Why Lukashenka is changing (some) spots

By Vitali Silitski

The slow evolution under way in Belarus may strike chords with old Franco-watchers.

When, in November 2006, the EU set out 12 demands that Belarus should meet in the fields of democracy and human rights, critics dismissed it as an invitation for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to commit political suicide. Two years later, there are signs, albeit feeble, that political progress is possible in Belarus. In mid-August, Lukashenka released his arch-enemy and former presidential rival Alyaksandr Kazulin. And when, three days later, he released two youngsters arrested in January during protests by street vendors, the number of political prisoners in Belarus fell to zero for the first time in years. Political repression persists, democratic activists continue to be harassed, and censorship remains pervasive. There is no reason to believe - and the regime has barely sought to maintain any pretence - that the parliamentary elections scheduled for 28 September will be free and fair.

Democracy will not, then, come to Belarus this month or any month soon. Still, changes are afoot. Some are superficial: Lukashenka is becoming increasingly concerned about the image in the West and, to that end, he has hired the renowned the renowned British PR-man Timothy Bell (whose clients have included Margaret Thatcher and the self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky). The Belarusian strongman hopes, critics suggest, that PR will be enough to break his international isolation.

That is improbable: the EU will not be fooled that easily. It also misses the reality that Lukashenka's 'island of tranquillity' is suddenly in motion. Over the past year, the Belarusian authorities now embrace concepts that were once anathema: privatisation and foreign investment. They are de-regulating prices and the labour market and are even taking some unpopular measures - they have, for example, ended free bus rides for Lukashenka's core supporters, pensioners. These moves have done little for the state's coffers (the number of free riders on public transport has actually increased), but they are a significant departure from the populist rhetoric and practices of early "Lukas-ism". Indeed, Lukashenka occasionally echoes Ronald Reagan; in his New Year address, he called on Belarusians to grab destiny and not view the state as Santa Claus. That is not cause for all entrepreneurs to rejoice - in fact, new regulations have almost wiped out one of the last strata of economically independent people, the market shuttle traders who compete with the large, state-owned department stores. But, in areas where the state is not a competitor, there is a clear move towards liberalisation - so much so that the World Bank recently ranked Belarus as one of the top economic reformers of the past year (though its rise, from 121st to 110th place, demonstrates how difficult the business climate is). In the pipeline is a flat tax on personal incomes - to be set at 12% in 2009 - and deregulation of the rigid, state-set wage structure.

There is also a trend towards a 'humanisation' of the state. Bureaucratic procedures have been simplified - for would-be entrepreneurs, for taxpayers - and the state is now monitoring officials to reduce petty corruption and elementary rudeness (albeit pursued using Soviet-era tools such as 'books of complaints and suggestions', which every public office now has to display). Bit by bit, Belarusian bureaucrats, notorious for their grim faces and suspicious looks, are mastering good manners. The effect can be shocking, as when, a few months ago, a border guard asked why I was not smiling at her.

Change comes from the east?

Why the change? Conventional logic dictates that all change in Belarus comes from the east. The stability of Lukashenka's Belarus depends upon energy subsidies from Russia; if they end, so will Lukashenka's regime. And it was in 2007, when Moscow raised energy prices, that Minsk began changing its economic policies and seeking ways out of its international isolation. But the fickleness of Moscow's mood soon provided a test of the nature of the changes in Belarus. In early 2008, the Kremlin almost reinstated energy subsidies when it needed a loyal ally to oppose the growing US influence in the region. Yet there has been no sign that the Belarusian regime will reverse the changes that began last year, even though Minsk put itself at the brink of a major diplomatic war with the United States in spring by almost pushing the US embassy out of the country after Washington introduced new economic sanctions. There are, then, more factors at work here than Russia's influence or concern about Belarus's economic vulnerability - a key point since the long-standing wisdom is that the Belarusian economy will eventually collapse, bringing some form of political revolution.

The economy is, arguably, the key to understanding the changes in Belarus - but for different reasons. The economy is not collapsing; Belarus is actually relatively prosperous by its own standards. The economy is key because Lukashenka chose to make consumerism his real state ideology. Lukashenka built his legitimacy on the fact that Belarus avoided the economic instability and misery experienced by Russians and Ukrainians in the 1990s. As the regime measures its own economic and political success by how its performance matches up against that of it neighbours, Lukashenka faces a rating trap: having built his legitimacy on economic performance, he needs to deliver more and more as social expectations raise. Fast economic growth around Belarus has destroyed the myth of the uniqueness of the Belarus economic model. Lukashenka needs a strong economy, but he can no longer count on the old institutions and practices to deliver growth and raise living standards. Hence, logic says, he is being forced to reform Belarus's institutions.

The rating trap also creates a situation in which the government could itself inadvertently provoke cultural change. The more Belarusians demand, the more they may demand a better quality of the state. And already they are demanding more than bread and butter; they want a measure of dignity and self-respect. Indeed, most reliable sociological research shows that the major sources of public disappointment with the government are not economic but, rather, questions of values. There is also a deep shift in understanding of what lifestyle is 'normal' - today's pensioners, instead of measuring their lot against their war experiences or their counterparts' in Russia and Ukraine, are beginning to wonder why Europeans can afford vacations and they cannot.

Travel is itself an important factor. An increasing number of Belarusians can afford to travel to Russia, Lithuania, and Poland and they are noticing not only the differences in real incomes, but also gaps in technological sophistication, the quality of services, and the differences in career opportunities on offer elsewhere. In fact, whether or not citizens support the government is closely correlated with whether or not they have travelled abroad recently. Ironically, then, the stringent rules governing entry into the border-free Schengen area, which includes most of the EU, are turning into the most important pillar of stability of Lukashenka's regime, alongside his intimidating riot police.

Travel is also having a very real effect. Even Schengen cannot stop the best, brightest, and most entrepreneurial from finding better lives elsewhere. The government recently discovered that there may be no one who would fulfil its megalomaniacal construction plans (such as building a business city in Minsk or constructing a nuclear power plant) because construction workers are leaving Belarus en masse. The result: the government has simply abolished wage restrictions - a part of its cherished 'socially oriented state' model.

The social contract, re-written

Lukashenka is conscious of these social changes and he is trying to reformulate the social contract by introducing more market mechanisms and making the state more accessible to citizens. In a broader sense, however, he is moving to restructure the social foundation of his rule.

Lukashenka can no longer count on the support of the older generations and the rural population; the core of Belarus's pension-able population is no longer formed by those shaped by the Second World War (an experience of suffering that few other countries in Europe had to endure), but rather by those who reached the peak of their careers during the Gorbachev era. Lukashenka's response has been to woo youngsters. Today's young are not the fighters who gave regime a hard time on the streets in the 1990s; the new generation has known only Lukashenka, and the rules of the game proposed by him are treated as normal. Give them some life prospects and career opportunities, and he can cement support for the status quo. This, Lukashenka is doing rather successfully.

The shift in Lukashenka's social base towards the younger generation is reflected in his inner circle. After a bizarre accident during the celebration of the anniversary of liberation of Minsk from the Nazis on 3 July, when a home-made bomb exploded in the centre of the crowd, wounding 50 persons but miraculously killing no one, Lukashenka vented his anger on the man who had been his principal henchman for one and a half decades: Viktor Sheiman, a key hardliner, veteran chairman of the security council that oversees all police, KGB, and military, a lobbyist for Russia's most powerful business groups, and a man who enjoyed de facto control of some of the most lucrative financial flows in the country. Sheiman was fired, as was his protege, Henady Nevyhlas, the head of the presidential staff. Sheiman's replacement was an obscure police general, but Nevyglas's replacement - Lukashenka's veteran advisor Uladzimir Makey - marks the advance of a new team of cynical, but supposedly pragmatic leaders around Lukashenka's older son, Viktar. This generation aspires to be Belarus's new class of capitalists and the constraints of 'Europe's last dictatorship' and 'socially oriented state' may be too binding for them. The purge has continued: Lukashenka is removing the 'men of power' - siloviki - on whom he has relied so heavily throughout his rule. Their replacements come from the group around Viktar Lukashenka, many of them in their mid-30s.

The generational change is a necessity as Lukashenka needs to change his ways of running the country: he needs allies who understand the logic of business and not just the iron fist. But the change comes at a price. With the old group of bureaucrats and siloviki, Lukashenka could easily secure their loyalty by offering them opportunities for corruption. The younger ones may want more solid rewards and will push hard to gain real control over assets - that is, privatisation and, later on, maybe even real power. Lukashenka had already been forced to make great concessions to the elite: the anti-corruption crusades on which he built his legitimacy have all but stopped, and bureaucrats are now allowed to flaunt their money. Minsk is now surrounded by chic neighbourhoods. Super-expensive cars, a privilege previously reserved for Lukashenka, no longer surprise anyone. Corruption, once relatively limited, is now common: over the course of just four years, Belarus has dropped from 36th to 150th place in Transparency International's corruption ratings.

The economy and foreign policy

The 'marketisation' of the economy and the generational changes in the elite are having a profound impact on foreign policy. Belarus needs investment. For that, it must end its political isolation. The new generation in the power circle may need Belarus's international image to be better no less than factory managers require better equipment and technologies: after all, they grew up in the post-Soviet era, and their lifestyle is hardly compatible with visa bans, which limit their vacation and shopping opportunities to visits to Moscow and resorts in the former Soviet Union.

So, is Lukashenka's regime moving towards some sort of a market-based autocracy? It is, but it is a path with some major obstacles. The first challenge is how to keep political control when society is demanding greater freedom. Lukashenka's immediate answer has been to compensate for every reforming measure with a tightening of his grip in other areas. That is why it sometimes seems that liberalisation and screw-tightening proceed simultaneously in Belarus. Political prisoners are being released - but other activists harassed. Business conditions improve for some entrepreneurs - but become unbearable for others. The government promises fair elections - but at the same time introduces greater restrictions on the media and mulls internet controls. The European Union is allowed to establish its delegation in Minsk - but the government all but pushes the US embassy out of the country. At the same time, the pattern of political repression is changing. Punishments for opponents are no harsher than they were (even those who are jailed stand a fair chance of early release), but they are certainly uglier and more demonstrative: youngsters who join unregistered opposition movements have been expelled from secondary schools, while some activists had been warned their children may be taken away because of their 'poor parenting.'

Lukashenka is, however, baulking at the longer-term, more systemic answer. The regime needs to invent mechanisms not only of control but also of incorporation: such a mechanism could, for example, be a ruling party that would give bureaucrats a greater share of political power. But Lukashenka himself put the brakes on any such development when, a few months ago, he sharply criticised a group called Belaya Rus that was being formed as a prototype of pro-presidential party. It seems that, even as he gives them greater economic influence, Lukashenka is unhappy about power-sharing with bureaucrats.

The second challenge is reform of Lukashenka's ideology. Lukashenka is changing his rhetoric profoundly, ridding it of anti-market stereotypes, for example. But the gap between the regime's policy and its language remains wide. Can the youngsters who drink Heineken made in Belarus before attending concerts by Deep Purple be trusted to buy the paranoid picture of a worldwide plot against Belarus still produced by official TV channels? Can sons of government officials who run Porsche dealerships be taken seriously as defenders of traditional 'Slavic values?' If Lukashenka fails to produce an integrated vision that can reconcile Westernisation and authoritarian rule, he could face the same erosion of his ideological control over society, the elite, and - most importantly - the security apparatus (which used to be told to defend social justice and equality against Western stooges) that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The third important challenge is Russia. Moscow wants to be a catalyst of capitalistic change in Belarus - but only to solidify its political and economic grip on its neighbour and to prevent any geopolitical surprises 300 kilometres from Moscow. The same logic of control dictates that while Kremlin wants privatisation, it wants Belarus to be controlled by people like Sheiman and his group and isolated from the West as much as. It is for that reason that Moscow is trying to force Lukashenka to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as states, something that Lukashenka, to the surprise of many, refuses to do (and something that proves beyond doubt that he is interested in engaging with the West more than ever). Lukashenka's willingness to confront Moscow on this key issue may well mean that the Belarusian leader may be trying to carve himself a niche similar to that once carved by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu: a 'sultanistic' strongman with a relatively independent foreign-policy orientation. But Belarus had already progressed far enough from within in the direction of the corrupt West to imagine another scenario: it could once again become the surreal and colourful fiefdom of an aloof tyrant, but more independent from Moscow than in the past.

So the transformation of Belarus is real. But no one should expect miracles: Lukashenka, after all, is still a dictator and his actions are intended to prolong his rule. Yet, when change becomes part of an autocrat's survival strategy, cracks in the system are unavoidable.

Those who want to promote democracy in Belarus should take that into account. Lukashenka has prevented revolution, but he cannot prevent evolutionary change. Promoting that change from outside may require different forms of support than provided through democracy assistance in the past; it may require some flexibility and some engagement with the regime that some may find unprincipled.

Tired of Belarus and tired by its so far fruitless efforts, the West and in particular the EU may be posed to start thinking long-term. That is not an approach alien to the European mindset. It has, after all, had to deal with another dictator who had to respond to crawling, evolutionary change: Spain's Francisco Franco.

Vitali Silitski is director of the Vilnius-based Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.



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