The last of his supporters parted with illusions.
Konstantin Sonin, professor at the University of Chicago and the Russian Higher School of Economics, is one of the most famous Russian economists. His academic interests include political economics, institutional economics and game theory. Recently he has spent a lot of time analyzing events in Belarus. Sonin has drawn historical parallels to the fall of the regimes, assessed the prospects of the Belarusian economy and made a forecast of future relations between Belarus and Russia in an interview to tut.by.
"The Belarusians, who latently supported Lukashenka, have parted with their last illusions".
- How will you comment on the August events in Belarus?
- What happens in Belarus, on the one hand, is similar to what happened in many countries, when one person, junta or group of people are overthrown after years in power. There were hundreds of such examples in the second half of the twentieth century. Everyone must remember how the communist dictatorships ended 30 years ago - in some places there were mass demonstrations, and in others - military coups, as in the case of Romania. Therefore, from this point of view, the situation in Belarus is standard. Over the past 26 years, the population got tired of the [Aliaksandr Lukashenka's] regime, the rejection took place in a non-violent way without any external interference. In addition, over the past 10 years the Belarusian economy has not grown at the pace many people wanted.
- What is the originality of the Belarusian case?
- It seems to me uncommon that Lukashenka's lack of support is quite evenly spread across all social strata. If we remember some Latin American, African or Asian dictators, the person who was overthrown still had a serious support group - be it the province where he came from, or residents of working quarters, as was the case with [President of Argentina] Juan Peron. In the case of Lukashenka, it seems to me that there is no part of Belarusian society where he is supported a lot.
- And what about older people, pensioners?
- Yes, this seems to be his target group. But even there sociologists do not see any clear support. As a result, he cannot gather [without administrative levers] any mass rallies.
- How this is connected?
- There may be a set of factors here. But it is obvious that the events had a trigger. This is the reaction of the authorities to the coronacrisis. In principle, many governments - the USA, Italy, Spain, Great Britain - reacted quite ineffectively to the coronacrisis. There is nothing surprising here. But Belarus turned out to be one of the few countries whose leadership preferred to ignore this problem. So it is not surprising that those citizens, who maybe latently supported Lukashenka, parted with their last illusions. They saw that nothing good would happen.
"It will not be possible to hold on to power long "by bayonets".
- Many people in Belarus, both in the government and in opposition, are trying to compare the current protests with the Ukrainian Maidans. However, they are taking a parochial view. Do you think these comparisons are consistent?
- In contrast to Belarus, Ukrainian politics has had a competitive democracy for 30 years. I suppose it may be correct to argue that [such] competitive democracy did not do any good for the economy and the lives of common people. But it is a fact that there was a competitive democracy. President [Viktor] Yanukovych was legally elected in a tough competitive struggle in 2010. When he faced protests in the fall of 2013, he still had significant support in society - unlike Lukashenka. Yanukovych did not control the overwhelming majority of the political elite, loyal officials, or similarly obedient law enforcement officials. About half of the Ukrainian leadership, i.e. members of the Verkhovna Rada, members of the government, and even the Presidential Administration, had always been on the side of the Maidan protests. Before shooting at the protesters, Yanukovych had the opportunity to retreat to the positions he had held at the beginning of the protests when, contrary to his pre-election promises and citizens' preferences, he announced that Ukraine would not sign an agreement with the EU.
The changes in the Ukrainian leadership as a result of the 'Ukrainian Revolution' were minimal. Most of the political elite remained in power. It is ridiculous to think that President Poroshenko in some sense did not belong to the previous political elite. After all, he had also occupied high state posts.
The only thing I want to pay attention to is the revolution made by Vladimir Zelensky. Most leaders, when trying to stay in power, say the following: "If we are replaced by the inexperienced, then everything will fall apart". If not Lukashenka, then who? If not Putin, then who? The case of Vladimir Zelensky has shown that a person who had no political experience can be elected president. I do not know if he is a good president or a bad one, but the fact is that nothing has fallen apart. I do not think that Ukrainians feel that they live much better than under Poroshenko. Nevertheless, no one can say that something is falling apart.
- Lukashenka is compared to the Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, who shows that you can "hold on to power by bayonets".
- The example of Venezuela has more to do with Ukraine than with Belarus. Venezuela has never been in a totalitarian personal dictatorship like that of Lukashenka. Their opposition is mayors of a number of cities, provincial governors, members of parliament, and big businessmen. They live and work in the country. Maduro controls oil supplies and customs, but he does not control the border. Guaydo, whom the U.S. and EU countries consider the lawful president, flies safely to Washington and back to Venezuela. Therefore, the comparison between Belarus and Venezuela is incorrect.
There are, of course, cases when the current dictator holds on to power by force. But I still do not see how Lukashenka can hold on to power for a long time. For example, it will be difficult even for a year. It would be simply not possible to hold on for five years.
"Russia's support will continue under any stable government of Belarus".
- Let us now talk about relations between Belarus and Russia. Before the elections, Lukashenko was in search of Russian "puppeteers" who wanted to overthrow him. After August 9, he repeated in conversations with the Russian leadership and journalists that if there were changes in Belarus, the "revolution" would also happen in Russia. How realistic is that?
- If we understand the "revolution" as an analogue of the Belarusian events, the risk is not great today. The support of [Vladimir] Putin is many times higher than that of Lukashenka. There are many social groups, among which the support of Putin is great. Accordingly, there is currently no threat of mass demonstrations involving all sectors of society in Russia. At the same time, I admit that the Kremlin perceives the situation as much more threatening than it actually is.
- Is that why they are supporting Lukashenka?
- It seems strange to me that Putin, Russia's top political leadership, is still holding on to Lukashenka somehow. In my opinion, he is so toxic that if I were Putin's advisor, I would recommend staying away. And the Russian Foreign Ministry should have declared that violence and bloodshed in Belarus are unacceptable, and recommended which of Lukashenka's possible substitutes it is better to negotiate with. We may hope as long as we want that people who are intoxicated with power will act rationally. This is like negotiating with a drug addict who badly needs a dose. He can say and do what he thinks others want to hear from him. As it was in the case [with the interception of the 'negotiations between Warsaw and Berlin'] with [Alexey] Navalny. But in the end, the person will not take responsibility for his actions.
- One of the experts with whom I had a chance to communicate recently believes that the current situation in Belarus can be resolved by engaging foreign forces that can allocate billions of dollars for reforms in Belarus and thus maintain a balance of external interests in the country. We are talking about the Eurasian Development Bank, IMF, World Bank and China Development Bank. How realistic does this option seem to you?
- It is obvious that only the new government of Belarus can get money for reforms. There will be no reforms under Lukashenka. However, it should be noted that before the crisis in 2020, the Belarusian economy was not in such a bad condition as to go around with hat in hand. This crisis is related to Lukashenka's attempt to stay in power. Reforms can be carried out after the crisis even without major external injections.
"People are not sheep that are fed with hay and they produce some kind of products".
- How can the political crisis affect the Belarusian economy? What reforms does Belarus need?
- If Lukashenka holds power for several more years in such a confrontation, a serious economic crisis may occur. It is not a small one even now. As an economist, I am very afraid that Donbass may happen. That is, the economy will be completely destroyed, and the authority will belong to the power group.
Let's take the IT-sector, which has been growing by 30-50% per year in recent years, and is already 5 % in GDP. That is a lot. But now the Belarusian authorities have started to fight against it, and entire companies are planning to leave the country. Naturally, it will affect the economic growth.
Therefore, the main reform now is to restore the normal business climate.
Another factor is the coronacrisis. It is putting pressure on the world economy. The demand in a whole group of sectors has decreased. Yes, there is nothing good for Belarus in the decline of the global economy. But this is not as critical as it is for Russia. China's growth is slowing down, oil prices are falling - this is bad for the Russian economy. This channel is indirect for Belarus; the country is more protected from external shocks. But Belarus is not well protected from a fall in demand in Russia. And since the Russian economy is experiencing bad times, Belarus is also affected.
- You wrote that Belarus needs privatization - the state management at huge enterprises is one of the reasons for stagnation. To what extent is privatization a panacea? Belarus has been debating this issue for many years.
- On the one hand, we know that privatization can improve the efficiency of enterprises and their profitability. At the same time, we have experience of Russian privatization of the 90s. But here it is important to understand whether there was any alternative to privatization then. Another lesson that is important to learn is that privatization is carried out much better in a strong state than in a corrupt one. When a new government is formed in Belarus, it will start to privatize gradually, i.e. enterprises will be privatized not by the principle "grab the most valuable things", but slowly and reasonably. At the same time, not only the property rights of investors, but also the rights of citizens will be well protected, and people will receive increased social guarantees in case of dismissal. Then such privatization will be effective and will not create serious problems among citizens.
Privatization in Russia left unpleasant feelings, as it took place in severe crisis conditions. Belarus is still far from that scale of the crisis. If it does not come to that, and then reforms are launched, I do not see any economic consequences of privatization or even a decrease in political support. Privatization may well be supported by society. For example, privatization of railroads in different countries or mail in Japan.
If a company pays taxes in full and observes the laws of the country, the rights of employees, it does not matter who owns it - a transnational company, a Russian oligarch or a Chinese state bank.
- By the way, how can you explain the fact that for many years Lukashenka has been supporting large state enterprises, preventing their privatization, sharp dismissal of redundant staff, and soon after the elections the workers refused to work and demanded the president's resignation? In the end the authorities managed to suppress the strike sentiments with the help of administrative resources. How successful can such tactics be?
- People are not sheep who were driven to the enterprises, fed with hay, and they produce some kind of products. A citizen is much more than his place of work. When people see an inadequate reaction to coronavirus, when their relatives and colleagues are beaten [for participation in rallies], when the most active workers are arrested, then people have the right to declare it.
Again, Lukashenka may arrest thousands of people, squeeze as many more out of the country, intimidate hundreds of thousands of people so that they do not take to the streets. But there is no way he can force people to work well at the same time. If they do not go on strike, they still work worse. However, for the economy it is about the same as if they were on strike. From this point of view, it is better not to work for two days, the output of only two days will be lost, but it will send a strong signal to make changes.
- How do you think the Belarusian crisis may end?
- Ideally, if Lukashenko flew to Moscow and stayed there to live in a country house [outside the city]. Then new elections would be held in the country.
I am an optimist, I believe in the best: Lukashenka will live the rest of his life in Moscow region, and Belarus will continue to develop independently.