Europe's Last Dictatorship Is Opposed by the Oldest Exiled Government in the World
The Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic has improbably survived two world wars, 70 years of Soviet occupation, and nearly a century in exile.
Belarus's government in exile, the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic (BDR), is part of a dying tradition. After WWII, governments in exile were often creatures of the Cold War and vanished alongside the Soviet Union. Today only a handful remain—the descendants of ousted monarchs and a few determined partisans from failed states. The oldest of them all is the Rada, which, despite governing for less than a year, has improbably survived two world wars, 70 years of Soviet occupation, and nearly a century in exile.
Formerly part of the Russian Empire, Belarus declared independence in 1917 and established the Rada as a provisional government. Before elections could be held, the government was pushed out of Minsk by the invading Red Army in 1918. Afterwards, the Rada in exile began its slow trek across the globe: from Kaunas to Prague, Paris to New York, and finally to its current headquarters in Toronto.
Today the Rada, headed by Ivonka Survilla, has associated Belarusian cultural alliances in Lithuania, America, and Canada. The oldest is in London, where I'm greeted by a man in a dapper three-piece suit and round glasses. Mikalaj Packajeu is the Rada's Secretary for Information and the Deputy Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He ushers me into a dark front room, decorated with grainy photographs of long-dead revolutionaries and a badly dated map of Belarus. It could be a scene from The Spy Who Loved Me.
"We have never received much support from Western governments," explains Packajeu. "Probably not much since the loan from Lithuania in the 1920s." Instead, the Rada is financed almost entirely by the Belarusian diaspora. The consequence of limited funding has been equally limited outreach, its online presence restricted to a wonky website and assorted social media. The Associations of Belarusians, whose members support the Rada, rent out the upstairs rooms to help pay the bills. To an outsider, the organization, with its scattered membership and low bank balance, looks like it's on the verge of collapse.
But skating close to extinction has always been part of the history of the Rada. The party survived by the skin of its teeth as it was forced across Europe throughout two world wars. Tenacity in the face of disaster has kept the party afloat through its long and convoluted history. But the Rada's unlikely existence in 2016 owes as much to the chaos of Belarusian politics as the determination of its members. For a short period after the fall of the USSR, it seemed as though Belarus might democratize. Instead, Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power after the 1994 elections, returned the country to a neo-Soviet style of government, complete with state ownership, rigged elections, and hired goons.
"If you are not Lukashenko's person you will not even be elected to the local council," says Packajeu. "There is no politics, it's a dictatorship." It's a charge echoed by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, those that point to the restrictions on civil liberties in the country. In 1996, Lukashenko held a referendum to amend the constitution, successfully ending the limitation of the number of possible presidential terms. As with all elections in Belarus, the results of the vote were widely contested.
Lukashenko remains unlikely to leave office, recently promising, "I have only you, the people of Belarus, and I will serve to the last of my days." He is often accompanied to political events by his young son Nikolai, nicknamed "Kolya," leading to speculation that the boy is being groomed for succession.
It takes some time to clarify how exactly the Rada, outside of Belarus since 1919, is working to oust Lukashenko. The Rada's current mission, Packajeu says, is to support opposition parties in Belarus. "The Rada in exile at some point recognized that it could not come back to power in Belarus. So its overall purpose... is to lay down its mandate on behalf of a freely elected parliament," he explains. "Now what follows from that purpose is that there should be an appropriate government in Belarus. So our practical tasks are to support and promote any activity that would lead to Belarus having such a government."
But the pro-democracy parties created before Lukashenko came to power have been excluded from public life for 20 years. Other parties remain unofficial, unable to register in Belarus's restrictive political environment. "The problem is of course that while we are fully prepared to help and while we do what we can, the opposition in Belarus is currently not in very good shape," Packajeu concedes. He is clear about the challenges the Rada faces, animatedly detailing the disastrous state of Belarusian politics.
"Everyone understands in Belarus that Lukashenko has eliminated all the legal and, let's say, peaceful ways of putting him out of office and what it leaves is that people would probably risk their lives to try and change the political system," says Packajeu. But the problem is greater than simply the high personal cost of revolution. "There is no insurgency," he continues, his voice rising. "There is no one to support. So the result is that people are simply losing interest."
After two decades of no political change, it is not just voters that have become disillusioned. "At some point the western governments and NGOs... seem to have become disappointed in the opposition in Belarus," says Packajeu. "Previously there was an arrangement where they would support some activities which would indirectly allow [opposition parties] to dedicate their time to further political activism but that has been stopped... the support to the opposition has been really dramatically reduced because apparently there is little prospect of any result."
Recent Russian nationalism, however, has put Lukashenko in a difficult position. "The bear in the room," says Packajeu, laughing. Belarus is economically reliant on Russia, its primary trading partner. As the Kremlin pushes to expand its territory, Lukashenko has come under pressure to allow new air bases for the Russian military. In order to counterbalance Russian influence, Lukashenko has reached out to the EU. The EU has, in turn, suspended sanctions after Belarus's relatively uneventful recent elections.
Packajeu is skeptical about Lukashenko's willingness to change as well as the overall stability of the regime. "The problem with dictatorships is that they appear stable but they are actually unpredictable. When they blow up they actually blow up." The better strategy, he argues, would be to encourage opposition within Belarus, ensuring power goes to the right people if the government falls. Looking around the small room with its dated decoration, it's difficult to imagine that this organization, housed in a lonely suburb of London, will prove instrumental in unseating one of Europe's longest serving leaders. Decorated with pictures of dead leaders and old territory, history is certainly present in the Rada's London outpost. What is less clear is its place in the future.
At the moment, there is little political will within the EU to foster opposition in Belarus. On the edges of Europe, economically marginal, and dwarfed by Russia, the country is all too easy to dismiss. The Rada's continued existence in 2016 is part of the tragedy of Belarusian politics, an anachronistic byproduct of Europe's last dictatorship. Nevertheless, Packajeu remains optimistic. "The Rada has lived through Stalin and all the Soviet Union. For those 70 or so years there was not even hope of Soviet Union ever falling apart. I mean we've been there for almost 100 years. We've seen it all."
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