As promised last time, Andrew Wilson has agreed to answer my questions on his book, Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship. I spent most of the first part of this review/Q&A on the historical part of the book, which forms the backdrop to Wilson’s main theme: Belarus since independence, a tale which can only be told through a detailed examination of the career of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But what if Lukashenka had never made the journey from kolkhoz to presidential palace?
K.K.: Let’s consider a counterfactual: Lukashenka loses the presidential race in 1994 and becomes a hockey coach. What direction might Belarus have moved in? Would it have taken a trajectory like Ukraine’s, with a strong westernizing faction emerging? Or more like Moldova, where the old guard held on to power for years?
A.W.: There are several different ways of looking at the period of 1991-1994 before Lukashenka came to power. The U.S. academic Lucan Way has just written a paper for Slavic Review, where he argues that Viacheslaw Kebich, who was prime minister at the time, was simply an “inefficient authoritarian,” rather than the great liberal lost hope. I also read Kebich’s memoirs, which are pretty revealing: Kebich says that the Tiananmen Square massacre was worth a few dead and the USSR should have saved itself by doing something similar. So he was hardly an enthusiastic custodian of the new Belarusian state. Kebich also drank too much.
The opposite point of view is that Belarus had a new constitution by 1994, had undertaken some economic reforms and had weathered the worst of the early 1990s super-recession. Lukashenka himself briefly carried on with some liberal reforms and got money from the IMF for his first few months.
Most likely, however, Belarus without Lukashenka would have built the same kind of crony gangster capitalism as in Ukraine, albeit without strong regional clans. The Belarusian nomenklatura were relatively united in the so-called Minsk City Industrial Group, of which Kebich was a part, which had strong ties to Moscow, strengthened by the relatively high Soviet investment in Belarus in the 1970s and 1980s.
In reality, though, in 1994 Lukashenka trounced Kebich and four other presidential runners. Wilson describes how in the first round, two dummy candidates set up by Kebich’s men came last, behind former head of state Stanislaw Shushkevich, new-style conservative Zenon Pazniak of the Belarusian Popular Front, and Kebich, who collected only 17 percent to Lukashenka’s 45 percent. In the runoff Kebich’s support hardly changed while Lukashenka won 80 percent – fairly, by all accounts. Kebich, the only government leader Belarus had known since just before independence, apparently was unable or unwilling to employ “administrative resources” to ensure a win in a direct election. He was also tarnished by association with what the public saw as high-level corruption, Wilson writes, while Lukashenka had launched his political career as the head of a committee on corruption.
I’m not going to take up space retelling the history of Lukashenka’s political career. Wilson does a good job of that, and there is lots of material in the TOL archives too. I did ask what levers if any the United States and EU can use to try and moderate his increasing generalissimo-ness.
A.W.: There is a tendency in the West, particularly on the left, to say “sanctions don’t work” before anybody has had time to judge. There is certainly such a thing as “sanction rents” – regime insiders can actually make money off sanctions if they are badly devised, as in Iraq before 2003. But as David Kramer and others have argued, there is plenty of scope for hitting the regime where it really hurts, which is oil. Particularly because the current economic rebound in Belarus is all about oil, as Russia has been supplying subsidized crude again since November.
Looking ahead to a Belarus without Lukashenka – however surreal that may sound – I asked, Is it going to take something like a Greek-style economic meltdown to convince a majority of Belarusians that he can no longer deliver the goods?
A.W.: Yes. When commentators such as Anders Aslund and myself were saying in 2011 that the regime was broke, they were right. In the sense that it lives beyond its means – largely on Russian subsidy. [Belarus’ economic wobbliness is nothing new to TOL’s Sergei Korol – see here, here, and here.]
Russia simply bailed the system out in November 2011. Why Russia was so unexpectedly generous is another question. My hunch is that Lukashenka was lucky – in November 2011 [ex-Russian Finance Minister Alexei] Kudrin, who has been the main guy pressing for more “value for money” in relations with Belarus, was temporarily out of the picture in Russia, and Putin was busy pushing his Eurasian Union project. But Belarusian public opinion is actually a pretty good judge of what is going on. Lukashenka’s poll ratings collapsed along with the economy in 2011 to the 20s. They have now recovered, but not to massively high levels. Public opinion sees a partial and not necessarily long-term bailout. Ultimately, the economy will still collapse if Russia decides to let it collapse. [For another view on Belarus-Russia relations, see Grigory Ioffe's recent posts on the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.]
A.W.: There is no Belarusian Mandela among the ranks of the opposition, and Lukashenka has always guarded against a “palace coup.” Prime Minister Miasnikovich would be a safe pair of hands. But Russia has always faced a problem with promoting a rival. Whoever replaced Lukashenka, however Russophile he or she might be, would be able to open a new chapter in relations with the West simply in virtue of not being Lukashenka. Viktar Lukashenka [the president’s eldest son] is powerful enough, but there are no signs of his being the chosen successor – hence Lukashenka’s constant semi-joking references to his extremely young youngest son.
Photo: Detail of the cover of Wilson’s book, showing riot police at government headquarters in Minsk during an opposition rally in the hours following Lukashenka’s re-election in December 2010.