Russia Saved Lukashenka Yet Again
The weekend brought a pleasant surprise for the Belarusian leadership. It managed to get a big loan from the Eurasian Economic Community – a post-Soviet integration bloc dominated by Russia. This week, Lukashenka will be given 800 million USD, and another 2.2 billion will follow over the next 3 years at a 4.1% interest rate.
The most important requirement of the loan is the privatization of state-owned assets in Belarus which are worth 7.5 billion USD.
Of course, there might be many demons lurking in the unpublished details of the deal, but so far this money seems to be more than just help for Lukashenka. It is his rescue.
The Belarusian government seemed to be desperate last week when it initiated contacts with the IMF about borrowing 3.5-8 billion USD. There was not much hope to get it in times like these when relation with the West are at their lowest point, and the previous loan from the IMF did not lead to real economic reforms in Belarus.
No 'Kyrgyzstan scenario'
The reasons for Russia's rescuing of Lukashenka may be very simple. After all, the Kremlin does not want to repeat in Belarus what unfolded in the Kyrgyzstan scenario with the toppling of the government. The current situation around Belarus, of course, can be compared to that of Kyrgyzstan last year in a very few but important ways.
In 2010, Moscow tried to rein in the Kyrgyz president who had at that moment lost any support from the West. Russia's policy was perceived by the opposition as a signal that the president had no backing and that the foreign powers would prefer some other rulers to run the country. Even though it did not want to do it, Moscow carried out regime change in that Central Asian nation, and the results failed to bring Russia any benefits whatsoever.
And to risk the same in Belarus is apparently more dangerous, both due to the proximity of the country to Russia itself, and due to the consequences it might have for Russian relations with the West. At the same time, Russia needed some alternatives before removing this president, and quite possibly it did not find one in the Belarusian establishment or in the opposition . Lukashenka has neutralized any such moves by building structural barriers for the development of any new politicians (there is no place for public politics in Belarus now), and by the destruction of the support base and public image of old politicians.
Towards Terminal Stability
To survive politically, Lukashenka does not need much. Just some flexibility in order to rearrange his power mechanisms – like through giving in to foreign loan requirements and selling some property. Of course, these weeks the public mood has been very much against his policies and only the lack of an opposition which could organize the discontented citizens has saved the Belarusian government from collapse.
But public grievances, however big they are, can be neutralized by one very common factor – time. That is, if the Belarusians have to live worse, they will do it, yet the decline of living conditions should occur as slowly as possible. Otherwise, even a politically sterilized society will explode and find itself new political leaders.
The country has no means to survive as it had before. In order to avoid collapse or even revolution, it has either to reform or to accept impoverishment. The former option is not feasible with the current political regime. For the latter, the Belarusian leadership has to buy time. It will mean to bring the households' incomes gradually lower, to untie the prices without shock effects, to give some subsidies and reduce them incrementally. In a word, to draw the people into poverty not in a day, but over many months.
For all these efforts he needs money. Now, he has it, and given that circumstances are as they are, Belarus may be stabilized politically for a long time.
Myth of a European Alternative for Lukashenka
Can Europe do anything? The question sounds rhetorical for Belarusians involved in politics. After all, Europe – with the remarkable exception of Poland – did next to nothing tangible, except for making some verbal statements. The best example is the myth of a European proposal of 3 billion for relatively acceptable (for the EU) presidential elections made by the Polish and German foreign ministers last year.
The proposal was not really made in any serious way. The myth was born when the Polish minister was asked how much financial support Belarus can get from the EU if it accepts the European demands. He took the figures of the EU financial help for Moldova and recalculated them considering the bigger size of Belarus to finally name this sum.
Informally, European officials admit also that this sum, if it even materialized, could not be compared with Russian loans. Moreover, Lukashenka was successful in the past not only in getting money from Russia but also negotiating flexible timetable for repayment or restructuring or even not reapying
What both the West and Belarus Authorities Want?
Although the motivations of the Western and Belarusian leadership are different, they both want Belarus to remain an independent country. This is in large part driven by the fear of Russian political and economic expansion. However, the truth is that authoritarian regimes do not surrender their independence to foreign countries. The very reason why they are authoritarian is because they want to retain all power in a country.
Since his election in 1994, Alyaksandr Likashenka's main goal has been to accumulate as much power as possible. To this end, he initiated a series of referenda which destroyed the separation of power and media freedom in Belarus. Today, Belarus has the worst human rights record in Europe and its economy is dominated by large inefficient enterprises inherited from Soviet times.
Generous subsidies from Russia remain the only reason why the Belarusian economic model has not collapsed. Still suffering from the Cold War legacy, Russia’s interest has been focused on keeping Belarus away from the influence of the European Union at any cost. These costs were not only in the form of profits which Russia had lost by providing cheap oil and gas, but also costs to Belarusian statehood, which has been deprived of strong institutions deeply rooted in society. These institutions as well as any meaningful decision-making are now controlled by a small group of not particularly competent individuals whose main goal is to uphold the status quo. Also, at any cost.
Belarus' economic dependence upon Russia has become particularly evident in recent months, when Belarus was hit by its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to an artificially delayed devaluation of the Belarusian currency, it is nearly impossible to convert Belarusian rubles into any other currency. Businesses which depend upon imports cannot buy anything abroad because of a lack of foreign currency. Prices are going up while salaries are going down. Unemployment is rising because large sectors of economy depends on imports.
The main reason for the economic crisis was Russia's reluctance to pay too much for Lukashenka's loyalty. With oil prices hitting record levels because of instability in the Arab world, the Kremlin became increasingly assertive. The Russian ambassador hinted in April that the solution of Belarus’s economic problems could be the introduction of the Russian ruble as the currency of Belarus. If the Belarusian authorities were to agree, it would be a serious and most likely fatal blow to Lukashenka and would undoubtedly undermine the statehood of Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities are desperately looking for money to oppose this pressure from Russia. Due to continuing repressions against the Belarusian opposition and civil society, Belarus is unlikely to see any financial aid from Europe. Moreover, the European Union may introduce targeted economic sanctions in response to prosecutions brought against opposition activists, including most of the candidates in the December presidential elections.
There is one area, however, where the interests of Europe and Lukashenka coincide. Strengthening the national identity of Belarusians is both in the interest of the regime and the European Union. Such a feat would contribute to the long-term goal of strengthening Belarusian statehood.
Belarusian authorities tried to create an artificial state ideology based on the glorification of the Soviet past and justification of the political status quo in Belarus. However, the ideology lacked coherency and did not appeal to the younger generation of Belarusians. The cult of the victory in the war with Nazis and honoring Soviet heroes sounded familiar to the old generation, but boring and unappealing to those who grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is not surprising that the Belaruaian authorities tolerate the Budzma campaign in Belarus. Western donors support a group of people working for the Budzma campaign whose aim is to organize concerts, exhibitions and publishing initiatives to strengthen what has been traditionally been deficient amongst Belarusians – a sense of national identity. The authorities know about the Budzma campaign but do not prosecute its activists.
Moreover, the Belarusian Presidential administration has reportedly encouraged the use of Belarusian language in official proceedings in Minsk and the regions. Belarus' Minister of Culture, Pavel Latushka, is clearly a bureaucrat of the new generation who predominantly uses the Belarusian language even in official communications. This is still unusual for Belarusian officials but may become more frequent in the future as more people who grew up in post-Soviet times are moving up the ranks.
Western pressure on the regime in Belarus to release political prisoners and reverse the deterioration of human rights is justified and necessary. However, it should be coupled with efforts to strengthen nation-building and ethnogenesis in Belarus. In addition to supporting civil society initiatives working towards this end, it may be also necessary to intensify contacts with Belarusian bureaucrats who are not directly implicated in human rights violations.