Since 1994, when Belarus first elected Alexander Lukashenko as president, the country has stagnated as a Russian client state. But the global financial crisis may finally force change on the regimeby Sam Knight / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Alexander Lukashenko with Russia’s President Medvedev
It has not always been easy to see the point of Belarus. Unlike its neighbours, it has not spent the last 18 years celebrating its uniqueness, fighting wars, or reinventing itself as a Nato ally or as a place to go for stag weekends. If anything, it has done the opposite. After independence in 1991 and three years of chaotic nationalist leadership, its 10m citizens decided to stay as Russian and as Soviet as possible, electing Alexander Lukashenko, a farm manager and anti-corruption campaigner, to keep things the way they were when the country was the television and computer-making arm of the USSR.
Since then, Belarus has done its best to disappear as a separate entity. Belarussian, briefly adopted as the national language, was dropped in schools in favour of Russian and the country became a kind of Kremlin client state with a planned economy and planned elections. The sealing off of Belarus—broken only by rare protests against Lukashenko, now in his third term as president, and strange, Borat-like events such as the annual Minsk wheat-weaving championship—has been so effective that most Britons know only two things about it: it is a dictatorship, and it is by the sea (it is not by the sea).
So it’s hard to know what to make of the last nine months, during which Belarus has done more to open up economically than at any time since the early 1990s. Lukashenko has made eyes at the EU before, promising reform only to fall in ever closer with Moscow. But the forces now knocking on the door of Europe’s last authoritarian regime are considerable.
The need to liberalise Belarus’s economy became plain after a damaging argument with Russia over oil and gas prices in early 2007. Until then, the Belarussian economic miracle—8 per cent annual growth since 2002—had consisted of importing Russian oil and refining it for export, and receiving discounted gas that fuelled an industrial economy whose goods were sold back, in large part, to Russia. In 2006, cheap energy amounted to a 30 per cent subsidy of the Belarussian economy, a subsidy that Moscow has said will end by 2011.
Politically shaken and needing money, Lukashenko’s regime had little choice but to start raising foreign investment and selling off state-owned companies. In 2007, Gazprom bought half of Beltransgaz, Belarus’s pipeline company, for $2.5bn. Four of the largest banks were put up for sale and a further 140 state assets earmarked for privatisation. To encourage investors, Lukashenko even hired the British PR man Tim Bell to polish Belarus’s image last summer, a decision followed by the release of the country’s last political dissidents from prison.
But then the global financial crisis hit and, along with many other countries on Europe’s eastern fringe, it has left Belarus reeling. Belarus is not heavily laden with foreign debt, but its dependence on trade and oil prices made foreign help urgent. Late last year, the country spent a quarter of its $5bn cash reserves propping up the Belarussian ruble before appealing to the IMF. On 1st January, an emergency loan was agreed: $2.5bn in return for a 20 per cent devaluation of the currency. Meanwhile, oil prices have continued to slide. One analyst told me that Belarus needs the price of oil to stay above $82 a barrel for its refineries to break even (it is currently at half that price).
With warehouses filling up with unsold goods, many factories have reverted to a four-day week. Standard & Poor’s has downgraded the country’s rating to negative. In this climate, the Belarussian liberalisation has continued with an awful deliberateness. In November, the country held its first ever foreign investment forum, in London, and invited journalists to Minsk. We arrived the day after the IMF.
I had been to Minsk, a clean and eerie place, before, on the first anniversary of the abortive “denim revolution” (the unsuccessful protests against the rigged 2006 presidential election). I wrote a story about one of the country’s last Belarussian language schools, which is forced to operate in secret. My memories of Minsk, which was almost entirely destroyed during the second world war and rebuilt by German POWs, were of damp parks and jazz clubs, the cold apartments of dissidents depressed at the staying power of Lukashenko.
This time was different. We stayed in smart hotels and went on tours of ministries and banks, tractor and bra factories. We were shown pictures of the BelAZ-75600, the world’s most powerful dump truck, and told how Belarus was going to be one of the 30 easiest countries to do business with. The government is cutting regulations and the post-Soviet thicket of 39 taxes that until now have baffled and deterred foreign investors. “I think we have a number of sweet pieces of pie,” said Valery Tsepkalo, a former diplomat who runs an IT park in which most taxes are suspended until 2020.
I heard the same enthusiasm, albeit mixed with anxiety, away from our press handlers. At the office of the Movement for Freedom, Belarus’s main opposition party, everyone said that they supported Lukashenko’s rapprochement. That’s the same Lukashenko who rigged the September parliamentary elections and dresses his five-year-old son, Nikolai, in the uniform of the commander-in-chief of the Belarussian armed forces. Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition leader, and a genial figure who most Belarussians suspect is too nice to become president, said he had little choice. “We are in a plane where there is only one pilot,” he said. “We can be disgusted with the pilot, but we cannot block his eyes or shackle him.”
In the week that we were in Minsk, Lukashenko said the IMF loan would be accompanied by “decisive steps in the direction of liberalising the economy and the lives of people.” Still, for every person I met who was convinced that the reforms were going to alter Belarus irreversibly, I met another who would patiently explain that nothing would change.
Part of the reason is historical. Although Belarussian has existed as a language and identity for hundreds of years, it rarely had political expression before 1991. Centuries of subjugation at the hands of the Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Germans and the Russians again have made Belarussians wary of politics. Lukashenko is no Stalin, who killed thousands of Belarussian intellectuals and political opponents, but many people reminded me how persistent authoritarianism can be, how once politics has been banished from public life, it is both everywhere and nowhere. Those whom I met—activists, poets and so on—who have stayed in Belarus for the last 15 years trying to articulate what a democratic version of their country would look like, spoke of the gnawing stress of waiting for life to change. “It is,” said one, “like living on a hook.”
On my last night in Minsk I witnessed this stress close up in Misha Pashkevich, a 20-year-old history student who had been suspended from his university for taking part in protests. Speaking in torrents about liberty and Cromwell, Pashkevich came across as a restless moth who, maddeningly, keeps finding himself burned. The day before he had been arrested for sarcastically applauding at the 90th anniversary celebrations of Komsomol, the Soviet youth organisation.
We ate in a canteen full of laughing, flirting young Belarussians but Pashkevich couldn’t stop frowning. At one point, overcome with frustration at his English, he reached across the table and took my notebook. “A lot of youth emigrated from Belarus for years & even for ever,” he wrote, and then slumped back in his chair. Pashkevich told me how he had been inspired by the protests in 2006 but was disillusioned with Milinkevich and had joined another opposition party. He talked about the need to recruit other young Belarussians but, under it all, it seemed to me that Pashkevich realised that he was growing up and was terrified of being unable to be the kind of man he wanted to be. “I can’t do this way of life,” he finally said. “We have to change this situation because I don’t want to live like a loser.”
After dinner I went to see Andrei Vardematski, a sociology professor in his fifties who is Belarus’s last remaining pollster. (When I asked him what had happened to the other pollsters he said, “There was another one, but he… moved.”)
In the 1990s, the last time western companies hovered over Belarus, Vardematski did market research for Ford, Procter & Gamble and Philip Morris. His political surveys, however, have proved more troublesome. During the recent parliamentary elections, two KGB officers sat in his office to ensure that he was not making exit polls. Yet when he does research public opinion—for instance, he found that 47 per cent of Belarussians would do nothing if they discovered their vote had been falsified—he knows that the regime absorbs his findings hungrily. I asked him if it felt good to be one of the few people who could sense the popular mood. “It is, yes,” he said. “But there is also a feeling of permanent danger.”
Vardematski told me that Lukashenko and his elite were in what he called “a stage of inertia,” neither popular nor unpopular: “This inertia is not possible in your country because there is an alternative. But here there is just one face on the screen.” The apathy of the Belarussian people ran deep, he said. I asked him if he thought that they didn’t care or had learned not to think about Lukashenko. He answered quietly: “Each Belarussian thinks about him a lot.”
It was after 11pm and Vardematski had to get home. As we left his office and started towards the metro, a young woman in a red leather jacket walked by. Vardematski suddenly saw an opportunity to praise his country. Throwing open his arms, he played tour guide. “Come to Minsk. We have good brains. We have well-qualified staff. We have pretty girls,” he said, addressing the empty, nighttime streets.