Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

IKEA to Oust Lukashenko

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The results of the presidential election in Belarus have not received the attention they deserve. There was, of course, no doubt that Alexander Lukashenko would retain the presidency for a second term. Of greater interest is the price paid for victory and what we should expect from the Belarussian president in his second term.

When he came to power seven years ago, Lukashenko halted privatization, promised citizens that their Soviet-era social safety net would be preserved, proclaimed his goal of a new union with Russia and heaped invective on the West and the International Monetary Fund. Medicine and healthcare remained free of charge. But from the outset the president did not look to mass movements or workers' organizations for support, but rather relied on the state bureaucracy that was personally loyal to him.

Parliament was dissolved, persecution of the opposition press began and then Lukashenko extended his term by referendum (the results of which were most likely rigged). Several of the president's political opponents vanished without trace. The West, for its part, spent millions of dollars on bolstering the opposition.

Looking primarily to the rural population for support, Lukashenko sought to increase industrial competitiveness by holding down wages. As a result, the average monthly wage in 2000 was only $65. Although, in fairness, factoring in social programs, housing subsidies and so on, actual living standards are significantly higher than this figure suggests.

Belarus' main trading partners remain -- as in Soviet times -- Russia, Ukraine and countries of the Third World. However, Lukashenko's regime has not renewed old forms of cooperation, but rather used the old economic and technical ties for market expansion. Lukashenko's Belarus aspires to be like Thailand or Malaysia, although the analogy of a starving cat is more accurate than a tiger.

The shortcomings of this development model came to the fore after the collapse of the ruble in 1998, as Lukashenko's regime became more and more dependent on Russian corporations that invested considerable funds in his election campaign. The united opposition did not stand a chance. The election in Belarus was neither fair nor democratic, but few doubt that Lukashenko would have won even if the playing field had been more level.

In any event Belarus is headed for serious changes. Foreign correspondents liken Belarus to Jurassic Park. This is not entirely accurate, as the creatures in this park are evolving right before our eyes. Change will surely come, but not as a result of an opposition victory.

Wide-scale privatization is under way in Belarus. The Belarussian bureaucracy has formed an alliance with Russian transnational corporations such as Gazprom, LUKoil and Sibal. These and other corporations, enjoying a stable exchange rate and being flush with petro-dollars, are hungry for expansion and have been buying up a lot of Belarus' industrial assets.

In private conversations, Western observers in Minsk say that less attention should be paid to human rights violations and that economic liberalization should be encouraged. This would, in one fell swoop, turn the country's dictatorial order into a major draw for foreign investors, offering stability, order, cheap labor and no strikes.

Western capital is entering Belarus via Russia, which is the last thing that anyone expected. The closer Belarus gets to Russia, the more bourgeois the elite becomes and the stronger becomes the position of Western corporations operating through their Moscow subsidiaries. Transnational and Russian capital, once established in Belarus and once it has divvied up the country's best assets, will seek to install its own president. Most likely it will do this Moscow-style, by selecting a liberal successor to Lukashenko from among members of the current establishment. In anticipation of this, Lukashenko has begun reshuffling personnel and giving former favorites the boot. Anyone in the government who has political weight can, at best, expect a transfer to some backwater.

Lukashenko knows full well the real threat to his authority comes not from the opposition but from his own entourage. However, he cannot reshuffle the whole bureaucracy. LUKoil, Sibal, IKEA and McDonald's all already have a presence. Their political influence will only grow. And one day, Lukashenko will wake up to discover that there is no such thing as an eternal president.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.