Kash Jain ’24
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has referred to himself as the last dictator in Europe, has grown increasingly infamous throughout his nearly three-decade tenure as the country’s ruler. While initially democratically elected, Lukashenko has assailed Belarus’ institutions and weaponized its Constitution to solidify his power. He quickly became an autocrat with extensive control over Belarus’ government, elections, and media. He’s used his power to enrich himself and erode civil liberties, jailing protestors and prominent political opponents.
Belarus has become what political scientist Steven Levitsky calls a competitive authoritarian regime: a system in which multiple parties or candidates can compete, but this competition is skewed to favor the incumbent. In such a regime, democratic institutions may still exist, but the incumbent abuses their power to diminish electoral competition; the opposition can win, but the game is slanted against them. One could argue that Belarus has slid further to a fully authoritarian regime, especially as Lukashenko has further solidified his power and continued to undermine Belarus’ elections.
Either way, it’s clear that Lukashenko is an autocrat who has de-democratized Belarus and whose actions routinely fly affront to freedom and civil liberties. However, when considering such a regime and understanding how a country slides into autocracy, the bigger picture must be considered. While Lukashenko has had significant agency and has actively chosen to attack democracy in his country, Belarus’ democratic prospects have also been impaired by the influence of its neighbor and purported ally: Russia.
While in the Soviet Union, Belarus’ economy was almost entirely reliant on oil and gas energy that existed throughout the entire Union; Belarus was near the endpoint, refining petroleum imported from the rest of the Union. Now, as a post-Soviet state, that dependence has not changed much, and Belarus remains closely linked to Russia both politically and economically. Russia remains Belarus’ main trading partner, sending them crude petroleum and minerals which Belarus refines and exports to Ukraine, the Baltic states, and the rest of Europe, thereby controlling much of their access to trading partners in the West. Russia has also offered Belarus favorable energy prices and billions of dollars in loans, using this as leverage.
It would be a mischaracterization to say that Lukashenko is a puppet or that he lacks agency in his policymaking. He very clearly has a high degree of control over Belarus and its institutions. However, even if he were to try to move against Russia and align with other states or push for economic and democratic reforms, Putin would likely make the threat of plunging Belarus into economic ruin if he did not fall in line.
It’s difficult to ascertain just how much of a hold Russia’s economic influence has over Belarus because of the fact that Lukashenko has almost always aligned with Russia. While there have been instances of conflict, including between him and Putin, he has not taken any significant action to pull his country out of Russia’s hold. It’s also clear that this isn’t an entirely one-sided relationship. Russia is in no way economically dependent on Belarus, but it’s a superpower with a limited number of allies, especially in the region, and whatever support that Belarus can provide is probably worth maintaining their relationship. In recent years, Russia has seen value in Belarus as a venue for military drills and, notably, a path to launch its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine serves as a clear example of a state that has broken free of Russian influence—to an extent. Its democratization has come with Russian resistance, which Belarus would also face if it were to democratize.
Now, Putin has announced that he will place nuclear weapons in Belarus, a more immediate threat to Ukraine made available to Putin because of the relationship between Russia and Belarus. Lukashenko appears to be complying, but even if he wished to take a stand against Putin, he could not do so without severe repercussions for Belarus.
Putin’s latest action confirms two important points: that Russia retains a significant amount of influence over Belarus, and that Belarus’s struggle to democratize doesn’t face the barrier of one autocrat, but two. So long as Belarus remains economically reliant on Russia, even if Lukashenko were ousted, it will struggle to democratize, because stepping out of line with Putin comes with a serious cost.