The End of Lukashenko or the End of Belarus?

Olya Shnarkevich/Minsk, Belarus - 2020 protests

Karl Marx Boulevard. Stalin Street. Lenin Square. Place names from a bygone era.

Along with the names, the statues of the revolutionary figures that once graced those public places have been swept away by world history. Now those boulevards, streets, and squares bear names of national heroes and celebrate the symbols of a new era of free market capitalism and national democracy.

Independence Square in Minsk is one example, formerly known as Lenin Square until the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, unlike most such squares and streets across Eastern Europe, Lenin’s imposing figure still gazes down at the people of Belarus from his pedestal on Independence Square.

Its neighbors denounce communism as an evil equal to fascism and enact sweeping decommunization, but in Belarus, Lenin remains proudly in front of the Supreme Soviet. For that, he has one man to thank—Alexander Lukashenko.

Few figures are more emblematic of the post-Soviet period than the longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. He will forever hold a place in history as the only reactionary Communist to reverse the process of Soviet collapse, even if limited to this one small corner of Europe.

While Poland’s government was implementing shock therapy and Russia’s was selling its economy to oligarchs, Lukashenko was elected to do the exact opposite. He kept the economy largely state-run while replacing national symbols with their Soviet predecessors. His policies even provided Belarus with one of the former USSR’s highest standards of living and per capita incomes for years, giving Lukashenko success to justify his prolonged rule.

Times were good for Belarus, and times were good for Lukashenko. Those times are long gone.

Now, many of the workers whose jobs he once saved from privatization are striking and marching against him. Russian nationalists who may have once applauded his Russophilia and strongman character are joining Muscovite liberals in calling for his resignation. Events in Belarus could go many ways, but Lukashenko is between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand is the unthinkable option of ceding his personalist state apparatus to a disparate opposition. On the other, vassalage to the Russian security services under the guise of a dormant agreement he signed in an unrecognizable era. He has been left looking like an unwanted anachronism to a world that has long forgotten the world-historical moment that birthed his neo-Soviet regime.

In the post-Soviet sea of chaos that was the 1990s, Lukashenko and Belarus stood out as an anomaly. He promised stability and social security against economic reforms as were being implemented all around Belarus and succeeded. That was the Lukashenko social contract. Economic security and political stability. But the world around Lukashenko has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. The post-Soviet world he once comfortably maneuvered in is largely gone. His once reliable ally has grown sick of his geopolitical games and economic dependency.

Belarus will no longer be able to maintain its isolation, with or without Lukashenko.

Man Against the World

Illegitimate child, border guard, Komsomol leader, deputy chairman of a collective farm. These were the many lives lived by Lukashenko before his ascension to absolute power in Belarus. It is genuinely a shocking political story that a man with such a humble background became the first president of a young Belarus in 1994 with 80% of the vote in the second round, and at the age of 40 at that. It is ironic, too, that it was on the issue of anti-corruption and anti-gerontocracy that the 66-year-old, now six-term president, built his early political career.

But in late Soviet politics, those two currents were very strong, and Lukashenko was not the only Soviet or post-Soviet leader that owed his political career to widespread anti-system sentiment. Mikhail Gorbachev, the final General Secretary of the USSR, was the living embodiment of anti-gerontocracy, and along with him he brought many other young, reform-minded politicians to power in their respective republics that ruled long into the post-Soviet period.

The key word is reform-minded, though, since unlike most other Gorbachevite politicians, Lukashenko was expressly anti-reform. His is a story that begs for explanation—similar in some ways to others of the time but simultaneously quite unlike any other in Eastern Europe. Lukashenko rode a wave of anti-establishment resentment to defeat both the Soviet nomenklatura which brought the country independence and the nationalist counter-elite that sought to displace it.

Political developments in Belarus during the 1990s run completely counter to development in all similar countries surrounding it. While former communists elsewhere in Eastern Europe seamlessly transformed themselves into nationalists or social democrats and implemented the free market reforms that Western advisors recommended, Belarusians elected a man to do the opposite.

The year after he was elected, he held a referendum that replaced independent Belarus’ white-red-white flag and national coat of arms with their current unmistakably Soviet alternatives. In proper post-Soviet fashion, the independent symbols were derided by officials and state media as symbols of Nazi collaborators.

The referendum also enshrined the official status of the Russian language and confirmed the people’s support for economic integration with Russia, and importantly for Lukashenko, gave the president the right to dismiss Parliament. In another referendum the following year, the people voted 90% in favor of Lukashenko’s proposal to change official Independence Day from the day Belarus declared independence from the USSR to the day of liberation from Nazi Germany. As if that was not on the nose enough, they voted 80% in favor of banning the free sale of property.

But Lukashenko alone was not responsible for the public’s opinions and sympathies. That is in many ways woven into the very fabric of the Belarusian nation itself. Lacking a state, native nobility, universities, and many other important vectors for national development, Belarusian national identity prior to World War I was considerably less developed than its neighbors. It had historically been ruled by large multinational empires such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Russian Empire, whose elites competed to impress their own religious, cultural, and political identity on the Belarusian peasantry.

Only when Lenin created a Belarusian state in the form of a Soviet Republic in the 1920s was the Belarusian nation given a native state to identify with. The Second World War changed the physical and demographic picture of Belarus permanently, as the devastation wrought by the Nazis left a quarter of the country dead—the highest proportion of any country in Europe.

After the war, Belarus achieved nothing short of an economic miracle. The country was rebuilt with the help of the entire Soviet Union, laying the foundations for an economy that survives to this day. With the country more devastated by the war than any other, and with little prewar industry compared with surrounding republics, it was a place better suited than any other for the USSR to reshape according to its will.

Beyond simple recovery, a large, high-tech industrial base was created along with numerous institutions of higher education to train subsequent generations of highly skilled workers. Throughout the Soviet period, Belarus grew faster than nearly every other republic. Even in the notoriously troubled late-Soviet years from 1970-1986, Belarus had the highest growth of national income per capita of any republic in the Soviet Union.

All things considered, the Soviet system appeared to function better there than anywhere else.

Belarus’ industrial output far exceeded Soviet standards throughout the existence of the union, and underground opposition to the regime was far less common there than elsewhere, despite the highly educated population. As has become apparent in Western political discourse in recent years, the memory of a post-war boom that produced unusually high living standards has serious staying power. In this case, it just happens to be that it was under a Soviet planned economic system and not a free market capitalist one.

Perhaps it may seem ironic for people unfamiliar with the region, but most nostalgia for the communist-era in Eastern Europe is economic more than anything. For pensioners or factory workers whose lives depended on the planned Soviet economy, capitalism—especially in the form it took—brought nothing but hardship. In Belarus, that nostalgia was clearly stronger than elsewhere, likely thanks to the particularly strong success of the Soviet economy, but similar sentiments in relation to the economic system exist across the form Eastern Bloc.

Lukashenko’s rise to power took some considerable luck, but it was in no way entirely coincidental. Belarus was always a special case, and it was thanks to many of its peculiarities that Lukashenko was able to build the regime that he did, despite the changing world around him.

As the world watches today, isolation appears to be one of the defining features of the country. But in the late 1990s and the early 2000s—the high post-Soviet period—Belarus was finding its footing in what looked to be a developing post-Soviet whole that would replace the old Soviet one, a post-Soviet world in which Lukashenko thought he and his country would play a critical role. Despite the obstacles around him, not all global developments were entirely counter to Lukashenko’s vision for Belarus.

From Soviet to Post-Soviet

The final Soviet Politburo was elected on July 14th, 1990, a little over a year before the Communist Party was dissolved. It was unique among Soviet Politburos because it was the first in which the body included the heads of each of the individual republican Communist Parties, as opposed to heads of various security services and other top party bureaucrats. It was one of Gorbachev’s failed, last-ditch attempts to save his crumbling union. But whereas Gorbachev would find himself out of a job by the end of 1991, the same could not be said for the rest of his final Politburo.

Islam Karimov—the head of the Uzbek Communist Party—was elected in 1990 as the first President of Uzbekistan. He ruled until 2016. The Kazakh Party chief Nazarbayev would similarly come to power to rule until 2019. Saparmurat Niyazov emerged to become Turkmenistan’s first President in the same year. That Politburo also supplied Tajikistan and Azerbaijan’s first Presidents, Moldova’s second, and several other ministers or sub-national leaders of Soviet successor states.

The Soviet Union was gone, but its elites hadn’t gone anywhere. Not only that, but they were actively laying the foundations for a post-Soviet political order.

In 1994, Kazakh President Nazarbayev was taking that the furthest in propagating his ideology of Eurasianism in the post-Soviet sphere and calling for a federal Eurasian Union. Just the year before, the heads of each post-Soviet state (save the Baltics) had created and signed the charter of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a weak but symbolic step towards what many thought would be formalization of Soviet ties in a post-Soviet world.

But in 1999 came perhaps the strongest expression of post-Sovietism when Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Lukashenko signed the Union State treaty, which formally united the two countries in a federal state with a common head of state, legislature, flag, anthem, constitution, army, and all the other trappings of a state. It was not just a deal between two presidents. Parliaments in both countries ratified in the agreement.

The overarching institutions of the USSR were gone entirely, but in nearly every successor state its formerly Communist elite held on. Not only did they hold on, but they continued to coordinate and cooperate politically, going so far as to create numerous institutions that would unite their countries beyond their rule. Post-Sovietism was in full-swing, and so was Lukashenko’s post-Soviet state-building process.

The issue for Lukashenko is that not every leader shared his apparent enthusiasm for another Soviet Union just as the last one had ended. While a CIS summit in 2003 may have looked indistinguishable from a Politburo meeting in 1990, leaders across the space were quickly adjusting to new political realities. Both of those projects meant gradual distancing from the former Soviet center, even if personal ties remained. That gradual distancing only accelerated over the following decades as color revolutions toppled several post-Soviet leaders who were replaced with noticeably non-Soviet alternatives, and as Russia belatedly began its own nation-building mission.

Lukashenko meanwhile stuck to his guns—a post-Soviet man unprepared for the collapse of the post-Soviet world.

House of Cards

Part of the reason Lukashenko was swept to power with such overwhelming support was the economic crisis that gripped the country following the dissolution of the USSR. The nature of the centralized and planned economic system of the Soviet Union meant that its sudden collapse was hard on every former member state. Considering Belarus’ particularly deep integration, it was especially hard for them.

Wages, GDP, exports, imports. Every single aspect of the Belarusian economy was hit by an enormous negative shock that left the entire country—including the government—financially impoverished. But rather than decreasing the country’s dependence on the Soviet center—now known as the Russian Federation—Belarus became even more dependent on it.

By 1993, 97% of the country’s energy came from Russia, mostly in the form of natural gas, which the country spent a whole quarter of its GDP on. And when the country could not actually pay for its gas, it was simply forced to indebt itself to Russia while selling its own refined oil back at discount prices. The problem for Belarus was that Lukashenko came to power on a platform of explicit integration with Russia, not the other way around. By 2001, the proportion of energy which came from Russia had increased to 99.9%. This was Lukashenko’s alternative to reform.

On the one hand, he was using politics to extract favorable energy rents from Russia, and on the other, he was using those favorable rents to prop up a state-led economy at home.

This is and always has been Lukashenko’s basic and unchanging political game with Russia. The reason the Union State was never properly implemented was not because of Russia, but because of Lukashenko. He never once actually sought to implement a single arrangement with Russia once he had extracted his rents and subsidies.

The rents he has managed to extract thanks to his close relationship with Russia take many forms. The most glaring is the discount rates of natural gas; Belarus consistently pays far less for Russian gas than any other country, along with the hundreds of millions per year in transit fees of gas sold to the EU.

But the most lucrative way Lukashenko exploits his relationship with Russia is by acting as a middleman between Russia and the European Union. Traditionally, Belarus did this by buying Russian crude oil at discount rates without export duties and then refining it and selling it along. In 2004, that amounted to over a quarter of Belarusian exports. Since Russia’s relationship with the West soured because of the annexation of Crimea, Belarus has been doing the same with lots of other Russian products, too.

The tragic truth of Belarus’ post-Soviet economic miracle is the same as its Soviet one. In both cases, the entire economy was propped up by free or cheap energy from Russia, without which the state could not afford to subsidize its planned economy any longer.

This all raises the question: why does Russia allow Lukashenko to exploit their relationship for personal economic and political gain?

Fundamentally, the rationale is political. Lukashenko has generally been a reliable pro-Russian figure who has intentionally made his country a political and economic vassal of Russia while every other post-Soviet country did the exact opposite. The case of Kazakhstan is an important comparison, since it is another noticeably post-Soviet country where the Russian-speaking formerly communist elite has remained in power and built a regime closely allied with Russia.

But the Kazakh leadership has recognized the threat Russia poses to Kazakhstan’s sovereignty from its very inception. Despite their strong ties and the Russophone character of the Kazakh elites, they have not skirted Kazakh nation-building entirely. And also unlike Belarus, their multi-vector foreign policy is genuine and has earned the country strong relationships with Western, Russian, and Chinese leaders alike.

Lukashenko’s dependence on Russia both economic and political makes him easily pliable by the Russian leadership, evidenced by past spats over oil and gas where Russia has literally cut off access to energy for the entire country. Since those spats became an obvious threat to his regime, Lukashenko has attempted to diversify and reform the economy in many ways, but it appears to be too little too late.

Brave New World

In 2020, Lukashenko has faced the strongest threat to his regime in his 26-year long rule. Yet another rigged election and a ham-fisted crackdown led to the largest protests against his rule in Belarusian history.

Visibly shaken, he begged Russia to aid him, arguing that a threat to him was a threat to the entire post-Soviet world. But for weeks, Russia did not react. Undoubtedly in the Kremlin, the question was: why should they?

In the year before Belarus was drawn into the current crisis, Lukashenko had been resisting attempts by Russia to revive the dormant Union State treaty. When he signed it with Yeltsin in 1999, it was with the assumption that Lukashenko would be the one leading that Union State. But two decades later, it is obvious that the leader would be no one but Vladimir Putin, and Lukashenko reduced to nothing more than a disposable regional autocrat.

Based on this logic, he urgently moved to develop ties with the EU and the United States, even inviting the American Secretary of State to Belarus for the first time in 25 years. While the Kremlin may have been annoyed, it is hard to imagine they could not see exactly what he was doing, because Lukashenko has had only one consistent policy throughout his reign—exploiting his relationship with Russia.

It was an inopportune time for Lukashenko to strain his relationship with Moscow, and one which may cost him and his country dearly. Once again, it was too little too late.

Russia finally answered Lukashenko’s pleas for help, but help is coming on Moscow’s terms. Russia’s plans for Belarus are nothing secret. They are simply the fulfillment of a document enthusiastically signed by the government they consider legitimate decades ago. But there is no wider post-Soviet world for him to join anymore. There is only a powerful Russian nation-state which has shown no qualms about doing what it pleases in what it considers its own backyard.

This is especially true as Lithuania and Poland have stepped up their support for Belarus’ opposition, two countries which provide a model for success far removed from any Soviet or post-Soviet world—two countries that share as much history with Belarus as Russia does.

While the opposition went to great lengths to distance itself from anti-Russian nationalism and maintained a relatively non ideological character during the election campaign, it is obvious now that a realignment is taking place. With the Polish government giving Belarus’ opposition a new base of operations in Warsaw and Lithuania recognizing it as a government-in-exile, the opposition has taken a clear side in a brewing political conflict—not between America and Russia or Europe and Russia, but between Central and Eastern Europe. A Central Europe of Western-aligned nation-states and an Eastern Europe dominated by a confident Russian Federation preserving a proud Soviet legacy.

But unlike in Ukraine where that fissure runs through the country geographically, in Belarus there is no such distinction. There is only one Belarus, and its future will be decided as a whole.

If the result of the current crisis is that Belarus is gradually absorbed by Russia—something which appears increasingly likely—it would be nothing more than a historic condemnation of Lukashenko’s leadership. For all his maneuvering throughout the years, Lukashenko appears to have led his country nowhere. He neither built state institutions strong enough to guarantee his country’s sovereignty, nor advanced Belarusian nation-building in any meaningful way.

It is a strong and noticeable difference that when Russia questions Kazakh historical sovereignty the Kazakh president commissions a multi-million dollar TV extravaganza to teach the nation about their historical exploits, while Lukashenko refuses to even speak his nation’s language.

Some weeks or months ago, Belarus’ future may have been decided in Minsk, but now Moscow has become the deciding factor. Together, the two are reasserting control with brute force, and as it stands appear to be succeeding. While the opposition may have its own allies abroad and has the revolutionary anti-regime and anti-gerontocratic sentiments of the people on its side, the examples of the Prague Spring and Hungarian Revolution of 1956 do not inspire confidence.

At a time when Putin is focused on the final arc of his time in power, the Kremlin may be looking for a massive political win to re-energize its beleaguered populace. It now stands behind Lukashenko with the full military and political force of the Russian security apparatus.

Whether it is nationalism, national security, regime stability, personal interest, or popularity that motivate the Russian government, each motivation points in one direction alone: the long-belated realization of the Union State.

Luka Ivan Jukic is a graduate student at the UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. He has lived in and reported from many countries in Central and Eastern Europe.