Belarus at a Crossroads: Political Regime Transformation and Future Scenarios
Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has reportedly agreed to meet with Vladimir Putin in September to discuss a new integration package which may pose a threat to Belarusian sovereignty.
The Kremlin is facing deeply uncomfortable choices: either to provide Lukashenka with life-saving support and push him into integrating more deeply with Russia, thereby causing inevitable damage to Russia’s image within Belarus, or to avoid providing political support to Lukashenka at all, which could endanger any future bilateral relationship with the new Belarusian leadership.
A plummeting in approval
Over the past years, circumstantial evidence has suggested growing public mistrust toward the Belarusian authorities and towards Alyaksandr Lukashenka personally. This has manifested itself for example in Belarusian citizens’ absenteeism at the 2nd European Games events in 2019, a completely “politically sterile” 2019 Belarusian parliament, growing censorship on the internet and propaganda within the state-owned media.
The presidential administration’s expectation of non-reactionary elections, such as those of 2015, has failed to materialise due to increased political mobilisation among Belarus’ citizens. This increase in engagement was caused by economic grievances and has also been exacerbated by the state’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic which was clearly attributable to Lukashenka and his ruling coalition. The coronavirus pandemic began developing in Belarus in early March, exactly when the more active phase of Lukashenka’s election campaign began to unfold.
Instead of making quick adjustments to his campaign, the leader has repeatedly spoken out against extreme “corona-psychosis” and downplayed the risks of the epidemic. Lukashenka did not pay a single visit to a hospital or other medical institution and made a number of controversial statements, provoking public anger.
By June, Belarus was among the 15 most-affected countries per capita. At the same time, Belarus maintained one of the lowest infection fatality rates in the world. However, a number of observations (e.g. a very high share of coronavirus-related deaths among medical workers) suggest that the actual number of coronavirus-related deaths may be underestimated in official Belarusian statistics by a factor of ten or more. Moreover, in early May, Lukashenka for a split second presented a graph that was believed to contain alternative coronavirus-related statistics, with a higher number of identified cases than previously reported by the Ministry of Health.
A representative poll of Minsk residents conducted by the Institute of Sociology of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences throughout March and early April 2020 showed that Lukashenka’s trust rating amounted to 24%, while the Central Election Commission enjoyed an even lower rating of 11%. Taking into account the effect of social desirability and the deterioration in the epidemiological and economic situation since that time, by August 2020 Lukashenka’s trust rating among Minsk residents barely reached 15–20%.
The high level of attendance at Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s rallies across smaller cities has indicated that the people’s trust in government and Lukashenka in regional cities and smaller towns is unlikely to differ greatly from the capital region.
Despite various ruses by the Belarusian authorities to convince the population otherwise, during the 2020 election campaign an increasingly large part of Belarusian society began to realise that Lukashenka’s opponents were in the majority. Belarus is numbered among the ten most censored countries in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists 2019 report. This, combined with a large staff of state ideologists and a well-functioning system of electoral fraud, has made the Belarusian authorities quite successful at creating the myth of Lukashenka’s electoral majority. However, due to the growing popularity of new media and messengers like Telegram, access to information among Belarusians has greatly improved in recent years.
By late April 2020, Lukashenka faced a stark new political reality after the high level of electoral support of his main political opponents became very clear. Amid unprecedented political mobilisation, Lukashenka’s election campaign became vague and reactive. His only proactive action was to carry out the regime’s repressive actions.
Evolution of the political regime
While a number of factors, primarily a historical low in public trust, have made Lukashenka’s 2020 election campaign the most challenging yet, he has continued benefitting from the highest degree of centralisation of power in Belarusian sovereign state history and from the unprecedented strength of the Belarusian security apparatus.
To forestall a growing political mobilisation of the population, since April the Belarusian ruler has prioritised a campaign of repression and discrediting of his most popular political opponents, intimidation of the civilian population, and actions to ensure a larger control over information flows, including through reprisals against popular bloggers.
Belarus’s political regime has often been categorised as a classic personalist type. For two decades the capacity of all state institutions in Belarus was kept very low so as not to give rise to organisational centres of opposition. Based on Lukashenka’s more recent approach, that differs from the classic typology of autocratic regimes, Belarus’ political regime since late 2019 could be viewed in terms of the classification of a personalist military type.
Not only the army, but also security bodies and other law-enforcement agencies may be viewed as part of the military. The appointment of KGB Major General Ihar Siarheyenka as the head of the presidential administration in December 2019 was an important milestone in the transformation of the Belarusian authoritarian regime towards personalist military rule. The influence of persons specialising in the use of force in Belarus’s ruling coalition increased even more after the June 2020 government reshuffle. The ‘civilian’ component of Lukashenka’s ruling coalition has never been as sidelined from decision-making processes as it is now.
Dilemmas and Future Scenarios
A growing political mobilisation and heightened levels of repression in Belarus, and hence worsening relations with the West, have increased the probability of Lukashenka’s willingness to accept a new integration package with Russia in exchange for the Kremlin’s political and economic support.
Over the last two decades, Lukashenka has skilfully traded geopolitical loyalty and military cooperation for Russia’s generosity. The Kremlin, however, has indicated a change in the bilateral relationship model, declining the long-standing “oil and gas in exchange for kisses” scheme and demanding a share of Belarus’s sovereignty instead. After a series of public squabbles between Belarusian and Russian officials over the response to the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020, the dialogue over deeper integration intensified in June.
During the online discussion “Russia and Belarus: The post-pandemic future” on 4 June, the Belarusian Ambassador to Russia Uladzimir Siamashka (Vladimir Semashko) stated, “Minsk is ready at any time to sit down at the negotiating table [to discuss integration roadmaps] if we have the goodwill of our Russian partners and friends.” The moment for the continuation of negotiations may come in September or October, he added.
Due to the dramatic delegitimisation of Lukashenka among Belarusians, the Kremlin is therefore facing deeply uncomfortable choices: either to provide Lukashenka with life-saving support; to push him into integrating more deeply with Russia, thereby causing inevitable damage to Russia’s image within Belarus, or to avoid providing political support to Lukashenka at all, which could endanger any future bilateral relationship with the new Belarusian leadership.
The first option entails a combination of heightened repression within Belarus, possibly with Russia’s direct or indirect support in one form or another, and buying loyalties thanks to greater economic support from Moscow. This would result in the coercion of the Belarusian population towards a new reality of deeper integration with Russia under the continuous rule of a very unpopular Lukashenka.
Due to a minimal ‘civilian’ component in the current Belarusian ruling coalition, the probability of its split over the issue of a new integration package with Russia is very low. However, one cannot rule out a repeated or an even larger mobilisation of opposition towards a linked integration deal. The majority of Belarusians would not consider it legitimate and the West should not and would likely not recognise it either.
The other option, Moscow’s deliberate lack of political support to Lukashenka amid continuous massive civil disobedience in Belarus, is rather improbable. The Kremlin would view the replacement of a regime in Russia’s vicinity, particularly in neighbouring Belarus, as a highly undesirable precedent. Moscow is unlikely to play such a risky game and to bet on any alternative political force in Belarus unless Lukashenka’s position becomes extremely desperate.
This development, however, would most likely prompt Moscow to force him into a new integration deal on Russia’s terms. The pro-Kremlin political actors in Belarus have recently been intensifying their activities, pointing towards Moscow’s alternative plan for keeping political control over Belarus through parliamentary action.
- This article is a shorted and slightly modified version of July’s report titled, Belarus at a Crossroads: Political Regime Transformation and Future Scenarios
Andrei Yeliseyeu is Research Director at the EAST Center. He is also the head of iSANS Monitoring Unit
If you think that Belarus Digest should continue its work during this period critical for Belarus, please support our fundraising campaign with a donation.
Can strikes lead to peaceful political change in Belarus?
Speaking at a conference on 28 August, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka announced that he was willing to enter into dialogue with “working and student collectives” on political issues, including to prepare a new constitution. While he has a poor record of negotiations with his political opponents and it is difficult to believe the sincerity of his invitations, this time it sounds different.
After all, since 14 August, workers at dozens of state-owned enterprises in Belarus have gone on full-scale or partial strikes, staged rallies and published collective protest statements. This wave of activism has become a game-changer, prompting the authorities to resort to repression against labour activists but also to take a more cautious line on street protests.
Workers’ protests: a black swan of Belarusian politics
The last time Belarusian workers protested was in the mid-1990s, and these were only limited strikes in the capital Minsk. No prominent commentators of Belarusian politics expected workers to create trouble for Lukashenka after the contested 9 August presidential election.
Indeed, in the first days following the 9 August election, everything proceeded as usual in the country in terms of workers. However, a significant confrontation between law enforcement and protesters emerged: during the first four days of protests against the rigged election, security agencies detained over 6,700 people. Despite more violence and even deaths taking place than in previous cases, it was a familiar scenario of a post-election crackdown in Belarus. Yet on 12 August news appeared about workers at state-owned enterprises going on strike. The authorities dismissed these reports as rumours, even as more evidence started to emerge.
Finally, on 14 August, leading Belarusian state firm— potash fertiliser producer Belaruskali—published on its website an unprecedented letter by its personnel demanding the authorities “to immediately stop the violence by security agencies. We also ask peaceful protesters to stay peaceful.” In addition, a number of workers were reported to be trying to launch a strike. Lukashenka could not ignore this because Belaruskali is among the biggest sources of foreign-currency for Minsk. Last year, it exported fertilisers worth USD 2.77bn.
A self-made catastrophe for Lukashenka…
Alongside Belaruskali, many other big state-owned firms concurrently faced labour unrest. Among them were BelAZ, MAZ, MTZ, MZKT and Naftan—in Minsk and in all regions. In most cases, strikes remained partial and very short, However, even lesser protests produced some results. At truck manufacturer MAZ (employing more than 15,500 personnel) in Minsk, usually silent trade unions on 13 August issued a public letter demanding, on behalf of MAZ employees, a halt to violence by security agencies. The following day more than one thousand MAZ workers rallied at the entrance to the factory and discussed with the director not only election falsifications and post-election violence but also labour and social rights and guarantees reduced during Lukashenka’s time. Despite news of protests and attempts to launch a fully-fledged strike at MAZ over the next few days, the factory avoided it.
An even more remarkable case took place at MZKT—a commercially successful defence industries company in Minsk with over 5,000 employees. Its similarly usually silent trade unions on 11 August sent a delegation to management to discuss the violence during the protests. It received no answers. On 14 August, workers of the factory held a rally, forcing director Alexei Rymasheuski to publicly announce that Lukashenka had not won the election. On 17 August, Lukashenka himself came to MZKT and addressed a crowd which openly defied him and demanded his resignation.
The most remarkable thing about the protesting workers has been that they have expressed anger primarily at the rigged election and the actions of security agencies, having shown limited support for opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Indeed, neither opposition candidates nor Lukashenka paid much attention to this demographic during the election campaign. However, by unleashing police and other law enforcement organisations and tolerating their unprofessional and violent treatment of the protesters, the government shot itself in the foot.
Meanwhile, the industrial workforce harbours huge protest potential untapped in the election. Lukashenka pledged to continue his current policies, and they include the silent and consistent reduction of social guarantees and dismantling of whole enterprises. Belarusian cities and towns are already full of former industrial buildings which are either abandoned or transformed into shopping centres. In 1999, the Belarusian president introduced the contract employment system, which made it possible to employ workers for a limited time span and intimidate them with the threat of dismissal.
… and a challenge for the opposition?
Lukashenka’s competitors in this election offered no alternative for workers, either. Everyday social problems, the deficit of decent employment and de-industrialisation, which affect a large part of the Belarusian population, have remained completely out of focus in the ongoing Belarusian political confrontation.
Hence, it was a challenge for the opposition after the election to accommodate unexpected allies—industrial workers. The leadership of the opposition’s Coordination Council was established on 18 August, and was made up of a number of prominent intellectuals; only the next day did it co-opt a single representative from the striking committees, Siarhei Dyleuski from the huge MTZ factory in Minsk. Despite the workers’ intervention into the confrontation with Lukashenka in the form not only of strikes but also an impressive workers march from their MTZ tractor factory to the centre of Minsk on 17 August, the leaders of the protests have so far failed to raise the issues which for workers are the most pressing ones.
Simultaneous strikes at all state-owned enterprises on their own will not ensure the collapse of the regime. Industry accounts for more than a quarter of Belarusian GDP, but Lukashenka’s tacit demolition of state-owned enterprises and his policy of allowing private entrepreneurs to establish alternative production lines has changed the balance in the economy since Soviet times. Last year, state-owned firms produced only 13.4% of industrial output and employed 19% of the industrial workforce. So, in the short-term perspective, Lukashenka can survive even a nationwide strike. However, over the longer term it is impossible to run the country if strikes continue. No wonder that on 22 August the Belarusian president threatened to invite the unemployed “from the street” or bring in unemployed Ukrainian miners to replace striking workers.
It remains unclear how many strikes have actually taken place. Belarusian officials deny that any occurred at all and issue sometimes extremely contradictory statements. On 18 August Prime Minister Halouchanka announced that although no strikes had taken place, “some groups of protesters” were to be found in some firms, and production had halted in “some parts” of some enterprises, specifically mentioning Belaruskali and Hrodnazot. This had no consequences for the economy, insisted Halouchanka.
Halouchanka contradicted himself a minute later by complaining about Belaruskali’s losses when he said that “some workers for a while could not decide whether they were going to go to their places of work or to the square, and this caused a certain decrease in volumes of production. Our competitors immediately took advantage of this, specifically [Russian potash fertiliser producer] Uralkali”.
However, in the past week workers‘ activity has diminished again. Opposition media has reported some strikes, for example by a small number of mineworkers at Belaruskali and a possible slowdown at others. But TUT.by opposition media outlet for example on 27 August conceded that “protest activity” at Belaruskali had diminished because “the authorities pressure brought results.”
The Belarusian security services have indeed detained some activist workers, not only at Belaruskali but at many other involved firms. Dyleuski has been incarcerated, and Yury Ravavy, chair of the striking committee at the major Hrodna Azot chemical plant, fled to Poland. But that is only part of the explanation. Another unpleasant fact for the opponents of the government concerns their continuing neglect of workers’ concerns and their unwillingness to provide more than a symbolic representation to the workers.
The developments around labour action look like one of the few pieces of good news in recent weeks. The workers have managed to force the government to consider dialogue within the country. Dialogue among Belarusians can better preserve the Belarusian state and develop the country in a democratic way than any formal or informal agreements between foreign politicians, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, the workers’ movement has a powerful instrument to make the government enter the dialogue and follow any eventual agreement: labour action.
If you think that Belarus Digest should continue its work during this period critical for Belarus, please support our fundraising campaign with a donation.