Prague, Czech Republic
In Belarus, the year 2020 brough not only COVID-19 but abrupt political changes, which nobody anticipated. Most expected that the 2020 presidential election would repeat the well-known scenario from previous political cycles. Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994, would declare an “overwhelming” victory, international observers would not recognize the elections as free and fair, and oppositional protest, if any, would be quickly crushed by the authorities. The West could also sanction Minsk for the time-being, but that would be followed by a gradual rapprochement, which would last until the next crackdown.
Instead of this usual cycle, Belarus went through its own, very belated annus mirabilis, a year of changes that some were quick to compare to the 1989 democratic revolutions in Central Europe. In the end, the authoritarian regime survived the protests, but lost much of its political legitimacy and had to use increasingly repressive tactics to retain control of the country.
The pandemic played an important role here. Lukashenka chose to be a COVID-19 denialist, practically leaving many people to cope with the virus on their own. This strengthened the disappointment with the regime, which had already been stagnating economically for years. It also spurred the growth of civil society networks, as people tried to organize themselves via social media. New horizontal links were growing quickly, and the pandemic was a key here.
The “three nights of terror,” as the initial brutal crackdown that followed the August 9 election was called, triggered mass political mobilization on a hitherto unprecedented scale. In a matter of days, the “Belarus Awakening” destroyed the decades old stereotypes about a hopelessly authoritarian nation that is prepared to tolerate virtually anything. However, the price that had to be paid was tremendous. Alongside several deaths, by the summer of 2021 Belarus had nearly four hundred political prisoners, thousands of people were detained, and there had been numerous reports of torture in custody.
Unprecedented political mobilization was thus met with unprecedented repression. The regime committed itself to extinguishing political protest at any cost. In that it also received full backing from Moscow. The Kremlin had shown solidarity with Lukashenka, as it was also moving in the direction of a police state, with increasingly brutal crackdowns and repressive laws becoming everyday reality in Russia. This convergence of the two regimes and the growing alienation between Moscow and the West allowed Lukashenka to, once again, seek support from the Kremlin, with whom he had previously been at odds on many occasions.
Following 2020 Belarus faced three main challenges. First, the regime in Minsk became even more dependent on Russia, which created additional opportunities for the Kremlin to strengthen its control over Belarus. That remains a problem, even if fears of an immediate Russian annexation are overblown. The surge of repressive policies isolated Minsk from the West. However, the regime will nevertheless try to play its old game of balancing between the European Union and Russia, presenting itself as the lesser evil to a hypothetical Russian occupation or the establishment of Russian military bases in Belarus. So far, Lukashenka has managed to resist the latter.
Second, the 2020 crisis changed the political environment in Belarus, taking it in the direction of a totalitarian police state. Political activity was, by definition, unsafe in Belarus before 2020 but, as long as the majority remained passive, the regime could rely on selective punishment tactics. With mass mobilization selective punishment is being replaced with random punishment, so as to instill fear in the broader population and discourage it from political participation. This will have serious ramifications not only for Belarus’ relations with the West but for the overall economic and investment climate in the country.
Consequently, the authoritarian dead end, which Belarus presently faces, also implies a grim long-term outlook. The drain of human capital has increased drastically. IT companies have been relocating from Belarus to neighboring countries. Younger and better educated Belarusians are now more likely than ever to opt for emigration. We are probably yet to see the true scale of this in the post-COVID future, when all borders reopen, and recovery growth starts.
In sum, 2020 was both tragic and inspiring for Belarus. It left the nation facing a difficult and unpredictable period, which means that solidarity of the neighboring countries and the international community is more important now than ever. However, the nation’s political awakening and the growth of the civil society also create some room for optimism. Belarus is not bound to remain forever “Europe’s last dictatorship,” and it may be that the seeds of a new and vibrant European democracy have just been sown.
Expert article 2996
To receive the Baltic Rim Economies review free of charge, you may register to the mailing list.
The review is published 4-6 times a year.