“Stand up if you voted for Tikhanovskaya!” The call came from a man in overalls at the back of the hall. Dozens of his fellow workers, the vast majority of those in the room, sprang to their feet, shouting down factory bosses trying to convince them to “go back to work, the election is over”.
These events happened at the Khimvolokno chemical plant in Grodno, a city in western Belarus, last Wednesday. Similar worker-manager meetings have been held at state-owned factories all week, since polling day last Sunday.
Most of the main factories in this country of 10 million, wedged between Poland and Russia and roughly the size of the UK, are now on strike. The Belarussian economy just stopped – which is why this could be the end for “Europe’s last dictator”.
Alexander Lukashenko rose to power in July 1994 – the last time Belarus held an election widely viewed as fair. Back then, he was a collective farm manager, who unexpectedly beat a pillar of the former communist establishment.
As a young journalist living at the time in Moscow, I well remember the Western commentariat raising hopes that Lukashenko – a charismatic outsider, not yet 40 – would drive reform in this former Soviet Republic, encouraging closer ties with the West.
Two years later, he dissolved an awkward Parliament – and has since become steadily more authoritarian. While each of the subsequent five Presidential elections have resulted in “landslide” backing, Lukashenko’s support, in reality, has been slipping.
But the response to last weekend’s poll was different. The President’s declared vote share of 80pc was so preposterous, so contrary to on-the-ground sentiment, that the public’s patience snapped. Fuelled by resentment and buoyed by social media, many younger citizens – particularly in the capital Minsk – began to protest.
The crackdown was severe, security forces unleashing tear gas and rubber bullets, throwing countless protesters in jail. That, in turn, outraged older voters, not least the blue-collar factory workers who keep Belarus going and, until now, broadly backed the status quo. For years, this wily despot has burnished his “man of the people” credentials, often filmed with miners and farmworkers. Now he stands isolated, barely clinging to power.
Belarus took a unique path after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early Nineties. As Russia and Ukraine dismantled their collectivised economies – enacting rapid privatisation – Lukashenko offered something different. Soviet-style production would continue, he said, with most factories remaining state-owned. As a result, Belarus would be relatively poor but stable, avoiding the post-Communist oligarchs and gangsterism of its larger neighbours. This model has just about worked. That’s because the Belarussian economy is not a joke and has continued to generate bearable living standards for most.
This was the part of the Soviet Union, after all, which produced most of the complex electronics and other components that drove the USSR’s military machine – and much of the workforce remains highly skilled.
The Minsk Automobile Works, for instance, has continued to churn out the hardy MAZ trucks used throughout the post-Communist world. Keramin is among Europe’s largest producers of ceramic tiles. And the iconic Minsk Tractor Works produces not just basic models but also highly sophisticated agricultural vehicles – more than 90pc of which are exported via MTZ dealerships across the world, including North America. Despite initial reservations, Lukashenko has also allowed parts of the private sector to flourish.
The largest supermarket chain, Eurotorg, has almost a thousand stores and was, back in 2018, on course to list its shares in London. Belarus boasts a burgeoning tech sector – hardly surprising, given high levels of mathematical and scientific education. The president has encouraged this, offering tax breaks since 2005, then lifting visa restrictions. Minsk is now a recognised tech-hub – where geeks from the EU, Russia, India and China can easily meet.
This combination of Soviet-style blue-collar work, tech growth and modest state largesse is why the World Bank estimates just 0.8pc of Belarus citizens are in poverty – far less than across the US and EU, plus all other post-Communist states. GDP per capita is lower than in Russia, Lithuania and Estonia but has, until relatively recently, been enough to keep the population broadly on side.
Over the last 10 years, though, growth has stagnated, with the Belarus economy expanding just 1.7pc a year since 2009, compared to 7.5pc on average during the previous decade, as the world economy has slowed.
Close observers have known for years, the “unique path” of Belarus has long relied on Russian beneficence. Moscow has, since the Soviet collapse, continued to bestow billions of dollars’ worth of de facto annual energy subsidies on Minsk, via cheap crude oil – which Belarus refines for both domestic use and re-export at world prices.
Russia has been gradually withdrawing such subsidies, with Belarus now paying 80pc of the market price for crude, up from 50pc five years ago. Incoming tax changes means Moscow will charge Minsk full price for Russian oil from 2025 – which, while Russian gas exports to Belarus will remain subsidised, could cripple the economy altogether.
An increasingly savvy population has grown tired of Lukashenko’s antics. His response to the Covid crisis – “Drink vodka and go to the sauna!” – left even his elderly, rural supporters perplexed. Belarus, though, isn’t Ukraine. There will almost certainly be no “Maidan” style revolution or yearning to “join the West”.
On first impression, this crisis does indeed seem like a Hollywood movie – with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a photogenic, English-speaking opposition leader, centre stage. Now exiled in Lithuania, this self-styled “stay at home Mum” only stood because the presidential candidacy of her husband – a campaigning, anti-corruption YouTube blogger – ended in his arrest.
Yet Tikhanovskaya bears little animosity towards Moscow. She remains, like much of the Belarussian population, broadly statist, suspicious of the West and extremely mindful of where her country’s bread is buttered.
That’s why, as the EU bumbles, and the US chides Lukashenko, the Kremlin is watching and waiting – its finger on the economic windpipe of its far smaller, helplessly dependent neighbour.