Cornell University Press

Democracy and the Police State

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Belarus is one of the most obscure places in Europe for Americans. It only emerged as an independent state in 1991 and has never been in the headlines until last year when mass protests broke out in response to presidential election fraud. Yet these days it offers us valuable insights into the future of democracy in the twenty-first century.

Belarus has many formal democratic institutions such as a constitution and the separation of powers, but in reality, it is a democracy in name only. Its president Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. Many of his political opponents have been arrested, fled abroad, or simply disappeared. He completely subordinated the parliament and judicial system to the executive bodies. Belarus also has a strong demand for democracy.

Belarus has many formal democratic institutions such as a constitution and the separation of powers, but in reality, it is a democracy in name only.

This demand manifested itself last summer as the country was preparing for a new presidential election. One of the candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, consolidated the opposition to Lukashenko and led a powerful pro-democracy campaign. From direct and indirect evidence, on the election day, August 9, 2020, Tikhanovskaya received the majority of the vote, but the Central Election Committee of Belarus announced that eighty percent of voters supported Lukashenko. In response to this election fraud, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, to which the regime responded with unprecedented police violence. At least four people were killed or beaten to death, and thousands received serious injuries. Tikhanovskaya was promptly expelled from the country.

Instead of pacifying Belarusian society, the police brutality produced the opposite result. In the following days, the protests brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets all over the country. Peaceful protests and strikes have continued ever since. Although Lukashenko still clings to power with the help of the police and the army, the popular demand for democratic reforms is so strong that it will inevitably change how Belarus is governed.

This democratic momentum was created by the very social and economic structure of the Belarusian state. Despite a low GDP per capita (slightly over 6,000 USD in 2018, between Ecuador and Peru), Belarus has a well-functioning welfare state where citizens have free medical care, college education, and a comprehensive system of social security. Today’s Belarus resembles an East Germany or a Czechoslovakia in 1989 when several decades of the welfare state produced a powerful class of educated urbanites who waited for the first opportunity to bring down the oppressive one-party rule. Affordable education and medical care make better, not lazier, citizens.

Affordable education and medical care make better, not lazier, citizens.

Lamentations that democracy has lost its global appeal in the twenty-first century can be heard increasingly often these days. Yet the popular protests in Belarus suggest a more optimistic perspective on the prospects of democracy in the twenty-first century. Autocratic regimes need the welfare state to ensure the social stability and economic competitiveness of their countries. But in the long run, the welfare state produces social groups that are more sympathetic to democratic rather than authoritarian forms of government. The case of Belarus also suggests that we might need to rethink the usefulness of economic sanctions against nations.

An educated urban class willing to challenge Lukashenko’s regime emerged in Belarus because the country was open to conducting business with international partners. Sweeping economic sanctions destroy prosperity, and the impoverished populations tend to rally around their nations’ strongmen. In contrast, regular business and humanitarian contacts across borders generate a positive change in authoritarian societies. Tikhanovskaya could have been an amateur in Belarusian politics, but her knowledge of democracy was informed by her personal experience. As a “Chernobyl child,” she had participated in an Irish summer camp program for child survivors of this nuclear disaster where she learned that politics can be done very differently than in her home country. Authoritarian leaders throughout the world rejoice at the prospect of closed borders. Democratic nations should respond by encouraging the global circulation of people and ideas as much as they can.

*Featured photo: Protest rally against Lukashenko, 13 September 2020. Minsk, Belarus. Photo credit: HomoatroxCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Alexey Golubev is Assistant Professor of Russian History and Digital Humanities at the University of Houston. He is coauthor of The Search for a Socialist El Dorado.

Follow him on Twitter @alexei_golubev.

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