Flexible Stagnation: How Lukashenka Has Held On To Power For 25 Years In Belarus
(Article text ©2019 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Robert Coalson – July 20, 2019 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/amp/flexible-stagnation-how-lukashenka-has-held-on-to-power-for-25-years-in-belarus/30066472.html)
In 1994, the last Russian troops left Germany and the Baltic states, bringing a symbolic end to the Cold War. The same year saw the Rwandan genocide, and American entrepreneur Jeff Bezos launched an online bookseller called Amazon.
And a 49-year-old former collective farm director with a deep, nasal voice and a knack for populist pronouncements won the first — and so far only — democratic presidential election in Belarus. Alyaksandr Lukashenka was sworn in on July 20, 1994, beginning the first of five presidential terms — and counting.
Europe and the world have undergone startling transformations over the last quarter-century but the presence of Lukashenka has been a constant. Or has it? The wily leader of this resource-poor nation of 10 million bordering Russia, Ukraine, and three European Union and NATO countries has proven endlessly flexible in his constancy, turning his country into a textbook example of adaptive authoritarianism.
‘The Disappearance Of Political Alternatives’
To the surprise of most observers, the political neophyte Lukashenka proved from the beginning to be an adroit politician with formidable instincts. At a turbulent time he tapped a vein of conservatism in Belarus, whose citizens overwhelmingly voted against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1991 referendum and have often sought stability but had to settle for stagnation.
He moved quickly to lay the foundations of the authoritarian system that has become entrenched under his rule by holding a constitutional referendum in 1996 that extended his term to 2001, gave his decrees the force of law, and gave him virtually complete control over the state budget. With these powers, he quickly established personal control over all key institutions — the judiciary, election commissions, unions, law enforcement and security agencies, all major media, and so on.
In 2004, Lukashenka held another constitutional referendum that abolished presidential term limits and completed his personal power-vertical project.
“I don’t consider Lukashenka a failure,” political analyst and opposition United Civil Party Chairman Alyaksandr Feduta tells RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. “He did not intend to run the country, but to take power. As early as 1994, he built the presidential ‘vertical.’ His firm system of control required the reduction of the role of the media and business and the disappearance of political alternatives.”
Feduta adds that Lukashenka was never serious about his declared intention to “revive the Soviet Union.”
“It was always unacceptable for him to be restricted by any external power or even an ideology,” he says. “The main obstacle to the development of a state or national ideology has been Lukashenka.”
As president, Lukashenka has skillfully managed and minimized dissent and opposition with an ever-changing kaleidoscope of sticks and carrots.
He appoints and retains officials at all levels based on their personal loyalty to him. Officials have learned to maintain a low profile and eschew interviews. Even people who follow the region closely would be hard-pressed to name any Belarusian official other than Lukashenka. He has avoided creating a ruling political party, a politburo, or any other form of institutionalized authoritarianism that could emerge as a threat.
Several high-profile opponents of Lukashenka simply disappeared over the years. Former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka disappeared on May 7, 1999. Opposition politician Viktar Hanchar and his associate Antol Krasouski vanished in Minsk on September 16, 1999, while Russian television journalist Dmitry Zavadsky went missing on July 7, 2000. The men are presumed dead, but their fates remain unknown.
A majority of Belarusian citizens remain dependent to one extent or another on the state. Despite calls from international lenders and some of Lukashenka’s own advisers over the years to reform the economy, the state still accounts for about 60 percent of economic activity. Rejecting privatization, even at the price of inefficiency and propping up loss-making enterprises, has allowed Lukashenka to largely avoid the unemployment and dislocation that would inevitably accompany reform.
He has also proven adroit at defusing genuine public discontent. In 2011, for instance, protests broke out after a sharp increase in the price of gasoline. A number of the protesters were arrested and punished, but Lukashenka personally ordered a price reduction.
The same year, workers at a state mining company quit the state-controlled labor union and tried to join an independent one. The leaders of the movement and the heads of the independent union were fired and the movement quashed. But, the remaining workers were given a 50 percent wage hike.
Lukashenka tolerates a feeble, pro-European opposition, but monitors constantly to make sure it remains fragmented and powerless. This opposition’s public appeal is severely limited by several factors, including the fact that most Belarusians are sympathetic to Russia and all are aware that political change through the country’s tightly controlled elections is impossible, while change through protest is perilous.
Crucially, Lukashenka has never allowed a pro-Russian opposition to form. Although he is frequently accused of kowtowing overly much to Moscow, Lukashenka seems aware that some Belarusians might be seduced by someone willing to go even further.
The Length Of The Leash
Managing Belarus’s relations with Russia has also been an essential component of Lukashenka’s 25 years in power. Shortly after his 1994 election, Lukashenka himself proposed the eventual unification of Russia and Belarus. Analysts at the time speculated that Lukashenka envisioned himself as the leader of the united country, seeing then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin as a weak rival.
Progress on the project continued apace with the signing of the 1996 treaty on “the union between Belarus and Russia” and the 1999 Treaty On The Creation Of A Union State Of Russia And Belarus.
“The turning point for Lukashenka came on December 31, 1999, when Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation and Vladimir Putin came to power,” says Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich, who published a biography of Lukashenka in 2011.
“That’s when he understood that the ‘cap of Monomakh’ had found its place and the gate to the Kremlin was closed to him,” he adds, referring to the ancient fur-fringed crown of the Russian tsars that has become a symbol of Russian autocracy.
During a memorable summit in Moscow in 2002, Putin told Lukashenka in no uncertain terms that the model for unification would be the absorption of Belarus by Russia as an additional subject of the Russian Federation. After that, Lukashenka began backpedaling against the integration process, to the point where Russia’s prime minister issued the “Medvedev ultimatum,” tying Moscow’s continued financial support for Belarus to tangible progress on the Union State process.
Since Putin came to power in Russia, bilateral relations have been a constant dance of approach and distancing as economic, political, and geopolitical circumstances have dictated. Belarus remains “narcotically dependent on Russian subsidies,” to quote Karbalevich.
Lukashenka has frequently had to sacrifice shares of key Belarusian assets in exchange for loans from Moscow. In 2011, Russia took control of the Beltransgaz gas-pipeline network for $2.5 billion and a highly subsidized rate for Russian natural gas. In March, opposition political figure Andrey Sannikau accused Lukashenka of “selling Belarus, piece by piece, to Russia.”
Over the Putin years, Russia’s attitude has shifted from efforts to buy Lukashenka’s support to a reluctant willingness to prop him up to prevent chaos and at the behest of Russian interests that benefit from dealing with him.
“They are Russian oligarchic groups, semi-gray criminal structures, shadow figures trading in contraband in the shadow economy — including oil products,” Belarusian political analyst Yaraslau Romanchuk tells RFE/RL. “All this brings in substantial revenues. [Lukashenka] knows how to make a deal. Even many Russian experts admit that these schemes send 70 percent of the profits to Russian pockets, while 30 percent remains in Belarus. This is the most powerful factor that ensures the neutrality of the Russian government in regard to [Lukashenka]. The Kremlin sees no other scenarios at present.”
“Relations between Putin and Lukashenka are a permanent struggle over the length of the leash Putin gives to Lukashenka,” Belarusian opposition figure Anatol Lyabedzka told RFE/RL in an interview in January.
‘The Lesser Evil’
Lukashenka’s relations with the West have also evolved flexibly with the president’s changing needs. In the 1990s, when he was positioning himself as the leader of the Slavic peoples and as the bulwark protecting Belarus from Western-inspired “shock therapy,” Lukashenka was notorious for his anti-Western rhetoric and positions. He supported Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He joined the anti-Western Non-Aligned Movement, and Belarus remains the only European member to this day.
In the face of rough treatment from Putin, however, Lukashenka sought out opportunities to extract benefits from the West. “He believes that in the modern world it is not possible to be completely independent,” analyst Feduta says. “But sovereignty must be preserved. When one external patron is weakened, you must find another.”
In late 2006, one of the most serious of the many “gas wars” between Moscow and Minsk played out and in 2007, Moscow introduced duties on oil exports to Belarus. In 2008, Moscow fought a brief war with Georgia and demonstrated clearly to Lukashenka that Russia was willing to use force against its former Soviet neighbors. It was during this time that Lukashenka took the unexpected step of joining the EU’s Eastern Partnership program and generally reaching out to the EU. He eased up somewhat on the media and released some high-profile political prisoners.
The wily president was able to use a $3.5 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan in 2010 to fund various populist gestures — such as raising the average state-sector wage to $500 a month — in the run-up to his reelection that year.
That short honeymoon ended, however, when Lukashenka oversaw a brutal crackdown against protests over his rigged reelection, including the jailing of some candidates who opposed him.
Lukashenka initiated a second approach toward the West following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its intense involvement in fomenting and continuing the conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine. He positioned Belarus as a bridge between Russia and the West and offered Minsk as the venue for internationally mediated talks to resolve the Ukraine conflict.
In an interview with Bloomberg News in May 2015, Lukashenka took a jab at Putin in a reference to a 2005 comment by then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Lukashenka was “the last dictator in Europe.”
“I’m not Europe’s last dictator anymore,” Lukashenka said. “There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I’m the lesser evil already.”
What lies in store for this second thaw with the West remains to be seen: The next presidential vote is due in 2020 and in Belarus, as in all hybrid authoritarian regimes, election season is always a potential crisis.
‘There Will Definitely Be A Crisis’
Two years younger than Putin, Lukashenka will turn 65 in August. He appears to be in good health and to lead a healthy lifestyle — an example he frequently urges Belarusians to follow. He has said the election will be held, and he seems certain to secure a sixth presidential term.
Nonetheless, after 25 years of Lukashenka, many in the region are wondering what comes next for Belarus.
“It is a peculiarity of personalized authoritarian regimes that the departure of the leader is always a crisis,” analyst Karbalevich says. “We have recently seen the example of Kazakhstan, where there has been a very smooth transition of power. But even this transition provoked a crisis. During protests after the presidential election there, nearly 1,000 people were arrested. More than in Belarus in 2010.”
“Think of the collapse of Venezuela after the death of [Hugo] Chavez,” he continues. “When Lukashenka leaves, there will definitely be a crisis.”
Belarus has no tradition of inherited succession, and Lukashenka has not cultivated the kind of North Korean cult of personality that would facilitate the transfer of power to one of his three sons. His eldest son, Viktar, is a presidential security adviser, but like all Belarusian officials, he keeps a low profile. His middle son, Dzmitry, has no position or public role.
Lukashenka has occasionally taken his youngest son, Kolya, now 14, on official trips, but such appearances have not gone over well with Belarusians generally. In recent years, Kolya has been much less visible.
It is possible that Lukashenka will come under increasing pressure from Russia to submit to unification. Putin faces a crisis himself in 2024, when term limits bar him from seeking reelection, and the possibility of retaining power by becoming leader of a closer union with Belarus is a perennial back-pocket idea in the Kremlin.
“Outside players could step into the game,” Belarusian political analyst Vital Tsyhankov tells RFE/RL. “There will be a very serious crisis if Lukashenka is removed suddenly, without preparation. This would be a very unpleasant scenario for Belarus.”
Feduta predicts that Lukashenka will try to prepare for a transition by reforming the system he has built during his sixth term.
“He will modernize the system himself, under his strict control, during his last presidential term,” Feduta says. “I think Lukashenka is tired and no longer wants to exercise manual control of the regime as he has in the past. He hasn’t been able to reform anything because he has been either fighting off the opposition, or the West, or Russia. But now he will have to arrange things so that he can leave office.”
With reporting by Yury Drakokhrust of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and Mikhail Sokolov of RFE/RL’s Russian Service