Belarus: Between Russia and the West


Mar 29, 2017

Law enforcement officers walk during a gathering denouncing the new tax on those not in full-time employment in Minsk, Belarus, March 25, 2017

Law enforcement officers walk during a gathering denouncing the new tax on those not in full-time employment in Minsk, Belarus, March 25, 2017

Photo by Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

By Kenneth Yalowitz and William Courtney

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on March 29, 2017.

For 22 years Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has tacked toward Russia but kept channels open to the West, while maintaining an authoritarian grip on power. Frightened by Moscow's intervention in Ukraine, he assumed the mantle of defender of Belarusian sovereignty. Reverting to form, however, Lukashenka recently unleashed riot police to suppress an upsurge in anti-government protests. Does unrest threaten Lukashenka's power? Might Russia intervene? And does the West have a role?

In February, popular discontent broke out when the authorities announced enforcement of a 2015 “law against social parasites.” It levies a tax of $250 yearly on those who work less than 183 days in a year, but do not register with the government labor office. After thousands of people streamed into the streets, the regime retreated. The tax would not be collected for 2016, but would be for 2017.

Discontent did not subside. More than 300 civil society activists, opposition figures and journalists were arrested before the March 25th anniversary of the founding 99 years ago of the Belarusian People's Republic, a rallying mark for the opposition. On March 25, several thousand demonstrators braved a ban and conducted a peaceful anti-Lukashenka protest in Minsk. Riot police arrested hundreds and beat many.

Declining living standards also fuel frustration. Last January former central bank head Stanislau Bagdankevich said Belarus was “witnessing impoverishment of the population, falling income, decreasing wages, inflation.” And the “situation is only getting worse,” with further income declines likely in 2017 and possibly 2018.

Despite the unrest, for now Lukashenka's grip on power remains tight. He controls the security forces and is popular in mostly rural Belarus. As well, the opposition is weak and divided, and the business community is not restive....

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Kenneth Yalowitz is the Director of the Conflict Resolution Program at Georgetown University and a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center, and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-Soviet Commission that implemented the Threshold test Ban Treaty.

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