Belarus and Lukashenko: A Beacon of Hope for Europe, and Popularity Explained
Post-Soviet Belarus has been referred to as both an “outpost of tyranny” and the “Last dictatorship in Europe“. These external criticisms do not appear to be shared by many inside Belarus though. In fact it was by two popular referendums in 1995 and 1996 which allowed for President Lukashenko to centralise power around his office. Later elections have been the source of controversy in Western media circles. Regardless of this, not even his opponents deny his popularity (White, Korostelva & Lowenhardt 2004: p60). For this reason Belarus’ post-Soviet transition provides a worthy case for explaining the popularity of what is deemed authoritarian government. There are two basic reasons for this popularity: continued economic success and progressive social policies.
This path to “popular-authoritarianism”, so unique in comparison to the liberal democratic path embarked upon by the other states from the west of the former Soviet Union, must firstly be understood in terms of it’s own experience of Soviet life. Starting with the Great Patriotic War, Belarus lost one third of it’s population (Matsuzato 2004: p242) and suffered the greatest per capita financial losses of the war (Ioffe 2004: p86). The Belarusian’s gave more than any other people to defeat Hitler’s fascism and defend Soviet socialism. From this point on though, Belarus would have one of the most positive experiences of any Soviet Republic. It became known as the ‘assembly factory’ of the USSR (Matsuzato 2004: p242) and industrial output flourished. It was under the collective Soviet system that Belarus experienced its first significant economic development (Ioffe 2004: p108).
Furthermore, as the Soviet economic growth slowed down in the 1970’s and 80’s, other republics had unpopular leaders. Belarus however, was led by the popular hero of the Great Patriotic War, Pyotr Masharov. For this reason, the masses of the Belarusian people were not ready for the top-down destruction of the USSR that was to come (Marples 2005: p901). This view is reflected by a 1997 poll which revealed the people‘s top two choices when asked who would be best to lead post-Soviet crisis states: Josef Stalin and Yuri Andropov (Eke & Kuzio 2000:p536).
Belarus also has an ageing population as a result of the success of the Soviet health system. As much as 78% of the elderly are supporters of the President (Ioffe 2004: p98). Given the high levels of Soviet nostalgia, this may be understood in light of Lukashenko resurrecting Soviet symbols and culture. More important though is his collectivist economic policies which ensure a high standard of living.
The interim period between the Soviet and Lukashenko era’s in Belarus largely avoided the excessive and disastrous capitalism from which most post-Soviet states suffered. Moreover, which privatization did occur was not perceived as a “giveaway” (Buck, Filatotchev & Zhukov 2000: p287).
There was a lack of small scale privatisation, thereby preventing the emergence of a petty-Bourgeoisie (Savchecnko 2002: p249), the socio-economic group who would be most invested in building a free market liberal democracy.
While the economy did contract during the interim years, under Lukashenko, near consistent grown has been achieved. Between 2002-08, Belarus enjoyed an economic boom, averaging 9% growth and achieving 10.2% in 2008 (World Bank 2010). Even external critics do not deny the achievement. It is recognised that despite continuing with the policy of job protectionism, price controls and collective ownership, which combined with growth have allowed for a massive reduction in poverty (World Bank 2003).
Although occasionally fractured, relations with Russia have been generally good, thereby allowing for mutually beneficial bilateral agreements.. One such example has been Lukashenko’s ability to strike deals for cheap Russian oil in exchange for Russian military bases in Belarus (Ioffe 2004: p91). The bases give Russia an eye into the west, as well as make western powers think twice about intervention in Belarus. Economically, the usefulness of discounted oil to a productive economy is obvious.
This economic competence has allowed Lukashenko to boast of a lack of public debt, quite unlike the vast majority of former Soviet states (Matsuzato 2004: p240). Further relative success can be found by even before the boom period, Belarus ranking 10th of 28 post-communist states in terms of real GDP (Katchanovski 2000: p58). This was achieved without the social upheaval experienced in these other states. Perhaps more importantly, the distribution of wealth is by far the most equitable.
Economic strength has given Lukashenko legitimacy and allowed progressive social policies, which given the collectivist Belarusian psyche, in turn enhances legitimacy. In practice this means Belarus spends more as a percentage of GDP on health than the 3 Europeanized Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Lativia (World Health Organization 2008).
Further comparative analysis reveals Belarus to have a life expectancy 3 years higher than the CIS average (World Health Organization/Europe 2009). In terms of Human Development Belarus ranks 16th in the world in terms of poverty and 5th in literacy (Human Development Reporty 2009). These successes must be attributed to both the legacy of the Soviet Union and the rule of Lukashenko. With Belarus being an apparent “major Soviet success story" (Ioffe 2004: p110) and Lukashenko continuing the social policy of the USSR means it should come as no surprise that there is far from large scale unrest (Eke & Kuzio 2000: p524)
At the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis, “experts” have predicted that the big tests for Lukashenko’s government lie ahead. It is true that the Belarusian economy began to stumble to a degree since the crisis. In 2009 the lengthy period of growth came to an end with a recorded a o.2% decrease, which combined with less favourable terms on Russian oil should see a rising budget deficit (CIA Factbook 2010).
The crisis has forced an increase in government borrowing from the IMF, which may act as a catalyst for modest economic liberalization (World Bank 2010). This could potentially unleash a cycle whereby the economy continues to shrink, just as privatization caused in other socialist republics, which in turn creates further spending cuts. Thus, the government loses popularity and legitimacy.
However, despite Washington’s hopes this scenario is yet to unfold. Belarus has rode the wave of the crisis and seems to be rebounding. Lukashenko won a landslide election victory in 2010 and in 2012 a pro-Lukashenko parliament was returned. In the case of the latter the opposition, resigned to their inevitable crushing defeat withdrew from the electoral process. Academics at the University of Glasgow, every year perform surveys in the post-Soviet republics, and every year Belarus is voted as having the happiest population, yet it is the one state which shuns capitalism.
The importance of the question of Belarus is one which may be lost on the left right now. But it is a question that must be understood. Vilified by the West, Belarus stands for all the European left aspires to, yet the European left is yet to identify with the struggle. If Lukashenko continues to push Belarus on a socialist path, free from debt, independent from Washington and Brussels, it will prove that liberal democracy is not “the only game in town” and we have not reached “the end of history”.
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