By: Patrick Savage, Columnist
Photo Credit: Eurasianet
As the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, one of Russia’s most significant and traumatic historical events, came and went this month, Moscow was quiet.[i] The scene was far different, however, in neighboring Belarus, the former Soviet republic where “Revolution Day” is still a public holiday.[ii] President Alexander Lukashenko congratulated his citizens on the anniversary, and an official rally was held near the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Minsk’s Independence Square to commemorate the occasion.[iii] As Belarus celebrates a historical event that would rather be forgotten by the rest of the former Soviet Union, it is indicative of how the nation has clung to the past and failed to move forward politically, economically, and societally, potentially jeopardizing its future as a viable, sovereign state in the process.
Unless you count the unrecognized, breakaway republic of Transnistria in Moldova, Belarus is the former Soviet republic that has moved the least beyond its Soviet roots; in many ways, it still embraces them.[iv] [v] Its flag and national anthem have only been marginally changed from when they were used under Soviet rule.[vi] More striking, the security service still retains the Russian acronym KGB, or Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti.[vii] Belarus’s KGB moves quickly to stamp out dissent and opposition to President Lukashenko, who has been in power for over 20 years. He has been Belarus’s first and only president. He was the only member of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet to vote against the agreement that dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991.[viii] This combination of repressive government, abuse of human rights, and lack of a free and open society explains why Lukashenko is often called “the last dictator in Europe.”[ix]
Belarus remains politically and economically stunted. There have been only marginal reforms of the old Soviet-style economy, with Belarus dependent on the output of large, state-owned enterprises producing heavy industrial products for most of its economic growth.[x] The lack of substantial economic reform has had significant repercussions, with the economy just barely pulling out of a nearly three-year recession earlier this year, with the growth rate now at one percent. This slight recovery notwithstanding, there are still endemic issues nationwide. Belarus’s economy remains stunted compared to its neighbors. Its western neighbor, Poland, has an economy ten times as large. One of the biggest culprits of this lack of development has been an inability to attract outside investment and capital, with foreign investment in Belarus actually declining by three percent in the first half of 2017.[xi]
Lukashenko has actively tried to remedy this situation in recent years by reaching out to Western institutions and establishing closer ties to attract new trade and investment opportunities. Despite this realization and these efforts, Belarus continues to be held back by its refusal to move beyond the methods of its Soviet past that its leaders rely on to stay in power. Talks with the International Monetary Fund over financial aid broke down over refusals by Belarus to reform its state-owned businesses and to remove all of its state-offered housing and utility subsidies by the end of 2018. Efforts to reach out to the West have also been derailed in the past by Lukashenko’s reluctance to abandon heavy-handed responses to dissent.[xii] Relations between the EU and Belarus were only just restored in 2016 after a five-year freeze caused by a violent crackdown during Belarus’s 2010 election.[xiii] Even after this restoration of relations, they have already been put in jeopardy once again following a violent crackdown on peaceful protests earlier this year.[xiv]
Belarus’s attempts to reach out to the West have also been held back by another leftover of the Soviet era: dependence on Russia. Belarus’s economy relies heavily upon trade with Russia for its survival, especially in the energy sector. Lukashenko has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Putin throughout his time in power.[xv] Russia is simultaneously a liability for Belarus. A major reason for Belarus’s economic decline between 2015 and 2017 was a recession in Russia, demonstrating just how closely its economy has become tied to its former Soviet master.[xvi] Trade has also become a tool for Russia to exert influence and control over Belarus through oil and gas shutoffs, as has occurred in previous political spats—such as the one earlier this year that grew into an even a broader dispute over border controls and trade before being resolved in the aftermath of the St. Petersburg Metro bombing.[xvii] [xviii] In a period of increasing confrontation between Russia and the West, Russia may continue to use these connections to pressure Belarus, especially as Lukashenko continues his sporadic flirtations with the West, isolating the country, making it increasingly dependent upon Russia, and limiting its sovereignty and independence.
Belarus requires serious economic development and investment if it wants to avoid economic underperformance and decline. However, it cannot do that unless its leaders divest themselves of the political and economic baggage they have carried with them for more than two decades to solidify their rule. The United States and its Western allies and partners must realize this as well, and have that realization govern any interaction with Belarus. Any effort at cooperation with or investment in Belarus will be fruitless and unsustainable without the reforms that Lukashenko and his followers are thus far unwilling to undertake. It must be made clear to Belarus that substantive growth is possible only if Lukashenko releases the vestiges of the Soviet past that still hang over the country. Otherwise, not only will the country continue to falter and become weaker, it may become increasingly dependent upon Russian life support to the point where Belarus’s Soviet past may very well come full circle.
[i] David Filipov, “Russia carefully marks 100th anniversary of Great October Revolution,” The Washington Post, November 6, 2017, accessed November 11, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russia-carefully-marks-100th-anniversary-of-great-october-revolution/2017/11/06/94afde02-c284-11e7-9922-4151f5ca6168_story.html
[ii] “October Revolution Day in Belarus,” October Revolution Day | Belarus Public Holidays | Office Holidays, November 11, 2017, accessed November 16, 2017, http://www.officeholidays.com/holidays/belarus/october-revolution-day.
[iii] “Belarus celebrates 100th anniversary of October Revolution,” Belteleradiocompany, accessed November 12, 2017, https://www.tvr.by/eng/news/obshchestvo/belarus_otmechaet_100_letie_oktyabrskoy_revolyutsii/.
[iv] Laura Mallonee, “Meet the People of a Soviet Country That Doesn’t Exist,” Wired, June 03, 2017, accessed November 14, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2016/03/meet-people-transnistria-stuck-time-soviet-country-doesnt-exist/.
[v] Grigory Loffe, “Belarus and the 1917 Revolution,” The Jamestown Foundation, November 13, 2017, accessed November 14, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/belarus-1917-revolution/.
[vi] “Belarus – ‘My Belarusy’,” National Anthems Atom, November 13, 2017, accessed November 16, 2017, http://www.nationalanthems.me/belarus-my-belarusy/.
[viii] Michael Specter, “Belarus Voters Back Populist in Protest at the Quality of Life,” The New York Times, June 24, 1994, accessed November 14, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/25/world/belarus-voters-back-populist-in-protest-at-the-quality-of-life.html.
[x] “Belarus Overview,” World Bank, November 13, 2017, accessed November 16, 2017, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/belarus/overview.
[xi] Grigory Loffe, ” Belarusian Economy: Challenges and Gains,” The Jamestown Foundation, September 20th, 2017, accessed November 14, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/belarusian-economy-challenges-and-gains/.
[xii] James Shotter, “Belarus performs balancing act in move to strengthen EU ties,” The Financial Times, October 24, 2017, accessed November 14, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/a0ecd9c4-ac57-11e7-aab9-abaa44b1e130.
[xiii] Jennifer Rankin, “EU lifts most sanctions against Belarus despite human rights concerns,” The Guardian, February 15, 2016, accessed November 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/15/eu-lifts-most-sanctions-against-belarus-despite-human-rights-concerns.
[xiv] “EU-Belarus relations: Delicate ties under strain,” European Parliament Think Tank, April 25, 2017, accessed November 14, 2017, 6-8, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI%282017%29599429.
[xv] David Filipov, “Here’s what pro-democracy activists in Belarus fear most about Russia’s war games,” The Washington Post, September 16, 2017, accessed November 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/09/16/heres-what-pro-democracy-activists-in-belarus-fear-most-about-russias-war-games/.
[xvi] “Belarus: Economic Update,” The World Bank Group, April 28, 2016, accessed November 14, 2017, 1, http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/402681461815772695/Belarus-economic-update-spring-2016-en.pdf.
[xvii] Yuras Karmanau and Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia-Belarus rift grows as Putin loses patience,” Associated Press, February 18, 2017, accessed November 14, 2017, https://apnews.com/04fc05845d3b449aa202c7a01ceccefb.
[xviii] Denis Pinchuk, “Russia and Belarus heal ties in shadow of metro bombing,” Reuters, April 03, 2017, accessed November 14, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-belarus-meeting/russia-and-belarus-heal-ties-in-shadow-of-metro-bombing-idUSKBN17525M.