Russian autocracy is different, but Belarus should still be a cautionary tale.
Fifteen years ago, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to Belarus under President Aleksandr Lukashenko as “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” After his regime rigged yet another election this month and brutally suppressed peaceful protests, arresting some 7,000 people, the moniker resurfaced in headlines.
But the truth is that if angry citizens manage to overthrow Lukashenko, there’s still Vladimir Putin, an autocrat in his own right who has steadily eroded human rights and democratic norms in Russia and engineered constitutional changes that would effectively make him president for life.
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Could he be next?
Not so fast. Though the two men have certain things in common, it turns out that not all authoritarians are created equally.
Lukashenko rose to power in the 1990s as a firebrand populist who promised to take on the country’s elites. But in recent years he has shown little appetite for cultivating popular support, letting it wane as the Belarusian economy limped from crisis to crisis and setting the stage for the countrywide uprising now underway. Belarus’s economy is still dominated by the state. Any hint of political opposition is quickly smothered, and Lukashenko’s power is almost absolute.
“It’s very personal. It’s very sultanistic,” said Ryhor Astapenia, a fellow at Chatham House and the founder and research director of the Center for New Ideas in Belarus. “Elites don’t have any significant role in the decision-making.”
Putin’s system of control is more sophisticated, a kabuki theater of democracy in which public sentiment is carefully monitored. While his popularity has declined, he has proved savvy enough to pacify key constituencies at least some of the time, making the prospect of a nationwide uprising in which Russians from Moscow to Khabarovsk could be united by a singular point of discontent unlikely.
Lukashenko abolished term limits altogether in a referendum in 2004. He has faced few serious challenges in five successive presidential elections and imprisoned opposition candidates for organizing street protests. Lukashenko has even taken pride in his authoritarianism, remarking in 2012 that it was “better to be a dictator than gay.” He was responding to Guido Westerwelle, at the time Germany’s openly gay foreign minister, who used the words “Europe’s last dictator” to describe Lukashenko.
Many Belarusians meet the phrase with an eye roll, not because they have any illusions about the brutality of the state—some 7,000 people have been arrested since peaceful protests against the disputed election results began two weeks ago—but because they see it as a reductive cliche that obscures the existence of a brave civil society, burgeoning art scene, and rapidly expanding tech sector, all of which have taken root in spite of the president.
They are also quick to point out that Lukashenko is by no means the only or last authoritarian in the neighborhood, as next door in Russia Putin has presided over a steady crackdown on human rights and democratic norms.
Unlike Lukashenko, Putin has gone to great lengths to avoid unseemly power grabs, even as he has managed to rule Russia for 20 years. In 2008, as Putin reached his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, he stepped down to become prime minister but was still widely regarded as the power behind the throne. A referendum he initiated on sweeping changes to the constitution passed last month, enabling Putin to run for another two terms in office and remain in power until 2036.
There was no legal need to hold the referendum, as lawmakers approved the constitutional changes earlier this year. But the theatrics of the vote gave Putin his much-craved veneer of legitimacy. It’s this flair for faux democratic stagecraft that has underpinned Putin’s two decades in power.
Russia has also perfected the art of disinformation, both at home and abroad. Slickly produced news shows on Russian state TV create an alternate reality in which Ukraine has been overrun by Nazis, gay people are a threat to children, and Donald Trump is possibly the purveyor of the coronavirus pandemic.
The purpose of this messaging is not to persuade the Russian public that any of these things is actually true but rather to leave people “confused, paranoid, and passive—living in a Kremlin-controlled virtual reality,” the disinformation expert Peter Pomerantsev wrote in the Atlantic in 2014.
In contrast, Belarusian state TV is stale and strapped for cash. “Russian TV is much more professional, simply because they have more money and resources. Many Belarusians do watch this [Russian] TV because the content is more attractive,” said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a political analyst with the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies. A 2019 study by the Belarusian Association of Journalists found that Russian-made television content accounted for nearly half of all prime-time programming in the basic cable package on Belarusian television.
For all of Putin’s centralized control, Russia continues to have competing power bases, including rival security services, oligarchs, regional elites, and the powerful Orthodox church. “In Russia, there are a lot of resources that are given to maintain this ruling elite. It’s very spread. It requires compromises,” said Maryia Rohava, a Belarusian doctoral student at the University of Oslo who studies nationalism and symbolic politics in post-Soviet autocracies. While these rivals have undoubtedly made life complicated for Putin, this more diffuse system of control provides handy scapegoats when things go awry.
Still, Putin might be wise to see Lukashenko as a cautionary tale. Having fixed his term limit problem, the Russian leader is on track to match Lukashenko’s 26-year reign.
Even as the spotlight has been on Belarus in the past weeks, the Kremlin has contended with its own persistent protests in the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk. Eventually, Russians across the country could find themselves in agreement about the source of their problems.
“I think one of the drivers of Russian policy in Belarus is precisely the concern that what is happening in Belarus creates an undesirable precedent for Putin and the Kremlin,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus.
Shmatsina of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies summed it up this way: “It’s hard to stay in power and to please everyone.”