The domestic dimension of the Belarusian crisis: Lukashenko's failures in managing the country

(To Andrea Gaspardo)
20/08/20

In 2014, while the events that would have resulted in the Euromaidan riots were still underway in Kiev, the attention of a part of the world had begun to focus on its neighbor visible on the geographical map at the northern borders, the country which, together with the Ukraine and Russia itself is part of what are called "the Three Eastern Slave Sisters": Belarus. At that time it was believed that, in the wake of what happened in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Belarus would be the next ex-Soviet country to fall into the vortex of the so-called "Color Revolutions". Contrary to all forecasts, during the presidential elections of 2015, even if characterized by the usual self-evident electoral fraud, the Belarusian people decided to demonstrate a substantial acceptance of the extension of the dictatorship of the president-master Aleksandr Grigorevich Lukashenko, perhaps because he was frightened by the turn that events had taken place in neighboring Ukraine, which had sunk into a well of endless unrest.

Now, before continuing, it is necessary to clarify something with the readers of this analysis, especially those most hostile to the so-called "Western narrative" which tends to represent other "regimes", especially if authoritarian, as the "absolute evil of the world" and claims to divide the Universe into "good and bad" by setting himself up as judge, jury and executioner at the same time. Although I am absolutely hostile to this narrative and have written it several times in countless analyzes produced in the past, even speaking of countries in which dignity has reached levels at the limit of the human (for example in Venezuela) preferring instead a more pragmatic approach which brings together history, geography, economics, social sciences, demography and a myriad of other indicators to be able to do "a fine job", in the particular case of Lukashenko's Belarus I will necessarily have to be cutting and speak, as they say, "outside from the teeth ": there is really nothing to be saved in the regime set up by that man.

The reason for my stance is so clear that, having many entangled in that country, and having been able to analyze it directly "in the field" well before the beginning of my professional career as a geopolitical analyst, I was able to verify first Lukashenko's personal style and “live”, and I couldn't really find anything to “save” or even just “justify” in the kind of regime he has created over the years. Nonetheless, it is true that Belarus is in the midst of a complicated international geopolitical game involving Russia and the whole West and, yes, it is worthwhile to be analyzed with patience without blinders and ideological fury in a future analysis. while in today's one we will focus mainly on internal dynamics and in particular on Lukashenko's failures and personal responsibilities in having slipped his country into what is in effect a systemic crisis. But in order to do so, it is necessary to start from the geographical location of this country, from its history and from the culture of its people.

To begin with, it must be stated that Belarus, except for the last 29 years of history, from 1991 to today, has never been an independent state and Belarusians have never developed a national identity as we understand it today. While neighboring Ukraine, also struggling with a perennial identity crisis, can still boast the incontrovertible fact of having been the cradle of Russian civilization and its capital, Kiev, was the center of radiance that led to Christianity Orthodox in culturally shaping that variegated mass of people living in the extreme eastern part of the European continent, Belarus has had none of this.

Land of forests and swamps that successive waves of invaders have always found very difficult to penetrate, Belarus has always configured itself as an immense "geographical area" positioned at the extreme west of the domains of the legendary "Kievan Rus'" and which, after the disasters of the Mongol invasions, has been disputed for centuries between Poland, Lithuania and the "Russian World".

From an ethnic point of view, the Belarusians are Eastern Slavs, like the Ukrainians and the Russians, but they have inherited important cultural legacies of Polish origin, if we consider the fact that even today in Belarus the Poles constitute the third ethnic group in the country ( officially 3% of the population but probably much more) after Belarusians and Russians and the Christian Catholic religion is practiced by at least 10% of the population (but some estimates put it at over 20%). Ethno-religious statistics therefore give us a territory that, before being definitively incorporated into the "Russian World" at the time of Empress Catherine II, was for centuries fiercely disputed between the Russian Empire on the one hand and the Polish Rzeczpospolita - Lithuanian on the other.

Subjected to such pressures, and living in a condition of extreme poverty and ignorance (illiteracy in the Belarusian lands remained prevalent at least until the advent of the Soviets), the Belarusians have not even managed to settle the fundamental pillar on which the national identity: the language!

The development of Belarusian literature was very slow and failed to penetrate the mass of the population downwards because the merchant class that inhabited the cities was made up for the most part by Jews who spoke Yiddish among themselves and who immediately accepted Russian as the language of inter-ethnic and inter-cultural communication. The Belarusian campaigns themselves were subjected to a profound Russian-Belarusian cultural and linguistic mix that ended up generating the "trasianka", a sort of mixed language (like "surzhyk" in Ukraine or "portugnol" in Brazil) that ended up becoming another driving force for "Russification", which later became "Sovietization" during the Communist Era. The end product of this complicated process is that, nowadays, 70,2% of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus of all ethnicities speak Russian fluently in their daily lives while 23,4% speak Belarusian.

Also from a religious point of view the situation presents interesting peculiarities because, although the majority of the population is Christian-Orthodox, the so-called Belarusian Orthodox Church is an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church and responds directly to Moscow, while the local Catholic Church is nothing more than a branch in all respects of the Catholic Church of Poland.

Having said all this, the only distinctive trait that remains for Belarusians are potatoes, a fundamental ingredient of national cuisine which, thanks to their nutritional power and yield in the fields, have saved generations of Belarusians from starvation for centuries.

The history of Belarus in the twentieth century was studded with a succession of tragedies: the First World War, during which 1 million Belarusians died, the Second World War, which caused the death of another 3 million inhabitants of the territory. to over 30% of the population, and among them, the Stalinist repressions.

The last great tragedy occurred in the months following April 26, 1986 when 70% of the radionucleoli contained in the radioactive cloud released by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster fell right on the territory of Belarus, in particular in the Gomel and Mogilev oblasts, which they represent about a third of the entire national territory, polluting them permanently. And it was the Chernobyl disaster, together with the discovery of the Stalin-era mass graves in the Kurapaty forest, in June 1988, that created the first real rift between Soviet power and the Belarusian civil population (hitherto essentially loyalist, disciplined and acquiescent towards Moscow) and to act as catalysts for the creation of the Belarusian People's Front, a democratic movement that acted as a driving force to push the country towards independence, which was proclaimed on August 25, 1991 under the leadership of Stanislav Stanislavovich Shushkevich.

The years immediately following independence proved tragic for Belarus, even compared to other post-Soviet countries and Eastern Europe in general. Although Belarus was the only ex-Soviet republic to inherit a complete and integrated industrial system and a population of just over 10 million inhabitants overall characterized by a high level of education and a respectable productivity, the he economy of the country (completely oriented towards exports) was devastated by the loss of the common market constituted by the other territories of the former Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact, which until that moment had absorbed all the surplus of industrial and agricultural production. Not only that, although at the time of independence the Belarusian ruble was considered a hard currency (1 Belarusian ruble was worth the equivalent of 2 Russian rubles at the time, or 10 old Soviet rubles, and even the banknote was available, among others. 50 kopecks!), the economy of Belarus soon fell prey to the so-called "hyperinflation" and, despite the fact that the Belarusian ruble has been devalued countless times and the currency has been reformed three times since then (in 1992, 2000 and in 2016) it never acquired true stability and remained very volatile.

It was in this scenario that, in the presidential elections of 1994, an obscure deputy of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus with a past as director of a state agricultural cooperative (kolkhoz), Aleksandr Grigorevich Lukashenko, managed to speak out for popular discontent and get elected by acclaim. of people president of the republic defeating both the exponents of the old Soviet regime and the heroes of the movement for the independence of Belarus. The clear and absolutely democratic victory of those first presidential elections (in the second round, Lukashenko obtained 80,6% of the preferences) transformed the former Kolchoz leader into the strongman of the country and he wasted no time in strengthening his power rejecting one after the other all the reform proposals of both the political and economic systems, favoring instead initiatives of a distinctly centralizing nature in pure Soviet style (a model to which, moreover, he has never denied wanting to be inspired and that, words sue, “if he could he would restore it completely”!).

The reorganization of internal power in an authoritarian sense, however, had to serve Lukashenko as a pedestal for what was his true ambition in foreign policy, namely the restoration of the Soviet Union, a project to which he dedicated body and soul for the next 10 years. after his election as president and which culminated in the signing, on December 8, 1999, of the "Treaty for the Creation of the State Union of Russia and Belarus", the first step towards the reintegration of all the former Soviet republics into a single country over the next 10 years.

Although this project may seem ridiculous today, we must not forget that, during the 90s, Russia was in a condition of extreme political and economic weakness on the international scene and the president of the time, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, was practically deprived of the authorities. eyes of the country. On the other hand, however small Belarus appeared stable thanks to Lukashenko's iron fist and the Belarusian leader himself had proved so bold as to forge privileged relations with various elements of the Muscovite political-military establishment, even allowing himself to organize surprise visits in remote Russian provinces scolding local governors guilty of not doing enough to solve people's problems. It was clear to everyone that Lukashenko was creating his own niche of power to attempt the next takeover in Moscow once Yeltsin was dead or incapacitated by his health problems.

Fortunately, the Minsk despot's plans were frustrated by the very Russian establishment he had so soundly humiliated when, at the end of December 1999, Yeltsin was forced to retire from the public arena to make way for the then prime minister and then president, Vladimir. Vladimirovich Putin. Putin's rise to power paved the way for a new era of stability for Russia, but it also constituted "the wood and the nails" for the coffin of Lukashenko's personal ambitions who, from that moment on, turned more and more in on himself concentrating on controlling "his" Belarus like a "Gulf sheikhdom"; the rest are just fig leaves.

Although Lukashenko finds innate popularity among the sectors of the international public most hostile to the fiction of the "Western media" and indeed is sometimes hailed for his social policies and the order he brought to Belarus, these simplifications have no foundation when compared with the cold data of statistical and sociological analysis.

In the aftermath of his election as president, Lukashenko promised to lead the country on the path of a confused "market socialism" as opposed to the "savage capitalism" then prevailing in Russia. To achieve this, the state administration has since 1994 operated a strict control of prices and rigid exchange rates. Far from achieving the desired result, these policies instead favored the expansion of the black market and an excessive volatility of the Belarusian ruble, with a consequent loss of confidence in the national currency by the civilian population. Not only that, in an openly disincentive move towards private entrepreneurship, the government has over the years introduced 28 new taxes aimed specifically at targeting entrepreneurs and introduced highly invasive legislation in order to allow the government to dictate to private entrepreneurs. investment choices. A series of successive reversals, for example the abolition of the golden share in 2008 (which in any case did not eliminate the presence of the state in the capital of private companies which even today is around 21,1%!), did not convince international investors who in fact preferred to stay away from Belarus (who says that doing business in Italy is impossible, it would do well to take a trip to Belarus first!).

Over time, Belarus's economic dependence on neighboring Russia has only increased, like a noose that has slowly but surely tightened around Minsk's neck. In fact, today's data tells us that Russia absorbs 46,3% of Belarusian exports and at the same time supplies 54,2% of imports. However, these numbers, already eloquent in themselves, hide another subtle truth. In fact, if we analyze the categories of products exported from Minsk with painstaking patience, we realize that 34% (the relative majority percentage) is made up of refined petroleum. Russia also clearly supports the Belarusian economy through direct aid and discounts of various kinds, especially in the field of energy and fuels, which amount to 10% of the country's GDP.

There is therefore a perverse situation in which Belarus plays the role of transit country for Russian oil bound for Europe and part of this same oil is refined by the Belarusians who then resell it at a higher price. Thus, even if it is not an oil producing country, Belarus finds itself in all respects in the uncomfortable position of “rentier country” (ie a country that lives on income).

However, the succession of international economic crises from 2008 to today has shown that the economic policies of the "rentier countries" are always short of breath because they are heavily influenced by the price trend of hydrocarbons and other raw materials, and Belarus has not shown itself an exception.

Over the past 10 years, the Belarus economy has recorded some of the lowest growth rates on the European continent (+ 1,9% on average) with an overall deterioration trend. 2019 ended with a measly + 1,2% (the lowest of all 15 post-Soviet republics) and the forecasts for 2020 speak of -4%, a net loss that, if all goes well, will require a whole luster to be reabsorbed. It is to be expected that Lukashenko will try to stem this situation by pumping money into the economic system mainly for the benefit of industry and agriculture, as has already been done in past decades, but this decision would only result in a waste of resources.

By carefully studying the distribution of the workforce, it can be seen that as many as 66,8% of workers are employed in the service sector, workers in the industrial sector account for 23,4% while those in the agricultural sector only 9,7%. It is interesting to note that 80% of the wealth created by the Belarusian economy in the 2000s was produced by the service sector, 19% by industry and only 1% by agriculture; it is clear that Lukashenko did not really learn anything from the failure of Soviet agriculture. Not only that, if we consider the fact that state-owned enterprises (those that receive almost all of the subsidies and are also the least productive) employ about 39,3% of the employed, while 57,2% work in the private sector and 3,5% are employed by foreign companies, it is understood that the entire control system created by Lukashenko around the economy of his country is in effect comparable to a cage that suffocates the energies of the nation and pushes the best to emigrate.

After the economy, demography is the other fundamental pillar that we must observe to evaluate the incisiveness of Lukashenko's work and here there are not even eyes left to cry. In 1991, at the time of its independence from the Soviet Union, Belarus had a population of 10.194.000. Over the next two years, it continued to increase to a peak of 10.240.000 in 1993, mainly thanks to the transfer to Belarus of a good number of ex-Soviet citizens with family and work ties in the country. However, in the same year, for the first time since the Second World War, Belarus recorded a negative balance between births and deaths quantified as -11.160.

Since then, and until now, things have only gotten worse year after year, with an invariably negative balance between births and deaths and a growing trend towards emigration, especially among the younger population classes despite, at least in words, the government repeatedly stated that "the demographic question" was a priority on the agenda. However, instead of promoting a serious social policy of improving people's quality of life and encouraging births, Lukashenko basically limited himself to inviting women "to stay at home and have children" and to severely limit the right to abortion.

If Lukashenko's anti-abortion policies have at least had the side effects (absolutely unwanted!) Of raising social attention to sexuality problems, of increasing the use of contraceptives, especially among young people, and of reducing the number total number of abortions (in 2011 there were 26.858 against 260.839 in 1990, while the number of births in the same year was 142.167!), they did not have a decisive effect on the bloodletting of the birth rate.

A slight improvement in the demographic situation of Belarus occurred in correspondence with the Euromaidan events in Ukraine, when numerous Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians residing there moved to Belarus attracted by the apparent stability of the country. Despite the persistence of negative birth balances, the country's population recorded a slight increase, from 9.464.000 in 2012 to 9.498.000 in 2017. In the same year Lukashenko even declared that, over the next few years, the Belarusian population would increase. up to 20 million. The events of the last three years have shown that his were only fantasies given that the population has suffered a new vertical collapse, positioning itself at 9.408.000 units today and the number of births for the year 2019 marked the negative historical record of 87.851 (they were were 207.700 in 1958, the year of the highest birth rate recorded in Soviet Belarus).

Those who attribute today's popular demonstrations solely to the nefarious influence of external forces from Poland, the Baltic States and the West in general should indeed dress themselves in humility and patiently analyze the economic and social stagnation to which Lukashenko condemned his country for his personal inability to distance himself from uses and clichés borrowed from the Soviet period and which should instead have been replaced by a new political / economic / ideological project more in step with the times.

Ironically, the final blow to Lukashenko did not come from the opposition and not even from his external enemies, but from the Covid-19 epidemic that did not spare Belarus as well as the rest of the world. The management of the crisis by the father-master of the country has proved dangerous, not to say amateurish.

Although on paper Belarus had both the means and the resources to effectively counter the threat and minimize the risks to the population, Lukashenko first tried to deny the problem by stating that Covid-19 was only a "fever fever" (in this way on the same level as monsters of incapacity such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro), then, when the cases began to multiply uncontrollably, he first tried to play down by letting himself go to outputs such as: "the best cure for this psychosis is to go to work in the countryside because the tractor and the fields take care of everything ", finally passing to the actual censorship of the data of both the sick and the dead (analyzing the official Belarusian data with epidemiological models, it is easy to understand that they were either given completely at random or that are subject to sensational statistical falsifications, and not even so sophisticated, such as, for example, never declaring a num I was of daily infections exceeding 1000 units). And let's not forget the refusal to cancel all public events (such as the parade for the "Feast of Victory") in which the participation of the people was strongly recommended, when not made compulsory through blackmail and subterfuge of any kind (for e.g. the threat of job loss for public employees). This was, in my humble opinion, the classic straw that broke the camel's back.

The whole reckless handling of the Covid-19 emergency reminded Belarusians too much of the criminal management of the Chernobyl disaster and, in reaction, the people began to mobilize. In fact, it is absolutely no coincidence that the protests that are currently going through Belarus did not at all begin in the aftermath of the elections on 10 August, as both Lukashenko's apologists and the troll factories in the Russian-speaking world would have us believe. started flooding the Internet with disinformation, both distracted commentators in the West, but as early as May 24, when the pandemic was hitting the country in its most acute phase and the official results of an online webinar organized by the "Belarusian Society of Anesthetists and Resuscitators ”who said that, for example, the real mortality of Covid-19 patients during the month of April in the capital Minsk alone was 27%!

In light of this progressive, and not instantaneous, deterioration of the situation, we can affirm with a considerable degree of certainty that Lukashenko is not dealing with "a coup piloted from abroad" or even with "a street revolt carried out by a group of troublemakers in the Euromaidan style ”, but with the awakening of a people who have had enough of their inability to manage the country, net of high speeches on the value of democracy or personal freedom that have notoriously always left the Belarusians rather lukewarm.

How the situation will evolve will depend not only on the internal dimension but also on the international geopolitical scenarios that are taking place over the heads of the Belarusians, but this will be the subject of the next analysis.

Photo: Kremlin / Szeder László / web / Alexander Lipilin / Mortier.Daniel