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Subjects should recognize themselves in their ruler, says the grand duke in Thomas Mann’s 1909 novel Royal Highness. And perhaps once, the average Belarusian did recognize their self to some extent in President Alexander Lukashenko. But in the quarter century for which he has ruled the country, the image of that average Belarusian has changed, just as the social structure of Belarusian society has changed—despite artificial attempts to preserve elements of the Soviet system.
This is why, entirely unexpectedly for Lukashenko, even the working class has risen up against him, prompting the Belarusian dictator to describe this particular aspect of the current crisis as a “stab in the back.”
One fifty-something worker at a tractor factory found himself in a verbal duel with Lukashenko, and won it with the simple truth. “People are tired [of you],” he told the seemingly eternal president. In this respect, watching events in Belarus is like looking in a mirror for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The recent protests in Khabarovsk can certainly be seen as reflecting Putin fatigue, and in the coming years, it risks becoming the main emotional driver behind any kind of protests, which quickly become politicized, even if they originate over a local matter such as construction or environmental issues.
This fatigue manifested itself most clearly in the protests that took place on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2011–2012, though this fact now appears to have been forgotten about. Back then, it seemed as though Russia’s own autocrat, who had announced his return to the presidency after a four-year stint as prime minister, would have to listen to civil society and, if not step down, at least enter into talks. But none of that happened.
Instead, Putin waited for the peak of the protests to pass, then put them down harshly and began to replace Russia’s hybrid form of authoritarianism with a full-fledged system that left the opposition with no way at all of fighting for power.
Acting either on rational calculations or political intuition, or simply on lust for power, Lukashenko, like Putin, has not entered into any talks with the opposition, which is actually more accurately described as civil society. Just a few days ago, it seemed he had been forced into a corner. Now he is far more confident: a dictator fighting to preserve his own rule. Even if it gets harder and harder to cling on, he is fiercely determined to emerge from this battle with civil society as the victor.
Lukashenko’s regime today is significantly harsher than the Russian power structure in place in 2011–2012, which had been relaxed somewhat during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Accordingly, the repression in Belarus began immediately, and with astoundingly senseless cruelty. The siloviki, or security services, behaved not like representatives of the state with a monopoly on legitimate—and, therefore, reasonable—force, but like a savage tribe or occupiers. No doubt they will continue to do so. In defending themselves, they protected Lukashenko, and were rewarded by him accordingly.
The siloviki, army, and a significant proportion of the state bureaucracy remain on Lukashenko’s side. Any state officials who have tried to reach a compromise with the protesters, such as the authorities of the city of Grodno, have elicited Lukashenko’s displeasure, to put it mildly.
Lukashenko has refused to enter into a dialogue with the opposition coordinating council. He has no intention of spending the rest of his life in retirement, picking potatoes at an out-of-town residence in exchange for guarantees of his security and well-being. He wants to rule, and to crush all those who tried to encroach on his dictatorial rights. He may have been in power for twenty-six years, but he isn’t done yet.
But in passing up the opportunity to begin to share power on certain conditions, Lukashenko has increased his chances of ending up at a different state dacha: in forced exile outside Moscow, the traditional resting place of ousted politicians from around the former Soviet Union. That’s, of course, if Moscow will still have him; otherwise, he may have to appeal to his contacts in China.
Lukashenko faced the classic autocrat’s dilemma: avoid a revolution by making compromises and introducing elements of real democracy, or—regardless of the growing price of hanging on to power—fall back on costly repression with costly consequences. He chose the second option, which will make life much more complicated. He will no longer be able to play ball with the West: not after what he has done to his own people. So, he has ensured he will always be entirely dependent on Putin, both economically and politically.
Even if Lukashenko wins this episode of the Belarusian revolution (i.e., if he crushes the protests), he risks losing everything in the long term—even, perhaps, his freedom—in the following episodes of the inevitable standoff with the awakened Belarusian civil society. For it has no intention of going back to sleep any time soon.
Lukashenko’s fate is a cautionary tale. His intransigence is a good lesson for dictators in how to retain power in the short term. But it’s a bad example in terms of ensuring his personal safety and a peaceful old age in the medium and long term. It’s unlikely that anyone has quoted to Lukashenko the proclamation made by Britain’s Earl Grey in parliament in 1831: “The principle of my reform is to prevent the necessity for revolution … of reforming to preserve, and not to overthrow.”
The social structure of Russia, with its oil and gas oligarchy that lives off (for now) enormous economic rent, is not very similar to that of Belarus. But politically, both Russia and Belarus are post-Soviet patronal autocracies whose economies are based on state capitalism (or commercialized socialism). And their various social strata are unified by autocrat fatigue—for various reasons, but with the same consequences: a large degree of resentment.
For precisely this reason, the Kremlin should be watching neighboring Belarus very closely, and once again weighing up all the pros and cons of the two different options out of the dictator’s dilemma.
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