Belarus and the Middle East: What They Share and How They Differ
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.
Bitter Results of Belarusian ‘Authoritarian Modernization’
Last year, the total foreign debt of Belarus increased by $6,452 mln or 29,2%. By January 1, it amounted to $28,512 mln, or 52,2% of the national GDP. According to the Belapan news agency, the foreign indebtedness per capita in Belarus is currently $3,007, although at the beginning of 2009 it was just $1,596.
According to the IMF, Belarusian foreign debt will keep growing. Thus, by the end of 2011 it can reach 57,3% of the GDP, by the end of 2012 – 61,9%, and by 2016, the debt can amount to 74,5% of GDP. Will the government find courage and resources to change the course which has led the nation into the debt?
Oddly enough, the Belarusian government today does pay attention to the opinions of the IMF and the international community. Recently, it has decided to correct loan interest rates according to the IMF recommendations. But, of course, the most important recommendation is to privatize state-owned firms, which entails a fundamental overhaul of the entire Belarusian society and its values. Unfortunately, in the absence of transparency the only realistic privatization in today’s Belarus could only be a result of manipulations by the regime’s insiders.
The main problem with the indebtedness is not about the amount as such. After all, many developed countries have much higher debts. Yet their economies are working, and they can repay them over a reasonable time span. Is this the case for Belarus?
The rising negative balance in Belarusian foreign trade is a reason to doubt it. Furthermore, since Belarus regained independence, no new major production facilities have been built in the country.
Almost all major foreign investment projects underway concern some low-end technology production (like sewing), mining and construction materials production (like production of concrete) or “dirty” production (like processing hazardous chemicals). Meanwhile, recently propagated projects (such as a car plant built with Iranian investors) seem to be limited to assembly lines only and using only imported parts. But even the Belarusian-Iranian endeavor is not particularly stable. Last month, the Belarusian government declared its intent to renounce its cooperation with the Iranian investors and to give the plant to Chinese investors. As a result, the Iranian project ended up assembling only a few hundred cars.
There have been some successful modernization undertakings in Belarus, including the projects involving oil refining facilities in Mazyr and Navapolack. Such examples are atypical, however. Pro-regime analysts like to articulate the idea of ‘authoritarian modernization’ under Lukashenka. While the ‘authoritarian’ trends are clearly present, there is little actual modernization going on to make their claim stand.
Cheap Russian oil traded for Belarusian geopolitical loyalty to Moscow allowed Lukashenka to downplay the necessity for reforms. But now, with the new Russian policy toward Belarus and the revision of the old business of reselling Russian crude oil to Western Europe, the Belarusian government had little to do but borrow. After all, the oil products, potash and some chemicals provide a bulk of Belarusian exports.
The need to borrow has been great, and over the last two years the foreign debt has almost doubled. That is another reason for Belarusians to be seriously concerned about their economy. And not just the economy, but also the future of the welfare state in Belarus and real independence of the country, especially from Russia.
It does not matter whether the current Belarusian regime becomes more nationalistic in its rhetoric or whether Lukashenka finally starts speaking Belarusian, as some nationalists predict. The actual results of this regime’s activities are already clear: the increased vulnerability of the nation and the absence of modernization – whether authoritarian or not.