Captivated by the upheavals facing Arab autocrats, few in the West have noticed the troubles of another dictator, this time on Europe’s very doorstep – Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenka. For nearly two decades, this former collective farm boss has ruled Belarus by three means:
- A pervasive security apparatus brutally quashes dissenters and instills fear throughout society.
- A Soviet-style economy, propped up by Russian subsidies and revenues from exports to Europe, provides stable, but low-level, welfare.
- And smart geopolitical manoeuvring plays European and Russian interests off each other, effectively eliminating pushes for change from both West and East.
However, with internal friction building and external pressure growing, all three strategies have increasingly failed of late.
The downward spiral of Lukashenka’s rule accelerated during and after the recent presidential elections in Belarus. Unsure of his support among the population, Lukashenka raised wages for public sector employees massively. When citizens still turned out in their tens of thousands to protest electoral fraud, they were struck with the full force of the police state. Mass arrests led to an unprecedented wave of solidarity among ordinary Belarusians and ended Europe’s rapprochement. Lukashenka is now fully at the mercy of Russia, an erstwhile but increasingly unwilling sponsor.
Lukashenka’s growing nervousness has translated into a hysterical campaign against all those advocating change. Dubbed a “fifth column”, democrats, opposition parties, human rights groups and independent media have been subjected to search, interrogation and closure. State propaganda lashed out against the West, especially Poland and Germany, for allegedly conspiring against the government. The entire opposition leadership was arrested and tortured by the KGB, put on political show trial and handed harsh prison sentences. Despite this, dissent, whether on the internet or around kitchen tables, seems ever harder to silence.
Meanwhile the economy is collapsing. Currency reserves have dwindled by over two thirds since October 2010, forcing the central bank to devalue the rouble by half. A run on foreign currency, durable goods and food stuffs ensued but local money buys less and less. Foreign investment has dried up. Companies have laid off 600,000 employees, some 13 percent of the country’s work force. Belarus needs $1 billion per month to fill glaring gaps but funding has not been forthcoming. The West is unwilling and Russia is reluctant, while Belarus’ credit rating is worse than that of troubled Euro zone members.
In this desperate situation, a bomb blast ripped through a central metro station in the capital Minsk in April, leaving fourteen dead and two hundred injured. Although the authorities swiftly produced culprits, the stability and security attributed to Lukashenka have been thrown into doubt. There are also allegations that the state police was behind the blast, whether to distract from Belarus’ problems and to justify moves against the opposition, or as a result of infighting among fractions of the security forces. In either case, Lukashenka’s standing has been damaged. He is alternately perceived as using unwarranted force against ordinary people or as losing control over his apparatus.
Violence against dissenters, the wretched state of the economy and concerns about domestic security have damaged public support for Lukashenka. Independent pollsters report that over the first three months of 2011 alone, his support rating diminished by ten percent and is heading towards an all-time low of only a quarter of Belarusians. Even more telling is that a majority of Belarusians now supports EU integration and is opposed to closer ties with Russia, a complete reversal over the last five years. Clearly public sentiment, a non-negligible factor even in a dictatorship, is turning against Lukashenka.
It may be too early to forecast Lukashenka’s demise. It is clear, however, that he is running out of the resources needed to maintain the acquiescence of his people and to satisfy his greedy cronies. His survival now hinges on both Russia and the EU. The Kremlin promised some money but demands economic reforms, privatization in favour of Russian capital, and closer political integration, amounting to a partial surrender of Lukashenka’s power and Belarusian sovereignty.
The EU, in turn, froze political contacts following the recent electoral fraud and police brutality and imposed a travel ban and asset freeze against the Belarusian leadership, yet it has not interrupted its trade with the country. By accepting the bulk of Belarusian exports, the EU effectively keeps the Belarusian dictator afloat. Ideally, it would now impose economic sanctions targeting petroleum products, chemicals, fertilizers, textiles and machinery but the necessary consensus has long been blocked by some EU member states. At a minimum, therefore, the EU (jointly with the U.S.) should veto a large stabilisation loan, which Belarus hopes to receive from the International Monetary Fund.
As American sanctions have demonstrated in the past, only economic pressure will force Lukashenka to the negotiating table. There, the first demand must be the immediate release of all political prisoners, followed by a dialogue between government and the opposition about how to overcome the current impasse.
Lukashenka will not readily accept that his days are numbered. He will cling to power by all means. Before the situation in Belarus turns even uglier, Europe and Russia must act decisively and in concert. Belarus is their common neighbour, and it is in their best interest that change takes the peaceful Tunisian path rather than the bloody one of Libya or Syria.