Although populism, whose word originates from Latin, has become one of the most used concepts in today’s politics, Cambridge Dictionary declared populism the word of the year in 2017. In addition to not being based on a certain ideology, this discourse, which changes according to the way the countries are governed, can lead to polarization in some countries. Although populism is not a new doctrine, its starting point is based on old times. Therefore, separating the history of populism into periods makes this concept more understandable in academic terms. Agricultural populism, which first emerged in the 19th century, was seen in the United States (USA) and Russia. The seeds of populism, whose influence can still be seen today, were planted by racism in the 1930s in the European geography and continues to show itself in the field of the rising right. It can be stated that the basis of the rising right-wing populism in Europe is globalization. “First of all, with globalization, the borders of nation-states, which are the main actors of the international system, have begun to blur. It is possible to consider the causes of the rising right in Europe from an economic, cultural and political point of view. From an economic point of view, the USA, which became a super power after the collapse of the Soviet Union after the Cold War, and with the capitalism that has taken the whole world under its influence, there has been a search for cheap workers and low wages under heavy working conditions in Europe.
Belarus (Belarus) is one of the 15 countries that declared their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Belarus, which declared its independence in 1991 and passed to the republican regime (Eke & Kuzio, 2000), had economically unstable years due to reasons such as being a newly established state and regime change until the 1994 elections (Gökırmak, 2010). Along with the economic instability, documented corruption allegations brought the end of the current administration (Rouda, 2012). With the 1994 elections, Alexander Lukashenko won the majority of the population with his promises to pursue a Soviet-like socioeconomic policy. Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power with the 1994 elections, started to fulfill his promises in a short time. This increased the sympathy of the elderly population, and continued to reassure the public until the next elections (Usov, 2008).
Thanks to the Soviet model that Alexander Lukashenko used while fulfilling his election promises, the welfare level of the population increased rapidly compared to other Eastern European countries. With 80% of employment held by the state, Belarus has improved and stabilized year on year in terms of employee salaries, pensions, health and education services (Usov, 2008). Although this situation pleased the Belarusian people economically, over the years key parts of democracy were ignored (Rouda, 2012). Although the economic welfare of the people seems to be satisfactory especially for the elderly population, the young population is quite disturbed by the increasing social pressures, the prevention of protests and marches, and the interventions in the opposition parties and independent media organs. The fact that all independent television and radio channels were taken under control by the government since 2001, more than 700 protesters were beaten and arrested in the protests in 2010 claiming that the elections were not fair, and that some journalists were still not heard from, led to the rise of opposing voices in Belarus.
The authoritarian attitude of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 27 years, has been harshly criticized by the European Union and the USA, including the United Nations. This administration, which continues under the leadership of the Communist Party, sets an important example in terms of seeing the left wing use populism to stay in power. Lukashenko, who took almost all private institutions and organizations under his authority with a Soviet model attitude, caused the state to pay the employee and pension of the population. Although this situation was seen as a harmless and pro-popular attitude at first, over the years it has created a population that cannot live independently from the state. The abandonment of liberal policies in the economy and the complete financing of the people by the state caused the people to ignore the undemocratic state attitude and the other parties participating in the elections were not even taken into account by the people. Alexander Lukashenko is a politician who skillfully uses all his charismatic and demagogic leadership devices on the people (Rouda, 2012). Lukashenko frequently mentioned economic and social innovations, stability and prosperity in his public address and pre-election rallies; It frightens the people that welfare will collapse when a power other than their own comes to power. According to the results of the pre-election poll, 56% of the people think that all the regular monthly salaries come from the efforts of the presidency. There is no doubt that Lukashenko’s populist rhetoric has an impact on this thought.
We can also understand Lukashenko’s populist attitude from the way he paints an image close to the public using traditional tools. The best example of this is the practice of “mandatory weekend working days”, which is one of the old Soviet traditions, still continues in Belarus (Rouda, 2012). This practice, which was a result of the implementation of collectivism in the Soviet Union, was still continued in the independent Belarus, which was effective in winning the favor of the more traditional elderly population.
To summarize, the history of the concept of populism dates back to the 19th century, as stated above. Today, it would be useful to examine the rising populism, which is mostly on the European continent, in the Eastern Europe region. In Belarus, which, like many other countries, was affected by the economic crisis of 2010, the local currency fell twice, causing further discontent among the people. The government raised the retirement age in order to fix the economy and revived the private sector. But the revival of the private sector facilitated the rapid emergence of inequalities in an environment where workers’ rights were not protected. Every year contract renewal practice, which is made compulsory in the private sector, violates workers’ rights and makes the worker dependent on the employer. Thus, the “social state capitalism model” that Lukashenko has been talking about since 1994 has come to a dead end (Sakhnin & Kazbek, 2021). The pressures applied to social media, radio and television in Belarus have also had an impact on independent survey companies, and this situation is sociological. In addition to all these anti-democratic attitudes, the rapid decline of the economy accelerated the protests (Sakhnin & Kazbek, 2021). In the first protests, the opposition managed to bring thousands of people from social media to the streets. In the aforementioned protests, the government gave full authority to the police. As a result, hundreds of protesters were arrested, detained and battered.The disproportionate force applied by the police could not suppress the opposition as the government thought, on the contrary, this disproportionate force, which was documented, brought thousands more into the protests.
- Eke, S., & Kuzıo, T. (2000). Sultanism in Eastern Europe: The Socio-Political Roots of Authoritarian. Europe&Asia Studies, 523-547.
- Gökırmak, M. (2010). Beyaz Rusya’nın Denge Stratejisi Ve Rus Dış Politikasına Etkisi. DergiPark, 8-17.
- Rouda, U. (2012). Belarus: Transformation From Authoritarianism to Sultanis. Baltic Journal Of Political Science, 62-76.
- Usov, P. (2008). The Neo-Authoritarian Regime In The Republic Of Belarus. Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, 86-111.
- Sakhnın, A., & Kazbek, K. (2021, 02 22). JACOBIN. jacobinmag Web Site: https://jacobinmag.com/2021/02/belarus-protest-uprising-failure-lukashenko
This analysis of Belarus is very shocking. The introduction discussing Alexander Lukashenko’s rise to power is critical to understanding populism. Lukashenko inherited a failed economy, unstable government, and new nation. Inheriting a country influenced by its Soviet & communist past and starting anew is not easy. In order for him to earn the people’s trust, this post lists his record of continuing Soviet policies that the older generation was familiar with. Their familiarity made them comfortable with his method of ruling. However, as time progressed, the youth grew into their own generation and did not value the ways Lukashenko ruled Belarus. Lukashenko used democratic tactics such as national elections, independent news media, & stable economic recovery that all had a catch to them in order to stay in power. His attempts to apply stealth authoritarianism were rigged elections, censored “independent” news media, and an over-nationalized economy. These successful attempts at limiting civil liberties have angered the youth of Belarus.
From their anger came protests, one of the foundations of democracy. The right to assembly and hold one’s government accountable for their actions is not a populist idea. However, Lukashenko’s reaction to the demonstrations was too radical. He used the police to subdue opposition from the public, media, and political rivals. Unlike America, actions like these would not be tolerated because Lukashenko has the support of the older generations who grew up in this environment during the cold war. The real change Belarus needs to become democratic is to educate the other generations on the problems of right-wing populism. The catch is that how can the masses reform the system that is already supported by the majority? Lukashenko’s grip on power cannot change until the beliefs change within the nation.
The state of Belarussian politics, which you’ve provided an excellent look at, offers a few key insights into democracy and how it might be suppressed. Lukashenko’s government has taken textbook steps to covertly keep democratic efforts in check – keeping the population happy with economic growth, controlling media outlets, appealing to tradition, positioning Lukashenko as the tireless defender of the people. Although protests have recently broken out, Lukashenko’s model worked for decades, and he hasn’t been ousted from power yet.
This raises a few important questions. When faced with a populist like Lukashenko, what steps can pro-democracy actors take to counter their actions and rhetoric? Is populism an inevitable component of the political spectrum? Normatively, should authoritarian populist regimes be condemned in all cases? Could a regime that governs anti-democratically with policies that totally align with popular sentiment be considered just, or is the democratic process necessary regardless? In Belarussian terms, did the Lukashenko government begin as a “good” regime when engaging only in populism and later evolve into a bad one, or was it always bad?
I believe that recent protests in Belarus are indicators that the Lukashenko government was never “good,” and that democracy is inherently necessary for good government. Authoritarian power is simply too tempting. But I wonder if the Lukashenko government is now too entrenched to be overthrown from within. Belarus presents a cautionary tale, a warning not to accept diminished liberties in exchange for your preferred policy platform. It remains to be seen if it will also offer a route out of authoritarianism.