Belarus will not be the “next Ukraine”

Belarus will not be the “next Ukraine”

While periodic anti-government protests are met with a strong security response, regarding Belarus’ relationship with Moscow, the weak status of the opposition and the economic interest found in maintaining the status quo indicate the country is likely to remain politically stable under the current government.

Between February and March of 2017, Belarus experienced a wave of public protests linked to social discontent, sparked by the government’s attempt to implement a new tax, known as the “social parasite” tax bill. President Alexander Lukashenko signed the bill into law in April 2015, with the objective of enforcing it into action in 2017.

The new tax predicted a payment of approximately USD 210 for some segments of the Belarusian working population that worked less than 183 days per year within the country. Protests against the tax took place nationwide and members of the opposition tried to use the momentum to conduct political anti-government demonstrations.

This led to the March 25th protests in Minsk. The March 25th date represents a major annual commemoration for members of the Belarusian opposition, as it marks the anniversary of the foundation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1919.

These protests were banned by local authorities because of security concerns. Any activist who confronted the ban faced a strict police response, in which hundreds of demonstrators were temporarily detained.

This led to major condemnations from local opposition groups as well as international observers. Groups opposing President Lukashenko’s rule have been trying to make socio-economic grievances and political claims converge. However, it is highly unlikely that Belarus will experience a Ukraine-type scenario in which mass protests supported by political and business pressure groups could successfully destabilise the country.

This is mainly due to three key factors: Minsk’s structural relationship with Moscow, the weak status of the opposition and the economic interest found in maintaining the status quo. This situation continues to guarantee the country’s political stability.

Structural relations with Russia

The relationship between Belarus and Russia periodically experiences tense periods. This is mainly due to Minsk’s attempts to decrease its economic dependence on Moscow and readjust its position within the region. However, a meeting held in St Petersburg on April 3rd between President Vladimir Putin and President Lukashenko saw the two countries agree to a long-term joint political and economic roadmap. This roadmap can possibly mitigate the risk of lasting tensions.

Putin clearly stated that Russia would work to prevent any destabilisation of Belarus. The two countries also reached an agreement for the implementation of a common Customs Code of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). This will facilitate the implementation of a unified customs regulation within the EAEU and further solidify the political ties between Russia and Belarus.

The enduring stability of oil and gas supplies is the key driver behind the positive relations with Moscow and the strong domestic position of the Belarusian government. On April 3rd, both presidents agreed on refinancing Belarus’ public debt of approximately USD 800 million. Russia’s Gazprom will also guarantee gas supplies on the long-term and these will be sold at a discount price for 2018 and 2019.

These economic concessions made by Russia to Belarus are part of Moscow’s objective of keeping its neighbour under a stable and friendly political situation. It is in Russia’s interest to continue security cooperation with Belarus, at all levels and within the Belarusian establishment. Especially within the Ministry of Interior and the domestic intelligence officials see the country’s national interest relatively aligned with the Russia’s one.

Weak opposition

Beyond the role played by the relatively positive Russia-Belarus relations, the stability of the country’s political system is also in part guaranteed by the weakness of the local opposition. While the wave of protests that took place earlier this year raised concerns due to their volume and frequency, the majority of public rallies in Belarus are generally sparked by socio-economic grievances unlikely to substantially challenge ruling authorities. Opposition rallies sporadically occur in major cities but these have so far failed to garner sufficient support.

A key reason behind Belarus’ lasting stability can also be found behind the opposition’s lack of strong leaders. Minsk economic reliance on Moscow leads to the presence of a business environment closely associated with the current government structure as well as with Russian interests.

This comes as a clear differentiator from Ukraine where a large number of oligarchs and business leaders developed economic interests opposed to Russian ones. The ongoing reliance of Belarus on Russia is likely to guarantee at least a certain degree of political stability in the country.

The Belarusian state, through its special police and domestic intelligence agencies, has proven capable of monitoring and responding to the threat posed by radical elements operating within the Belarusian opposition. This periodically results in the preventive detention of elements deemed as potential threats to national security and stability, especially suspects believed to be close to anarchist organisations.

These methods were heavily employed in the lead-up to March protests thus diffusing the risk of a wider and potentially violent round of unrest. While these tactics are widely criticised by human right activists and the European Union (EU), they have so far enabled the Belarusian government to weaken groups that could have mounted a challenge to police forces during protests.

Economic interests linked to gradual opening

The last point to consider when assessing the Belarusian political stability is the fact that under Lukashenko’s latest diplomatic manoeuvres, the country has gradually benefitted from an improved economic outlook. The EU suspended a part of its sanction regime against Belarus in February 2016 and diplomatic relations between Minsk and the west started slowly improving following the October 2015 presidential elections. While the EU continues to call for the respect of human rights in Belarus, the government is trying to position itself as partner in Eastern Europe.

This gradual opening has also been highlighted by the implementation of a 5-day visa free policy aimed at boosting the Belarusian tourism sector. This policy is implemented for more than 80 countries, as of December 2016, and has led to substantial positive results. The passenger traffic in the Minsk international airport also grew by 30 percent in the first trimester of 2017 in comparison to the same period last year.

These indicators suggest that as segments of the local population see their living standards improve due to government-backed policies, it is less likely that opposition groups will gain support with political demands linked to major claims that could destabilise the country.

The relative improvement of living standards has also been driven by the growth of the IT sector in Belarus. The government continues to sporadically implement restrictive regulations and public interference slows the potential growth of the sector.

However, a dynamic exists in Minsk in which highly skilled young IT employees are driving economic development into the capital. While this emerging trend is unlikely to be politically pro-government, it is also probable that the gradual improvement of economic conditions and direct and indirect creation of jobs linked to the IT sphere diminishes the potential attraction of radical opposition groups.

Categories: Economics, Europe

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.