The Institute of Modern Russian starts a series of articles on the political history of contemporary Belarus. The authoritarian regime imposed on the country by Alexander Lukashenko is often compared to Putin's regime in Russia, but the Belarusian president surpasses his Russian colleague in terms of years in power (18) and the political system’s rigidity. Our research shows that the evolution of authoritarianism in Belarus has reached its final stage: the country has reached a political and economic dead-end. In the history of Lukashenko’s rule there are many lessons for Russia.



In the West, Belarus was nicknamed as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Alexander Lukashenko's regime has existed for 18 years, and during this time the Belarusian president has managed to maneuver between the interests of the West and Russia and to crush his internal political opposition. How does Lukashenko succeed in retaining power? What are Europe’s and Russia’s interests in Belarus? What chance of success does the Belarusian opposition have? IMR’s analyst Olga Khvostunova will try to provide answers to these questions.


Part One: From the Soviets to Dictatorship

National Project

The formation of most of the states in Central and Eastern Europe followed similar patterns. When their territories were under the influence of the Russian or Austro-Hungarian empires, the subjected nation’s intelligentsia developed a national myth that would evolve and become the basis for national political goals. Political parties would be born out of those myths and goals, and party competition would lead, sooner or later, to the creation of sovereign states.

In Belarus, this development was not fully realized: Belarusian ethnic nationalism has, thus far, not led to the development and implementation of a national project. This is the principal way in which Belarus differs from comparable neighboring countries like Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.

There are certain historical reasons that explain why a national project was not implemented in Belarus. In the second half of the 19th century, during the period of intense confrontation between Russia and Poland, ethnic processes in Belarus evolved under the influence of both the Russian empire’s bureaucratic structure and the Polish szlachta [nobility]. The Russians sought Russification of Belarus, the Polish—Polonization. As an alternative to foreign influence, the Belarusian intelligentsia developed its own, different idea of the country’s future that grew into Belarusian nationalism.

Due to the heavy war-time losses, Belarus went through the deepest sovietization of all the USSR republics. A new ideology was built around the idea of heroic victory over fascism, which became the starting point for developing a new mythology in Belarusian history.

On March 1918, shortly before the end of the World War I, Russia and Germany signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, according to which large territories, including Belarus were ceded by Russia to Germany. As a result, the Belarusian People’s Republic was declared. It was the first attempt to establish a state on Belarusian territory on an ethnic basis. But soon thereafter, Germany conceded defeat, and withdrew its troops from Minsk. Russia renounced the terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and, three weeks later, the Belarusian Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Smolensk.

Until 1939, the territories of, what is now, Western Belarus were a part of Poland, where the Belarusians lived as a national minority. In 1939, based on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet troops occupied these territories and effectively annexed Western Belarus to the USSR. At the same time, as a result of the Stalinist purges, more than 130 thousand Belarusians (the majority of whom represented nationalist intelligentsia) fell victim to political repression; thirty thousand of these were executed. But it was during World War II that the country suffered most of its losses: by some estimates, approximately 1.5 million Belarusians, one sixth of the population, were slaughtered during the war.


About 12 thousand people participated in Belarusian partisan movement of 1941-44 (left). Based on the stories of Belarusian partisans' brave feats, the new mythology of the Belarusian Soviet Republic was created. Starting from 1950's, Belarus developed into a leading agricultural and industrial republic in the Soviet Union. Tractors branded Belarus, produced by the the Minsk Tractor Works, became a symbol of the Soviet Belarus.


As the Belarusian historian Yaroslav Shimov notes, due to the heavy war-time losses, Belarus went through the deepest sovietization of all the USSR republics. “The post-war political and economic elite of Belarus consisted of people of peasant origin who made their careers through the Communist party or by distinguishing themselves in the partisan resistance,” Shimov writes. “A new ideology was built around the idea of heroic victory over fascism, which became the starting point for developing a new mythology in Belarusian history.” Also, in Shimov’s opinion, the patriarchic peasantry culture had such a dominant influence on the political culture that it constitutes yet another factor contributing to the difference between Belarus and other Eastern European countries.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Belarus underwent a period of intensive Russification: the Russian language became the language of the media, the education system, and political discourse. The Belarusian language was preserved only in folk culture. During the “perestroika” years, new signs of Belarusian nationalism appeared and the Belarusian People’s Front (BPF), founded by Zenon Poznyak, became the core of a renewed nationalist movement.


The Democratic Era

After the Soviet Union collapsed, BPF managed to become, but only briefly (until 1993), a powerful political force in Belarus. In contrast, the Lithuanian Nationalists Union and the Latvia National Independence Movement are still popular in their respective countries. BPF’s major goal, like that of the Baltic national movements, was to establish an independent national democratic state that would eventually join the European Union. But BPF operated in an absolutely different environment with a different population.

The Baltic national movements relied on a mature, strong national identity and national language, and the memory of lost independence. They only had to add actual independence to these attributes. In Belarus, national identity was underdeveloped and the country had undergone a more thorough and profound sovietization. Compared to the Baltic nationalist parties, BPF was proposing a far more extensive transformation of the people, tantamount to converting them into a different nation.

At first glance, the political landscape of Belarus had a diversity of parties, none of whom was able to become a dominant political force and to represent interests of the majority.

With the dissolution of the USSR, many other parties started to form spontaneously in Belarus. In 1991, a United Democratic Party (UDP) was created by uniting the representatives of the democratic wing of the Communist Party. The same year, the Belarusian Social Democratic Gromada was founded claiming it was the successor to the Belarusian Socialist Gromada that existed in early 20th century. Numerous other, smaller parties were also established, embracing the nationalist democratic segment of the Belarusian political spectrum. Still, the social base of each of these parties was insignificant.

The liquidation of the Soviet system in Belarus was the result of external, not internal, forces. The majority of the population felt nostalgic about the Soviet past. By the end of 1991, there was established a new Communist Party of Belarus whose members included apparatchiks of the lower and middle echelons of the former Belorussian Soviet Communist Party. The political center was occupied by the higher-ranking apparatchiks, who supported the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, and Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich.


After the Soviet Union collapsed, numerous political parties emerged in Belarus. Meanwhile, the executive power belonged to the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Stanislav Shushkevich (left) and Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich (right).


The right wing of the political spectrum was occupied by Slavyansky Sobor “Belaya Rus” (Slavic Assembly “Belaya Rus”), or SSBR, which was established in June, 1992. It aimed at unifying the territories inhabited by the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian people. Its founders opposed pursuing the “Western path,” and, instead, based their views on Pan-Slavism.

At first glance, the political landscape of Belarus had a diversity of parties, none of whom was able to become a dominant political force and to represent interests of the majority. The ruling elite failed to come up with any distinct national idea. The Belarusian “party of power,” represented by Kebich and Shushkevich, had no articulated political views. First, they propagated “Sovereignization” and “Belarusization” of the country, then, in 1992-93, as the economic crisis reached its peak, they shifted to seeking support from Russia and to bonding with the Communists and Pan-Slavists.

Thus, a paradox was created in the Belarus political arena. Pluralism was present, but none of the parties had the unequivocal support of the majority of the population. The authorities, as a whole, were seen as opportunistic and corrupt, and not acting in the people’s interests. This perception only became stronger with the dramatic fall of living standards. In this critical situation, Alexander Lukashenko, a bright, charismatic politician, former director of the Gorodets state farm in Mogilev region, emerged as the one person who could attract the votes of the disaffected majority.

“Batka” or Father

The speed of Lukashenko’s rise staggers the imagination. He was born on August 30th, 1954 in the village of Kopys in the Vitebsk region of Belarus. He graduated from the Mogilev Pedagogical Institute as a teacher of history and social science and later, studied at the Belarusian Agricultural Academy. Advancing rapidly up the party hierarchy, Lukashenko, in 1987, was appointed to head a state farm in the Mogilev region. In 1990, he was elected Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of Belarus and quickly attracted public and media attention as the result of his speeches criticizing the Supreme Soviet’s Chairman, Stanislav Shushkevich.


From 1975 to 1977 Lukashenko was doing his military service in the Soviet Border Troops as an instructor of political department. According to some sources, in 1991 Lukashenko was the only Deputy of the Supreme Soviet who did not vote for the dissolution of the USSR.


On May 25th, 1991, Narodnaya Volya published Lukashenko's article, entitled “Dictatorship: Belarusian Version” in which the future Belarusian president appears as an ardent advocate of democratic values. Only five years later, Lukashenko completely abandoned all the ideas propounded in this article.

In 1993, Lukashenko headed the Anti-Corruption Commission of the Supreme Soviet. The strong anti-corruption report he made to parliament caused a great stir and resulted in the resignation of Stanislav Shushkevich. It was Lukashenko’s moment of glory and his popularity thereafter grew rapidly.

In June 1994, Lukashenko decided to run in Belarus’ first (and, as it turned out, last) free presidential elections. There were five other candidates competing for the office, representing a wide political spectrum—from Communists to nationalists. However, the political parties that put forward their candidates were weak, and the candidates themselves lacked popular support. In the first round of voting, none of them managed to gain the necessary percentage of votes to be elected. There was a run-off between the two candidates with the highest number of votes: the populist, Alexander Lukashenko, who received 44.82% of votes, and Belarusian Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, who had 17.33%. In the run-off, Lukashenko defeated his opponent with an overwhelming 80.1% of votes.

As many analysts have observed, Lukashenko’s fantastic success was determined by two factors. First, his campaign exploited the discontent felt by the majority of Belarusians for whom the the economic crisis, changes in the political system, and the high level of nationalism was unacceptable. Second, Lukashenko was able to project an image of himself as “a man of the people” that he was able to set against the elitism and “detachment from the people,” of the other candidates who represented the political establishment.

Paradoxically, in terms of ideology, Lukashenko was hardly any different from his opponent in the run-off. Neither relied on any party, nor had an intelligible political program, and both, in the course of their political careers, changed their views to suit the political winds prevalent at the time. A clear illustration of the last point is Lukashenko’s attempt to appoint Kebich as Speaker of the Supreme Soviet, even though, earlier, he had promised to jail Kebich. He also surrounded himself with people who came from Kebich’s inner circle.

One of the factors that determined Lukashenko’s fantastic success was his ability to project an image of himself as “a man of the people.” He was able to set this image against the elitism of the other candidates who represented the political establishment.

Lukashenko's program appealed to the paternalistic mood of the Belarusian public and included elements of left populism, traditional Slavophilism, and nostalgia for the Soviet era “Golden Age.” In essence, his was a program of authoritarian mobilization, and it was acceptable to the majority of Belarus’ citizens. “Freedom was bargained for stability, leveling social policies and a familiar system of political and ideological principles,” writes Shimov.

After life in Belarus had returned to normal from the turbulence of the early 1990’s, the authoritarian model became irrelevant. However, rejection of the model in Belarus did not take place. For Lukashenko and the new political elite, the only way to guarantee their own security was to preserve their power. The point of no return was reached in 1996 during the referendum on amending the Constitution of Belarus. Many analysts and international observers see the events surrounding this vote as a state coup.



From his first days in power, Lukashenko started to change the government system to suit his own needs. In 1995, this brought him into conflict with the Supreme Soviet, and thus began a long period of political crisis. The conflict became acute in August 1996, when Lukashenko suggested holding a referendum on constitutional amendments that would substantially broaden the power of the president and would turn Belarus from parliamentary-presidential republic into a presidential one. In response, the Supreme Soviet advanced a series of counter-proposals that were aimed at eliminating the presidential post and transforming the country into a parliamentary republic. November 24 was set as the date for the referendum.

In September 1996, Lukashenko's scheme for constitutional reform was categorically rejected by the parliament. Moreover, at the Supreme Soviet's request, the Constitutional Court initiated a criminal case against the Belarusian president for violation of the Constitution. Impeachment of the president was put on the parliamentary agenda.


In 1996, Viktor Gonchar (left) was unlawfully fired from his post as the Chairman the Belarusian Central Election Commission only 10 days prior to the referendum on amending the Constitution. By that time the political conflict between the Supreme Soviet and President Lukashenko had reached its peak (right).


Shortly before the referendum, a high-profile delegation came from Moscow to help resolve the political crisis in Belarus. The delegation included Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroyev, and Duma Chairman Gennady Seleznev. Alexander Lukashenko and Semyon Sharetsky, Speaker of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet and leader of Agrarian Party, participated in the negotiations. After a day, a compromise was seemingly reached: Lukashenko agreed that the results of the referendum would be consultative only, and the Supreme Soviet agreed to withdraw its complaint to the Constitutional Court and terminate the case against Lukashenko for violation of the constitution.

However, on the next day, this compromise was rejected by the parliament at the initiative of the Civil Action fraction that saw it as “capitulation.” Reacting to the news, Lukashenko immediately announced that the results of the referendum would be legally binding.

From his first days in power, Lukashenko started to change the government system to suit his own needs.

According to the official numbers reported by the Belarusian Central Election Committee (CEC) 70.45% of the Belarusians voted for Lukashenko's project of constitutional reform. However, the electoral process was marred by so many violations that the referendum’s legitimacy was completely undermined. Below are examples of the violations:

• Ten days before the referendum Viktor Gonchar, head of the CEC, was unlawfully fired by the President’s decree (not by the decision of the Supreme Soviet, as required by the Constitution).

• When the early voting started, papers with texts of the suggested constitutional amendments were not available at the polling stations. In other words, the people did not know what they were voting for. Yet the authorities called for and, in many cases, forced people to go and vote early. As a result, up to 30% did vote early.

• Ballots were printed by the Presidential Property Management Department and were delivered to the polling stations bypassing the CEC and regional referendum commissions. There were no official records of the ballots.

• Ninety percent of the referendum coverage on radio and television was given to the president. In some cases, activists continued to campaign for the Lukashenko amendments right at the polling stations.

On the day following the referendum, Alexander Lukashenko reported that the voting went “flawlessly.” At the same time, eight judges of the Constitutional Court, including the chairman, resigned in protest against the way the referendum was conducted. Some members of the government, including Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir, Minister of Labor Alexander Sosnov, and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Sannikov followed their example. Many international organizations, such as the OSCE, the European Council, and the EU, did not recognize the results of the referendum. But far more significant for Lukashenko and his further career, was the fact that the results were recognized as valid by Russia.


To be continued >>>

Belarus. Part Two:” Political repression Lukashenko style; Gas wars with Russia; Europe’s push and pull policies.