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Belarus – Stability on a Shaky Foundation

Photo of Belarus' President Lukashenko together with national flag

Belarus' President Lukashenko with national flag, courtesy of Zachary Harden/flickr

Alexander Lukashenko is still there, whether you like it or not. As president of Belarus since 1994 he has overseen the ostensible stabilization of his country, if you are willing to ignore how it has been achieved, that is.

But what are Lukashenko’s prospects after the next presidential election, expected to be held at the beginning of 2011?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union (a collapse it opposed) Belarus took a unique way, different from the 14 other former Soviet states. While the others went through political, economic and social turmoil, Belarus’ path resembled that of a light version of Soviet socialism with stability and modest prosperity.

Over the years, Lukashenko centralized economic and political power in the hands of his regime. Two thirds of Belarus’ economy is still state owned. This in turn assured loyalty from the bureaucracy and the political elites who could not  get access to sources of national wealth, which would have allowed them to develop a political appetite and gain leverage. Unlike in Ukraine or Russia, no ‘oligarch class’ could develop, making the president the ultimate re-distributor of wealth and political power in the country.

After the constitutional reform of 1996 a semi-presidential system was established that led to a complete dismantling of a western-style system of checks and balances. The legislative powers of the parliament are weak, the president controls the executive branch and the judiciary is simply an extension of the presidential administration. Since there is no liberal elite, pressure for liberalization and cooperation with the West is practically non-existent.

Another pillar of regime stability is sustained public support, despite rigged elections and lack of freedoms. Opinion polls from 2006 and 2008 demonstrate public support for the Lukashenko regime and its ability to ensure economic growth, low unemployment and social welfare – underlying the regime’s sustainability in a very real, tangible way.

Yet, what looks like a success story comes at a price that will be increasingly felt in the future – dependence on Russia. At the heart of Belarus’ economic performance and social equality are imports of Russian energy, capital and raw materials well below world market prices. These subsidies added up to around 20 percent of the country’s annual GDP in 2007; in 2009 selling refined products based on cheaply imported Russian oil for world market prices accounted for a third of the GDP. This income, in turn, lubricated the aging industries and the redistribution machine of the state. Industry itself has seen nearly no modernization since the fall of the USSR with products that are marketable only in the post-Soviet space and not on the world market.

Given this background it is perfectly understandable that Belarus is one of Russia’s closest allies. However, it is increasingly unclear whether Russia wants to invest as much into this friendship as it used to. Russia is pushing the prices of its oil and gas upwards, forcing the country to accept Russian influence in the crucial oil and gas industries and even pushing toward economic integration, as the recent start of a customs union between both countries and Kazakhstan shows. Commentators argue that Russia’s economic and political conditionality increasingly undermines Belarusian statehood and sovereignty.

The pressure on Lukashenko is growing – if not from inside, then certainly (and increasingly) from the outside. The model of stability that his regime has pursued lacks a solid foundation and Russia is increasingly willing to show just how vulnerable his position has become. In early July the Gazprom-owned Russian TV channel NTV aired an unflattering documentary about Lukashenko titled “The Belarusian Godfather,” depicting him in rather unfavorable way.

He might respond by saying that there is no conflict between Belarus and Russia,  but who has more pull in this game remains to be seen. Lukashenko needs more than just popular support for political survival.

To learn more about Belarus, please consult the ISN’s Digital Library section on Belarus. The following papers might be of particular interest: