Is Belarus the North Korea of Europe?
‘Republic in name, although in fact a dictatorship’, with these words US officials and CIA fact book describes Belarus. The landlocked ex soviet republic is by many considered the last dictatorship of Europe due to its leadership, state control and human rights violations.
Belarus became independent following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and follows a path similar to other ex republics; however, since 1994 started to develop an authoritarian rule and differentiated itself from the rest.
Belarus has been a powerful state inside the USSR, rich and industrialised, was considered an example of soviet progress.
Mainly inhabited by Belarusians and Russians, Belarus has also a minority of Poles and a Jewish community although nearly the totality was wiped out during the Nazis occupation during the Second World War.
The strong ties and relations with the Soviet Russian Republic created the idea that Belarus was only a nominal soviet republic, sharing most of the history, ethnic and religious customs with Moscow.
On 27 July 1990, Belarus declared its national sovereignty; the Belarusian SSR was formally renamed Republic of Belarus on 25 August 1991. Stanislav Shushkevich became the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, the top leadership position in Belarus. On December 8, 1991, Shushkevich met with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, in Belavezhskaya Pushcha, to formally declare the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (cis).
Genesis of an authoritarian rule
The last parliamentary elections in September 2012 were just another chapter in this story of autocracy. The elections were boycotted by the two major opposition parties United Civic and the Belarus Popular Front, whilst Just World and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party decided to take part. Members of unregistered opposition movements, such as the Tell the Truth campaign, were listed as unaffiliated candidates.
In these conditions is then not surprising if governments parties collected all the seats, in what the opposition called a farce, whilst Lukashenko slammed the door calling the opposition ‘cowards’.
These elections come after the presidential election won by Lukashenko with a landslide in 2010, in a continuous process of power consolidation since he was first elected in 1994.
In the first multiparty election for the presidency held in 1994, Lukashenko collected 45.1% of the votes at the first round and 80.1 % on the second, whilst ex leader Shushkevich was humiliated with less than 10% of the votes.
Since then Lukashenko consolidated his power over the years through “controlled” elections, state repression and constitutions amendments. The first radical step in this way was in May 1995 the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet, introduction of Russian language as official and equal to Belarusian, symbols and flags changed resembling those of the Belarus SSR.
On 25 November 1996 a referendum proposed by Lukashenko approved the extension of presidential powers with 70.5% of voters. During late nineties, he extended control over the economy with the nationalisation of the National bank of the Republic of Belarus.
His increasing power was directly proportional to the decrease in approval by the West: US and EU officials started to depict Belarus as a rogue state and a dictatorship, while Lukasehenko accused them of interfering with internal affairs and cause financial turmoil.
In the presidential election on 9 September 2001, Lukashenko won in the first round with 75.65% of the vote. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the process “failed to meet international standards“.
In 2004, a referendum eliminated presidential term limits, allowing Lukashenko to stand again for office in 2006, receiving 84.2% of the votes.
In December 2010, on election day, two presidential candidates were seriously beaten by police in different opposition rallies. Hundreds of people who protested against the election result have been arrested, including at least seven presidential candidates. Lukashenko won with 79.65% of the votes.
Effective since 31 January 2011, the European Union renewed a travel ban, prohibiting Lukashenko and 156 of his associates from travelling to EU member countries, as a result of violent crackdowns of opposition supporters by Lukashenko’s government forces following the election.
Regime and opposition
Lukashenko was born on 30/31 August 1954 in the settlement of Kopys in the Vitebsk voblast of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. He served in Soviet Army as a border guard from 1980 to 1982, and after he became director of the Gorodets state farm.
In 1990, Lukashenko was elected Deputy in the Supreme Council of the Republic of Belarus, being the only one that voted against the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the first years following the collapse of the USSR, Lukashenko built fame as a crusader against corruption that earned him the appointment in 1993 as a chairman of the anti-corruption committee of the Belarusian parliament. Lukashenko accused over 70 senior government officials, including Stanislav Shushkevich, of charges for corruption and fraud against the state. This first attack, although not proven, gave to him the advantage in discrediting the old political class and undermine the figure of Shushkevich, in fact alienating people from politics.
Lukashenko managed to build his power mainly receiving support from the following parties: Belarusian Agrarian Party, Belarusian Patriotic Movement, Communist Party of Belarus, Liberal Democratic Party, Republican Party of Labor and Justice.
At first look seem clear that Lukasheno has not behind him a powerful party such United Russia for Putin, but this also explain his ability in keeping control of the society because, as Shushkevich noted, Belarus is not a party country. Nevertheless, Lukashenko has in common with Russia the control over key sectors such the military, the police forces and security like the KGB. This block ensure absolute control on political and social life of Belarus, but the side-effect is that Belarus does not have an economy strong enough to sustain this apparatus. This is a point where the opposition finds voice and support.
The major opposition parties’ are:
Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, Belarusian Party of the Left “Fair World”, Belarusian Popular Front, Belarusian Social-Democratic Hramada, Belarusian Social Democratic Party Hramada, Belarusian Social Democratic Party People’s Assembly Narodnaya Hramada, Christian Conservative Party, European Belarus Campaign, Party of Freedom and Progress, “Tell the Truth” Campaign and United Civic Party.
The opposition, as per other ex-soviet republics, is weak and fragmented in a multitude of parties and movements, whose links and direction is not always clear. Some of them receive financial support from outside Belarus, therefore making the opposition an easy target for government campaign depicting them as stooges of the West. The opposition suffers the great influence of Russia on externally, and the mighty power of the state police, militias and KGB internally. However, as mentioned, the weak economy offer support from ordinary Belarusians in addressing concerns over the leadership. But is essentially in their accusation of governments’ human rights abuses that the opposition has built a strong support from the US and EU. This ensures that the regime is constantly under pressure and watched closely, even though exceeding force and illegal arrests are still undermining the opposition forces.
At this point it must be questioned what are the factors sustaining Belarus regimes.
Belarus stands to Russia as North Korea stands to China
Belarus is a strange case in the post-soviet era; at first it has followed a similar path made of state collapse, economic turmoil, corruption and anarchy. Soon it emerged a new class of politician/businessmen most of whom were remnants of the soviet era politics untouched by scandals or relatively unknown. However, since 1994 Belarus started to develop an autocratic power that differs from these countries. Belarus did not develop a strong political party with links to oligarchs such United Russia, thus Belarus has a strong political establishments but a falling economy.
If an historic resemblance has to be found, this would be with the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic rather than fellow CIS countries. Belarus is a nationalistic, centralised state, under a strong control from military and state militia obedient to the leader. As per Serbia, Belarus has a weak economy, low external investments, that fuel discontent within the population but still not enough organised to undermine state control. However in some points Belarus is different even from Serbia:
1) Belarus is not engaged in ethnic/religious struggles or “cleansing” policies;
2) Does not pursue an aggressive military policy towards the neighbours;
3) Russia role is different.
Serbia was a state accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide, responsible for all the conflicts that destroyed the Balkans for nearly 10 years; Belarus is not engaged in any of these, the opposition struggle to bring external sponsor to a more decisive action as Belarus problems stays under a strictly internal sphere of affairs.
Belarus does not pursue an aggressive policy towards its neighbours, nor has hegemonic designs. On the contrary, Belarus wishes to increase its union with Russia by strengthening the Union of State.
Belarus does not have any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or pursue in having one as all nuclear/bacteriological/chemical arsenals has been returned to Russia once independence was declared. This is another of those leit motifs of NATO and the West that cannot be applied in the Belarusian case.
But the main difference is on Russia’s role; both countries were, and are, Russia’s allies, but if Moscow in the late nineties was a poor and declassed superpower in debt, today is a powerful state machine, with a resurgent military and an economy that risen from debt to creditor of many western states. Russia sees in Belarus an area of vital interest, untouchable to say the least, and made clear with the Georgian war of 2008 that no one can interfere along its borders.
What are the reasons of Lukashenko survival?
Russia is the key to Lukashenko and regime survival; its proximity to Russia avoid any real interference from external powers in an area considered by Russia its exclusive zone of influence. Opposition forces are weakened by Russian strong interference and any change will not be possible without Moscow cooperation, which will never allow a change contrary to its desires or a revolution like the one assisted in Georgia and Ukraine.
Belarus, although accused of human rights abuses, managed to keep the matter as an exclusive internal affair, avoiding to offer any pretext to the opposition and western powers to weaken the circle of power.
Excluding geopolitical links and historic ties, Russia’s relation with Belarus is at times difficult to decipher from outside. But at a closer look their relation resembles more to that of China with North Korea; as per their Far East counterparts, Russia at times feel uneasy with Lukashenko abuse of power and even resort to cut gas supplies to a country they wish to include more closely in the Union State. At the same time, Moscow’s criticism or action will never be strong enough, or pushed too far, to generate turmoil and the collapse of the regime. The latter is seen as the worst situation that could be faced, the same nightmare that China has on North Korea collapse. Both Moscow and Beijing prefer to keep a “wild and mad” neighbour which they can control, instead of the risk to have near home a pro-western country with an influx of refugees.
In both cases, Russia and China see in their counterparts an “ace” to be played every time the West gamble or exceed its power and jurisdiction, a sort of blackmailing diplomatic strategy.
This suggests that, as per North Korea, a real change will never happen without their sponsors piloting the events. The idea of a Russian disinterest and western opposition taking the lead is remote as well as utopic. The reality will see change in Belarus under Russian terms, and only when the shadow of Lukashenko will be removed and replaced with a more subdued and malleable figure. This will probably lead to a closer partnership in the Union of State, clearly unbalanced by Russian monitoring and pressures on both political and economic spheres.
The time for velvet, orange and other colourful revolution is gone, and with it their failures, as well as any tentative of western influence in the ex-soviet area. Any change in Belarus will not happen without Russia consent, and any attempt of action by force will end in ruin as demonstrated by the Saakashvili’s adventurous war against Russia backed by miscalculated western dreams of hegemony.