Belarus, a post-Soviet country ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, is a case of a contemporary regime that reverted to authoritarianism after a brief stint as an independent democracy. While some of the characteristics of the Belarusian system are typical of other nondemocratic regimes around the world and in the post-communist region in particular, others are distinct and set Belarus apart. This article emphasizes the role that social cohesion and national-identity formation play in perpetuating the current system. We apply the lens of public opinion to our analysis and focus on characteristics of the Belarusian regime that explain its vitality. Our analysis sheds light on the role played by such factors as national identity and social cohesion in the persistence and durability of authoritarian regimes.
In many times and in many places, authoritarianism has emerged, disappeared .and reemerged from the ashes like the mythical phoenix. (1) This cycle has continued in recent years. The Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2010 notes that there has been "backsliding on previously attained progress in democratization," with more states characterized as flawed democracies and authoritarian regimes in 2010 than in 2008. (2) This phenomenon is global, but the entrenchment of authoritarianism has been particularly pronounced in much of the former Soviet Union, where the earlier trend of democratization has stalled or reversed. In this context, Francis Fukuyama's assertion that "the twin crises of authoritarianism and socialist central planning" have been overcome by liberal democracy is no longer self-evident. (3)
The Republic of Belarus is a stark example of authoritarian resurgence. It was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, one of the most liberally governed European states of the time, and was then ruled by Poland. It was later subsumed by the Russian Empire and became part of the Soviet Union in 1919, after the Bolshevik Revolution. When the Soviet Union was dismantled in 1991, Belarus emerged as an independent state and enacted a constitution with democracy and the rule of law as its core principles. A hotly contested election in 1994 that brought the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, to power was a testament to this commitment to democracy. Today, however, Belarus is recognized as "Europe's last dictatorship." (4) In 2010, the Economist Democracy Index classified it as one of the world's fifty-five authoritarian regimes, ranking it 130th out of 167 countries and underscoring its consistent backsliding. (5)
The country has passed through almost all of the commonly cited stages of political development: it transitioned from progressive medieval monarchy to totalitarianism, then to emerging democracy and ultimately to renewed authoritarianism. While the Arab Spring of 2011 appeared to reverse this trend globally by overthrowing despots in the Middle East and North Africa, Belarus is headed for at least another four years of rule by Lukashenko. "There will be no pink, orange or even banana revolutions in Belarus," he once famously declared. (6)
Several features of Belarusian authoritarianism are typical of other contemporary undemocratic regimes, such as those in Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. Others factors are peculiar, setting the country apart. We focus on several interrelated factors in this analysis: the growing divergence of political and social values in Belarusian society, the redrawing of its social landscape, the unformed national identity of its people and their consequent ambivalence about the country's geopolitical orientation. In our discussion we apply the lens of public opinion, basing our analysis on a series of nationwide surveys conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), a nongovernmental organization dedicated to conducting sociological research in Belarus. …