Belarus and the Middle East: What They Share and How They Differ

The current plight of the long-standing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East is raising new questions about the fate of the regime in Belarus.

The wave of democratisation that had transformed most Eastern European countries left Belarus untouched, and the current wave of regime change is again bypassing the post-Soviet state. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues to enjoy a monopoly of power while the opposition parties remain too weak to challenge effectively his political dominance. The regime in Minsk resists the transition from one-party government to pluralistic democracy and from state-controlled economies to relatively open market economies that happened in many post-communist countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At first glance, the Lukashenka regime’s longevity appears to rely on the widespread popular support registered in a number of landslide victories. For over a decade the overwhelming majority of the population seem to be offering him support or at least tolerarance. For many observers, his political survival has to do with his skills as an adept politician, as a demagogue who uses ‘the language of the people and the methods he had learned as a low-level communist official’. The political story of the Middle East offers new insights into why Lukashenka was able to stay in power for so long.

It is the money from the oil resources that helped the governments in the Middle East to bribe and buy support. The oil rents led to the development of a business sector less competitive outside the oil industry and therefore more dependent on government subsidies and protection. As a result, the business class and and the civil society remain weak and vulnerable.

Lukashenka’s rule has followed a similar trajectory. The Belarusian leadership with Prime Minister Viachaslau Kebich at the helm closed the ‘window of opportunity’ for economic liberalisation in the very first years of independence, and this decision marked irreversibly Belarus’ economic and political path later on. The flawed application of the rule of law and a dependent judiciary allow the patronising use of the state as well as the discretionary and nepotistic treatment of business. Outside the large state sector, a considerable large number of private economic actors are too dependent on the government.

What the politics of the Middle East also reveals is that to allow the exploitation of minerals and oil resources, governments collect rents from foreign actors, which reduces their dependence on the domestic business activity. For Belarus, a similar source of income comes in the form of economic support from Russia, including Moscow’s energy subsidies and the preferential trade access to the Russian market.

The predominant cultural perceptions of Belarus – the ‘little Russia’ story and the memories of relative Soviet prosperity – offered Lukanshenka a fertile ground for embarking on economic and political centralisation while pursuing his ambitions of having a wider political role in his ill-fated vision of a union between Belarus and Russia.

The ongoing events in the Middle East suggest that whether ‘oil impedes democracy’ may depend on the capacity of the government to bribe key actors, including the country’s local elites. For instance, the Libyan experience shows that conflict can break up when one side takes the lion’s share for too long at the expense of another and when tribal association stands as a criterion for discrimination.

In Belarus, Lukashenka’s patronising regime has reached out to the majority of key actors and succesffuly prevented the opposition from finding its niche in the society. Support for the authoritarian regime remains the most significant precondition for getting privileged access to state funding, contracts and other privileges for both the established businessmen and the new entrants. This symbiosis perpetuates loyalty to and complacency with the regime.

Aris Trantidis, contributing writer.

Aris Trantidis is a PhD student at the London School of Economics. His article ‘The Economic Underpinnings of Semi-authoritarianism. Explaining Preferences and Power Relations in the Case of Belarus’ was chosen as one of the three best PhD paper contributions by the EU Consent Academic Network in 2008.

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