Belarus: Fraying Social Contract Puts Protestors on the Streets
By Lisa J Walters, on 5 April 2017
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.
Many of the protestors were therefore part of Lukashenka’s traditional support base. He was initially caught on the back foot. The protests were allowed to swell, because he lacked the funds to buy them off. On 10 March he tried stick and carrot: a ‘suspension’ of the tax for a year, accompanied by a first wave of arrests, designed to break the link between old protesters and new, by putting as much familiar faces as possible in administrative arrest. A second wave of arrests followed when the traditional opposition tried to stage a much larger protest on 25 March – ‘Freedom Day’, the anniversary of the declaration of the Belarusian People’s Republic of 1918. Seven hundred were initially detained, including 24 alleged members of the ‘White Legion’, an organisation supposedly preparing for a Maidan-style armed confrontation with the authorities.
Lukashenka seems to have learnt the lessons of Yanukovych’s failed repression in Ukraine in 2013-14. Sufficient repression, consistently applied, seems to have brought an end to the protests for now. But the opposition has promised to return to the streets on 26 April, which marks the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and on May Day or 9 May, ‘Victory Day’.
On the other hand, the repressions, at least by Belarusian standards, could have been worse. Neither government nor opposition behaved like in 2010, when there were mass protests and arrests after an implausible Lukashenka election win. Despite scenes of violent arrest, the majority of protesters were released without charge. The authorities released all political prisoners back in 2015, in order to win the lifting of EU sanctions imposed after 2010; and seem reluctant to enter that cycle again. They have been putting out signals for a rapprochement with the EU, to balance recent pressure from Russia. Minsk has asked for $3 billion from the IMF. Western reaction has been muted so far, but the fictitious case of the ‘White Legion’ has yet to be definitively dealt with by the courts.
Some have talked of a defining new moment in Belarusian politics. One commentator said the situation reminded him “of Poland in the late 1970s”, when a previously isolated intelligentsia belatedly made common cause with a mass workers’ movement. In Poland, the authorities exploited anti-Semitism to depict city intellectuals as outsiders in 1968; but they founded the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) in 1976, and helped the emergence of Solidarity in 1980. In Belarus, Lukashenka has traditionally depicted the opposition as ‘fascists’, or, at best, obsessed with the fate of the marginalised Belarusian language and the red-and-white flag he rejected in 1995. The opposition did not lead the protests, it remains divided and marginal. But it did help facilitate them. Arguably more important has been the efforts of human-rights centres like Viasna, social networks in the provinces, and the growth of crowd-funding to help the victims of arrest (Viasna activists were arrested so they could not report on the protests, but then released).
The Deal with Putin
So Lukashenka knew he needed something more. He was due to meet Putin in St. Petersburg on 3 April, the very day of the bomb on the metro. It is hard to see if this had much direct effect, but the previous and largely unexpected outbreak of anti-corruption demonstrations in Russia certainly did. It increased the value of Lukashenka’s argument that he was some kind of bulwark against Ukrainian-style revolution. It probably also helped Putin decide that Lukashenka had been pressured enough, and now was the time to trade. At the meeting, Lukashenka said none too subtly: “We see what’s happening around us, and we just want to preserve the stability of Russia and Belarus”.
Only the benefits for Belarus were announced in public. Minsk agreed to pay $700 million it supposedly owed for Russian gas, but the timetable was not clear. Belarus would get discounted gas supplies up to 2020. Most importantly, Russia agreed to increase its supply of subsidised crude oil to Belarus to 24 tons per year. During the three years of dispute, crude oil supply had fallen from 22 million tons in 2015 to 18 million in 2016, with as little as 13-14 million seeming likely for 2017. At 24 million tons, Belarus could start paying its bills again.
But not all of them. Huge structural problems remain. An over-extended Russia cannot afford to subsidise Belarus indefinitely. And the deal doesn’t make sense without more concessions on Lukashenka’s side. He may be tempted to use the deal to cut off negotiations with the West, but he hasn’t got enough to put the genie of socio-economic protest back in the bottle. Substantial concessions on sovereignty – Belarus has been refusing Russian pressure to open an air base or sell key assets – could re-ignite the protests.
For more, see my 2016 Belarusian Studies Lecture, Belarus: From a Social Contract to a Security Contract? and my 2011 book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship
Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of UCL, SSEES or SSEES Research Blog.