential elections, and the subsequent protests rallies and crackdowns thereon, the symbolism of this depiction of the Belarusian pursuit retains its significance.
In 1917, the Belarusian writer Maksim Bahdanovich suggested that the warrior depicted on the Pahonia was not only pursuing foreign interlopers, but also those children of Belarus who had renounced, eschewed, sold, and betrayed their Motherland  . The knight’s raised sword, Bahdanovich hoped, would strike them, strike to the heart, forcing them to reconsider their expedient allegiances to Poland to the west or, more pressingly at that historical juncture, Russia to the east. But if the venerable image of the warrior on his dread steed could not instill a sense of pride in the Belarusian nation, so Bahdanovich’s thinking went, his countrymen might very well into foreigners turn. The Pahonia was thus presented as an exhortation and a warning, a powerful symbol of the potential of the Belarusian nation and a reminder of the danger posed by a loss of that identity. Over the course of the twentieth century, Belarusian nationalists took heed, and at the start of those fleeting periods of Belarusian independence from Russian rule – in 1918, in 1943, and in 1991 – the Pahonia was declared the nation’s coat of arms.
When the Russophile politician Alyaksandr Lukashenka assumed the Belarusian presidency in 1994 – having campaigned primarily as an independent reformer who would defeat the mafia, which like an all-devouring octopus had ensnared all government organs with its tentacles  –the first order of business in his establishment of what is widely regarded as a sultanistic regime in Minsk was a popular referendum on the use of the Pahonia as a symbol of the state. Lukashenka and his allies argued that the Pursuit was a fascist symbol on the grounds that the short-lived Nazi collaborationist Belarusian Central Rada had used it during the Great Patriotic War, a contention that evidently resonated with much of the Belarusian populace. Indeed, polls taken at the time indicated that a majority of Belarusians believed that the Pahonia was a specifically Nazi invention, a gross misconception the executive office, predictably, did nothing to correct. Lukashenka’s presidential predecessor, Stanislau Shushkevich, could lament the political incivility [политического бескультурия] and lack of awareness [неосведомленности населения] that marked the proceedings, but the die was cast  . The referendum went Lukashenka’s way and the Pahonia, as well as the matching white-red-white national flag, was abolished.
State officials quickly organized a televised event in which the old state flag was ceremonially shredded, with the strips later sold for a pittance. Above the presidential palace, located at 38 Karl Marx Street in central Minsk, a new flag was raised, one nearly identical to that of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, lacking only the hammer and sickle. And a new emblem had replaced the Pahonia, again a Soviet-era retread, replete with ears of wheat and topped by a blood-red star. The old flag and the Pahonia were banned from the public arena. As Steven Eke and Taras Kuzio observed, the legal prohibition of public display of the historical national symbols of Belarus was unprecedented, for there is no other transition state in the former USSR where carrying the national flag has become a punishable offence, contrary to all international human rights legislation"  . Whereas post-Soviet Ukraine reclaimed the ancient Tryzub, or trident, and the Russian Federation the czarist double-headed eagle, to serve as renewed national symbols, Belarus faltered in this and in many other regards.
The old flag and the old coat of arms live on both in and outside of Belarus, embraced as they are by groups that, with varying degrees of quixotism, continue their pursuit of democracy in the Land under White Wings. For the Belarusian People’s Republic (the Belarusian government in exile since 1919), the Belarusian People’s Front, the World Association of Belarusians, the Union of Poles in Belarus, and the Belarusian Private News Agency, along with likeminded individuals, the Pahonia and related symbols represent a celebrated time when the Belarusians belonged to a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic polity that dominated the region between the Baltic and Black Sea, and held its own against Teutonic knights and Muscovite druzhinniks. This historical touchstone, many hope, provides an eminently suitable foundation for the future creation of a stable, democratic, liberal, independent Belarus.
Yet public recognition of this noble past has been systematically eradicated by Lukashenka, who so objected to the presence of a statue of Maksim Bahdanovich on the grounds of the National Opera and Ballet Theater that he ordered it removed, and whose minions have been given free rein to beat and fine those who fly their country’s erstwhile (and perhaps future) flag. Suspended between the glories of the past and the possibilities of the future, suspended between west and east, between the European Union and the Russian Federation, between hope and despair, Belarus has been cut adrift. Each presidential election provides a glimmer of hope, one that is inevitably snuffed out, as was the case in 2006 and has proven to be the case in the most recent round.
While in late October of 2010 Lukashenka described the country under the sway of his populist authoritarianism as an island of peace and stability where people feel confident about the future  , more apposite descriptions abound : a forgotten country, a natural park of communism, a country with a death wish, the black hole of Europe  . Lukashenka has constructed something of a neo-communist cocoon in Belarus, in the process transforming his country into a pariah state, one mistrusted in capitals to the west while being taken anything but seriously in the Kremlin’s halls of power. Such is the result of the steady erosion of Belarusian domestic civil society and the adoption of the aimless, feckless geopolitical principle of multivectoredness.
Yet opposition figures, including Andrej Sannikau (leader of the European Belarus civil campaign), Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu (poet and leader of the Speak the Truth civil campaign), and Yaraslau Ramanchuk (United Civil Party deputy chairman), as well as a host of democracy and human rights activists, press on in their pursuit of a liberal Belarus. Their calls for international support for their endeavors have all too often fallen on sympathetic but weary ears in Brussels, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, given the durability of Lukashenka’s regime. Every four or five years, however, on the occasion of the national presidential election, outside observers at last remember that forgotten country, and the tireless work of Belarusian reformers receives the attention it deserves. The most recent presidential election, which took place on December 19, 2010, thus provided yet another opportunity to assess the state of that decades-old, indeed centuries-old, Belarusian pursuit.
Belarusian parliamentary and presidential elections are invariably deemed unfair by bodies like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and for good reason. No free and fair electoral process can take place in a country where a 2006 presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, could be beaten and detained for having the temerity to enter the All Belarusian People’s Assembly ; in a country where a Conservative Christian party activist, Sergei Kovalenko, could be sentenced in May of 2010 to three years’ house arrest for having hung the Belarusian flag on a public Christmas tree (thus expressing obvious disrespect for society  ) ; or in a country where wiretapping, media manipulation, and the disappearances of dissidents are all relatively commonplace. Under such circumstances, it would have been difficult to imagine that the December 2010 election would differ substantially from the ones held in 1994, 2001, or 2006.
Observers working with the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Viasna Human Rights Center, the OSCE, and other bodies were on the ground in December, documenting what abuses they could, while the leaders of Germany and Poland continued in the run-up to the vote to make their demands that the elections uphold European values, but progress in Belarus depended more on the resiliency of the opposition movement itself. With the state-owned print and electronic media at the national and regional level instructed to ignore election-related topics, it was only by sheer force of will that Andrei Sannikau and company made their voices heard at all.
Before the vote took place, there had been indications that the reformers’ campaign had achieved modest results. Lukashenka, in order to meet his obligations for a presidential nomination, managed to collect 1,123,581 signatures, sixty percent fewer than in 2006, of which, according to opposition groups, fewer than 100,000 were given freely  . And a September 2010 poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research  suggested a willingness on the part of the Belarusian populace to change tack. Around 43 percent of respondents expressed support for fundamental changes to the current course, as opposed to 38 percent who favored the status quo. Nearly 40 percent wanted a president who would pursue rapprochement with the European Union, while less than 25 percent supported closer integration with the Russian Federation. Even more problematically, from Lukashenka’s standpoint, 59 percent of respondents favored a market economy, with less than 15 percent backing a planned economy ; 43 percent of respondents even backed increased separation of powers, while only 30 percent preferred a consolidation of power in the office of the president. As David Marples concluded, there appeared to be evidence that the relatively passive Belarusian population favors fundamental changes in political and economic life  , and the Belarusian opposition forces ventured to exploit this political opening.
All the while, Lukashenka found himself under sufficient internal and external pressure that he felt the need to lash out at his traditional backer, the Kremlin, accusing Russia in early October of supporting opposition candidates, prompting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to label Lukashenka’s remarks as being hysterical and having broken not only the diplomatic rules, but the elementary rules of behavior  . It was not long before Russia’s Channel One program Vremya, the state television newscast, featured a report asserting that Lukashenka suffers from mosaic psychopathy, that is, a disorder Iosif Stalin and Adolf Hitler suffered from  . With Belarus’ leader increasingly isolated internationally, and subjected to criticism and skepticism from within (notwithstanding his media monopoly and crackdown on public assembly), it was hoped that the December elections would further serve to undermine the Lukashenka regime.
That having been the case, the Belarusian opposition, aiming as it was to effectuate a Cornflower Revolution in the manner of the Ukrainian Orange or the Georgian Rose revolutions, was obliged to overcome not only a Belarusian regime in which all sectors, public and private, are dependent on Lukashenka’s patronage, but also the built-in limitations of the dissident movement. With the government disrupting the creation of parties like the Belarusian Christian Democratic Party, opposition candidates have been forced to spearhead various amorphous public campaigns, often with disparate goals and methods. And while the Belarusian European Coalition concluded in a November 4, 2010 meeting that presidential hopefuls should seek unity and stop criticizing each other in public if they want to win  , it remained to be seen whether the fragmented opposition groups could effectively work in tandem towards their shared goal.
Even more problematically, Lukashenka’s policy of Russification has, over time, successfully sidelined the sort of Belarusian nationalism espoused by the opposition movement. When Lukashenka took over the executive office, around eighty percent of Belarusian first-graders studied in the Belarusian language ; three years later the percentage had plummeted to seven. Integration with the west was also rejected out of hand. I will not be leading my people to the civilized world, Lukashenka once ranted, for Belarusian values have nothing in common with Western values  . Anyone who disagreed was cast as a fascist who would break into your homes and rape your wives and daughters  . This brand of authoritarian populism poisoned much of Belarusian civil society, and a campaign like that of Sannikau’s, premised on European integration, is necessarily viewed with considerable suspicion.
Belarusian opposition nationalists, such as Zianon Pazniak of the Belarusian Popular Front, have long spoken of a need to restore the equilibrium in Eastern Europe that was destroyed 200 years ago [with the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, of which Belarus was an integral part] by way of a Baltic-Black Sea Commonwealth... of states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova)  . For Pazniak, this is the path toward stability, equal cooperation, and a guarantee of sovereignty  . This is a dream borne out of the deep history of Belarus, with its connections to the Grand Duchy and the Pahonia. It is a dream that causes Sannikau to characterize Belarus as a fundamentally Baltic state, like its ancient sibling Lithuania. And it is a dream that appeals to outside observers, including the Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, who has suggested that modern Belarusian nationalism, if it arrives, will probably involve a mythical notion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania  . But it is a dream that the majority of the Belarusian populace, after years of denationalization, simply does not share with the Belarusian intelligentsia.
Whether that majority is represented by the 79.65 percent figure the State Electoral Commission of Belarus claimed was the portion of the vote cast for Lukashenka is another matter entirely  . The release on the day of the election of a government exit poll naturally indicating a landslide victory for Lukashenka prompted some 40,000 protesters (the largest such group since 1996) to amass in central Minsk. Clashes with baton-wielding riot police ensued. Lukashenka did not mince words. The protesters, vandals and hooligans according to the Belarusian leader, had lost their human face. They simply turned into beasts. You saw how our law-enforcers behaved. They stood firm and acted exclusively within the bounds of the law. They defended the country and people from barbarism and ruin. There will be no revolution or criminality in Belarus  . Backing up his words with actions, Lukashenka, acting through the State Security Agency of the Republic of Belarus (the Камітэт дзяржаўнай бяспекі, or KGB), ordered the rounding-up of some 600 protesters. Seven of nine presidential candidates were arrested. Sannikau was beaten and imprisoned, along with his wife, Irina Khalip, and Lukashenka has gone so far as to threaten to take custody of their three year-old son  .
The OSCE’s assessment – that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments, that the vote count was bad and very bad in almost half of all observed polling stations," and that the vote count was largely conducted in a non-transparent manner, generally in silence, which undermined its credibility – was thus relatively restrained, though not enough to prevent Lukashenka from expelling the organization from Belarus. Other international organizations spoke out, in one form or another, against the Belarusian electoral process and its manipulators. The European Union’s High Representative Catherine Ashton called the beating and detention of several opposition leaders, including presidential candidates… unacceptable, while European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek called Lukashenka’s actions simply outrageous  . By December 31, 2010, the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the European Union had adopted a resolution on Belarus calling for restrictive measures, including asset freezes and visa bans, a resolution that was adopted by the European Council on February 4, 2011 ]] . The Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs will remain seized of the matter, having been instructed to periodically review the situation in Belarus and…if necessary, to provide other targeted sanctions in all areas  .
At the national level, Poland’s Senate leader Bogdan Borusewicz declared that if the regime in Minsk does not withdraw from repression, then we will have to take restrictive measures against the Belarusian authorities  , presumably indicating support for the reinstatement of the recently-relaxed travel ban placed by European leaders on members of Lukashenka’s government following the 2006 election. On January 16, 2011, Varsovians were even treated to an evening of concerts at the Polish Radio Concert Hall, with Belarusian bands playing under the motto Hear Belarus : Culture Against Dictatorship. In Prague, offers of asylum of Belarusian opposition members have been made, while Czech Interior Minister Radek John hinted that his government is also thinking of significantly reducing the cost of visas for ordinary Belarusians and intends to join tougher sanctions against the leaders of Belarus who trample democratic norms and principles  . Even Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, while acknowledging that Belarus is our brotherly country, our strategic partner, was careful to pay lip service to basic guarantees of human rights, maintaining that the close relationship between the two countries does not mean we should close our eyes on violations of basic human rights and freedoms  . Across the Atlantic, the Republican chairman of the subcommittee on human rights in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chris Smith, has introduced legislation to reauthorize the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, while United States Senator John McCain, citing the recent riots in Tunisia and Egypt, has suggested that as we see the events unfolding in the Middle East, we also believe that events should unfold here for the people of Belarus, given that Lukashenka is positioned on the wrong side of history and that sooner or later we will see democracy and freedom in Belarus  . The events transpiring in northern Africa, by all accounts, differ in degree and in kind from those in Belarus, but hope of a democratic revolution in Belarus springs eternal.
None of these statements or tentative measures figure to suffice for those, like Eva Nyaklyaeva, the daughter of the imprisoned Belarusian presidential candidate Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, who are sick and tired, with all respect, of the analysts who say that in this situation it is very difficult for Europe or for the West to take serious steps because of the economic situation. To hell with realpolitik. These are human lives now on the line  . Yet that is, for better or worse, the lay of the diplomatic land at present. Ultimately, there is insufficient international will to come to grips with the situation in Belarus, that all but forgotten country on the fringe of Europe. The opposition movement in Belarus, to achieve their aims, must pattern itself after the Ukrainian and Georgian opposition that successfully, if not necessarily conclusively, wrested power away from entrenched autocracies during the foregoing decade, with only moderate, and typically opportunistic, support from outside forces.
The difficulty with this route is that Belarus has, for the reasons outlined above, yet to have attained the necessary preconditions for a democratic revolution. Whereas most modern Eastern European states emerged as nations (linguistic, cultural, or otherwise) before securing the status of sovereign states, the reverse is the case for Belarus. As Natalia Leshchenko of the Institute for State Ideologies put it, Alexander Lukashenka has stayed in power against all economic and foreign policy odds because he gave unto the Belarusians a functioning sovereign state, something they have never had in modern history. State sovereignty is a magic wand for the hardy president, allowing him to dismiss both foreign and domestic pressure as a threat to the treasured and hard-fought-for Belarusian statehood  . Yet, [h]aving delivered Belarusians a state, Mr Lukashenka now has to deliver them a nation if he is to stay at the helm… Belarusians now need a shared sense of purpose and direction. The nature of that nation has not been agreed upon. For the heirs of Bahdanovich, the repressed or exiled Belarusian opposition, that is the medieval model of Pazniak, Snyder and company. For the Belarusian sultan and his machine, it is instead a quasi-Soviet model. Neither one is exactly at home in the twenty-first century ; the pursuit is therefore destined to go on for some time, if not ad kalendas graecas.
Even when Lukashenka’s rule comes to an end, as it eventually must (be it for reasons endogenous or exogenous), the task of repairing the damage the sultan in Minsk has inflicted on his country will no doubt be enormous. Privatization, the separation of powers, the resuscitation of parliament and the judiciary, the establishment of close relations with nations other than fellow pariahs Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, and the transition from a rusting economy based on raw materials like potash will all require seemingly superhuman efforts. The revival of Belarusian understanding of national history and national identity, which began in the late 1980s during the Gorbachev period but was interrupted by Lukashenka, and which now represents a precondition to the lofty goals of those languishing in KGB prisons, will require just as much work. As the poet Maksim Bahdanovich feared in 1917, the Belarusian nation has indeed been renounced, eschewed, sold, and betrayed, and thus the symbolism of the Pahonia, embodying the pursuit of freedom in Belarus, has never been more potent than now. This ideological pursuit, as Bahdanovich foretold, will continue, into measureless distances flying, with years behind, and years ahead of it. Such an endeavor, obscure though it may seem, is one the international community would do well to support, not only in the immediate aftermath of the most recent election season, but also in the trying years to come. Without progress on this front, those in pursuit of reform in Belarus appear destined to lag behind their age-old quarry.
 David Marples, Belarus : A Denationalized Nation, Amsterdam : Harwood (1999).
 Ian Jeffries, The Countries of the Former Soviet Union at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century : The Baltic and European States in Transition, London : Routledge (2004), p. 266
 Vladimir Skachko, СТАНИСЛАВ ШУШКЕВИЧ : « Я ДЕЙСТВИТЕЛЬНО В СОСТОЯНИИ УЖАСА, » Зеркало недели, No. 21 (34) (27 мая—2 июня 1995).
 Steven Eke and Taras Kuzio, Sultanism in Eastern Europe : The Socio-Political Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Belarus, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 52, No. 3 (May, 2000), p. 527.
 Belarusian Telegraph Agency, Lukashenko calls Belarus island of peace and stability (October 22, 2010).
 John Löwenhardt, Ronald J. Hill, Margot Light, A Wider Europe : The View from Minsk and Chisinau, International Affairs, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Jul., 2001), p. 608.
 International Federation for Human Rights, Belarus : A further intensification of punitive measures (June 2, 2010), http://www.fidh.org/A-further-intensification-of-punitive-measures.
 Charter 97, Even under duress dictator collected by 40% less signatures than in 2006 (November 1, 2010).
 НАЦИОНАЛЬНЫЙ ОПРОС 2-12 сентября 2010, http://www.iiseps.org/data10-391.html.
 David Marples, Belarusians Want Changes : But How Badly ? Eurasia Daily Monitor (November 8, 2010).
 David Marples, Russia Increases Pressure on Lukashenka, Eurasia Daily Monitor (October 20, 2010).
 Charter97, Channel One (Russia) : Lukashenka suffers from mosaic psychopathy (October 11, 2010).
 Naviny, European Coalition urges opposition presidential hopefuls to unite (November 5, 2010).
 Timothy Snyder, The reconstruction of nations : Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, New Haven : Yale University Press (2003), p. 280.
 Stephen Burant, Foreign Policy and National Identity : A Comparison of Ukraine and Belarus, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 47, No. 7 (Nov., 1995), p. 1134
 Snyder (2003), p. 284.
 BBC News, ‘Hundreds of protesters arrested’ in Belarus(December 20, 2010).
 See The New York Times (editorial), Lukashenko’s Gulag (January 11, 2011), page A24.
 Statement by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on the presidential elections in Belarus (December 20, 2010) ; Polskie Radio, Who attacked Belarusian government building ? (December 20, 2010).
 [[Telegraf, EU Summit Approved Sanctions against Belarusian Officials (February 5, 2011). The asset freezes are essentially symbolic, unless the EU invests in a forensic accounting operation to find out where the money is. See Andrew Rettman and Maryna Rakhlei, U to hit Lukashenko’s sons in new visa ban list (January 28, 2011).
 Polskie Radio, Who attacked Belarusian government building ? (December 20, 2010).
 RTT News, Czech Republic Offers Asylum To Belarusian Opposition Members (January 11, 2011).
 RIA Novosti, Russia should not ignore human rights violations in Belarus - Lavrov (February 3, 2011).
 RIA Novosti, Lukashenko may face same fate as Mubarak, U.S. Senator says (February 5, 2011).
 Kathy Lally, Jailing the opposition in Russia and Belarus, The Washington Post (January 11, 2011).
 Natalia Leshchenko, Lukashenka must embrace political opponents, EU Observer (December 23, 2010).