Darkness or Dawn in Belarus?

WASHINGTON, DC – As pro-democracy protests sweep the Arab world, Belarus, Europe’s grim quasi-Soviet redoubt, has taken a turn for the worse since President Aleksander Lukashenko violently suppressed post-election demonstrations in December and imprisoned seven of the nine candidates who stood against him. But, as Western governments – and European Union government, in particular – respond, they should view Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown as a major turning point: the moment when the regime could no longer claim popular support and was forced to confront the failure of its antediluvian socioeconomic model.

Lukashenko’s regime has rested on three pillars: a social contract that promises national independence and a guaranteed low income in exchange for tacit consent to dictatorial rule; a propaganda machine that reinforces the value and necessity of this deal; and a massive security apparatus to enforce it.

For many years after Lukashenko was first elected, in 1994 (he has ruled without interruption ever since), most Belarusians did perhaps tolerate the regime, because they believed that it protected them from the worst excesses of neighboring Russia’s “Wild East” capitalism: corrupt privatization, job losses, and mafia rule. But, over time, and with more Belarusians traveling to the West, belief in Lukashenko’s leadership has become unsustainable.

Wages are much lower than official figures suggest – perhaps as low as $200-300 per month. The unemployment rate is 0.7%, but largely because those who register at labor offices are put to work in community-service jobs paying $10-15 per month. Prices are high, owing to trade restrictions and government support for inefficient state enterprises. Economic growth, pumped up during the run-up to the presidential election by enormous fiscal spending – two-thirds of the economy is state-owned – was officially 7.6% in 2010, but the rate has plummeted since, though no one is saying by how much.