The former Eastern Bloc state's dictator benefits from instability in Ukraineby Martin Fletcher / June 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
Lukashenko (left) and Vladimir Putin at an ice hockey match in Sochi in January. © Reuters
On the face of it, the revolution in Ukraine might easily have spilled over into Belarus. The two countries share a 600-mile border and their capitals are barely 300 miles apart. Both are former members of the USSR—buffer states caught between the democracies of the European Union to the west and authoritarian Russia to the east. Both were governed by repressive Moscow-backed regimes until Viktor Yanukovych’s government fell in February, prompting Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
In the event, nothing of the sort has happened. Some Belarusian opposition activists went to Kiev to support the protests, though many others were turned back by Belarusian police and border guards. A couple of thousand staged a demonstration of solidarity with Ukraine in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on 25th March. A few Belarusians have launched their own private boycott of Russian beer, and laid flowers by a statue in Minsk of Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian nationalist poet, but that is about all.
Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian President, is instead preparing to celebrate two decades in power on 20th July, with his position as “Europe’s last dictator” seemingly as secure as ever. He remains the absolute and apparently unmovable ruler of a state of 9.5m people, a last remnant of the Soviet Union replete with its own KGB, show trials, political prisoners, penal colonies, collective farms, command economy and formidable propaganda machine.
“There will be no ‘Maidan’ (Ukrainian-style uprising) in Minsk. There’s no place for a ‘Maidan’ here,” Lukashenko declared recently. Just to be sure, he has ordered his puppet parliament to approve legislation making it easier to declare martial law and shoot protestors in the event of “mass disorders.”
In reality Lukashenko’s Belarus is very different from Yanukovych’s Ukraine. It has a much more formidable intelligence and security apparatus. Its parliament, judiciary, media and other civic institutions were neutered long ago. It has no split between a pro-European west and pro-Russian east, no oligarchs to support the opposition and no strong sense of national identity—70 per cent of Belarusians are Russian-speaking. The state provides better services and higher incomes, and is less overtly corrupt. Belarus also has…