Belarus: Lukashenko & Putin

Why We Should Pay Attention to the Last Dictator in Europe

Widely described as the ‘last dictatorship in Europe,’ Belarus masquerades under the title of a democracy with free elections, whilst being an autocracy.

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The Political System in Belarus

Belarus has a House of Representatives, who appoint the Prime Minister, opposing party members, and a constitution. Initially, the constitution stated that the president was only allowed to serve two terms. In 2004, this was changed in line with Lukashenko’s aspirations to remain in power.

International observers have called the elections rigged and unfair; and opposing politicians are often fined or imprisoned. Observers also point out that Belarus is among the worst states in Europe for free expression and freedom of the press. This does not stop Lukashenko.

Lukashenko has utilized a number of important strategies to remain in power in Belarus. However, his methods are different from other dictators who utilize populism and national identity to their advantage. The Belarusian state has not made extraneous efforts to validate the Belarusian language.

That is not to say that Belarusians are not proud of their language and culture. Lukashenko himself has argued that his critics could be right in thinking that he neglects the Belarusian language. In fact, Lukashenko believes in preserving Belarusian identity. It is because of this that Belarusians have sought independence.

It is arguably because of Belarus’ reliance on Russia that Belarus rarely takes a critical stance toward both Russian and Soviet imperial eras over Belarus. For many Belarusians, sovereignty was historically only possible if linked to the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Meanwhile, Belarusians view the West, where democratization and liberalization prevailed, as a contradictory force that aims to rid states of their sovereignty.

It is debatable whether Belarus has managed to achieve complete sovereignty especially because of their reliance on Russia’s economy, particularly on their heavily-subsidized transport of oil. Some estimates suggest that Russia’s recent energy policies will end up costing the Belarusian economy up to $11 billion between 2019 and 2024; the Russian “tax maneuver” in 2020 may cost up to $864 million alone up to the year 2024.

With more economic instability, Lukashenko’s influence over the region would deteriorate even further. Therefore, it is crucial for Lukashenko to regain a firm alliance with the Kremlin.

Since 1994, when Lukashenko became president, his authority was primarily in his promise to Belarusians over the strength of their economy. For Lukashenko’s regime, if Belurisians manage to resist and defy any market reforms that were taking part in other former Soviet states, they will be economically successful and sovereign. Notably, Lukashenko’s grip on the economy has lessened in the 21st century.

Ben Challies explains that in contrast to other formerly Soviet states such as Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland, and others, where oligarchs took control of the market, Belarus managed to establish a technocratic managerial class that revolve around Lukashenko and the Presidential palace. Even if this class managed to garner followers, as oligarchs have in other neighboring countries, they do not own any economic assets to finance opposition to Lukashenko; therefore, their influence is vulnerable to Lukashenko’s power. This is one of the primary ways Lukashenko has managed to stay in power since 1994.

With more economic instability, Lukashenko’s influence over the region would deteriorate even further. Therefore, it is crucial for Lukashenko to regain a firm alliance with the Kremlin.

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In recent years, specifically since the Crimean annexation of 2014, Lukashenko has been critical of the Kremlin’s justification of the annexation, namely that under their logic, other regions such as that of Pskov and Smolensk in Russia should belong to Belarus. It is unsurprising that Lukashenko would be critical of the Crimean annexation since Belarus may have lost up to $3 billion in foreign exchange fluctuations because of Western sanctions imposed on Russia.

Lukashenko promises the Belarusian people that similar events will not transpire in Belarus. In one particular statement, Lukashenko went so far to say that freedom and independence are more important than oil. In one analysis of the Belarusian desire for independence, both the West and the East threaten Belarusian sovereignty. However, the analysis reports that Russian threats are more vivid and explicit in contrast to Western threats which are vague. Arguably, it is because of this perceived threat from Russia that Belarus has started to discuss methods at joint training with NATO in 2014.

Lastly, and in light of the protests, I will look at some predictions of the future of Belarus. Political analysts suspect that a political crisis in Belarus will “likely” trigger a NATO-Russia confrontation. Belarus is in a crucial position in the Suwalki Gap: the land that connects the Baltic to Poland and NATO. Challies explains that if the West is to effectively intervene in Belarus, they must propose a detailed plan that can help “mitigate” any serious risks in Belarus, making sure to look beyond the pervasive “zero-sum competition” for power in formerly Soviet states.

“Freedom and independence are more important than oil.” — Lukashenko

The Future of Belarus

As the protests are still developing, we cannot say for certain whether they will not force Lukashenko to resign as they did in the case of the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, during the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. However, some events may make it more likely for Lukashenko to step down. Challies explains that if Lukashenko will not be able to agree to a deal with Putin in the near future, it may result in significant problems to his regime.

If this were to happen, Lukashenko would suffer from both economic and fiscal challenges, surmounting anything his regime can handle; therefore, we may expect Lukashenko’s government to collapse due to both political and civic pressure.

Although, in order to assess that more accurately, we would have to wait for trade developments between Russia and Belarus. It is not clear whether Russia will risk further sanctions if they seek to undermine Belarus’ sovereignty militarily as they did in Crimea and Georgia.

It is more likely that Russia will observe from afar and support Lukashenko or other pro-Russian candidates who may replace Lukashenko after his potential impeachment.

For now, it seems that Putin sees more utility in backing Lukashenko and assisting his regime as he did with Yanukovych in Ukraine.

My Russia Blog Series

NOTE: this was a part of a blog series I was doing on Russian politics. This was the lost post! So, if you want to read more, here’s a list of them in chronological order as I released them (although that is not important for your reading pleasure, you can read them in any order):

I look forward to writing more brief series on politics! Until then do check out my other blog posts! I have now published more than 350 of them :)

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Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

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