Belarus Protests 2020: Another Soviet-Like End to Dictatorship?
Written by Vaidehi Meharia
Research Associate at Law & Order
St. Xaviers College, Kolkata
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1991, brought a ‘wind of change’ for various nations, previously incorporated within the Soviet Union (Aliyev, 2015). This group of countries which for forty-five years after the Second World War had existed on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, saw dramatic changes in their political systems in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These changes took various shapes and the question which these countries faced was quite complex: would they be able to develop forms of rule and structures of participation that would allow them to replace the authoritarian rule of the communist years? (Stephen White, 2003). While particular countries, such as Poland, Hungary and Slovenia have engaged in economic pluralization and democratization as whole, the same cannot be said for countries like Russia, Belarus Azerbaijan, and other Central Asian countries that are controlled by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes to this day (Stephen White, 2003).
The nature of the existing government in Belarus that sparked pro-democracy movements in various parts of the country and the gradual but recognizable thrusts of the West to encourage the movement seems all too familiar. It takes one back to the changes in the political dynamics of Europe and Russia back in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Alexander Lukashenko’s idea of a planned economy, marginal market economic elements, abnormal focus on the industrial sector, is in many ways, similar to the Soviet economy (Åslund, 2020). Thus, the major cause of discontentment arises from the repeated economic failures and the increasing political repression which were also the reasons for the outbreak of separatist movements within and outside the Soviet Union thirty years ago.
The Belarusian Dictatorship Under Lukashenko
Among the states which have not succeeded in doing away with their Soviet roots, the case of Belarus is particularly noteworthy. Not only is it a country which was the former Soviet Republic since the end of the Second World War, but it has also seen little democratization since the end of the Cold War. Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ came to power in July 1994. Since then, the Parliament has become weaker, political opponents have been driven into exile or disappeared, and the media has been silenced. He also happens to be the only head of state in Europe to use the death penalty – a bullet to the prisoner’s head and employ the state-sponsored secret service, KGB, to maintain his grip on power (Goncharenko, 2019). If these totalitarian measures of the state were not enough, Lukashenko has also turned Belarus into a miniature version of the Soviet Union, as the country’s industrial and agricultural sectors are heavily subsidized and benefit from close ties to Russia (Åslund, 2020).
Furthermore, what definitively determines the state of Belarus as one of a dictatorship is the lack of free and fair popular elections ever since Lukashenko came to power in the 1990s. This has proven to be a major cause of discontentment among the Belarusians despite the fact that statistics prove that he is not unpopular among his people (Rice-Oxley, 2014). The protests against the rigged Election Commission of the State in August 2020 are not unprecedented. Tens of thousands of demonstrators had gathered in Minsk for the very first time in 2010, when Lukashenko’s Election Commission announced him as the winner even before the polls had closed (Rice-Oxley, 2014).
This time the cause of animosity is along the same vein, but it is accompanied by the President’s complacency to effectively deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the growing frustration of the citizens over the country’s stagnating economy (Dickinson, 2020).
Not only did he refuse to accept the coronavirus as a potential threat by dismissing the eminent fears as ‘psychosis,’ but he also resisted the pleas to implement nationwide lockdowns, saying that the damages to the economy would be worse than the virus itself (Deutsche Welle, 2020).
The widespread allegations that the 2020 elections were fraudulent to have added to the growing dissatisfaction with the long-serving dictator. Poll workers were pressured to sign documents with falsified results in favor of Lukashenko, or sign documents where the vote totals were left blank, even before the voting finished (Irish Times, 2020). Lukashenko blamed the cause of the unrest in the country on international interference— “every expression of sympathy from outside the country was repackaged and reframed as akin to intervention, giving him the pretext to quash dissent, even if doing so required force” (Sehran, 2020). However, amidst the protests arising out of the fraudulent 2020 elections, it has become apparent that there is a clear indication of the democratic awakening of the people of Belarus, who have begun to recognize the urgent need for a participatory form of government (Dickinson, 2020). To further this need for change, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the opposition, went to great lengths to assert that their revolution “is not geopolitical but democratic” in contrast to Lukashenko’s claims that the unrest was internationally influenced (Serhan, 2020).
The End of the Last European Dictatorship?
The question however remains whether or not these pro-democracy movements could lead to the establishment of a democratic political system and if the country will be able to completely wash its hands off of the long-lasting autocratic history. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, countries in Eastern Europe did systematically transition to popular democracies and worked hard to dissociate themselves from the Soviet ties (Aliyev, 2015). While in comparison, it would seem that Belarus may be able to adopt a similar approach as the former satellite states of Eastern Europe , Belarusian politics has aligned itself quite differently in the past thirty years of post-communism to be able to do the same. Not only has it gone through another thirty years of authoritarian rule as opposed to the forty-five of the now democratic satellite states, but it also lacks the presence of a strong domestic structure or a movement to spearhead the process of democratization which existed in the formerly satellite states, much before the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The ongoing protests against Lukashenko are fresh and are only just beginning to display signs of future potential and are triggered by the mishandling of the pandemic and the economic downturns of the country. This process of democratization has not always proven to be successful even in those countries which have succeeded in embarking upon the process (Aliyev, 2015). Post-Soviet regimes such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have succeeded in bringing democratic reforms that are easily reversible and are extremely fragile, such that they have been described as ‘hybrid’ or ‘transitional’ regimes (Aliyev, 2015). Studies conducted in the area have also conceded that the majority of post-Soviet states end up as regimes with little or no resemblance to a democracy (Aliyev, 2015).
Another important factor to consider here is the former dictatorial regimes themselves. Countries with a long-standing history of a single-party rule or a dictatorship, such as Russia and China have gone through their respective phases of democratization. They have allowed dissent, popular elections, and free functioning of market economies. However, in the past two decades, in the context of Russia and China, paints a different picture altogether. These political systems may very well be democracies on the surface but, due to their integration in an authoritarian structure of governance for more than seventy years in Russia and almost forty years in China, totalitarian tendencies remain deeply rooted in their political systems. Furthermore, they have evolved to name themselves as ‘hegemonic presidency’ in Russia and a ‘socialist consultative democracy’ in China (Ye, 2019) .
Furthermore, it has been observed that the European Union, while condemning that the 2020 elections in Belarus are “unfair, undemocratic and unfree” (Linkevicius, 2020), has remained hesitant in taking any concrete action against the authoritarian regime. In the midst of mending their relations with Russia, the West has been openly ignoring Lukashenko’s gross violation of international law and the Belarusians’ human rights. In this context, it is noteworthy that until and unless the European Union takes sufficient steps (such as sanctions against the Lukashenko regime and even the Kremlin for intervening and even providing support to the cause of the protests in Belarus) in support of not only the ongoing protests in Belarus but also the media houses of the country, Lukashenko’s attempts at maintaining status quo will not deter.
However, it would be puerile to disregard the outreach of the ongoing protests in Belarus, which is being spearheaded by the opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Her dialogue with the West and other European countries has positively impacted the people’s fight for a democratic Belarus since there has been talk of countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States to collectively impose sanctions on Lukashenko (Sehran, 2020).
Lithuania has even gone to the extent of recognizing Tsikhanouskaya as the legitimate President of Belarus and imposed travel bans on the Lukashenko regime.
While the efforts of the popular movement led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in the context of the process of democratization cannot be discounted completely, since it has received international support and recognition, it must also be understood that protests against the existing regime, no matter how widespread it is, may not result in the complete democratization of a political system.
In line with the history of how the political systems of Europe have developed in the post-Cold War years, and in the context of how autocracy is deeply rooted in Belarusian politics, it would be surprising that with the dismissal of Alexander Lukashenko that Belarus will be able to take that definitive step towards a completely democratically elected government.
According to Geoffrey Pridham, it is important to emphasize the predominance of reformist forces or alternatively old-regime elements and the emergence of civil society (White, 2003).
In this context, while countries in the region (Slovenia, Poland, and Hungary) have democratized successfully, Belarus still has a long way to go to absolutely uproot Europe's Last Dictator's rule despite the widespread protests and disobedience movements around the country.
 A satellite state refers to a country that may be formally independent but exists under the heavy influence or control of another country. After the end of the Second World War, most of the eastern and central European countries came under the heavy influence of the Soviet Union, both economically and militarily.
 A state’s political system is classified as a ‘hegemony’ when the central authority, i.e the central government holds excessive power over the domestic affairs of a state, so much so that subsidiary bodies have little to contribute in domestic governance. A socialist consultative democracy such as China, is a system of governance that is dedicated to not only the socialist ideology but is also committed to including the role of other opposition political parties and members of diverse ethnic groups and sects of society.
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