It is worth noting that, in recent months, two segments of the Belarusian analytical community—zealously Russia-oriented commentators on the one hand, and the radical Westernizing opposition on the other—have conspicuously not published anything of substance. The leading wordsmiths from the former group are in jail (see EDM, January 18), and the latter authors have come under increasing pressure as well. For instance, in early June, the electricity was cut off at the headquarters of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, due to outstanding utility bills (Naviny.by, June 7). Earlier, Charter97, a website fervently opposed to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime, complained it was no longer welcome at its rented Warsaw premises, allegedly due to machinations by the Belarusian KGB (Charter97, May 3). A more likely reason for these and similar troubles, however, has been a drastic decline in Western grants. In contrast, in this same period, two seminal publications appeared—one reflecting opinions typical of the country’s government-friendly analytic community and the other of its more moderate opposition-minded commentators. These notably share a levelheaded look at Belarus.
Specifically, Piotr Petrovsky, the editor of the government-friendly online analytic portal EurasiaExpert, opined on the Belarusian development strategy until 2025 (Russiacouncil.ru, June 7). Petrovsky sees China and Russia as Belarus’s principal foreign investors, with the Russian-designed nuclear power plant and the Chinese-Belarusian industrial park as two trail-blazing projects. The former will be operational by 2020 with a capacity of 2,400 megawatts. The two stages of the Industrial Park will be completed by 2020 as well; innovative products pertaining to the fifth and sixth industrial cycles, especially in biomedical, electronic, and machine-building areas as well as in new materials, will be manufactured there. Yet, the release of labor as a result of modernization, and the resumption of population decline—when those born during the fertility nadir around 2005 will come of age—are developmental risks for the country, Petrovsky notes. An inter-generational mismatch, whereby the young are less appreciative of Eurasian integration than their parents, also spells trouble, he argues. As does inadequate attention being given to civil domestic society, which is only being cultivated by Western sponsors. Petrovsky repeats Minsk’s official standpoint that the pace of creation of the common energy market in the Eurasian Union is out of step with the demands of Belarusian society. Also, in its quest for import substitution, Russia is developing industries that match the profile of existing Belarusian factories, thus undermining Belarusian exports. Finally, the recent shrinkage of the Belarusian welfare state, most visible in the raising of the retirement age and in the currently suspended law on social parasites, has most adversely impacted small and medium towns of eastern Belarus, the home to Lukashenka’s most loyal electorate.
In his more extensive piece, Artyom Shraibman, a star of independent Belarusian journalism, focuses on domestic political power and its prospects (Carnegie.ru, May 31). According to Shraibman, the Lukashenka regime is a success story in the universe of autocrats. In a resource-poor country, he created one of the most consolidated and adaptable authoritarian regimes in the world. “The charisma of Belarus’s first president, [as well as] the style and legitimacy of his rule were and to a large extent remain folksy [narodny].” In that, Shraibman echoes the late Vitaly Silitski, who, in 2010, wrote that “the Lukashenka regime built the outlook and political culture of the average Belarusian into its own foundation” (Grigory Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka: Belarus in Cultural and Geopolitical Context, 2014, p. 54). Shraibman does not believe any of Lukashenka’s sons will inherit power in Belarus. “Belarus is no Central Asia; there are no monarchic traditions of succession. The fact of belonging to the family does not add legitimacy either in people’s or elite’s eyes.”
Shraibman notes that in Belarus there is only an organized pro-European opposition but no pro-Russian one. The monopoly for pro-Russianness is in the hands of Lukashenka himself—an antidote to Russia’s putative attempts at regime change in Belarus. He asserts that ordinary Belarusians treat political power much like the weather—one does not participate in a public protest against, say, a snowfall. Shraibman recognizes that the project of a nation state, promoted by nationalists and liberals in the early 1990s, was not only alien to Lukashenka, it was alien to much of Belarusian society.
Despite stability at the helm of power for 23 years, there is no personality cult in Belarus, either in the traditional Soviet or modern Central Asian sense, Shraibman says. There are no streets named after Lukashenka, no monuments to him. Even during elections, there are no billboards put up with his face on them. Lukashenka’s cultivated image is not that of a demigod; rather it is one of a reliable manager who showed the way out of the chaos of the 1990s. Because of this, the scenario of a dynastic succession in Belarus is “less probable than it may seem to a bystander” (Carnegie.ru, May 31).
The fact that Belarusians lean closer toward Russia than to Europe, according to Shraibman, is not only rooted in cultural proximity but also in popular recognition of their country’s economic dependency on Russia. Whereas, no coherent counter-proposal has ever emanated from Europe. Recently, quite a few young technocrats with pro-market views joined the Belarusian government. They and the foreign ministry folks are the most pro-European and economically liberal segments of the Belarusian nomenklatura. These people are no rabble-rousers—they are trying to reform the power system from within.
Shraibman posits that there are two possible scenarios of transfer of power in Belarus: If it occurs unexpectedly, it will be chaotic, and the new leader will be the person who secured support from Moscow. The second scenario is that of gradual erosion of the power system under the influence of a growing private sector. By no means will the situation in Belarus resemble that of Ukraine. The ruling elite does not suffer from major splits and Belarus is homogenous, with no domestic equivalents of a Galicia or a Crimea. “One cannot rule out,” writes Shraibman “that our descendants will see the current phase of Belarusian history (maintaining a willy-nilly union with Russia while building up sovereignty) as one of the few realistic options for securing independence. [It is the only workable] option for a young country with a weak national identity [and] a Soviet-rooted economy and mentality of the vast majority of the population and the elite.” It will take years or decades for the social preconditions of Belarusian authoritarianism to be fully erased, he concludes.