Europe’s last dictatorship?

October 2020

Reflections from Enact’s Michael Runey:

Mass protests have been ongoing in Belarus since the country’s presidential election on August 9th. Belarusians are no strangers to stolen elections, but the particularly blatant fraud of this year’s affair, and the stark contrast between the authoritarian, rough-edged President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the trio of charismatic female opposition candidates, resonated much more strongly with Belarusians of various classes than before. The situation is still fluid and unpredictable – at the time of writing, the European Union was in the process of finalizing sanctions against high-level officials for their roles in the brutal violence and torture the state has employed against protesters, and the Kremlin’s attention is distracted by the outbreak of war – and it is unclear when, or if, Lukashenka will go.

The inspirational bravery of the protesters and the geopolitical stakes have distracted the world’s attention to recent economic trends that have likely given the protest movement a base of support outside Minsk’s urban, cosmopolitan middle-class. In the 1990’s, Lukashenka first ran for president on a platform of ‘market socialism’ – an alternative to the western-backed ‘shock therapy’ that brought economic ruin to the bulk of the Russian population. Putting aside to what extent they were willing partners in the deal, Belarusians traded stable living standards over political choice.

However, the Belarusian state has liberalized the labour market, and without strong independent unions or real labour rights, the result has been a rapid increase in labour precarity for the Belarusian working class with little economic growth to compensate. This reality was brought into stark relief during the spring coronavirus outbreak, when Belarus licensed employers to fire workers in coronavirus-affected industries without cause but provided no real unemployment benefits to speak of. The next Belarusian government, be it Lukashenka’s, the opposition, or some unknown group of regime insiders, will have much work to do to satisfy the demands of an increasingly active and vocal citizenry.