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Bat’ka’s Future

Some interesting analysis of the Belarusian elections is now being done. I already pointed to Boris Kagarlitsky’s column. Now here is a discussion with Professors Robert H. Legvold (Political Science, Columbia University) and Lucan Way (Political Science, Temple University) on the Belarusian elections, Lukashenko’s support, and its possible future from Washington Profile. For some reason the discussion isn’t in English on the site (but it is available in English in JRL #78), but it is in Russian.

I won’t go over what they have to say about why Lukashenko maintains popular support despite his authoritarian rule. It is clear that he employs a combination of hard and soft power—repression and control over the media with economic populism.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Lukashenko’s rule is not shaken. Many have pointed out that the recent protests by the opposition created cracks in the system. These cracks will possibly widen as Lukashenko takes retribution against opposition leaders. It is already happening as Social Democratic Party leader Alexander Kozulin is now looking at a possible 5 year prison sentence. For his part, opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich is fielding speaking engagements and seeking support from a variety of European countries.

Many are wondering about the curious cancellation of Lukashenko’s inauguration. Not much of an official reason was given except that the inauguration didn’t “fit” into his schedule. It is clear that this is an attempt to create some distance from the election protests in hopes that time will heal some of the wounds and his inauguration won’t be a complete embarrassment. For ideas on inauguration security he might want to take a cue from Bush’s 2005 inauguration which was greeted by as many of 20,000 protesters.

But I digress from Professors Legvold and Way’s analysis. As always I encourage readers to read the complete discussion yourselves. I will only present a few passages I thought were interesting.

Washington Profile: How long is Lukashenka likely to stay in power?

Way: I think that’s a little bit hard to tell. I think one thing to remember is that on one level there are a lot of sources of stability: the subsidies to the Belarusian economy provide an important source of stability. Lukashenka’s control over the security apparatus and the monopoly control over the media also provide sources of stability. At the same time I think there are some sources of instability. One is that there is actually mixed loyalty among the security apparatus to both Lukashenka on one side, and to Russia on the other. It’s not clear to me if there was a serious regime crisis that the security apparatus would be willing to back Lukashenka and take the risk of killing large numbers of protesters. I think the irony is that Lukashenka’s regime is really good at preempting a challenge, but I think if a serious challenge did emerge, or a large protest or whatnot, I think my guess, from talking to a number of people in the security apparatus in Belarus, I think they would defect from Lukashenka if they felt they had to risk undertaking large scale repressions.

Legvold: I don’t mean to say that this regime is solid and we have to expect it to endure for the next ten years. But the basic idea that the West can transform the behavior of Lukashenka’s regime any time in the near future is a pipe-dream.

 

This issue of the possibility that if a severe crisis emerges the security apparatuses might dump Lukashenko is something I have yet to hear. Too often we are given picture that Lukashenko has a tight grip over the state.

Washington Profile: If things continue on their present course in Belarus, what will the situation look like 10-15 years from now?

Way: I think a lot of that depends on Russia. I think if Russia continues to subsidize the Belarusian economy Lukashenka could survive for a very long time. If the relationship between Putin and Lukashenka becomes tenser, and Putin decides to withhold energy subsidies, I think the system could collapse. The most likely scenario of instability is Romania ? la 1989. The thing to remember about Belarus is that Lukashenka has been engaged in a harsh treatment of the elite. He put a lot of them in jail, he is constantly firing them. So that the irony is that while Lukashenka has a great base of support in the population, his support in the upper Belorussian elite is actually relatively weak. But a number of people, if they saw an opportunity for a coup, would take it. I think a likely scenario is that, at some point, you’ll have a very rapid regime change, as basically the upper elite within Belarus undertakes a coup against Lukashenka.

 

 

Legvold: I don’t think they can go on in this fashion for 10-15 years. I think the kind of so-called economic progress that Belarus has had is what is essentially a continuation of the soviet regime, with 80 percent of the economy under the management of state industry, and agriculture that is no more productive than it was in the soviet period. Unless on the outside, the Russians continue to subsidize it in a fairly substantial way, I don’t think it can continue as it is. Secondly, the march 19th elections, while they did not demonstrate sufficient strength in the regime’s opponents to suggest that they soon have a chance in displacing [the current regime], certainly indicated that there is more ferment, more discontent, and a willingness on the part of not hundreds but literally thousands of people to put their bodies on the line in order to make that point. That suggests that once you begin to get policy failure on the economy and other areas, as you inevitably will, particularly when Russia tires or is no longer able or willing to provide the subsidy, means there will be pressure for the regime to either begin evolving or for it to begin weakening at the seams.

 

Very interesting. The role of the elite in Belarus is another issue that has been elided by all the reporting about protests and democracy from “below.” Lukashenko has tacit support of the elite and probably garners some of his popular support from below from being so hard against those “above.” This is a common populist method. Since Lukashenko has created an image of “bat’ka” or father, he probably gets a lot of support for “protecting” his people from the ravages of the elite. Na?ve monarchism lives.

The only question is that if push comes to shove and the elite do decide to move against Lukashenko, where would that leave Milinkevich. Is he willing to be the elite’s pawn (who knows maybe he already is), or will his tactic of going to the streets unleash a populism that neither he nor the elites can control. It is too early to tell. And as Professor Way and Legvold reminds us, a lot of it depends on Russia. Yesterday’s news that Gazprom seeks a five fold increase of natural gas prices to Belarus next year can’t bode well for Lukashenko’s economic populism.

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