Photo courtesy Adil Nurmakov
Europe / Belarus

Europe’s Last Dictator

From the archives: Mac Routh ’12 reflects on protests against Belarusian dictator Alyak­sandr Lukashenka in 2012.

“They are part of our people, though it’s sad that today we have such youth.” These are Belarusian President Alyak­sandr Lukashenka’s thoughts on his country’s youthful protestors.

The innovative protests in Minsk, where a simple clap of one’s hands is rewarded with being whisked away by plain-clothes officers, have been over­shadowed by the chaotic fury of the Arab spring. Despite the unusual nature of the Belarusian protests and the gov­ernment’s brutal crackdown, unsettled protestors have not received the same degree of international support as their counterparts in the Middle East. Al­though Russia has increasingly exerted its influence on the Belarusian economy, little other external interference has emerged. Thus, it appears that the young protestors will need to widen the ap­peal of their cause in order to affect real change in the country. Otherwise, they may fall subject to the influence of their gargantuan brother to the east.

But what exactly are the citizens of this landlocked, Eastern European coun­try protesting? Similar to the Americans occupying Wall Street, or the Egyptians that occupied Tahrir Square, Belaru­sians are demanding freedom and a more stable economy. Since 1994, political strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a former stalwart of the Soviet Union who still employs a police force known as the KGB, has ruled Belarus from the presi­dential pulpit. He directs the last Sovi­et-style command economy in Europe, which has long outlived its functionality, and currently subsists on foreign aid and substantial Russian subsidies. Belarus’s network of clientelism has only made matters worse; Lukashenka increased government wages by 50 percent in the months leading up to a presidential elec­tion last fall, causing state-owned firms to borrow frantically and incur consider­able debts. It is no surprise that the wage increases allowed him to maintain power, nor is it a coincidence that inflation grew to exceed 36 percent and the Belarusian rouble lost half of its value. Adding in­sult to injury, the once standard Russian energy subsidy has been reduced from 20 percent of Belarus’ GDP to a meager 7 percent. Thus Lukashenka can do no fin­ger pointing about a struggling economy that he controls, and recent approval rat­ings have slipped from 53 to 29 percent among average Belarusians, suggesting that he could be headed down with his ship.

As the economy has nosedived, many Belarusians have taken to the streets with a surprising degree of success, con­sidering the government’s intolerance of political opposition. Due to the remark­ably swift response of the seemingly om­nipresent KGB, traditional protests that involve shouting and picketing have been largely unsuccessful, so discontented Be­larusians are forced to be creative.

Social networking sites have become the forum of choice for protestors in countries around the world in China, Syria and Yemen. Belarus is no excep­tion; such sites are one of the few medi­ums that the state does not yet control. Though Lukashenka and his govern­ment speak grimly of Facebook, it is the Russian-language social networking site, “vkontakte,” that has been at the forefront of their criticism. Viachaslau Dziyanau, a 24-year-old dissident in ex­ile created a group on “vkontakte” called “Movement of the Future”, and has used it to mobilize Belarusian youth.

Hardly the first movement to use clapping as a way to convey discontent, Be­larusians have nonetheless turned out in respectable numbers, with around 1,000 people gathering near Oktyabrskaya Square, close to Lukashenka’s primary administrative building, in June. 

Six weeks into the movement, protes­tors traded claps for a cacophony of cell phone ring tones and alarms activated simultaneously, in order to make it more difficult for the police to identify the dis­senting culprits. It is not simply the at­tention received that protestors appreci­ate; they also revel in the opportunity to display the absurd paranoia of Lukash­enka’ s regime. Indeed, no story better exemplifies the frustration of Lukash­enka’ s government than that of 36-year­old Konstantin Kaplan who, based on the testimony of a police officer, was con­victed of participating in a clapping pro­test, despite having only one arm. 

Although the emergence of young, in­novative social leaders is promising, they have yet to effect serious change in Be­larus. As long as public sector employees and rural Belarusians continue to view the president as a guarantor of stability, ;)the protestors must continue to steadily grow their movement from within or be subject to the less-than-reliable assistance from neighboring countries.

It is no secret that international sup­port, whether it has been military, eco­nomic or rhetorical, has helped propel some Arab Spring protests into full­blown revolutions. So why have Arab youths received this support, while young Belarusians are left on their own? 

The most obvious reason is the more severe nature of the Arab crackdowns, but this alone does not explain the lack of support. Europe and the United States can play hardball with Lukashenka, but they must be careful not to tighten their grip too much. Both the United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials, such as visa bans and asset freezes, as well as pledged to abstain from any loans made by the International Monetary Fund. 

These sanctions will certainly hurt Lu­kashenka, but as Professor Laura Henry, an expert on Russian and European poli­tics at Bowdoin College, explains, there is not much more that the U.S. or EU can do. Belarus is a strategic gateway for the transportation of oil and gas between Russia and the rest of Europe, which de­spite Belarus’s status as a “stain on Eu­rope,” the EU would never risk interfering with. 

With little hope for significant as­sistance from the West, the only other choice is to look east, towards Russia and its ever-ambiguous motives. For much of his time in power, Lukashenka has been a toy of Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but Belarus is not a pup­pet state. Lukashenka is free to make his own decisions; he even defies Russia at times, but he ultimately knows that his powerful neighbor has the ability to ap­ply enough pressure to bring the country to its knees. This is precisely what Russia is currently doing by cutting subsidies, and even airing a scathing documentary about Lukashenka on Russian television. 

But let us not mistake Russia’s ac­tions as support for the protestors or the ouster of Lukashenka; the reason for the sanctions is threefold. Professor Henry asserts that Russia wants to keep Belarus firmly in its sphere of influence, and pre­pare it for entry into Putin’s brainchild: an economic trade zone called the Eur­asian Union. Furthermore, Russia has been salivating over the possibility of in­vesting in Belarus’ largest, state-run cor­porations, and it has the capacity to make Lukashenka sell. Finally, Putin recog­nizes that Lukashenka always serves as a useful foil, making Russia’s leaders seem more democratic and open. Despite the value that Lukashenka holds for Russian leaders, the often volatile relationship has the potential to topple Europe’s last remaining dictator. 

The clapping of hands and beep­ing of cell phones have been a welcome surprise for Western observers, but all they can really do is look on and admire. Although Belarus is situated amongst several EU member states, its European neighbors have their hands tied due to Russia’s overbearing presence and Belar­us’s strategic role in the oil and gas mar­kets; this leaves the hope of attaining economic and political freedom square­ly on the shoulders of the burgeoning youth opposition. 

Despite the fact that Russia’s unde­niable potential to break Lukashenka might appeal to some of Belarus’ more romantic youths, it is not necessarily the wisest course to hope for. If Russia were to bring down Lukashenka through an economic stranglehold, it is likely that the former Soviet republic would head in the opposite direction sought by the young protestors. The expansion of Rus­sian influence over Belarus would likely signal the end of democratic hopes, as Putin and his government would ensure that future governments would have lit­tle in common with the EU or the U.S. 

As the window for reform is quickly closing on Lukashenka, the time for Be­larusians to seize their future is now. The original protests during the summer of 2011 exposed faults of the current re­gime and mobilized thousands, but that is simply not enough. A rejuvenated ef­fort to bring rural and older Belarusians into the cause must begin now if Belaru­sians want to make certain that Lukash­enka truly is Europe’s last dictator.

Mac Routh ’12 is a Government and Legal Studies major and spent last fall studying European politics in Copenhagen.