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#45 - JRL 2009-101 - JRL Home
Kennan Institute
April 27, 2009
event summary
Does the Political Regime in Belarus Change?

Alexander Lukashenka has been the president of Belarus for almost 15 years. Since he came to power, the political regime has become more and more authoritarian: there is no conventional opposition, independent media are weak, and collective action is repressed, stated Alexandra Goujon, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Bourgogne, Dijon, and Lecturer, Sciences Po, at a recent Kennan Institute lecture.

In the past year, however, the Belarusian president has taken some seemingly liberalizing steps, such as the liberation of political prisoners. Regarding these steps as a positive development, the European Union loosened sanctions against Belarus in October 2008. But is the political regime in Belarus changing? Goujon answered no, and argued that instead of systemic change, Lukashenkas moves comprise a controlled political liberalization that improves the economy but maintains the current style of government.

Liberalization, Democratization, or Cosmetic Changes?

Traditionally, liberalization of a political system includes changes such as less censorship of the media, greater space for organization of autonomous working-class activities, the releasing of political prisoners, and increased tolerance of the opposition. Democratization requires open contestation over the right to win control of the government, which requires free, statewide elections.

Belarusian authorities have released political prisoners, allowed two independent newspapers (Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya) to return to state-run newspapers kiosks and distribution networks, created consultative councils that include independent analysts and politicians, and made some cautious moves to liberalize the economy and relax controls on online media. The government has also confirmed its readiness to discuss recommendations with the OSCEs Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on improvement of the Electoral Code of Belarus.

Goujon, however, found the Belarusian style of liberalization problematic for three main reasons:

It is not continuous. Ongoing restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms continue to cause concern.

It concerns first and foremost the economic sphere, as Belarusian authorities aim to improve the attractiveness of the country to investors by creating a hospitable environment for business.

It is a controlled process that is not intended to lead to full democratization, or even economic liberalization. Belarusian authorities do not want to create a competitive political landscape.

In other words, Goujon put forth that the main reasons for liberalization in Belarus are economic and geopolitical. Economic liberalization, she noted, does not necessarily lead to political liberalization. According to the former OSCE Ambassador to Minsk Hans-Georg Wieck, a so-called Chinese model is being prepared for Belarus, [in which] an authoritarian regime and a liberalizing economy are combined in the country.

Economic and Geopolitical Reasons for Liberalization

Relations between Belarus and Russia have worsened since the end of 2006, when Russia decided to make its financial and other support to the Belarusian economy more conditional. To counterweight the threat of Russian dominance, Minsk has looked to improve relations with the West.

The countrys serious economic problems, which began in 2008 with the onset of the global financial crisis, have also given a new impetus to this pragmatic geopolitical trade-off. Adverse terms of trade, falling demand from trading partners, and difficulties in accessing external finance have led to a decline in Belaruss international reserves.

In October 2008, Belarus applied to the IMF for a $2 billion stabilization loan. By going to the IMF, Minsk essentially indicated that it wants to reconsider its dependency on Russia, Goujon put forth. She also pointed out that applying for an IMF loan was probably more palatable to Minsk than going to the European Union, for while the EU would have demanded significant political changes in return for a loan, the IMF's conditions are primarily economic.

By improving relations with international financial organizations and with the EU, Goujon stated, Belarus simultaneously improves its economic situation and gains better bargaining power with Russia. Goujon believes that in truth, Belarus intends not to change its policy toward Russia, but to create conditions for a more equal relationship. Recently, Belarusian officials have stated that Russia remains Belaruss chief partner.

Complicating Belaruss efforts is the issue of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence. The EU warned Lukashenka that recognition of the two separatist regions will jeopardize closer ties between the EU and Belarus. Lukashenka has resisted calls from Moscow to officially recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but has nevertheless extended other concrete forms of support, such as financial aid, to the regions. Goujon and other specialists predict that Minsk will not recognize the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia at least until May 7, when the inaugural summit of the EUs Eastern Partnership project will begin. Lukashenkas participation sends a powerful signal to Moscow, strengthening Belaruss position in negotiations with its eastern neighbor.


In short, Goujon concluded that the Belarusian regime is committed to a pragmatic trade-off, based on liberalization, which concerns foreign policy more so than domestic politics. In this trade-off, the Belarusian regime gains more than it loses. No structural changes have been made which threaten the Belarusian presidents control on the decision-making process in the country, yet the liberalizing steps taken proved sufficient for Belarus to be included, without conditions, to the Eastern Partnership and to receive the loan they requested from the IMF. Thus, despite the lack of any real changes in its political regime, Belarus has become less isolated internationally.