Belarus’s Season of Discontent

Belarus’s Season of Discontent

By focusing on what distinguishes the Belarusian model from its post-Soviet counterparts, we can better understand the sources of opposition to the Lukashenko government today.

Opposition rally in Minsk in August 2020 (Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)

Last August, Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory over Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarus’s presidential election, securing his sixth consecutive term since rising to the office in 1994. Belarus’s central election commission said he won over 80 percent of votes. While international monitors have found election irregularities and violations in every presidential race in the country since 1994, the 2020 results spurred unprecedented street demonstrations. Lukashenko responded with violence, deploying the OMON, Belarus’s special police, against protesters. The crackdown only intensified the struggle between the people and the president. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the capital, Minsk, as well as in the provinces. Major industrial enterprises went on strike. The protest wave continued for several months, earning the admiration of many around the world.

Much of the movement’s momentum dissipated as winter set in, and protesters faced a savage wave of repression, including police killings and harsh sentences or loss of employment for the smallest acts of protest. An activist minority continues the struggle today both within and outside the country, but large protests are no longer taking place. Lukashenko has declared victory over what he called a “blitzkrieg.”

On February 11 at the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a mass gathering of loyalist delegates held every five years, Lukashenko and his current governing team reiterated the basic theme that underpins his claim to rule. Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko warned that proposals to “reform the Belarusian economy on the liberal example” led to the “economic crash and default of many states.” This is Lukashenko’s claim to legitimacy: that he is the only force that stands between the employees of Belarus’s state-owned industrial enterprises and mass unemployment.

Belarus has virtually no poverty at the World Bank’s line of $5.50 per person per day, among the post-Communist states a condition met by just Slovenia and the Czech Republic. The Soviet educational inheritance has been largely preserved, which provides the foundation for Belarus’s highly competitive IT sector. State-owned enterprises, which are less prone to layoffs than the private sector, employ about 40 percent of the labor force.

Yet the 2020 demonstrations expressed not just opposition to an authoritarian government but a very deep social anger. Among the protesters were industrial workers from those large state-owned enterprises, who, like private-sector workers, face exploitation and repression from state managers, bureaucrats, and domestic and foreign businessmen. The level of deceit involved in the falsified elections of August 9 had insulted their intelligence, and they were repelled by the violence leveled at the early protesters.

The old line repeated by Lukashenko and his loyalists—that they protect the welfare state and job security—had by then lost its propagandistic power, even if it remained partly true. While Belarus has avoided the more neoliberal course of neighboring post-Soviet states, it has generated its own antagonisms over the past thirty years. By focusing on what is distinctive about the Belarusian model, we can better understand the sources of opposition to the Lukashenko government today.

 

Capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe developed after 1989 with the support of two elite social groups: the intelligentsia, which favored a neoliberal program, and the more entrepreneurial cadre of the old communist parties, which wanted to be a really existing capitalist class. Belarus’s early post-Soviet development was dominated by this latter group. When the independent Republic of Belarus replaced the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1991, there was little turnover of leadership. While the formal structures of the Communist Party were banned, the administrative and managerial cadre, at whose helm stood Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, remained the same. The only significant change was the appointment of Stanislav Shushkevich, a physics professor, as speaker of parliament—a move meant to appease the Minsk intelligentsia.

Belarus’s socioeconomic development in the early 1990s was driven almost exclusively by a gradual process of nomenklatura embourgeoisement, with a strong accent of vestigial Soviet forms. There was little incentive to implement mass privatization, which could potentially lead to the loss of profiteering to outside players. Some privatizations did occur, as did the leasing out of state assets. Belarus even had an oligarch of some significance, Aleksandr Pupeiko, who, among other business ventures, sold Philips products and owned a Škoda assembly plant. The ownership structure, however, remained heavily public.

Belarus’s postwar industrialization forged a large machine-building sector, along with significant fuel-refining, food-processing, and radio electronics sectors. Already enjoying substantial regional autonomy during the twilight of Soviet power, the leadership’s hope was that Belarus’s legacy as the center of final assembly manufacturing in the USSR could prove an advantage in foreign trade. Belarus maintained its manufacturing industry through subsidies, the continuation of the state order system, and the conversion of military into civilian production.

That didn’t mean that the transition to a national capitalist economy proceeded smoothly. Besides potash mining, Belarus has no significant extractive sector, so it depends on imports. The collapse of the ruble zone in 1993 significantly disrupted production, leading to a loss of both export markets and inputs from abroad, followed by a huge decrease in consumption and investment. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated an unemployment level of 12.8 percent in 1994.

In the early 1990s, the Belarusian parliament was dominated by loyalists to Prime Minister Kebich. A third of Belarusian MPs were industrial or agricultural managers by profession, who favored economic reintegration with Russia. The opposition was dominated by liberal and nationalist forces. The nationalists belonged to the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF), headed by its founder, Zianon Pazniak, an archaeologist who had discovered a mass grave from Stalin’s Terror in the Kurapaty forest outside Minsk. The Western-oriented liberals were grouped around the parliamentary speaker, Shushkevich. Even though Kebich had never been elected to his position, the balance of power in parliament tilted heavily toward his camp, while Pazniak’s BNF and Shushkevich’s liberals frequently quarreled with one another.

Into this situation of immiseration and political uncertainty stepped Lukashenko, a deputy from the eastern Mogilev region. As an agricultural enterprise director, he had developed a reputation as one of those “profit-sensitive” and “market-oriented” managers that Gorbachev’s team had tried to promote. In the final years of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko emerged as one of thousands of local Yeltsins, all trying to exploit antiestablishment sentiment for their own ends. In the Belarusian Supreme Soviet, he was a member of the Communists for Democracy, a “centrist” group trying to maneuver between the hard-line Soviet patriots and the intelligentsia-based opposition.

Detecting a strong yearning for the dissolved USSR and the alienation of the Russian-speaking majority from the new Belarusian identity, Lukashenko became a fervent advocate of restoring political and economic unity with Russia. Still, he avoided commitment to any specific program, preferring instead a vaguer anti-oligarch and anti-nomenklatura populism.

In 1993, Lukashenko received his most consequential propulsion to the national spotlight: chairmanship of a parliamentary anti-corruption committee. In the face of the worsening economic situation and the beginnings of an IMF-backed privatization program, his denunciation of corruption on the part of both former Communist Party members and the opposition struck a chord. His greatest coup, prodded along by pro-Kebich deputies, was an exposé of Shushkevich, who had allegedly embezzled public funds for the construction of a dacha. The speaker was forced to resign.

Lukashenko attracted a coterie of ambitious politicians called the Young Wolves, who saw in his rising popularity a potential boost to their own careers. Several of them were liberals, like Viktor Gonchar, who thought Lukashenko would break the old nomenklatura and play the role of a Belarusian Yeltsin. Businessmen and professionals in Minsk were as enthralled with this muzhik from the eastern countryside as were the rural, provincial masses.

In March 1994, a new constitution was adopted that transformed Belarus into a presidential republic. Kebich was certain he would win the first presidential elections, with the entire establishment behind him and a divided opposition. But in the first round, Lukashenko won 46 percent of the vote, and Kebich just 18 percent. In the second round, Lukashenko won a resounding 81 percent, and Kebich only 14 percent.

 

In office, Lukashenko pursued a cultural politics opposed to the new Belarusian national identity of the immediate post-Soviet period. A referendum in May 1995 positively affirmed the restoration of Russian as a second official language and approved a new flag modeled after the Belarusian Soviet flag (sans hammer and sickle). The referendum also gave the president the right to dissolve parliament. Lukashenko proceeded to concentrate power in his own hands. The following year, he put forward another referendum that would grant him the right to appoint half of parliament and the constitutional court. The results once again favored Lukashenko, although there were many voting irregularities this time around. Soon after, he dissolved parliament and installed a compliant body in its place.

Lukashenko had secured the foundations for a super-presidential political system. In addition to his appointment powers, he could overrule legislation directly, and the budget was completely at his discretion. A greatly expanded presidential administration rose above the older Council of Ministers in the state hierarchy. A large-scale reshuffling of regional governors took place; they were frequently reassigned to break longstanding nomenklatura networks. At the same time, Lukashenko initiated a series of show trials that targeted political rivals and powerful figures from the Kebich-era establishment, as well as some of his own old associates. He also asserted control over the security services and the military under a new National Security Council headed by Viktor Sheiman, a veteran of the Afghan War. The former paratrooper went about purging the KGB old guard, replacing them with Lukashenko loyalists, and is allegedly behind the disappearance of several opposition figures, including Gonchar, who had left Lukashenko’s camp.

A more often overlooked part of Lukashenko’s consolidation of power was the subordination of Belarusian trade unions. Prior to the Soviet collapse, a wave of strikes and walkouts in response to Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov’s price hikes in April 1991 had won large concessions from the republican government. Belarus’s small size, the concentration of industrial enterprises in Minsk, and single-employer towns that dominated the provinces all contributed to a situation in which labor action could have decisive effect. And because a relatively high share of industry remained public after 1991, Belarus didn’t see the sort of deindustrialization experienced in Russia and Ukraine. As the economy recovered in the latter half of the decade, unemployment began to decrease and trade unions started to win large wage increases at the enterprise level.

Because Soviet power networks continued under Kebich, the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB), headed by Vladimir Goncharik, had a friendly relationship with industrial management, although with relatively greater autonomy than its predecessor organization in Soviet times. There were more militant branch unions within the FPB structure, however, and since perestroika there had been unions outside the FPB closer to the liberal and nationalist camp, modeled after the Solidarity movement in Poland. In 1995, a strike broke out among Minsk public transportation workers led by the Belarusian Free Trade Union. Lukashenko dealt with the strikers harshly, sending the special forces after them, arresting their leaders, and signing a decree that deregistered the union.

Goncharik also began to pursue an independent line from that of the government, although this had less to do with militancy and more with a bureaucratic maneuver to defend the organization’s autonomy. During the presidential election of 2001, he would stand as the main opposition candidate. He did not run as a labor candidate—unions were sidelined, and specific social demands were largely muted in favor of personal attacks on Lukashenko—but was instead pushed into the race by an undisguised U.S. attempt to incite a repeat of what had happened in Serbia a year before, when President Slobodan Milošević was overthrown after a disputed election result. The United States spent $50 million on Goncharik’s campaign and a protest group. Officially, Lukashenko won 77 percent of the vote and Goncharik 16 percent. While the margin of victory cannot be trusted, it is certain that Lukashenko beat his opponent, and there were no mass protests in Minsk like those in Belgrade.

With Goncharik defeated, Lukashenko went to work taking control of the FPB. Before the election, Lukashenko had halted meetings of the National Council for Labor and Social Issues, a consultive body between management, unions, and the government, temporarily depriving it of its traditional corporatist role. After the election, a slew of propaganda attacking trade union bureaucrats was accompanied by a presidential decree blocking automatic dues payments. Lukashenko simultaneously created his own loyalist faction within the FPB while instructing managers and regional authorities to establish parallel trade unions loyal to the president and pressure workers into joining them. This barrage of attacks pushed the executive board of the FPB to attempt to appease the president by forcing Goncharik’s resignation. But this was not enough for Lukashenko. In July 2002, Leonid Kozik, deputy head of the presidential administration, was elected chairman of the FPB. Dismissals and forced resignations within the FPB’s central organs and branch unions followed. Using a mixture of repression and harassment, the authorities were largely successful in quashing unions outside the FPB structure.

 

For Lukashenko, the capture of the FPB was important because of the continued centrality of state-owned industry in Belarusian society; high levels of public ownership make workplace disputes and strikes politically sensitive, and in terms of both value-added and employment, Belarusian state-owned enterprises surpass not just other Central and Eastern European countries but even China.

The stereotype of Belarus as a “Soviet-style” economy is routinely identified with Lukashenko himself, a former state farm director. But while Lukashenko did not, like other leaders and governments in the region, drive a sledgehammer through Soviet socialism, he has been gradually chipping away at it.

In his first year and a half in power, the new president and his government continued the IMF-backed economic course begun in 1993, arguably more vigorously than before. Then, in 1996, Lukashenko changed direction, in part because he had turned to members of the old Kebich industrial establishment to undermine his erstwhile liberal supporters in government. Even more significantly, Lukashenko accomplished economic reintegration with Russia, beginning with a customs agreement in January 1995 and culminating in the formation of a “Union State” in 1999. This goal had eluded Kebich and arguably cost him the presidency.

Members of the industrial nomenklatura took advantage of their Soviet-era links to restore the old supply chains in the machinery markets of Russia. Major factories of the era such as the Minsk Automobile Plant and the Minsk Tractor Works were still operational, and government leadership reintroduced fiscal subsidies, cheap credits, and even administrative output targets to maximize exports. Along with the subsidy of below-market Russian oil and gas prices, this was the foundation for the “Belarusian economic miracle,” which delivered high rates of growth until the crisis of 2008.

Belarusian industrial policy, especially after 2000, also involved an expansion of fuel exports. Large refineries had been built in the 1970s, but the refining sector’s contribution to industrial growth went from 8 percent in the late 1990s to 20 percent on the eve of the Great Recession. Another important development has been the growth of advanced technology sectors, building on both high levels of education and the former Soviet R&D complex that was attached to military-oriented industries. Aided by state support and ties with Belarusian universities, small firms, both private and public, specialize in niche markets like medical and optical-mechanical equipment and radiation control. By 2019, the IT sector accounted for 6.2 percent of the country’s GDP.

Although its proportion in total employment has declined since 1990, agriculture is also generously subsidized by the Belarusian state. Most agricultural land is state-owned, and collective farms are still the predominant form of agricultural enterprise. Domestic producers are highly protected from foreign competition; grocery stores are required to have a certain minimum of their stock from Belarusian farms. The effective share of Belarusian products in their total stock ranges from 45 to 65 percent. These measures appeal to the rural masses, many of whom are Lukashenko’s fervent supporters, but village youth looking for work are gradually leaving for Minsk or abroad to Russia.

 

In the past decade, Belarus faced substantial economic problems, many related to its highly open nature. Exports and imports both stand at around 70 percent of its GDP, making the economy extremely susceptible to trade shocks. Currency crises in 2009, 2011, and 2014 have all resulted in painful devaluations. Large accumulations of foreign debt have also contributed to insecurity. These problems are amplified by dependency on Russia for both export markets and inputs. On both fronts, Belarus has seen itself squeezed. It faces competition from higher quality goods in machinery markets, and Vladimir Putin’s frequent attempts to increase the price of oil and gas have led to dramatic standoffs between the two states.

Despite the continuing importance of state enterprises, there have been considerable changes in their operation. Soviet state enterprises were supposed to be subunits of the planned economy. Already before the Soviet collapse, the nature of the relationship between state and enterprise had changed; the former effectively transferred full property rights over to the latter while retaining formal ownership of the company. This change greatly increased the scope of business activities in which enterprises could engage. It also gave managers control over financial flows. “Red directors” formed networks of commercial subsidiaries, LLCs, and offshore accounts that allowed them to accumulate small fortunes by moving money around that was then reinvested in other “wealth-building” activities like real estate. In Belarus, this form of accumulation reached its peak during the fuel boom after 2000, which coincided with an increase in property development around Minsk.

After 1996, mass privatization in Belarus was halted in favor of a case-by-case process to concentrate the decision to privatize in the presidential administration. The preferred method of denationalization is not outright privatization but corporatization, which means the state at first continues to hold 100 percent equity. The change is still important: it transforms the enterprise into a legal entity indistinguishable from a normal business, leads to a proliferation of holding companies, and allows the advancement of more discrete bureaucratic privatization through “management bonuses” in the form of shares and even larger transfers of partial ownership to Lukashenko’s court businessmen.

Lukashenko’s relationship with much of private business has been more complicated. After coming to power, he implemented re-registration measures, which some businesses didn’t survive. Regulations and state inspections were resented by business owners. Ideologically, there was a definite gulf between the pseudo-socialist rhetoric of the government and business. Despite clashes of interest early in Lukashenko’s rule, business has been loyal to the president and generally cool to the opposition. Business leaders preferred to stay clear of trouble and valued the sense of order which Lukashenko had restored; unlike in Russia or Ukraine, lawlessness and corruption that would make them dependent on some oligarch or mafioso was avoided. Moreover, the decision not to plunge headfirst into neoliberalism had some benefits for Belarus’s new capitalists. Large barriers to entry meant there was no influx of foreign companies that would immediately outcompete and devour them. The results of this are most evident in the flowering of domestic chains in the most privatized sector: retail. One of the largest employers in the country today is the Belarusian supermarket chain Eurotorg.

Important Belarusian brands also benefited from policies to incentivize private business in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Free economic zones—the first was established on the Polish border in Brest in 1996—helped stimulate the development of a domestic export-oriented capitalist class. Since 2005, regulations have been steadily reduced to the benefit of private business. Belarus went from 108th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings to 49th, above states like Italy, Chile, and Mexico. The IT sector has also enjoyed generous tax breaks and a special economic zone, the High-Tech Park in Minsk. The most significant beneficiaries of this state-backed effort have been software engineering company EPAM Systems and Wargaming Group Limited, the developer behind the online game World of Tanks, Belarus’s most famous export.

Within the capitalist class, there is an inner elite with close personal and financial ties to the president and business interests in politically sensitive industries like the fuel trade or armaments. These figures, who fall in and out of favor, build relationships with Lukashenko’s family, invest in sports projects dear to him, and hold various symbolic positions. They benefit from his willingness to give away pieces of the vast asset portfolio of the Belarusian state to his friends and to bestow presidential decrees to open business opportunities.

The institution at the heart of this nexus is the Presidential Business Administration (UDP). Directly answerable to Lukashenko, the UDP is a sprawling commercial empire involved in, among other sectors, real estate, the fuel trade, and hotels. The current head of the UDP is Viktor Sheiman, the president’s former security chief, who was pushed out from the National Security Council in 2008 by Lukashenko’s son but has now returned to prominence. While security chief, he was the arms dealer Vladimir Peftiev’s key patron within the presidential court, and it is rumored he had interests in the growing supermarket sector. As head of the UDP, Sheiman has overseen the sort of commercial schemes at which the Belarusian authorities have become experts. A complex network of companies, many formally owned by businessmen close to Lukashenko and Sheiman, has grown around the UDP, mainly in logistics and fuel trading. These companies are also involved in some of the more illicit mercantile ventures of the Belarusian inner circle, including rare mineral ventures in Africa and the contraband market in Russian tobacco.

 

From the outset, it was clear that Lukashenko was not simply going to act in the populist role he had assumed. In his first years in power, Lukashenko implemented a harsh austerity program that raised administrative prices for rent, utilities, and food. In the late 1990s, consumer subsidies increased dramatically in a highly inflationary period but were once again drastically cut in the early 2000s. Lukashenko’s political calculus has sustained cycles of increased subsidization—“full cost recovery” for public utilities has always been a declared goal of the Belarusian government—but they’ve been followed by sharp rate hikes.

The massive array of social benefits, both monetary and in-kind, that Belarus inherited from the Soviet Union has followed a similar pattern. In 2007, a sweeping “streamlining” bill restricted or eliminated numerous benefits, from free medication for Chernobyl victims to travel discounts for students, although some benefits were later partially restored—and then cut again. The percentage of the bottom 40 percent of the population receiving special benefits decreased 64 percent from 2003 to 36 percent in 2015. A pension reform also raised the retirement age in 2017.

The government also gradually introduced measures that have undercut public, universal provision of education and healthcare. The public health system was partially commercialized, and free services were curtailed. Textbook and school meal fees were instituted that have proved burdensome for the poor. Two-thirds of students in public higher education pay fees. The number of child-care facilities has also declined. In the field of housing, government policy moved away from direct public provision toward loans, allowances, and subsidies, and the housing stock has been thoroughly privatized.

The presence of a large public sector partially mitigates these disinvestments. But while the average Belarusian state-owned enterprise may provide more job security and a wider variety of benefits than a typical capitalist firm, the difference is much less significant than before 1990. In 1999, Lukashenko passed Presidential Decree No. 29, which allowed for the large-scale proliferation of fixed-term contracts, overriding the government’s own labor code. This highly precarious form of employment was extended to workers in state-owned enterprises as well as to more conventional public-sector workers. A steady reduction of employment in industry and expansion of the service sector were both facilitated by the decree. Foreign companies in Belarus have taken advantage of this system. In 2019, for example, the German shaft-sinking contractor Redpath Deilmann used the fixed-term contract’s nonrenewal powers to fire twenty workers who had signed a complaint about safety.

The Belarusian working class also suffers from paltry unemployment benefits. The government liked to claim that the unemployment rate was 1 percent or even lower, but with the adoption of ILO methodology in 2017, it was revealed to be 5.7 percent, which means unemployment was substantial even during boom times. There is also evidence of extensive use of compulsory reduced work hours and administrative leave in manufacturing. The Belarusian authorities, moreover, display punitive attitudes toward the poor and unemployed that go further than understated statistics. In 2013, Presidential Decree No. 550 introduced work requirements on targeted social benefits. More controversially, in 2017, the president implemented a tax on the unemployed. The measure was so unpopular that Lukashenko was forced to backtrack, but he replaced it with harsh regulations that force the unemployed to pay higher prices for public services.

 

The immense social discontent that the unemployment tax engendered can be viewed as the prelude to last August’s protests. The total hollowing out of Belarus’s social contract combined with one anti-popular measure after another finally led to an open confrontation, after a fairly long period of relative social peace. During the COVID-19 pandemic, alienation and resentment toward Lukashenko were compounded by his buffoonish denial of the seriousness of the deadly virus. All this pushed masses of people to vote for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. When it was declared that she lost by such an obviously falsified margin, the social discontent that had been bubbling for years boiled over.

It was no coincidence that workers in many large factories downed their tools to protest the rigged elections. The Western media was taken aback by Lukashenko’s “base” turning against him, but this was a misreading: Lukashenko’s base does not consist of factory workers, but of state-backed commercial speculators, courtier capitalists, and the nomenklatura bourgeoisie. Mass protests and strikes finally brought this reality into the open.

Undoubtedly, most of the industrial actions last summer were spontaneous, but crucial organizing by independent unions outside of the FPB had persisted despite repression and bureaucratic obstruction. It remains to be seen whether the independent labor movement will be reinvigorated or if a dissident current will emerge within the official union structure, analogous to the infiltration by activist-workers of the official labor structures under Francoism in Spain.

Despite the proletarian character of many of the protests, the leaders of the contemporary opposition are more aligned with the new professional strata that has come to maturity under Lukashenko’s reign. Many of them were oriented toward the technocratic current in the bureaucracy, which has pushed the country toward a more typically Western form of capitalism, lessening the influence of the networks of officialdom and privileged businesses. The pace of change, nevertheless, has been too slow for many who want a break with Belarus’s sui generis nomenklatura-capitalism. Viktor Babariko, who stood for president before being jailed, was a bank manager employed by a Gazprom subsidiary. Valery Tsepkalo, who also ran for president before fleeing the country, represents an interesting continuity with the politics of the 1990s. A graduate of the Soviet diplomatic school MGIMO in Moscow, he was one of the ambitious Young Wolves who joined Lukashenko’s campaign staff, and he served as the director of the High-Tech Park for twelve years. His decision to challenge Lukashenko indicates the alienation of some of the administrative and state managerial cadre from the president.

This feeling extends to the broader professional salariat. Tech workers in particular were a substantial driving force of the protests. These routine professionals see in the old-style nomenklatura an obstacle to progress, although it’s unclear what sort of socioeconomic order they would actually back. The largely Minsk-based professionals are joined by a provincial petite bourgeoisie with strong anti-bureaucratic instincts, whose frustrations were given ample voice by the Gomel businessman and YouTuber Sergei Tikhanovsky, the jailed husband of Lukashenko’s final presidential rival. This mass of professionals, small business owners, and disaffected bureaucrats has confronted the dominant-class bloc of officialdom and Lukashenko-oriented business, for whom the current political arrangement works just fine.

One sign of underlying class antagonism within the anti-Lukashenko camp is the opposition’s unambiguously neoliberal program, which overflows with measures to stimulate individual entrepreneurship and small and medium enterprise and to attract foreign investment. Privatization and “optimization” of the workforce size in the state sector are promised, as is the full commodification of land. Devotion to this program has been enshrined in the draft constitution released by the Coordination Council of the Belarusian opposition: “The State ensures equal conditions for all economic subjects, stimulates fair competition, encourages entrepreneurship and the economic initiatives of citizens, and upholds free external and internal trade and investment.” The opposition has promised to take union positions into account through tripartism, but this was common to all “transitional” liberalism in Eastern Europe, and it did not offset long-term decline for newly autonomous trade unions.

The opposition must contend not only with maintaining its momentum in the face of an entrenched Lukashenko government, but with Russia. Putin has always had much less patience with his Belarusian counterpart than did Yeltsin, his predecessor. In response, going against his earlier Russophile persona, Lukashenko has tried to do as much as possible to maintain Belarus’s relative autonomy from Russia, even while remaining dependent on the country economically. In the past few months, Lukashenko has tried desperately to repair his fraught relationship with Putin to gain the Russian president’s protection. If the Russian ruling class has its way, Lukashenko will surrender much of the state sector to them and implement constitutional reforms that would allow pro-Russian parties to act as a check in parliament. This puts the opposition in an awkward position, since its traditional sponsors are Russia’s rivals: the United States and the European Union.

The opposition hoped, if not to gain the support of Russia, then at least to ensure its neutrality in its struggle with Lukashenko, although this is looking increasingly unlikely. Babariko, the former Gazprom employee, and Tsepkalo, the MGIMO graduate, have extensive Russian ties, and the social groups they represent would welcome the economic “reforms” that Russia would force Lukashenko to accept. So would elements of the private sector that to this point have remained neutral but are not so deeply enmeshed in the inner circle as to want a continuation of Lukashenko’s personalistic rule. Reforms that would eliminate barriers to capital and wealth accumulation, while avoiding the potential risks of middle-class liberalism, would be supported by a large section of the Belarusian affluent.

So far, there is little sign that the country is headed in any other direction than the preservation of Lukashenko’s rule. We should not be surprised if he manages to cling to power in the near term. In his extraordinary political career, he has proved to be a master opportunist. But he would have to be very lucky to continue to hold back so large an accumulation of social and political antagonisms as exists in Belarus today. It will take only one major miscalculation on his end for them to explode once again.


Cyryl Ryzak works as a researcher for a trade union. He lives in New York City.


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