Belarus has been called the last dictatorship in Europe. This implies that all other Eastern European countries are full democracies, which, I think, may be doubtful. Instead of the last dictatorship, I would call Belarus the last Soviet republic in the post-Soviet era. Why? Because its transition to capitalism was less wild and dramatic, the shock therapy they suffered was less so than, for example, Russia. Lukashenko’s arrival to power in 1994 re-established some form of ‘Soviet order’ with a socialist market economy where the state took back its economic power and control in a paternalistic style. Part of this paternalism was concessions to the industrial workers increasing the minimum salary from time to time and other non-monetary compensations. Inflation was also controlled, and other advantages, like cheap oil and energy provided by Russia (part of which was re-exported as gasoline generating an income that reached up to 10% of the country’s GDP) helped Belarus' economic experience. Nevertheless, by 2018, Belarus was the 12th poorest country in Europe according to official European figures. Despite this and thanks to firm police control, criminal mafia activities were severely curtailed and, in contrast to other former Soviet republics, Belarus was considered a very secure country with meager crime rates.
Police control, however, was not only focused on criminals but on all forms of dissidence, criticism and opposition to the president around whom an aura of the ‘father of the nation’ (‘Batka’) was created. The security apparatus even kept the same name it had in the old Soviet Union, KGB, and it became the guarantor of the regime’s survival (following the same path as the Stasi in GDR or Ceaucescu’s police in Romania).
At the external level, Lukashenko also tried to follow the steps of Ceaucescu in establishing a certain distance with Russia, despite its economic dependence on that country regarding deliveries of oil and gas and the fact that about 50% of its exports go to Russia. In recent times, there were problems between both countries regarding the price of oil. These problems led Lukashenko to start flirting with the U.S., who responded positively. In February of this year, U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, visited Minsk and declared that the U.S. was interested in supporting Belarusian efforts to build an ‘independent sovereignty’ and there was a discussion of lifting sanctions and establishing full diplomatic relations.
Lukashenko also accused Putin of interfering in the Belarusian elections. The tension between Lukashenko and Putin went so far as to the incarceration of a group of mercenaries belonging to the Wagner group — the same Russian paramilitary forces used to intervene in Syria and Libya — on the ground that they were preparing an insurrection against the government in Minsk. The men were eventually liberated and sent back to Moscow. As a result of the latest elections, Putin recognized and congratulated Lukashenko in a formal and rather cold way. One can even guess how the contested results of this election reminded Putin of his own scandalous fraud in the latest referendum on constitutional reforms in Russia, also leading to a perpetuation of his hold on power.
As with Putin, Lukashenko did not expect this enormous wave of protests. He felt popular and supported by the ‘people’ due to his traditional populist policies. When he started to realize the growing popularity of his rival, a female politician, Tsikhanouskaya (Tijanovskaya) and her team of women, he tried to attack them using typical machista rhetoric, arguing that Belarus was not prepared for a female leader or that there should be a constitutional requirement that any presidential candidate should have fulfilled military service in order to become a candidate. These claims spoke to a very patriarchal, traditional and machista society (very much like the former Soviet and present Russian one). The opposition candidates, however, were no feminists. They ran to represent their husbands who are imprisoned or in exile. Tsikhanouskaya (Tijanovskaya) herself declared that if she won the presidency, she could immediately call for new and real democratic elections.
The enormous violence used in the repression of the protests that have even reached the traditional strongholds of the regime, like the industrial factories, is just a sign of the surprise but also panic the Belarusian president is experiencing. His strategy of seeing ‘Western plots and interventions’ everywhere and of activating a military defence and alert of the borders (against alleged threats from NATO) is part of his search for legitimacy. He forgets that he himself turned to the West to balance Russian influence, and now he is asking Putin for help. The big question is: how far is Putin prepared to help to save his old and unreliable ally? Belarus indeed has a particular geopolitical position that makes it essential to Russian security interests. Belarus, however, is not Ukraine. Its population is mostly pro-Russia, and there is no Russian minority allegedly being oppressed. Russia is going through a difficult economic and political situation aggravated by the pandemic, and a full military intervention would cost more than what Moscow can afford, not to speak of the political and diplomatic costs.
Moreover, Lukashenko (but also Putin) must understand that his style of government and his treatment of the pandemic have led the population to a ‘no more’ return to the street. The new generations born after the fall of the Soviet Union are no longer buying his populist rhetoric and they want change, not an authoritarian ‘Batka’. Lukashenko would be wise to learn from other dramatic and historic transitions where the dictator, like him, refused to see the time had come to leave. That was the case of Ceaucescu in Romania.
Time will tell if the Belarusian population is given the possibility of a change without a bloodbath and without a persistent instability that would negate all the benefits they are hoping to achieve.
Edme Dominguez R. is Associate professor in Peace and Development research, with a PhD on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Her present interests are on Latin America, IPE and gender issues but she keeps an eye on the former Soviet republics, in particular regarding the women’s situation.