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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Controlling More Than the Media

When I'm asked who would be the next president of Russia if Vladimir Putin decided not to nominate a successor, I always reply: Alexander Lukashenko.

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True, Kommersant just published the results of a survey it commissioned from the Levada Center showing that only 25 percent of the respondents wanted to see Lukashenko president of Russia, while 60 percent did not. But I trust my own instincts more than all the surveys taken together. And I always find that my instincts are confirmed in the liberal media.

Ekho Moskvy recently put out a question for their listener poll: Who would they vote for, Lukashenko or the opposition? Sixty-two percent of the listeners called in their vote for Batka. Internet voting gave a different result: Fifty percent voted for the opposition and 46 percent for Lukashenko. Internet users in Russia are the minority of the population. With better educations and higher salaries than average, they represent the contingent that should have given results close to those obtained by the Levada Center. But the votes were almost evenly split.

In the fall of 2004, on the morning after the referendum that allowed Lukashenko to run for another term in office, Radio Liberty asked its listeners for their views on the Belarussian leader. Russians both young and old, men and women, from the capital and the provinces, called the station. Their opinions varied in a spectrum that ranged from respect to admiration. The announcer on the station had to ask: "Don't our listeners have any other opinions?"

Recently, Radio Liberty again discussed Belarussian elections. It deluged the listening audience with facts about the suppression of the independent media. Out of the dozens of listeners who responded, only one found anything to condemn in Belarus' president. I recall one comment most vividly: "We are praying for the victory of Alexander Lukashenko because God forbid that what happened in Russia should happen there."

Right after that show, Radio Liberty aired a piece on the attempts of the authorities to discredit Rodina. Party leader Dmitry Rogozin asserted that there was a smear campaign financed against him in the mass media. "And thank God," I thought, "that means that the authorities understand the real danger." Rogozin is our Lukashenko, modified, of course, to fit Russian conditions. In addition to other similarities, like Lukashenko Rogozin has the ability to speak convincingly with the masses in a language they understand. But unlike Vladimir Zhirinovsky, people don't think he's a clown.

But one mass media campaign to discredit him clearly isn't sufficient. Recall that the ruling party in Belarus ran a similar campaign against Lukashenko in the first presidential elections held in 1994. The candidate from the party in power at the time, Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, had twice as much airtime as Lukashenko ahead of the first round of voting. Kebich was similar to Putin in many ways, and like Putin, he had not done great harm to his people. But no one made sure the vote count "came out right." Kebich got 17 percent of the vote, while Lukashenko got 44 percent. In the run-off, 80 percent cast their ballot for Batka. The moral of this story seems to be that you can fight the favorite only if you control more than the media. You have to control the voting booths, too.

Our authorities understand this and behave accordingly. Americans and Europeans condemn them for it. Perhaps they want more elections like the ones that brought Hamas to power in Palestine or made Mahmoud Ahmadinejad president of Iran. Foreigners' favorites in Russia, the "democrats" and "liberals," also condemn them for their "authoritarianism." This doesn't make any sense at all. After all, Putin doesn't do a thing to prevent them from freely practicing their marginal subculture or even hating him in small print runs. But after "fair elections" under a Russian Lukashenko, they won't have that indulgence.

Alexei Pankin is a freelance journalist in Moscow.