During last weekend’s parliamentary elections in Belarus — a country of just under ten million people that Swedish economist Anders Aslund once described as a “Soviet theme park” — two opposition politicians were elected to the lower house for the first time in more than a decade. This minuscule opposition gain may appear insignificant, but it points to deeper, though incremental, changes.
The so-called “last dictatorship of Europe” is ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko, the former head of a collective farm, who claims to have been the only Belarusian parliamentary deputy to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since coming to power in 1994, the country’s wily leader has managed to keep Belarus’s neo-Soviet economy afloat by exploiting its strategic position between Russia and the West – although Minsk has long been, and remains, much more closely aligned with Moscow.
Until recently, a fifth of Russian gas exports and two fifths of its oil exports to Europe passed through Belarus. The country has also been able to profit by refining Russian oil at its Soviet-era Mazyr facility. But Minsk also benefits considerably from trade with the EU and the willingness of western financial institutions to protect it from wholesale Russian domination, as well as Kremlin loans and subsidies designed to prevent it from straying too far in the other direction.
Now economic dependence on Russia has become a serious liability, and the old balancing act is looking more and more precarious. The collapse of global oil prices and western economic sanctions in response to its war on Ukraine have rocked Russia’s economy, and this in turn has dragged Belarus into an economic crisis more grave than anything it has faced since Lukashenko rose to power.
My report for Foreign Policy, co-authored with Paul Hansbury, can be found here.