Protests in Belarus Test Its Resilient Status Quo

A woman argues with Belarus police officers blocking a street during an opposition rally. Minsk, Belarus, March 25, 2017. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

In March, Belarus witnessed large-scale protests against a controversial “social parasite law” that targeted the unemployed. Dissatisfaction with the country’s oppressive regime and ongoing economic crisis is high. After more than two decades in power, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems to be testing the limits of the social contract with his people. Until now, promises to keep Belarus safe have pacified most of the population, particularly in light of the fate of nearby Ukraine. Yet the inability to embrace structural reform, and a dependence on Russian subsidies and loans for economic wellbeing, is likely to prove unsustainable in the long run.

The controversial Presidential Decree #3, levying high taxes on the unemployed, should have been introduced this year after being postponed several times. It was stalled when tens of thousands took to the streets, young and old, “parasites” and “non-parasites” alike. President Lukashenka deemed the protesters a “fifth column” paid by foreign powers. Events reached their climax on Freedom Day, March 25, when the government clamped down and arrested 700 protesters. State media further announced that police and KGB (the Belarusian intelligence service still bears its Soviet name) arrested organizers and seized weapons caches. The government claimed that weapons had been smuggled in from Lithuania and Poland, and that individuals had received training in Ukraine for an armed uprising—claims that were vehemently denied by the governments of these countries.

Belarus is no stranger to protests, as well as crackdowns. Lukashenka—who came to power in 1994, in the first and last free elections in Belarusian history—violently targeted demonstrators protesting the 2006 and 2010 presidential elections. Both polls recorded suspiciously high voter shares for the president of about 80% and received scathing criticism from observers including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In response, the European Union and United States issued travel bans and asset freezes on high-level Belarusian individuals. Controversially, most were lifted in 2016 when the government refrained from a heavy-handed reaction after the equally fraudulent 2015 presidential elections. This year, the Belarusian foreign minister met with Western ambassadors the day before the Freedom Day crackdown, apparently reassuring them of continued dialogue with the West.

Though the tens of thousands who turned out were significant in a population of 10 million, the recent mobilizations tended not to be broad-based. Since coming to power, Lukashenka has continually increased his presidential power, leading, in 2005, to then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously deeming Belarus “Europe’s last dictatorship.” As a result, political opposition and civil society are weak, and the press lacks independence. Lukashenka has also continued to uphold a Soviet-style welfare state with affordable education and healthcare. Belarus was the first post-Soviet state to achieve its pre-1991 level of wealth in 2005, and there is much less of an oligarchy in place than in Russia or Ukraine.

However, a cumbersome economy that remains up to 80% under state control and an overdependence on an ailing Russia mean that Belarus has suffered three recessions since 2008. Inflation rates are also high and have been poorly disguised by merely dropping four zeros off bills. As a result, Lukashenka has had to at least partially compromise the social contract.

Geopolitically, Belarus has been Russia’s closest ally since independence. It is formally in a “Union State” with Russia—an arrangement that is vague in nature but entails the freedom of migration between the two countries and a customs union. Military cooperation is close, such that Belarus has been considered an extension of Russia in NATO’s planning for its Eastern flank. That said, Belarus pursues a multi-vector foreign policy of dialogue with the West, emphasizes its independence, and offers its services as a mediator, most famously in the Ukrainian context, which concluded with the Minsk agreements. Yet Western-Belarusian relations remain strained. Belarus’s ramshackle economy continues to vitally depend on Russian subsidies and loans, mostly in the form of cheap gas and oil. Refining and re-exporting of Russian crude oil provides for much of the state’s hard currency. Belarus relies on other lenders as well, namely China and the International Monetary Fund, though it usually fails to meet conditions of structural reform of the latter.

Equally important in understanding the recent Belarusian protest dynamics and why Lukashenka has challenged the social contract is to look at the situation in Ukraine. Lukashenka’s new emphasis, both toward his people and abroad, is on stability and security, such that the government now relies on a “security contract” according to one scholar. Belarus is free from terrorist attacks and armed domestic upheavals. A continuation of Lukashenka’s balancing act between close ties to Russia, dialogue with the West, and oppression of domestic opposition supposedly maintains stability and prevents Russian involvement. Lukashenka even refrained from endorsing Moscow’s actions in Ukraine or Georgia.

The Belarusian people appear willing to accept a stable level of modest wealth and domestic calm if it means avoiding any internal or external security threats. This includes some infringements on personal liberties, as I witnessed with the searching of bags and filming of crowds by security forces during an innocent classical music concert in a Minsk park recently; these activities seemed both commonplace and widely accepted. In the wake of the March protests, Lukashenka traveled to St. Petersburg to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and agreed to new unified positions on most of the outstanding issues that had caused recent tensions between their countries. Crucially, Russia agreed to continue providing Belarus with cheap gas and crude oil.

Yet the system in place in Belarus may ultimately prove unsustainable in the long term. The gap between the need for economic and social reforms and the reluctance of the government to loosen its grip is widening, as evidenced by the recent protests. Staying afloat through loans and subsidies from abroad is likely to prove untenable if Russia continues to experience economic difficulties. If Lukashenka does not manage to allow the changes and increased freedom to ensure Belarus’s future prosperity, his regime may not survive the protests sure to follow the country’s next rigged elections.

Benno Zogg is Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, where he focuses on the post-Soviet space as well as development and security in fragile states. @BennoZogg