Fascist dictator of Belarus has great idea

Alexander Lukashenko is an old-fashioned dictator of Belarus. He is often described as the last dictator in Europe. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care a lot about making his country a better place. Recently, he has run a nationwide competition, open to all his citizens.

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Elena is very good at milking cows. On her best ever day, she pumped over 1,100 litres from the herd into the tanks. And recently her prowess has been recognised by the government of Belarus. She has been named officially the best milkmaid of the Slutsk region, which lies just south of the capital Minsk. She travelled to the capital to pick up an award from the President himself.

© Rafal Milach/INSTITUTE

Sasha, too, has been honoured. He held the 2013 title of ‘Best Welder of the Republic’.

All countries, of course, stage competitions. We regularly award prizes for excellence at the long jump or in throwing darts at a board. These things are recreational, though, rather than focused on jobs or the ordinary activities of everyday life. Within industries, there are various awards for specialised skills – the Campbeltown Creamery in Argyll has twice been acclaimed for making the best cheddar cheese in Scotland. But, on the whole, such fame is very limited. It is an honour only among the initiated.

In Belarus, the ambition is quite different. Elena and Sasha are national celebrities, the equivalent of hosts of television chat shows, supermodels and tycoons in other lands. They are seen as embodying ideals to which all should aspire.

Meanwhile, young couples are encouraged to revere the example set by two other prize winners: Natalya and Konan, awarded the prize for Belarus’s ‘Best couple in love’.

© Rafal Milach/INSTITUTE

The public are requested to pay attention to how well they listen to each other, to admire their mutual trust and respect and to be touched (and inspired) by the delight of one another’s company.

And, to come to another prize, prospective parents will be invited to look up to Olga, winner of ‘The Best Mother of a Large family of the Smorgon region’.

© Rafal Milach/INSTITUTE

The awards handed out in Belarus are not ashamed to stress the virtues of very ordinary people. They become famous, but don’t at all look the way we have come to think that famous people should. Most people in the UK, or Germany or Argentina don’t look sufficiently smart or fashionable, or sexy to be able to become famous. But Belarus has focused entirely on how good a person is at doing something basic and useful – like bringing up a family, working in a dairy or helping make tractors. These are the country’s only criteria of fame. There are no famous movie stars or tycoons.

The architect of the awards is President Alexander Lukashenko. Although technically he is the elected head of state, he has dictatorial inclinations and a brutal way with opposition leaders. It is very unfortunate if we associate these kinds of awards – which bestow celebrity status for excellence in ordinary things – with him and his oppressive regime.

In fact, the good idea behind the awards is universal. It belongs as much – in fact, more so – in liberal states.

The core point is that a lot of things we should care about, and need to take seriously, are not well treated by the marketplace and the celebrity culture it produces. Most adults are desperate for their children to eventually establish good, fairly stable, fairly contented relationships. And we all acknowledge that is a hard task. Despite these hopes and anxieties, we have turned over the public sphere to the marketplace that is deeply unhelpful to our hopes.

People who worry about the evils of competition and Capitalism, when it comes to making clothes or supplying coffee beans, tend to get very cagey and alarmed when there is any suggestion of the state encouraging certain cultural attitudes. And so we are collectively delivered to the opinions of Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber.

It’s not sinister in a genuinely democratic society to think the government should take in hand the project of instilling citizens with an attractive view of how to live. The alternative is not neutrality. It just means that corporations, who ultimately care only about their profits, will step in and fill the vacuum; and encourage us to admire only the deeply inappropriate targets they’ve found for their own financial ends.

Governments already have a massive impact on how society works – we accept that, on the basis of having been democratically elected, the government can take half your earnings. And yet we somehow deny that it might be allowed any say in what makes for a stable relationship; suddenly that seems like ‘too much power’. The government is allowed to sign a treatise which will bind a nation to momentous changes over decades, but it is not allowed to have a significant view about what makes cities beautiful or office life more pleasant.

We don’t like very much at all about the state of Belarus. But we do think its dictator is on to something in this area. We’d like to see a prize for ‘The Best Mother of a Large Family of the Kentucky, Melbourne, Zurich or La Paz region…’ And a prize for ‘The Best Husband who Learned to Control his Temper and Say Sorry.’

We will make some moves towards setting up an awards ceremony.