Belarus After Change

Edward Lucas, CEPA Non-Resident Fellow and International Editor of The Economist, offers a hypothetical account of what would happen in Belarus should the Lukashenka regime collapse. Emphasizing that a post-authoritarian transition is an arduous process, Lucas argues that its success in Belarus will be contingent on a change in the Belarusian people’s mind-set.

Former President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his cronies are in exile in Abkhazia. Andrei Sannikau, in jail only a week earlier, is holding a press conference. The protesters’ tent city in the middle of Minsk has a bleary morning-after atmosphere. Ivonka Survilla, president of the Belarus National Council, a government-in-exile since 1918, is hastening to visit her long-unseen homeland. Only a few days ago, she would have been arrested instantly. Now, she is scheduled to give an interview on prime-time television.

For anyone old enough to recall the events of 1989-91, it will all seem evocative. We remember the astonishing capsize of Communist power in then Czechoslovakia; the triumphant return to the Baltic States of émigré figures once under death sentences; the euphoria of the young telegenic protestors; the sharp sweet smell of long-buried truth, newly excavated.

But we remember the expectation too, and that’s poignant. For what came after the morning after was a lot messier, slower and less complete than we hoped. In most of the countries that were once counted as “captive nations,” political freedom and the rule of law remain aspirations, or worse, count as failed experiments. Even in the dozen states that are members of or close to joining the European Union (EU), many feel that the collapse of communism brought dividends to the cronies of the old regime and continued dispossession of the masses.

It is in this spirit that we should consider the prospect of a sudden collapse of the Lukashenka regime in Belarus. What comes next will not be a fairytale transition. It will be murky, unfair, disappointing and frustrating. If we are lucky, after 10 years Belarus may look like Serbia. If we are unlucky, it will look like Ukraine, or even Russia. Whatever happens, people in Brussels and Washington will wrangle foolishly about “who lost Belarus,” as if outsiders, not locals, determined what happens. Progress will be measured against a notional yardstick involving Polish economic vigor, Estonian standards of public administration and Czech diplomacy.

Every policy option has a pitfall. Generous stabilization support from outside lenders risks giving bad government a free ride. Tough external constraints mean that hardship derails reforms and demoralizes reformers. Speedy privatization breaks the power of state bureaucrats. But it hands ownership to spivs and cronies. Foreign direct investment brings money and know-how. But it creates feelings of dispossession and resentment: people feel their country’s crown jewels were sold too quickly and too cheaply. Economic liberalization paves the way for future prosperity. But it brings a big psychological shock for voters, who may then opt for stability rather than more discomfort. A tough approach to crime and corruption is vital. But the result can be a powerful state agency that is itself another kind of mafia. If the outside world gives plenty of advice, its credibility is then tarnished by the disappointing results. If it humbly hangs back, it looks neglectful and disengaged.

Most dangerous of all will be rivalry with Russia. This has had a dreadful result in Ukraine, where the West systematically overlooked the flaws of its “allies” (lately Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko) in order to try to keep Russian meddling at bay. The result was to discredit the West’s values, but without achieving the main objective.

If the clearest lesson from the past is the need for realism, another is the need for vision. The early and generous opening of markets and borders is vital. (Unfortunately this is exactly what voters in the rest of Europe do not want.) And the clear long-term prospect of EU membership focuses minds and creates a strategic framework for other decisions. Offering generous external financing in exchange for liberal economic policies is also a good long-term investment.
But real change has to come from hearts and minds. Apart from a brief interlude between 1989 and 1994, Belarusians have been fed a toxic diet of propaganda peppered with vainglorious, paranoid and delusional ingredients. Many feel isolated from the world. The temptation to seek security rather than to embrace change will be strong.

In short, the mental, cultural and spiritual detox that must follow the end of authoritarian rule is a painful and bumpy process. It can’t be hurried. The outside world will need patience. So will Belarus.