Dance on the Volcano

Dance on the Volcano

Moritz Gathmann
Maxim Sarychau

By Moritz Gathmann, Photos by Maxim Sarychau. Translation from German.

Anarchist Block during the 17th February Protests in the Minsk Independence Square.

The Economic Crisis drives thousands of people to the streets in Belarus. Is Alexander Lukashenko’s experiment, which has already been ongoing for more than 20 years, nearing its end?

The Oktyabrskaya-Street in Minsk is famous for its big paintings on the walls.

One must picture the Belarusian as a happy person. For a quarter of a century, he has been living in a haven surrounded by raging storms. Economic Crises, Terrorism, and Revolutions. Alexander Lukashenko (or, as the locals call him, “Batka”, meaning Father) ensures that the kolkhozes (Soviet collective farms) deliver milk and potatoes, that the factories manufacture tractors and women’s underwear and that the people receive their monthly pay on time. Belarus, with its 10 Million residents, is the last stronghold of the truly existing and functioning socialism in Europe.

The country confirms this picture on first sight. Belarus does not, even in the slightest, resemble the poorhouse a foreigner would expect. Minsk is one of the cleanest capitals in the post-soviet world. The streets are good and used mainly by vehicles from the West. There are classy Cafés, restaurants, and bars, and new hotels and office buildings are being built high on the street leading to the airport. The people moving around in Minsk have a slightly more eastern look than the ones in Berlin, but they do not seem in any way to be poor. The same can also be said about the outside of the capital: good streets and groomed cities.

Order, cleanness, and stability are the things on behalf of which Lukashenko won the long-time sympathy of Russian pensioners. “The Father” has been the favorite international politician for years, even in neighboring Ukraine. But the image that has been fed to the Belarusians for the last two decades is beginning to crack. This is affecting more and more of Lukashenko’s followers. The real income has been sinking for three consecutive years, prices are increasing, the prospects for the future are dismal.

The discontent eventually burst in February and May. Thousands of Belarusians went out on the streets in many cities. Among them, well-known opposition activists and students, but mostly regular folk, entrepreneurs, pensioners, and workers. The authorities could think of no other answer besides the old instruments: truncheons and prison sentences.

Is the experiment of the now 62-year-old Lukashenko slowly reaching its end? Are a Belarusian Maidan, inspired by the neighboring Ukraine, and a new conflict with Russia becoming ripe here? And what is the meaning of the joke that the West and the former pariah Lukashenko have been playing for the last three years?

Anna Kanopazkaja enters the lobby of the Jubilejnaja hotel. “I thought it was already spring. But it was still winter. I had slipped and broken my leg”, says the 40-year-old laconically with a smile. This is the best description of the Belarusians’ experiences over the last months: an unexpected high flight and a hard landing.

Kanopazkaja is one of the achievements of the Belarusian political system’s translucent liberalization.

She was elected as a sole representative of a true opposition party in September 2016. The last time that happened in Belarus was back in 2004. Bad mouths, however, say she is just a fig leaf that Lukashenko got himself to showcase to the western guests, in case they ask about the stage of democracy. The lawyer Kanopazkaja can only speak of the insignificance of her political work in a parliament which refuses any proposal of law. “I oppose many projects, but then the chairman of that specific committee comes and argues with me” she says and laughs about it herself. “Of course I am just a drop in the ocean, but it’s still a beginning”.

She had appealed openly to Lukashenko shortly after New Year’s and asked for the withdrawal of Decree Number Three, thus giving a voice to the discontent of numerous citizens. On the 1st of January, the Decree came into force, sentencing the unemployed to a fee equivalent of 200 US Dollars. About a half a million Belarusians were affected by this. Kanopazkaja explains the idea behind the decree: many Belarusians started working illegally because of the economic crisis and the state wants to return the legality. However, the weakest who are still in a problematic economic position were also affected by the decree. The public demonstrations in Belarus since 2010 have been a direct result of that. People in many provincial towns have not protested in the streets since the 90s.

It has however not come to a revolution like the one in Ukraine. The shock about what happened in the neighboring country still lingers in Belarus: the Russian intervention, war, and the political chaos.

Lenin-busts on the Oktyabrskaya-Street in Minsk.

Anna Kanopazkaja, the only representative of a real opposition party in the Belarusian parliament.


Among the six countries in the EU-Program for eastern partnership, Belarus is the only one without territorial conflict. “Anything but war” is kind of a Belarusian national idea, which keeps getting expressed, and Lukashenko plays with these fears. State television showed the demonstrations as the foreign attempts to bring chaos to Belarus.

“It’s only natural that the regime stopped us” says Kanopazkaja days after the last protests in Minsk. For starters, Lukashenko has frozen the decree. At the same time, hundreds of people were arrested in Minsk and other cities and prison sentences were given – some for 5 days, the longest for 15 days. This was rather mild coming from Lukashenko, however, it was a warning: this time we’re going for 15 days, but we can also do it differently. Other than that, about 20 members of the now-defunct White Legion nationalist organization were arrested and are now facing public trials on account of “organizing mass riots”. Lukashenko’s measures worked: the demonstrations have stopped.

Nikolai Statkevich spent eight years in prison for his fight against Lukashenko

Nikolai Statkewitsch, the best-known face of the opposition, is someone who believes the Belarusians have lost their fear of war. He spent eight years in prison because of his fight against Lukashenko. In spite of that, the brush-hairstyle 60-year-old looks like a surprisingly happy man. He is one of the early politicians of the social democratic party, which advocates for getting closer to the EU. The party is neither part of parliament, nor is it represented in any of the city councils. During the 2010 presidential elections, Statkewitsch only got 1 percent of the votes. The people know him however, since he’s been fighting against the re-sovietization of his country since the beginning of the 90s. While other members of the opposition retreated from politics after their prison sentences, Statkewitsch stayed. Prison time only made him braver. “Nowadays it isn’t a shame to have spent in prison. It’s a shame to not have spent time in prison”, he says.

After a meeting with EU-Representatives at the Hilton in Minsk, he openly says: “I am thankful to them. My destiny is now in their hands.” He was supposedly asked by the Europeans if he is afraid of another prison sentence. His confident answer is that “Lukashenko does not have enough money to keep me in prison”. Did he ask for new sanctions from the EU? “No, but the Europeans should stop financing the regime for the promise of reforms that are not going to be implemented”. Kanopazkaja states the same.

The Belarusian president, leading in an authoritarian way since 1994 is a master of maneuvering between Russia and the west. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis at the end of 2013, he has been making sure that his country is somewhat closer to the west. The ruler with the distinctive mustache anticipated his chance. The European political leaders gathered in 2014 and 2015 in Minsk to discuss the settlement of the Ukraine crisis, with a host that was well known for the brutal crashing down of protests and had gotten new sanctions only four years prior.

To make capital out of the situation, Lukashenko placed a lot on the table: not only did he allow the opposition’s Kanopazkaja to enter the parliament, he also amnestied Statkewitsch, who had been serving since 2010. Lukashenko stressed the suzerainty and cultural independence of his country. The president is now strongly defending the Belarusian language, which had been a symbol of the opposition in a mostly Russian speaking country. He even made a speech in Belarusian at the end.

The West expressed gratitude for the new course: at the beginning of 2016, most of the sanctions against Belarus were canceled. At roughly the same time, the International Monetary Fund started its negotiations with Lukashenko about a three-billion-dollar credit. The EU also made efforts towards keeping the criticism about the latest prison sentence wave to a minimum. New sanctions were not discussed.

But where does Lukashenko’s new-found sympathy for Europe come from? There are two answers to that: The Belarusian president needs money, no matter where it comes from. He also needs the EU to counterbalance Russia, because the country depends on its big neighbor.

“We’re bankrupt without Russia”, says Anton Boltotschko, a 27-year-old economist from the Think-tank liberal club. 25 percent of the Belarusian export, according to his calculations, come from the country’s two oil refineries, that in turn get their supplies of cheap oil from Russia. Another important fact is that Moscow sells gas to Belarus cheaper than market price and allows credits which never really get paid back. The International Monetary Fund estimates these hidden subventions at 106 billion dollars, which across the years corresponded to between 11 and 27 percent of the gross domestic product.

“The model worked well up until around 2010”, says Boltotschko. Since then, the oil price sank constantly and with it, the income of the Belarusian state. The price of potassium, the second most important export product of the Belarusians, sank drastically over the last years. The outcome: the gross domestic product sank for the third year in a row. The government predicts a growth of 1.5 percent for 2017, but it already sank 0.5 percent further in the first 2 months.

Lukashenko actually made a mistake with lots of consequences. “The profits should have been invested toward economic modernization back in the golden years”, declares Boltotschko. Instead, the president spread the money over the country as one spreads butter on bread. The Father now has a high price to pay for that sheer social populism. The foreign debt sums up to 59 percent of the gross domestic product. Just last year, the country had to gather up 3.3 billion dollars just to get by, this year it will be at least 3.4 billion. Lukashenko aims therefore for one thing during the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund: fresh money.

During the autumn of last year, however, it was clear to see how little he is willing to start true reforms. All he had to do was to sign a letter to the IMF-Leader Christine Lagarde in order to receive a ten-year loan of three billion dollars. But the president not only hesitated, he even openly stated that the conditions were “humiliating to the Belarusian people” and made “any politics that we pursued until now meaningless”. The IMF, however, had only asked what it always asks: firstly, the privatization of state companies and liberalization of power and utility costs for private households. But this is, because of the social risks, exactly the thing Lukashenko cannot afford. “To give up property is to give up power”. This is how Statkewitsch sees the situation.

The regime clings to its state-led companies, regardless of how washed out they are. “Almost four-fifths of the industrial production are generated by state enterprises”, states one investigation made in January by the Germany Trade and Invest (GTAI, formerly known as the Federal Agency for Foreign Trade). “About one-fifth of the round 3700 state-led companies are currently losing money. Until now, there are no clear signs that the private sector improves”.

There are some industrial heavy-weights led by the state that work well, of course: Belaz, producer of large dump trucks, the tractor factory in Minsk, BATE, the automobile supplier. Belarus also has the Wargaming producer of computer games, which is an internationally successful private business employing 4000 workers. Other than that, Lukashenko does not want to let go of the reins.

It is the same when talking about Russia, which has been part of a confederation with Belarus for 20 years. Belarus is more culturally and economically intertwined with Russia than with any other country. Russia wants the privatization of a telephone business that was only halfway controlled by the state until now, but Minsk hesitates. The same goes when talking about Volat, a big company that makes trucks being mainly used for military purposes.

In Minsk city center


Recreational sports in the square in the city center of Minsk

Lukashenko aims high. Too high, it seemed, until recently, because his openness to the west, regardless of how transparent the maneuver is, has brought upon during the winter a never before seen worsening of the relationship with Russia. Minsk asked Russia to lower the gas prices, even though they were already below market level. To substantiate his request, Lukashenko went all the way at the end of 2016. The new customs code had been solemnly signed by the leaders of the Eurasian Economic Union during a summit in Sankt Petersburg. Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia were all present, but Lukashenko simply did not show up.

A few days later, he signed a decree allowing EU citizens a five-day stay in Belarus without needing a visa. Russia’s answer was to introduce border controls, which had long belonged to the past. Moscow expects Belarus’ companies to declare masses of European goods, which as of 2014 cannot be imported to Russia anymore, as being Belarusian goods and to bring them to Russia.

The mood worsened over the last months. Lukashenko attacked the Russian prime minister harshly during the arguments over gas prices: “Medvedev must understand that even he has to pay for something if we have to pay as much as Europe. And that price will be much higher than the gas price”.

Lukashenko even went as far as to call the Belarus-Russia confederation “fragile”.  Only after a summit between Lukashenko and Putin in April has the relationship between the two countries returned to a stable course. While western news from this day mainly covered the Metro terrorist attack in Sankt Petersburg, the news in Belarus and Russia showed pictures of two content presidents in the same Sankt Petersburg, who simultaneously declared that “there are no more controversial issues”.

Economist Boltotschko talks about the “logical ending of the next stage”: Belarus makes demands, allows the conflict to escalate and then the presidents come to an agreement. It is not the first time something like this happens. At a first glance, Belarus seems to be the winner: Russian gas will cost less as of January 1st. What did Belarus give in return? “As always, that lies beneath the visible surface”, declares Boltotschko. Could it have something to do with Russian military bases in Belarus? There were frequent speculations over the last years about Russian military aircraft stationing in the town of Bobrujsk. Lukashenko had declared himself clearly against it, but Statkewitsch believes it to be possible. He sees the relationship between Russia and Belarus as the one between a man and his lover. “He now makes new demands and she accepts payment for them” he says, with a sarcastic smile on his face.

However, cheap gas and loans from Russia cannot heal the basic disease of the Belarusian system. The average salary lies officially at around 360 dollars – as opposed to 580 dollars back in 2014.  This means about half as much as in neighboring Russia. But there is room for doubt. The salaries in factories in the capital may be that high, but it’s likely around 150 dollars in rural areas. It is the same with unemployment rates. The official number was 35 329 people in 2016, meaning around 1 percent of the able population. But the GTAI estimates it at around 15 percent. Anna Kanopazkaja hints that the regime revealed it to be a lie itself with the taxes for the unemployed. Around half a million Belarusians were asked to pay taxes for not working in 2015.

The disease lies beneath the surface of good roads and groomed parks: in cities like Molodetshno, around an hour away from Minsk, there is little work left for the 100 000 denizens. The ones who can drive to Minsk for work. The buildings of the former high-tech company Sputnik, which once made radios for the Soviet army, are now being turned into shopping malls, but who is going to shop there? Back in Soviet times, 14 000 people had jobs here, a few years ago there were only enough jobs for 5000. A bit farther away, the Elektromodul factory. In Soviet times, the factory was a leader in producing semiconductors for the automobile industry. Official data states that 350 people are still supposed to be working there.

Lukashenko tries to save himself with big projects. There is a nuclear plant being built with Russian credits and technology close to the border with Lithuania. Belarus plans to sell the power generated by the plant to Baltic countries and Poland. Close to Molodetschno is a pig farm with the capacity for 100000 animals, two others are currently being built. The meat is to be exported to Russia. An owner is a businessman with close ties to Lukashenko. This is how business works in Belarus.

The small business owner Ales Badin in his garage


Small businessmen like Ales Badin have it a lot rougher. Badin, a clever 50-year-old, drives across his hometown in his red 1997 Volkswagen Transporter. Half the population drives used cars bought from Europe, that’s the secret behind the numerous western cars on the streets of Belarus. Badin tells a story that is specific to the country. Some years ago, he wanted to build a new structure for his car workshop that was doing well but bumped against the walls of the Belarusian bureaucracy. Land and floor belong to the government in Belarus. For a building permit, one needs the administration to approve the needed surface, which can be lent for a maximum of 30 years. Badin was told he would get his approval once he has all the needed documents, so he started working. An enormous pile of documents, half a cubic meter as he calls it, were needed, among it a blueprint that was approved by a central institute in Minsk. “It all cost me around 10 000 dollars,” he says. Afterward, the local administration decided that he would not get his permit. Just like that, without any reason stated. He sued and won until he reached the highest courts. Lately, he enjoys fighting the local “princes”, but he does not want to build his workshop anymore. Meanwhile, he switched to LED-lamps and tried to convince the remaining factory directors in Molodetschno that it is worth it: only 1000 dollars per month instead of 5000 for lighting. “Of course we’d like to save energy, but the decisions are made elsewhere”, Badin was told by the directors. The completely centralized administration of industry cripples any initiative and innovation.

Badin was one of the about 1000 Molodetschno citizens that gathered and protested in the Lenin Square in March because his employee was one of the ones that had to pay 200 dollars for presumably not working. In reality, Badin had only resigned his work contract while he reregistered his firm. Badin himself was surprised: Molodetschno had not seen demonstrations like that since the 90s. “I remember the end of the Soviet Union. The people had had enough of only being able to curse in their own kitchens back then, too” he says.

But what could the end of the Lukashenko era look like? Nikolai Statkewitsch must know. When you don’t stop Statkewitsch, you’ll hear for hours about the cat-and-mice games between him and the secret service. But he also does not know what change would look like. Kanopazkaja thinks Lukashenko would back off if there came a politician who would guarantee his safety, but Statkewitsch disagrees: “It will already be too late when Lukashenko will be willing to truly negotiate”.

Most of all, he enjoys designing plans for protests and thinking about how to outsmart the state. One thing is clear to him: a violent revolution would only bring misfortune to the country. “ We can feel the bear’s breath on our necks”, he says on this sunny Sunday afternoon in April, on a bench in the park across from the Moscow cinema: “If it comes to a coup d’état, Russian tanks will roll in tomorrow to bring peace”.

Moritz Gathmann is a free journalist with Eastern Europe as the main focus.