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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Party of Power? No Thanks

If you are Vyacheslav Kebich or Leonid Kravchuk, about now you are probably despondently wondering what went wrong.


Kebich, the prime minister of Belarus since 1990, was dumped unceremoniously by voters in favor of populist firebrand Alexander Lukashenko, who has promised to chase him to the Himalayas. Kravchuk, the former Communist leader turned nationalist statesman was removed by his former prime minister, Leonid Kuchma, who has promised to reunite Ukraine's economy with Russia.


The lesson seems to be that despite all their natural advantages, godfather incumbents in crisis-ridden countries sometimes lose popular elections.


Before the presidential elections in their republics, both Kebich and Kravchuk figured to stay in power for some time to come. Both were backed by the state bureaucracies, called the "Party of Power" in both republics.


What could be easier than winning an election in Kebich's somnolent stronghold of Belarus? How could Kravchuk lose to an opponent who did not even speak Ukrainian?


Both concocted their campaigns from the godfather recipe book -- start with plentiful promises of stability and a bright future for hard-working people, a dash of fun at the expense of your opponent, abundant free coverage from the state media, and let the Party of Power do the rest.


Kebich promised stability. He lowered prices on staple goods. He printed Belarussian rubles to pay the salaries of idle factory workers. He ran to Austria to secure foreign loans and to Russia to shake President Boris Yeltsin's hand.


He promised a monetary union with Russia that would solve Belarus' myriad economic woes. He told voters that he was close to Viktor Chernomyrdin, something proven by a photo in a local paper showing Kebich planting a kiss on the lips of his Russian counterpart.


None of this affected voters, for whom more of the same meant more economic pain. What did affect the electorate was the government's heavy-handed attempts at discrediting Lukashenko. The lowlight of this campaign was a halting speech on state-run national television the night before the elections by an airline attendant who claimed Lukashenko had stolen chocolate bars out of her purse two years ago, leaving only wrappers. Horrors.


Lukashenko promised to throw out the government that brought economic ruin and solve the country's problems, and voters believed him. Checkmate.


Kravchuk also played the godfather role, touting his experience as a statesman who could stand next to Bill Clinton just as easily as Boris Yeltsin. State-run media obligingly increased coverage of Kravchuk looking presidential.


He mocked Kuchma's Ukrainian and accused him of selling out hard-fought independence, seemingly a safe tactic in a country where only 24 percent of the population is Russian-speaking.


Aware that the economy would be an issue, Kravchuk worked to create an economic miracle of his own, bringing inflation down from 90 percent monthly six months ago to 5 percent on the eve of the vote. Alas, many observers saw that the "miracle" was not the sign of emerging market-driven economic stability, but had been carried out simply by the government refusing to pay its debts.


None of these tactics outweighed Kuchma's promise of reviving the economy by restoring ties with Russia. Again the voters looked in their empty wallets and, faster than you could say "Bogdan Khmelnitsky," ousted the incumbent.


Back at Kravchuk headquarters, disheveled advisers, unsure of their futures, are probably sitting in smoke-filled offices in Kiev, drinking shots of gorilka and reading about the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas, with every advantage in the world, still lost.


At a dacha on the Svislats River outside Minsk, similarly shocked aides of Kebich are probably downing gorelka and poring over the accounts of elections in Malawi this year, in which that country's sunglasses-toting godfather, President-for-Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was given the boot by voters.


They need not look so far abroad -- the blueprint for an economic protest vote in the former Soviet Union was written last December, when the Liberal Democratic Party won more votes than the various parties of power. Boris Yeltsin knows that if those had been presidential elections, he would have been in trouble.


But Kravchuk and Kebich are beyond those concerns now. They are probably both wondering what the weather is like in the Himalayas at this time of the year.