How Aleksandr Lukashenko - the socialist dictator of Belarus - is luring tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook
Belarus is a country ruled by inertia, unlikely to change in any significant way from inside, but reactive to powerful movements that collide with it. Its people are incredibly resilient, having endured some of history’s most ruthlessly destructive chapters. World War I, the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s purges (a mass grave of 300,000 Belarusians was found just outside Minsk in 1988), World War II and Chernobyl devastated the country, collectively killing off millions of its already small population (World War II alone killed over 26% of the country’s population).
Belarus’s political system has remained largely unreformed since the Soviet era, with nearly all of its institutions from the period still functioning. Though the Communist party no longer reigns supreme, and small islands of flourishing capitalism exist, the Belarusian SSR has remained intact in many ways. After centuries of occupation by foreign powers, Belarus emerged in the early 20th century as an independent state, only to be rapidly subjected to Soviet rule. Currently, the country continues to endure the leadership of its long-serving leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, a Machiavelli-lover, who has been infamously nicknamed ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
The country’s perennial Soviet-style of rule has not been entirely forced from above. Despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of free-market capitalism and political pluralism, Belarusians remain among the most nostalgic-for-communism populations in all of Europe. The country’s leader has raised the possibility of merging Belarus into Russia on several occasions, appealing to a yearning for lost Soviet identity and to promote his own interests. The full absorption of Belarus into Russian territory would place him in contention for the top job inside a substantially larger country.
Ambitions to recreate some sort of updated Soviet Union have failed time and again, so Belarus is now embarking on another ambitious project: creating a Belarusian identity. The majority of Belarusian citizens are ethnically Belarusian (about 84%). The largest minority ethnic group are Russians with just over 8%. Poles and Ukrainians also make up a significant part of the population with 3 and 2% respectively. Interestingly, however, Russian is the most widely spoken native language, with over 70% of the population speaking it at home. Only 20% or so speak Belarusian at home. In the past half decade or so, Minsk has tried to reverse this trend by encouraging Belarusian to be taught in schools and used in public media. To this day however, Russian culture is widely consumed. Encouraging Belarusian language usage in local media and education is the first step on a long road to foster a strong national identity, and given most of the population’s preference for Russian over Belarusian, the authorities have their work cut out for them.
Religiously, Eastern Orthodoxy has the largest following, with about half the country identifying as followers. In part because of the country’s Soviet past, nearly 40% of the country identify as non-believers. Finally, Catholics make up just over 7% of the population. Like many other post-Soviet states, Belarus struggles with population trends. The Second World War slashed their population and the country took almost half of a century to recover. They now face an emigration problem as well as a low birthrate. One of Minsk’s key policy priorities in the coming decade is to alter the current course by providing economic incentives for staying and for reproducing in order to improve the country’s long-term growth trajectory. Alcohol is both a cultural legacy of the Soviet Union and a coping mechanism for political disillusionment. Belarusian citizens drink more on average than any other European country. The country also has the world’s 5th highest suicide rate. These two factors pose risks to the country’s demography.
Citizens of Belarus are about as free than their counterparts in Russia, according to Freedom House, and less free than those in every other European state. Because of this Minsk has struggled on the international stage to forge long-lasting, meaningful ties. Its appalling human rights record has left its most logical partners wary of engagement. But recently, Minsk has been able to take advantage of the Ukraine crisis and the international fear-mongering around Russia to win some acceptance in the international community. Belarus has signalled to organizations like the EU is that it could be next on the list of Russian revanchist targets, and failure to engage could leave Russia one step closer to the heart of Europe. Minsk has also recently forged ties with powers that do not prioritize human rights, and are primarily concerned with economics. China is the most notable example. Despite agitations in new directions, for now, its strongest ties remain with its big brother, Russia.
|Country Population||9.5 million|
|Largest City (Population)||Minsk (1.8 million)|
|2nd Largest City (Population)||Gomel (490,000)|
|3rd Largest City (Population)||Mogilev (362,000)|
|4th Largest City (Population)||Vitebsk (355,000)|
|5th Largest City (Population)||Grodno (340,000)|
|President (Dates)||Alexander Lukashenko (1994-Present)|
|Prime Minister (Dates)||Sydney Rumas (2018-Present)|
|Prime Minister||Sydney Rumas|
|Freedom House Score (1=Free, 7=Not Free)||6|
|Past Presidents (Dates)||N/A|
|Past Prime Ministers (Dates)||Andrei Kobyakov (2014-2018)
Mikhail Myasnikovich (2010-2014)
Syarhei Sidorski (2003-2010)
Henadz Navitski (2001-2003)
Uladzimir Yarmoshyn (2000-2001)
Syarhei Linh (1996-2000)
Mikhail Chyhir (1994-1996)
Vyacheslau Kebich (1991-1994)
|How Central Banker is Appointed||Appointed by President|
|Average Voter Turnout in Last 5 Elections
(% of Total Population)
|10 Major Import Partners
(% of Total Imports)
|Top Exports||Sanctioned by
(and Start Date)
(and Start Date)
|1. Russia (53%)
2. China (8.9%)
3. Germany (4.9%)
4. Poland (4.7%)
5. Ukraine (3.5%)
6. Turkey (2.5%)
7. Lithuania (2.3%)
8. Italy (1.9%)
9. United States (1.4%)
10. Netherlands (0.86%)
|1. Russia (46%)
2. Ukraine (12%)
3. UK (4.7%)
4. Germany (4.2%)
5. Netherlands (4.1%)
6. Poland (3.6%)
7. Lithuania (3.3%)
8. China (1.8%)
9. Kazakhstan (1.6%)
10. India (1.2%)
Chemical Industry Production
|April 2006: EU/
June 2006: USA
|Largest Sources of FDI by Country||1. Russia
|Largest Ethnic Groups
(% of Total Population)
(% of Total of Population)
|Russian Orthodox (48.4%)
Not Religious (41%)
|2||European Economic Commission–1947|
|4||Association of South-East Asian Nations–2011|
|6||Union State of Belarus and Russia–1996|
|7||Eurasian Economic Union–2003|
Belarus is a country without legitimate politics. There are parties, a parliament and a judiciary, but none of them hold the slightest power to challenge the executive. All institutions serve at the pleasure of Aleksandr Lukashenko, the country’s long-serving dictator. Ever since 1994, when Lukashenko first rose to power, he has increasingly consolidated his grip on power, and weakened all other institutions to the point of virtual irrelevance. The parliament is his rubber stamp, with a seemingly limitless supply of ink. Dissident members of parliament exist, but by design: they are there to create a veil of democratic legitimacy, rather than oppose the president. Genuine dissent is not tolerated and a number of critics of the regime have mysteriously disappeared. Lukashenko has been able to maintain this system with the help of the KGB (which is the exact same institution as its Soviet predecessor) and his loyal lieutenant Lidia Yermoshima, who has personally overseen the rigging of all elections and referendums in his favor since 1996.
Belarus, along with Ukraine and Russia, was one of the three countries that legally dissolved the Soviet Union. Its first post-Soviet leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, was actually the legal initiator of its dissolution. He gathered his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts in autumn 1991 at Leonid Brezhnev’s old country house, where, along with Leonid Kravchuk and Boris Yeltsin, the three men signed the Belzheva Accords. Eventually in 1993, Shushekich was ousted by a vote of no confidence that followed accusations of corruption. These accusations, not coincidentally, were made by none other than Lukashenko, who at the time was a largely unknown pig farmer. Less than a year later, he won Belarus’ first post-Soviet election and became the country’s first (and to this day only) president.
Immediately after taking office, Lukashenko began to show how serious he was about holding onto power. He has had the Prince, along with Machiavelli’s lesser known works, Discourses on Livy and The Art of War on his bookshelf since his first day in office. These books have informed his brutal, black-and-white style of rule. His intimidation and repression of political rivals, real or imagined, has helped him keep his grip on power for nearly 25 years.
Besides intimidation and brutality, Lukashenko has been able to stay in power through his dissemination of revisionist history and disinformation. Disinformation has become a mot juste for our modern-day politics, but Lukashenko deployed it liberally from much earlier on - in the mid 1990s. Throughout his rule, the Belarusian president has greatly exaggerated the economic chaos which his country experienced before he took office, while overstating the achievements of his own government. For example, Lukashenko regularly boasts about having hunted down Belarus’s oligarchs, even though the country’s oligarch class has flourished under his own rule. He has heralded his political era as the end of anarchy, but unlike in other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, there was never much to begin with. Lukashenko has time and again chastised the West for its humiliating economic policies against former Soviet states, without acknowledging the immense fruits of liberalization that are now being reaped in Estonia, Lithuania or Poland. He also often criticizes democracy as another form of anarchy.
Lukashenko has cultivated a cult of personality to sustain his rule, attempting to portray himself as a symbol of Belarusian culture and even Belarus itself. If he is the country, then he cannot be replaced, the logic follows. He has made himself into batka, father in Belarusian, who has to have complete control over the country. The people, in large part, accept him as such, because he has supplied them with their needs. Belarus is almost crime-free, with immensely clean streets. The enduring stability of the regime - especially in contrast with other post-Soviet states - has been valued by Belarusians, and is part of the reason why Lukashenko is still securely in power.
Checks and Balances?
In most SSU profiles, we would elaborate on the branches of power. However, in the case of Belarus, political institutions are a potemkin village. Behind the bureaucratic, democratic facade there is nothing except Lukashenko’s will. Lukashenko is honest about this fact: in 2005 Lukashenko he publicly admitted to rigging the election, claiming that he had thoughtfully allowed a higher share of the opposition vote to create a semblance of competition and please Western leaders. For the past 15 years, the courts and the legislative branches have acted as sycophants, encouraging all of his personal whims. For that reason, the branches of power are not worth discussing further.
Media, NGOs, and Civil Society
Dissent, in large part, is non-existent. When Lukashenko faced real opposition, mostly in the mid-1990s, he created fake opposition parties. They would campaign on a similar platform to real opposition groups, but would simply do Lukashenko’s bidding once they entered parliament. Lukashenko is also infamous for having made several of his opponents disappear, with murder strongly suspected.
Most media outlets are owned by the government, but some are privately held. Although the constitution de jure guarantees freedom of speech, in reality, these rights are not protected. Journalists who have criticized Lukashenko, have been arrested, tortured, and harassed.
In recent years, the monolith has begun to show cracks. A plurality of views are tolerated on certain policy subjects. New technocrats are filling positions formerly held by the old nomenklatura, and are free to criticize the country’s economic and financial systems. So long as Lukashenko himself is not directly implicated in the disparagements, this sort of public discussion will become increasingly tolerated.
Privately, some advisors have been trying to convince Lukashenko to change his policies. These are the sorts of discussions that may have led him to alter his stance on visa free travel. As of July 2018, citizens of over 70 countries (including the US) can now travel to Belarus visa-free. More reform would likely have taken root by now had it not been for the anti-reformist, staunchly conservative group in Lukashenko’s inner circle.
KGB officials are especially opposed to liberalization: they see it as a threat to the system they have built and benefit from. Lukashenko himself is probably the greatest source of resistance, as someone has both a poor understanding of and limited trust in the free-market. Having observed the social chaos that emerged from Russia and Ukraine’s economic liberalization in the 1990s, Lukashenko fears open markets as exacerbators of inequality and a threat to his rule. However, as the old guard continues to age and newer, more liberal-minded reformers continue to flood in, a shift in economic policy is a possibility.
It appears as if Lukashenko’s priorities for Belarus are twofold. First, he wants to improve Belarus’s competitive position in the global tech scene and second, he wants Belarus to compete at the highest echelons of global sport. Tech success will help to boost government revenues while sporting prowess could yield to an upswing in national patriotism. Together, Lukashenko believes he has the ingredients of greater economic and social stability.
In order to succeed in tech, Lukashenko aims to harness the intellectual firepower of his country’s already-educated population. A lot of the state budget has gone into funding STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) style schools, as well as the technology sector.
By investing in STEM, Lukashenko also hopes to increase the country’s energy efficiency. Doing so would help reduce its economic on Russia. The Belarusian president hopes investing in STEM will improve agricultural technology, which will in turn increase output and strengthen Belarusian agricultural companies’ success abroad. He also hopes to improve industrial and construction technologies, medical technology, nano and bio technology, as well as defensive technology. Lukashenko, like many others, realizes the growing role which technology will play in delivering economic growth in the 21st century, and does not want to be caught flat-footed.
Secondly, Lukashenko believes in the importance of sport, and wants Belarus to become a hub for it. He has publicly said that a healthy sports climate represents a healthy country. He has also argued that sports represent the Belarusian ideology at work noting: ”victories of Belarusian athletes shape the image of the state and encourage patriotism.” Lukashenko considered Belarus’s miserly three medals at the South Korean Winter Olympics to be a national embarrassment, and wants to his country to significantly up its medal rate in future international competitions.
Belarusian politics is a one-man show, and for now at least, will continue to be so. Lukashenko is two years younger than Putin appears to be healthy and active, so a health affliction removing him from office does not appear likely.
For a long time Western governments, led by the Bush administration, kept sanctions on Lukashenko for his poor democratic and human rights record. Each year that Belarus did not improve on these counts, sanctions tightened. However, after years of limited success, sanctions were eventually lifted during the global financial crisis. The West has accepted that Lukashenko will be in power a long time, and working with him, instead of working to oust him, is a more productive use of time. With no international pressure and no serious domestic challengers to his rule, Lukashenko is likely to remain at the top of Belarusian politics. But a further souring in already-tepid Belarus-Russia relations could be a catalyst for unexpectedly swift regime change.
Since Lukashenko took office in 1994, Belarusian foreign policy has been far from consistent. The country’s goals take 180 degree turns depending on what the president deems necessary to keep himself in power. The country’s best interest always comes second to his own, and the two only rarely align.
For the first 14 years of his rule Lukashenko was firmly anti-Western, scorning US-led military actions in Serbia and Iraq as imperialist and hypocritical. In both cases, he also vocally supported the autocratic leader that was being deposed, first Slobodan Milošević (a war criminal known as “the butcher of the Balkans” and then the infamous Saddam Hussein.
However, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 popped Lukashenko’s bubble. He began to fear that Russia’s resurgent imperialism could undermine the territorial sovereignty of Belarus, and with it, his own grip on power. Lukashenko made his first overtures to the West and was able to gain a slight rapport with them, despite his despotic tendencies.
Eventually, Lukashenko began to swing back toward Russia after Putin’s reelection in 2012. But when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, it seemed like Georgia all over again, only this time the Russian aggression was even closer to home. At that point, Belarus again sought to establish a relationship with the West. While Lukashenko tries to maintain a balance of relations between Eastern and Western powers, Belarus is more tied to Russia because of sheer economic necessity.
Playing off East and West is a dangerous game. After seeing what happened when Ukraine too flew close to the sun (the sun being Brussels), Belarus has tried to tow the line, reaping benefits of normalized relations with Europe while avoiding going too far - which would anger Moscow. Peacefully strengthening its traditional relations with Western neighbors and building new relations with surging powers such as China, while simultaneously trying to avoid upsetting Russia, will continue to be Belarus’s foreign policy goal in the medium term. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has publicly stated that it intends to be friends with all of its neighbors, even if they are enemies of one another.
Belarusian foreign policy is shaped by three factors, all of which are heavily influenced Soviet legacies. First, and above all else, Lukashenko, like his Soviet predecessors, seeks to maintain stability at home. Second, Minsk refuses to change its internal style of rule, much to the chagrin of the West. Belarus has withstood sanctions and pariah status for much of its independent history. Third and finally, Belarus has been forced to maintain close ties to Russia, not through its own choice, but because of a fact of circumstance. After 75 years of economic, political, and military interconnection, Belarus cannot simply cut ties with its larger neighbor. The Union State Treaty, which ties the two countries together into a shared economic and customs space, and was signed in 1998, makes Belarus the closest of Russia’s neighbors. There is, however, one key caveat. Since its relations with Russia are out of necessity rather than complete alignment, Belarus has and may continue to undermine its relationship with Russia if Lukashenko believes that doing so will bring increased stability to his regime.
Historically, Belarus has oscillated in its relationships between neighbors. On the one hand, to the west, are Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. These are all Catholic countries, some of which have large slavic populations and some of which do not. Culturally the countries are similar, having been integrated in one way or another for 300 years in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. These countries represent what could have been, and what Belarus could still become, if it works to escape Moscow’s orbit.
On the other hand, to the east and the south are Belarus’s fraternal, slavic states: Russia and Ukraine. Together these three countries constitute the Holy Rus - the center of the Russian Orthodox world. They also are the three countries that bore the brunt of Operation Barbarossa, the aftermath of Chernobyl, and brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union with the Belzaheva accords. The connections between these countries are deeply-rooted and have become part of Belarus’s national mythology. But this club of nations provides a meager economic outlook compared to the riches that can be gained by with forging closer economic relations with the EU or China. For this reason, Minsk is tentatively looking for opportunities to broaden its list of economic partners. Given Russia’s recent invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), this will be an act of geopolitical tightrope-walking.
In addition to historical legacies, Belarus’s foreign policy objectives also stem from its geographic realities. Belarus is a landlocked country without natural borders except for a swamp on its southern flank. The country is almost completely flat, which explains why its land has often been invaded and divided up among more powerful neighbors. For this reason, Belarus has put a big chunk of its budget toward military spending and values allies with strong militaries (Russia). Despite periodic displeasure with the behavior of its big brother, Minsk has largely opted for a pragmatic policy line - doing what is necessary given the circumstances, despite some animosity.
From the collapse of the Soviet Union until early 2008, Russia and Belarus had one of the closest relationships between two countries in global politics. A union treaty was signed in 1997, which declares Belarus and Russia to be part of one supranational commonwealth, providing its citizens with many equal rights in each respective country. For several years the two even toyed with merging into one country. Yeltsin and Putin were not opposed because of the popularity that would go along with bringing “White Rus” back into a new Russian Empire. Lukashenko was in favor because it would provide him with an opportunity to become leader of all of Russia. Many half-hearted attempts at this were made at the beginning of Putin’s reign, but recently efforts have subsided.
After Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, and its takeover of Crimea, Belarus’s relationship with Russia has cooled, but the two countries are still close. Belarus is an essential member of many Russia-led multilateral agreements, including the Eurasian Economic Area, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO).
After the Euromaidan crisis of 2014, Belarus began feeling pressure to extricate itself more from Russia’s sphere of influence. It was then that Lukashenko began attempting to cultivate national-patriotic sentiments, as a way to clearly delineate Belarusian identity from Russian. Lukashenko has also made statements to signal his fear regarding Belarus’s fate vis-á-vis Russia. He once famously said: “We are on the front line. If we don’t survive these years, if we fail, it means we will have to become part of some other state, or they will simply wipe their feet on us. God forbid they unleash another war, like in Ukraine.” Although Minsk fears Russia, there is little it actually can do to separate itself off from its stronger neighbor. The Russian government will force it to continue its membership of the treaties listed above, and hold joint military training exercises with the Russian military.
As such, Belarus looks unlikely to stray far from Russia’s orbit. Not even a Donbass-style invasion of Belarus, or a real opportunity for EU accession could shake the grip Moscow has on Minsk. Also, don’t be surprised if Lukashenko makes an increased push for Belarus to become a Russian region if it appears that fair federal elections are a possibility. Lukashenko, more than anything else, wants to be in charge of all of Russia.
Belarusians and Ukrainians share a long history, having both been part of the Soviet Union, the Russian Empire, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They are the two smaller members of the trinity of Rus, although their respective relationships with Russia are very different. For the most part, Belarus is neutral regarding the affairs of Ukraine, and vice versa, despite their equally precarious geopolitical positions.
Belarus has a long history with Europe. For centuries it acted as a buffer between aggressive eastern and western forces, which is why it lost millions of citizens in the Napoleonic wars, World War I, and World War II. Invaders from both sides constantly plundered its land and ravaged its people. With its direct neighbors, namely Lithuania and Poland, Belarus has a long relationship that remains a foundational part of its association with the European Union.
Rapprochement with the EU re-commenced after the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing chaos in the Donbass began. The EU and its western allies, after years of trying to instill democratic changes, have accepted Belarus’s political system for the most part. The two sides are trying to build relations based on easing visa requirements between the EU and Belarus, bringing European banks to Belarus, and kicking the issue of poor human rights protections into the long grass.
As noted above, Belarus’s reaching out for help from Brussels is less a result of genuine fear of Russia invading, and more about Belarus trying to take advantage of a moment when Europe wants to protect its flanks against Russia. Through the tumult and the pleas for EU help, Minsk has remained almost entirely dependent on Moscow - Russia continues to be Belarus’s main trading partner and efforts to diversify exports have been blocked.
The United States
US relations with Belarus have closely mirrored that of the EU, except the US has not had any normalization of relations with Belarus in recent years. The US is still sanctioning Lukashenko, Ermoshina, and several other members of the president’s inner circle for the alleged human rights violations. The relationship was poor in the 1990s and got worse during the Bush administration. Because of Lukashenko’s outspoken support for Saddam Hussein and his family, many in Washington believed Minsk was providing the Hussein family with refuge. In 2004, Belarus was also the subject of an act passed by Congress that had the stated goal of bringing democracy to the country. Officials in Minsk took this as a sign of internal interference in their affairs by Washington.
Only four years later, in the wake of new sanctions introduced by the US, Minsk recalled its ambassador from the US and insisted the US ambassador leave Belarus, demonstrating the relationship’s increasingly fraught nature. Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine did not have the same thawing effect on US relations with Belarus as was the case for EU relations. To this day, diplomatic ties are weak, although US citizens (along with citizens of over 70 other countries) can, as of early 2017, travel to Belarus visa-free.
Former Soviet Union
As noted, Belarus is closely aligned with most former Soviet countries in the form of multilateral agreements, such as the EEU, CTSO, CIS, and the CIS free trade agreement (CISFTA). Belarusian citizens are free to travel to 10 other former soviet states visa free, only requiring them for the Baltics and Turkmenistan.
China has recently become a major partner through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Economically, the relationship is based on the premise that China has the funding and Belarus has the access (because of EEU and its proximity to the EU). However, the bilateral partnership is far from merely being economic. China and Belarus have held joint-military exercises every year since 2011, many of which have been in the realm of counterterrorism. Lukashenko visited China in 2016, and signed an aerospace defense agreement with Beijing. China seeks to take advantage of Belarus’s capabilities in the industrial-military space, while offering Belarus another powerful friend that can minimize Minsk’s economic and military threats. Belarusian citizens can travel visa free to China, signifying their increasingly close relations.
Two things matter to Minsk at the moment: maintaining stability at home and close relations with Russia. As other players forge deeper ties in Eastern Europe (China and the EU most notably), Belarus’s relationship with Russia may become less close. Although the regimes are similar in style and principles, there is precedent for a total split. Stalin and Tito had similar regimes and similar objectives, but the two were unable to keep the USSR and Yugoslavia aligned because of personal issues and other outside factors. We may be seeing a similar tale today, with a great split potentially on the long-term horizon.
Unlike some other former Soviet states, Belarus had a much less sharp break with communism, and retains most of the core elements of a command economy. Services and industrial production make up nearly 90% of Belarusian employment, and agriculture accounts for the rest. Agriculture’ share of economic output would be higher had the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 not ravaged so much of the country’s arable land. Belarus’s GDP, despite being among the poorest of Europe, is average in global terms, ranking 72nd. Its GDP per capita (PPP) is about the same rank. Pockets of the country’s economy are undergoing a renaissance, such as the technology industry. Belarus’s government has invested heavily in home-grown startups, and encouraged leading companies like Microsoft to invest. Although unsteady foreign relations (especially with Russia) always threaten stability, Belarus’s economy is looking up.
The country struggled immensely during the global financial crisis of 2008, barely keeping its head above water. Many of its key sectors - energy, machine building, chemicals, construction - to name a few, were hit with heavy losses. But through heavy borrowing - predominantly from the IMF and Moscow - Minsk was able to bail out companies in each of these industries. In the decade since the turmoil, the country has made steps in the right direction to survive any small impending economic hiccups, but it has not gone far enough to be self-reliant. It is no longer completely reliant on Russia as it once was and significantly increased its foreign reserves.
Structure of the Economy and Key Markets
The economy, despite being mostly made up of SOEs (state owned enterprises), is nonetheless highly complex. Petroleum is its biggest export (generally re-exported, originally from Russia), while potash, a key ingredient used in fertilizers, is its second. In fact, Belarus is the third largest exporter of potash in the world, after Russia and Canada. Dairy, industrials, metals, chemical products and mineral products make up bulk of the rest of the economy.
Belarus’s biggest industry is oil and gas. The country currently produces 30% of its own oil needs, importing the rest from Russia. It also exports 50% of its own oil. The trade imbalance seen here is a mirror image of dynamics occurring in the wider economy. Belarus runs a deficit - it imports 125% of what it exports. Russia’s discounted prices thereby make Belarus dependent on Russia for its basic functioning. Cheese embargoes in the mid 2000s caused major stress to the Belarusian economy. If Russia were ever to cut off the gas supply for an extended period, business and Belarusian consumers would rapidly come under extreme pressure.
In the services sector, technology is Belarus’s fastest-growing industry. Companies like Microsoft, the London Stock Exchange, and BP all make use of its software solutions. Additionally, Minsk has invested heavily in startups, including some internationally successful ones like Viber. New visa regulations will also allow much more tourism into the country - a sector that will undoubtedly grow immensely in coming years.
Belarus’s main trading partner is Russia. 46% of its exports go there and 53% of its imports come from there. Again, if the relationship with Russia were ever to become intensely strained, Belarus would have a rough few years finding new partners to make up the slack. Ukraine is also a major partner - 12% of its exports go there and it receives nearly 4% of its imports from there. Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Netherlands are its other key European trading partners. China is growing in importance. It is quickly becoming Belarus’s most dominant partner outside of Europe, accounting for 9% of imports and 2% of its exports. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative will accelerate this dynamic.
Foreign Money Flows
FDI in Belarus fluctuates a lot, and can vary from 2 billion USD in one quarter to nearly nothing in the next. On average, since 2000, Belarus has received just under 350 million USD in FDI annually. Currently, its biggest investors hail from South Korea, Switzerland, Montenegro, and Poland.
Currently Belarus’s economy is closely tied to Russia and fluctuations in Russia’s economic prospects will heavily impact Belarus. However, with time, it may succeed in reducing its dependency on its post-Soviet neighbor. Many in the Belarusian leadership likely seek a geopolitical shift; - if not toward Europe then definitely toward China (perhaps both). The strength of China and Europe offer Belarus plenty of diversification options for the future, but whether Moscow will allow Belarus to take them seriously is something that remains to be seen.
Culture & Society
Known to be the most superstitious people in Europe, Belarusian culture is nearly inseparable from Russian. Belarusian culture is defined by the country’s close geographical proximity to Russia and its gloomy past. After several centuries of interconnectivity with Moscow, Minsk (for political reasons) is currently trying to create a uniquely Belarusian identity, to separate the two countries culturally and protect Belarus from the threat of Russian propaganda.
Russia’s historic dominance over Belarus has left an impactful cultural mark on these East Slavic peoples. Because of Russian imperial hegemony and the Soviet experience, most Belarusians affiliate religiously with either Russian Orthodoxy (because of the empire) or atheism (because of the Soviet repression of religion). Although ethnic Belarusians make up the majority of the country, Russians account for nearly 10% of the country’s population. Furthermore, most Belarusians speak Russian in and out of their homes. Many ethnicities from the post-Communist bloc also have sizable populations--most notably Poles and Ukrainians. Interestingly (and perhaps strangely), there is also a growing Vietnamese presence in Belarus.
Belarusian culture is hard to separate from Russian culture in most ways because the Belarusian and Russian ethnic groups have been politically tied together for so long. In some respects, Belarusians are more Russian than the Russians, such as in liters of vodka consumed per head of population (Belarus beats out Russia by a few drinks per week). Belarus, because of the mass death it endured in the 30s (famines and purges), 40s (the Second World War, which killed over 1 in 4 Belarusian citizens), and 80s (Chernobyl), has given the national psyche a tough and melancholy aura. The people have been pre-conditioned to deal with hardship. The last quarter century under Lukashenko has not encouraged any hope either.
Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is Belarus’s national cultural icon. She combines elements of Tolstoy (believing that the actions of the little people in society drive history) and Dostoevsky (through her deep dives into the Russian/Belarusian soul) in many famous works, capturing the essence of Belarusian identity.
She writes in her book Secondhand Time:
“We’re dreamers, of course. Our souls strain and suffer, but much gets done - there is no strength left over after all the ardor. Nothing ever gets done...Everyone wants to understand it. They read Dostoevsky: What’s behind that soul of theirs? Well, behind our soul there’s just more soul.”
Throughout the country, everyone is aware of their morbid history. Belarus lost over 25% of its people during World War II and then faced the harm from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 just as their demographics were finally recovering. The radioactivity from Chernobyl was 90 times more powerful in Belarus than in Japan after Hiroshima. Much of the land affected by the accident will never be used again.
Sport has been the main refuge for Belarusians throughout their tumultuous history. The government realizes this and has invested heavily in tennis and hockey facilities throughout the country. Lukashenko takes pride in his country performing well on the international stage. In tennis, four of the top 100 women playing are Belarusian and one of the top 100 men is Belarusian. Belarus also boasts a perennial top 15 national hockey team.
Given the current nature of the regime, culture is not allowed to flourish. Free expression is simply too dangerous. Lukashenko is artificially trying to consciously separate Belarusian culture from Russian but that is a difficult task to undertake. Belarus’s culture is so intertwined with Russia’s that building a unique culture from above will be nearly impossible. For the time being, Belarusians will continue to be heavily influenced by Russian culture.