There is an anniversary coming soon in Belarus. 25 years ago, on 20 July 1994, Alexander Lukashenko became the first and so far the only president of the country. Since then he tightened his grip on power, but beyond that, not much has changed in Belarus politics.
To those inside and outside the country, this infinite stability seems like an endless loop.
Roughly every 2-3 years government holds a parliamentary or presidential election. Times of liberalization give way to political freezings and than back again. Opposition holds rallies and marches every year on the same dates.
So what’s behind this stability? Why don’t Belarusians change the way their politics is run?
A Bird In The Hand
To start, some Belarusians like it. The authoritarian system matches the post-Soviet political mentality of many citizens.
In general, many people worldwide genuinely appreciate stability. This is especially the case in Belarus, the country ravaged by bloody wars and revolutions in the past.
The collective memory keeps this innate strive for peace and a sense of caution when it comes to deep social changes. Thus, it has always been a wise choice for Lukashenko to present himself as the only one who can ensure things are stable.
Post-Maidan mess in Ukraine, leaving aside its mostly external roots, helped Belarusian authorities enormously. “See, that’s what happens when you revolt”, has the government’s message to the people been ever since.
Why Not Vote Them Out
Yet, it is wrong to believe that all Belarusians are fine with their unchanging politics.
Lukashenko’s impressive election victories with commanding 80+ percent results do not reflect the real public opinion.
The polls done by one of the very few independent institutes IISEPS showed that between 1997 and 2016 the president’s electoral rating ranged between 20% and 60% depending on the economic performance. Most often it was somewhere in the 35-45% corridor.
However, the near-total control of the electoral process gives the authorities more than enough tools to produce the result they wish.
In addition to very restricted access to the registration of a party or a candidate, the law enables the local executives to form 99% loyal electoral commissions.
The opposition may campaign whatever it wants, but in the end, these commissions, packed with local teachers and other state employees, count the ballots.
And they do so in a very non-transparent way, silently passing the ballot stacks to one another. Then they write some numbers in the protocols with no independent oversight.
The voting lasts for six days. No independent observer can control what happens with the ballot boxes during all this time and at night.
Needless to say, the whole state machinery, including trade unions, state-funded quasi-NGOs, state-run companies, and TV support the pro-government candidates. Or The Candidate when it comes to the presidential election.
Gloomy Cocktail of Apathy
When it comes to political activism, most Belarusians drown in the cocktail of two feelings – fear of punishment and disbelief that they can achieve any tangible result.
Half of the employed work for the state, the overwhelming majority of students get their education in state-run institutions.
For these people, political activism can lead to evident problems. The deeper you go into politics, the higher becomes the risk of being fired or expelled. That’s in addition to being watched and sometimes persecuted by the KGB or the police.
Very little historic experience of living in a democracy has also contributed to what psychologists call “the learned helplessness”.
Belarusians by and large simply do not believe they can change anything in their politics and can hardly find a reason to bother.
The state of the opposition – weak, disintegrated and lacking any success stories – only strengthens this public apathy.
In a way, the authorities have concluded a social contract with the majority of Belarusians: we provide you with some level of economic stability, you do not stick your nose into politics.
As long as the government has enough carrots to deliver and sticks to punish those who disagree, Belarus will likely remain the bastion of political stability it has now been for almost a quarter of a century.