Here is a question: which European country has seen its credit rating downgraded to B/B with a negative outlook for this year and its economy in a free fall? Some may think Greece is the obvious answer, but there is another European state struggling to meet its needs: Belarus.
Is there life after Lukashenka? This was the question I was asked to respond to as a panelist at the CEPA’s US-Central Europe Strategy Forum last week. Well, nuclear fusion has been the energy of the future for the past 50 years. Belarus is sort of like that: it's been on the brink for the past twenty years and as far as we can see, Lukashenka is still sitting pretty in the presidential palace. However, this time around things are different both because of the unprecedented economic crisis that has hit the country and the consequent changes in public mood. Yet the outcome of the current mess may not be as good as the West would like to see – so long as we don’t adjust our strategy.
The few months of the economic crisis have exposed just how unwieldy the system built by President Lukashenka is - it runs on manual control exercised by the president himself. Government decisions are adopted one day and reversed on another; the mid-level bureaucrats may consult with the EBRD or IMF only to find out that these are blocked at the top level. This is firefighting, not governance, and it ends up targeting the symptoms rather than the causes of the current problems.
Unsurprisingly, the Belarusians are getting sick of it. Most of those polled in recent surveys don’t buy the regime’s propaganda and blame the president for the crisis. However, the widespread displeasure has thus far failed to translate into anything more powerful. The number of those who distrust the president grows, but the ranks of those who see themselves as opponents to the regime do not fill nearly as fast. In March, when the crisis became apparent, more than 60% of those polled wanted reforms rather than revolution. Yet neither the regime nor the opposition offers a credible reform plan to get Belarus out of the mess it is in at the moment. Lukashenka hopes that external help might help him cushion the impact of the crisis. The opposition, on the other hand, sometimes acts as if on the day Lukashenka magically disappears the economic crisis will go away too (although let’s not forget that some of their leaders are still in prison).
The BISS analysis of the recent polling results has made the situation crystal clear: a majority of Belarusians now stand in the political centre, supporting neither Lukashenka nor the opposition – but there’s no one to represent them.
Most economists think the government can muddle through for the next two or three years, and in that time the situation may still change in Lukashenka’s favour. Those who talk of Minsk’s immediate default should recall that Vladimir Putin recently said Russia would work to prop up Belarus’ economy, in particular by keeping energy prices low (they’re already the lowest among Russia’s various foreign customers).
Mr Putin also has a pet-project called the Customs Union. The bankruptcy of one of its founding members would not be the best start for the project. Perhaps Russia will switch to a tougher line on Minsk once its own presidential ‘selection’ is over in March. Perhaps not – we simply don’t know. After all,no one predicted the Velvet revolution in 1989; few saw the Rose revolution in Georgia on the horizon; and then there were the unexpected events leading to the downfalls of Mubarak or Ben Ali earlier this year.
As hard as it may be to swallow, the West has limited influence in Belarus. The economy is tied firmly to Russia, and for the majority of Belarusians the EU’s “transformative magnetism” often stops at the border because of the visa regime. The West’s main partner is the opposition (but it is isolated) and it used to talk to the regime (but the dialogue has been frozen after last year’s crackdown). As Matt Rojansky put it, there is simply no realistic way the West can ensure that political prisoners go free, Lukashenka goes away, and average Belarusians go forward to a stable, prosperous, and democratic future.
So what is the West to do? Rather than the regime change or revolution, the key is to build democratic institutions – this is what the country lacks at the moment and this is what the West should focus its efforts on. In a way, when you see how many people in Belarus preferred economic well-being to political freedoms, you can say that for a very long time, Lukashenka’s regime was “democratic”, as it clearly responded to genuine public demands (the same could be said about today’s Russia). Those longing for free and fair elections or independent media space were in trouble, but most people were not.
Preparing for a post-Lukashenka period – whenever it comes – means the EU and US need to do their homework better. We already support projects that have helped draw up plans in areas such as economic reforms, privatisation and reform of the labour market. These things exist on paper, waiting to be implemented. But we need to engage more with the society and help them prepare better for a post-Lukashenka period. Talking to our current or most recent partners – be it the president or the opposition – doesn’t mean talking to the society as a whole. Reaching out to society means going beyond the “usual suspects” and engaging with the emerging middle class – those are the people in the political centre who currently have no one to represent them. This means establishing new partnerships with those who represent institutionalised public interest groups and themselves observe democratic principles (business associations, small entrepreneurs, grass-roots NGOs, and so on). We need more civic re-education too – there’s something wrong with a country where inflation reaches 80%, shops are empty and yet people stay at home instead of protesting. Just compare that with Greece.
My friend Balazs Jarabik likes to say that Belarus doesn’t have a problem because it has Lukashenka – Belarus has a problem and that’s why it has Lukashenka. If the West carries on with its current policy, swinging between half-hearted engagement and half-hearted isolation, on the day Lukashenka finally goes we may find out that we have lots of papers and plans for reforms, but the society is still struggling to cope with the problems that enabled Lukashenka to stay in power in the first place.
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