While the future of Aleksander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus following the grotesquely rigged presidential election seems bleaker by the day, the prospects of the country’s conversion to democracy, rule of law, and market economy remain equally uncertain. But that is not a reason for despair. It is a reason for Western policymakers to take the Belarusian challenge much more seriously than they currently do.
First of all, expectations must be managed. Whether or not one considers Ukraine’s recent past a success story, Belarus is not Ukraine. Prior to 2014, Ukrainians already had a fair deal of experience with democracy, however flawed. The country boasted a vibrant civil society and a distinct national identity with roots that predated the Soviet Union.
In contrast, in its post-1991 era, Belarus lacked the resources necessary for nation-building, such as a nationally conscious population or historical myths to draw on. Unlike in other post-communist countries, which sought to extricate themselves from Soviet communism, Belarus had no homegrown alternative to Soviet nostalgia. As political scientists Steven Eke and Taras Kuzio argue, “in the midst of an ideological and moral void, caused by the unwillingness of the majority of the people and its leadership to re-evaluate their recent past,” nostalgic, quasi-Soviet populism became the most appealing platform in Belarus’s 1994 presidential elections. In exchange for preserving the certainties of the past, Lukashenko formed and consolidated a vertical power structure, which held strong for twenty-six years—until recently.
Ukrainians on Kyiv’s Maidan did not simply demand Yanukovych’s ouster. They fought for something—namely for Ukraine’s future within the community of Europe’s democracies. Moreover, Vladimir Putin’s aggression unwittingly provided a definitive answer to the perennial dilemma of Ukraine’s geopolitics, torn between Europe and Russia. With the grab of Crimea and the attack on Donbas, deeper ties with Moscow became a political non-starter.
Belarus’ connections to Russia run deeper than Ukraine’s and the European alternative to the country’s place within the “Union State” with Russia has never been fully articulated. Paradoxically, it was Lukashenko’s brinkmanship that provided a degree of maneuvering space to the country, including his recent efforts at diversifying Belarus’ energy sources.
Still, the dependence on Russian gas and oil remains overwhelming, providing the Kremlin with a lever over any future leadership in Minsk. The economy is also tightly integrated with Russia’s, which accounts for 38.2 percent of Belarus’ exports and 58.4 percent of all imports. Some sectors are completely dependent—74.5 percent of all agricultural and food production and 75 percent of all manufactured machinery and electrotechnical products are exported to Russia. Straying away from Moscow politically means triggering a major economic, fiscal, and energy crisis; not severing the relationship means that no meaningful political or economic reforms can take place.
Overcoming this basic obstacle will require a gargantuan effort on the part of Belarusian opposition, which has no experience governing, as well as outside actors. Yet, with the United States in the middle of a bitter election campaign and the EU focused on its internal problems, the timing of the brewing change of government is inauspicious.
One cannot beat something (in this case, Lukashenko’s nostalgic populism and the Kremlin’s warm though suffocating embrace) with nothing. It is incumbent both on the Belarusian opposition, should it arrive in power, and the West to make the case to the Belarusian public that there is a better path forward than clinging to the illusion of the certainties of the country’s Soviet past. Europeans and Americans will have to be able to put a concrete, actionable deal on the table, both to ease Lukashenko out and to make the new democratic leadership sustainable. Even if EU membership is not in the cards, visa-free travel, free trade, and a substantial package of economic assistance conditional on pursuing necessary reforms are an obvious starting point.
In fact, the country’s ailing economy provides the most tractable entry point for Western efforts aimed at undoing Belarus’ Soviet legacies. Belarus is not the first post-communist economy with artificially high levels of employment at state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and dramatically subsidized natural gas prices (Belarusian households pay only about one-fifth of the cost of heating). For a long time, those used to keep poverty at bay, at least compared to other post-Soviet countries. The model, however, is unsustainable. While at the beginning of the last decade Belarus’ real per-capita incomes approached 80 percent of the average Central European and Baltic countries, in 2018 the ratio was closer to 60 percent.
As the World Bank notes, “the capacity of capital accumulation to drive economic growth has been exhausted, the energy subsidies stemming from bilateral agreements with Russia are lower, and public debt to GDP ratios are growing. It is increasingly difficult to cover the savings-investment gap by foreign borrowing.” Before the pandemic, the costs of subsidized heating bills, alongside guarantees and other forms of government support to SOEs were expected to drive the public debt up to 70 percent by 2023. With a 6-percent contraction expected this year, the moment of reckoning will likely come much earlier.
After 2014, Ukraine largely succeeded in phasing out energy subsidies and restructuring its banking sector. While many SOEs linger in Ukraine, Belarus has a myriad of different privatization methods to deploy, all used with varying degrees of success across Central and Eastern Europe. The country also has a promising foundation for future growth in the form of a bourgeoning tech industry. Founded in 2005, the Minsk-based Hi-Tech Park, for example, is a tax-free zone and domicile for IT companies, many foreign-owned. It is also the birthplace of the messaging app Viber, created by Israeli and Belarusian entrepreneurs, as well as the online game developer Wargaming.net, founded in 1998 by Belarusian entrepreneur Victor Kislyi.
The bad news is that economic reforms tend to be politically difficult even under the best circumstances. And, although, as Ivan Krastev and Steve Holmes famously argued, seeking to remake post-communist societies into imperfect copies of the West is a fool’s errand, much of the progress seen in, say, Ukraine since 2014 has been a result of the pressure of international actors, especially the IMF. Genuine homegrown reformism of leaders such as the former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk and some of his ministers has invariably run into political dead ends. Instead, Ukrainian leaders have usually made the right choices when confronted with the prospect of the country’s default as the most likely alternative to meeting the IMF’s (and the EU’s) conditions.
The momentum for reforms that would generate prosperity in Belarus and provide legitimacy to the country’s democratic turn can be generated only through deeper political and economic integration with the West and shedding its current ties to Russia. Thus far, little indicates that might be a realistic prospect, in part because of Belarus’ post-Soviet legacies and in part because of the absence of the West, which has limited its visibility to statements of concern about the repression used by Lukashenko’s regime against protesters.
At the same time, the stakes are too high to leave Belarus to the wolves, not only because of Belarus’s intrinsic importance or its position in the EU’s neighborhood, but also because of the urgent need on the part of defenders of democracy, rule of law, and markets to score some wins. This is not the time for the complacency of the “politics of inevitability,” as Yale’s Timothy Snyder called the illusion that liberal democracy will assert itself automatically as the superior system of governance, which has undergirded much of the West’s engagement in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Balkans since 1989. The truth is that those principles will not prevail in post-Lukashenko Belarus on their own. In fact, there are no guarantees that they will prevail at all, regardless of what well-meaning policymakers in the West do. But if there is a sure-fire way of making those principles fail, it consists of Western disengagement and its refusal to plan seriously for Belarus’ future after Lukashenko.