Fyodor Lukyanov, Russia’s premier political commentator and the chair of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, recently wrote an article titled, “Former [Soviet] Union Republics Enter New Development Phase. And Russia Is Touched by This Process, Too” (Global Affairs, June 13). In the piece, Lukyanov suggests that post-Soviet countries will soon be tested on their ability to develop their own socio-economic base. Not every one may survive this test. On the one hand, he argues, such wading into uncharted waters is predicated on the trend of economic egocentrism that leaves less hope for external donors. But on the other hand, recent groundbreaking events in Moldova, Kazakhstan and Russia indicate that the processes of drastic redistribution of property and geopolitical maneuvering in search of lasting external donors—both triggered by the breakup of the Soviet Union—are finally petering out. In the past couple weeks, the latter has assumed its most extreme forms in Moldova. There, an awkward alliance of pro-Russian or pro-American political factions—notably supported by Russia, the European Union and the United States—has successfully expelled oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who for years held a restraining hold on key institutions of the state (see EDM, June 10). This “pilot project of a Russia-West condominium over an in-between state” is unlikely to last; but it is remarkable in and of itself, and it may be a sign that Moldovans are no longer willing to live in a captured state.
To Lukyanov, Ukraine presents another key example of a state captured by oligarchs. Particularly since the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, Ukrainians’ have shown a pervasive desire to rid themselves of this oligarchic power, and that popular rejection of plutocracy in many ways culminated in this year’s presidential election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, Zelenskyy’s victory at the polls may, counterintuitively offer oligarchs—first and foremost Ihor Kolomoysky—a new opportunity to expand their influence further (see EDM, June 19). Meanwhile, the power transition in Kazakhstan, however smooth, also left a feeling of anxiety in part due to post-election protests (see EDM, May 16, June 12).
At the same time, in Russia, the arrest of journalist Ivan Golunov on patently fabricated charges raised an enormous outcry from the media and opposition, surprisingly resulting in the defeat of the siloviki, a corporate clique of military and law enforcement actors whose omnipotence began to worry not just ordinary people but oligarchs, too (see EDM, June 18). According to Lukyanov, their stranglehold on society is conditioned by Russia’s lasting geopolitical retreat, which gave rise to a “night watchman” mentality. This way of thinking is reactive and nips development impulses in the bud. Similarly questionable are the domestic development drivers in the states dominated by family-clan systems—that is, in Azerbaijan and four out of five Central Asian states.
Lukyanov observes that externally imposed development models work well only when the state is in the process of formally acceding to Western institutions, which was the case of the three Baltic States. But presently, Euro-Atlantic enlargement is largely closed to the rest of the post-Soviet space. Thus, talk of independently conceived developmental models is becoming topical (Global Affairs, June 13).
Interestingly, the only post-Soviet country not mentioned in Lukyanov’s carefully reasoned article is Belarus. It is hard to say if this is an oversight or whether Belarus is actually the only post-Soviet country that has been effective in independently developing its economy and state structures. Indeed, unlike Russia and Ukraine, Belarus does not have oligarchy; and unlike much of Central Asia and Azerbaijan, it is not dominated by family-clan structures. Unlike Armenia and Georgia, it avoided revolutions; and unlike its Baltic neighbors, it is not integrated into Western alliances or political-economic institutions. In fact, Belarus’s authoritarian modernization model (a term introduced by the Belarusian expert Yury Shevtsov) seems to be unique in the post-Soviet space. Specifically, it has fused elements of authoritarianism and development in such a way that the former does not supersede the latter—which, as Lukyanov posits, has been the case in much of the rest of the post-Soviet space. As a result, Belarus retained its late-Soviet industrial assets, only some of which are in bad shape or wholly dependent on Russia. Moreover, Belarus significantly advanced its agribusinesses, developed a vibrant IT sector, and reached the stage of 50 percent of GDP being produced by the private sector (Imf.org, November 28, 2018).
Indeed, Belarus defies clichés, and Lukyanov’s paradigm may not capture it either. Three recent pronouncements seem to underscore that supposition. According to Ute Kochlowski-Kadjaia, the managing director of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, Belarus is “the most-underrated economy in Europe” and is “entirely free from corruption” (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, June 13). Timothy Garton Ash, a liberal historian, opined that “Belarus is frozen in time only in the eyes of those who stopped by for half an hour” (Svaboda.org, June 11). “Moldova is a surprising country,” wrote Alexei Dzermant, a Minsk-based pro-government analyst. “In a situation of diarchy, Russia shows support for one side, whereas the representative of the other side [the then-ruling Democratic Party’s Andrian Candu] flew to Washington to solicit American support. This is all you need to know about the sovereignty of a country beset by oligarchs for 25 years. It is then understandable why [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka irritates people on all sides. This is because he is truly in charge” (Facebook.com/alaksiej.dziermant, 13 June).
In this particular case, however, being “truly in charge” implies notorious authoritarianism. Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by has published an historical account of how Lukashenka built his power vertical, monopolized major media outlets, cracked down on protests, and revived Belarus’s Soviet legacy. While the account is accurate, it is mostly devoid of context (a key to analysis) aside from one short passage: “Based on surveys, at the end of 1993, 55 percent of our citizens wanted the return of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The president felt there was a demand for at least a symbolic return to the past and satisfied it” (Tut.by, June 7). One could add to this that, prior to 2003, most Belarusians wanted unification with Russia, whereas today only a minuscule number do. As per Andrei Piontrovsky, a Russian dissident and a sworn enemy of Vladimir Putin, “Lukashenka will enter history textbook as the father of Belarusian statehood” (Gordon.ua, February 4, 2017). While some would militate against statements like that, history is no beauty pageant, and not all of its key personalities have been altogether likable.