Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies
I have just got back from a few days in Minsk, where events are moving fast. First was an unprecedented wave of demonstrations that began on 17 February. Belarus is used to a largely ritualistic cycle of impotent political protest from the ‘traditional opposition’ against longstanding dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994. These demonstrations were different, however, involving thousands of ordinary Belarusians, in provincial towns as well as Minsk, demanding the repeal of an ill-judged ‘social parasite’ tax, and protesting at the fraying of the social contract that has kept Lukashenka in power for so long.
Belarus is in its third year of grinding recession, with no end in sight. Real wages have halved and investment has collapsed; unemployment has soared and prices are higher than in supposedly chaotic Ukraine. Russian subsidies have been cut, the Russian market for Belarusian exports is in recession (until recently, so was the Ukrainian market), the Eurasian Economic Union is not providing the promised benefits, and the low price of oil has cut into Belarus’s life-blood; its earnings from refining cheap crude. GDP fell by 3.9% in 2015 and 2.7% in 2016. Russia has also been pressing Belarus hard, to end its ‘situational neutrality’ over the war in Ukraine. Belarus has been resisting hard, as it doesn’t want to see its sovereignty undermined in the same way.