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Belarus – The struggle of Europe’s Last Dictatorship
EcoPol Journal / 21 February 2021
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Master of Finance Class of 2022
Shubhra is currently a student in the Masters of Finance programme at Frankfurt School. He also has a full time MBA and is a fellow in public policy, specialising in Defence & Foreign Affairs. He has worked as investment consultant in leading financial institutions in India.

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Alexander Lukasahenko, often referred to as the last dictator in Europe, had thought of 9th August presidential elections as a repeat of the election engineering that he has mastered for the last 26 years. The opposition rejected the results declared on the next day, which were dubbed rigged by the independent observers from EU and other countries.

The morning of 10th August, 2020 was filled with raucous cacophony of the protest demanding the resignation of Lukashenko in Minsk. It was a small crowd of hundred or so peaceful protesters, at the beginning shouting ‘Long live Belarus’, ‘As long as we are united, we are invincible’. President Lukashenko, predictably went on to repress the small peaceful protest by use of riot police and heavy handedness, hallmark of countries that are bereft of strong democratic institutions which could give dissenting voices a platform to air their grievances. The streets of Belarus would soon be filled with songs of protest, sung by young and old alike.

How did it escalate?

The fallacy of dictators is that they never know which repression event will turn out to be the last for them. Lukashenko had governed Belarus by keeping Belarus neutral between EU and Russia, had used corruption to grease the functioning of the government which is based on oligarchic clans. This has led to an economy largely stagnant and one dimensional, dependent on subsidized gas from Russia and with majority exports and imports from Russia.

The opposition call for more protests saw 100,000 thousand throng the streets of the Minsk soon after the declaration of results. The massive numbers were unprecedented since the fall of Soviet Union. The protests, led by women on the frontlines was unique in its character as it was largely peaceful, sometimes scattered to make life difficult for riot police, in the face of brutal repression by Lukasahenko security agencies. The protesters have persisted for more than 140 days now, in January 2021.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has emerged as the leader of the opposition, currently exiled in Lithuania after she got out of the country due to the repression unleashed by Lukashenko.  An English teacher by profession, she was a stay-at-home mom. Her world completely changed when her husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a prominent opposition figure who used Youtube to shed light on the corruption in the Lukashenko regime, was kidnapped by the regime when he filed to fight the presidential election (Masha Green, 2020). This thrusted the mantle of leadership on her, which she has worn with assured dignity and steel even in the face of constant threat to her family and her children. She has recently been awarded the Sakharov Peace Prize for her valiant effort.

The role of Russia

Belarus sits at the heart of geopolitical fault line between NATO and Russia. Belarus is part of the common security architecture of Russia, and is one of the most important pieces of Russian military doctrine in its opposition to NATO. A glance at the map below shows the importance of Belarus in Russian military planning vis-à-vis NATO

The precedent of Ukraine is very raw for everyone involved including the Belarusian opposition. This is why we haven’t seen the level of activity from EU as was evident in the ‘Maidan’ protests in Ukraine. The EU has imposed economic sanctions on Lukashenko regime, and has placed 50 Belarusian officials in total by the last round of sanctions.

However, the key player in the scenario is Vladimir Putin. There is no question that Belarus will not be allowed to dilute the security architecture. President Putin has offered his special combat services and police as a last resort to Lukashenko. However, the thought that Putin will do everything in his arsenal to keep Lukashenko in power is a fallacy. Putin is also exasperated by Lukashenko to a certain degree, the Ukraine episode is also fresh in Putin’s mind which showed him the limits of military domain. The sanctions imposed on Russia and the ensuing capital flight has imposed a significant cost on Russia.

Response of the West

The US, under Biden will be more proactive on issues of human rights; however, the US has a lot to deal with at the domestic front itself. The significant lever that EU has over Russia right is sanctions. The sanctions imposed for Ukraine itself is getting harder to maintain because of different priorities of EU member states. NORD STREAM 2, the pipeline under various sanctions, is crucial to the Russian strategic decision to bypass central Europe and bind Germany. The pipeline makes huge economic sense for Germany, and thus will not be allowed to be used as bargaining chip, unless something dramatic occurs.

What are the prospects?

The truth at the end of day is there is little appetite in the EU to significantly challenge Russia after Crimea in Ukraine. The Russians possess the capability of ‘escalation dominance’ at every level of conflict if its imposed. Lukashenko is however on a slippery slope, loathed by EU and unwanted by Russia. The only thing keeping him in power is Kremlin’s hatred for protest and regime change through protest.

The best-case scenario for everyone involved is to find a political figure palatable to protesters and Russia who maintains the security architecture, and doesn’t drastically change the status quo.


Any FS student can contribute to the EcoPol Journal. If you would like to contribute, please send an e-mail to ecopol_journal@fs-ecopol.de with your idea proposal. Any topics that you believe relevant and interesting are welcome.


References

Masha Green, The NewYorker, https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-new-yorker-interview/sviatlana-tsikhanouskaya-is-overcoming-her-fears,  13th December, 2020.

Export Entreprises SA, nordeatrade, https://www.nordeatrade.com/dk/explore-new-market/belarus/trade-profile, December 2020.

Belarus Chapter, The World Bank, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/belarus/overview, December 2020.

Alexandra Odynova, CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/belarus-news-protests-keep-pressure-on-alexander-lukashenko-minks-arrests/, 14th December,2020.

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