The Decay of Belarussian Socialism | Dan Mikhaylov
Prior to August, few in Britain would have recognised Belarus on the European political map. Unlike Russia, it did not actively participate in continental politics for much of modern history. Even the idea of Belarussian nationhood was only birthed in the aftermath of the territory’s occupation by the German Empire during the Russian Civil War, writes the American historian Per Anders Rudling in his 2015 publication, “The Rise and Fall of Belarussian Nationalism, 1906-1931”.
Unlike Ukraine either, Belarus is a homogenous entity, never torn between Pax Russica and the West linguistically, historically or ideologically. Spared from deep-seated and unresolved tensions between its Russian and Belarussian populations, it views Moscow not as a threat, but as an indispensable ally, cordial relations with which have materialised in the former’s preferential treatment by the Kremlin under the Union of Russia and Belarus agreements.Even visiting Belarus would not be too dissimilar from travelling to any other Eastern European nation, which suffered enormously during the Second World War and witnessed Communist rule.
This banality notwithstanding, what is happening there following the controversial re-election of its six-times president merits our scrupulous attention. Whereas strong Russo-Belarussian ties and Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarianism could indicate that Belarus has not finalised its psychological transition from the Soviet political consensus to modernity, recent developments may bring this important change about, at last. Should the widespread protests, attended by both those who were always at the local regime’s crossheads, such as students and the urban intelligentsia, and the working class, succeed, they could precipitate the collapse of yet another socialist experiment.
Belarus is indeed a socialist experiment, with the local authorities’ commitment to preserving the Soviet era holdovers forming part of a deliberate, long-term power consolidation effort. To many Belarussians, the USSR is not about Stalinist reprisals, but about relative opulence and stability. This should not be surprising, considering that the country exited it with a sophisticated, robust agricultural sector, whose existence prevented food shortages in the 1980s, at the same as grocery stores across Moscow and Leningrad were seeing long queues and the kind of empty shelves, with which Remainer fearmongers were threatening us both in the build-up to, and after, the Brexit referendum.
Add to this Belarus’ dynamic manufacturing sector built from scratch by the Communist superpower, and the fact that 57% of Belarussians aged 35+ believe life back then was betterbecomes much easier to understand. Amongst the younger generations, as many as 34% of the people hold the selfsame opinion. Taking this into account, Lukashenko has prioritised an introspective ideology to integration with the West or even greater cooperation with Russia, for neither parties’ ideologies aligned with what was and still remains popular with local electorate.
Perpetuating the Soviet mentality has been Lukashenko’s obsession and his legerdemain. Besides turning a blind eye to human rights abuses akin to his Soviet predecessors and tapping into the “us versus them” mindset in both his anti-Western and anti-Russian rhetoric, the authoritarian leader has refused to resile from the old ways of running the economy.
On many occasions, he publicly vituperated small entrepreneurs and business owners as spoiled, and refusedthem coronavirus lockdown bailouts. Government intervention, such as when Lukashenko demanded that self-employed distributors of imported goods submitted additional documentation certifying the goods’ countries of origin and quality in 2016 only to see Belarussian markets deserted, constitutes yet another barrier to domestic capitalism and a conspicuous sign that the former is not welcome in Lukashenko’s domain.
Pledging to retain the factories constructed in various parts of the country during the twentieth century, Minsk has customarily confided in major manufacturers and large agrobusinesses. This was done as much on ideological as on Machiavellian grounds. True to the former, supporting them ensured such Belarussian brands as the BelAZ, an automobile plant producing the world’s biggest and most widely useddump trucks, did not morph, but rather continued adding value to the national brand at large.
As for the latter, placing these industries on government life support constitutes a means to guarantee employment and relative economic stability in small towns across Belarus. Unemployment breeds poverty, and poverty, in turn, may result in discontent – this logical triad is as old as Methuselah – and even Lukashenko has internalised it during his 26-year presidency. Returning to the earlier example of BelAZ, this company employs some 11,000 people in a town with a population of 62,000; resultantly, any job cuts, let alone the plant’s bankruptcy would be detrimental to the town’s entire economy. Using this logic and striving to maintain a firm grip on the country, Belarus’ government has consistently endeavoured to eradicate unemployment, in many respects resembling the post-war Labour manifesto with its policy direction. In 2018, the government-reported unemployment rate and did not exceed 1%, no doubt because the aforementioned factories retained thousands in the workforce, despite limited profitability, on the conditions that the state would support them.
Shoring up these companies has enabled Lukashenko to create a wider illusion of socioeconomic stability, epitomised by how many external projects and organisations the private sector altruistically finances. Thus, for instance, in the Belarussian Premier League, which famously did not pause fixtures during the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of teams are state-owned and financially supported by the localtyre manufacturers, mining holdings, and even producers of confectionaries.
Understandably, capital accumulation has never been the government’s concern. Many job opportunities realised by this non-conventional economic programme are economically burdensome and unsustainable so much so that young people are fleeing Belarus in large numbers in pursuit of superior wages and professional self-actualisation in Russia and the EU. In 2017 alone, the country lost a net 1,500 young professionals according to the country’s BEROC Economic Research Centre. Furthermore, many more are motivated to emigrate, as evidenced by the 171,000 Green Card lottery applications submitted by Belarussians in 2019. Needless to say, this resembles the mass exodus of well-off Britons from the UK in the 1960s, as the national income tax reached 90% for the society’s richest.
However, this is not even the full picture: the 2015 “Parasitism” Tax levying fiscal charges on jobless Belarussian citizens not only resurrected the long-forgotten Soviet misconception that unemployment was tantamount to a human vice, but also sparked considerable outrage both within and outside the country. Following protests in several major urban centres, this controversial and socially marginalising legislation was repealed in 2018.
At last, the Potemkin Village that Lukashenko and his coterie have been attempting to construct in Belarus is crumbling. Some 250,000 Belarussians partook in the August 23 protests in Minsk, and for the very first time in the nation’s history, the impetus does not reside with the government’s traditional critics. Rather, it is the very people, on whose shoulders rests the agricultural and manufacturing powerhouses that undergird the country’s poorly organised command economy. The erstwhile cadre of the political status-quo is now joiningthe public movement against Lukashenko. The workers’participation has altered the balance of power at least to the extent that Belarus’ future, with or without Lukashenko, mayno longer resemble its authoritarian past.
Herein, the key takeaway for Britons is that socialist economics does not work. We have ourselves learned this lesson the hard way by persevering through the Attlee government’s austerity years and surviving the industrial strife of the Wilson-Callaghan era. However, many have seemingly forgotten this. According to YouGov, socialism now attracts a greater array of favourable views than capitalism amongst the British public, even in the light of its failures in Venezuela and North Korea. This tendency to lionise socialism is particular prevalent among the younger generations, and more importantly, those who continue to shape how our youths think: only 9% of British teachers voted Conservative in 2017.
Hopefully, now that socialism is once again crumbling not somewhere far away, but in comparative geographic vicinity, more people will awaken to its lack of viability as a socioeconomic doctrine. Socialist intellectuals had to stop exculpating the USSR in the 1950s and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1970s; this decade may write off the Belarussian experiment as equally deplorable and unsuccessful.