I would like to clarify some comments I made during my recent interview with Radio Svaboda (http://www.svaboda.org/a/david-marples/28437579.html), taken during a walk around central Minsk. The interview was casual and none of my comments were prepared in advance. As a result, the headline appeared somewhat out of context. It also may have appeared that my comments were based on my use of the 5-day non-visa entry system, which allowed me to make my first visit in seven years after several area visa rejections. That was not the case.
Easily the most controversial item in the interview was the comment that ‘Lukashenka is not a dictator’. For years he has been known as ‘the last dictator of Europe’. Indeed by any standards he has been an authoritarian and at time brutal leader. The crackdowns in 2006 and 2010 (after presidential elections), and on March 25, 2017 speak for themselves. The March 2017 events came after a period of rapprochement with the EU and, to a lesser extent, the United States. The period of conciliation coincided with the release of remaining political prisoners and included the dropping of sanctions, including travel bans and freezes of assets of major companies and businessmen.
Belarus is now at a crossroads in that a period of sharp economic decline has not met with a viable response from the government. The laws on ‘social parasites’ prompted mass demonstrations in areas that have hitherto been quiet. On March 25, social and political protests coalesced and the government overreacted. But little has changed. The situation is as volatile as before, and the protesters have slowly gained in confidence.
In 2017, however, a dictatorship would signify a regime that could prevent future protests and eliminate opposition. It would also need to control media, and limit public access to Internet and social networks, all of which Lukashenka has failed to do, or more likely is incapable of doing. No doubt such protests would have met such a fate had they taken place in North Korea. But there are very few countries today that can truly be called dictatorships in the manner, say, of Stalin’s USSR in the 1930s. Belarus is clearly not one of them.
Moreover, Lukashenka is not a free agent. He may be the sole power source in Belarus, but his country is part of military and security structures led by an increasingly unsympathetic and aggressive Russia. Loans needed to offset the rapidly diminishing foreign reserves can be attained only from Russia, the IMF, and China. In each case they come with stringent conditions attached.
The summit this month between Lukashenka and Russian president Vladimir Putin demonstrated the desperation felt by the Belarusian president. His espoused neutrality cannot be sustained. When pressured, Lukashenka steps back to the familiar path of following the lead of Moscow, even when that leadership is confrontational and provoking violence and warfare in areas of great concern to Belarus, such as eastern Ukraine.
It is true that Lukashenka has tried to stop the tidal wave of protests, just as he has tried to maintain a middle road between Russia and the EU countries. His failure is that despite 23 years in office, he has failed to come up with a viable economic plan or reform program. He lacks vision and expends most of his energy on remaining in power.
The city of Minsk today looks very different, largely because of the input of new housing, hotels, and the transformation of the center. But the majority of residents are much worse off than they were a decade ago. Many cannot afford the high prices of goods in grocery stores or restaurants.
That a change of leadership is needed seems self-evident. But how should it be attained? Street violence against the regime has been tried before and has failed, in fact this is the one area in which the government has maintained strength: the KGB and internal police forces. Peaceful social protests have been more successful, demonstrating the collapse of the so-called social contract between the president and the population.
One advantage of a lengthy presidency is the development of a civil service, of experts in certain areas, and in Belarus’ case a growing belief in the independent state. Belarusians recognize that while life might be complex and difficult, life in Ukraine and Russia would, in many respects. be worse. The overriding question is whether Belarus can remain close to Russia and the EU simultaneously.
I think such a path is possible largely because of the inherent skills and talent within society and because this path would be supported by most citizens. Belarus is competitive in many fields, not because of initiatives from above but rather in spite of them. And the constant focus on ‘the last dictatorship of Europe’ on the part of critics from within and outside Belarus is, in my view, mistaken. Belarusians can focus not on the failed president, but on life after Lukashenka. And in doing so they need the support of the EU, which needs a broad and longterm vision of its eastern neighborhood.
The critical danger is that one authoritarian figure who bends rules, ignores or changes the Constitution, and lashes out at the slightest criticism will be replaced by a similar figure. After all, the Arab Spring and the removal of the odious Saddam Hussein did not bring about an easier life for Egyptians, Libyans, or Iraqis.
Grassroots protests are a healthy sign and one hopes that the common interests of the workforce might be reflected in new political alignments that would not necessarily exclude individuals either inside the administration or with experience of it. I am suggesting that the opposition needs to be broader than hitherto, to include and embrace the industrial and agricultural labor force.
But there will be life after Lukashenka and Lukashenka is not Belarus. Belarus is something much greater.