Since the first and only legitimate election in 1994, dictator Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron grip.
Historically apathetic to politics, Belarusians responded to the fraudulent 2020 re-election of Lukashenko with widespread protests in an unprecedented mobilization of civilians and civil society. In the past, Lukashenko’s democratic aggrandizement has gone uncriticized or forgotten. For example, the 2011 Belarusian presidential election was widely cited as fraudulent yet protests fizzled quickly and resistance occurred primarily on a top-down basis. Bermeo defines democratic aggrandizement as an “elected executives weaken[ing] checks on executive power… [and] disassembling …institutions that might challenge the executive is done through legal channels, often using newly elected constitutional assemblies or referenda (10-11).” Lukashenko’s pro-Russian orientation appealed to the general population while gaining favor from the Russian state which “has continuously supported his authoritarian regime politically and financially (Manaev 2011).” We argue that a consideration of the Russian influence within Belarus is an important component to the success of political resistance. The Belarus case reveals how the political, social, and economic influences of neighboring actors, specific external factors, can promote democratic erosion and impede efforts to oust an authoritarian.
Before becoming sovereign, Belarus was an adjacent satellite to the Soviet Union helping foster deep economic, social, ideological, and political affiliations between the two regions. Most citizens identified as Soviet reflected by a 1991 referendum where roughly 83% of Belarusians voted to preserve the Soviet Union. Path-dependency would suggest that the implemented liberal democratic framework was merely another layer on top of Belarus’ Soviet history. Work on the post-Soviet states by Karklin (2005) highlights this fact and reveals how “formal institutions were systemically circumvented, and occasionally transformed, in line with the informal social context.” These insights reveal a historically important ground-roots Russian influence on Belarus.
Lukashenko has repeatedly proclaimed a firm resolve to remain in power and Russia has an incentive to keep Lukashenko in power. Belarus is of strategic importance to Russia, and Lukashenko has been historically pro-Russian. For example, in Lukashenko’s 1995 referendum a plethora of soviet-era symbolism was pushed through the legislature. Specifically, the Russian language was given the same national status as Belarusian and their coat of arms was incorporated into the national flag. In addition, Belarus acts as a Russian buffer to the EU, and major Russian pipelines, like the Druzhba, run throughout Belarus. Vladimir Putin has already shown his willingness to support Lukashenko by providing police units and by putting oppositional leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on its criminal wanted list. The greater the perceived threat to Lukashenko’s power from the anti-Lukashenko movement and the international community, the more incentive he will have to accept foreign Russian assistance. As Russian assistance expands within Belarus, the more engrained Lukashenko will become.
We argue that the relative power asymmetry between Russia and Belarus as well as their close geographic proximity works to impede Belarus’ democratization process and promote erosion of democratic constraints. Russian influence plays a key and expanding role in the Belarusian political crisis. Researchers and proponents of democracy should not ignore the political and economic reality of Russia in their analyses of Belarusian democratization. According to russiaprofile.org, Russia accounts for around 48% of Belarus’ external trade, while Belarus only accounts for around 6% of Russia’s trade. Illiberal political actors, like Putin, working to expand influence can exploit conditions arising from relative power asymmetries and geographic proximity. That is to say, Belarus’ power asymmetry with Russia makes it more susceptible to their desired policy objectives – it becomes more Russian proxy than a sovereign state. This is not a new insight, but it can help to explain the democratic erosion that we see in Belarus today. Russian resources, like financial or military assistance, can help keep Lukashenko engrained within Belarusian politics. When we think of democratic erosion and backsliding, we typically look for internal factors – structural flaws in political design or an authoritarian eroding internal constraints. The Belarusian case demonstrates some specific external forces which are crucial in determining whether or not a democracy is successfully established and maintained.
We draw some general conclusions. First, the success of democratization movements, such as pressure from protestors or international actors, is contingent on external forces that should not be forgotten. For example, the proximity to other authoritarian regimes. Here, Russian authoritarianism exerts a type of political gravity on Belarus and works to promote illiberal forces. In addition, increases in instability, perceived threats to an authoritarian’s incumbency, and resource constraints are three factors, often occurring from external forces, which can encourage a strongman to seek external assistance further engraining him within the political system. In Belarus, Russian influence is a reality and obstacle to the success of which cannot be ignored. The relative power asymmetry between two nations can make one more conducive to the autocratic influences of the other. Sanctions on an authoritarian should be carefully designed as to not make the help of outside autocratic forces more attractive. Finally, these sanctions can also compromise the sovereignty of a nation by removing the ability of political leadership to select between multiple options. Restricting sovereignty should not be a tool to promote democratization.
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