In the updated second edition of his book ‘Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship’, Andrew Wilson traces the emergence of the Belarusian nation and examines the genesis of and challenges to the Lukashenka regime. He focuses in particular on the impact of the protests following the 2020 presidential elections.
Already in the book’s first edition in 2011 your final chapter was called ‘the edifice crumbles’, meaning the Lukashenka regime was in crisis. How did Lukashenka manage to stay in power?
After his victory in 1994, Lukashenka was able to stay in power because his populist persona had some genuine appeal for many Belarusians; post-Soviet nostalgia was shared by many, and he provided what we might call populist authoritarian public goods, like law and order and low oligarchy with most of the collectivist socialist economy kept intact. In the late 1990s and early noughties, the Belarusian economy had done pretty well. After the global economic crisis in 2008 however, the economy was not self-sustaining. It lived off Russian subsidies. That is what I meant by the ‘edifice crumbling’.
The formula that evolved was to gradually slim the old state sector and to grow the private sector to pay the bills. That changed Belarus a lot over the next decade. The conditions that brought Lukashenka to power in the 1990s were not permanent. The growth of the private sector produced a larger middle class and a more urbanised country. Most protesters in 2020 were from this new middle class.
The big question mark over Lukashenka's regime survival after August 2020 is the lack of a viable economic strategy. Countries can survive a long time without that, but eventually it will be difficult. At the moment, Belarus is becoming an economically dysfunctional, highly coercive state on the borders of Europe, contingent on Russia’s support, which is not a healthy scenario at all.
If at all, to what extent did Western foreign policies towards Belarus exert any influence on the development of the Lukashenka regime?
With the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s war against Ukraine 2014, Belarus was in a potentially similar position to Ukraine. Lukashenka was able to present his survival as the ‘sovereignisation’ of the state. In order to sovereignise and to manage the primary and increasingly difficult relationship with Russia, Lukashenka needed options with the EU and the United States to diversify his foreign policy. But that was never ‘balancing’ in the sense of Belarus being halfway between Russia and the West. That process from 2014-2020 was not driven by the West, yet there were opportunities for the West to increase their traditionally limited engagement. Over time, that process would have given the West more linkage and leverage; but it has now effectively ended. Now Lukashenka is stuck with the primary relationship with Russia, which is more difficult for him to manage because his other options are now diminished.
You compare contemporary Belarus with Poland in the 1980s, where the state repressed the Solidarność movement but ultimately was forced to give in to their demands. Why do you think is this a fitting scenario?
Poland in the 1970s tried to survive via Western credits and a more consumerist model of ‘real existing socialism’. After the suppression of Solidarność, there was not much of an economic model. If you have that combination, the previous economic strategy does not work anymore and the economy stagnates, then everything depends on the stance of the patron. In the winter of 1980/81 the USSR under Leonid Brezhnev supported the repression of Solidarność by the Polish state, whereas 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev pushed for liberalisation. Similarly, Lukashenka’s fate now depends on Russia. If Putin or his successor withdraws support, his survival might be endangered.
You describe Belarus’ history as ‘a series of false starts’. What do you mean by that?
There is this stereotype that Belarus is Russia-lite and lacks a real history of its own. Every country has a history, but in the Belarusian case it has been discontinuous. First, you had the period of Polatsk, a semi-independent principality of the ancient realm of Kyivan Rus, which is actually a useful starting point for the Belarusian national history. Then what is now Belarus was part of Litva, which is the local name for the ‘Lithuanian’ Commonwealth. The Belarusians stayed loyal to the idea of this multinational state for a long time. What followed was the Tsarist rule and a short-lived attempt to achieve statehood, the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918. Belarus’ story begins then almost ex nihilo with the Soviet period and the Second World War. All these ruptures led to a permanent stop-start process in national identity formation.
Belarus was historically an entity of larger states: Rus, Litva, the Russian empire, and the Soviet Union. Why did this not produce widespread anti-imperialist sentiments?
Because unlike Ukraine, Belarus had no Cossack history. The Cossacks were steppe people that lived independently in what is nowadays Russia and Ukraine. In Ukraine, Cossacks are a symbol of liberty and opposition to external rule; in Russia of state authority. Belarus does not have that tradition and celebrates opposition to external authority only in a subtle way. There is this idea of passive resistance of a society not much affected by external rule. Belarusians are a very immobile people, they do not have a history of migration. The Belarusians have stayed where they were, and external powers have come and gone. The big exception to this lack of, or the limited nature of, a resistance myth is of course the partisans in the Second World War. Interestingly, this has been central to Lukashenka’s historiography; but the protestors last year tried to reappropriate that myth away from the Soviet tradition, ‘We are the new partisans’, and make it a much better recent protest myth.
The interview was conducted by Henri Koblischke, student assistant in communications at ZOiS.