On August 9th, 2020 Alexander Lukashenko cruised
to victory in Belarus’s presidential election, winning 80% of the vote according to official statistics. The people of Belarus have begged to differ, and the country has seen a wave of massive peaceful protests
calling for Lukashenko’s ouster. However, in Belarus, official statistics have no collection to reality. Alexander Lukashenko
has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, gaining him the moniker Europe’s last dictator. The purpose of today’s podcast episode is to explore the rise and fall of Lukashenko’s of regime. In part one, I want to discuss how Alexander Lukashenko gained political power by retaining as much of the Soviet cultural, economic and political legacy as possible. In part two, I will discuss the economic stagnation Belarus has faced in the last ten years that has put pressure on Lukashenko. Finally, in part three, I will discuss the political space opened up to the opposition by the spectacular mismanagement of COVID-19 by Lukashenko, and the rise of a dynamic opposition leaders to fight against the current regime.
On August 25th 1991, Belarus declared independence from the USSR. It was a moment of profound anxiety rather than euphoria for many in Belarus. Belarus has almost always been ruled from Moscow, whether as part of the Russian Empire or the USSR, since 1795
. Today, nearly
three quarters of Belarussians primarily speak Russian in their daily lives, and at independence many Belarussians were more fearful
about leaving the umbrella of a superpower than excited at gaining independence. Moreover, the economy of Belarus quickly fell into a tailspin
after independence. Alexander Lukashenko was able to mobilize dissatisfaction with negative change and win free and fair elections in 1994 by promising to restore as much of the status quo as possible. On the economic front, Lukashenko reimposed
price controls and reasserted state control of the economy. While Lukashenko allowed
service industries such as restaurants and retail to stay outside of the control of the state, large state owned farms, heavy industry, and Belarus’s most important industry, fertilizer production, remained under state ownership.
Lukashenko’s reassertion of the state, at least in the short run, revived
the economy of Belarus, emerging faster than Ukraine from the chaos of the 1990s and growing rapidly in the 2000s. Belarus had been one of the most developed
regions of Russia, with massive Soviet investment in agriculture and industry heavily oriented towards. The end of socialism ended the organizational structure behind this investment, and severed ties between Belarus and the primary markets for its goods. State control of banks allowed state owned companies to stay in business. Effective government management of Belaruskali, the state owned fertilizer company, generates more than $3 billion
of export revenues for Belarus and remains the only Soviet-era industry to remain competitive in global markets.
Moreover, Belarus restored economic ties between Belarus and Russia, creating the Union State of Belarus and Russia which aimed to deepen links between the two countries. In particular, it allowed visa free travel and work permits for Belarussians, and allowed Belarus to export to Russia without facing tariff barriers. Belarus continues to export refrigerators, tractors and other industrial goods duty access to Russian markets. More importantly, Russia could buy Russian oil without having to pay Russian export taxes. While some of this cheap oil was used by Belarussian companies, most was refined and re-exported abroad. In 2012, these subsidies amounted to $10 billion, or roughly 16% of GDP
While Belarussian statistics are questionable
, it is clear Belarus saw real improvements in standards of living that allowed Lukashenko to ram through ammendments to the constitution that ended functioning democracy, and allowed Lukashenko to rig election after election without losing broad public acquiescence. However, Belarus has struggled economically since 2010, when tax reform in Russia dramatically reduced subsidies to Belarus. Russian oil subsidies have come down from 16% of GDP in 2012 to next to nothing today.
The end of the subsidies combined with budget mismanagement by the Lukashenko regime caused a sharp economic crisis for Belarus with GDP growth contracting from 7.8% in 2010 to -3.8% in 2015. The economy of Belarus suffered
a currency devaluation of 38% and hyperinflation of 119% during this period. Moreover, the economy of Belarus has suffered from broader structural difficulties. The old Soviet industrial base is not competitive with Europe on quality and China on cost. For example
, Belarus’s exports of refrigerators have falled from $345 million to $150 million. Exports of tractors have fallen from $220 million to $131 million. The economy of Belarus has some bright spots such as dairy
and tech outsourcing
. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that sustained growth will require the state relinquishing some control of the economy, something Lukashenko is unwilling to do.
While the inability of Lukashenko’s government to provide increasing standards of living is at the core of Lukashenko’s weakness there are specific events sapping his political strength. The government of Russia has both offered and taken away subsidies as part of a carrot and stick strategy to force Belarus to integrate fully into Russia. Lukahsenko, however, does not want to comply and has refused to unify currencies
with Russia or allow Russian companies to buy
Belaruskali, the state owned potash fertilizer company at the heart of the Belarussian economy. Lukashenko has increasingly tried to repair
relationships with Western European nations, and Vladimir Putin quietly voiced
for a new partner in Belarus. It is at the moment unclear if Putin will openly help Lukashenko put the protest movement down, but the lack of clarity in Russia’s stance creates space for protestors.
Moreover, people in Belarus have been outraged by Lukashenko’s complete mismanagement of COVID-19. Lukashenko has had one of the most flippant responses to COVID-19 out of any leader in the world. Lukashenko has claimed no one will die
of COVID-19, and that drinking vodka and riding tractors could cure
COVID-19. Belarus has imposed no restrictions on activities, and even football and hockey games have been held as if there was no pandemic
. The governments unwillingness to respond to COVID-19 has been especially galling because his base of support is disproportionately
an older, poorer and more rural population, groups most vulnerable to COVID-19. The governments unwillingness to take these people’s concerns seriously has reduced support among groups of people who would normally be Lukashenko’s strongest backers.
Finally, a new opposition movement has been able to galvanize popular opposition as never before. Lukashenko has throughout his authoritatarian dictatorship been able to use force and control of the media to nitimidate and discredit the opposition. However, candidates in the run-up to the 2020 elections, largely independent
of traditional opposition parties, were able to use social media influence to get an unprecedented amount of support. Lukashenko attempted his usual tactics of intimidation by arresting
three leading candidates, Viktor Babaryka, Valery Tespkalo, and Sergei Tikhanovsky. However, instead of cowing the opposition, the move only energized it. The wives of the three arrested candidates campaigned together, projecting Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya as their unified candidate. Tsikhanouskaya, a stay at home mom with no prior interest in politics, campaigned on holding free and fair elections as fast as possible and then stepping down
from office. Her campaign for change energized Belarus as never before, using the Telegram app, organized protests
and rallies as never before. \
It is almost certain at this point that Tsikhanouskaya has the support of the overwhelming support of the Belarussian people. Even employees at state owned factories, once one of Lukashenko’s strongest base of support, have gone on strike
. Lukashenko might be able to crush the protest movement, but he will be hated by his people. His name will be mud in western Europe, and his hand will be weakened against Putin. If the opposition can unseat Lukashenko, their will be deep divisions in their ranks. Many support radically changing Belarus’s economic and geopolitical direction towards Europe. Others, usually older and more rural, support retaining as much as the old system but in a democracy. However, these are all fights for the future. For now, we should all appreciate the courage of hundreds of thousands
of Belarussian people standing up to the brutality of a dictator with no compunction
against using massive force against his own people. Selected Sources: The Russian Language in Belarus: Language Use, Speaker Identities and Metalinguistic Discourse
, Curt Woolhiser The Belarusian Model of Transformation: Alaksandr Lukashenka’s Regime and the Nostalgia for the Soviet Past
, Valerii Karbalevich Nostalgia for the Demise of the ussr in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine
, Ian McCallister Stephen White Understanding Belarus: Economy and Political Landscape
, GRIGORY IOFFE Belarus: Heading towards State Capitalism? Julia Korosteleva Belarus: A Command Economy without Central Planning
, D. Mario Nuti Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space, Vernon Henderson
, Adam Storeygard and David Weil The Game of Anchors: Studying the Causes of Currency Crises in Belarus
Ralph Chami http://wealthofnationspodcast.com/ https://media.blubrry.com/wealthofnationspodcast/s/content.blubrry.com/wealthofnationspodcast/Belarus-Lukashenko.mp3