Europe, keep an eye on Minsk

By Lisa J Walters, on 29 March 2017

If the Belarus president is to survive, he will have to walk a narrow path between pressure from demonstrators and the Kremlin.

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

This opinion piece was originally posted on Politico on 17th March 2017

When Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko imposed a “social parasite” tax in 2015, he assumed — in normal populist dictatorial fashion — that a $245 fine on those who worked for less than six months a year would be a popular move.

What he didn’t expect was that ordinary citizens would, instead, show solidarity with the roughly half a million people affected and take to the streets in rare public protests.

The fines are intended to cover their recipients’ contributions to the welfare state. But only about one in 10 of those charged paid up. Those that did were often forced to borrow money from friends or family, in a country where the average wage is only $380 a month.

Cases of bureaucratic incompetence and mistaken identity added to the sense of injustice, and on February 17 some 2,500 protesters demonstrated in Minsk, sparking a series of small protests across the country that have lasted nearly a month.

The demonstrations — by ordinary Belarussians — were of a type that has been all but unheard of during Lukashenko’s 23-year rule, in that they completely bypassed the urban intelligentsia who make up the traditional opposition to his government.

That’s because Lukashenko’s opponents have become isolated and ineffective, able to win Western grants but very poor at reaching out to ordinary citizens. Indeed, their belated attempts to latch onto the protests is one of the few things working in Lukashenko’s favor. Ordinary Belarusians, as Lukashenko has not tired of saying over the past two decades, distrust the “cosmopolitan,” “Western-backed” opposition.

Part of the turmoil can be chalked up to the bad state of the economy, which has seen three recessions since 2008: in 2009, in the aftermath of Lukashenko’s reelection spending surge in 2010, and in 2015. The country’s economy is still based on a neo-Soviet, state-centred model; it’s hard to see where a cyclical recovery could come from. The best forecast for 2017 is an anemic recovery of 0.4 percent.

Russia has traditionally subsidized Lukashenko to the tune of 15 to 20 percent of the country’s GDP, mainly via cheap oil and gas. But that model has started to break down since 2014 as Russia, itself in recession, has racked up heavy bills in Crimea, Syria, and east Ukraine.

The dysfunctionality of the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Belarus is a founding member, has also contributed to the country’s economic woes. Launched in 2015, it has fallen far short of fulfilling Putin’s promise to create a “second European Union.” Gains from trade have been minimal.

As exports to Russia stagnate, Belarus’s factories have been laying off workers. The two countries are engaged in a vicious trade war. And as part of that, Russia instated limited passport controls at the border last month — despite the fact that the two countries are supposed to be part of a common “Union State.”

Lukashenko, despite all this, is a great survivor, identifying himself with the state (this is, to some degree, fair, as he largely built it himself). But many in the country have become alarmed by Russia’s campaign against Ukraine, which has raised the fear that the Kremlin might do something similar in Belarus. Lukashenko diplomatic hedging regarding Ukraine has done little to assuage those worries. After all, only servility seems to be enough for the Kremlin nowadays.

In the past, Lukashenko has been all stick or all carrot. He brutally repressed political demonstrations after the fraudulent 2010 election. He is used to buying people off with higher wages and pensions. He is not used to bargaining.

Lukashenko’s advisers are also whispering in his ear about the dangers of a “Ukrainian scenario,” meaning a real popular uprising. But a crackdown on mass protest would also play into Russia’s hands — and perhaps give it the excuse it needs to intervene.

And so this month, he has tried both the carrot and the stick. He put the social parasite tax on hold and agreed to delay a controversial construction project near Kuropaty, the site of a burial ground for victims of Stalinist repression. But he also threatened to arrest protestors, in an effort to dampen the uprisings.

If the Belarus president is to survive, he will have to walk a narrow path, with his citizens pushing him from below and the Kremlin watching for its opportunity from outside.

So far, the West has done little to prepare to respond to a clampdown in Minsk or an incursion from Moscow. But one thing is clear: the status quo cannot hold.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of UCL, SSEES or SSEES Research Blog.