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Andrew Wilson on His Belarus Book and Lukashenka’s Survival

Last month Yale University Press published Andrew Wilson's book "Belarus - The Last European Dictatorship". The book covers Belarusian history from Polatsk Principality to the present day Belarus and offers particularly interesting insights into Lukashenka's rise to power and the system...


Last month Yale University Press published Andrew Wilson's book "Belarus – The Last European Dictatorship". The book covers Belarusian history from Polatsk Principality to the present day Belarus and offers particularly interesting insights into Lukashenka's rise to power and the system which managed to help him survive for such a long time. 

Belarus Digest interviewed the author of the book – Andrew Wilson who is an academic at the University College London. The interview first touched upon the history of Belarus and then on its current political and economic system. It also highlighted interesting parallels between the Soviet leaders of Belarus and Lukashenka who were both successful in extracting economic rents from Moscow and surpressing political freedoms and the Belarusian national movement at home. 

BD: Why do you use the words like "Litva" rather than Lithuania and Vilna instead of Vilnius? 

Litva is the right historical name. The modern name Lietuva is ethnographic Lithuania. But Litva was a multiethnic project, which included Belarusians, Lithuanians, Jews and other groups. 

Norman Davies’s latest book ‘Vanished Kingdoms’ on how states disappear also has a chapter on Litva. Many famous personalities called themselves Litvins even after the Grand Duchy of Litva ceased to exist. For instance Adam Mickiewicz and Marc Chagal had Litva loyalty.

As far as the name Vilnya, Vilnius, Vilno is concerned; whichever version you chose – you will cause controversy. In my book, until 1940 it was Vilna and since then it is Vilnius, the capital of modern Lithuania. Historically the city was more Slavic than Baltic. But I try to avoid calling the city Wilno to avoid endorsing the Polish claim. In my book, it was only ever Belarusian Vilnya briefly (potentially) for two weeks in 1940.  

BD: Writing about the Soviet period of Belarusian history you observe that those who ruled Belarus at that time, in particular Masheraw and Mazuraw, managed to successfully exploit the partisan myth to get maximum subsidies out of the central Soviet budget. They were not very enthusiastic about the language, human rights and similar issues but were good in satisfying the economic needs of the people. Lukashenka seems to follow their path when he exploited Yeltsin's "Belovezhsky" syndrome. Does Putin have any syndromes, which Lukashenka can play with?

That's a very good question.  Lukashenka is playing the game differently. Masheraw and Mazuraw operated within the Soviet political process. The key to Lukashenka's role-playing is that he is playing a number of roles in the foreign policy arena.

His primary task is to get subsidies.  First he sold to Yeltsin the idea of the Union State by playing on Yeltsin’s ‘Belvovezhsky syndrome’ (his responsibility for the collapse of the Soviet Union). Then Lukashenka positioned himself as a pan-Russian nationalist to appeal to Yeltsin's opponents.

It became much more difficult to play the same role with Putin who is playing the role of Russian savior himself. For Putin Lukashenka reinvented himself as a bulwark against the coloured revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. In addition, Russia could test various counter-revolutionary technologies in Belarus such as falsification mechanisms, disabling youth groups, cloning opinions polls, etc. 

I think you yourself have made the very interesting suggestion that Lukashenka might find a new role with Putin by selling Belarus as an exemplar in Russia-supported integration schemes such as the Eurasian Union. Russia cannot allow Belarus as a member of the Eurasian Union to go bust because that would seriously undermine the whole idea of Russian-sponsored integration projects.

BD: You mentioned that "the national movement" proved to be the only well-motivated group of politically active people in 2001 and 2006 presidential elections. Why was that the case, in your opinion? 

Lukashenka has enjoyed surprisingly solid support since 1994 amongst the older population, rural small towns, those with less education – around 50 percent of the population which is of course not the 80 percent which he claims at election time. He kept this support – at least until the most recent period – with the help of Russian subsidies. Though at the same time of course there were groups, which always opposed him. For instance, the Belarusian national movement was particularly vocal because his vision of Belarus fundamentally contradicted their own. 

BD: Why were pro-Russian forces outside of the ruling elite never particularly visible or organised? 

I think that there are no organised pro-Russian groups mainly because the Russian language is pervasive in Belarus and is used by the State. The Lukashenka project does not threaten Russian-speakers in the same way that the Belarusian national project has been marginalised.

It is interesting to recall the Ukrainian party SLOn hat tried to appeal to the local Russian speaking intelligentsia in 1998 by using figures like the poet Anna Akhmatova (born near Odesa) as their symbol. They did very badly – around 1 percent – they were maybe too intellectual. Maybe they should have used Russian-speaking Ukrainian football heroes instead.  This tradition of a local Russian speaking intelligentsia exists in Belarus but it is much weaker than in Ukraine, which had Russian-speaking writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov.

Second, Lukashenka kept an eye on all pro-Russian forces and he hit them very hard. Anything supported by Russian money has been cracked down on particularly hard, as at the last election.

But that's an interesting question. 

BD: In several parts of you book it looked that Russia was thinking of replacing Lukashenka.  They saved him so many times and the regime's economic model is also based on extracting rents from Russia as you show in your last chapter. Had they really wanted to replace Lukashenka – they could have done so in the past. Do you think that Russia ever seriously considered removing Lukashenka?

It is not an easy task for Russia to get rid of him or even to put pressure upon him. Belarus has become very authoritarian since 1994. It is difficult for any opponents to operate in Belarus. Russia tends to play with the local elite and Lukashenka also kept a close eye on it.

Another fact is that Russia is aware of the paradox that whoever replaces Lukashenka (even if the new person is Russian, Russophile or even Russian nationalist) he could make a new fresh start with the West simply by virtue of not being Lukashenka.

The personal relationship between Lukashenka and Putin is terrible, but Russia thinks it has Lukashenka exactly where they want him to be now – weak, but not fatally so, more dependent on them and less dependent on the West. They think they will be able to use the current economic difficult to extract as many assets as possible – but they certainly do not want his regime to collapse, as that would multilateralise the potential solution. 

BD: You explain that Lukashenka had clearly made a geopolitical choice in favour of Russia because it did not impose any conditions on the Belarusian regime such as democracy and avoidance of repression of political opponents. On the other hand, the IMF and the EU always come up with various kinds of conditionality, which Lukashenka does not like.  Can these attitudes of Russia and the West ever change? 

More exactly, Lukashenka wants to play the geopolitical game of balance between the West and Russia. He does not want to align fundamentally with anybody. Russia wants less transparent privatisation, the EU wants more respect for human rights, the IMF wants reform, which the regime finds difficult to implement. The ideal scenario is to be in the middle and avoid any kind of conditions.

But this game of balance has broken down since the crackdown after the December 2010 presidential elections. This is when arguably Lukashenka made a serious geopolitical mistake. After such an egregious crackdown, the choice od sanctions was actually made easier for the West, which had been divided before then. Since December 2010 there is a united stance in favour of stronger isolation.

Now Russia is the only and almost sole strategic partner of the Lukashenka regime. He may be forced to sell strategic assets to Russia. He tried to restore the balance by bringing China into the game, but China has proved to be disappointingly mercantilist. It is happy to invest in particular projects such as the reconstruction of Minsk International Airport but it was not going to give open-ended financial support.  

The big picture is that Lukashenka tried to avoid any kind of conditionality but his room for manoeuvre is narrowing as we speak. The West has for once gotten its policy reasonably right – the combination of the relative isolation and sanctions. And I do not think that the West should worry that sanctions will push Lukashenka towards Russia. Lukashenka does not want to be absorbed into Russia. 

BD: What would be the most promising groups in Belarus which Europe could support?

Political opposition in the country is divided by itself and by the regime – one should not give up on them, but it is important not to place all bets on it. A more promising channel of engagement is to work with various civil society groups. Although the regime is also making this progressively more difficult, that is no reason to give up.

But the West needs to broaden the focus of its outreach. Human rights NGOs such as Viasna of course deserve support, but the whole spectrum of non-political NGOs should be supported too. That would show that the West is concerned not only with political change, but with the condition of the people too. 

Restoration of ‘manual control’ of the economy since December 2010 has put Belarusian small and medium enterprises in a very difficult position. They need to be supported too.

Finally, it is important to signal to the elite and the bureaucracy that sanctions very specifically target those responsible for the crackdown, but if Lukashenka were to go the whole elite would not necessarily have to go with him. 



Yarik Kryvoi
Yarik Kryvoi
Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.
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