The Belarus Bellwether

Are the Minsk protests setting a trend for post-pandemic shake-ups?

The world is watching the recent developments in Belarus with interest. Since mid August, protests broke out in Minsk, as people rallied against the rule of Europe’s longest-serving leader. President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is accused of suppressing opposition in the lead-up to the early August elections. Demonstrations were harshly repressed by security forces, which further inflamed tensions.

The process and result of the election added to the people’s frustration. However, an undercurrent of discontent had been simmering for some time, with Belarusians growing increasingly wary of perceived corruption, low wages and lack of employment opportunities. With the COVID-19 crisis, this undercurrent burst to the surface as all-out protests and open defiance.

The pandemic recession was the spark for the shake-up of a socio-political system already stressed by hardship.

Belarus is a ‘medium’ peace country, ranking as the world’s 94th most peaceful nation in 2020 Global Peace Index (GPI). Its level of peacefulness, as measured by the GPI score, is broadly similar to that of Georgia, Armenia and the Kyrgyz Republic. The country ranks much higher than the Ukraine (148th) and Russia (154th). Belarus is the fourth most peaceful country in the Russia and Eurasia region, behind Kazakhstan, Moldova and the Kyrgyz Republic.

The country has become more peaceful over the past decade, with its GPI score improving by 4.3 per cent since 2010. (The 2020 results do not include the August protests.) This is broadly in line with the 4.6 per cent improvement in the GPI score for the Russia and Eurasia region over the same period. The key driver for greater peacefulness in Belarus was a substantial improvement in the Safety and Security domain of peacefulness: over eight per cent since 2010. There have been noticeable decreases in homicide and other crime rates over the past decade and terrorism activity also receded. Despite a decline in the overall level of crime, violence related to intoxication and drug trafficking – especially among the young – has risen of late.

In terms of socio-economic development as gauged by the Positive Peace Index (PPI), Belarus holds the 58th highest position in the 2019 PPI rankings. It is the second highest Positive Peace country in the Russia and Eurasia region, behind Georgia. Belarus has a low level of social inequality (gauged by high development in the Equitable Distribution of Resources Pillar of Positive Peace) and well developed social tolerance (good performance on the Acceptance of the Rights of Others Pillar). However, the country does poorly in the Low Levels of Corruption, Well-Functioning Government and Sound Business Environment Pillars.

Socio-economic Development in the Russia and Eurasia Region, 2018

There has been progress over the past decade, especially in terms of greater tourism, regional trade integration and improvements in the business environment and adoption of technology. But there was material deterioration in other indicators of Positive Peace, namely Factionalized Elites (denoting greater polarisation and radicalisation among the political and economic elites) and Quality of Information (capturing a deterioration in the reliability of officially disseminated information).

However, a relatively high level of Positive Peace has not averted civil discontent and unrest in August. Perhaps because Belarusians may gauge development in their society by the superior standards of western Europe. Or perhaps because a moderate level of socio-economic development does not make up for the lack of political participation and transparency. In its way, the discontent in Belarus is similar in nature to the civil unrest in Hong Kong since 2019 or the current protests in Bangkok, Thailand. It may be a trendsetter for a post-pandemic structural renewal.

Written by: IEP Research Fellow Paulo Pinto