The 2020 mass protests took place thanks to a vibrant private sector that produced a highly-skilled, well-paid urban class not tied to Lukashenka’s social contract. Lukashenka response can be seen partly in his Soviet upbringing and political career which produced a worldview not devoid of class-based categories. Thus, he attacked the means that sustain the existence of the opposition, with an approach reminiscent of Stalin’s policies towards kulaks.
The Belarusian authorities’ course of action appears to focus on blind repression. Yet, the constitutional and education reforms pursued by the president suggest the intention to keep the regime in place over the long term. Pure repressions would not be sufficient for such a goal, especially after the year 2020 showed a strong societal fracture and posed an existential threat to the state built by Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Belarusian repressions are underpinned by a specific logic and framing of the state of the Belarusian society and aim at acting on the structural socio-economic roots of dissent. By analysing these roots we can better understand how they produced the social coalition which threatened Lukashenka’s power in 2020 and how the latter quelled the protests thanks to the correct analysis of the challenges his regime faced.
The deepening of social cleavages and the eroding of Lukashenka’s social contract
Belarus has been characterised by strong authoritarianism for the past quarter of a century. Yet, demonstrations capable to make the regime waver erupted only in 2020, after a period of limited political and economic liberalisation, rapprochement with the West and greater distance from Russia starting in 2014.
Researchers such as Vyacheslav Sutyrin hinted at a “perestroika effect”. Whereby, the attempt to save the Soviet Union through liberalisation unleashed forces that led to its demise. Such a diagnosis requires an analysis of those forces, as liberalisation does not automatically bring about a crisis of authoritarian regimes (as Beijing illustrates).
The year 2020 marked the political maturation of new social interests. New social strata were produced by Lukashenka’s development model aimed at providing Belarus with a large middle class and increasing living standards through growth, redistribution and social rights. Growth was incentivised through accumulation of local and foreign capital thanks to several reforms that allowed Belarus to steadily raise in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report and special fiscal regimes such as those of various Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and the infamous High Technologies Park.
Growing private business produced a segment of high-skilled, high-income professionals especially in finance, IT and tertiary sector. Their higher-than-average salaries were enough to compensate for social rights guaranteed by public employment (nursery schools, summer camps, housing, benefits, etc.). Furthermore, low salaries in the public sector and austerity measures after 2014 led to the high-skilled labour force finding higher wages in the private sector or abroad (since 2014 Belarus has indeed experienced a surge in the emigration rate).
Consequently, a new social class emerged, no longer tied to the social contract underpinning Lukashenka’s power since 1994 and summed up in the economic growth, social security and social peace trinity. These new social interests were represented at the 2020 presidential elections by a completely new opposition. It consisted of members of the Belarusian economic-managerial élite previously close to the president such as Viktar Babaryka (CEO of BelGazpromBank, the most important Russian bank in the country) and Valery Tsapkala (public manager, creator of the Minsk High Technologies Park and strong supporter of economic liberalisation) or, in the case of Sergei Tsikhanouski, members of the nascent Belarusian entrepreneurship. Lukashenka thus faced an opposition expressing concrete societal and material interests and, especially in Babaryka’s case, a centre of economic power and clienteles relatively independent from the state.
A further element of the erosion of Lukashenka’s support was the waning of economic growth starting from 2014, a reflection of the contemporary Russian economic downturn and the reduction of Moscow’s subsidies. The need to sustain growth, acquire leverage towards Russia and diversify the economy was met with austerity consisting of welfare cuts aimed at macroeconomic stabilisation and liberalisation policies, including vast privatisation plans. Social security was thus cut by the Belarusian government as it prioritised more financially-sustainable welfare policies.
In the meantime, the private sector, although hurdled by several limitations, increased its role in the Belarusian economy, de facto subsidising it. The Belarusian private sector output increased way faster than the public sector one, while employing way less than 50 per cent of the workforce.
Despite the differences in productivity and in salaries (depending on the sector), Belarus still maintained a high degree of income distribution on a national level. Yet, income disparities were geographically concentrated, mostly in Minsk, creating high income“bubbles”, partially fed by a vibrant financial and IT private sector.
In August 2020 Lukashenka’s social contract was not really in place anymore. Austerity measures scaled back social security (for example a very unpopular pension reform) and thus lowered his trust rating from Lukashenka’s traditional support base (state industrial workers, pensioners, etc.). Economic stagnation and plans to privatise state-owned enterprises and layoffs in the public sector further alienated his power base, now less persuaded to be guaranteed during crises, while convincing many that Belarus was ready for a greater degree of liberalisation. A common point in the programmes of Babaryka, Tsikhanouski (later Tsikhanouskaya) and Tsepkalo.
August 2020 – an explosion of internal contradictions
The year 2020 presented the conditions for the formation of a wide social coalition against Lukashenka. Its core was formed around urban intelligentsia and high-skilled private sector professionals who would profit from the neutrality, if not the sympathy, of state workers and pensioners traditionally close to Lukashenka. Additional fragility for the president was given by his previous alienation of the Kremlin. The perception of this precarious situation pushed the government to tighten up repression before the elections, preventing the candidacy of all three candidates and arresting both Babaryka and Tsikhanouski. This left Tikhanouski’s wife running in his place, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, not treated as a credible threat by government circles.
Left as the only viable opposition candidate and supported by imprisoned contestants, Tsikhanouskaya was able to become a point of reference for widespread dissent. The previously described wide social coalition mobilised around her, while many simply remained indifferent to the idea of a political transition.
The gap in organisational resources needed to manage and direct a vast political mobilisation was filled by social media and online outlets such as NEXTA, a Telegram channel based in Poland and financed by various private sponsorships, TUT.by, the most visited site in Belarus, Charter97 or Belsat (Belarusian spin-off of Polish State TV). These channels sided with the protests, becoming an active tool for dissemination of information and the organisation of massive gatherings. Independent online media was tolerated by the Belarusian authorities up to 2020. In the last decade it reached TV (and overtook press) as a source of information. The latter, dominated by the state, were perceived as less reliable. The opposition thus could rely on a media system with high penetration and extensive reach, maximised by an opposition unified under Tsikhanouskaya.
The link between politics and social class is difficult to demonstrate in the absence of reliable election data. If official data is rigged, the opposition GOLOS initiative also raises doubt due to it being a politically-sided initiative (it records a result of 80 per cent of votes for Tsikhanouskaya), which required only a phone number to participate in.
One can assume that, although rigged, the official results might still be capable of showing how the candidates performed in the different districts, providing a representation of voting territorial trends. The distribution of votes against Lukashenka (also including the votes given to the “against all” peculiar voting possibility offered in Belarus) presents similarities with the regional distribution of GDP per capita in Belarus, concentrating in the city of Minsk, Minsk region and Hrodna.
Data from CEC and Belstat, calculations made by the author
A correlation is maintained when comparing the distribution of votes against the current president and the concentration of foreign direct investments (FDI), and number of small and medium-sized enterprises by region.
These are very high correlation coefficients (“R”) (to give an idea, an R value of 0.6 is considered an index of a strong correlation) that leave no room for doubt.
The government, however, traditionally weaker in the capital and among liberal-minded individuals, did not feel threatened by the growing dissent of the nascent Belarusian capitalist class or its urban intelligentsia. Indeed, the authorities did not waver during the firsts mass protests after the elections, but only a few days later, when workers from large state-owned enterprises such as MAZ, BELAZ, MTZ joined the demonstrators on strike. Apart from the denunciation of rigged elections, there were no economic demands, a field with no real convergence with the opposition. The main request of the workers was an end to the violence against the demonstrators and a resolution of the crisis.
On August 13th 2020 the interior minister issued a statement of apology for the violence of the repression, numerous protesters under arrest were released and the police were withdrawn from the streets. Lukashenka, staunchly stayed in Minsk despite reports of the contrary, and organised several counter-manifestations, appearing in public, showing he was no Viktor Yanukovych and sending a strong message to Moscow and those other doubters.
From that moment on, the authorities, basing their action upon a class reading of the political turmoil, pursued a four-point strategy that ultimately succeeded: 1) Repressing the nucleus of the opposition, while regrouping its power base through material guarantees; 2) Beheading the opposition, while erasing its headless support base; 3) A new nationalisation of the economy; and 4) Eliminating any informative autonomy.
Step 1: Regrouping traditional power base through material guarantees
Having ascertained the solidity of the support of the armed and security forces, Lukashenka focused on reconsolidating his traditional power base. The authorities openly criticised the opposition’s free-market programmes, reneging on previous austerity policies and pledging full preservation of the state industry (excluding any privatisation programme) and of the acquired living standards. New orders from Russia, China and Ukraine (all not unconditionally interested in Lukashenka’s fall), and Moscow’s credit gave Lukashenka credibility at home. Such policies co-existed with the repression of openly dissenting individuals in state enterprises (many of whom were fired) and the strong control of the labour force through state trade unions.
State workers were thus left with little room to satisfy their interests, as state security and the conscripted army stayed with Lukashenka, the opposition failed to take power and the government appeared the only one able to give concrete guarantees. At the beginning of October, Tsikhanouskaya heightened the level of the confrontation declaring a general strike. This marked the dissolution of the social coalition that mobilised in August. Employees of the Minsk High Technology Park (IT), numerous service-sector businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises participated, but the workers of large industrial State-owned enterprises did not. After this moment, demonstrations with an increasingly lower turnout took place only in the capital. Minsk remained the sole centre of protest due to the strong presence of private tertiary sector businesses and foreign capital, immune to new economic promises and free from the constraints imposed by state unions and factory collectives. On those linked with these sectors, now a minority, a ruthless repression was unleashed.
After October the revolution acquired a uniquely urban bourgeois character, while Lukashenka took the first step to reinforce the resilience of his regime preparing the reforms of the constitution, education and of the national economy.
Step 2: Beheading the opposition
The class nature of the confrontation has been recognised and addressed by the state. Lukashenka openly denounced the loss of control of political processes within the private industry and the IT sectors due to the lack of state control. The government’s strategy to increase its resilience is not limited to a reform of the institutions through a new constitution but aims to eradicate the structural elements of dissent. A societal pacification not through dialogue or co-optation, but through purge.
The opposition leadership has been systematically exiled, arrested and isolated (Tsikhanouskaya, Maria Kalesnikava , Viktar Babaryka, Igor Leshchenya, etc.). Analysts and thinkers opposed to the regime such as Artyom Shraibman were also forced to leave the country. Most leaders are exiled, yet common citizens are condemned to long sentences even for participating once in a manifestation. This creates a fracture between the leadership and the base, cutting their links. The opposition abroad is systemically delegitimised, shown as a set of privileged people living off foreign aid and asking for sanctions that will damage Belarusians’ well-being.
Step 3: A new nationalisation of the economy
Words have been effectively followed by actions as the Belarusian economy is hit by a new period of public investment. Liberalisations and privatisations are frozen while the government proposed to introduce a mandatory state trade union presence in the private sector as well, definitively eliminating the margins for political activity in the workplace.
While the first aspect of this action is increasing the material bound between most of the country’s labour force with this specific political regime, the other one aims at imposing full control of the state over those employed in the private sector. The private sector is intentionally restrained and entrepreneurs sympathising with the protests are arrested and in the case of Gennady Kireykov forced to write generous checks for the state. The obvious downside for the government is that such a policy requires immense amounts of capital. Considering that increasing the saving ratio through welfare cuts is not political viable and the relations with the West amount to zero, this means increased, if not total, dependence from Russian subsidises.
Step 4: Eliminating any informative autonomy
The internet, previously a tolerated space of relative freedom, is now object of severe scrutiny. Independent newspapers and portals that sided with the protesters such as TUT.by, the most visited portal in Belarus, and the BelaPan news agency, which have been standing since the dawn of the country’s independence, are shut down and journalists are at the centre of hard repressions. Being a journalist or an independent analyst in Belarus became nearly impossible, yet the country is vulnerable to foreign based outlets such as NEXTA. For this reason, it is possible to expect further policies eventually modelled on the Great Firewall of China.
Briefly, Belarus is applying its own version of the Venezuela model. After the 2019 political crisis Nicolás Maduro left Juan Guaidó free to travel abroad while the government repressed organisational networks on the ground, disconnecting the opposition leadership from its base. In the meantime, the government mobilised its electoral base, further restricted margins of actions for private property, isolated the opposition and won the elections in 2020. It resisted harsh sanctions and the international situation changed. Trump lost his election the same year, in South America governments shifted left and in July 2021, the EU stopped recognising Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. The Venezuelan government has staked everything on its resilience and won, the Belarusian authorities hope to do the same.
The 2020 massive protests took place thanks to a vibrant private sector that produced a high-skilled well-paid urban class, not tied to Lukashenka’s social contract and strong decrease in the trust in its usual electoral basis. Lukashenka’s Soviet upbringing and political career produced a worldview not devoid of class-based analytical categories. He thus acted attacking the means of material and informative production that sustain the existence of the opposition, with an approach reminiscent of Stalin’s policies towards kulaks. Lukashenka’s constitutional reform will succeed in keeping his successors and its supporters in the condition to decide the future in the country only if centres of independent political and economic power are erased and most of the workforce is tied to the regime through material guarantees and labour discipline. His policies could however clash in the long-term with the application of free movement of goods and capital principles by the Eurasian Economic Union
Finally, the greatest weakness remains – the guarantee of continued economic growth without structural reforms. This has historically been guaranteed from the outside, mainly from Moscow through energy subsidies. An element around which, without Lukashenka, Moscow will be able to leverage even more in the future, while building a Belarusian elite in favour of greater integration as a solution to a future without Batka. This has been already the case with the unveiling of 28 integration roadmaps between the two countries on September 9th. The roadmaps do not include political integration, but mostly legal harmonisation in finance, transport, goods and service markets for which Belarus receives a single gas and oil market that will significantly boost, thanks to the Russian domestic prices and competitiveness of its economy. Historically, Russia-Belarus integration roadmaps have not been implemented, yet if this is going to be the exception, harmonisation will allow for greater Russian economic penetration capable to reinforce its grip on Minsk.
Most likely, Lukashenka sees in the single gas and oil market an opportunity to provide the economic stability and prosperity structurally needed for its survival, counting on limiting Russian influence through ad hoc measures. However, such a strategy would work for a short time, since the profitability of many of the energy subsidies, in particular oil subsidies, could start to decline starting from 2030 due to the energy transition policies at the global level. Market reforms, even pushed by Moscow, will be necessary, their effects will once again shake the foundation of Lukashenka’s institutional and societal design.
German Carboni is a graduate of the College of Europe. (Hannah Arendt Promotion). His research interests include post-Soviet, EU Affairs and Energy Policy.
This article is cross-posted in partnership with New Eastern Europe. Read the original post here.