The former Soviet republic Belarus has yet to achieve meaningful democratization. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described it as “the last remaining true dictatorship in Europe” (CNN 2005). Since President Alexander Lukashenko took power in 1994, Belarus has not seen a single free and fair election; Beatings of opposition candidates and mass arrests are commonplace (Rosenberg 2010). The election laws are routinely and blatantly violated there (Marples 2009, 760).
Discussion of Belarus is important because Belarus is very relevant to American security concerns, because “Nato sees Belarus as a potential threat to neighboring Lithuania. Russian tanks stationed in Belarus can be in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, in about 90 minutes” (Gedmin 2009). Belarus also is important to EU energy security, since one-fifth of all Russian natural gas exports to Europe pass through Belarus (Gedmin 2009). In the larger scheme of things, Democratization in this seemingly inconsequential country is important because “Democratization in countries such as Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine will almost certainly help to curb Russia’s imperial appetite. Faced with neighboring democracies, Russia would be forced to take greater stock of its affairs at home… the outside game – what happens in Russia’s neighborhood—may be as important as what’s happening inside Russia” (Gedmin 2009).
In the three stage model of democratization, stage one is described as where an authoritarian government comes under pressure and makes limited concessions, such as “permitting opposition groups to organize, restraining the police and security agencies, extending the scope of free speech and expression and permitting the emergence (or re-emergence) of civil society” (Calvert & Calvert 2006, 359). Belarus is clearly still in stage one.
Belarus is quite an oppressive and authoritarian state. It is a one-party dominant state. Opposition parties are permitted to exist but are harshly repressed and have no real power. The regime has used the military against protestors after elections (Marples 2009, 757), and routinely jails opposition leaders for years. Press freedom is virtually non-existent; Freedom House ranked Belarus 188th out of 195 countries in terms of press freedom (Gedmin 2009).
However, in recent times, Belarus has made some concessions that place it in the first stage of democratization. It released many political prisoners before the parliamentary elections in September 2008 (Marples 2009, 770), largely as a result of US and EU demands (Gedmin 2009). The regime has also recently allowed two opposition newspapers to be sold in public as a result of EU pressure, although state control of broadcast media remains very tight (Marples 2009, 770). The poor economy in Belarus is likely to force further concessions. Twenty five percent of state employees were working reduced hours in 2009 because of a shortage of funds (Gedmin 2009).
Belarus does not have good long term prospects for significant democratization. Belarus has no examples of democracy in its history to draw on (Marples 2009, 757). Tight state control of media combined with frequent arrests of opposition leaders during election periods make it very difficult for the opposition to garner support among the people. State officials even go so far as to conscript family members of opposition politicians in retaliation for their political activities (Marples 2009, 760). State propaganda constantly derides such leaders as “enemies of Belarus and/or in the pay of foreign governments” (Marples 2009, 760), and the opposition is plagued by its own internal disputes that prevent coordination. The fact also remains that the Lukashenko regime enjoys genuine popularity among many people, due to its ability to deliver economic prosperity (largely funded by subsidies from Moscow, especially in terms of discounted natural gas). This support will likely erode in the face of rising energy prices, but in the short term Lukashenko is still quite popular (Marples 2009).
The fact also remains that both the Obama and Bush administrations have been extremely focused on the Middle East since 2001, and have largely neglected the security concerns that exist for US allies in Eastern Europe. President Obama in particular has chosen to pander to Russia by reneging on missile defense agreements in Poland to obtain Russian concessions with regard to the Middle East (Boudwin 2010). Because of this focus, it is unlikely that the United States will bring to bear any significant resources to encourage democratization in Belarus, which makes the future of freedom in that country even bleaker than it already is.
Boudwin, Ryan. 2010. Feeding Warsaw to the Bear. APUS paper reprinted at https://ryanboudwin.com/2010/12/26/feeding-poland-to-the-bear/ (accessed June 5, 2011).
Calvert, Peter and Susan Calvert. 2007. Politics and Society in the Developing World. Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited.
CNN. 2005. “Rice: Russia’s future linked to democracy.” April 20. http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/04/20/rice.dougherty/index.html (accessed June 5, 2011).
Gedmin, Jeffrey. 2009. “Europe’s Last Dictatorship.” Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition, May 29. A13. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 6, 2011).
Marples, David R. 2009. “Outpost of tyranny? The failure of democratization in Belarus.” Democratization 16, no. 4: 756-776. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 6, 2011).
Rosenberg, Steve. 2010.“Hundreds of protesters arrested in Belarus.” BBC News. December 20. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12037486 (accessed June 5, 2011).