BELARUS: THE UNFREE

Branded accurately as the last dictatorship in Europe, this nation of 9.5 million people has endured the leadership of Alexander Lukashenko for the past 23 years, the entire period of its post-Soviet existence. The regime is widely decried for its lack of pluralism, its repressive policies towards its citizens and its legal nihilism, amongst a gamut of other unfavourable characteristics. Figuring just above Cuba and beneath Guinea - Bissau in New Nation’s World Democracy Audit, the last presidential elections, which took place in 2015 and in which Lukashenko won 84% of the vote, (remember Stalin’s Comment that it didn’t matter who votes; all that matters is who counts the vote). In short, the elections there, were and are considered to be neither free nor fair. (World Audit also places them 

The regime exists with heavy economic reliance upon Russia, which is bought at the cost of its own political sovereignty. Very much the junior partner in the relationship, the regime occasionally makes waves by testing Moscow’s patience. Russia’s ‘Zapad’ war games in September, which gained much international attention, confirmed its willingness to accommodate, both literally and figuratively, Putin’s militarism. The military exercises did not however come to pass without Belarus attempting to bite the hand that feeds it. 
 
To begin with domestic affairs however, this year has provided ample evidence of the regime’s repressive stance with relation to its own citizens. Lukashenko’s punitive approach to the population can be witnessed in a recent presidential attack on “parasites”. A decree passed in early February hoped to impose a tax of around $200 a year on anyone who has been unemployed for more than six months and has not sought work at job centres. News of the proposal sparked widespread protests and a grassroots campaign entitled “we are not parasites”. In an attempt to quell unrest, the president said he would postpone demanding payment of the tax until a review had taken place, but this has not undone the damage. The entire episode has magnified longstanding concerns about human rights in the country. In March of this year, on ‘Freedom Day’, 300 people were arrested whilst protesting in the capital Minsk, and arrests were also seen at protests in Brest and Grodno. Belarus does its best to incarcerate high profile members of the political opposition, but some, such as former presidential candidate Vladimir Nekliayev, who was at the protests, have managed to evade arrest and provide a focus for dissident energy. Equally active and difficult to control (because of being in exile), is the Belarus Free Theatre, which attempts to highlight the plight of Belarussians to the international community. One of its co-founders, Natalia Kaliada, had this to say of the most recent wave of protests: “All these arrests and splitting up the crowds might make things a little quieter in Minsk, but now these protests are happening all over Belarus […] This is the worst crackdown over the last seven years, but it would have been the biggest protest. People don’t care, they want an end to this dictator. They say ‘basta’ – enough.” Kaliada also noted the President’s attempts to block the Internet to prevent the movement from gaining traction. Blocking the internet is not the only way Lukashenko attempts to control the movement of information: he has an almost complete muzzle on the press. Ahead of the Freedom Day protests, whilst anger was mounting about the parasite tax, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted 32 people from the world of publishing were arrested. Among those arrested were author Vladimir Orlov, publisher Miraslau Lazouski and bookseller Ales Jaudaha who were detained at a literary festival in Minsk. In Pinsk, Viktor Yaroshuk, who is a freelance journalist working for the independent satellite television station Belsat, was arrested for supposedly “violating regulations on manufacturing and distributing mass media materials”. From the same network, correspondents Andrey Tolchin and Konstantin Zhukovsky were detained by police after they were found filming a factory in the city of Dobrush. Freelancers Lyubov Luneva and Olga Davydova were detained as they attempted to interview wives of jailed activists outside a prison in Minsk. Lukashenko relies on the story often used by the Kremlin to explain the existence of dissenting elements in Russia: the influence of foreign agitators. 

The Belarus Free Theatre has also been active in criticizing the Brussels’ decision to lift sanctions against the regime, which it did in February of last year. Belarus’s more positive interaction with the EU has proved an interesting development. The EU has been historically hostile to the Lukashenko regime for obvious reasons and it put sanctions in place in 2004 after two opposition politicians went missing. In 2010, the European Council enacted measures against the regime, after a tumultuous election result riddled with accusations of fraud. The turnaround in early 2016, was attributed to a “response to the release of all Belarusian political prisoners on [August 22, 2016] and in the context of improving EU-Belarus relations.” It was noted by many that Minsk was likely being rewarded for hosting peace talks between Ukraine and Russia (the oft-violated Minsk agreements of September 2014). Highly significantly, the EU has invited Belarus to its Eastern Partnership summit of this year, which will take place in Brussels on November 24. Belarus will attend in exactly the same capacity as the five other EAP (all FSU) members: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, with no restrictions placed upon it. At previous EAP summits (of which there have been 4) Lukashenko has always been considered ‘persona non grata’. It has been noted that since Belarus’ finances are in a parlous condition, it is seeking the economic boost that the easing of sanctions would bring about. In order to do so, many have noted that Lukashenko has made efforts to appear more liberal. The European Union has already extended the hand of financial friendship, notably supporting small and medium-sized enterprises in Belarus, and offering to provide €6 million in additional funds as part of the EBRD’s Advice for Small Business programme.  

Economically, the country’s lamentable conditions are hardly surprising, given that the economy is very much based on a sclerotic model of large state-owned enterprises, an environment in which it is hard for smaller business and private enterprise to develop. Both Lukashenko and his father before him were managers (effectively absolute-power governors) of State-owned farms, such ‘farms’ being all economic and other activity over areas often the size of western counties or provinces.

The country does not have the energy resources of Russia, so it cannot rely on petrodollars. The possibility of default seems to be constantly looming. An economist from the Belarusian Economic Research and Education Center, Dmitry Kruk, working with IMF predictions, asserted the very real possibility that the country would default on its debts in 2019-2020. Having grown exponentially since 2006, in 2017 external debt has apparently reached an all-time record - more than $15 billion or about 40% of GDP. Some estimates suggest that the official figures released to the media which put debt at 40% are in fact incomplete, and that the total debt is actually at 60%. The problems for the economy are manifold. The state undertakes major modernization projects which are unsustainable (and badly managed). Loans come principally from China, Russia and the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development; in the case of Russia this is in exchange for political fidelity. As debt increases, it seems likely that the country will have to resort to printing more money. Business and the manufacturing industry will find it difficult to be able to buy equipment from abroad which may then lead to factories being idle, and unemployment increasing. Welfare will then need to increase too - evidently a fear of the President since he chose to attack supposed scroungers with his “parasite tax.” Russia will always be there to bail Belarus out, meaning it can in this way avoid any serious form of economic reform. This of course also allows Russia to continue to have substantial leverage over it.  

Belarus’ relationship with Russia has been the object of scrutiny in recent weeks due to the Kremlin’s ‘Zapad’ military exercises, which took place in Russia and in Belarus, with the participation of both nations’ armed forces. These were, by some estimates, the biggest military exercises since the end of the Cold War. Involving 12,700 military personnel, taking in defence and counter-attack, the wargames have been observed with great approval by Vladimir Putin. Lukashenko has presented the games from the angle of their making Belarus more secure. Putin’s objective has clearly been to unnerve the west, something he has managed successfully. The war games have frightened Russia’s neighbours, particularly the Baltic states. The scenario for Zapad saw “Veishnoria”, a fictitious region of Belarus, declare independence and attempt to turn the state against Russia, with the help of NATO countries, a thinly veiled replay of the Ukraine situation. In the scenario the supposed separatists of the fictional state of Veishnoria are backed by two fictitious countries, Lubenia and Vesbaria, which appear to be Poland and Lithuania. The Baltic states believe they too, have reasonable cause for fear given that the 2013 Zapad games shortly preceded the annexation of Crimea and the events in Ukraine. Lithuania’s defence minister, Raimundas Karoblis voiced concerns that the drill itself may precipitate a conflict or serve as a cover to station troops permanently in Belarus by simply leaving them behind. “We can’t be totally calm. There is a large foreign army massed next to Lithuanian territory,” he told Reuters. Russia meanwhile claimed that the buildup of NATO troops in the Baltic are justification for the exercises (a 4,000-member multinational NATO force has been deployed in the Baltics and Poland justified as being in response to the Russian threat).  

What was particularly interesting to note is that while the games were supposed to showcase the steadfast loyalty of Belarus to Russia (along with Russian military might), it appears that Lukashenko did not toe the line as the Kremlin had hoped. Belarus did pipe-up during the games, to assure the West that no international treaties would be violated. The conciliatory tone vexed the Kremlin, as did the fact that Belarus apparently invited foreign observers without approval from Russia, flouting its authority. Neither President Vladimir Putin nor Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Belarus during the drill as a result, and the Russian military commanders did not stay for a ceremonial meal after the event. Lukashenko retaliated with his own gesture, by cancelling plans to appear alongside Putin at a Russian military installation. Analysts Fredrik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson have noted, "Minsk has been testing the limits of how far it can distance itself from Moscow and rebuild relations with the West." Lukashenko is playing a risky game, however, as Russia could simply attempt to oust him. Vilnius-based political analyst Jan Jacek Komar, told Charter 97 that multiple sources suggested that the Kremlin was hoping to replace Lukashenko "with a younger and more loyal politician." Lukashenko is of course not oblivious to the risks and has himself considered a shakeup of the Belarusian elite, to remove or dilute pro-Moscow elements. As these tensions are building, so fissures are widening within the country’s higher political echelons A group of technocrats are advocating economic reform, in order to render the state less reliant upon Russia. However, there are others who remain firmly pro-Moscow, such as Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich and KGB Chairman Valery Vakulchyk. 

Given the Kremlin’s considerable power, shored up by its apparently ability to influence global politics through cyber-techniques, it seems unlikely that Putin is overly concerned by Belarus’ overtures towards the West. 

Perhaps more concerning is the fact that the EU appears to be softening it’s stance on a regime which punishes its citizens so relentlessly. The prospect of life improving for the ordinary citizens of Belarus, be it in terms of living standards or of basic freedoms, seems as remote now as it has ever been. Should Putin prefer a younger model as his puppet, it is unlikely that such a candidate would bring significant reform to the country. 

Whilst Russia has a patina of plurality due to its “managed opposition” and Belarus currently has none to speak of, paying lip-service to democracy is far from being the real thing and it would be difficult to say that Russia is significantly freer than Belarus. In this respect, as long as Russia maintains its influence, which might well be indefinite, Belarus is unlikely to break free from being an effective satellite of Russia, the only model it has known in its post-Soviet existence. 

Sara Bielecki