As the political crisis in Belarus smolders on, one thing is clear: Responsibility for the breakdown rests entirely with President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held on to power since 1994. It was he who presided over the evident falsification of the August 9 election, condemned as fraudulent by the West and which even Russia’s foreign minister called “not ideal.” Lukashenko also ultimately commands the security services that have brutalized thousands of peaceful demonstrators over the past fortnight. But recognition of these facts, and of Lukashenko’s record of authoritarianism and cruelty, should not mask concerns about the potentially disastrous consequences of any poorly managed regime change.
The inspiring scenes of people power in Minsk vividly recall the pro-democracy rallies that foiled an attempted coup by Soviet hard-liners to depose then–Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exactly 29 years ago, in August 1991. Yet neither those demonstrations nor any other major mass uprisings since have resulted in the creation of stable, democratic governments in the former Soviet Union.
With the exception of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which never fully accepted that they were part of the Soviet Union, the chaotic fall of the USSR created a dozen more or less dysfunctional states. Three decades on, none has been able to liberate itself of corruption, authoritarianism, or Russian meddling. Sizable numbers of citizens of all these countries—a third of Ukrainians, more than half of Belarusians, nearly 70 percent of Russians, and up to 80 percent of Armenians, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll—have come to lament the passing of the old order, the benefits of which became fully apparent only with hindsight amid social and economic upheaval.
Like their Soviet forebears, Belarusians have a lot more to lose from a poorly managed transition than it may at first appear. Lukashenko’s pathological phobia of reform helped create the current impasse. But it also spared Belarus the economic shock therapy and mass privatization that saw Soviet industrial assets taken over by political insiders and organized criminals in neighboring Russia and Ukraine. Today, Belarus has a lower unemployment rate than the eurozone average and remains one of the least unequal societies in the world.
For all the palpable sense of stagnation, since 1995 Belarusians have seen a threefold rise in their per capita GDP. While the country’s GDP remains much lower than that of Poland or the Baltics—established EU members that even at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union had much more developed economies—it remains double that of nearby former Soviet republics Ukraine and Moldova. During the past quarter-century, Belarus also recorded a 24 percent increase in the Human Development Index, the measure of long-term progress in longevity, access to education, and living standards compiled by the United Nations Development Programme. This is a significantly bigger improvement than in neighboring Poland (18 percent), Russia (17 percent), or Ukraine (11 percent).
And while it has long been the butt of jokes for its old-school reliance on potash mining and heavy industry, Belarus’s economy has produced some unexpected success stories. Aside from tractors and heavy-duty vehicles used in mining, the country has also developed a significant regional expertise in IT through Hi-Tech Park, a low-tax business incubator founded by Valery Tsepkalo, a former diplomat who later became one of the leaders of the opposition and was forced to flee Belarus earlier this month. His wife, Veronika, is one of three women—including presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova, the campaign manager of Viktor Babariko, a former banker who was barred from running—who have helmed the opposition movement.
Nor does Belarus share the rampant corruption that plagues other post-Soviet states. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures self-reported incidents of bribery and other corruption, Belarus ranks better than not only Russia and Ukraine but also EU members Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania.
These statistics do not exonerate Lukashenko’s rule, which through its contempt for democracy has earned the resentment of the thousands of people now risking violence to gather across the country. Rather, they demonstrate the hard-won gains that any democratic successor must defend even as they attempt to pass necessary reforms. Voters must be told clearly how a legitimately elected government would protect Belarus’s highly regulated economy from the mass layoffs, asset stripping, and crony privatizations that plagued the so-called democratic transitions of its neighbors.
So far, none of the opposition leaders have demonstrated a vocal commitment to preserving Belarus’s key asset: its social and economic equality. Worryingly, two key opposition leaders, Tsepkalo and Viktor Babariko, a career banker, are known for their staunchly pro-business views and vocal support for privatization.
On August 14, presidential candidate Tikhanovskaya announced the formation of the Coordination Council, a group tasked with transferring power away from Lukashenko and forming a transitional government. Of its 33 initially announced members, six were IT business leaders from a sector that accounted for just 5.5 percent of GDP in 2018. Only one, Sergey Dylevsky, a worker at the Minsk Tractor Works, is a voice for the blue-collar workers that form the backbone of the country’s economy. In recent days, the council has moved to rebalance, appointing Gleb Sandras from the Belaruskali Potash Plant and creating seven additional posts to be filled by worker representatives from the major industrial companies.
For the Princeton anthropologist and professor Serguei Oushakine, an expert on post-communist transitions who is writing a book about Belarus, the vocal influence on the protests of the younger, more outward-looking tech sector can obscure the fact that “the current system of state capitalism continues to maintain a relatively broad base of support.” The country’s IT workers “live in a kind of economic bubble,” he told me. The sector is foreign-oriented and contributes little to the country’s tax base, which remains sustained by heavy-machine building and potash mining. And for the bulk of the country’s labor market, any economic changes may bring serious risks. “Deindustrialisation has been a feature of most political transitions in Eastern Europe,” said Oushakine. “Those who are striking, what will they do later once their factories close? Yet this fear has not prevented them from standing up for their personal dignity.”
A flyer found at the Minsk Automobile Plant by a journalist from Russia’s leading independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reads: “Dear fellow citizens, friends! Do not be afraid to lose your jobs, your country needs you. Do you want to live with dignity? Then come out into the streets.” For now, most of the citizens of Belarus appear to have put aside material considerations in favor of moral ones. “People are just tired of the lies, the propaganda, the lack of hope,” veteran opposition activist and former presidential candidate Alec Lahviniec told me. But how long before bread and butter issues come to the fore?
To date, there are no signs that the opposition movement has arrived at any broad political or economic program. Its current aims remain focused and immediate: an end to state violence, the release of all political prisoners, and fresh elections in accordance with international standards. That was the extent of the three demands issued on August 19 by the Coordination Council. Its official statement also reiterated the constitutionality of the protests, referring to existing articles that protect free expression and guarantee the right to strike and to peacefully protest.
One of the most famous members of the Coordination Council is the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Long persecuted by Lukashenko’s government, she spent a decade in exile before returning to Belarus in 2011. She urged Lukashenko to “leave before it’s too late” in a recent interview with Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe. Yet Alexievich’s magnum opus, Second Hand Time, an oral history of the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, is a testament to the trauma and disillusionment of hasty transitions. Over and over, her interview subjects speak of how their idealistic yearning for change was dashed by the realities of corrupt politics and untrammeled capitalism. “We thought that any minute now…there were buses idling outside waiting to take us away to democracy,” one person tells Alexievich in the book. As another recounts, when people went out into the streets in 1991, it was “to die for freedom, not capitalism,” adding, “I consider myself a person who’s been deceived.”
Time is running out for the opposition to stake out a concrete manifesto of its intentions regarding economic reforms, including privatization, and other controversial positions such as relations with NATO and Moscow. Until this happens, the replacement of Lukashenko’s stolid authoritarianism with yet another incarnation of a post-Soviet kleptocracy remains an all-too-real threat. As Alexievich’s writing has shown, post-Soviet history has rarely sided with the optimists. But by maintaining their vigilance and solidarity, Belarusians may finally open a promising new chapter.