The protests have been smaller than earlier demonstrations against the regime. But they’re a substantial problem for the long-standing authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko — because many of the protesters come from groups and in live cities that typically support him.
We believe that his tolerance comes largely because he wants to keep improved relations with the West, and so is acquiescing to international pressure for free speech, free assembly and other basic democratic freedoms. If that’s true, Western pressure for greater democracy may indeed be effective in this case. That’s important to note when U.S. commitment to promoting democracy may be waning.
The timeline of the surprising protests against Europe’s “last dictator”
Then, in perhaps the biggest surprise, Lukashenko unexpectedly announced on March 9, that he would suspend the tax until his government had fully reviewed the policy. This might be the first time in which the Belarus president made policy concessions in response to public demonstrations. And yet the protests continue, with the organizers planning a protest in Minsk on March 25 and a major multicity protest on March 26. The immediate goal of the protests has changed from a repeal of the tax to a change in government.
Many observers blame Belarus’s recession for the protests
Many news reports explain the protests by noting that Belarus’s economy is in trouble, the result of decreasing oil prices and dwindling international support. The recession that began in 2015 is the first in nearly 20 years and has resulted in high levels of unemployment and a nearly insolvent government. When first introduced two years ago, the hotly debated tax was supposed to prevent “social parasitism.” The real purpose was probably to bring in revenue so the state could pay its bills.
But such a tax violates Lukashenko’s unspoken political compact with Belarusians that involves him providing large social welfare programs in exchange for political acquiescence. This worked in the 1990s and 2000s, when Lukashenko used international subsidies to keep Belarus relatively stable and prosperous. But the recent recession has likely damaged public patience with the regime and led to decreased support.
But there is more to the explanation than just economic grievances
Our fieldwork in Belarus revealed that the economic story might explain the underlying motivation for the protests, but not the government’s willingness to tolerate them for so long once they began. By not immediately punishing protesters, the regime signaled that it was willing to allow some opposition. That signal likely encouraged the protests to spread. Opposition groups told us that Lukashenko might have wanted to avoid angering the West by punishing dissenters.
European and U.S. interest in promoting democracy abroad might be waning. But the economic carrots so far remain. Belarus’s dictator might still reasonably think that if he had subdued the opposition with characteristic violence and arrests, he might have endangered these important material gains.
Will Lukashenko continue to tolerate the dissent?
There may be renewed debate in the United States about whether to keep funding democracy promotion. But Western efforts in Belarus are making at least one dictator think twice before engaging in repression.
Charles D. Crabtree is a graduate student in the department of political science and a graduate student associate in the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan.
Christopher J. Fariss is an assistant professor in the department of political science and faculty associate in the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.
Paul Schuler is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.