Belarus Situation Shows The Downside Of Continuing A USSR Mentality Of Over-Stability, Autocratic Rule And Lack Of Progression

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

The situation that arisen in Belarus is a last wrinkle in the collapse of the Soviet Union that is now playing out. With incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko in power for the past 26 years, the recent elections – which gave him an implausible 80% of the vote, has subsequently resulted in mass protests and rallies across the country the past week.

Lukashenko though is not without his supporters – much of the older populace of Belarus voted for him on the basis of stability and especially promising to maintain pensions. Belarus has a aging population with 28% aged over 55, and messing about with change through what has been seen as an unexciting yet stable period treats upsetting the apple cart with some dismay. I can talk with experience concerning Belarus – I have family members in the country with property investments there. It is a regular stop over during normal times to visit family and friends.

Meanwhile, in a country that has a 1,250km border with the European Union (Latvia, Lithuania and Poland) some of the EU freedoms and access to easy money and travel have made the younger generation wish for a faster pace of reform. Hence the disparity among Belorussians themselves – and I should know, with Belorussian relatives in Minsk and beyond. Lukashenko however has reached the end of his era in the country – far too conservative and with little mood for change. A man who was a hero and developed stability for the country has ultimately proven too conservative.

There are problems however as a legacy of this style of autocratic rule – which is itself understandable in the wake of national tragedies inflicted upon the nation during World War Two and the collapse of the Soviet Union. A whopping 25% of all Belorussians died during WWII and the country, long an Imperial and Soviet breadbasket, was destroyed. The collapse of the USSR meant pensions and the currency essentially became worthless overnight. Those older Belorussians wish for stability. Lukashenko has delivered this to the point of eradicating any political opposition. That has been tolerated – but only up to the point where protests against the election results produced a regime that was prepared to maim, imprison and allegedly murder its own citizens. For peace-loving Belorussians, that was a step too far, and hence the outcry.

At present it is hard to see where this will lead. There is no opposition party to speak of, and Belorussians are both fearful of a German-backed European Union while at the same time wishing for the benefits. Any deal that involves NATO is also anathema. Russia meanwhile also views Belarus as problematic. It has eyes on the agriculture, as Belarus is productive once again, but already has access to this commodity via Belorussian membership of the Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow also knows that if troops step in the United States will probably respond – and conflict could easily and quickly turn nasty. Locally, strikes have broken out, and there have been mass rallies. Lukashenko’s response has been to fly via helicopter to meet with Factory managers and warn them that if strikes continue, their businesses will go bankrupt and everyone will lose their jobs. It’s a one armed threat with no alternative perspectives, and in its simplicity illustrates the narrow thought processes of Lukashenko’s applicable solutions. Today, while relaying this message at the state-owned MZKT military vehicles factory, he was heckled by employees who yelled “resign” and “liar” at him, indicative of dwindling support among his own SOEs and potentially the Belarus military.

Images from Minsk yesterday. Banners read “We are peaceful, you are not. Leave”; “We would like peaceful change”; “History will come back to haunt you”

A more plausible situation is that Lukashenko will leave power – it is almost certain that competing factions within his own Belaya Rus political party will be fighting over the ‘should he stay or should he go’ question. It depends however how much Lukashenko is prepared to fight his own people. Should he go, then the question becomes who among the politicians within parliament will replace him. There will be a clamor among Belorussian politicians all promising change, and there are some well meaning members of Parliament within the State National Assembly. Whether Belarus will end up with the old Roger Daltry cry of Meet the new boss. Same as the old bossor whether change is really on the cards is a matter for future history.

Lukashenko’s conversations with Vladimir Putin are also unlikely to have gone down well. Stating that ‘Russia could be next’ is both foolish as it could be perceived as a threat, as well as being unrealistic as Russia’s Government, internal security and military are far more aligned together than in Belarus. There is unlikely to be any military interference in Belarus despite Lukashenko probably requesting it, while another Russian revolution is highly unlikely. President Putin will be far more amenable to having to deal with whatever change manifests itself. Both Russia and the EU would prefer to maintain a status quo in Belorussia without the need for intervention.

China’s position – for Belarus is part of the Belt & Road Initiative, with the Great Stone Free Trade Zone set on manufacturing Chinese brands for export to the EU and Eurasian Economic Union – has been business as usual – it has just signed an agreement for Belorussian agriculture supplies and investment, despite the political protests.

The Belorussian question and the potential change in Government is largely in the hands of the Belorussian people, and this is fair. Whether the resulting change means the same old same old is probably not an option. But change will inevitably be slow in any event – with an elderly population to protect, no desire for violence, yet a mindset attuned to some way forward from being a vassal state to Moscow, a third class neighbor to Lithuania, and some sort of softening of EU attitudes towards ex-Soviet states.

At present, the losing candidate in the elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya stated today (Auust 17) that she was ready to become a national leader. She demanded to release “all political prisoners” in the republic as well as “to prepare as soon as possible the legal framework and the conditions to organize new presidential elections, real, honest, and transparent elections which will be unreservedly recognized by the global community.” As a stop gap she appears to be a credible candidate. However it is who assumes power after any newly held elections that will be the real test for greater political autonomy for the Belorussian people.

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