6 Insane Realities Of Life In A Modern Dictatorship
Belarus is frequently called "Europe's last dictatorship." Unlike starfighters, samurai, or of the Mohicans, this is not a good thing to be the last of. We sat down with a man who's lived most of his life in Belarus, and asked him what life was like in a modern country ruled by a despotic leader who can't seem to pull his ass out of the 19th century.
We Still Pretend At Politics
In 1991, the Soviet Union went tits up, killing everyone's hope for a decent Red Dawn sequel and prompting an existential crisis for folks who design nuclear warheads for a living. The end of the USSR meant independence for the nations they'd been ruling with an iron fist. My country, Belarus, was one of these nations. In 1994, we finally ratified our first democratic constitution. We held our first elections that same year, electing Alexander Lukashenko as president.
Any given picture of the guy should key you in to how bad an idea that was.
Though he did go on to win "Best-Dressed Tyrant" at the No Choice Awards.
As we probably should have predicted from the mustache and military uniform, Lukashenko immediately went full dictator. 1994 was the last time we had anything that qualified as a free election. Lukashenko has remained the president for the last few decades.
It's impossible to know how popular he is, but the best-case scenario (for him) is an approval rating of around 40 percent. The official polls and referendums show "pre-invasion Saddam Hussein" levels of support, but some people are quite vocal about their disdain for the dictator. In order to "prove" his legitimacy on the international stage, Lukashenko hired this Nien-Nunb-looking woman:
Cracked Editorial Note: We think she looks more like Scarlett Johansson in old person makeup.
This lady oversaw the 2010 elections, which Lukashenko won with almost 80 percent of the vote. Some of that staggering landslide was probably due to the fact that both of the two largest opposition parties mysteriously pulled out of the election a week before the vote. Belarus responded with the largest protests ever, and the police responded by beating the everloving shit out of those protesters.
That was also the day we all learned that running for president was a fast track to prison. In the wake of the election, every major candidate besides Lukashenko found themselves in jail. That was actually one of the regime's more intelligent policies; using elections to push all their enemies out into the open, and then arresting them. Here's one of the major contenders in that election being carried away after the riot cops beat him senseless:
You Can Be Arrested For Pretty Much Anything
If you do something the government doesn't like, you'll be incarcerated. Since we're not quite all the way over that totalitarian edge, you'll usually get an "administrative arrest" for 15 days or so, rather than multiple years in prison.
But if you, say, fly the wrong flag, you might find yourself with a long-term lease on a prison cell. When Belarus first became independent, we had a different flag and coat of arms. That simple white-red-white flag had a thousand-year history. Somehow, three bars are considered a piece of subversive artwork.
Also banned: peppermints, barber poles, 90 percent of Jack White's wardrobe.
After President Lukashenko was elected, he decided to change the national symbol to an ugly Christmas sweater.
And yet merriment is illegal.
Any display of the independence flag is punishable by ... well, whatever the cops feel like doing to you at the time. Hopefully they'll only tell you to remove it. But one guy was sentenced to two years in prison for his determination to fly the old flag.
Then they stripped him to check for flag tattoos. No luck.
Why all the hatred for a harmless flag? Well, dictators have a vested interest in making people forget there was ever a time before their reign. One of the first things the Nazis did once they started assuming power was change the flags. That's how you spot a dictator: oppressive mustache, thousand-yard stare, and oddly design-obsessed.
There Is Technically No Unemployment
Wow, what a utopia! For those of you who can't get a job building so much as a sandwich with your Master's in Engineering, it might sound like a dictatorship is worth it if it keeps the paychecks rolling. But don't sprint down to your local Belarusian embassy just yet. Like any civilized state, we have unemployment benefits for our less fortunate citizens. Sign up and you can get a whopping $11 a month. For some context, an average utility bill is about $30-$40. And if you plan on raking in that extra-value meal's worth of cash, you've got to participate in "subbotniks," an old Soviet tradition that boils down to "picking up litter for free." By the way, you can't stay on unemployment longer than a year. And the process of registering for that aid is so draconian that it might as well start stealing kingdoms from dwarves.
Registering for aid is also as tediously exhausting as watching all three Hobbit films.
There's a method behind all this madness, though: The basic uselessness of our unemployment benefits and the insane difficulty of registering for them means that our government can report an unemployment rate of one percent. The real number of unemployed people is much, much higher. But since they aren't registered, the government doesn't legally have to give a fuck.
And the media gets to report on a great economy!
Also, the state owns the media.
But hiding the unemployment rate doesn't do anything for the utter lack of tax revenue from all those hidden unemployed people. To counter this, our tax minister, Sergei Nalivaichenko, instituted "sponger tax" of about $250 a year for all people who do not pay taxes for more than six months. This includes stay-at-home moms and housewives. When asked about housewives, the minister replied, "Well, their husbands earn enough to provide for their family. They'll manage." Then he stroked a white cat and laughed maniacally .
Hanging Out Is Illegal
When Ukraine's would-be dictator got annoyed at protests (which eventually ousted him), he straight-up banned protests. Late in 2013, Egypt's government banned gatherings of more than ten people, which sounds bad -- unless you compare it to Thailand, whose military junta banned gatherings of five or more last year. None of those despots have shit on Lukashenko. In 2010, he responded to growing unrest and criticism by banning all gatherings of more than three people. It was a devastating blow to swingers, pick-up soccer games, and folks who simply like hangin' out alike.
Chess boxing was left alone, as they'd presumably deliver blows back.
This didn't stop people from protesting, of course. And when our national currency devalued by 300 percent in 2011, prompting an economic crisis, people took to the streets and voiced their displeasure with one mass slow clap. That's, like, the most passive resistance possible, right? No way the police went fuck-nuts crazy on--
Haha, of course they did! CLAPPING SHALL NOT BE TOLERATED.
Clapping sarcastically gets extra punishment.
They brutally put down the demonstration. In a dictatorship, any display of solidarity and dissent by the people scares the authorities shitless. This extends to arresting a one-armed man for clapping, which at least answers one age-old question.
It's gotten to the point where no form of public dissent, no matter how mild, comes without a prison sentence. And if you've been arrested for organizing a protest before, you can expect to be arrested again before any major holiday or event, just in case. Oddly enough, that's a policy my dictator run amok shares with the British government. Even the top one percent aren't immune to this sort of thing; last year, the CEO of a Russian potash company tried to pull out of a trade agreement with Belarus, and he was arrested and held for ransom by the government.
NOT AGREEING TO TRADE SHALL NOT BE TOLERATED.
You Have An Evil Royal Family
It is important to understand that, despite being called "president," Lukashenko is basically a king. He has absolute authority over every decision in the country, and no one can deny him. We have a parliament called the National Assembly, but it doesn't actually do anything. (In a similar vein, Hitler stopped the German Reichstag from throwing any Reichstag parties at all after 1938.)
We're not sure if this is the National Assembly or a Learning Annex "Basics of Internet" class.
The president has a bastard son, Kolya, whom he takes with him everywhere. The boy is about 11 years old now. Ever since he was little, he has always been seen with the dictator, often wearing the same clothes as him, mini-me style. When there are meetings with military men, the president makes them salute the boy. Rumor goes that one time, when they were flying, Kolya wanted to close the door of the plane himself. He was told this was forbidden by a stewardess, and he bit her hand and shouted that he'd have her shot when he becomes a minister. He follows Lukashenko on state occasions, and was given a golden gun by then-Russian-President Medvedev as a present. He's never stopped wearing it since:
"Wouldn't a steel gun work better?"
"Yes, but it would also feel less evil."
There's no way this junior Bond villain in training taking over a whole country is going to end well.
The Situation Looks Bleak
Remember when a ragtag group of Ukrainian protesters succeeded in kicking their dictatorial "president" out of their country?
Ah, that little 2014 kerfuffle.
Yeah, that's probably not going to happen here. And if it does, just look at the shit Ukraine has had to deal with in the wake of their revolution. Rebuilding will take a terrible toll in lives and time. And there's no guarantee that what replaces the current government won't wind up being even worse. Remember when a bunch of Russian peasants overthrew their tyrannical Tsars, only to wind up with this oppressive mustache?
Maybe all inaugurations should be presided over by a barber wielding a straight razor.
Ukraine had their evil president for four years. Lukashenko has been in power for more than 20. The people here are so used to him that they don't even think getting rid of him will make things better. Assuming The Boy With The Golden Gun takes power, they would, of course, be correct.
I'm not sure I'll live long enough to see this country rise from its own ashes. I want my kids to have a bright future, and achieving that probably means doing everything I can to get them out of here. I know that no country is ideal. But having drawbacks is one thing, and having no advantages is a whole different matter.
Robert Evans runs the Personal Experience section of Cracked, and he also tweets.
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For more insider perspectives, check out The 4 Strangest Things Nobody Tells You About Life In China and 6 Insane Things You Learn Overthrowing Your Own Government.