Situation Report: Belarus

Since the break-up of the old Soviet Union, the former republics and satellite states have divided between those who see their future with Europe and the EU and those who have continued to envision a common destiny with Russia. The Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has tried to work the middle ground between the two for maximum benefit. For quite some time, he appeared to be successful as his regime was able to generate a way of life acceptable to its citizens (or perhaps we should say “subjects”). Enough goods. Enough growth. A little more freedom. Times have changed. Lukashenko is gyrating wildly atop an increasingly unsteady high wire. The Russians and Vladimir Putin have the only net readily evident. But the rescue is expensive.

Until a few years ago, Belarus maintained equilibrium by running an old-style command and control economy that was reassuring in the post-Soviet period. The economy lacked dynamism, but was easier on citizens than the pre-Putin chaos of a Russia trying to move from Orwellian-state status to capitalism. Freedom is hard on people who have little idea what to do with it. But the problem was that the stability of Belarus was less the result of the success of state ownership and planning than it was the propped-up deliverance of Russian subsidies in the form of cheap oil and gas. Citizens benefited from the cheap commodity and the government could export it with a mark-up.

At the same time, Lukashenko made overtures to the European Union, acting as though he was ready to liberalize his country by making needed democratic and economic reforms. As Russia began to draw back (perhaps quite strategically considering the current situation) on its help for Belarus, the EU looked ready to offer aid and trade to a nation potentially looking forward to a free future. But that was before December 19, 2010.

That was the date of the presidential election in Belarus when everything changed for the worse. The presidential election was a disaster for the aspirations of Belarusians. There was massive voter fraud. In addition, many candidates and workers in opposition campaigns suffered violence and imprisonment. Foreign ministers in the EU rushed to condemn the actions of the government. Rather than face the possibility of losing, Lukashenko torpedoed any plan EU members might have had for helping his country, at least in the near term.

With little assistance from either the EU or Russia, the economy of Belarus has tanked. If the world needed another reminder of the failure of traditional state socialism, Belarus provides it. During the last several months, the country’s people have struggled with a currency that is rapidly losing its value. There have been reports of panic buying of goods like sugar and used cars as a hedge against inflation. The country recently printed its first 200,000 ruble note. Some citizens are unable to travel because of an inability to trade their Belarusian money for hard currency.

Despite the crackdown on the opposition since the last presidential election, the combination of repression, inflation, and economic uncertainty have taken their toll on the Lukashenko government and the patience of the people. According to an article in Foreign Policy by Shaun Walker, groups of people have begun gathering in public squares in Minsk and other cities to smile and clap their hands without any accompanying banners or chants. This is about as low-wattage a protest as can be imagined. And yet, the government sends in waves of enforcers to physically intimidate and jail the participants. The ferocity of the government response may simply demonstrate a determination to keep protest from growing into a new so-called color revolution, but citizens are becoming increasingly disgusted. Government forces are also interfering with online protest through the use of fake twitter accounts and other online repression. Reporters Without Borders recently placed Belarus on its list of “Enemies of the Internet.”

Protests and negative attention from the EU and NGO’s may be too late to protect the interests of the Belarusian people. Russia has already begun to take advantage of the opportunity created by the disintegration of Belarus. The former master state promised assistance, but only with taut strings attached. Help comes at the price of cannibalizing Belarus’ industrial infrastructure. Russia’s Gazprom has purchased the Belarusian network of gas pipelines and may manage to take control of additional portions of the state-owned economic apparatus. Lukashenko may manage to keep power just long enough to leave the people of Belarus more fully dependent on Mother Russia than any of the other former republics.

Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science at Union University and author of The End of Secularism and the forthcoming Political Thought: A Student’s Guide.

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