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Lost in the Pond: Lukashenko’s Choice

For the past two decades, regular but limited popular unrest has been an emblematic feature of emerging post-Soviet economies. Slow and often unregulated market liberalization has not been an easy pill to swallow for citizens of countries that neighbor the stable and wealthy beneficiaries of the Marshall plan. People who suffered materially as a direct result of communist logic concluded that they would prosper under the inverse systemcapitalism. Sadly, despite ubiquitous faith in the free markets, increased prosperity was a localized phenomenon. Some states, like Poland and Lithuania, are hailed as success stories up to this date, while other nations, like Ukraine and Belarus, can not seem to eradicate systemic corruption and inequality.

The latter of these two lagging states is a particularly interesting example. Of all the post-communist countries, Belarus has somehow managed not to fall behind the furthest economically despite being the least developed democratically. Since the first and only free elections in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has been the president of Belarus. Running on an independent bid, Lukashenko secured over eighty percent of the vote through a populist platform centered around crushing corruption and forging stronger ties with Moscow. Midway through his presidential term, Lukashenko used the referendum of 1996 to instantly expand his power from limited to absolute. The referendum was incredibly wide-ranging and, among questions regarding abortion and gay marriage, Lukashenko included a query about the increase of presidential executive powers; the entire referendum gained the support of 88.2% of the voters.

For over a decade after they placed their confidence in their nearly autocratic president, Belarusians enjoyed steady increases in prosperity. From 1997 to 2015 Belarus’ GDP rose by an average of 2.93%. Over the last two years, however, the country has been forced to endure a recession. Further development is contingent on a comprehensive overhaul of the political system, as Lukashenko’s centralized control of the nation has resulted in inefficiencies that are customary to command economies. Perhaps the most pronounced demonstration of the popular will for change took place on March 25 when masses of Belarusians took to the streets to protest the “parasite tax.” The parasite tax was a measure that fined workers who were unemployed for more than six months. Those who failed to secure jobs in six months time were asked to pay the equivalent of two hundred and fifty dollars in a government effort to combat the prevalence of illegal and part-time employment.

Because March 25th is the Belarusian independence day, it has always been a popular date for manifestations of popular political will.  It was thus unremarkable that people were out in the streets, but the sheer number of demonstrators and the straightforwardness of their anti-government slogans was a drastic break from precedent. The intensity of the government’s response was commensurate to the protesters’ anger.

Human Rights Watch reported over seven hundred arbitrary arrests made at the site of the protest, with nearly two hundred of those arrested being journalists or opposition leaders. People who came out in smaller numbers on the following day to protest the detentions were also rounded up by riot police. Yet, the use of police to silence political activity is nothing new in Belarus, therefore it cannot be regarded as an extraordinary measure meant to suppress an extraordinary level of dissent. Perhaps the most significant escalation Lukashenko ordered to combat the situation was the diversion of police from the actual protest grounds and into the offices of political institutions. The Human Rights Watch headquarters were raided and fifty-eight public defenders were arrested. Later that day, security forces detained Pavel Severinets (the leader of the country’s strongest opposition party) and barred him from access to a lawyer.

Lukashenko’s swift display of control shows he is deeply aware of the systemic change that people desire. He also makes clear that the true reasons for the popular dissatisfaction are more fundamental than disagreement with the new unemployment tax. In fact, the decision to crush the protests immediately seems to be a direct consequence of the Ukrainian government’s vacillating response to the Euromaidan protests in 2013. In that situation, an initial policy of police non-intervention allowed the crowd to grow rapidly and resulted in excessive bloodshed once the government finally decided to disperse the protesters. Lukashenko learned his lessonif a government wants to employ authoritarian measures, it must do so quickly.

In fact, the Ukrainian situation proves to be elucidative in more contexts than just that of the police. President Lukashenko is, in many respects, facing the same choice that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich did when negotiating Ukraine’s partnership with the European Union. On one hand, he can side with Russia and maintain his autocratic and oligarchic state which fits into Putin’s eastern European geopolitic. On the other, he could turn the state to the West and seek political and economic backing from the EU to satisfy the popular demands for state modernization. Based on what happened in Ukraine, however, the latter of the two scenarios runs a high risk of covert Russian intervention.

Before this point, because the state developed at a reasonable pace (despite such strong-handed rule), such a binary geopolitical decision did not seem necessary. Since the ‘90s, Lukashenko has successfully maneuvered before the public eye and used the ideological liquidity of authoritarianism to concurrently maintain relations with both Russia and the EU.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Soviet-born journalist Peter Pomerantsev describes this ideological ambivalence as something that appeals directly to the Belarusian national identity.  According to Pomerantsev, the entire twentieth century for the country has been defined by increasingly destructive regime changesfrom exploitative Tsarist feudal landlords to KGB agents who purged more than ten percent of the population. Another more recent key event is the Chernobyl disaster. The details of the nuclear meltdown’s impact on public health are, to this date, unknown, and are routinely falsified by Minsk officials. These disasters that permeate Belarusian history cause pain to be a central characteristic of  the lives of all current generations.

Lukashenko consistently links these painful events to regime change and general reform in his rhetoric. With history to back him up, he has secured a sort of popular understanding, if not acceptance, for his static and undemocratic government. Belarusians, especially in more rural areas, genuinely fear another catastrophe that would result from any major political shift.

Nevertheless, the developments that occurred on March 25th suggest that the fear-mongering power of Lukashenko’s view of history is running out, especially among millennials. The country’s youngest generation is uncompromisingly pro-Westernholding by far the most Schengen visas for free travel within the EUand never directly witnessed the horrors of Soviet rule that give Lukashenko’s words so much weight.

One of the strongest characteristics among politically-minded Belarusian millennials is the conviction that a more transparent and democratic government, along with a more progressive society, is the only way to keep up with the rest of the world. Given that investment in human capital is rather antithetical to Russian economic policy (which centers around the oligarch industries), looking to the EU for money is reasonable. Moscow’s ultra-conservative social policies certainly do not make it a more appealing partner for Belarusian reformers, either.

Unfortunately, there is no sign of such a Westward shift happening anytime soon. On April 4th, Lukashenko and Putin met to negotiate the refinancing of Belarusian state debt and to lift the Russian embargo on certain Belarusian produce. Although there has been no real change in Minsk’s perspective following the protests, Lukashenko’s balancing act is coming to an end. The opposition to the “parasite tax” showed clearly that people want comprehensive and non-coercive politics. Lukashenko now faces a long-term choice: he can satisfy the people’s demands and end his legacy on a noble note or he can continue governing at the expense of his own people’s lives. Depending on what route he chooses, he may, in fact, be the last dictator in Europe.