Which way forward for Belarus?

On Sunday, August 9th the people of Belarus will go to the polls for the 6th Presidential election since independence. The incumbent is widely expected to win, which he has done for the previous five. He probably already has.

And yet according to Andrew Roth, writing for The Guardian, something is in the air. Enamoured by three female opposition leaders, each representing a jailed candidate, many more are noticing Belarus with increased interest.

One might think that the left would idolise Belarus, after all it rejected neoliberal style shock therapy and has led to respectable and evenly distributed income growth. There’s no oligarchs, many public services are effective, and unemployment is low. (Here’s a timeline of key historic events).

However past growth has been tenuous, and tied to favourable external factors (such as high oil prices, and high subsidies). As a commodity transit economy, Belarus is beholden to many factors outside their control. The weak Russian economy in 2015, caused by lower oil prices and EU sanctions, prompted the first recession in Belarus since 1995. Incomes dropped by 5.9% despite Belarus provide no military support for Russian activities in the Ukraine. And although growth has picked up more recently, with the World Bank reporting 2.5% in 2017 and 3% in 2018, it fell to 1.2% last year and is projected to fall by 4% in 2020. The IMF forecast the Belarus economy to fall by 6% in 2020. The current account deficit has fallen from -1.8% in 2019 to a forecast fall of -5.8% in 2020, which should send alarm bells. Especially since so much public debt is denominated in foreign exchange, and reserves are shrinking.

With a worsening economy, public dissatisfaction with the handling of Covid-19, and the emergence of some genuine opposition figures, there is a sense that the regime is concerned. As Balki Begumhan Bayhan reports, opposition candidates have obtained high numbers of collection pickets (the number of signatures required to stand as a candidate) and although there’s no single credible alternative for opposition figures to unite behind, there’s a real belief that this time may be different. A colour revolution that topples a dictator? Russian interference to replace him? Or will one of the worlds most adept political opportunists emerge even more entrenched?

It seems plausible that this year's election will bring the biggest protests since the 2006 “denim revolution”. Then, a poorly organised protest lacked the numbers or stamina to maintain pressure on the top (interestingly one reason for the failure was the effective state monitoring of social media, and in particular Livejournal, which meant that police would arrive before the flashmobs. It remains to be seen if social media will be a tool for dissent or for cracking down). Western media provided some fuel, but as is typical attention soon switched elsewhere. (In 2001 the 9–11 attacks ensured that no one outside the region even noticed that an election was taking place.) Soon after the 2015 election, due to the increased transparency, and lack of protests, the EU even lifted sanctions. But sure enough, they failed to build on this opportunity. If anything it merely gifted Belarus room to manoeuvre with respect to Putin’s desire to reduce energy subsidies.

In theory a credible opposition candidate should use the EU as a beacon of reforms, in the same way that countries like Romania and Bulgaria used the prospect of entry to make strides on reducing corruption. Liberally minded democrats should be saddened by the EU’s failure to step into this role, and instead be used as a bargaining chip with other geopolitical neighbours.

As a long time observer of the Belarus economy, it’s interesting to see so much media coverage right now. But it seems a little insincere — Westerners may have an intuitive sense that regime change would be beneficial, but this isn’t our election. We must contend with the fact that Lukashenko retains large support among key voting groups, and that we won’t be paying the price of failed reforms, or have to keep impossible promises.

As it happens, I’m going on holiday on August 9th. I’ll be paying close attention to what happens in Belarus — a beautiful, peaceful country. But I’m not going to be revelling in big crowds of protestors, or justifying the well told story that opposition movements are outside plots. It’s time for the people of Belarus to make their decisions.

Professor of Economics at ESCP Business School

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