March 25th marked the 100th anniversary of Belarusian People’s Republic. It was a short-lived political entity, only in existence from 1918 to 1919, though a government-in-exile still remains. For opponents of Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, this anniversary was an important reminder of an independent and democratic Belarus. Although Lukashenko allowed the celebration, it remains clear that his hold on power–and commitment to authoritarian government–has not diminished.
Lukashenko is hardly the first political leader to allow low levels of opposition as a survival strategy. The benefits are twofold: first, allowing low levels of opposition to exist can function as a release valve for society; secondly, it creates an air of plausible deniability about the extent of authoritarian practice. The latter is particularly useful for the European Union, which lifted sanctions against Belarus in 2016, following Lukashenko’s release of imprisoned opposition politicians.
Following the fall of Communism, Belarus remained firmly within the political orbit of its eastern neighbor; Russian-Belarusian relations of the past 24 years have been marked by low gas prices and high levels of cooperation. However, as Russia has experienced a two-year recession, Minsk has begun diversifying its political and economic relations–including those with the European Union. In its 2017 report, Freedom House noted that Minsk has worked to develop stronger economic ties with both the EU and the United States. In turn, Brussels and Washington have lessened their criticisms of human rights abuses and political system, which Freedom House has categorized as “Not Free” since 1996, nearly all of Lukashenko’s time in power.
For members of Belarus’s political opposition, this turn away from Moscow could be seen as cause for optimism. In a Guardian article about the March 25th celebrations, analysts stated that authorities permitted this year’s celebrations to avoid a repeat of 2016’s unrest and reprimand from the EU; it was the first time Minsk allowed public celebrations of the anniversary during the 24 years of Lukashenko’s rule. Thousands of protesters showed up to a concert in central Minsk, waving the red-and-white flag of the Belarusian People’s Republic.
Although Lukashenko permitted the celebration of March 25th, he continued his sharp restriction of opposition activities, including an attempted protest march. The human rights group Viasma stated that five of their observers were arrested by authorities during the protest. Additionally, the Washington Post reported that journalist Galina Abakunchik of U.S. government-funded Radio Svoboda was detained with “dozens” of others.
There are several important roadblocks for the Belarusian opposition. First, the opposition is itself divided. This stems, in part, from a 2010 crackdown on the democratic opposition; people who had previously been involved in protesting the government were pushed out of an active role. The best-known example is Andrey Sannikau, a former diplomat and leader of the Belarusian opposition who was forced to flee the country following months of imprisonment when he attempted to run for president. Of the remaining opposition, there are two blocs: the Belarusian National Congress, led by former presidential candidates Mikalai Statkevich and Uladzimir Naiklajeu, and the Center-Right Coalition, composed of several major political parties.
Secondly, the weakness of political parties is a problem. Schumpeter pointed out in his works that robust political parties are essential to democracy, because they take people’s diverse preferences and shape them into policy directives. Political parties, in his view, are the vehicles of democracy. In Belarus, this vehicle is in need of a tune-up. As Freedom House pointed out in its 2017 report, “There is no official progovernment political party, and very few lawmakers are affiliated with any party.” The government makes it difficult for new political parties to join the process, mostly by denying prospective parties the ability to register and thereby stand for elections. By keeping political parties deliberately weak, it is more difficult for opponents of the Lukashenko government to organize around a coherent policy platform.
Lastly, Lukashenko himself is a savvy incumbent who won’t be ousted easily. He began his career as a frontier guard and director of a collective farm. When he first campaigned for the presidency, he ran as an independent on a populist platform, and his decision to keep political parties weak and at arm’s length has two benefits for his longevity: first, it ensures that his opposition does not effectively coalesce into a meaningful threat; secondly, it makes it harder for any rival from within his own ranks to do so, either. Throughout his 24 years in power, he has ensured that elections are neither free nor fair, and uses the constitution’s privileging of the executive to his advantage. Presidential decrees have a higher legal force than ordinary legislation, meaning he has, essentially, the entire government apparatus within his thrall.
March 25th remains a powerful symbol and rallying point for the democratic opposition within Belarus, which has survived in spite of powerful efforts at eradication. Looking at the 100th anniversary of the creation of an independent Belarus is all the more poignant for how short-lived it was. While the democratic opposition put on a brave demonstration in Minsk this past weekend, the fact remains that Lukashenko’s grip on power is still strong–though hopefully, the return of democracy to Belarus will not take another 100 years.
Photo credit: Alex Zelenko