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What is Common Between the Events in Belarus and Central Asia?

“The unfolding events in Belarus, in one way or another, have an impact on Central Asia, in relation to which discussions are underway in the expert community. They are primarily connected with the opinion that a new round of the “Great Game” has begun here,” says researcher and analyst Konstantin Larionov, in an article written specifically for CABAR.asia.


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President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and leaders of Central Asian countries at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April 2019. Photo: president.kg

Today both Belarus and the countries of Central Asia face a dilemma – to follow the evolutionary or revolutionary path of political transformations. Of course, there are enough grounds for the transformation of political systems in Belarus and Central Asian countries. This can be expressed in the classical formulation, where the lower classes do not want to live in the old way, and the upper classes cannot govern in the old way. In this regard, it makes sense to consider how the situation is developing in Belarus and the countries of Central Asia and what the consequences may be.

Let us consider the processes taking place in Belarus and the countries of Central Asia. To begin with, let us highlight some common features of the revolutionary events after 2014 in the post-Soviet space:

  1. The post-Soviet space is closely connected with Russia, both economically and politically. Many decisions are made in accordance with the Kremlin.
  2. Opposition groups are forming the idea that they are fighting an outdated pro-Soviet political regime that is a continuation of the Kremlin’s imperial policy. And the most revolutionary spirit is given a national liberation character and a desire to break the existing socio-cultural ties with Russia.
  3. The value and civilizational conflict, which is expressed in the assertion of the pro-Western and pro-nationalist values ​​of a more mobile minority, recognizing the status of a backward power and an “evil empire” for the USSR and modern Russia, on the one hand, and a more amorphous, but less mobile, pro-Soviet majority, on the other hand.
  4. The fatigue of the electorate, traditionally voting for the representatives of the authorities, and great mobility and cohesion of the opposition electorate.
  5. Newspeak or a special mobilizing terminology of the opposition, which allows to single out those who oppose the current regime. Such terminology should include the political name of countries and regions, as well as the use of special legal terminology that forms a new system of worldview and values: Belarus (not Belorussia), Kyrgyzstan (not Kirgizia), Central Asia (not Middle Asia, and even more so not Turkestan), the Second World War (not the Great Patriotic War) and so on.
  6. The opposition’s demand for non-recognition of the election results and brutal suppression of non-peaceful protests by the authorities. The latter leads to the fact that the further the power apparatus goes, the more harsh, illegitimate, and illegal it behaves, and increases the protest potential quantitatively, making it more mobile and energetic.
  7. Lack of flexibility of the political regime and inability to respond to the challenges and problems that it faces.
  8. A completely new instrument – external sanctions pressure on existing political regimes in order to catalyze the processes of power transit.
  9. New socio-political institutions (NGOs and civil society), legal institutions, liberal economics, technology of building an open society come into conflict and struggle with traditional and outdated political and social institutions that are less attractive.
  10. Serious informational support of the processes from different sides and from different political actors. Moreover, media support is highly effective both on the part of the opposition forces and on the part of the current government.

Belorussia or Belarus: two possible scenarios for the development of the situation

At the moment, two main scenarios for the development of the situation can be distinguished, and both of them are tied to whether the current head of the country will be able to stay in power or not. The first scenario can be identified as “Republic of Belarus” – if the opposition forces emerge from the situation as winners, and the second scenario – Belorussia, if Lukashenka still manages to hold out. However, it is too early to talk about victory in the confrontation between one side or the other. Moreover, one gets the impression that now a confrontation between political strategists is unfolding, and an information war is starting.

Thus, according to the first scenario (the Republic of Belarus), this country will open up more and more to the EU and the United States and increase distance from Russia. Naturally, the opposition forces understand that a sharp break in relations with the Russian Federation can lead to an intensification of the economic crisis, since the country’s economy is highly dependent on the Russian one. Experts from the Higher School of Economics (HSE) agree with this statement. In their opinion, “in the event of Lukashenka’s resignation, the opposition leaders are unlikely to dare to completely refuse to integrate with Russia… and the EAEU. The Belarusian economy is focused on Russian consumers and energy resources; it will not be possible to quickly find new sales markets. The severance of close relations will lead to a deep crisis ”.[1]

Moreover, the very opposition in Belarus is less radical towards Russia and the EAEU than the current government in Ukraine, which came on the wave of the revolution in 2014. At the same time, one should understand that even despite the political break with Moscow, Belarus will supply part of its products to Russia.[2] Russia is unlikely to sever relations completely with this country and will look for new channels of cooperation and influence on the Belarusian society. However, one needs to understand that the economic gap with Belarus will not be tangible for Russia.

Probably, Belarus will try to direct its industrial potential (which in a certain part today is unprofitable) towards integration in the Eurozone, rebuilding and modernizing it. However, Europe, being not in the best position, is unlikely to be able to offer this country similar markets to Russia. The process of political and economic restructuring can take a long time. It will be characterized by a smoother decline in the welfare of citizens than in Ukraine, but it may take a long time to restore the previous economic level. One way or another, this restructuring will be painful for its citizens.

At the same time, it is preferable for the EU that Belarus retains as much of its potential as possible. Events similar to those in Ukraine are not beneficial for the European community. In this case, Russia will use its political and economic levers of pressure to maintain its positions within the country. The opposition’s lack of an efficient and effective economic plan will aggravate the population’s income in the medium term. The interest of some European countries in the industrial potential of the country, which they will be able to acquire at reduced prices, will increase. These processes will be accompanied by migration of the population to the European Union and Russia (as was the case in Ukraine).

In case of strong pressure from Moscow, Belarus can, in cooperation with Ukraine, ask for a special status in NATO. A political rebranding will begin in the country: the symbols of power will be changed, and its very structure will undergo modernization. The process of de-Sovietization and de-Russification will begin in the country, which will hurt the concept of the “Russian world”. Belarusians will begin to form a new identity at the state level, which will entail a new round of growth in national self-awareness.

If the “Belorussia” scenario is strengthened, Lukashenka will have to restore order in his ranks, since, according to a number of experts, fear and confusion now reign there. Further, the authorities will seek to establish a dialogue with the protesters, depriving them of the basis for further protests. In addition, Lukashenka will strive in every possible way to eliminate his opponents, but at the same time doing this in such a way as not to cause new waves of protests and reactions from the international community.

Lukashenko understands that with the continued political line, the EU will not become an ally for him and therefore the country will more integrate its relations with Russia and China. The role of Chinese and Russian investments in the country’s economy will grow. This one way or another will contribute to the economic and legal activation of the EU in Belarus. For Lukashenka, victory will most likely mean a certain delay in leaving power, so presumably he will also deal with the issues of power transit. At the same time, the historical past with Russia and Europe will be revised. In addition, Lukashenko will also strive to further diversify the economy to reduce dependence on Russia.

The importance of what is happening in Belarus for the countries of Central Asia

The unfolding events in Belarus in one way or another have an impact on Central Asia, in relation to which discussions are underway in the expert community. They are connected primarily with the opinion that a new round of the “Great Game” has begun here. Attention is drawn to the increased interest of global players in this region. The Kremlin and Beijing greeted with caution the tour of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to a number of Central Asian countries to develop the 5 + 1 format. If the trend towards the return of geopolitical confrontation turns out to be relevant, then, apparently, the Central Asian states will face the fact of self-determination: with whom they will meet a new round of confrontation.

Therefore, the outcome of events in Belarus, one way or another, will have an impact on the political systems of Central Asia. There are risks that the imposition of sanctions pressure on Belarus may also affect Russia and further in one way or another affect the EAEU partner countries. The question may arise before them: either they are adjusting their relations with Russia, and also reforming their political systems more intensively, or they will receive less economic and other official support. Such decisions or statements with similar judgments may appear in the short or medium term. Everything will depend on the course of events around Minsk. Public opinion itself regarding the events in Belarus was divided into two camps: some believe that the democratization of Belarus will lead to the same processes in Russia and Central Asia. Others argue that the destabilization of the situation in Belarus, Russia and the countries of Central Asia carries risks and threats for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

In Kazakhstan, the authorities were wary of the events in Belarus. Official leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev hastened to congratulate Lukashenko on his victory in the presidential election. However, the opposite point of view exists among civil society. They are actively watching the ongoing processes in the media space, providing some solidarity and support. State-owned channels broadcast programs that condemn the growing protests against Lukashenko. Indeed, in 2019, protest actions took place in the republic, which had strong support in non-state media, as well as in social networks and instant messengers. To be honest, there were no such harsh detentions as in Belarus.

Kyrgyzstan is currently busy with preparations for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Therefore, the attention of the authorities and the population of the country is diverted by political pre-election processes. At the moment, if anything can be observed here, it is the increasing calls on social networks for a disintegration policy in relation to the EAEU. At the same time, it can be noted that such an opposition union, which would have intended to carry out a coup in the country, did not work out. As well as did not develop a suitable revolutionary situation. There is no qualitative transformation of the protest potential in the country. However, at the same time, in the wake of the difficult socio-economic situation, a political crisis is also growing. On September 17, at the congress of the Ata-Meken party, Omurbek Tekebayev pointed out that if the country’s authorities do not listen to the opinion of society, it can go out to the streets, as it was in Belarus, noting that the party is ready to lead the protest movement.[3]

Uzbekistan , traditionally distancing itself from Moscow,[4] is also watching the processes in Belarus with interest. At the moment, Uzbek-American relations are taking off in the country, especially after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the country. In our opinion, there are no serious preconditions for events similar to Belarus in Uzbekistan in the near future. The country’s economy is developing progressively, the political system is opening more and more,[5] and the state itself is striving to transform Karimov’s authoritarianism into a more democratic one.

Tajikistan has a serious reason to think about the events taking place in Belarus. The current head of the country of Tajikistan has ruled since 1994. In public opinion, there is an idea that the next head of state will be the son of Emomali Rahmon. Currently, the republic is going through difficult times associated with a worsening economic situation: trade is falling, remittances to the country are declining, and migrants are in a hurry to return home. Due to the growth of social and economic problems in society, the degree of discontent is increasing. Undoubtedly, the civil war that ended in 1994 (?) acts as a deterrent to social upheaval.

In addition, the opposition has been defeated in the country, which could somehow compete in the upcoming presidential elections on October 11. The last major legal opposition force embodied in the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan was declared banned and terrorist in 2015. After that, a number of opposition actors went underground. This gives the strong opposition representatives grounds to believe that it makes no sense to fight legally for power. At the same time, the existing clan distribution of power creates a more stable political environment than in Belarus. Therefore, there is no need to talk about serious destabilizing factors around official Dushanbe in the near future.

Conclusion

Daniel Treisman, (a political scientist at the University of California), analyzing 201 episodes in which autocratic regimes were replaced by democracies between 1800 and 2015, found that in three quarters of the cases, the road to democratization involves one or more mistakes on the part of incumbent heads of state.[6] The most common mistakes are based on incorrect information, as well as incorrect calculation of the outcome of a problem situation. However, as we can observe in the case of Belarus, Lukashenko is trying to correct the mistakes that have arisen by going towards the protest potential and trying to buy some time.

The events in the transformation of the political system and sociocultural core of Belarus are a process that has been developing since the collapse of the USSR. This country was divided into two camps, like most of the post-Soviet countries, which can be conventionally represented as Westernizers and successors of the Soviet political system, who were pro-Russian. This contradiction also reflects the civilizational rift, along which the contradictions occur in the country. The actors of both the first and the second camps were formed with the support of both internal and external resources. The aggravation of contradictions began to occur due to the developing systemic crisis that affected the economy, politics, the social sphere, and so on. Moreover, in Belarus we can observe an age “rift”: if the older generation (+40 years old) mostly supports Lukashenko, then the younger generation strives for the Eurozone and participates in one way or another in mass protests.

At the same time, Russia will have to acknowledge the new Belarus, regardless of what power will rule there. Through the processes taking place in this country to understand their role in the Eurasian space. This will lead to changes in Central Asia. Most likely, Russia will intensify integration processes, which will face fears in these states that the Kremlin is seeking to expand the borders of its state.

In the Central Asian countries, in the long term, depending on which forces win, either new democratic transformations will be strengthened, or the old government will evolve and become more flexible in order to stay in power. However, we can say with confidence that in the Central Asian chain, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan seem to us to be the weakest links in the destruction of established political foundations.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


[1] HSE Experts Assess the Implications for the Belarusian Economy due to a Possible Break in Relations with Russia, HSE, August 24, 2020 ( https://www.hse.ru/news/expertise/391998962.html)

[2] It is worth noting that even in the worst times of Russian-Ukrainian relations, some products from Ukraine were freely supplied to Russia.

[3] Eleonora Beishembek “Ata Meken”: ections without Tekebaev, Zhanarbek Akayev – №1 in the list, RFE / RL, September 22, 2020 (https://rus.azattyk.org/a/30851816.html)

[4] Recall that in 2012 Tashkent suspended its powers in the CSTO.

[5] In our opinion, political transformations are regarded by various forces as sufficient.

[6] Daniel Treisman Democratization by mistake or Why do dictators saw the branch they sit on? HSE, December 6, 2017 (https://social.hse.ru/news/212743460.html).

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