By Ben Goldson
With demonstrations ongoing despite government repression, longtime Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is faced with a rare challenge to his leadership. Having recently won an election with a disputed four-fifths of the vote, Lukashenko has vowed to stay on the face of calls to resign, mobilising the country’s security services against what he claims is an outside plot to overthrow him.
So far, at least two protestors are believed to have been killed amidst the crackdown, with thousands detained, as the country enters its second month of civil unrest. The turmoil has even spread to the country’s nationalised factories, typically a bedrock of support for the President, who was heckled by employees of a military vehicle plant during a speech meant to rally support for the embattled President. Faced with these outbreaks of dissent, Lukashenko has reached out to nearby Russia, threatening Belarussians with a dramatic escalation of the existing crackdown.
In 1994, the first election for the Presidency of the newly created Republic of Belarus took place. It was also the last judged to be free and fair by international observers. The vote saw victory for Lukashenko, who had served as a political officer in the Soviet Army before entering civilian affairs as an administrator of the state-owned “kolkhoz” farms. Months before independence, he had managed to secure a seat in the Belarusian parliament, which would soon have the job of governing the new nation thrust upon them. A former unknown, Lukashenko was made chair of the country’s anti-corruption committee during the lead-up to the 1994 election, where he captured widespread attention for his allegations of wrongdoing by scores of government officials.
Across Eastern Europe at the time, the systems established in the former Soviet Union were being hacked back, with vast swathes of industry privatised and fixed prices for consumer goods abolished. Although backed by a seemingly-victorious United States of America, these wide-ranging reforms were poorly received by many of the people caught up in them, driving support for a restoration of the Soviet Union. In the case of Belarus, inflation was averaging nearly 50 percent a month prior to the 1994 election, with Lukashenko’s public image as a defender of the common citizen helping to win him the office he has held ever since.
As President, Lukashenko reversed the more drastic reforms which had already taken place, implementing measures such as price controls to control the skyrocketing cost of goods. Ownership of Belarus’ economy would also remain, for the most part, in the hands of the state, forming the basis of a new system which broadly resembled the Soviet era. In a 2011 piece for the Journal of International Affairs, “More State Than Nation”, scholars Oleg Manaev, Natalie Manayeva and Dzmitry Yuran examined independent Belarus, concluding that support for Lukashenko’s government was based on its control of the country’s economy, not a more metaphysical conception of the Belarussian people. Strongly influenced by their vast neighbour to the East, the average citizen remains more likely to speak Russian than their native tongue, with the article finding what national identity there is to be largely based on the hierarchy established by Lukashenko during his time in office.
Early on, the new President had sought to consolidate power in his executive, holding a contested referendum only a year into his first term. Declared illegal by opposition groups, the nationwide poll asked four questions of the Belarusian people, most importantly whether the country’s parliament could be dissolved by an order of the President. During the voting stage, further allegations were raised of government abuses, and minor demonstrations were held after the questions were apparently approved by the public, but these did little to stop Lukashenko from expanding his hold over the country. Over the coming decades, this pattern would mark his relationship to the country’s opposition, with brief flashes of dissent expressed in the aftermath of seemingly fraudulent votes, only to fade away as time goes on.
Along with the loyalty of the Belarusian security services, Lukashenko’s tightening grip on power would be aided by the relative health of the country’s economy in the last years of the 20th century, particularly when compared to the Russian Federation. By 1998, facing billions of dollars in public debt, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had devalued the country’s ruble amidst a crisis which wiped out what was left of his former popularity, with the country’s first post-Soviet President resigning soon after in favour of his appointed successor, Vladimir Putin.
A veteran of the KGB, Putin had risen to the head of its successor, the FSB, by the time he was handpicked for the Presidency, and would follow a broadly similar path as Lukashenko, cracking down on independent dissenters as well as the new class of wealthy oligarchs. In the face of a rapid deconstruction of a system which had existed for most people’s lives, Lukashenko and Putin represented a remaking of the broader features of the Soviet Union, detached from the Marxist influences of the previous administration. Instead, both would promote a nationalism which drew heavily on a shared experience as a key battleground in the Second World War and remained staunchly opposed to the US-backed North American Treaty Organization.
While the two countries, and their respective leaders, would have their disagreements over the years, they have been bound since 1999 by the Union State agreement, which grants free movement to citizens of the two nations. A potential rival to the Western-orientated European Union, further progress on the international body has stopped and started over the years, with ambitious goals such as a shared currency quickly stalling. Although the situation has not been helped by Lukashenko’s overtures towards the EU, throughout it all, the Union State has continued to exist, quietly maintaining a joint Regional Forces Group between the two member nations. With Putin confirming that he would be willing to send police forces to Belarussia, these ties may well be what saves Lukashenko’s regime, if the existing demonstrations continue to make a mockery of Europe’s so-called last dictator.
The underlying fact is that the protests currently taking place in Belarus are bad for Putin too, who lost a key regional ally in former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as a result of similar demonstrations in 2014. Despite the difference in size, Belarus remains a major trading partner of the Russian Federation, within the top five for both imports and exports.
Moreover, Putin has a lot invested in Belarus, having extended them massive loans during the turbulent aftermath of the Great Recession. In 2011, following a sharp plunge in the value of the Belarusian ruble brought on by a change in the official exchange rate, Lukashenko accepted a multi-billion dollar package from the Eurasian Economic Community, a development fund led by Russia. Since then, national GDP has climbed and fallen, standing roughly where it was on the eve of the global crisis. These figures are expected to be further impacted by Covid-19, with the government’s handling of the pandemic itself the subject of protests months before the election.
In May, a small group of dissidents were detained by state security for their rally against Victory Day Parades, held to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to Allied forces despite the risk of further infections. The event was organised by Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a former business owner who had gained a following with his YouTube channel, seemingly bypassing the established opposition. A would-be Presidential candidate, the commission in charge of Belarus elections would refuse to accept him as a candidate, leading his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to enter in his place. The authorities allowed her to do so, likely assuming that conservative influences in Belarussian society would prevent a woman winning the vote. According to statements she has given since relocating to Germany however, that is exactly what happened. By that point, Belarussians had already begun to rally, with calls for Lukashenko’s resignation met with a firm refusal by the President and his security services.
While the situation on the ground has cooled in the weeks since the first outbreaks of mass unrest, tensions remain high, stoked by smaller scale demonstrations by protestors and strange pieces of political theatre by Lukashenko, who released a video of himself which drew comparisons with the tropes of action cinema. Even if the President is able to ride out the immediate storm, the protests have exposed major cracks in his rule, and could well spell further trouble for him as a renewed opposition continues to seek either reform or revolution.
Ben Goldson is a news and current affairs broadcaster at 95bFM radio in Auckland.