Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies at UCL SSEES and the author of Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship (Yale University Press), breaks down the lessons of the Belarusian crisis and provides an analysis of authoritarianism in this state.
Belarusian ‘politics’ used to be predictable and dull. There was a certain amount of debate among academics about adjectival authoritarianism. Belarus was an authoritarian state, but was it an interesting sub-type? There was a certain amount of peering inside the regime’s ‘black box’. How was such a closed regime actually run? If public politics was sterile, were there any patterns of informal politics to detect?
But 2020 has seen an eruption of real politics: an actually competitive election campaign, mass fraud, mass protest and mass repression. What has changed? What can we learn?
The first conclusion is that political science should not lose sight of morals, both inherently and as a factor in politics. The protests were sparked by moral outrage: first at such a blatant election steal and then at the appalling regime violence. Kill your people and you lose hearts and minds. If Lukashenka survives, it will be by coercion alone; he has no governing formula or political programme.
A second conclusion is that election fraud is not a reason to give up on psephology. Now that fraud is so common in post-Communist Europe, there is excellent work being done on the ‘Forensics of Election Fraud’ – the use of macro-sociology to detect patterns that cannot be randomly generated, but are the smoking gun of directed state fraud. This time in Belarus, a parallel vote count excluded most of the suspect votes in the 41% who voted early under various forms of pressure and fraud, and indicated that Lukashenka won only 40.5% and the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanowskaya 47.9%. (The official result gave Lukashanka 80.1% and Tsikhanowskaya 10.1%.)
One lesson for autocrats might, or should, be the dangers of mass fraud. Russia’s referendum on constitutional change in June-July showed not too dissimilar amounts of fraud; but that was before events in Belarus. The Russian authorities may think carefully about how they manage the next election cycle; for the Duma in 2021 and the presidency in 2024. ‘Manage’ is the key word. It is not that there won’t be fraud; but they will hide it better, and there will be a roster of new parties and candidates to draw the sting of protest votes.
In the 2000s, the Belarusian political scientist Vitali Silitski, who sadly died young at 38, invented the term ‘preemptive authoritarianism’ for Belarus. He argued that Lukashenka had survived the era of ‘coloured revolution’ in the 2000s by disabling its key triggers, like youth movements and election monitors. He never copied Russia’s full-spectrum ‘Virtual Politics’, but used a certain amount of political technology to ensure that no opposition candidate could ever build momentum by standing in two successive elections, and created fake regime candidates to crowd them out at elections in 2010 and 2015.
Silitski’s other key idea was an ‘authoritarian international’: authoritarianism can spread in waves, just like democratisation. Authoritarian regimes can copy one another and pool resources. Now we call this ‘authoritarian learning’. Similar ideas were expressed in the 2019 book Belarus under Lukashenka: Adaptive Authoritarianism by Matt Frear.
But by 2020, the regime was long in the tooth. The authorities were also caught out: this was not ‘modular revolution’. Belarusian protestors were not importing somebody else’s model. So it was not obvious what to preempt.
There was also a structural problem. Put Vitali’s two concepts together – how does a preemptive authoritarian state react when its main threat comes from its supposed partner in the authoritarian international? The ‘coloured revolution’ era was about collective defence of local autocracies against a heavily mythologised threat from the West. But the main threat to Russia’s neighbours is now from Russia. Russia has a ‘frenemy’ complex, undermining even the countries who are supposed to be its allies.
So, instead of a preemptive authoritarianism in 2020, there was a belated authoritarianism, with the regime struggling to respond to both a Russian threat and a vitalised domestic opposition. But a belated, or retrospective, authoritarianism is likely to want to close the gap ceded to pluralism, not partially but completely – striving vainly for the status quo ante. A first round of savage repression was not enough to shut down the protest movement. The belated invocation of the Authoritarian International led to crude copying of Russian counter-revolutionary technology. Obviously fake pro-Lukashenka crowds were produced from nowhere; new pro-Lukashenka parties appeared overnight.
So all the possible scenarios look unstable. One is that the protest movement continues. Another is that the Lukashenka regime survives, but the pyramid of power is now extremely top-heavy; and has no broader support. Another is that Lukashenka gets coercive help from Russia, turning Belarus into a quasi-colony as the price of his survival, which will destabilise the region as a whole.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.