Saturday, January 15, 2011

Philosophy of Belarusian Dictatorship Explained

I have been involved in the opposition movement in Belarus for over 10 years now. I know how Lukashenka's regime uses fear, intimidation, and lies to keep a tight grip on the people. I have read my share of political science analyses of similarities with other regimes and whatnot. However, I have never seen a straightforward explanation of the philosophy, a model so to say, that would provide an simple framework to predict at least some of the actions.

That was until yesterday when I came across a blog post by an ethnic Belarusian who lives in Israel and who visited Belarus for the first time in 15 years last summer. Just like Lukashenka, that man grew up in a village is well-aware of the order of life there. His idea is that the former state farm (sovkhoz) director Lukashenka is running the country in the only way he knows – the way he ran that state farm.

I was so amazed with this cross-discipline knowledge transfer that I translated it to English and present in a slightly abridged form (I cut out some of the sarcasm & satire).

Note: the text talks about collective farms (kolkhozes) and Lukashenka's last place of employment before politics was a state farm (sovkhoz). There are certain structural & economic differences between the two forms of enterprise. However, they have been interchangeable colloquially and the management techniques are considered to be similar if not the same.

  1. A collective farmer (kolkhoznik) must be fed but not be rich. When he is hungry he is dangerous. A rich one will not want to work for the pennies the kolkhoz pays; he won't join it. What for is the chairman then? There's no way this will work. We don't need any kulaks. They are too independent and uncontrollable. Thus, they are dangerous.
    That's Lukashenka's infamous "a shot and pork rind"1. It's clean but modest.
  2. All kolkhozniks must live the same way. Villas and mansions are not allowed just in case. One cannot make enough money for a villa in a kolkhoz. So if you are not a kolkhoznik then you are a thief and a bastard. What will happen to the kolkhoz if everyone wants a mansion? Unkempt huts are also undesirable but not critical.
  3. Good loyal workers must be stroked on the head and be rewarded sometimes. This doesn't mean they should earn more. No way! That's the direct road to kulaks with mansions (points 1-2). The chairman must personally toss them bonuses or vacation vouchers. So that they would know whose hands feed them, whom they should serve, and who can take away those bonuses.
  4. The bad, the lazy, and the disloyal must be punished illustratively. Again, the chairman should do this personally so that they know who holds the power.

  5. Foremen and other inferior rabble must be constantly bothered, picked on, and blamed on for as much as possible. They should also be punished illustratively and preferably for other kolkhozniks to see. This accomplishes a few goals:

    • First, foremen will be afraid and will know who is the master of the kolkhoz. As a result, they will be obedient and more importantly will not try to plot to overthrow the chairman.
    • Second, everyone around understands that the chairman is not guilty of anything. He gave the orders, right? And the foreman didn't fulfill them. The foreman is guilty, not the chairman.
    • Third, the kolkhozniks understand the chairman is strict but fair. He can not only whack a tractor driver in the face but also raise some ruckus with livestock specialists. And the show is entertaining. Yesterday, the foreman was yelling at me, and today THE MAN is yelling at him. Applause is guaranteed.
    By the way, not every foreman can tolerate such behavior. They either need to be chosen for the occasion or trained.
    Overall, what is an ideal foreman? The correct answer is run-of-the-mill. He should be gray and unnoticeable so that he doesn't eclipse or dared to attempt to do so.
  6. Every kolkhoznik is dumb, helpless, and infantile by definition. (The one who is not infantile is a kulak, an enemy, and there is no place for him in the kolkhoz. See point 1.) Because of this inferiority he cannot decide anything for himself. If he tries to decide anything, he will make a mess.
    Thus, all decisions must be taken by the smart chairman. He knows the right way and the better way. Sometimes he will even consult with the people in pretense. And if things don't improve, the foreman is there to be blamed. See point 5.
  7. A kolkhoznik must be present at work regularly, have a shot and pork rind, and must not think about abstract matters. For example, how they fit a pencil with lead or why the chairman decides everything. Nobody knows where this thinking can take them, like to independent trade unions, or to separation of powers, or to some other abomination like a parliament.
    Do you have your shot and pork rind? So be happy. Generally, they are happy. And any troublemaking thinkers should be punished illustratively (see point 4). It's also good to explain that these thinkers don't care for the people and wrote anonymous letters only to gain personal power, or that they were plotting to poison the chairman.
  8. The kolkhoz should not necessarily be profitable. What for are the district manager and other superiors? That's right: to distribute subsidies. As a good friend you entertain them on Saturdays and they bring you financing and other pleasantries2.
  9. The chairman must always demonstrate his intellectual superiority to the ignorant peasants who don't see beyond their own noses. He must have thorough insight and think three steps ahead. To do this, he must squint wisely, look at the horizon, and come up with the Great Project3. The completion of the Great Project brings immediate and irreversible Great Happiness. Well, not necessarily immediate but in the future the Project will pay off with unimaginable perks. Absolutely.

    Project requirements:
    1. The Project must be as much unwieldy, labor-intensive, and mind-boggling as possible.
    2. The Project must imply the participation of the greatest number of collective farm workers. The Project is preferably called "people's" or "national". Since the narrow-minded peasants do not understand the benefits of the Project and do not see beyond their noses forcing them into earthwork is allowed. They will appreciate it and thank the chairman later.
    3. The benefits from the Project should be absolutely unobvious. There's the chairman to explain all benefits of the Project.
    4. At the end of the Great Construction Project a new one must be started immediately. It must be even greater.

    It might look like the manager is doing unnecessary and secondary nonsense. That's not true. Firstly, the feeling of a great goal brings the collective farm together. Secondly, a drill sergeant does approximately the same when he orders everyone to march around. Everyone is together and everyone is doing something.

This ideology is very round, limited, and simple like boiled potatoes. The majority of the people eat it and seem to be happy with it. There is no need to think and a house, a shot, and some pork rind are allowed without it. What else is necessary?

Thus, I think that Lukashenka is not any kind of a blood-thirsty monster who is plotting to enslave Belarusians and feed on them. It really looks like he wants to make the country flourishing but in his kolkhoz understanding of the meaning.

1 – “A shot and pork rind” («чарка і шкварка» in Belarusian) describes the minimal satisfaction of commoners for fried pork rind (or crackling) is a common snack during drinking.

2 – Lukashenka's economy has been relying on lower crude oil prices from Russia and loans from the World Bank & IMF.

3 – Lukashenka’s rule has been marked with grandiose construction projects like an ice arena in as many towns as possible, a new audacious National Library of Belarus building, and an annual harvest festival hosted at a new town every year (the host undergoes massive renovations).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Will the Real Tyrant Please Stand Up?

Chávez y Lukashenko develan placa inaugural de...

Image by ¡Que comunismo! via Flickr

Yesterday, I watched a rather biased documentary about the sentiment toward Hugo Chavez during the December 2006 elections called Now the People Have Awoken [Hulu]. Despite the naked support for Chavez and his policies, the film raised quite a few questions in my mind that I had to investigate to make the final conclusions.

I was interested in watching it because Chavez is one of the best friends of Belarusian dictator Lukashenka and the two countries have been compared numerous times. However, I have never had neither a stimulus to look into Venezuelan domestic policy. Now, that I have done it, I see stark differences between Belarus and Venezuela.

In theory, Venezuela seems more or less like an average Nordic social-democratic state less the location and high crime rate. Chavez has created an extensive system of welfare state institutions financed by oil exports by the nationalized PDVSA. Nationalization of large businesses was done through share buyouts and there are no reported state-led persecution of private business. Elections have been relatively free and fair even with opposition gaining sizable support. Venezuela has free press (including at least one private 100% anti-Chavez TV station) despite reports of government pressure on journalists. Other human rights abuses seem not to happen systematically or legally allowed.

The popular support of Chavez, as it is clearly articulated in the film, comes from the fact that he gave the people what had been kept away from them forever. His programs promoted literacy, gave people titles to land, and taught them to start businesses. He is yet to eradicate corruption and bureaucracy but the advances in other sectors of the society seem to make up for that.

There are only a few concerns visible to me right away in Venezuelan system. My personal issue is that Chavez’s platform is based on hatred of the USA albeit, fortunately, he is not calling for active military resistance. The others are the nearly absolute unchecked control of the executive branch, the lack of an independent judiciary branch, high crime rate, and high inflation (though it has been decreasing recently). Of these, Belarus has all and even more except for crime.

After 16 years of Lukashenka’s rule, Belarus has lost government transparency & accountability, inviolability of private property, and the free press. The economy is still primarily state controlled and is centrally planned, and profits from state enterprises go to a special Presidential Fund with its books closed to the public instead of the national budget. The foreign debt has been growing significantly because of the limited exports, and Lukashenka has been instituting a policy of import substitutions by imposing high tariffs on goods that have poor local equivalents. It has not been uncommon for small businesses to been seized under the pretenses of back taxes/improper permits/bribes and the owners to be imprisoned. Despite the proclaimed welfare state, most government subsidies were abolished in 2007 and pensions/minimal wages are raised around elections only to be followed by consumer prices inflation. Nonetheless, the standard of living and the GDP has been growing steadily compared to the turbulent early 1990’s providing Lukashenka with some popular support.

On the human rights front, Belarus is even more fun. The last free and fair elections were held in 1994 when Lukashenka came to power, and spending the day of elections in jail arrested for disorderly conduct has become a tradition for many activists. At least 3 journalists/media people died/disappeared/were murdered under unknown circumstances. The same fate has befallen several prominent opposition politicians & supporters. Minority rights come down to Lukashenka’s statement at the 4th All-Belarus People’s Congress where he claimed that there were no national or sexual minorities in the country.

So when the two countries are compared side-by-side, one must be blind not to see that Chavez is almost an exemplary leader against the Man of Minsk backdrop. Yet, US foreign policy is more concerned with him complying with OPEC quotas than with Lukashenka selling arms to Khartoum and Tehran.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday, September 12, 2010

My Brand New Lemonade Stand

When I conceived this entry in late August, it was all different. It was supposed to show off how smart-ass I was, how I had everything planned ahead, and how everything would fall into my lap as usual. Now, I am going to tell you how having the right mindset prior to adverse events helps staying put when plans fall through.

The job that I used to have until a week ago was the perfect vehicle to survive the recession: the pay was stable and relatively good given that I was hired to do something without prior official experience, the tasks were not too demanding most of the time, and it was 15 minutes away from my home. However, there was absolutely no growth potential and my “honeymoon” lasted for just 7 months until my first boss quit and I was relegated from doing primarily IT work to doing primarily line of business tasks, government paperwork. The remaining almost 2 years have been a rollercoaster of emotions, adventures, and opportunities that came to a very sudden and unexpected stop.

I was getting ready to slowly phase out of the job by reducing my work hours to free up time for my personal development projects when they fired me out of nowhere. I didn't want to quit right away because I have over $50,000 in student loans and I wanted to keep the minimal income for the monthly payments. In addition, relaying my knowledge and training a co-worker in IT infrastructure & procurement decision-making would have taken some time that wasn’t there when I came to terms that I needed to get off that road to nowhere. Most importantly, I didn't want to be the a-hole leaving during a busy season.

This wasn't the first time I tried to cut the connection. I took a week off in April and it would have been longer had I not gotten invited to the Israel trip. At the time, I was quite upset with the bad timing but now I realize that 5 months ago I would not have been able to separate well (and it's scary for me to think right now how I will reflect on these days next spring). The main reason was and still is my realization that I am not yet cut out for a typical career of working for somebody who has a playbook that needs to be followed.

In the seven years of my “adult” life, I've worked for over half-a-dozen companies in-person (2 were telework — they are different). Only one of them was a large company. In small businesses, I wore many different hats well beyond my main duties, and that was fun until the point when I would feel underappreciated. It wasn't the pay (I did get a few bonuses even from the boss who fired me), it was that no matter how much expertise I had provided nobody would give any authority to me because it was their toys, with which I was playing. And I wanted my own toys if they couldn't share.

The first time the entrepreneurship bug bit me seriously was in the summer of 2006 when I wanted to continue an idea that my friends had given up. I had to table it when faced with the lack of any business education, at the time, and the lack of time to do anything further than some designs (I still have them). The last time the bug started biting was last summer and it hasn't stopped biting ever since: I am getting close to breaking into the third dozen of ideas from lifestyle businesses to humongous multi-national companies. So I wasn't leaving stable pay for nothing.

There are only just a few minor hindrances to my plans of universal proportions: I do not have formal business education (minor in business administration is a stretch) nor I have substantial expertise in any field proven by prior experience (nobody cares about self-education & book smarts) nor I have a track record of personal accomplishments (I have done a lot of behind-the-scenes work on some well-known projects but I never received public commendations for that). Without either of these (or better all of them), no investor will talk to me seriously. And these were the reasons why I had decided that I needed as much free time as possible.

My plan was simple: I would prove my business acumen, show my expertise in marketing & user experience, and create a track record by working pro bono as a consultant with local small businesses and non-profits. The savings I put away for a lump-sum student loan payment upon getting a career job would become my ticket to personal independence as they were enough for about 12 months of maintaining my current lifestyle. And the 15 paid hours per week that I wanted to keep would have covered the minimal payments on the loans.

Had I been thinking differently, I can't imagine how I would have taken the news of complete employment termination. I definitely did not see it coming because my boss had not had any issues with me asking for such an arrangement and because I had not noticed any more complaints toward me than toward my co-workers and I had thought I was rather needed with my IT skills/knowledge. Although the termination paperwork calls it “mutual”, it wasn't nice or pleasant at all. I am still surprised how I managed to keep my cool during the whole procedure including being escorted back to my desk and watched as I was packing up.

On the bright side, this past week of unemployment has been great. Once the initial shock from the situation went away (it took me just 2 days of action & suspense movies), I started planning and executing my goals. I am reading real books, sending tons of e-mails, deciding what I am going to study, and just enjoying the feeling of freedom. To be honest, it is not going as fast as I would like it to be (attention deficit is no jokes for me and some people are less responsive) but at least it is going somewhere.

It might sound surprising but my biggest fear right now is not running out of money because I don't have the anticipated income. My biggest fear is relaxing too much and giving up on an organized routine. I just know that the second I tell myself, “You don't have to rush anywhere,” all of my plans will collapse like a house of cards.

So what's with the lemonade stand? It's nothing more than an allusion to the old saying and a great documentary that every laid-off or fired person must watch to get inspired.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Following Up on E-mails Long Forgotten

I noticed that some people forget to respond to an e-mail for weeks. Usually, it's because of either poor inbox management (read not following Inbox 0 rules) or simply overwhelming number of messages. Well, if you send plenty of e-mails it becomes tough to keep track of the ones sent weeks ago especially when it the subject isn't urgent.

The old school way would be to go into your Sent Items and look for the message. If you use Google Mail, the task might be easier as each conversation takes only one line regardless of the number of messages involved. However, if you are using any other mail client it becomes a nightmare as you sift through dozens of unrelated messages. Here's a solution: mark all of your outgoing messages for quick review & remove the mark once a reply is received. (This is a relatively known “hack” among GTD practitioners.)

In GMail, you can create a filter for all messages from you and apply a label, say “Waiting for.” To do this, click on “Create a filter” to the right of the search field, enter your e-mail address into the “From:” field, go to the “Next Step,” and select to “Apply the label.”

In other e-mail clients, open your rules dialogue window, mark the condition as the “From” field with your e-mail address in it, assign a category (color or label, whichever your client offers), and finish the prompts.

I suggest you review the content of the assigned label or category every morning to see the statuses. If you reasonable waiting time has passed, simply make a to-do item in your favorite task manager to follow up. If a reply has been received, act on it accordingly.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Bookstore of Tomorrow

After Seth Godin made a big announcement that he would not publish any more books, the debate about the future of book publishing has come back to life for another couple of weeks. The main point is whether bookstores as we know them will cease to exist taking along the way the culture of reading in comfy chairs sipping on coffee and whatnot to make way for digital book readers & book shopping on computers or on-the-go from Internet-connected devices.

Well, if the bookstore reading culture is such a major thing how about making an effort to preserve it while adjusting to the new conditions? There is almost always a compromising way unless the old system is absolutely broken. In this case, it is the business model not the experience that has problems, so here’s what I’d like to see happen:

The Market

Bookstore as a business where people come to buy books will disappear. Same thing will happen to libraries as repositories of old books. Instead, the two will merge in community learning centers where people rent, buy, or read books as well as engage in all kinds of educational activities. It will not surprise me if audio & video will also be distributed there.

Publishers will just have to accept the changing rules of the game. When Amazon decides to open its first digital learning center (joined by any B&M bookseller), they will have little say. Currently, they are the gatekeepers between authors and printers, and the middle men tend to disappear as distribution comes closer to producers.

The Experience

Shelves will be used only to display the latest releases from publishers as well as self-published books from authors with enough acclaim or who paid for the prominent positioning. The display may even well be just electronic images of covers instead of physical objects.

In order to get a book, a person would bring an e-reader to the cover and a contact-less scanner (either an RFID or a QR-code-like) will recognize the book and download it onto the e-reader. Once the download completes, the person will have the option to rent, check out, or buy the book depending on the licensing. Reading within the building will be free and controlled by some positioning technology.

Libraries would be replaced with computer research stations with e-reader connectivity and most space will be converted into quiet reading spaces & interactive classrooms. This will allow library staff to focus on helping with research.

The Business Model

It’s true that the printing industry will suffer the most from this new fully-digital system, but it will also bring new money-making possibilities. Libraries may be privatized and converted to the freemium model where some services will be free and other will require a fee.

I think that the best revenue model will include free renting (checking out) of books older than, say, 9 months, a membership fee to get the latest releases, and an on-site café. These educational centers will also have the ability to rent out classrooms to private groups and to charge for classes. The competition will be focused around additional activities (tutoring, lectures, films, etc.), equipment availability, staff professionalism, and probably food quality.

The main benefit to both publishers (who will probably become a mix of literature marketers & copyright managers) & authors will be the new “literature-as-a-service” model where learning centers will pay ongoing license subscription fees to the book catalogs. This way out of print books can still bring revenue. Continuing the analogy with the software industry, authors are likely to make more money in this case. However, I am not an expert in pricing & revenue distribution in that industry so I may be wrong.

So that’s my vision of tomorrow’s bookstore. Funny thing is that it’s not revolutionary. All of these strategies have already been tested in other industries. The only “innovation” is the distribution channel but it’s here already so we just need to wait for it to become commonplace.