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Belarus: Analysis From Washington---The West Harbors Illusions About Authoritarian Regimes

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The increasingly authoritarian regime of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka challenges three of the most widely held assumptions in the post-cold war world.

First, the support Lukashenka obviously enjoys from large sections of the Belarusian population calls into question the belief that populations in post-communist states will inevitably oppose authoritarian leaders and support more democratic ones.

Second, the willingness of several major Western firms to invest in Belarus has not had the expected consequence of promoting liberalization of the Belarusian political system. Instead, these investments, albeit limited, may have helped to prop up the regime.

And third, Lukashenka's obvious retreat from the democratic advances made by Belarus prior to his election undermines the notion that progress in post-communist countries is irreversible, that gains made in this region will not, even cannot be rolled back.

Much of the reportage on these developments has stressed the uniqueness of Belarus and sharply contrasted Lukashenka with other post-communist leaders.

But precisely because Belarus appears to be a country gone wrong, each of these three developments merits closer attention in order to provide a benchmark against which events in other post-communist countries can be measured.

While many Belarusians oppose Lukashenka and his often comic-opera authoritarianism, even more appear to support him. He came to power by election. He controls much of the domestic media. And he has large support in rural areas.

Many other leaders in other post-communist and post-Soviet states also are increasingly authoritarian and also enjoy support from the more traditional parts of their population.

That may change in both Belarus and the other countries of this region, but the popularity of authoritarian leaders is a fact of life that both politicians there and analysts in the West ignore at their peril.

Moreover, Belarus suggests that the so-called McDonald's strategy won't always work. Several Western journalists have suggested that no two countries where both have McDonald's restaurants are likely to find themselves in conflict.

But Minsk now features McDonald's restaurants as well as Ford Motor plants, and yet Lukashenka routinely lashes out at his neighbors arguing that Belarus is surrounded by "a circle of enemies."

Such comments do not mean that he is about to go to war with Russia or Lithuania, but they also do not presage a peaceful and cooperative set of relations with all of Belarusia's neighbors, despite his accord with Moscow.

Indeed, such attitudes raise the disturbing possibility that at least in the initial stages of privatization and Western investment, the latter may help prop up more authoritarian leaders precisely because it gives them some funds to buy off their populations.

And at the very least, the presence of Western investments in countries like Belarus both gives their capitals the patina of change without changing very much and gives Western governments an often-compelling domestic reason not to rock the boat on political issues.

But it is the last Belarusian challenge to the happy assumptions made after the fall of communism in Europe that is the most serious.

The widespread belief that changes in post-communist countries are irreversible is probably true if all that it means is that none of these countries is likely to revert to a Brezhnevite or Stalinist past.

But Belarus serves as a warning that this belief is almost certainly wrong if it is taken to mean more than that, to mean that countries which have become democratic can never revert to dictatorship.

This Brezhnev doctrine in reverse is almost certainly wrong. Not only can countries that were once on the road toward democracy change course, but they can do so far more easily than many reformers have ever wanted to believe.

Indeed, Lukashenka's frequent praise for Stalin and even Hitler and his increasingly harsh approach toward the media suggests that the Belarusian leader is prepared to turn the clock back in significant ways.

And that possibility inevitably raises the question: can anyone outside of Belarus do anything to prevent that? With respect to Belarus, the West has extremely few levers.

Outside Western investment is limited, and Western hostility to Belarus may even help to burnish Lukashenka's image in the eyes of some Belarusian nationalists.

International broadcasting, including by RFE/RL, represents a useful lever but one that is likely to have an impact only over a prolonged period of time.

The one country that could exercise effective leverage on Belarus -- the Russian Federation -- has been profoundly unwilling to do so. Except in rare cases, Moscow has not wanted to condemn the only country in the Commonwealth of Independent States that actually wants to rejoin Russia in some kind of single entity.

But unless Russia changes its position on this question and the West moves more forcefully to use what levers it has, there is a very real danger that Belarus will retreat to the past.

And a retreat in Belarus could open the way for a retreat by other post-communist countries as well.