How might a society, in the face of an uncompromising authority and lapdog police force, successfully overthrow a dictator with more than two decades of experience in keeping power? This is the crux of the matter for the people of Belarus, who are currently taking part in the largest protests seen since modern Belarus’ inception. Fuelled by successive illegitimate elections, widespread political repression, and a waning economy, the Belarusian protests are aiming to force the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko into resignation. However, these political and economic transgressions are not ‘recent’, but hallmarks of Lukashenko’s twenty-six-year rule. And he has survived – admittedly smaller – protests following previous fraudulent elections. To measure the potential the protests have for success, it is first necessary to determine how Lukashenko’s self-styled authoritarianism has survived thus far, and what has changed since Belarus’ last protests that may strengthen the movement against him.
Modern day Belarus was formed from the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR in December 1991, during the, perhaps hastily named, ‘third wave of democratization.’ While the Balkan region underwent a rapid transformation to democratic, ‘western’, capitalism, much of Central Asian and Eastern European slowly grew into non-democratic regimes. This was due, in part, to the formation of the Eastern Bloc itself. Peripheral regions like the Balkans tended to have greater degrees of autonomy and much more devolved economies. Regions close to the ‘centre’ of the USSR, such as Belarus, tended to be heavily controlled by, and deeply integrated with, the Communist Party and what is now the Russian economy. This legacy of Communism, which was nepotistic, corrupt, and totalitarian in practice, was survived by a generation of ex-Soviet politicians such as Lukashenko, and stopped what at the time was expected to be a pan-Eurasian conversion to conventional Western democracy.
Like most Soviet career-men, Lukashenko began his public service as a member of the Red Army, before working his way through various peripheral positions in the Communist Party to become, ironically, the interim chairman of the anti-corruption committee of the Belarusian parliament in 1990. In 1993, he accused seventy senior government officials of corruption, including the Supreme Soviet chairman Shushkevich and the Prime Minister Kebich, leading to their resignations. Naturally, the charges later proved to be without merit, but Lukashenko at the time became hugely popular as a stalwart of anti-corruption. He won the Presidential election of 1994 in the second round with 80% of the vote compared to Kebich’s 14%, in what is considered the last free and fair election held in Belarus. Lukashenko’s five successive re-elections since 2001 have been lambasted by Western governments and supranational organisations for being unfair, uncompetitive, and unfree.
We might consider the above three characteristics, and by extension Lukashenko’s Belarus, to be ‘non-democratic’ – but what exactly does this mean? A widely accepted view of what democracy is involves genuinely free competition for the legitimate right to power, an independent judiciary, freedoms of association and communication, and a functioning economic society. In each of these areas, Lukashenko’s political project is severely lacking.
However, the notion of what it meant to be ‘non-democratic’ has often implied transition, as if the country were far from, but on its way towards, democracy. As Lukashenko starts his hotly contested sixth term as President, it appears as though the Belarusian political system developed into a stable authoritarian form of governance unaffected by the sway of the European Union’s democracy.
Worth noting are the moral undertones that permeate casual discussions of democracy. There is nothing inherently wrong with a ‘non-democratic regime’, insofar as they simply employ a form of rule that may not be centred on freedoms or collective public agency. Moral precepts on the value of rights and freedoms form the foundation for the idea of democracy – precepts which have been extensively developed and are widely accepted, but are still moral rules and not facts or laws of nature.
The moral foundation of democracy often encourages notions of implied Western democratic superiority, or of Eastern European ‘otherness’, which taints discussions of non-democratic regimes. Even the term non-democratic puts states on the negative side of a Western-centric metric. To avoid this, it is worth exploring the particular style of authoritarianism employed by Lukashenko. This also allows us to explain how his unique ‘adaptive authoritarianism’ has persevered where other former Soviet regimes have failed, and why it may have met its match in the Belarusian protests.
At first glance, Lukashenko’s authoritarianism is like any other found in the space left by the Soviet Union. He exercises direct control over elections, uses state resources to secure loyal public and political bases, and both acquires consent and employs coercion to arrive at his political aims. What distinguishes Lukashenko from his ex-Soviet contemporaries is, as argued by political scientist Matthew Frear, his “pragmatism, expediency, and opportunism” in modifying and applying each of these measures. The success of this form of governance is best elucidated by comparing Belarus to other so-called dictatorships in the former Soviet Union.
Belarus was not unique in developing into this type of hybrid authoritarian system – much of Central Asia and Eastern Europe also transitioned into pseudo-democracies. These ‘democracies’ had parliaments and elected presidents, but also totalitarian leaders unwilling to step down from power. The unpopularity of these regimes is well documented, culminating in the so-called ‘Colour Revolutions’ across Eurasia from 2000 to 2005. The Bulldozer – my favourite colour – Revolution in Serbia, 2000; the Rose Revolution in Georgia, 2003; the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, 2004; and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, 2005, were all precipitated by fraudulent elections run by their cripplingly corrupt regimes.
Curiously, however, the Belarusian elections are even more fraudulent than those which led to the Colour Revolutions. The official turnout for presidential elections since 2001 has averaged 88% of the voting population, with Lukashenko obtaining an average of 80% of the votes each election. For comparison, British turnout for general elections since 2001 averages just 65% of the voting population, with both the Labour and Conservative vote share adding to just under 72%. Considering elections are often used to obtain domestic and international legitimacy to rule, it is strange (and perhaps now a mistake) that Lukashenko has made little effort to conceal his fraud. The fact that he has been able to retain his position of power, then, lies in the surprisingly stable socioeconomic system he has implemented.
One of the auxiliary reasons for the successes of the Colour Revolutions was the vulnerability of the regimes themselves. Structural issues, such as pervasive corruption and weak economic growth, combined with the spark that was fraudulent elections, gave publics a significant enough grievance to spontaneously mass protest in favour of regime change. Why Lukashenko remained while the other ex-Soviets leaders around him dropped like flies is a result of his close control of both his regime’s image and the Belarusian economy.
Since 2001, Lukashenko has courted Putin’s Russia in exchange for hugely subsidized energy imports, which are then re-sold to the EU at a marked-up price for profit. Belarusian industries are also heavily dependent on Russian consumerism, allowing the Belarusian economy to sidestep the economic troubles of liberalisation by leaning on the Russian economy.
Lukashenko has also developed a staunchly anti-corruption image, for himself and his regime. Indeed, while the entire political arena has been corrupted, it is, compared to neighbours, relatively un-corrupt. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index currently places Belarus in 66th out of 180 (where 1st is the ideal), up from 139th in 2009. For comparison, Russia and Ukraine are 137th and 126th respectively. Furthermore, lack of a credible or united opposition (until the most recent protests) has allowed the obviously fraudulent elections to come and go with little criticism – small protests in 2010 were followed up by the absence of protests entirely in 2015.
The relative – if artificial – stability and legitimacy of Lukashenko’s regime has historically posed a problem for those desiring a rotation of power in Belarus: there was no strong combination of longer term structural and immediate term grievances to encourage the wider general public to protest. This echoes the ‘collective action problem’, which suggests that as the individual cost of protesting falls, more people will protest. People tend to act collectively and spontaneously in response to what are perceived as universal grievances, which minimizes the risk for the individual protester and maximizes the pressure levered onto the regime to step down from power. Previously in Belarus, this collective action problem has proved a hard limit on the effectiveness of any anti-regime protests.
What, then, might convince Belarusians that this time, Lukashenko is on his way out of power? Since the last major protests in 2010, much of what was keeping Lukashenko secure has changed, and, globally, there has been considerable development in effective anti-authoritarian protest. The success of the Hong Kong protests in sustaining an internationally recognised movement against the Chinese government for months is the result of their ‘guerrilla’ style of protest – appearing, disappearing, occupying, and retreating, to avoid the massive police presence. Closer to Belarus, the Velvet Revolution in Armenia in 2018 proved how mass public protests could simply overwhelm unpopular political systems. Both have had considerable influence on the style of protest currently being carried out in Belarus.
Furthermore, the stable Belarusian economy that Lukashenko has relied on for legitimacy is finally showing its flaws. The Belarusian-Russian partnership has become increasingly strained as of late, due to Lukashenko resisting Putin’s desires for further integration. This has threatened the considerable amount of trade for which Belarus relies on Russia. The successive fraudulent elections since 2001 have been met by increasing economic sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, further reducing its trade options. Finally, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has further pressured the economy. In a bid to maintain economic growth, Lukashenko claimed the virus would kill no one in Belarus, and avoided any kind of lockdown or restriction on movement. The resulting tens of thousands of cases, and over 800 deaths, illustrates a huge failure in his economic policymaking.
The protesters have also benefited from a change in the political atmosphere in Belarus. In searching for an alternative to Lukashenko, Belarus developed a relatively credible opposition in the form of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a human rights activist and politician. Although running as an independent, Tsikhanouskaya garnered support from across the Belarusian political spectrum – including the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Women’s party, and other presidential hopefuls barred from running in the most recent election. The immediate rallies in support of Tsikhanouskaya and opposing Lukashenko following the confirmation of Lukashenko’s fraudulent victory were the largest in the history of modern Belarus, with crowds in the tens of thousands in Brest and Minsk. Thus, due to the faltering foundations of Lukashenko’s claim to power, combined with a renewed electoral scam, the people of Belarus have finally overcome the ‘collective action problem’, and have taken to their streets en masse. Indeed, according to Belarusian journalist Franak Viacorka, “the idea was to create a critical mass of people filling out the streets … to demonstrate the new majority.”
With all this history in mind, it is worth asking, “What happens next?”. Swathes of Belarusians are currently on strike, and large cross sections of society have lent their support to the movement – including farmers and factory workers, traditionally thought to make up the backbone of Lukashenko’s support base. The Belarusian economy is expected to contract by 4-6% this year, providing longer term grievances to pin to the regime. The 2020 election itself has been disputed or not been recognised by much of Europe and the West. Lukashenko, however, remains in power.
That Lukashenko has not been ousted yet is likely a testament to his relationship with Putin, who recently confirmed Russia could send a police force into Belarus if necessary. However, Putin will likely use Lukashenko’s precarious position to pressure him into further integrating the Belarusian economy into Russia’s. The gamble for Lukashenko is whether Putin will continue to lend him personal support after this integration happens; it is not unreasonable to assume that Putin might prefer a less provocative neighbour. Domestically, Lukashenko continues to enjoy a loyal security force, which is responsible for the mass arrests, abuses, and even reported torture of protestors, designed to discourage further collective action.
Currently, the people of Belarus are locked in a war of attrition with their President. Should the protesters and political opposition develop and widen their political net, there is a possibility that Lukashenko’s security apparatus will be overrun, or will switch sides in order to survive a transition of power. However, the removal of Lukashenko would only solve part of a larger structural problem that plagues the countries of the Colour Revolutions.
The primary issue is that free and fair elections in and of themselves do not automatically produce democracy, in that elections alone fail to resolve deeper problems of corruption, clientelism, underdeveloped political parties, and opaque decision making. ‘Electoral revolutions’ in Europe have not been overly successful – Serbia and Ukraine achieved just a small level of democratisation, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan did not, and all of these countries remain deeply corrupt, with weak political parties and a lack of impetus to continue to democratize. Again, while it is not necessarily the case that Western democracy is the gold standard to aspire to, it is difficult to make a case for a political system in limbo between democracy and authoritarianism, with almost non-existent public support.
Furthermore, the current ‘credible opposition’ spearheaded by Tsikhanouskaya in-exile is already beginning to show divisions. While some proponents of the opposition are arguing for a reversion of the Belarusian constitution to reintroduce Presidential term limits, others including Tsikhanouskaya stress that the primary aim of the protests should be to remove Lukashenko, and that directing public anger elsewhere allows him an avenue to retain power. Indeed, much of the opposition can only offer the public short term, radical manifestos, in part due to the party-less political system created by Lukashenko. Unfortunately, this means once the uniting grievance of “Lukashenko” is removed, voting divisions and patterns would likely reappear in Belarus. This would fragment the united opposition, and could heavily impede any future government’s ability to implement effective political or economic change
However, intriguing as they are, hypotheticals only offer us a glimpse of what the future may hold for Belarus. For now, it is a waiting game, balanced between an incensed public and an unrelenting president and police force. The collective explosion of a suppressed Belarusian identity is a daring testament to the power of the people, and serves as a reminder that even the most entrenched dictators can be made vulnerable. While the path to stability – should Lukashenko fall from power – is certainly not without challenges, it is for many Belarusians the only path worth taking. What remains to be seen is whether the collective efforts of the Belarusian people alone will be enough to topple ‘the last dictator in Europe’.
Artwork by Justin Lim