July 20, 2019, marks the 25th anniversary of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule. Unlike most post-Soviet national leaders, he had no background in the Soviet nomenklatura, rising to the helm of power from a state farm director and defeating the acting–prime minister, Viachaslau Kebich, a perceived shoo-in at the time. Most Belarus watchers considered the 1994 presidential elections free and fair—unlike all subsequent races. That said, based on opinion surveys conducted by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), Lukashenka most probably genuinely won reelection in 2001, 2006, 2010 and 2015—albeit with a more modest edge over his rivals than what was reported officially (Naviny.by, January 11, 2011; Tut.by, December 29, 2015). The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2020. The quarter-century anniversary provided both Lukashenka-friendly media outlets and those critical of him with ample opportunity to scrutinize his legacy.
Participants of a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the official daily Belarus Segodnya, credited President Lukashenka with such achievements as development of statehood, retention and development of domestic manufacturing, significant growth in Belarusians’ quality of life, and a sense of security within the country that was also projected into its geopolitical environs, where Belarus, with its peace-making initiatives, became a “donor of stability.” Specifically, the historian Igor Marzalyuk, who chairs the Belarusian parliamentary committee on education, culture, and science, argued that Lukashenka met public demand for strong personalized power, which arose from confusion and post-Soviet economic collapse and from the deep-rooted traditions of Eastern Slavs. Marzalyuk also suggested that, by fusing elements of capitalism and socialism, Belarus’s socioeconomic model matches the convergence theory as advocated by former German chancellor Ludwig Erhardt and, later, by Soviet scientists and dissident Andrei Sakharov (Belarus Segodnya, July 6). Indeed, Lukashenka’s strong rhetorical emphasis on retaining Belarus’s sovereignty originally dates back to 1997. At that point, then–Russian deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais thwarted the formation of the Supreme Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, which would have permitted the Belarusian leader the opportunity to head this supranational institution. And beginning in 2014—in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukrainian Donbas—safeguarding Belarusian independence has become another of the main refrains of Lukashenka’s speeches.
Among critics of Lukashenka’s leadership, one can distinguish more and less restrained condemnation. As one of the former, Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty reviewed the 1997–2016 dynamics of Lukashenka’s electoral rating, based on IISEPS’ surveys. These have fluctuated within a 29–55 percent range and closely correlated with the performance of Belarusian economy (Svaboda.org, July 10). In turn, Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by interviewed Oleg Manaev, the founder and head of the IISEPS, and shared his conclusion that, over the course of Lukashenka’s entire tenure, he morphed from a Robin Hood–like defender of the downtrodden into a Sheriff of Nottingham: that is, members of the military, the security apparatus, and all levels of the state bureaucracy, overall numbering about one million people, are now key to Lukashenka’s support (Tut.by, June 23).
As usual, particularly sharp criticism of Lukashenka’s legacy originated from Valer Karbalevich, the author of a 2010 biography of the Belarusian president. Karbalevich believes that, in 1996, Lukashenka organized a constitutional coup by disbanding the “rebellious” Supreme Soviet and forming a new, sycophantic parliament. Karbalevich’s criticism, however, is somewhat compromised by his own admission that “the opponents of the president were strongly demoralized by the popular support of the president,” which is what made the coup possible in the first place (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, July 7). Karbalevich’s other criticisms concern the Belarusian socioeconomic model that allegedly preserves a planned economy. He also lays blame on Lukashenka for the still “undeveloped Belarusian ethno-cultural identity” (Svaboda.org, July 10). Even more excessive criticism originated with the likes of Belarusian journalist Vitaly Tsyhaknou, who asserted that “the only thing that kept Lukashenka from transforming Belarus into a concentration camp was the international reaction” to events in the country (Svaboda.org, July 13).
Lukashenka’s exceptional longevity at the helm of power along with the serious democratic shortcomings of the electoral process and violations of human rights during his rule certainly may represent real vulnerabilities to the continuation of his regime. Nonetheless, some other criticisms leveled at Lukashenka by his harshest domestic critics suffer from apparent logical fallacies. For example, is weak Belarusian identity indeed the effect or the cause of Lukashenka’s rule? To Karbalevich, it is the former, which seems dubious in the extreme. Neglected by Lukashenka’s detractors is the fact that, while becoming one of the more economically advanced Soviet republics by the end of the Soviet Union’s life span, Belarus was among the least prepared for statehood. Belarusian ethnic nationalism was, yes, in an embryonic phase, and the majority of Belarusians embraced the neo-Soviet/Russo-centric version of collective memory. The overwhelming majority of urbanites spoke Russian, the language of a nominally different ethnic group, and resisted Belarusianization. What is more, a sizable, if not critical, mass of the population opted for unification with Russia in exchange for easing economic problems. Belarus had no real democratic tradition to fall back on, and the public demand for strong personalized power was indeed overwhelming. Largely as a result of steady economic growth from 1996 to 2014, the number of Belarusians willing to join Russia declined; but even in 2015, almost 30 percent opted for union with their large eastern neighbor, according to an IISEPS national survey (Tut.by, December 29, 2015).
The neorealist author Robert Kaplan once wrote, “[O]ur belief in democracy regardless of local conditions amounts to cultural hubris” (Atlantic, December 1997). As such, it is possible that, under the conditions just outlined, Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule has been the reason Belarus’s statehood has been retained at all and even strengthened, which is what this leader’s single most important contribution really is. True, in personalized authoritarian systems, transfer of power presents a problem because they are set up to conform to the idiosyncrasies of one person and also because, under such regimes, there is only one fully fledged politician in the entire society—as Lukashenka himself recognized in one of his speeches last year (Naviny.by, August 27, 2018). But that is why the transfer of power in Belarus—which will occur sooner or later—will be the true touchstone of Lukashenka’s legacy. Even so, there is hardly any doubt that “Lukashenka is the father of Belarusian independence” (Gordon.ua, February 2, 2017), as Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian opposition commentator strongly opposed to the Vladimir Putin regime, has repeatedly argued.