Consequences of December 19. Internal Political Scenarios

By Alexei Pikulik
The day of December 19, 2010 saw what no one had expected: the authorities opted for violent reprisals. It is not clear what guided the authorities to this choice – the crowd in the square, or the information about the “real” results of the vote, or the attempt to storm the government headquarters (whether it was initiated by the secret service or the radical opposition youth), or the subtle frame-up of the “hawks” and their external allies, for instance, a “leak” of deceptive information that the West would not recognize the election whatever Lukashenka’s behavior (in this case the three-month liberalization looked just like a clearance operation to seize power). In the end, the variable of our political life called the “square” had an unexpected impact on the political field: the opposition offered a sacrifice, either voluntarily or not, and gained everything it had ever dreamed of – the fragile dialogue between Lukashenka and Europe was frustrated, the money the West had promised Lukashenka got stuck on its way, whereas the Belarusian president himself was temporarily “imprisoned” by the unfastidious Russian authorities. It is still not clear whether the opposition leaders are aware whose games they are engaged in and how these games might end for them personally. Under the circumstances, Lukashenka completely loses the room for external maneuver: an “escape” to the West is impossible for the time being, and so is the chance to use his friendship with Europe to blackmail Russia. Chances are high Lukashenka simply took revenge on the opposition as soon as he became hostage of the Russian administration’s political will.

What is going to happen next? A few allowances must be made to answer this question, and it is on these assumptions that the following scenarios are based (we cannot guarantee, though, that all these allowances are adequate):

1)      Decision-makers (Lukashenka and members of the state elite) are rational;

2)      Belarus is interested in preserving the “multi-vector” nature of its external policy (and being paid the “rent” of asymmetric multi-vector efforts), which is impossible without Lukashenka’s maintaining his dialogue with the EU and US;

3)      To maintain its relations with the EU and US, Belarus must show progress in political liberalization and democratization.

Scenario 1. “Normalization after a Hard Winter”

This may sound cynical, but the most favorable scenario for everyone would be the one envisaging short-term reprisals followed by a political thaw. In this case, the actions of the secret service – the all-round mopping up of the fields of dissent through interrogations and searches (NGOs, parties and media) – have a twofold objective: a) to intimidate and paralyze society; and b) to gather as much information as possible about the sources of financing in order to get hold of serious compromising materials against the opposition. The “serious compromising materials” here stand for transcripts of interrogations and coerced testimonies against “fellows in arms”, which can later be used by the special services to control the opposition leaders and activists. Under this scenario, the authorities are supposed to change the type of restraint applied to most of the prisoners of the “Amerikanka” KGB detention facility and release them on their own recognizance (until January 12, when Brussels is supposed to hold hearings on the Belarus issue), imprison the five instigators whose guilt can be easily proved and release everyone else. This could effectively allow Lukashenka to restore his relations with Europe fast enough, blame the December hysteria on the underhand plotting of the secret service and get the country back to the normal political track.

The obvious advantages of this domestic political strategy would be the following: a) a chance of the “European turn” would be preserved as a powerful bargaining chip during the haggle with Russia; b) a more controllable political opposition (resulting from the special arrangements taking place in December and January) would appear. I believe the authorities will eventually select this strategy, subject to certain temporary adjustments, in order to tackle the geopolitical problem of excessive dependence on Russia.  The Belarusian authorities are indeed very much interested in Europe, otherwise we would not have observed the lengthy two-year political democratization show. Importantly, the longer the authorities keep the opposition leaders and campaigners behind the bars and use them as hostages, the harder it will be for Lukashenka to make it up with Europe. The expectations that Europe will “forgive” Lukashenka as long as the country is not absorbed by Russia may prove ungrounded. In order for the first scenario to become a reality, a combination of the following factors is required: the EU must work out a concerted position on the Belarus issue, and the EU and the United States must join efforts to push Russia into “sorting it out with Lukashenka”. In this case, civil society and the political opposition will likely recover after the reprisals, and a new political force, probably a pro-Russian force, will appear in the Belarusian political field.

Scenario 2. “The Chinese Option”

We discussed the chances of Belarus’ developing according to the Chinese model very thoroughly prior to the election. The events of December 19 may have become a sort of Belarusian Tiananmen Square. It is highly likely that temporary reprisals will turn into new rules of the game: the authorities will exploit the reprisals machine to its capacity, and all fields of dissent will be systematically burnt out. The country will eventually adopt a harsh authoritarian model, in which the carrot of the social contract will gradually be ousted by the stick of punishment. There are two rational reasons behind this scenario, though:

1)      The authorities have made up their mind on the economic liberalization (Directive #4 issued immediately after the election is ample proof) and a modernization breakthrough of the South Korean type (like the one under General Park Chung-hee) and now need total control over society. It is not even the “Chinese option”, but a simultaneous North Koreization of politics and South Koreization of economics.

2)      The authorities are getting ready for a “great repartition” of property, and the mopping-up is called for in order to facilitate a quick insider privatization, which will be completed most easily if dissidence is wiped out alongside all structures that insist on the transparency and liability of the authorities.

This scenario, however, cannot be implemented in Belarus, as it lacks the necessary modernization-oriented human capital, is unable to import technologies from the EU and works with Russian partners who are faced with a shortage of liquidity. As a result, sooner of later Belarus will realize that dialogue with Europe is indispensable and will have to undertake certain political liberalization in order to safeguard its own modernization plans. Lukashenka has mastered this strategy long ago: “one step forward and two steps back”.

Scenario 3. “A Controllable (MANAGED)  Democracy”

In pursuance of the previous scenario and because of external limitations on the way towards their socioeconomic goals, the authorities, immediately after burning out all alternative fields, may sanction the creation of a “controllable” and manageable political opposition. To this end, the administration needs to set in motion the Belaya Rus party mechanisms to eventually give birth to two alternative parties: conventionally we will call them a “quasi-opposition pro-Russian party” and “quasi-opposition pro-European party”. These two parties will ultimately get seats in the Parliament and help Lukashenka run the show of the “controllable democracy” and lure investments in Belarus.

This scenario may include tactics aimed at splitting the existing opposition and recruiting a part of it as loyalists (using the scheme similar to the “coercion” of Yaraslau Ramanchuk to engage in a constructive dialogue). It will be extremely hard to “sell” a new managed democracy consisting entirely of new formations to society and especially foreign actors, however, the “non-constructive” part of the opposition and civil society are threatened with the same kind of war and total annihilation.

Which option is the likeliest one for Belarus? Rational choice prompts a combination of the first and third scenarios – short reprisals – thaw - normalization of relations with the EU – creation of the “controllable democracy”. During his New Year address, Lukashenka as good as acknowledged the existence of a civil confrontation in the country, and being well aware of this, he may have to “flirt” with the political minority (sic!) by mitigating sanctions and getting political institutions back to where they used to be in 2010.

However, based on the logic of the development of the Belarusian political model… it might turn out the other way round. I am sure Lukashenka will surprise everyone yet again by choosing what will seem to be the worst-case scenario, which will eventually show some sense and relevance.