The Political Economy of Lukashenko

Though there are a few exceptions, reporting on the elections in Belarus have been awful. Granted, this is a statement that demands qualification. There has been a lot of articles on Belarus, the elections, Lukashenko’s authoritarian grip, the arrests, beatings, and general harassment of the Opposition, the closing of newspapers and independent media, and of course the modest protests in Minsk. All of these are worthy stories and they all should be reported. Still, in my opinion, something has been lacking. Amid the deluge of news, few have actually told me anything explaining why Lukashenko is genuinely popular and why even without rigging the elections, which was certainly done, he would have won anyway. The answer that most have given is a standard and reductive one: Lukashenko’s rule by fear. Sure fear is a factor, but frankly I don’t completely buy it.

This is why I think that Mark Almond’s comment in the Guardian is so interesting. Bucking all conventional reporting, Almond not only points out the blatant hypocrisy of the United States and to a certain extent the EU on Belarus, he notes that the root of this might have something to do with capitalism.

On American hypocrisy, he writes:

Our media have a split personality when it comes to these two guardians of democracy. On Belarus they are quoted like Old Testament prophets, but mention them in connection with Iraq and people recall that they were the only US officials with President Bush and Tony Blair on January 30 2003 when Bush suggested provoking an incident with Iraq to get the war with Saddam going.

Of course if you believed them about Iraq then you won’t choke swallowing their story about Belarus. But let’s avoid the slick argument that just because veterans of the US’s Central American policy under Reagan allege that Lukashenko has “disappeared” some vocal critics that cannot be true either.

Almond then goes on to point out that while no one in the West batted an eye at when Rose Revolutionary Saakashvili received 97% of the vote, Lukashenko has gotten threats of sanctions from the EU.

But charges of hypocrisy are easy in this complex world. Of course the US isn’t going to give the same rhetoric to the fledgling government in Iraq or Afghanistan as it is to Belarus. We should remember that platitudes to democracy are doled out in relation to geopolitical interests.

As to why Belorussians support Lukashenko, the reason is again found in Bill Clinton’s adage: It’s the economy, stupid! Almond argues that the reason why the Milinkevich’s opposition has no support is because it has “offered no economic platform [and] just echoes of these western allegations against Lukashenko.” One wonders who is Milinkevich’s audience: Western governments and international civil society foundations that start salivating when you speak of looking west rather than east or a Belarussian constituency that has daily bread and butter concerns.

The basis of Lukashenko’s power is that he has prevented Belarus from descending into the “shock therapy” madness that so many other post-Soviet states have experienced. On this, Almond writes:

No communist-era throwback, Belarus has an evolving market economy. But the market is orientated towards serving the needs of the bulk of the population, not a tiny class of nouveaux riches and their western advisers and money launderers. Unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, officials are not getting richer as ordinary folk get poorer. The absence of endemic corruption among civil servants and police is one reason why the wave of so-called “coloured revolutions” stopped before Minsk.

Lukashenko is far from an egalitarian, nor is he a champion of human rights in any way. But few heads of state are, and I certainly wish all of them would be put on trial at some point. Though I’m sure some readers will call me an apologist, I have no intention of apologizing for Lukashenko’s obvious dictatorship. What I’m calling for is some clarity when looking at these states. We need to understand that the narrative of “Orange Revolution” is not a formula. And different states have their own particular social, economic and political calculations. I think when that is understood perhaps a political opposition will win by addressing the real issues that concern its citizens, rather than a flawed and hypocritical Western consensus.