Turmoil marred the oft-ignored Belarusian presidential elections as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of an arrested presidential candidate, challenges incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka. As popular protests face state violence and allegations of falsified votes grow louder, parallels appear with Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution. Several factors, however, make the Belarusian case unique in the annals of Eastern European democratization. Instead of modeling Belarus’ transition on the Ukrainian Euromaidan, reformers should look back to early post-Communist transitions.
Belarus and Ukraine: Different Stages
The most critical difference between current events in Belarus and the Ukrainian Euromaidan is that the Euromaidan was built on a decade-old foundation of multiparty elections and institutionalism. Belarus remains a de facto non-partisan autocracy. President Lukashenka has been re-elected five times and has centralized the state around his presidency. Public opinion appears apolitical: in 1993, the year before Lukashenka took power, then-head of state Stanislav Shushkevich claimed that 60% of people did not support any political party. In the 2020 elections, most of the challengers, including Tsikhanouskaya, are independents.
Pre-Euromaidan Ukraine by contrast was classified by political scientists as a “hybrid regime” sharing aspects of authoritarian rule with democratic competition. The country had multiparty elections, began considering decentralization reforms even before the Euromaidan, and saw civil society provide a counter in the 2004 Orange Revolution when the pro-government candidate Viktor Yanukovych was forced into a run-off election. Solid democratic institutions need to be formed if Belarus attempts any reforms. Civic engagement and a multiparty political infrastructure are essential to ending the Soviet-style system in post-1994 Belarus.
Belarus’s economy remains dominated by Soviet-style state enterprises, requiring serious changes to prevent stagnation from turning into collapse. When Lukashenka assumed office in 1994, he undid many marketization measures his de facto predecessor Stanislav Shushkevich implemented after 1991. Top-heavy economic policy resulted in a stable, but sluggish and increasingly indebted economy. State-owned enterprises comprise approximately 75% of the economy and employ 50% of the population. Due to cash-strapped banks and businesses, Belarus must borrow abroad. As of 2018, the country’s share of foreign exchange debt in total public debt was 90% according to the International Monetary Fund. Similarly, the IMF noted that “the real effective exchange rate is overvalued by about 10 percent,” making the currency uncompetitive internationally and fostering foreign lenders’ mistrust of Belarusian finance: if the exchange rate is artificially overvalued, other key indicators may not be accurate. The Belarusian economy remains isolated from worldwide market trends and is too weak to sustain long-term economic expansion.
Belarus also diverges from Ukraine on the cultural front, where a strong state-sponsored Soviet nostalgia competes with local nationalism, complicating efforts to reform Belarusian politics and finances.
Unlike contemporary Belarus, 2013 Ukraine’s economy was comparatively liberalized and open to foreign investment despite lingering corruption. Transparency International ranked Ukraine 144 out of 177 countries in 2013, but according to the Carnegie Endowment, net foreign direct investment from 1992 to 2012 was positive. The Carnegie Endowment report adds that by 2012 almost 40% of Ukrainian bank assets were controlled by foreign entities. Most importantly, the report suggested that not all owners were Russian, though their proportion in the Ukrainian market increased. While the local oligarch class’s ascendance spurred concerns about business influence on politics, they offered a domestic funding source for new companies. Critically, the private sector was somewhat diversified, allowing for expanded economic activity beyond state controlled enterprises. In 2013, 44% of the market structures in the manufacturing sector were oligopolies – meaning most of Ukraine’s manufacturing industry (which comprised 33% of GDP in 2010) had at least some competition. American economist Gregory Mankiw notes that “Competition keeps prices low and provides an incentive to improve and innovate,” key goals for Ukraine’s sizeable economy. Belarus’ state-run monopolies require genuine market competition to start the engines of governmental change.
Belarus also diverges from Ukraine on the cultural front, where a strong state-sponsored Soviet nostalgia competes with local nationalism, complicating efforts to reform Belarusian politics and finances. Decades of Russian domination have hampered Belarusian linguistic and cultural revival, and the Soviet-Russian authorities emphasized their role as “protector” of the Belarusian people within an ostensible greater Slavic family in which Belarus, the “partisan republic,” loyally guards the western flank. This contrasts with an older strain of Belarusian identity that accentuates differences between Belarus’ culture and those of its larger neighbors Poland and Russia.
The Belarusian national awakening developed in the late 19th century, tying itself to agrarianism, emphasizing language and claiming the borders of “historical Ruthenia” which included Vilnius (now in Lithuania) and Smolensk (now in Russia). During the 1940s, nationalist leaders such as padre Vincent Hadleŭski collaborated with the Nazi German invasion to expel the Soviet authorities, end Polish domination in the western regions, and create a nationalist Belarus. Hadleŭski eventually soured on the German occupation forces, but other nationalists formed armed units, helping commit genocide against the local Polish and Jewish communities. This complex history meant that postwar Belarusian nationalism had to find an identity apart from Soviet diktat but untainted by collaboration.
Lukashenka’s government adopted the Sovietized/Russified variant of Belarusian identity and marginalized pro-western activists. The Belarusian government heavily promotes the Soviet role in attaching Western Belarus to the existing Belorussian SSR in 1939, as well as the Soviet Republic’s post-1945 United Nations representation despite remaining under Soviet suzerainty. Authorities also are encouraging a linguistic shift toward Russian, eroding Belarusian nationalism’s cultural foundation. In the 2016-2017 school year, only 128,000 students or 13.3% of the total, studied in the Belarusian language. Russian remains the lingua franca.
Rather, analysts and would-be reformers should turn to the policies suggested in the immediate post-Soviet era, when Central and Eastern European countries transitioned away from Sovietized existence.
Unlike Belarus, national awareness in Ukraine remained sufficiently robust to provide an explicit alternative to Sovietization and its successors. While all of Belarus was part of the Russian Empire until 1917, western Ukraine came under Austro-Hungarian rule where the lack of Russification nurtured a local intelligentsia. Conflicts with Poland and the Soviet Union meant that during the Second World War some Ukrainians preferred the German invaders to Soviet occupation authorities, and certain nationalist groups like OUN-B cooperated tactically with Nazi forces. Nonetheless, other nationalist figures like Metropolitan Andrii Sheptyts’kyi condemned the subsequent Nazi-led genocide, creating an avenue for a non-xenophobic Ukrainian nationalism in the postwar era. An independent Ukrainian identity anchored in Central European values thus preserved a self-identity where Ukraine remained culturally separate from Russia and Europe-aspirational. Ukrainian nationalism’s ecumenism proved essential in the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2014 Euromaidan when Lviv protesters bolstered Kyiv-based activists. According to the Kyiv Post, 68% of Ukrainians claim Ukrainian as their mother tongue, ensuring that national sentiment spreads beyond political circles. Only 14% of Ukrainian citizens said Russian was their mother tongue. Given 17% of Ukrainians identify as ethnic Russians, the Ukrainian language has built bridges to other nationalities, assuming a civic quality as the official language. Likewise, a stable national identity with an ultimately positive orientation towards Europe keeps the far-right checked and provides ideological cover for necessary politico-economic reforms. In a world defined by PR battles and mendacious hybrid campaigns, emerging democracies like Ukraine and Belarus need to define themselves in a manner compatible with history and modern human rights norms.
The differences between Belarus and Ukraine’s trajectories are hardly unbridgeable. Both countries exist on cultural and linguistic frontiers. Nonetheless, Western Ukraine’s experience as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as the country’s established multiparty system and diverse economy meant that the post-2014 economic reforms had strong social and political bases.
No matter who governs Belarus, it is obvious the country’s leadership faces a stagnating economy requiring policy shifts. In 2019, Belarusian President Lukashenka’s former advisor admitted that “…as earlier, we heard the manifest of stagnation, not a manifest of progress…” The leadership likewise begins to accept that change is near: Lukashenka’s advisor added “the new inescapably means root-and-branch changes to government and society.” Fostering a multi-faction political field, market economy, and national self-confidence would constructively assist these changes.
How to Reform Belarus: Think 1989
Given the lack of multiparty institutions, state-run economy, and weak national identity, applying a post-Maidan style reform program predicated on institutional support would be unfeasible. Rather, analysts and would-be reformers should turn to the policies suggested in the immediate post-Soviet era, when Central and Eastern European countries transitioned away from Sovietized existence. This means Belarus should consider constructing a multiparty parliamentary system, deep market liberalization, and developing a renewed local identity.
Setting Belarus on the path to prosperity requires clearing the electoral road from illiberal obstruction. Since most Belarusian citizens have little experience with electoral volatility, a diverse but predictable political system is desirable. To maintain stability and ensure the transfer of power, a two-party dominant system similar to Venezuela’s Punto Fijo Pact should be considered. While it did not eschew political competition, the Pact (signed by the three major parties), bound the signatories to a “common minimum program” – all promised to uphold the constitution and not seek reelection after a term. This meant that there was de facto rotation in the presidency and legislature. A public commitment by all of the major 2020 Belarusian presidential candidates to respect the law and not seek reelection once in office would set the stage for peaceful, legal transitions of power. To prevent a repetition of the impeachment crisis of 1994 in which Stanislav Shushkevich was ousted under dubious charges, a proportional representation system in the legislature would fragment parliamentary plotters and induce compromise due to the difficulty of achieving a majority. A collegial executive and proportionally represented legislature would ease sociopolitical tensions and ensure democratic legality.
In addition to a multiparty system, the economy needs to be restructured to better compete in the world market without Russian subsidies and state-sponsored “national champion” businesses. A transition from 20th century “sunset industries” to 21st century “sunrise industries” would help economic recovery immensely. Belarus’ comparative advantage in heavy industry relies on inexpensive Russian gas. This has eroded with increased tensions between both countries in the last several years, making industrial competition less realistic as an economic bedrock. The burgeoning IT sector offers a profitable alternative, as the regional popularity outsourced products like Viber suggests. According to analyst Tadeusz Giczan, IT was the only part of the Belarusian economy to grow in the last decade. Located between the EU and Russia, Belarus has the opportunity to supply both markets with high-quality, inexpensive digital support. Ernst and Young estimates approximately 100,000 IT experts live in Belarus out of a population of almost 9.5 million. Minsk’s High-Tech Park already provides an infrastructure that can be expanded nationally.
Importantly, social services must be maintained throughout the transition period. John Williamson, the economist who defined the Washington Consensus, recommended “…redirecting [public] expenditure from politically sensitive areas [that]… receive more resources than their economic return can justify…toward neglected fields with high economic returns and the potential to improve income distribution, such as primary health and education, and infrastructure.” This means moving the expenditures previously spent on Soviet-legacy factories to social assistance for people adapting to an open service economy. Bolstering social services would garner goodwill from the people – 55% of Belarusians in a 2018 survey declared unemployment to be a pressing problem. A combination of funding shifts to social services and encouragement of an IT-driven private sector would reenergize the Belarusian economy.
Crowning the political and economic changes necessary for Belarus, the cultural sphere must be revived. Language survival and national unity are key. Due to historical trends, use of multiple languages in different social settings will remain a reality. Therefore, a bilingual Belarusian-Russian curriculum should be designed, possibly based on Luxembourg’s system. Since Belarus has an asymmetrical bilingualism where the smaller Belarusian language competes with Russian for exposure, this would ensure the gap between them would be narrowed, then erased. Likewise, national unity around commonly accepted symbols may ease the political tensions brought to the fore in the 2020 election. Finding a non-collaborationist narrative without whitewashing the Soviet occupation will strike a balance between Belarusian nationalism’s two streams and build civic pride. This identity would surmount ethnicity, including Belarusian Poles who keep the Belarusian language alive as well as the multiethnic diaspora ranging from Adam Mickiewicz to Irving Berlin. Among other local figures to elevate as exemplars of Belarusian identity, the Righteous Among the Nations who hid Jews and thereby subverted the German occupation, offer a better alternative the “partisan republic” narrative by deemphasizing its Soviet elements.
Belarusian returnees are uniquely well-placed to revitalize Belarusian self-identity. Many Belarusians have moved to Lithuania for education and work, gaining experience with a multiparty political system and tolerant state. Foreign expertise and values enliven culture and localize international customs. The Belarusian returnees’ experiences would parallel that of the U.S.-based Lithuanian diaspora, whose expertise greatly aided their homeland’s post-Soviet transition. Lithuania could take the lead in assisting Belarusian national stability by addressing lingering tensions over the Vilnius region’s identity. This could lead to negotiations on more substantive issues like the Astravets nuclear plant which presents health concerns for Belarus’s neighbor. Positive cooperation would benefit both peoples. Indeed, Poland served a similar role in Ukraine by mending symbolic rifts and mediating during the Euromaidan protests. Foreign mediation and mutually beneficial conflict resolution only strengthens Belarusian sovereignty and escalates the rate of reform.
Crafting a multi-ethnic, apolitical identity centered around linguistic preservation and tolerance offers a distinctive modern symbol of Belarusian sovereignty. Bolstered by a competitive IT industry and guaranteeing its citizens a stable democratic future, a reformed Belarus would reverse a decade of stagnation. Whether Lukashenka or the opposition survive the ongoing political crisis, the inherited Soviet power structures need revision and replacement. Only root-and-branch political, economic, and cultural reforms can ensure Belarus flourishes in the 21st century.